Published on November 17, 2017
Laura BravermanFrom Several Angles, Over Several Days is a deeply observational and thorough investigative work. Could you tell us about the process behind this series?
Daniel TernaOver the course of three days one summer, I photographed the facade of a doctor’s office on Kings Highway in Brooklyn — during sunrise, high noon, and sunset. I initially began photographing the building from afar, treating it as if I were shooting a sculpture, seeing it from all angles, but always composing it in its entirety. However, the need to see details brought me closer, and I found new meanings by framing in fragments. The language of the lettering, up-close, became a jumble of letters to play with and piece together. I wanted control, but I also wanted to work with chance, and so I decided to photograph the building while the sun was at different points on its axis.
LBSo you started off with a simple motif and defined a fixed set of parameters for yourself. Little by little, you allowed for additional parameters to intervene, deriving all the complexity you could from a single, commonplace subject. In light of this, I find it interesting to note that this work was the first you made after finishing grad school. Do you think your working method was influenced by your academic experience?
DTMy method came about from both my academic and commercial experience. Nayland Blake had had us make a list of everything we did within our own work, and then surprised us by telling us to stop doing all those things. It's an annual exercise he does with his own work too. During grad school, much of the work I produced for my thesis relied on taking photographs within the confines of buildings, parking lots, or my family home. I would stalk closed or fixed spaces, quickly taking pictures (usually with a flash), move on, and make sense of the jumble afterward. With From Several Angles, I wanted to break a habit that I saw forming in my work. I tried to slow down and be patient with one single object in front of me, trusting that my eye would see new things after watching it for a long time, especially as the light changed. But I also attribute a change in my approach to my freelance work as an exhibition photographer, in which I needed to move around galleries and shows, photographing overall views, single pieces of artwork, and details.
LBThat’s interesting, because in the last two months, you also switched to a distinctly new way of working. You developed two series of works that document large gatherings. You photographed J'Ouvert, the Caribbean early morning celebration that marks the start of Carnival, in Brooklyn. You've also gone down to DC to photograph the Juggalo March on Washington, a gathering of fans of Detroit hip-hop duo Insane Clown Posse. What initially attracted you to photographing these events?
DTI've always been interested in the security and media surrounding mass gatherings. Security — and the type of security — says a lot about the politics of our times, and the media says so much about American culture. Back in 2008, after a semester in Jerusalem, I photographed New York State and City police. The war in Iraq was at its bloodiest, and the terror threat level was high. I was very aware of the show of force seemingly everywhere. You couldn’t escape it. This was at a time when I was looking at artists such as Taryn Simon and Jill Magid, both very different artists but both of whom relied on gaining access in order to make their work. When Pope Benedict came to New York in 2008, I looked into his itinerary and essentially followed him and the security-detail around. I think it was at this point that I also started photographing the media — news reporters, TV crews, other photographers — surrounding this massive spectacle.
The year 2008 was also the beginning of my foray into video, and I used the historical event of Obama's election as the focus of my work, shooting in Harlem the day after his election and in DC several times before the inauguration. The work was observational and in the traditions of filmmakers such as Harun Farocki, but I wasn't totally aware at that time of artists who were working in that vein. To me, it was like I was taking large-format photographs, the only difference being that I was actually recording on tape for hours on end.
DTFast forwarding to 2015, I took a trip with my 92-year-old father to Dachau, for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camp (he is a survivor and was in Terezin, Auschwitz, and Kaufering, a sub-camp of Dachau). Both my father and I found certain elements of the ceremonies to be over the top, awkward, and overtly political. I focused on the German security and media, especially surrounding Angela Merkel's visit to the camp. The organizers tried to be sensitive, but a lot of it was just too staged, transparently obligatory. A Crazy Bass is a work in progress, combining documentary footage with photographs of wreaths and still-like videos.
DTPolitical events have always gotten my blood pumping, and it's for this reason that I began working in this somewhat photojournalistic way. Ever since Eric Garner's death, I've felt even more compelled to include social commentary in my work. Then with Trump's election and going to protests, I think I've just been more interested in working in the midst of all these situations, creating series made during brief moments of incredible energy.
This year's J'Ouvert celebration came from that impulse (the Mayor pushed the opening time to take place during early morning daylight instead of nighttime as a strategy to curb gun violence). I found the celebration to be more concerned with having an inclusive party with community in mind, as opposed to this over-sexualized and gun-toting mass that the media was so focused on. Likewise with the Juggalo March, the media had made Juggalos seem like a bunch of white supremacists, but it was really a community of individuals and families happy to get together with like-minded fans.
LBIt seems that the common link between all these events is that they take place within certain officializing, formalizing frames, which are mediatic, political, or both. Just like barriers are placed along roads to control crowds, people are expected to look and act a certain way for the media. They are all situations in which planning and expectations play a great part. To document events charged with such anticipatory connotations must be a challenge in some way…
DTI don't think I find it too challenging to see what's really going on in a situation. As an image maker myself, I'm aware that most stories are packaged up in sensational, digestible, or simplified ways, so generally I try to find an angle that reveals a large, more encompassing picture. Generally, I try to observe and describe an alternate perspective on things — in fact, that's usually the reason I make art it in the first place. Whether I'm re-contextualizing found photos, sneaking into, gaining access to a space, or generally crossing some sort of border, I'm always interested in looking at the other side of the curtain.
LBThe other side of the curtain… That’s an interesting way of putting it. In fact, it reminds me of the work you did in DC, not only at the Juggalo March, but also earlier this year, at Trump’s inauguration. Could you tell us a little more about that project?
DTOf course. After Trump's election, everyone who I align myself with politically was generalizing Trump supporters in a way that I found offensive. Words like »uneducated« and »white trash« were being thrown around by friends, and I found that language to be exactly what caused all the divisions in the first place. So with empathy in mind, I went to DC to take portraits at Trump's inauguration and specifically didn’t ask people what party they were affiliated with. I wanted to work neutrally, and be around people that I had heard so much about, but had never actually interacted with. I came out of it feeling that I had brushed against »the other side.« For me, this was more valuable than yelling from my liberal perch. After I shot the portraits, I began taking photos in a different way — more critically — as a way to work through my anxiety.
LBIt’s true that the work you did on inauguration day really does emerge as two separate series with very different aesthetics. While your portraiture takes a softer focus and is shot on film, the work you did later that day is much »harsher« in a way; it has more constructive features, seems to be shot digitally, and often employs flash exposure. What made you choose a certain vocabulary for the first series, and a completely different one for the second?
DTI’m not sure. There was a practical reason involved, which was that daylight was fading, but also that the Inauguration Ceremony itself had ended. People were on the move, and I was working through the crowd more fluidly than when I was asking people to stop and pose for me. I was sad, contemplative, nervous, and frantic. I think the second, digitally-shot series was a way to wash my mouth out from the strange circus of Trump’s Inauguration. The shifting point on that day for me was watching Obama’s helicopter take off for the last time. The end of an era. I wanted a record of feelings from that historic day, and I think the two very different approaches reflect my inner psyche.
Daniel Terna’s From Several Angles, Over Several Days explores a singular motif at different moments and from different viewpoints. Over the course of three days, Terna visited a desolate doctor’s office in Brooklyn, once at sunrise, once at noon, and once at sunset. He approached the building as a sculptural and individual subject, analyzing its idiosyncrasies while challenging himself to repeatedly consider the house anew. Taking its source from a rather commonplace object, Terna's work succeeds not only in developing a poetic reflection on the act of looking, but also in spurring the viewer’s curiosity and attentiveness.