Cynthia Talmadge and Matthew Leifheit: Mirroring Energies

The outstanding work of Matthew Leifheit and Cynthia Talmadge was part of Foam’s exhibition ‘Under Construction – New Positions in American Photography’ (2014) and was also featured in Foam Talent 2015. Curator Zippora Elders asked them some questions about where they are now, and how their collaboration came about.

Zippora Elders: You have been working together for almost 5 years now. How and where did this collaboration start?

Cynthia Talmadge: Matt and I went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) together, he was in the photography department and I was in painting. I had an idea for a perishable still life sculpture that, in and of itself, would have been pretty boring, but when I started to think about how I was going to document this piece Matt immediately came to mind. As soon as we started talking the project got much more interesting. By the end of the conversation it had become a completely different piece, fortunately, and we both agreed the photograph should be the end product– everything else had to go. I still remember the first conversation because it was so exciting realizing to what extent we spoke the same language! We kept recommending movies and artists to one another but as it turned out we had already seen and loved a lot of the same things.

Matthew Leifheit: I agree with all of that, and I’d add that our collaboration has become a really central part of both of our art practices, but at the same time it’s become important to figure out where our interests overlap, where we’re stronger together, and when we’re better on our own.

ZE: That sounds amazing, must be great to have this mirroring energy. I’m quite intrigued by long-time artist collaborations. How do you do this practically? Do you start with an idea or an image, or a composition? Is there coffee involved, sketch paper, screens, food? Long hours together behind computers and in studios?

CT: We keep a conversation going all the time over texts, emails, and phone calls. There’s a lot of talking and writing that happens first and then at some point we might find a few reference photos. We like to have meetings at a very uncool restaurant in Brooklyn Heights where the waiters think we are siblings and we haven’t bothered to correct them. We both have a high tolerance for chaos and neither of us is terribly organized, so things take longer than they should. Many major decisions, particularly when it comes to actual composition, are improvised when we shoot. I like to think that it adds to the “painterly” quality of the work. Also, we both have dogs– they often hang out with us while we work so now we are running a kennel and a studio, it's a very exciting new direction.

ZE: You fill in your still lifes with inverted colors; recognizable, banal objects are somehow revisited in an unknown, disorienting environment. This cleverly refers to the materiality and the history of the medium too. How was this idea conceived?

CT: At first I think the interest was in finding a technique that would lend a grotesque, otherworldly quality to the images. We thought a lot about Douglas Sirk’s use of “lurid” Technicolor in combination with his use of cinematic tropes.

ML: Yeah, we were looking for a way to amplify the transformation that photography performs. It was a way to leverage photography’s materials and history to remove our subject matter from its natural state, to make it otherworldly while retaining the ties to reality photography can’t help but preserve. We also thought about Paul Outerbridge, and early methods of color photography like color carbon, where hues were almost decided upon by the photographer, rather than produced automatically by film or digital censors. It’s an area between photography and painting and printmaking that interests us both because of our independent practices, but also allows us subvert the clinical eye of the camera to some extent, calling into question the documentary voracity of our pictures, showing the construction of photographs generally.

"We had to develop
our own algorithm."

CT: Matt’s knowledge of analogue photography and all the years he spent sloshing around chemicals at RISD helped because he knew how, technically, we could achieve this. He bought some slide film and we began experimenting, repainting still life objects in their complimentary colors.

ML: It’s actually different than finding the complimentary color, which would be easy to do with a color wheel. Because we use slide and negative film interchangeably to produce this effect, and because slide film has a clear base while negative film is brown, we had to develop our own algorithm over time after those first attempts. The system has become more complicated since, and now takes into account the fact that shadows become highlights in a negative.

ZE: Your approach to material and process is very conscious. But you also use found images, from the web, social media, magazines – do you search for specific things, or do you just endlessly roam the web? What catches your attention?

ML: Lately we have been into stories about women at the intersection of money and fame and power. In general, we are obsessed by the great tragedies and melodramas of the daily news, the violent, hissing feedback of the last century of horrors reported on television before dinner and now online, on our phones, in our beds. Our pictures have no people in them. They imply atrocity only through objects, through the piecing together of dead stuff into a storyline.

ZE: By fabricating pictures and using found images you also invent your own narratives. There is a cinematographic feel to your work too, with a hint of suspense, like in a crime scene. What are your ideas about the tension around the meaning and purpose of photography, as a documentation of “truth”?

ML: That’s a big part of what we’re trying to say. In my work as a photo editor for different magazines I’ve experienced the way news is reported by photojournalists, and I can tell you it’s all just somebody’s opinion. Photographs are not the truth, but they can say things about the way we live, and they can reflect our times. There can also be incredible beauty in images of the most horrible things imagination can conjure. Robert Adams wrote in Beauty in Photography, “Why is Form beautiful? Because, I think, it helps us confront our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”

ZE: How do you integrate this in your own work?

ML: I’m often trying to use photography as a way to redirect the spotlight to what goes on in the background, and I guess that’s similar to being an editor for a publication in some ways. In both cases, I want to look at the people and things and photographs that are worthy and beautiful but might go unnoticed. I have recently been photographing background actors from American movies and TV, and I’m also a reporter for my school paper, the Yale Daily News.


ZE: Cynthia, in painting you employ a diverse range of materials too. Your work often somehow refers to the history of art, popular culture and commercial imagery. How would you describe your practice?

CT: In all of my work I’m borrowing processes, histories, and aesthetics from a variety of different mediums, including commercial photography, traditional still life painting, and mainstream cinema. The subject matter I’m invested in lives at the intersection of public façade and private experience: the emotional realities, foibles, and horrors that our social niceties– the thank you note, the contract, the obligatory bouquet– have evolved to help us cope with and conceal.

"We have lots
of big ideas."

To get at the intimate moments where this public / private distinction collapses– the breakdown in the waiting room or the epiphany in the drugstore– I make use of the viewer’s expectations of particular mediums or pictorial traditions. Having these conventions to set up and then undermined is central in being able to create an experience that is truly unsettling and strange. That’s really how I think about the variety of mediums I work in– they’re different vocabularies with different histories and different points of reference, but they’re all available to be used as means to the same end.

ZE: Where do you find your inspiration and knowledge about these mediums and histories?

CT: We recently went to Paris for the Foam Talent exhibition and it was really nice to go to museums and to the Opera together. We should do more of it. It’s easy to see the connection to vanitas painting in our work but more often I think about Manet or Fairfield Porter. Both painters commented on their time, place, and emotional state through the coded use of seemingly banal contemporary objects.

ZE: And back to the future, what are your plans?

ML & CT: We are currently working to recreate scenes from melodramatic news stories we find in small-time local neighborhood papers around Los Angeles. We’re buying ad space in the papers where the stories that interest us originally appeared and using the space to distribute our visualizations of them there.

We both see the collaboration as a really important part of our own practices and plan to keep doing it all. We have lots of “big” ideas– probably too many. We’re working towards a “solo” gallery show, but we also would love to do a book jacket for a writer we admire. We want to make sets for movies and ballets. We’re aiming to have a sandwich named after us at Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills. We want to direct. The list goes on…

All Images © courtesy Matthew Leifheit and Cynthia Talmadge

About Matthew Leifheit & Cynthia Talmadge

Matthew Leifheit (b. 1988, United States) attended the Rhode Island School of Design and is currently pursuing a masters degree in photography at Yale University. He is a publisher, writer and curator of photography in addition to making photographs himself. He has published 40 issues to date of MATTE magazine, an independent journal of emerging photography, and written for TIME Lightbox, Art F City and VICE, where he is Photo Editor-at-Large. His work has been collected by various public institutions.

Cynthia Talmadge (b. 1989, United States) attended The Rhode Island School of Design. She has been featured in recent group exhibitions in NY, LA, and Paris, including shows at Monya Rowe Gallery, JOAN Los Angeles Petrella's Imports, and Pioneer Works. Her work has featured in Art Forum, Contemporary Art LA, HyperAllergic, the Opening Ceremony blog, and VICE.

Matthew and Cynthia were selected through the Foam Talent Call 2015 to have their portfolio published in Foam Magazine #42: Talent (2015) and they are currently part of the Foam Talent exhibition now traveling from Paris to Brussels (De Markten, 19 March -15 April 2016) and London (Beaconsfield Gallery, 22 April - 22 May).


Other interviews

Wang Nan: Radiant in Darkness

Wang Nan: Radiant in Darkness

Interviews, posted on 8 November 2017
Justyna Wierzchowiecka: Taking back the museum

Justyna Wierzchowiecka: Taking back the museum

Interviews, posted on 23 February 2017
Harley Weir: Integral beauty

Harley Weir: Integral beauty

Interviews, posted on 16 February 2017
Tom Callemin: It's all theatre

Tom Callemin: It's all theatre

Interviews, posted on 9 December 2016