Reflections with James Casebere

James Casebere is a renowned American artist known for his groundbreaking contributions to the genre of staged photography. His works often feature small-scale architectural models that he builds and then meticulously photographs, creating surreal and dreamlike environments that explore issues of power, politics, and the human condition. Over the course of his career, Casebere has exhibited his work in numerous galleries and museums around the world, and has been recognized with many prestigious awards and honors.

You’ve created many works over the years. Looking back at your works, how would you say you’ve evolved as an artist? What lessons have you learned along the way? And what would you say to the ‘you’ forty years ago?

"Wow, 1982. This was just before my first commercial gallery show, and after doing an installation of lightbox images at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. So many things got off the ground for me at that moment. The conceptual core of my work was already there, my values, my working methods, my commitment etc. I would say to myself, “don’t be so arrogant”. I mean, it’s important to believe in yourself but there are times I might have been more tolerant of people in the business. I came to New York with the intention to let my art do all the work and remain personally absent. No hustle, just quality work bolstered by solitude. I think, however, it’s important to remain in the discussion, be curious and connect with others. This may be the pandemic speaking, in part. What have I learned along the way? I find myself circling back to a more multimedia practice, wanting to make participatory sculptures and even painting. I want to do that, but also stay the course, and keep my focus narrow in order to get something accomplished. I would say to myself, keep your balance, have enough self-respect to listen to your body, never give up, listen attentively to your unconscious, your actual dreams. I believe in my basic departure point of investigating the way the personal and social dovetail as content."

We want to dive into ‘On the water’s edge’, your most recent works. The works have been exhibited in Madrid, Paris and New York. The photographs portray a future world where people are forced to live in elevated houses to adapt to natural catastrophes. How important is the topic of climate change to you personally? And what moment drew you to create this series?      

"This subject has always been important to me, however, it took on renewed importance at a time in my life when the image of a soul under assault, and standing up in defiance of overwhelming force coincided with the issue of rising sea levels. I was looking for courage over despair in my personal life and the world around me. The power of the ocean, as a metaphor, is immense, however coming to grips emotionally with the reality of what we’ve done to the planet was also a challenge. I was inspired by events surrounding superstorm Sandy, where I first went to Rockaway to surf with my daughter and ended up helping friends evacuate their homes along the shore and then clean up after."

You often incorporate architecture in your works. Do you have a personal connection with architecture? 

"I studied with Siah Armajani as an undergrad, a conceptual artist turned sculptor who collaborated with architects. He came to the midwest from Tehran to study philosophy. He connected me with architectural theory initially through Robert Venturi and his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Personally, as a student, I discovered our families were intertwined long before I was aware of it and our cousins were good friends in Tehran. My Father also had a history as a radical educator and had started a couple of schools from scratch working with architects to design them. I remember walking around on the foundations of the first of these when I was a young boy. When I was younger still, the first house I remember living in was under construction and owned by an architect friend while my dad was in grad school. In my late 40s, I asked David Adjaye to design my previous studio which he did (his first building in New York), and I worked with Michael Meridith and Hillary Sample to design my current studio upstate."

You are known to construct your scenes out of paper, models and other materials. Can you take us through your creative process — where do you start? Do you know what each scene will look like beforehand? And what does a typical day in the studio look like? 

"So much has changed. I don’t always know what they will look like beforehand. It is often a process of discovery through both construction and photography. A typical day in the studio used to be my making crude models alone in the studio for a few days, after researching a particular subject. Next, I would have an assistant come in to refine it, clean it up, etc., and we would start shooting test images. We would continue to build the model as we viewed the image on the computer, changing the point of view, the lighting, the materials, the texture, the color, etc. as we went. I worked with photo assistants and model makers, sometimes the same person, and then have the same or another assistant work on post production in another room, doing photoshop to further clean up the image, drop in a sky or other background. Lately, I’ve been building crude models and then having an assistant make a 3-D digital model with shop drawings that we can give to a fabricator to work from in order to make a larger sculpture."

There’s a surreal quality to the scenes you depict in your works. What themes do you circle back to most and how do they relate to you personally? And are these themes reminiscent of certain memories from the past?

"Solitude vs isolation strength vs vulnerability, connectedness and separation, depth and temporal illusion. I suppose some of these themes are rooted in early memories and emotions around home and domesticity."

Finally, what are you working on next? And what do you do when you’re not working?

"I’m working on sculpture at the moment, both self-contained closed objects, and room-like pavilions that a viewer can enter and share with others that are very much like life-size enlargements of the entire models that I have been building in miniature to shoot pictures of. I’m literally going outside the box and building the shell of the model, particularly like the prison cells models. They also mirror the space of the black box of the view camera itself with expanding bellows through forced perspective. The images or objects are still all about light and space, but the life-size visceral experience of the space within, along with a view out to the world and sky beyond. When I am not working? I’m reading, walking the dog, cooking, eating, sleeping, watching movies, and trying to keep my body, mind and spirit in good working order. Only now am I beginning to travel again, first to LA and then Rome again to work for a month or so, with side trips in Europe and maybe beyond."

This interview was featured in Currant Magazine's book N°Surreal.

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