Interviews

Alice Shaw

Alice Shaw, Pair, 2018, glass slide carbon print, 120 x 140".

With wry wit and deceptive literalness, Alice Shaw has been making work for over twenty-five years that cleverly focuses on a few core issues: doubles, photography, and the hegemonic history of landscape photography in her native Golden State. Her current exhibition at Gallery 16 in San Francisco, “Cloned,” is on view through May 26, 2018. Here, among other things, she reveals some reasons for her current focus on sheep.

IMAGERY OF FARM ANIMALS seems somewhat unpopular these days. I was watching some Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films a while back and noticed how much animals used to play a part in our lives. Now it’s pretty much cats and dogs, and that’s about it—the super-domesticated. It seems that we might be more disconnected from nature and the land than ever. Hell, people don’t even cook food anymore. My friend eats all her meals at Google!

I was thinking of how we tend to conceive of animals as a group, in that we get specific things from them, like milk or meat. But we look at each other as individuals. We don’t really look at a flock as made up of individuals; it’s a single unit. A flock, by the way, is made up of twenty-three animals or more. So, I chose to work with sheep and linguistics: sheep, as a word, is singular and plural. I photographed one sheep for a while—Caspar is his name. In the show, he appears as many sheep. The image of the sheep, though, is somewhat secondary to me. The show is more about photography and how it works. A single negative, for example, can produce many prints that look the same. In current discourse, people call photographs objects. We didn’t consider photographs that way before, but now images float around on the screen. The objectness of a photograph seems very topical.

I bought a glass plate negative from eBay, made by Newton & Co. in 1894, that shows pairs of sheep on a farm for a piece. The pairs within the image intrigued me. Something about them reminded me of the creepy Diane Arbus photograph of twins that so inspired me to become a photographer. When I was seventeen and a half, my twin sisters were born, and twins became my subject matter. I decided to print the vintage negative really big to show the dust and scratches and to present what it really looks like. We don’t see those imperfections in digital contexts, as we can make pictures look shiny and new.

The show is called “Cloned,” and of course it evokes Dolly, who was the first cloned sheep back in 1996. But cloning is also something one does often as a process of altering or touching up digital photo files. I looked at both analog and digital photography and their ability to reproduce images more than once. And I was interested in the tricks that you can deploy with both media. For one work, I just flipped a negative and made another print. If you know about photography, you know how simple that is. I use a lot of simple photographic tricks. No Photoshop. It’s fun to play. I like working my brain that way. Hopefully what I’ve done is not too much of a photographer’s inside joke.

No Other Lands Their Glory Know, a gold-leafed photo of the redwoods that is in the show, is an image I used in my recent commission for the San Francisco International Airport. I seem to be revisiting my roots: California. I photographed Caspar on a farm outside of Petaluma, for instance. It might have something to do with my age. I grew up on a ranch in Stinson Beach, at the base of Mount Tamalpais. Our place was on the edge of the forest. It was the last house before you went over the mountain, and it overlooked the Pacific Ocean. It is a unique landscape that I took for granted as a kid. Maybe I’m wanting to get back to the land.

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