Interview by Harry Flook –
Adrien Blondel is becoming known for coupling photography with unfamiliar uses of technology. We featured the filmmaker-come-photographer in issue 8, with an image from 21st Century Landscapes as our Centrefold. In this interview we discuss the complexities behind that wider body of work, and then touch upon Blondel’s most recent project, The object and the subject.
Harry Flook: Your formal education is in cinematography, but you’ve since developed a contemporary photographic practice. What prompted this move?
Adrien Blondel: It was a practical switch. I’ve always had an interest in image, be it moving or still, but as I started developing my personal film projects I grew frustrated with the necessity of working with a team. Film making is a medium that requires collaboration. At the time I’d just moved to California, where I knew very few people and didn’t understand the mechanism of the film industry in the US. Photography allowed me to work individually, and finish projects by my own means. I also like to separate my art practice from the commercial work I do to pay the rent.
HF: An image from 21st Century Landscapes was featured as our Centrefold in issue 8. Give us a brief introduction to that wider body of work.
AB: It observes the ongoing urbanisation in the eastern San Francisco bay area. Demand for housing on the outskirts of the area has dramatically increased; driven up by high demand for tech workers in Silicon Valley and San Francisco City, who can’t afford the areas real estate prices. Massive new neighbourhoods are fast-emerging, responding to the influx of wealthy workers. Due to the time sensitive aspect of this demand, the response has been to build standardised type housing. The new neighbourhoods consist of the same house model repeated, a model which from its size and level of comfort, appears designed for a very wealthy population.
HF: I’d like to know more about your novel use of google maps. Did the idea precede your interest in the housing developments, or did it come about while shooting the project?
AB: My interest in the numerous new neighbourhoods came first. I frequently passed them driving around the bay, and their combination of standardisation and luxury intrigued me. I used to live in the city, and would occasionally stumble upon the housing developments, but I only had a vague idea of their locations and layouts. To remedy to this poor knowledge, I started using Google maps to find areas I would like to photograph. I was astonished by the precision of the 3D modelling of the area, my virtual scouting was not only allowing me to find places of interest, but also plan exact frames to photograph. I started picturing the software as a bank of every possible photograph, every angle and location. I also discovered that the software allows you to access the images collected at any given time. These new housing developments originated at the same time as the first developments of the software, making them a witness to the evolution of 3D mapping of the world. Accessing the new neighbourhoods via google maps images from around twenty years ago, yields low-quality black and white renders of construction sites, while recent images include a 3D model of every single building. Advancing through time on the software correlates with the improvement of the technology and the advancement of the construction of these neighbourhoods.
HF: That element of the work is fascinating. Through the subtle commentary upon improving imaging technology, the work becomes more than a simple documentation of housing developments. To me the series feels uncanny, surreal even, reminiscent of a virtual world such as The Sims or Second Life. Did you intend to provoke this feeling with the images?
AB: There is an unreal feeling and a sense of virtuality coming from standardisation, from the repetition of a pattern. This feeling is reinforced by the progress made in our digitisation of the world, which adds to the mythology of the American suburb. The distance between the physical and the virtual world is becoming blurry, with the 3D mapping of the world becoming more and more identical to the physical world, and the technologies of virtual reality are blurring the lines even more. I can imagine a near future in which the 3D images taken from Google maps and my photography become identical. Each house in these developments is a replica, and they each now have their own digital replica, closing the circle, as if the developments of the physical world became inspired by the virtual world.
HF: Your ongoing project The object and the subject, again creatively re-purposes technology. The work seems an extension of the themes in 21st Century Landscapes, going a step further to consider how technology can create a hazy boundary between our online and felt sense of self. Can you talk about how the project has developed in relation to these ideas?
AB: With our increasing presence online came a new version of ourselves, an image created in the eyes of strangers through the different clues we leave online. This version of the self is highly fictionalised, born only from indirect experience.
My desire to work with eye-tracking technologies in The object and the subject is a reaction to its use in marketing. I wanted to explore the poetic potential of the technology, an opposition to the attempts made at creating images optimized for profit. The theme of standardisation is present here again, this time through the reflection on how economic motives format the images we are exposed to everyday.