This interview was originally published at Haute Macabre on October 11, 2018.
Jason Blake’s sepia-toned portraits, humming with wistful yearnings of phantoms from yesteryear, feel like peeking into a dusty old chest of fragile flotsam and eerie ephemera, filled with things crumbling, transient, and vulnerable, but which also evoke a dynamic and powerful sense of timelessness and immortality. You could be gazing across the centuries to boldly meet the eyes of a ghost who died long before you were born, or you could be trying in vain to catch a glimpse of a misty, half-hidden face captured on film just a week ago. These photographs are mysterious portals to indistinct, obscured places and times, the precise destination of which you may never be able to quite work out for yourself, no matter how frequently you visit.
And… I’ll stop myself there. Typically when introducing the subject of an interview, I take a moment to write up a paragraph or two describing their work, my perceptions of it and how it makes me feel, a memory it evokes, a story it brings to mind, or maybe even a creative endeavor of my own it inspired. But, you know, today I may forgo my usual rambles and let the man’s work–and his own brilliant words–speak for themselves.
Read further to learn more of Jason Blake, a photographer who coaxes phantoms from timeless realms, and of Jason’s own history, influences, yearnings, and truths.
What can you share with us about your passion for creating the appearance of a bygone, ghostly era and the melancholy nostalgia of antiquated photography?
Jason Blake: It’s hard to pinpoint where the fascination with an older era comes from…most likely, it’s an amalgamation of many influences and instances that I stumbled upon throughout my life. First, in general, I feel most people have a connection to a certain period or era that they feel an attachment and most comfortable with – a sort of identification and belonging. And not to say that doesn’t or can’t change over time, but I feel it’s something one goes to for a sort of inner peace or enjoyment.
For me, older eras, especially the Victorian, have such a lush and fantastical element to them, filled with a sense of mystery. The elaborateness of everything also holds a fascination – from the wardrobe and art, to architecture and interior design. And of course all of the obvious metaphysics that were prevalent at that time are wondrous. And in all of the art there’s such a flair to the themes and poses, something more magical than what you find today. All of these things make the perfect backdrop to some amazing narratives that I want to take part in.
And speaking purely photographically, I have always loved being intrigued with images whose origins, context, and purpose are disguised. Images that you’re not really sure when, how or why it was made. I feel like the intrinsic properties of older photographs have the ability to hide a modern hand, giving an image a more magical feel. It kinda gets back to the old adage “the camera always tells the truth”. If a woman is floating in an old looking black and white photograph, it is more believable to the viewer that it actually happened, and was not manipulated by other more contemporary means.
And also, quite simply, a lot of my favorite films, literature and artists throughout my life have always been older than modern.
I’ve read that you studied in Prague with several well-known Czech photographers, I’m curious– not just as to how their processes and techniques may have influenced your work– but also how the rich history and culture of the city itself may have found itself influencing your eye and your lens.
Hmm, well first, after reading this question, it makes me want to go back to the bio on my website and change some wording around– I wrote it years ago and hope it doesn’t come off as pretentious as it does now sounds when I read the phrase aloud to myself! [HM EDIT: no, we think it sounds amazing!] I was lucky enough to spend a month and a half studying in Prague under two Czech photographers and one American. I also had the chance to take part in a studio visit to another Czech photographer, who almost immediately became one of my all-time favorite artists.
Initially, an early obsession with the work of Kafka, which I’ll touch on later, and along with aspects of your first question, brought me to search out ways to make it over there. All together, the city seemed like one of the few remaining places in the world where you could get lost and utterly immersed in the old world. In fact, the city itself is laid out in such a way that it is conducive to getting physically lost wandering through its small cobblestone streets.
By this time, the summer between my junior and senior year at the University of the Arts, I had taken several darkroom photography classes and a few studio classes. Up until this point, most of the formal education revolved around the basic principles and technical information of learning how to develop and print film, and how to use and control lighting. I had the itch to travel and once I found the program in Prague, I was fascinated with some of the teachers and classes that were offered.
Annette Fournet was the director of the American based program. I was previously familiar with a little bit of her work and was obviously attracted to her dreamy black and white holga landscapes. But what really interested me was a Staged Photography class taught by Rudo Prekop and Miro Švolík. Again, most of my education was technically based, and I was thrilled to take part in something that sounded like it fostered a teaching of ideas and concepts – and not in the pragmatic way, like in other realms of photography, such as journalism and editorial work.
During the program, the class was taken to visit the studio of another Czech photographer, Václav Jirásek. I was immediately enthralled with his work. There were always photographers whose work I enjoyed, but there were only a few handful that I felt a deep connection to what was going on in the images. He was one of them, and one of the first where I truly understood the concept of portrait as narrative – not really in the obvious way we all know with straight forward photographs, but one that describes a metaphysical or otherworldly narrative; a portrait that can transport you to a completely different realm. I’ve always been fascinated with this principal and is something that is still a huge facet of my work. It’s also something that I search after in other aspects, such as literature and film – and is probably the main working element as to what interested me in Kafka to begin with – communicating so much with so little.
There were also plenty of other major artistic influences that I finally had the chance to see in person or discovered during my time there. Jan Saudek who created these wondrous worlds and stories in his small room was another conceptual portrait photographer whose work I admired. I was lucky to see one of his huge hand painted photographers in a gallery. Outside of photography(in a way, because he did take some photographs that are lesser known), I was also able to see the work of Alphonse Mucha. Even to this day, I still hold a fascination and connection to Czech art and culture – I just recently bought Severin’s Journey into the Dark which has been on my reading list for some time and have enjoyed other literature such as Erben’s A Bouquet.
And outside of the arts, just being there was an influence. I’m an escapist at heart – always have been and always will be. As troublesome as that can be, I feel it is almost necessary and vital to an artist in a way. For a whole month I got to wander lamplit cobblestone streets, explore small Renaissance towns, have strong drinks in dark cavernous jazz clubs and lay in fields in southern Bohemia.
I learned a great deal from my UArts professors and I value both the knowledge they imparted and the relationships that grew from it– but I cannot deny that my time in Prague, learning under these incredible influences, and exploring the city and its countryside was a formative time for myself – not just professionally, but personally, as well.
Your website points to a division of your work, between that of dark and light. Can you speak to the importance of this duality in your work?
As far as website goes, there is actually a somewhat simple, pragmatic and un interesting answer – mostly it’s to guide a specific audience in the right direction. When marketing myself to prospective clients, I really only have a very limited window to grab their attention. Depending on who I’m marketing to, I might send them a link a to more colorful work, and some people want to see heavier, darker stuff that might fit their project better. Some people want to go straight to see examples of band photography. I originally designed it to be as direct as possible to help aid in getting any jobs. Most art and creative directors only spend a few seconds with your work before moving on to the next. If at all I can make it more simpler for them, and they see something they like, they will spend more time going the rest of my work.
That said, besides the technical aspect of why I arranged it how I did, I do find not only pleasure, but importance in keeping a duality in my work. One, it keeps the mind fresh, and I think it’s wise for everyone to keep themselves open to different facets in life, not just art. Once you pigeonhole yourself into a certain style of way of life, I feel you begin to lose perspective and risk a sort of internal monotony.
I’ve always been interested in a mix of influences; some cross paths, and some are polar opposites– but I feel it is good to have the skill and headspace to move freely between realms, take what each has to offer and bring it back to adapt it to yourself and own personal style. There’s an obvious common ground that is centered in almost everything I do– fantasy, magic, spiritualism, other worldly, decadence –all of these exist in dual realities. Even physically speaking, I believe, or hope, that holding up both of one of my darker images and one of my lighter images, one would be able to tell they were both created by the same person. It’s just a slightly different subject matter and artistic voice that I use to convey an idea. Some ideas just work better with a certain color palette, or lack thereof. I’ve also been fascinated with work that is bright physically but has dark undertones.
I love your Wondering Soul series of small vignettes, depicting fleeting summer flowers, dim-lit woodland idylls, and even ships at sea. Can you tell us a little about this series?
Thank you for your compliments on that! I think you might be the first that has ever asked me about those images. It was something quite different for me, and something I never bothered to look into or give that much attention to until I kept coming back to one or two pictures and then started grouping them together.
Most of my focus has always been on people, it’s always what has interested me when looking at art. But as a photographer, I would always take photos wherever I go… even if the subject matter was never too personally interesting, it’s hard to pass up a moving landscape or the way the light hits a certain area in a room. A lot of these photos were just taken with my cell phone and never given really that much thought – just shot, and put away. But then I would notice things later and feel the presence of a story in some of them. Or if they had a semblance or quality of being from a different reality or time period or have a sense of travel or abandon….something that would speak to my escapist personality… And then that’s when my interest would peak. Maybe something was already there and it just needed some tweaking with color or exposure to put it in a dreamscape. Idyll is the perfect word, and I take it as huge compliment that you chose that as a description.
I understand that you derive a great deal of your inspiration from mediums outside of your chosen artistic vocation, such as literature, painting, film, and philosophy. I’m curious as to what’s inspiring you at this moment in time, and how these passions and enthusiasms may have evolved or changed over time.
Indeed, I have always, for the most part, paid more attention to other mediums. I have always been surrounded by photography and photographers since college, and of course spent a great deal of time studying the field, it’s history, and its artists, but I was always curious in a lot of other creative fields. I dabbled in a lot of things in high school and quickly knew my future was in the arts and when I got to college, I was very much interested in creative writing (I’ve always been an avid reader). I took some classes in that, as well as, a very exciting course in existentialism. I also took a painting class, but quickly realized it was not for me. Basically, the medium didn’t matter so much as how successful I could be in creating these visions and narratives that I felt the desire to express.
I can easily answer what’s inspiring me currently, but I struggled with trying to accurately describe my core influences and how everything is connected and interweaved. I feel like I need a big sheet of paper to write out all these circled words, items and ideas with a bunch of lines and arrows connecting everything and weaving back and forth over a timeline.
One of the major things at play, which I touched on briefly, is a sense of escapism. Not necessarily in the traditional sense of avoiding tasks, but more of a desire to live in a world of fantasy or leave behind the banal. I’m definitely a daydreamer at heart and attribute a lot of my ideas to that. It can obviously be problematic as well.
Absurdism and existentialism have also had a long standing fascination and influence for me in the way of inherently trying to find meaning in a world that offers none. And in quite the opposite spectrum, but I feel somewhat relatable in the whole scheme of things, religious and divine ideology are also present in my realm of influences. Magic and mysticism are also a major inspiration. I believe both are real and very powerful, but in a way that is not so straight-forward or obvious. Not necessarily in a way that is commonly thought of or portrayed, but something a bit more disguised, sort of how knowledge and creating/manifesting ideas are both forms of magic. Witchcraft and Shamanism are also interesting to me for these same sort of aspects. And for awhile I was very curious about insanity and madness with the idea that they are a passage to the truths of the world. Another sort of obvious offshoot of this, and what fits in with a few other interests of mine, would be Spiritualism.
In a somewhat buddhist point of view, it’s hard for me to talk about and organize these things, for once I try to they seem to lose some meaning and I can’t express them how I want – they are more of a nebulous feeling. And actually I think part of my work is trying to figure these things out.
All these aforementioned things somewhat, crossover, manifest and express themselves in a variety of ways and mediums. And when I find something that touches on any of these elements I am immediately drawn to it or want to know more and explore new ideas.
This is gonna seem messy, but here’s some major influences and inspirations in my past and what currently is stirring me…
In literature, Kafka was one of the first major ones. I was immediately enthralled in his shorter work – a sense of mystery and magic… and how just a few paragraphs contain multitudes and that you’re kinda exposed to just a small part of a much bigger story that exists between the lines, and possibly outside of this world–I strive for my images to have the same quality. Something that someone can view, and have their own take and complete the story in their head. Since then I’ve always been fan of some shorter works. In college I read some Marquez and the shorter work of Borges. I just recently, somewhat randomly, picked back up some South American literature. I’ve been slowly reading and savoring my time with The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis, which very quickly became one of my all time favorite novels and fulfills my urge for travel and adventure. Also, going back to shorter works, I’m also picking through a collection of somewhat surrealist works by Silvina Ocampo. And when I was younger I was a big fan of Paul Bowles collected short fiction, which also fits with the travel, but also has a sense of some dark, underlying motifs. During that time I was also very much into Carlos Castaneda too – a very different sense of travel, but also because of the search for knowledge and meaning. Another, much different influence at the time was Antonin Artaud which relates back to magic and madness. Michel Foucault wrote an amazing, massive tome, titled History of Madness that I, embarrassingly, have yet to finish. And another very current inspiration is a tiny collection of surrealist fiction called The Cathedral of Mist by Paul Willems .
As far as the visual arts go, Caravaggio was a major influence. His sense of light was outstanding. Rembrandt for the same aspect too. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time within the past few years in the Catskill Mountain range which has fostered an appreciation for Thomas Cole and the Hudson River artists – their use of light is also jaw dropping. Andrew Wyeth, whom I overlooked when I was much younger, now is also one of my favorite artists. He also fits in with the love for creating a strong narrative out of a somewhat simple portrait. His landscapes and stories also have a strong idyllic sense to them and have a close personal connection to me, as I grew up about a 10 minute drive from where he lived and have experienced his setting first hand in the Brandywine River Valley in Delaware and Pennsylvania. But what I would say that is really currently inspiring me is Pre- Raphaelite art. The dreamlike quality of the colors, settings and narrative make me wish I could live in that world and explore it. It also goes back to my fascination with the juxtaposition of a somewhat dark underlying theme, but with a use of bright colors. There is a sense of danger and foreboding, even in this enchanted setting.
And even though a lot of my influence comes from outside photography, there are definitely a few artists and experiences worth mentioning. The first real photographer whose work I saw that blew me away was when an old college professor exposed me to the work of Francesca Woodman. Up until that point I was interested in photography enough to go to school for it, but I never saw any work that truly piqued my interest one hundred percent. Most of what I was exposed to were the classical, more well known photographers that you would find in a text book. At that point I had no real shape or direction, and her work spoke to me in a way that was kinda like “hey, this is what is possible”. I still remember after first seeing her work of immediately going to the university library and finding a small European printed collection of hers. I remember exactly what it looked like and what shelf it was on in the library. This was before any of her current, easily available books were published. I think I kept checking it for almost a whole semester. Shortly after this time I found a wealth of photographers whose work greatly inspired me to keep going in the medium. While still in college I discovered the work of Robert and Shana Parke-Harrison as well as Louviere and Vanessa. I also spent a great deal of time and money going through fashion magazines looking for work that sparked my interest and gave me ideas. Also during college we all took a trip to New York to visit a bunch of different galleries and one of our last stops was at the MMA, and unknown to me, and I like to imagine by some sort of divine intervention, happened to be when they had their exhibition, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. Walking into those rooms and seeing those images was another eye-opening experience that I remember vividly. And currently speaking, I’ve just recently gone back and spent some time exploring Pictorialism. I just found a book by Lady Hawarden, which I recommend to people because her work is gorgeous and she happens to be one of the lesser known artists from that period. I’ve also very recently started looking a lot more at Autochromes, the first real color photography. They have a strong Pre- Raphaelite feel to them. And lastly some other past but still current inspirations are Eugenio Recueno, Ellen Rogers, Chris Anthony, Paolo Roversi, Tim Walker, Sarah Moon, and Neil Krug.
Another one-off huge influence throughout my life has been the music of John Zorn. His whole catalog and career are breathtaking that I could speak at length about, but the idea of music and song as spells or incantations is very appealing to me and I like to think that applies to all arts. There’s also a bunch of his work that has a very transportive effect that interests me in a different manner.
I feel as though I’ve blathered on too much, but there are a few close people in my life who are huge inspirations to me. Firstly, my now fiance, Melissa has been a huge inspiration for me over the years. There’s the obvious plethora of inspirations any two people in love have over each other, but she’s also played a special role in the work we create together. Just even spending so much time with another person, you begin to feed off each other and have a silent connection when it comes to ideas. I’m a quite, anxious and most times socially awkward person, so it can be hard and take a lot out of me working with people I don’t know – a lot of my personal favorite images have been taken with Melissa, and most were shot so easily that its taken only moments to get something we are both pleased with. But she also challenges me to try to things and think of different approaches. She can also talk me down or relieve me when things don’t work how I think they are or don’t come out to my desire. She also comes up with so many wonderful ideas. I also have her sense of styling and design to thank for helping set up our home to be a perfect little escapist hideaway.
Jess Schnabel and Bloodmilk have been another wonderful inspiration and influence. I’ve been aware of her work, writing, blog, and over all presence within the community for a long time now and am thrilled things aligned how they did that I can work so closely for her. I’m very fortunate to have gotten to work on some amazing projects with both her and Jenny. Not only are the images some more of my personal favorites, but it does not go without saying that they have also opened other doors for me creatively and I am endlessly thankful. I’ve also met and photographed some of their amazing clients whom I can now call friends. I’ve enjoyed seeing how ideas and projects that we started some 2 or 3 years ago have grown and elaborated.
Most importantly my father, who recently passed, has been a major unspoken influence over me who has shaped and carried me throughout my life. His importance of kindness and and to be a good soul, I hope, reflects in myself. He was an international salesman and his strong work ethic and client relationships are something I aspire to and hope played a role as to where I am today.
Your celebrity collaborations are so cool! Patrick Stewart! And the International Associate of Culinary Professionals, of all things! How do opportunities such a these come about? Any favorites thus far?
Thank you! These images are a great personal accomplishment. Sort of like a confirmation that all the years I put into the field, career, and passion were not in vain. Or rather, that I do have it in me to be able to do some of the jobs that a younger, hopeful photographer dreams of. There’s a plethora of personal work that I am wildly proud of and find as major accomplishments, but this sort of fulfilled a personal goal in a different realm of the field for me.
It also sort of reaffirms the notion that I heard wherein a lot of overall success and jobs in this field can be a result of who you know and your connections (which, this one can be good and bad). However, I’ve always been a huge proponent that work begets more work, and that it’s good to try to say yes to as many situations and opportunities as one can handle –so I hope that some of those jobs can be accredited towards that.
The celebrity work came through Emily Assiran. Emily was first recommended to me through an old college classmate who was completing his master’s. Emily was an undergrad who just graduated and was looking for assisting work and reached out to me. I, myself was still working part-time as an assistant and working on my own stuff on the side. I told her I wasn’t getting to many of my own paid gigs yet, but could use some help promoting my work, finding prospective clients, and creating promo materials to help get more jobs and clients. She came and helped when she could and we both learned and helped each other out for some time. She eventually found some good consistent jobs but within a year or two she landed a new job as the photo editor for the New York Observer, which she ended up hiring me for these celebrity jobs. We still talk and help each out with questions in the field.
The jobs were intense, in many ways, but I learned a lot and found them very much personally rewarding. Most, if not all, were shot with very little crew. They were the first really big jobs that I did on my own. I commuted by myself to NYC, so the car ride was just me panicking and nervous for 2 hours. You also really only get a very, very small window of time with a lot of them (with Richard Gere I only had 5 minutes) so you need to be on top of your game to make them feel comfortable and relaxed. Luckily, for someone such as myself who can often be an introvert or have social anxiety, these celebrities have more than plenty experience of walking onto a set and delivering what needs to be done to make a great image. I’ve often told people that I had no idea what was coming out of my mouth when shooting them. I’ve also thankfully had a lot of experience on set working as an assistant with some celebrities years ago.
Are you working on anything right now that you’d like to share? Any exhibitions or galleries where one might be able to view your work currently?
I don’t currently have any shows or exhibitions, or any slated for the future. I had a big solo show two years ago at a local photo gallery. It was a wonderful experience, but the prep for that was extremely intensive and I don’t think I have it in me to do another for a bit– or at least a show on that scale. I’ve been included in a few group shows, and would gladly take part in another, but I just need to be invited first, haha.
I’ve got a couple personal projects in the pipeline, some fresh ideas, and some that I’ve had for awhile but just struggled with having the time to start production or organizing. What I’m most excited about is hopefully being able to get back into a darkroom after more than a decade. Luckily, Philadelphia has a great photo scene and there are a couple organizations that foster analogue classes and studio/equipment rentals as well as space for alternative processes.
It’s been a crazy year, and I’m just looking forward to having some time and headspace to be more creative, wherever that takes me, after being in a sort of lull and swamped with day to day work.