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Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Best Interview of 2013: Stacy Kranitz

The very best thing about writing for the British Journal of Photography is that I get to interview (skype, email, phone and in person) a whole bunch of photographers from around the world. It's a real joy to get to talk to people who are so coherent and passionate about their work.

I don't know if it's my imagination, but it seems that the intelligence, insight and humour that people exhibit when communicating about their work is increasing. There is more engagement both with the history of different photographic media, with the broader world and with different areas of discourse.

I read a lot of doom and gloom  about photography and hear the limiting voices that says one should only photograph with film/instagram/large-format, the voices that cripple you by telling you what you can't photography, what you shouldn't photograph, what you mustn't photograph (and there are voices on the flip side of this that neuter photography and try to denude it of all its political and psychological power - thanks fashion).

Or there are voices that place photography into a little ghetto that isolates image-making from the broader world, that wants to keep it in the cosy pond where the big fish continues to eat the little fish and the little fish eats the prawn - and as long as you are the big fish then everyone (as long as that everyone is the big fish) is happy.

But the world view of photography is getting more open and with that openness comes more engagement. It's engagement that does not sit still or focus on just one area. It goes beyond journalistic, academic and aesthetic. It can be personal or political or aesthetic. When it matters, it's a combination of many things. It's eclectic which means the engagement is not unified or coherent, but why should it be. As Dr Frankenstein said when the monster walked, It's Alive! That's what matters. When it's something you care about, being Alive is better than being dead.

So next up in my Best of 2013, is Stacy Kranitz for the Best Interview for a story on youth cultures in October's BJP - though really I could have chosen so many here. Best as in most interesting, original, though-provoking and engaging. And done with a hangover from a bed in Appalachia (that's her, not me). Combining skateboarding, Leni Riefenstahl and anthropology, all wrapped up in wit and intelligence and self-depreciation, focussing on some of my favourite projects on the last few years - what more could a writer ask for.

So thank you Stacy and thank you to everyone who so graciously agreed to be interviewed by me over the last year.

Here's what I wrote for the BJP.

Sex and Drugs and the Frankfurt School

Stacy Kranitz has been photographing at Skatopia, an anarchist skate farm run by former professional skateboarder, Brewce Martin,  for over 5 years now. Skatopia is. The people who visit the Ohio farm go for the skating, the music and the drug-fuelled fun. Kranitz goes for the violence and the chaos, her pictures filled with sweat, blood and the bug-eyes of teenagers coming down off a night of tripping on whatever drugs they can get their hands on.  

Kranitz’s work on Skatopia, From the Study of Post-Pubescent Manhood, is more than your usual chaos-filled photo-essay though. It is tied down by solid photographic and anthropological theories and also has its roots in Kranitz’s difficult childhood in a Jewish Kentucky home.

The contradictions in Kranitz’s life were evident in her early inspirations in photography. “I had always wanted to be a documentary photographer or film maker since I heard about Leni Riefenstahl when I was 15 or 16,” says Kranitz (who is now 37). “She was incredible. She used her sexuality to make this incredible work but she was also a liar and used gypsy slaves as extras in her films then put them back in the concentration camp when she was done. I like my heroes flawed and she was flawed.”

Having Riefenstahl as a hero led Kranitz directly to the project that preceded and led to Skatopia, a project where she joined a group of 500 Second World War re-enactors dressed in Nazi uniform as they played out a Battle of the Bulge re-enactment. It’s a project where she confronted the darker parts of history and made it real by becoming part of it.

“I was feeling frustrated with the ethical constructs of the documentary tradition, a frustration that is related to how I navigate the situation. It’s really easy to make images that make fun of people. I wanted to come up with something gives some dignity,” says Kranitz.

“Leni Riefenstahl so that was my character when I was with the re-enactors. I am Jewish so it was very interesting to see how people related to me when they found out who I was.  Some were very protective of anything that was being said. For example, once we were in a French Resistance cafĂ© and the Gestapo came and took people out for different reasons and shot them. I think I was in the role of a whore and they took me out to shoot me. But somebody complained and said “you can’t do that, she’s Jewish”. Which doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The project mixed elegant black and white portraits of men in Nazi uniform with pictures of Kranitz fully in role. The star picture is of Kranitz in the arms of a man wearing a Wehrmacht waffenrock, her head tilted as she leans in to kiss him. The desire is looks cinematically real as, in the foreground, two other men in Wehrmacht uniform look in and out of the frame, adding a further layer of conviction to the historically fabricated scene.

These layers of confusion between the real and the fantasy, between the genuine anti-semite and the imaginary anti-semite, became more convoluted as Kranitz immersed herself in the Riefenstahl role and a sexual element came to the fore. “I’d get hit on a lot and people would ask me what is your heritage and then I’d say I’m Jewish, then they’d look at me and have a drink then have a think and conclude that “you’re still a woman” even if you are Jewish and still hit on me. Hatred fluctuates, it ebbs and flows and sometimes one thing will outweigh another. I was pushed up against walls and yelled at and called an Israeli spy, but I liked the fact that it was difficult and I had to gain people’s trust.”

“By becoming Leni Riefenstahl I put myself into the project and it gave me the idea of fantasy and that representing reality is a fantasy,” says Kranitz. “So I’m being more performative in the work. I’m an experimental, performative photographer!”

Kranitz laughs when she says this but the self-deprecation doesn’t conceal her belief in this performative methodology, something she put into action when she first went to Skatopia 5 years ago. “There’s usually about 10-20 people living at Skatopia full time and when there are parties you get 100-500 people there.  The owner of the land, Brewce, has a house and people have built shacks. People live in a shack, stay a while, then abandon it and new people come and take it over. It’s open all year round. Some people don’t skateboard, they come because they’re down on their luck or on the run from the law. It’s anarchist but not in an organised way.”

“I had heard about Skatopia and how kids ritualised violence for catharsis; a lot go to party, they hold their hands out to do whatever drugs people put into them (there are lots of new synthetic drugs there) and of course skateboarding is very violent. It’s repeated falling off. People are throwing fireworks at each other, they burn cars up, there’s a mosh pit and people fight for pleasure, anger and catharsis.”

“It’s sort of tolerated and expected and that is really beautiful,” says Kranitz. “I grew up in a really violent house. There was a lot domestic violence from my father and later on my brother too because it’s all very much a learned behaviour.”

“I loved my father because he was trying to be a good father but he couldn’t control his anger. I grew up in an upper middle class house in an upper-middle class neighbourhood  so you wouldn’t expect it. The cops would come to our house every week, and it was very confusing and very insular. It became this dark thing we couldn’t get out of.”

“So I’m looking for these different levels of families where people create their own value system and sense of right and wrong and Skatopia is such a wonderful place for that. It is a very open place which is very accepting of people with cameras. I first went with a friend but later I had a boyfriend there for 3 years (every project I do I get a new boyfriend. I have a lot of projects on the go at the moment so I have a lot of boyfriends) and it infiltrated my life to the point where the personal and professional merged.”

 “But Skatopia has been well documented. It’s been on MTV and there was a film made about it called Skatopia: 88 Acres of Anarchy. It’s been featured in magazines like Rolling Stone but very much as a lifestyle thing. So I was trying to do something different with the place. For the first two years that didn’t happen. It took me a long time to develop my own visions. I’ve been working there for five years now and I’m still developing it.”

To help this development, Kranitz is bringing in new streams of thought into her photographic practice, especially from anthropology. “People dismiss anthropology for its dark history but I think they are doing the best job examining their own past to forge new ways of engaging with how to represent culture. Photojournalism is shamefully behind, there is so little self-reflexivity.”
Kranitz references Katherine Stewart as an influence on her work (which is also part of an MFA she is studying for). Stewart believes that over-intellectualising things gets in the way of understanding the incoherent and inexplicable elements in a society. “I see myself, like Stewart, making work that I hope destabilizes the very claim of knowing the meaning of things at all because culture isn’t something that can be gotten right,’ says Kranitz.

Another influence apparent in Kranitz’s approach is Michael Taussig, an anthropologist who said that that western anthropologists shouldn’t examine other cultures but should  examine and critique their own defective culture by going to the fringes of that culture, to the places where the joins show, something Kranitz is doing by joining the Skatopian community.  

“What’s new in my vision is this collection of violence being portrayed as a catharsis. It’s stylised and fetishized and I have an abnormal love of young guys with their shirts off but I wanted to show evidence that violence can be cathartic.”

So we see pictures of bloodied noses and bloodied knees, shins scraped raw by repeated skating falls, dirt filling in the places where the flesh used to be. People smoke and snort and go bug-eyed when the drugs go bad. One boy tries to pee into his mouth, a man stands in the midst of exploding fireworks, while other pictures show people crashed out the morning after the night before.
There is an adrenalin-edge to the pictures but also a sense of dysfunction and anxiety that is part of what attracted Kranitz to the place in the first place.

“I felt connected to this violence. It connected to my childhood and it’s part of my history so I can connect to that personally. I also shot all of this when drunk and high. My favourite time to photograph is at dawn when people are coming down and at that edge; either they stop partying and go to sleep or they take some more and carry on. But they always take more but so do I because I’m at that edge too.”

“A lot of this is trying to get to this lost youth I didn’t have. I was a very sad adolescent. I was depressed and didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t party like this, so Skatopia is a place I can do that. It’s a fantasy land.”

At the same time, Kranitz says, “I struggle to know what the fuck I’m doing”. There is a lack of control in her work, a de-intellectualisation that runs counter to the deep thought she invests in her working practice. In that sense, the instinctual, full-frontal photography that Kranitz is making is her own catharsis or healing, changing her way of thinking and her life through the way she photographs and communicates.

Kranitz continues to photograph at Skatopia but is also visiting the people that she meets to broaden the scope of the project. “The Skatopia pictures are very specific and hyper-focussed so I started to build relationships and visit these kids. I’m making films and thinking about intimacy because as I got to know these people I realised a lot were reconciling themselves to coming of age and how they want to exist in society; what job they want to do, what kind of women they want to date; that’s where the post-pubescent title comes from.”

To a large degree, Skatopia is a male-centred society where those ‘post-pubescent’ choices are actively sidelined in favour of an adrenalin-centred libertarianism; in which case, Kranitz’s work is a lot more nuanced than might appear to be the case on the surface. This is backed up by her studies and her linking of her practice to photographic (James Agee and Walter Benjamin are two major influences) and anthropological theory and the way in which she uses this to rationalise the way in which she works and lives; the two becoming inseparable so that she is all the better to immerse herself into whatever environment she finds herself in.

“I’m doing an MFA and I work with the anthropological department because I’m interested in the problematic nature of documentary.” From the Study of Post-Pubescent Youth is one side of this study into how documentary can work, but Kranitz is in the early stages of developing a more comprehensive showing of her work, one where she incorporates journals, sketches and other sources to enrich the visual narrative.

“I’m interested in creating a new methodology. That’s what keeps me going. That and challenging the boundaries of the history of documentary photography. But at the same time, by doing that I celebrate the history in every way I can.”

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