Transcript - Episode 70: Blue Mitchell
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 70. Today’s guest is Blue Mitchell.
Hey there, folks. So, this has been a pretty intense week for me for a lot of reasons, and, instead of having a monologue like I’d usually do, what I wanted to do was just ask some questions. These are some things I’ve been thinking about recently, and it’s been… illuminating to think about these, so I just thought, maybe you’d find it useful as well. First question is this: what’s scarier to you, the idea of failure or the idea of success? And the follow-up is: what’s underneath that? Like, what’s driving that fear? And, finally, what do you think would happen if you let go of that fear? I’d like to know your answers, so, if you feel comfortable, hit me up. You can email me at email@example.com, or you can reach me on Twitter at ChannelOpenPod.
Alright, so, on to today’s show. Blue Mitchell is an independent publisher, curator, educator, and photographer based in Portland, Oregon. His photography has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions nationally, and is in the permanent collections of The Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado and the Hoffman Gallery at the Oregon College of Art & Craft in Portland, Oregon. In his personal work he implements many photographic techniques including toy cameras, pinhole, alternative processes, mixed media, and burnt transparencies, and on top of his work as a photographer, Blue also runs a publishing company named One Twelve, which focuses on artfully-crafted photo practices.
Now, I first became aware of Blue Mitchell through his annual photography magazine, Diffusion, which is, as he puts it, an independent, reader-supported annual that highlights and celebrates artfully crafted photographic artwork including, but not limited to, handcrafted, alternative process, mixed media, installation, photo as object, avant-garde, experimental, etc. I’ve appreciated Diffusion for a long time for its focus on highlighting work that really pushes the boundaries of photography as an art form, you know, making room for all different kinds of art. And Blue’s own artwork is doing the same thing, you know, when you first see it, it’s obviously visually striking but it’s more than that, too. He uses his work to express themes of nostalgia and memory and the experience of nature, all of that is just right up my alley, so I was pleased to get the chance to talk with him.
Now, I’ve put links in the show notes to several of the bodies of work that we discussed in our conversation, Evanescent Energy, Mythos, Chasing the Afterglow, Luminous Flux, and Of Salt and Earth, and I highly recommend you check those out. I also put in a link to the One Twelve website, where if you like, you can buy copies of Diffusion and a whole lot more. If you’d like to see some of Blue’s work in person, he has work included in the Pacific Northwest Photography Drawers at the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon, through March 2019. And, one of the things we talked about in our conversation is portfolio reviews, well, Blue will be one of the reviewers at this year’s Click! Photography Festival in Raleigh, North Carolina, that’s in October of this year. The application deadline for the Click! reviews is July 30, so if you’re interested, there’s still time, and I’ve put a link to the festival website in the show notes.
OK, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag ChannelOpenPhoto to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Blue Mitchell.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with your work. I’d seen it before, a number of times, because you’ve had some features on Lenscratch, and obviously I had been aware of Diffusion for a while. But I always like to take the opportunity—it’s always fun, when I get to talk to somebody, to take the chance to look through people’s portfolios again and reacquaint myself with the work.
Blue Mitchell: Sure.
MS: And I’ve got to say, your work is just exceptionally visually striking. And I really feel like that is something that—how to put this? There’s something about work that sort of grabs you immediately, like it’s very different from what I do, but if you can have work that grabs you immediately but still allows you a way into something more than just the initial impression, that’s an impressive thing. So, yeah.
BM: Well, I appreciate that. That’s always been my goal, and I think it’s because I like photography like that, myself. Or art, in general, I should say. Including film and stuff like that.
MS: Yeah. So, obviously the first thing that sort of jumps out about your work is that you seem to be very—both as a publisher and as an artist, yourself—very interested in work that isn’t straight-ahead either film or digital photography. That you’re really interested in alternative-process stuff. Would that be fair to say?
BM: Yeah, I like to call it “artfully crafted” photography. Mostly just because I don’t like the pigeonhole idea. And also, when I first started publishing Diffusion, people thought we were all alternative analog, and that wasn’t the case. So now I’m more just about craft, hand-crafted photography.
MS: Mm-hm. Well, so, what does that mean to you, “hand-crafted photography”?
BM: Mostly for me it’s just being able to see the artist’s hand in the work. In whatever way that is, either in the process or in the shooting, itself.
MS: So, seeing the artist’s hand in the work is something that I find really interesting when it comes to photography, and I feel like photography as a whole—I mean, for one thing, there’s always that perennial debate, that I find kind of boring, about what is photography and what isn’t photography. But—
MS: Sort of leaving that aside, I feel like photography does a really interesting thing that other visual media don’t really do, which is that for a lot of different types of photography, it’s real easy, at least on a surface level, to feel like the photographer almost disappears. Like you don’t see the hand of the artist.
BM: Right, yeah.
MS: And I think that’s one of the things that makes work like yours interesting. You know? Especially when you put it in conversation with work that might be… I mean, there’s all kinds of work out there, you know what I mean?
BM: Right, right. There’s a large gamut of photography. [laughs]
MS: Mm-hm, yeah. So one of the things that I thought was interesting, that I wanted to talk a little bit about—so, your series Evanescent Energy.
MS: So that was featured on Lenscratch a few years ago.
MS: That’s one that’s also near the top of the list on your portfolio website. So this is a series where you’re taking transparency film, slide film, and shooting it and then burning it, right?
BM: Yeah, that’s basically what it is. I kind of accidentally ran into the idea with just messing around with some old slides. And I really, I didn’t expect it to be like this. In the color slides I didn’t expect the discoloration that happened. Let alone the bubbling, and there’s—I call it a reticulation, but there’s this pattern that comes from the crystallization of the film, itself. Which coincidentally over time disappears and smooths out, which I didn't know when I was first shooting. The idea is just me messing around in the studio. Of course, that's pretty much how all of this work [laughs] happens is me messing with stuff. Right?
MS: Yeah. I was going to ask, because it seems like that work in particular—really all the work, but it jumped out maybe most obviously in that particular series—about how much trial and error and accident must creep into the process.
BM: Yeah, it's not very forgiving really. You burn a slide and it's done, right? It's over. [laughs] So, once I started realizing that I could do that process and make—and I was focusing on landscapes just because at the time I was really frustrated with my landscape photography and how benign it felt and how it didn't really feel like the environment I was in when I was shooting. I didn't have the same senses in the image when it was all said and done, and photography seemed to fail me in that way for a long time, where I just didn't have the feeling that I wanted. I'm out there shooting and I hear the birds and I feel this sense of energy in the air, which is where the title of the series came from. I wanted to capture that and I just figured it out through burning that I could kind of—you know, it's not the same, obviously I'm changing the image. But I'm giving it that emotional impact that I was feeling, you know, when you're out shooting nature and stuff like that, landscapes and—
MS: It is—
BM: —I felt like—no, go for it. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.
BM: That’s alright.
MS: No, I think it's interesting to hear you talk about how you were frustrated with your own landscape photography at first. You know, landscape is obviously one of the major genres of photography and it has a long history.
MS: But what I think is interesting about that work is how—and in your artist statement you really specifically, explicitly talk about how that feeling is something you're trying to capture. What I think that’s sort of alluding to is how you... how landscape photography doesn't have to impart just one kind of emotion.
MS: You know what I mean?
BM: Sure, yeah.
MS: Like when you look at a traditional landscape photograph, they're usually so much about, serenity or about some kind of a grandiosity of the natural tableau where, you know, the natural experience, the experience of being out in the world can encompass so much more than just that. You know what I mean?
BM: Right, right. Yeah. I feel like often in photography with the landscape, it's about this sense of place. Right? But, like you said earlier, it removes the photographer from that experience and really it's kind of this universal experience of the landscape. Or, seeing it in black and white, obviously we're looking at a different version of what we see. And you actually—with the black and white stuff—which is great—you see things you wouldn't see normally. Right. Tones and shadows and stuff like that. So that's what's been amazing to me about being a photographer is—people used to say before the digital [laughs] manipulation started happening that all this stuff, this is the real world. And as you know, it's just a small frame of somebody's interpretation of the real world.
BM: And then here I go and just mess it up even more. [laughs]
MS: Yeah, I mean it's sort of interesting. I still feel like a lot of audience members have this tendency to see a photograph—especially a straight photograph—as not being a photograph, but being the thing in the photograph. Even still, even in 2018. It's something that I find really interesting, that reaction, but I feel like photographs like yours that you can't just take it as—it's not even exactly a representation of a subject necessarily, but rather it's very explicitly an interpretation. Which, I find that really fascinating, you know?
BM: Yeah. I like that idea of the interpretation. Part of the thing that I've always liked about photography and the stuff I've published and Diffusion and and stuff like that is the, you know, I said the artist's hand being involved, but also there's this nod to the medium that I'm really interested in in my work. It's like when you're watching it film and somebody—when they break the fourth wall kind. Where you're like, “Oh, I'm watching a film right now.” So to me the object of the photograph is probably more important to me than the actual subject matter, itself. Whatever it is, it's—I do a lot of different presentation styles. So whatever that is, the object that's there is more important to me than anything else. But I like the nod, like I said, to the process of photography. I like seeing that there's a little bit of history in there. You know, if you look at these series we're talking about right now, the color stuff, when I first started doing that, everybody thought it was digitally manipulated. To me it was like, “Oh, those are film bubbles. Those are melted bubbles. It's in the actual object.” And so I actually like to show people the slides, what they actually look like in real life.
MS: So one of the things that I did notice about a lot of the work that you do that it is very interested in the image as object. And in particular—so you've got a couple of series where you're doing acrylic lift. So the Mythos project and the Chasing the Afterglow project that you did. And I guess that does sort of bring it back to the whole hand of the artist thing, but it really changes the experience for the audience, right? When when you approach something like a birch panel that has an image transfer on it, that is a really different experience from seeing the image on a screen, which is unfortunately the only way that I've personally been able to see your work.
BM: [laughs] Right, right.
MS: But I always find that interesting to talk about, you know, what's added and what's different about work that really requires you to see it in person. You know what I mean?
BM: Right, right. Yeah. That's kind of a frustration I've had in my own work—and in the stuff that we've published—is that there's this disconnect between the object and how people can access your images. You know, actually when I was photographing Chasing the Afterglow to put on the website, I was very frustrated with the whole process of trying to make the image be represented in this digital format as well as it looks in person, and there's just no way to do it. I just couldn't quite do it. None of the work really resonates until you see it in real life, which is why if I gave an artist talk, I'll bring the work and show it so people can actually feel it in their hands. And I think that's the case with a lot of alternative process work. It's so much more beautiful when you're looking at it in person because you see the nuances like in a collodion photo. You'd look at it in different light, you know, you see the nuances of the actual object and how it translates and I like that in the real world. But you know, digitally obviously it's a problem but I still try to represent it so you understand at least that they're tactile, that there's some texture there and that light is important. You know, how you view the stuff.
MS: Yeah. It's also just something—even apart from the difference in the appearance of it—is just how... I mean, philosophically, I guess, that the thing is a different thing, that the image isn't the totality of it. And so when you are in the same room with the thing, that has a different impact than seeing it remotely, you know?
BM: Right, right. Yeah. I've always treated photography, the image itself—whatever the subject is and the equipment—I've always thought of it just as tools to get to this final conceived image or whatever it is. I'm not a purist in that, once you take the photo and you print it then and that's it. I'm more interested in this emotional impact that the object has. Which is also why I remove a lot of information in a lot of my work. So it's a little more accessible. It's not so specific, not specific environments, not specific places, not specific people. I want them to be more universal when people view them and make them a little more accessible, but also so I can tug at those emotional strings. It's important to me when I'm viewing work.
MS: Do you find that audiences pick up on that? Like, there's a certain amount of abstractness to a lot of your work and sometimes that can be the kind of thing that, at least with the lay audience, can be sort of challenging for them. But, I mean, I think for an educated audience member, that stuff is right there. It's not necessarily difficult to access. I just wonder, like, if you have an exhibition and you're talking to the people that show up, is that... You know what I mean?
BM: Yeah. Oh yeah. You know, it's—I find it difficult, actually, because the people... Actually, the people that have the most problems with my work are usually people that are trained in photography. People that understand the principles of photography and what they're supposed to look like. And when I throw all that out and turn them into something that's not really photography anymore, it's more like—it looks more like a painting or whatever. However you want to interpret it. Anyway, so I find my most difficult audience is purists of photography. They're like, “Well, that's not really a photograph.” [laughs] “It's been manipulated.” However I've manipulated it. So I've noticed that there's—it goes two ways. I have artists that are just appreciating it as a piece of art and not as a photograph, and those people seem to like it the most. They're not hung up on what a photograph is or how I've used or degraded photography.
MS: That’s such a weird idea, that you can degrade— [laughs]
MS: —an art form by participating in it. I don't know, it's just so weird. But you're right. I do hear that kind of thing all the time, particularly in online forums where people want to talk about definitions a lot. It's a little—it kind of makes me nuts sometimes. So another one of your series that I wanted to talk about was Luminous Flux.
BM: Oh yeah.
MS: And in particular… So there's not a lot of information about that on your website, but you do note that it's a collaboration, an ongoing collaboration with your daughter.
BM: Yeah, that's actually now daughters. [laughs]
BM: Because I just started making more of these lumen prints with my youngest daughter this summer. So they are both participating now. And there's actually a bunch more that aren’t on the website at this point.
MS: How old are your kids?
BM: Three and seven.
MS: Three and seven. All right. I've got a three year old also and then I have a six and a nine.
BM: Oh wow, yeah.
MS: Yeah. But it's—I mean it's an interesting thing. First of all, just the idea of collaboration at all is always interesting to me as an artist. But the idea of collaborating with children or collaborating with family, there's something about that that I find really... I mean it's sweet to start with, but I feel like there's something more to it than that. You know what I mean?
BM: Oh yeah. What you said was great. “It's sweet to start.” Because that's really how it started. We just—I was out there, I ran out of cyanotype paper for my daughter. I'm like, “Oh, let's just do some lumen prints.” Because I'd already been kind of playing around with them on my own. And my oldest daughter, she's quite artistic, as they are at that age, you know. Who knows where that'll go. But what I found so interesting is her compositions are so different from what I would do. I felt like I was just sort of coaching her. Like, “Hey, what if we tried adding some water.” Which you'll see in that series. There's a lot of water droplets, to add more texture than just a straight botanical lumen print, which you see a lot of. I thought we need to add a little more texture to it and stuff like that. But yeah, she, I love this. You know, you can make hundreds and hundreds of these things with the kids and you might have just a few that really look really great. [laughs] But it's the process of working. It's different than drawing with my kids. Because this is a medium that I am so immersed in, it's more exciting for me, number one. That number two, it's so easy for the kids to just make this work and have an immediate gratification of seeing the image. Right? They don't have to wait for the film, the developer, you know what I mean? It's like just immediately here it is. That's what it looks like. It's super simple. But I love the sensibilities that the kids put into the—you know, there's laying stuff on a piece of paper and how that wonderous of the experimentation of it for them as well. “What if I try this? What if I try that?” Seeing that. It's really exciting to watch.
MS: There is something about—and it's something that I haven't personally experienced in quite a long time, but that first time when you see a print in the developer, that sort of magic of it—
BM: Oh yeah.
MS: —and getting do that with your kids seems pretty cool. What’s sort of surprising, I think, about this work is that… You know, I'm sure, as you said, there are a lot of them that you don't necessarily put into the portfolio, but the ones that are in the portfolio, they don't look like work by young children. The compositions are sort of surprising in a lot of cases and they're visually interesting. Like, my kids for example, I love them to pieces and I love seeing what they want to draw and things like that. And sometimes it is kind of surprising, but, for example, when it comes to composing there's often—especially with my middle kid, she has a real tendency towards a symmetry, for example—
BM: Oh, right.
MS: —and centering things. Whereas, in a lot of these images, the compositions are a lot more complex than that. You know what I mean?
BM: Yeah, for sure. I think that the lumen print process helps with that because it's such an organic process, and you really can't control it very well. I mean, you can control the objects on the paper. But I tell them “Just add more. Just add more. [laughs] And see what happens. And move stuff around.” Yeah, my favorite ones are the ones that have a surprising composition, where it's like “I would've never even thought of doing that.”
BM: I'm actually more—when I'm trying to do a lumen print, I'm more symmetrical. [laughs] I just have a tendency to put stuff in there and try to organize it. And that's what's great about the kids. They don't seem to care about that as much. Especially with this process. I do understand what you're saying about the drawing part because I feel like my six year old, she does kind of like to be organized in that way, but it just depends on what it is. It seems like the medium’s different for her. Whatever medium she's—painting, she's way more fluid. It just depends, I think.
MS: Yeah. It does come back to the whole idea that we were talking about before about discovery and that kind of thing. I really... I dig it.
MS: And then your most recent body of work, I think, is Of Salt and Earth. Is that right?
BM: Yeah, exactly.
MS: So can you tell me a little bit about this series and how it works?
BM: Yeah, this is actually one of my more straightforward—I'm actually shooting digitally. But the images—so my base images are—a lot of the work I was doing for the Chasing the Afterglow series and these are just sort of outtakes. So I had a lot of prints printed out, and this actually started because of my kids as well. I had prints sitting out on the table outside and they had somehow dumped a bunch of dirt on one of them, one of the ones with the moon on it. And I was like, “Oh, that looks cool.” So I just took a quick shot of it with my iPhone and this dirt added this texture on top of my print that I really enjoyed, how it just randomly made this kind of textural composition. It made it look a little bit more like some cosmos, stars, or something going on. It activated my print way more than it was. So I thought, “Oh wow, that’s great, maybe I'll do this in a studio and do it on purpose.” [laughs] And I had a lot of dark images with moons and stars and you know… And so I was using salt as this white… atmosphere, and then they kind of look like stars or clouds. Then I started adding charcoal to the top. So really I'm just putting stuff on top of my print and then rephotographing the print. And then I'll even crop in certain areas and it creates this whole new image from the original. And I really liked this painterly style. That I can throw some baking soda on my paper and shake the paper around and it makes the Milky Way. [laughs] And I'll shoot a variety of the same image over and over and over. I'll just change it slightly or add something to it. It's a super organic way of working. It's totally up to chance. I've shot so much of it that looks horrible. [laughs] Just like anything else. It doesn't always look great, but sometimes you get lucky and there's some really interesting images. It really is—it's more of a meditative process for me. I don't have to have any control really. I mean some of the images I do, like I'll put in a circle form or something. That's about as much control as I give it. The rest of it is pretty much splashing charcoal or salt or whatever on the print and shaking it and moving around. It's one of those things where I was just having fun in the studio with something and it actually turned into something that I really enjoyed and actually loved the results. And then let's make some prints out of this. So it's been a fun series. Yeah.
MS: It's sort of interesting, you know, and I'm thinking about my own work, that I always say I have the hardest time when it comes to constructing an image. That I’m pretty good at observing things, that I'm pretty good at noticing things and maybe I might notice things that other people don't notice, so it's something that I can then sort of catch and then show it to you. But I have a difficulty with doing things on purpose. One of the things that I have found is that when I try to control things, that's when the images end up feeling really sort of stiff or boring or overly didactic.
MS: and it's when I sort of give up on… Like, it's either the things that I noticed by chance or the things that I am building, but doing it in a way where I don't actually physically contain or control the parameters, that wind up with images that I ended up liking. And it seems like what you're talking about here is having sort of stumbled onto a way of doing both of those things right? Where you aren't controlling the variables of the image exactly, but you are sort of putting yourself in a situation where these sort of emergent properties can come about. You know what I mean?
BM: Mm-hm, right. Yeah. I like working in that way because I don't feel as much pressure. [laughs] I'm not as stressed out about it. I think because I've learned over the years that when I'm out photographing, I'm not really that good of a photographer in general. Because I'm not real technical, so I don't care so much about exposures and apertures and—
MS: That must make some of those purists really irritated.
BM: Oh, of course. Yeah. [laughs]
BM: I always remind myself when I was in college, learning the Zone System and how aggravating that was for me. I understood the principles of it, but I just didn't want to do that for my work. I wasn't interested in that for my work. I was like, “Oh, let's make it grainy and super contrasty.” I just—that wasn't why I was in photography. I wasn't in for that perfect tonal range and stuff like that. But, you know, I did have this conversation over and over the years though, like “What am I doing? Am I even a photographer? I'm not very good.” And I realized it's not—you know, I use photo of as a basis for what I like to do. And as soon as I let go of any… Oftentimes if I let go of the purpose, or if I let go of trying to make a certain kind of image, then it seems like things just happen.
BM: It's kind of like you were saying about trying to control things when you're out shooting, and more just going out and just noticing things and shooting it, you know? And then sometimes things relate to the things you're already shooting because you're kind of in that mindset, right? I'm working on a series. It's about—maybe it's about color, it's about a place or it's about whatever, whatever the case may be. But if you go out saying “I'm going to go get this one image,” it doesn't always—in fact, it hardly ever works out that way. You're just going out and you're shooting.
BM: And if you just go out and let go of trying to get certain things, sometimes you come up with something really amazing.
BM: Because you're just not looking, and your being more in tune with what's around you or or how you feel in that moment. You know, what's interesting to you.
MS: Yeah. I like the thing that you said a minute ago where you said that it takes the pressure off.
MS: One of the things that—I have nothing but respect for photographers who can work in studio. That's just not in my range. I can't do that. I've just sort of made my peace with that. I have plenty of respect for people who can work that way. For me, one of the things is that if I ever try and set something up in a studio, I always just feel like I'm not smart enough to do this. You know, like I'm not—like if I have to make something profound on purpose, then I'm just not, I'm not wise enough to be able to be profound on purpose. But if it's just like I can happen to notice something that the world is showing me, well then that's not really me doing it. Then I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
BM: That's interesting. I hadn't really ever thought of it that way.
MS: So I definitely don't want to end the segment before we talk about One Twelve. Obviously that's a big part of your work as well. So, One Twelve Publishing is your publishing company. You publish an annual photography magazine called Diffusion. You formerly had the Plates to Pixels online gallery.
MS: You do a number of things with your blog featuring different photographers’ work, and also occasionally you do the occasional photo book publishing.
BM: Yeah. [chuckles]
MS: So one of the things that I wanted to talk about first is where all of that came from. You know, you see a lot of people talk about being a good artistic citizen, but not that many people actually go out and build a whole thing around that. You know what I mean?
BM: Mm, yeah, yeah. It really started out just like any of my other work. I just had this idea—I've always thought it'd be cool to run a magazine since I was in high school. I was really into graphic design and advertising arts my whole life, so I've always been doing graphic design. And once I was at college and I started doing the Plates to Pixels website, I was really enjoying that interaction I was having with the artists. In fact, I wasn't even caring about who was actually viewing the website. [laughs] I was mostly just interested in working with the artists and interviewing them and promoting their work in this very small venue.
MS: I can relate to that.
BM: [laughs] I'm sure you can. So I think that's… Again, there was no pressure with what I was doing. When I decided to do this first issue, I didn't really expect it to even take off. I just wanted to do it for me. I wanted to do this project that had nothing to do with my photography or art, but it was more about people I knew and work that I was really interested in. And we had articles that I thought were engaging, and really I thought it was a moment in time. The first issue of Diffusion came out in 2009, so it's been almost 10 years. And at that time all these magazines were folding and newspapers were folding. So people are like, “What are you doing trying to start a magazine? You're a nobody [laughs] and you have no funding.” And I’m like, “I don't care, it's not really about that.” I just wanted to do it for me, just for something fun. We printed 500 of them. And I really used a lot of the relationships I had started with the Plates to Pixels website to make this thing happen. And also friends that I knew that could write, and people that can help me edit, and [I] had a designer help me design it. So I had a lot of help. It was definitely a collaboration. And then the thing just flew out. We sold the 500 within three months that I printed it and I was just shocked. Like “Oh my gosh, this is a thing.” And a lot of that was online sales through the AlternativePhotography.com website. They listed it on their site. So we got all these international sales because of them and they already had a large following and then we were featuring a lot of alternative process photography. So it kind of got out there, surprisingly to me; I didn't even know how it was going to sell it. We didn't have that many, so I didn't have a big distributor or anything like that.
BM: So I was basically just going off of word of mouth. Anyways, it was a very organic process. So I thought “Okay, we could do another one.” But I didn't have any goals on making this bi-yearly, or I didn't want to do four issues a year. You know, I have a full time job and trying to do my own work and trying to run this other website. So I just thought I'll just turn it into an annual, just do one a year because that's really all I had time for. I'm really glad I did because I'm able to focus so much on the content and design and all. I can spend way more time finessing it every year because I have quite a bit of time to do that. So, anyways, that's basically how it started. And then I took that first issue and sent it out to a bunch of my favorite artists and asked them if they wanted to participate. And a couple of them said yes. So. All right, this is a thing. So we did Volume Two and I ended up printing like 2000 of them instead of 500, which in hindsight was too many. [laughs]
BM: Because I still have like 300 of those, Volume Two. So, yeah, it was a learning process. I knew nothing about publishing or how to get it out in the world. I didn't really know even printing. Our first five issues we printed offset press and so I had to learn a lot. There's a major learning curve involved with the production itself. Even just setting files up for the printer and getting everything color corrected. It was a bit of a nightmare for me, going to press checks and seeing [that] the collodion plates are looking super yellow or super green, and you have all these different processes within one spread, and trying to split the difference. Let's try to make the collodion piece look good next to the platinum prints next to this digital abstract montage piece. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, this is kind of a nightmare. What have I done?” [laughs] I was really… I want the quality of the reproductions to be as good as possible and that's important to me, to have these things not look shoddy, right. “Here, I'm going to print your work, but it’s going to come back to you and look really weird.”
MS: I think everybody—Diffusion has a really good reputation for being a really well produced magazine. I mean, it's pretty well known at this point, I feel like. Everybody that I've ever heard talk about Diffusion always... I think part of it, like you say, because it only comes out once a year, it really feels like kind of a special thing. You know?
BM: Yeah, I'm glad that it worked out like that because it was kind of an accident. I think it's just like anything else, I just want to put out the best that I can in the moment. And I need to be able to change. You know, I've changed Diffusion—as much as I change, myself, and change my own work, I've changed focuses, and the content and how it all looks and the design. And, really, I'm changing it because it's influenced by the participants, the people that we publish and the people… You know, I've had some great interns that have helped me. It's really not me saying “This is what I want,” it’s me saying “This is what they want. [laughs] Let's do it together.” I've done this smart thing where I send out surveys every year after each issue goes out and [say] “What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What should we do more of? What should we do less of?” That kind of thing. So it's grown because of our viewership and what they're interested in. And also it's grown with technology. Like the fact that a lot of the articles, I pulled from the magazine in these recent issues and I can do that stuff on my blog now and it saves me space, so I can print larger images and more of them now. We used to collage—I could try to get as many images on a spread as possible and now I only put one or two on it on a spread. I want to make the images bigger [laughs] and let's engage with the articles and interviews and all that kind of stuff on our blog because we can. We have unlimited space there. So let's just focus on the work itself. And so it's been like this great change with technology. But I've had to adapt. I've had to change our website several times and DiffusionMag.com had its own website. It's just—I had to [say], “Okay, we're doing so many things now. It all needs to be in one place.” [laughs] I've spent the last year like, “Okay, let's put everything in one place, put our store low place and really focus in on who we are and what our brand is.” I feel like it's really come to a nice crescendo now that we've put out quite a few issues and we have a good following. And there's always great collateral things. Or I get invited to do stuff that there was no way I would have been invited to. [laughs] Which is great too. I enjoy that.
MS: Yeah. Well, why don't we take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
BM: Sounds good.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Blue Mitchell: Well, being a listener of your program, I know that you're involved with Medium.
BM: And I thought I would talk about your experience with the portfolio reviews and the festival itself, photography festivals, because that's one of the things that I've really enjoyed about being a part of this photo community is being able to attend festivals and do portfolio reviews. And part of that is—my interest that we talked about earlier—is handcrafted photography. I get to see the work in person, either go to a portfolio walk and I see stuff out on the tables or actually sit down and talk to photographers about their work and I get to see it and feel it. And that's pretty exciting for me, as a publisher and just as a lover of photography. It's twofold. I get to offer opportunities to people. But more selfishly I just get to see really good work and meet really cool people.
MS: Yeah. I mean I always tell everybody that Medium is my favorite thing that I do every year. And I'm not like a reviewer or anything. I just go as a participant, but I can actually pretty definitively say that pretty much every opportunity that I've had as both as an artist and as a podcaster has come about through that. This show would not exist—it came from an idea that I had because of conversations that I was having at Medium.
BM: Mm, right.
MS: So yeah, it's definitely been a huge boon for me. Yeah.
BM: So you're talking about your conversations with photographers that you were having at the festival inspired you to actually do this for your podcast, right?
MS: Yeah. Well it was sort of a combination because… I don't think you've—you haven't been to Medium, have you?
BM: I haven’t been to Medium, no.
MS: Well, it’s great and I definitely recommend it. They do—
BM: It’s on my bucket list. [laughs]
MS: Yeah. [laughs] They do four days. In the first two days are portfolio reviews, but the second two days are artist lectures.
MS: And I think in terms of—for me doing both of those things really increased my confidence in being able to talk. You know, just have conversations. So I would have conversations just sitting around the lobby in between reviews, that's one thing. But also attending these artist lectures and then they have a Q&A at the end. I don't know, I feel a little weird about this, but [laughs] The thing that that really started it was—a few years ago at the festival. It was in between artist lectures where you're taking a lunch break and I had just been asking some questions in the Q&A that had come before that. And I went out into the lobby. There’s a little restaurant off of the lobby right there. And I wandered in, I was going to get myself some lunch. And Claire Warden and Drew Nikonowicz—both of whom have been on the show, and I know you've done an interview with Claire before—
BM: Mm-hm, yeah.
MS: —were just sitting in the restaurant there. They were having lunch and talking and they invited me to come over and talk with them. And I was like, “Whoa, these people want to talk to me.”
MS: [laughs] And Drew said something like, “You asked really good questions, you're really smart. You should keep doing that.” And I thought, “Huh, okay.”
MS: And it really… I mean, I don't know, it's a silly thing, especially considering in some ways Drew’s so much younger than I am. I just felt like I had been given permission to do this thing that I kind of wanted to do anyway, you know?
BM: Right, right. Well you took something you love and embraced it, and went with it, which I think is great. I think that's the way to do it. And you know, the thing about—I think the questions, having the right kind of questions, too, for artists when it's, like I said earlier to you, the questions are great. And that's, you know, since I've been listening to your podcast, what I really liked this is the questions. Because like I said, it's you bringing out stuff that people don't necessarily ask normally. A lot of artists like to talk about their work, but they like to be challenged, you know? They like something different. Or even publishers or whoever the case may be. I think it's that being challenged by the question is just as exciting as… Because it's more of a conversation rather than a Q&A.
BM: You're having a conversation. And I think that's the key thing for me. Part of actually what I was doing—my early issues of Diffusion, they were… I was sending questions to people and they were answering them and it really fell flat for me because they weren't conversations.
BM: So I started making them conversations. Even though I couldn't necessarily talk to people in person, I started sending them only one question at a time and I would do a written conversation. At least that made me feel like it was more engaging because I was taking the things that they answered from a question and regurgitating it in my mind saying, “Okay, what does this have to do with this?” From things they said versus just asking generic questions, which to me is kind of boring.
MS: I feel like the people that I talk to on the show and the people that I've talked to—just whether they're friends or whether they're lecturers or whatever—at different events or openings or whatever. These are people who have just immeasurably improved my life by putting the work into my life. And so it's like the absolute least thing that I can do to actually engage with the work and think about the work and then to make the conversation something that is, you know, something that's going to be interesting for me. Like if it's something that I'm legitimately curious about and not just in order to have an interview, you know, that I actually want to talk to somebody.
MS: So you were talking about the photo community and festivals. What do you find to be the thing that you enjoy most about festivals with respect to community?
BM: I think it’s similar to what you're saying. Part of it for me—and I feel like I accidentally came upon the festival scene because I was invited to PhotoNola pretty much right after I was producing our second issue. And, you know, it was an honor to be asked to come review work in person at this event. But I was also—it was nerve wracking because I had never done anything like that before. And I actually hadn't had the opportunity sit on the other side of the table yet as a photographer. So I didn't have any idea what I was getting into as far as how the format was and all that. But what I found was what I really enjoyed was it was less about worrying about how I was presenting myself, but more it was I just really enjoyed the conversations that I was having with the artists that were sitting down and I actually, like I said, I got to look at the work and talk to them about it. And because I am trained in photography, I can talk about photography and going back to the history of photography and then contemporary issues and being able to have that knowledge base of being able to actually engage with them about photography in general. I feel like that's kind of what started me being more interested in having those conversations with people. But really what I get out of it the most is just the connections with people and all these friends I now have because of being able to travel to these festivals and stuff like that. It's amazing to me how tight you can get with someone in a couple days and feel like you have some camaraderie. And I'm really good about trying to keep up with people, too, keeping in touch with them.
BM: And providing as many opportunities as I can for good work, too, in as many venues. I think that I've grown so much. Kind of like you were saying, I've gotten so much out of engaging with the artwork and the people over the years. It's just been mind blowing to me, really, how Diffusion has developed because of it. But also just how I've kind of developed as a person and the things that I'm interested in. And honestly my confidence level engaging in this photo world has increased tremendously just because it seems to me that everybody's so supportive. You know, in other art avenues, I'd not seen this kind of support that we get in the photo community amongst… You know, like I always tell people at those reviews, when I'm talking to photographers, when you are here at this portfolio review, probably your most important connections you'll ever make are your peers that are here with you, right? Not necessarily the reviewers, because you might actually get more opportunities from your friends that are there with you.
BM: I always tell people that's just as important as talking to the reviewers and the people that are there doing artist talks and all that kind of stuff, is having that camaraderie amongst yourselves. I think I can say that because I'm a photographer and I get it. I get that you can actually give each other opportunities.
MS: Yeah. That is something I think a lot of people miss. It’s interesting, you say you have so many friends now, that you can get tight with people in just a couple of days. It is an interesting thing how, having the context of the art… Because for most of us the art has at least some personal dimension to it. Or at least the work that tends to resonate, right? Like some people maybe are just making stuff that's kind of impersonal, but I think the stuff that tends to—at least the stuff that I connect with has some personal dimension to it. Even if it's not necessarily about the person's life or specific emotions. Maybe they're doing documentary work, maybe they're doing… Like I saw some some work that was about environmental issues that I thought was interesting and it'd lead to interesting conversations because that's something that that person cares deeply about.
MS: And it just gives you a way in, to sort of shortcut the sort of bullshit that you might, if you were just meeting somebody at a party or something—
BM: Right. [chuckles] It cuts the small talk because you already can kind of see something about somebody that wouldn't come up in that small talk conversation.
MS: Yeah. It's something where you… I've been thinking a lot about small talk, because when I started doing this show, everybody was—all the people in my family and close friends were like, “You're going to talk to people for a podcast?” Because I'm kind of shy and reserved in my normal life and everybody was sort of surprised.
BM: Hm. Oh.
MS: For me, I was realizing that the thing that I dislike about small talk is the part where you're not really sure what you can talk about, like what's okay to talk about with people.
MS: Because you don't have the frame of reference, you sort of talk about stuff like—I'm just always so terrified that someone is going to either think I'm an idiot or get mad at me or think I'm being intrusive, or maybe not engaged enough.
BM: Right. Or judgmental. [laughs]
MS: Right. When you're at a photo event, people have got their work out, they're showing it on purpose. That gives you an entry point and you know that at the very least they want to talk about that.
MS: And then that will give you the impetus to talk about all the other stuff. It's one of the things I love most, is that connection that you get.
BM: Yeah. Oh yeah. Well, and also, following up on what you just said, when people are laying their work out there to show to people, they're essentially opening themselves up and being vulnerable, right? I mean, who's not vulnerable when they're showing their stuff they've been working on, that's really important to them. And then they're exposing themselves and they're prepared for that. You have to mentally prepare yourself for, for being vulnerable essentially.
MS: Yeah. I really have appreciated—and I've heard that it isn't like… I haven't been to any other portfolio review events besides Medium, but—and I've heard that it isn't always like this—but one of the things I really like about what scott does is that the lineup of reviewers that he picks are all people that, A, he wants to have people who can actually do something more for you than just say “This is good or bad.”
BM: Right, yeah.
MS: But also he doesn't pick people who are assholes.
MS: For the most part—and, you know, everybody has had a bad review experience, even at Medium. I have as well. But for the most part the people that he picks are very supportive and I've had very few instances where the person who has been reviewing my work has just been unhelpful. Even if they don't like the work, they're willing to talk to me about what parts are working for them or what I might consider doing differently.
MS: And that's also something that I find about the reviewees. Again, there are always a few exceptions, but mostly the photographers that I've met at these places are not prima donnas.
BM: Right, right.
MS: Like, you know, nobody likes getting a bad review, but most of the time when people I talk to get a review that isn't stellar, they're more thoughtful about it rather than being like, “Well, that person [growling noise].”
MS: I don't like that energy either. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, it's funny you mentioned the asshole reviewers. I noticed a lot of those people won't get invited back as a reviewer.
BM: I noticed that at Photolucida, here in Portland. It's a bigger festival. It's four days. It's grueling for the reviewers. [laughs] Bu, you know, it's they just won’t invite people back if it's a problem.
BM: You want that good energy, you want people to come out of there positive. Even if people don't necessarily like the work, or can do anything with it, having an engaging conversation about it one way or another is better than nothing. [laughs]
BM: And then walking away mad.
MS: Yeah. I always think about, for myself… I've done the reviews at Medium three times, I think, maybe four. I sort of lost track. But the first two times I went—because I didn't actually go to art school. I didn't have any background. I was almost completely self taught. And the first two years that I went—I went to the first and second years. Or the first and third year—I skipped the second year—and my work at that point was really just not ready yet. And especially the second time I got reviewed it was a little disheartening because I was like, “Yes, the first time I was really not ready, but I've spent two years working and the work is the best it's ever been.” And then for the most part everybody was still not that impressed.
MS: But the thing that was really great about it was that basically everybody, even that second time, or even the first time they were like, “This isn't really ready yet. You need to keep working on it, but do keep working on it, and here are some things that you might consider.” And that was actually really, really helpful to me. One of the people in particular who was really helpful is that Aline Smithson has reviewed my work three times.
BM: Oh yeah.
MS: And being able to come back to her over and over again, she was able to see the progress in my work.
BM: Well, she's amazing that way too. Because she’ll remember the old work and see your growth. Especially for someone who sees so much work all the time. [laughs]
MS: Yeah, seriously.
BM: Yeah, she's one of the best reviewers out there, I think.
MS: Yeah. You mentioned the first time when you were at Photonola, you hadn't been on the other side of the table at that point. Have you now?
BM: No, I still haven’t. No. You know, it's actually interesting you bring that up because I haven't felt like my work is ready yet.
BM: And I'm still not ready. I don't think. And I think being on the other side of the table has even supported that. [laughs]
BM: That notion. Because I, in the same way, I have seen so many people progress and I reviewed some of the same people at different festivals over the years and watching the progression, it's just been amazing for me because I'm a champion of their work. But at some point you see an artist and be like “Boom, they've got it. They figured it out. They've been working diligently and didn't give up, and now look what's happening.” Actually a good friend of mine here in Portland, Heidi Kirkpatrick, had that experience, similar to what you had, when she went to her first Photolucida her work wasn't quite ready yet. And then she took some time off and then she came back with a whole different body of work and then it sang. It was ready. And so having that accomplishment of not giving up, just I'm going to keep going and try something new and try it again and see how it goes. But I feel like, you know, these festivals, there's this other side where they're not cheap to go to, they're not cheap to attend, so you have this other—you have to invest a lot of your time and money into something. And I feel like if you're not quite ready that you might waste your time. So that's kind of where I've been with my stuff. I’m just not there yet and I don't feel like the work is universal enough for a lot of the reviews that I would probably sit down to talk to people.
BM: That’s also my own… [laughs] Being so involved in the photo community and knowing what's out there and being so immersed, I'm a little timid with my own work to take that leap, you know? That's just the honesty of it.
MS: Yeah. But on the other hand, you exhibit your work. Your CV is pretty long. You've got a pretty good exhibition history, so it's not like you're just keeping it under wraps. You're not keeping it in a drawer like Emily Dickinson, you know?
BM: [laughs] No, that's true. But I am able to focus on venues and people that I know might appreciate it. I feel like in some ways it's kind of like my publication. It's kind of niche, you know, it doesn't have a huge audience. It's got a very small audience. But eventually I will get up the nerve to attend one. I'll probably go to a smaller one like PhotoNola or Click! in North Carolina who I reviewed with last year. They have a great little festival now.
MS: Well, I’ll just recommend Medium. Medium’s pretty great. [laughs]
BM: Alright, there you go. How many reviewers show up to Medium?
MS: I think it's like 20-ish. Something like that.
BM: That's a good number.
MS: Yeah. They keep it fairly… Scott always likes to say “Medium is small.”
MS: I find it really fascinating that, for me, especially when I was first starting out—it's sort of less so now, but especially when I was first starting out, I was just so starstruck at the time.
MS: I'd been been reading Lenscratch for maybe a year before I came to my first review. And then I had the chance to sit down with Aline, like “Aline can look at my work.” And I'm like, “Oh my god, Aline Smithson is going to look at my work!”
MS: And one of the things I thought was really interesting is—so I think a few years later, I was applying to Review Santa Fe and I didn't get in. But then I noticed, who are the people that did get in? And that year I think Ken Rosenthal, who was one of the speakers at the first Medium and who I've talked with on the show now. I love his work. And Aline was actually also one of the people that was participating that as a reviewee. And I thought “That is so interesting to me.” Because here are these people who, you know, they have these long exhibition histories and they are already as much of a household name as one can be in the photo world. And they're also going to these reviews. I think that is really fascinating that you have these people who are… For me it was this sensation of “We're the same, we're actually the same.” And you don't outgrow the need for critique and the need for review and the need for opportunities. And I just thought that was really—for me that was an important sort of revelation, you know?
BM: Oh, for sure. I had the same experience being a reviewer because I've sat down with Aline as a reviewee and me reviewing her work. It’s so weird.
BM: This has happened several times where I've had some of my favorite photographers sit down at my table and I'm like, “Oh my god, I don't even know how to critique your work because I'm such a fan.” You know what I mean?
BM: But then [I] have that same realization like, “Hey, it doesn't matter.” But I had the initial—you said, the word “starstruck,” I've been starstruck as a reviewer by the photographer sitting down in front of me several times because I'm like, “Why are you even sitting with me?” [laughs]
BM: “You’re way more developed than anything I can tell you.” But it actually—for me, those became conversations, not just about their work but also about how we could work together. And a lot of those people I've befriended and been working with for years now and I just love those relationships that I've been able to develop because of it. But yeah, I was majorly star struck, especially when I first started doing interviews like, “Oh, why are you sitting at my table. I have nothing to say. I'm just gonna, like, help your ego, essentially.” [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Oh, well, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Everybody needs a little bit of that from time to time.
BM: [laughing] Right.
MS: Well, so there's one last question that I like to ask everybody before we close and that is whether there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
BM: You know, I feel like, going back, when I was at Click! last year, I got a preview of the 100 Views of the Drowning World—Kahn and, I can never say his last name, Selesnick—that Candela Books had there. I previewed it and saw it in person. I've always been a fan of their work in general. And being a publisher I was really intrigued by all the different ways that… They have that big accordion book that I have at home. I've always liked that they think outside the box, in photography but also in how they present their work. Not just the photographs themselves, but the different ways that they do their exhibits and then their publications and stuff like that. But this new book… I mean, define “book.” We were talking about defining what photo is. Well, these guys get about like “Define what a book is.” Because they’re really just cards, essentially, that make that make up this book. They're not bound. So I find that fascinating. They've looked at the, you know, working with the publisher. And then I interviewed Gordon about the book and how he got involved with them and the work. So I got an insight into that process. I was less interested in their perspective but I wanted to see the publisher's perspective on making the book and, considering that they go for these unique book styles, how that came about. Anyway, the reason I think that has really stuck with me is because we're talking about photography and unconventional ways of working in photography and they've really done that for me. In their work, but also in the way they present it with the publishing and stuff like that. Anyways, as a publisher and a photographer, it's been very inspiring to follow them in having all these different formats and creative ways to get their work out into the world.
MS: Cool. Cool. Yeah, I had heard about that. I remember when Candela did the launch party. It was not that long ago, and I had definitely been interested to see that. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see it in person someday. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, I have a copy so we’ll have to meet up.
MS: Yeah. Well, hey, I really appreciate you taking the time and talking with me. Thank you so much.
BM: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate it. It's been a pleasure.
Mike Sakasegawa: Alright, so as I mentioned at the top of the show, Blue is reviewing at this year’s Click! Photography Festival. He also has work in the Pacific Northwest Photography Drawers at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon; that work will be on display through March of 2019.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on August 1st with a conversation with writer R. O. Kwon, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.