In Focus

A Short History of Evidence: An Interview with Mike Mandel

Andrew Witt and Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled 1977, printed 2001, from Evidence 1977

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Untitled 1977, printed 2001, from Evidence 1977
Tate P14508

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

In the following conversation, Mike Mandel and Andrew Witt reflect on Mandel and Larry Sultan’s early career, their influences and the works they made in the early to mid-1970s prior to their 1977 photobook Evidence (Tate P14478P14510 and P20292P20294; fig.1). The artist discusses the creation of Evidence and what the project reveals about technological promise and failure, the photograph as document and artefact, and how, in the absence of captions, meaning can be constructed and dissolved through visual sequencing and poetic suggestion. This interview took place on 25 March 2016.

Andrew Witt: I came across an interesting statement you made in 1977 in an introduction to your Baseball Photographer Trading Cards piece.1 You stated how the Vietnam War (1955–75) galvanised your peer group: you didn’t want to join the military and get killed in Southeast Asia or get jobs in corporate management, so instead you took up photography. Why turn to photography at this particular moment?

Mike Mandel: That was the period of time when you might have graduated from high school and you think you might have a career in some kind of traditional sphere – I think I wanted to be a lawyer when I left high school – but I think the ethos of the subculture enabled me to recalibrate what it meant to function in society. Of course, the war was a pretty significant event, people my age were getting drafted, and if we weren’t being drafted we were seeing all the imagery of people coming back in coffins – people our age. There were friends of mine that had died. We also came to learn what right reason there was to fight in Vietnam, that didn’t seem to be a war that was worth fighting for.

All of that really informed my peer group and that galvanised people to stop moving forward in their careers and take a more active role in participating in society. I guess the issues within society just needed to be addressed. I think photography was being embraced by a lot of people my age. I think I gravitated to it primarily because I recognised that it was something people were doing, I don’t think I had a moment of clarity about why I wanted to do it, but I noticed that lots of people were making photographs – making photographs of demonstrations on campus. It just seemed that it was a new, exciting way to enter into a personal dialogue with what was going on in society. I had no experience with art or photography at all and I think there was also probably a connection to the idea that it was fashionable. You looked at what was going on and there was all of these kids with cameras and it seemed as though you wanted to identify with it. Almost without understanding why. It seemed like it was part of the pieces of what it meant to be at that age and at that particular time.

Andrew Witt: Initially, you weren’t drawn to photography, were you? What was your undergraduate like? If I am not mistaken, you attended Cal State Northridge, along with the artist John Divola, and studied philosophy?

Mike Mandel: Initially it was political science and then I started to take photography classes and then I moved into a philosophy major. This is what was indicative of the time. Instead of doing something that was applicable to getting a job as a lawyer I started making meditations on what it meant to be alive in terms of my interest in philosophy, and that connected well with discovering a part of my brain that wasn’t being accessed much creatively with the idea of making photographs in society. I started making pictures of people in cars.

John [Divola] and I were undergrads together. We both took classes with Ed Sievers, who was one of the students of Harry Callahan at Providence. Sievers was a pretty interesting character. He had a speech impediment. He had a hard time speaking and he was very much a street photographer. He lived out on the Venice Boardwalk out in Venice, California, and he lived in a little one-bedroom, no, a no-bedroom studio apartment where his kitchen was his darkroom. It was really a spare kind of existence. He lived to be a photographer. He didn’t have a well-rounded experience. He didn’t cook. He was really just devoted to street photography and he made some really amazing pictures of that culture, an interesting blend of Jewish culture in Venice when it was still vibrant, the young hippies moving in. I remember a period when the beach declared that the beach was going to become a nude beach, so he was taking pictures of that and was really a part of that community. People see him as an outsider but we saw him more as a friend. I guess his bohemian way of living. He smoked a lot of marijuana and lived outside of typical society. He became a model for me and I became a good friend of his. Actually, John was living in Santa Monica at the time and I would go and visit John and go visit Ed. In those days because photography wasn’t such a huge phenomenon in academia, I think we were able to get closer to people who were teachers or people who were extremely connected in making art.

Andrew Witt: Robert Heinecken was a major figure?

Mike Mandel: Yes, so Robert Heinecken was never a teacher of mine, he was a teacher of John’s, he was interesting enough, and he was very much available. Whenever there was an opening of Ed Ruscha’s, or another opening for a group show he was in, he would always be there. Somehow everyone who was making art photography, whether you were a student or not, we kind of knew each other. We became relatively friendly. I was much younger and he was not my teacher. I think about that today, about how people connect with each other and how much more difficult it would be for someone to connect to an artist you had an affinity toward because there is a lot more structure.

Andrew Witt: Or like today, hindered by the professional demands from the art world or academia.

Robert Heinecken, TV/Time Environment 1970

Robert Heinecken
TV/Time Environment 1970
Installation view from the exhibition Robert Heinecken: Object Matter, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014
© Robert Heinecken
Photo: Tiernan Morgan

Mike Mandel: I’m not exactly sure how it works but it certainly was a community where everybody seemed able to connect with everyone else. Heinecken actually became a friend of mine throughout my life. Later on I stayed in Santa Cruz for a good part of my life. I was hoping some academic job would open up for me but that never occurred. When I left there and was looking for a way to get a job, Heinecken helped me get a temporary position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a couple of years while a professor was on leave. I stayed friends with him and got to know him. His work was also extremely important to me when I was really young, I remember seeing the TV/Time Environment 1970 (fig.2) which is a very simple gesture of putting a photographic transparency over a TV monitor and then allowing everything on commercial TV to juxtapose itself with the nude image that he placed above it. I thought that was a very strong turning point for me about understanding what you can do very simply … how really little you had to do to make something that was very significant as an artistic statement. I think that was really informative of how we got to Evidence in that when Larry and I were thinking about all of the artists that came before us that had found photographs, like [Andy] Warhol or [Robert] Rauschenberg or Gerhard Richter, there was an interest in transforming the photograph into another medium, and there was a requirement that the photograph couldn’t be seen on its own unless it was played around with in some way. I think the gesture that Heinecken made in that piece, and appreciating the Duchampian idea – the change in context makes a significant difference in the way you see something.

Andrew Witt: Did you see the Duchamp show at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1963?

Mike Mandel: I really can’t remember whether I saw the show or whether a lot of people were talking about it. There was a lot of reissue of books about Duchamp at that period of time, and I think it was recognised as an idea. You really don’t have to see the work.

Andrew Witt: Did Heinecken ever give you any advice or impart any wisdom to you?

Mike Mandel: He wasn’t really a teacher, he was one of the first people to recognise what Larry and I were doing with Evidence. He invited us to come to UCLA and show it to his students. I think he was just really supportive of our work. When I was going to do The Baseball Photographer Trading Cards we met in a coffee shop in Santa Monica and he gave me a list of people to look up. He actually gave me some money to help, he gave us $100 and said, ‘This will help you to have a few more days on the road’ – it was just sweet a gesture, in a sense, a kind of fatherly support rather than specific conceptual suggestion. I modelled a lot of my ideas off of his own ideas, there is actually a picture of his which I only realised later that Larry and I did in the book How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog 1974, where we took these mail-order catalogue pictures in relation to each other. There is a piece he did where he took a mail-order catalogue picture of a kid with a rifle pointing at rocking-chair – I think it had something to do with Kennedy – but it was clearly a reference to Kennedy’s assassination just using these mail-order catalogue photos. I don’t think Larry and I had seen it but it was like we were doing the same thing at around the same time. Heinecken was always known as the photographer who didn’t use a camera – that was the joke in which he was known by. I think looking at the pictures that he made by silk-screening Vietnam War atrocities on top of every page of Time magazine and placing it back into the supermarket receptacle was a great model for thinking about how to interact with society, how to make pictures or art that goes back into the world. When Larry and I were thinking about doing billboards there was a sense of related activity that we felt a kinship to in relation to some of Heinecken’s work.

Andrew Witt: After finishing at Cal State Northridge you moved to Santa Cruz and attended the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), you met Larry and quite quickly developed this pseudo-corporation Clatworthy Colorvues. What I find interesting is that you adopted the model of a corporation as a means to formalise your collaborative activity, even though at the same time you rejected the principles of corporate America.

Mike Mandel: As far as Clatworthy Colorvues is concerned I think we were always trying to make fun of institutions – to always question which institutions needed to be critiqued. Our attitude was to use humour. One time we made a Christmas card where we went to a printer where they had all of these stock Christmas card designs that businesses would send out, very formal and mundane and boring institutional messages like ‘Happy Holidays’ – it was something you would get from your doctor’s office, cards that were institutional cards rather than personal cards. We would do things like that. But as far as Clatworthy Colorvues is concerned, the story is that I was visiting down where my girlfriend lived in San Luis Obispo, and near Obispo beach, and we were kind of wandering around and there was a used junk shop near the beach and we saw a rack – it was one of those postcard racks that could spin around in a window – and there was a postcard of all these men sitting on a pier, waiting in the sun for their catch, waiting for luck to strike. The plastic coating of the card had peeled away, the colours of the card had faded mostly – faded away – so it seemed to me, anyway, there was a great humour where all these guys were waiting for something good to happen. And with these guys they seemed like they were waiting for days in the window of this junk store – something like waiting for your luck to strike and it was like a Sisyphean wait, like you could wait forever, and the ball will still roll down the hill. We looked at the back of the card and it was published by Clatworthy Colorvues and the alliterative sound was just humorous – it just sounded funny.

Andrew Witt: It is interesting how it works with the imagery from the Clatworthy Colorvues coat of arms: there is that image of ‘clattering’ atoms, it seems? There are hands holding oranges on fire, with another diagram of what looks like the path of chaos.

Mike Mandel: The atoms are colliding and the image of the arrows moving in different directions is an illustration from a book which described what is called Brownian motion, it is this idea that when you disperse something in the air it travels in a million different directions. The illustration of atoms is something we found in a chemistry book that had some implicit violence. As far as Clatworthy Colorvues goes we found it really funny and we took it and later on a friend of mine was travelling in the Colorado area and he had come across a treasure of autochrome plates – colour transparencies of landscapes that were made in the twentieth century – basically of the Colorado area, and they were made by Fred Clatworthy and he bought all these plates and eventually sold them to a collector, and gave one to Larry and I, and we learned that Fred Clatworthy had been a landscape photographer and later on turned that into a postcard business, where he was making pictures and publishing scenic views, so that is where the picture that we had came from. It came from a long-standing family of landscape photographers. There is a lot of chance and happenstance and just humorous sound of the name that we took on. For the stationery of Clatworthy Colorvues, Larry and I were both presidents and we would send out letters with this officious look to them with the seal, the headlines of our addresses to make it look like a formalised official company in some kind, but we were really just making fun of that.

Andrew Witt: What was Larry’s story? He was a bit older than you, and he graduated from SFAI before you.

Mike Mandel: Larry was a few years older, born in ’47 or ’48.2 Larry had gone to study with Callahan, we ended up together in the same class, we took a year-and-half MFA program at SFAI, we were in school together. We both came out of Los Angeles originally and we both had a cynical or enlightened cynicism about what was going on in the world. Whereas what was going on at the Art Institute in San Francisco was more of a romanticised view of what it meant to be an artist, coming off of the Beat poets…

Andrew Witt: Larry does mention that he felt alienated from the San Francisco scene, the Beats, its café culture and the like.3

Mike Mandel: I think there was that tradition that is still somewhat alive, a tradition was recognised and there were people who were making photographs that were very much romantic pictures using stylised printing techniques to make the image look extremely grainy, out of focus – almost pictorialist strategies that looked like romantic and personal images. Larry and I both felt that this was something that we were not interested in. It didn’t seem like the people who were there were really that challenging for us until, by chance, Larry met Gary Metz, who was extremely insightful, brilliant, eccentric – a genius. He wasn’t really an artist but he wanted to be an artist, he was a really brilliant theoretician and critic and asked a lot of questions. He came into the programme as our graduate seminar leader in our second semester and stayed for the year we were there. He offered a crucial intellectual approach to photography that was missing earlier. Metz was really great for us because he was asking a lot of questions about photography that we weren’t getting. He was pointing us to books that we were reading at the time, such as The Act of Creation (1964) by Arthur Koestler which talked about how the artist and the writer and the comedian have a lot of things in common in that everyone in those fields was taking ideas and colliding them together, and it is the collision of ideas that is humorous – that is why it is funny, when two things that don’t connect are brought together. When it is literary, it happens when layers of different narratives are stacked on top of one another and intersect in different ways. Anyway, it was very insightful for us to think about how to make art and what art is, what it means, how it works. I think we read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) by Thomas Kuhn …

Andrew Witt: And you were also looking at artistic works, such as Ed Ruscha’s photobooks?

Mike Mandel: Ruscha was certainly important to us, we both came out of LA so every time Ruscha had an opening for one of his books we would be there (although I didn’t know Larry at that point so I can’t speak for Larry’s personal connection to Ruscha). Certainly I remember multiple times that I talked to Ruscha, I became friendly. I really appreciated the fact that he would take something which seemed like a mundane idea, something that didn’t really deserve to be turned into a book, and have the audacity to turn it into something that was now a book – you now had to take it seriously and make sense of the relations between the pictures. He was able to take power over the artwork and turn it into a democratic opportunity to have a piece of it – he would make five hundred copies of these little things and people could own it for a small amount of money – that was the right chord I felt like … Actually, when I did my first book as an undergraduate I called Ed Ruscha and asked, ‘Where should I go to get this printed?’, and he pointed me to the printer that he used that was in Burbank, California. Maybe the confidence as an undergraduate to turn a project like Myself: Timed Exposures 1971, where I was making these self-portraits with a self-timer, and publish it – people were just beginning to think of that as an alternative to the typical convention of waiting for some conferral of approval by a museum that would enable you to have a monograph of your work created – this was like a slap in the face to that, you didn’t need to have anybody! [laughs] The work could stand on its own, or fail on its own, but you could get it out to a bunch of people. I guess that is kind of important to have that example to democratise your work by self-publishing.

Andrew Witt: With the first collaborative book of yours, How to Read Music in One Evening/A Clatworthy Catalog 1974, the work always struck me as project that could be read as a ‘training manual’ on how to read images.

Mike Mandel: I think Larry and I were appreciative of some of the work of Ralph Gibson, one that was called Deja Vu 1972 (I’m not too sure if you are familiar with it) but if you could find it it’ll show you how he used the facing page and formal relationships to make a new opportunity to conjure a narrative or some kind of new meaning out of the relationships between pages. That formal connection was what we were playing with, with these mail-order catalogue images, how we could put pictures together and ask how one would influence the other, or how some images would have similar shapes or something that would be similar that would refer to vision – some things would be big and other things small (I have to go through each page to talk about what is going on in each picture). There are all these playful connections between things that go together in some formal way to make a humorous connection. So I guess a catalogue of how to do that – how to make sequential relationships, so that you are able to play along. You can make out of that what you wish. It can lead you in a direction to just play.

Andrew Witt: Before you published How to Read Music in One Evening, your first collaborative works with Larry were billboards. There was Cornucopia and the billboard erected in Emeryville, which was a photograph of a steel factory that was doubled in the billboard, and attached to that was a man floating away in a hot-air balloon that was an orange.

Mike Mandel: It wasn’t really a steel factory, it was called ‘The Berkeley Sheet-Metal Works’, they weren’t really a steel factory, when you think of a steel factory you think of…

Andrew Witt: Kaiser Steel in Fontana.

Mike Mandel: Yeah, they were more like a small shop and they were taking various kinds of steel or metals and bending it into different shapes to create, you know, whatever companies needed different kinds of parts for their machines, or whatever. It was really just a small industrial building. Larry and I had actually been photographing around billboards, we didn’t realise that until we looked at each other’s photographs in class – he made a photograph that was peeling, and what was there was mostly peeled off, a bit of the face was still left on the billboard but it had this evocative, mysterious quality to it. I was making pictures where I would bring my girlfriend along with me and we would climb on top of the billboards, they weren’t usually that high, we would get on the roofs of buildings in San Francisco and we would just get up onto a billboard that was fairly easy to climb if you were on the roof of a building and she would make gestures with her body, she would connect with the image of the advertisement and I would photograph that. When we saw that we were both playing with the medium of advertising – the structure of advertising – we said, ‘Maybe we should just do our own billboard? Why don’t we see if we could do that?’.

We ended up calling a billboard company and asking them if we could have a space. It also just happened to be the same time when billboards were under a lot of scrutiny in Californian cities, there were a lot of ordinances in San Diego and other cities that were banning billboards because they were seen as ‘visual blight’. When the billboard company got our call, they thought, ‘here are some artists, they want to put something up that is not an advertisement, and maybe it’ll give us some good publicity and make people realise that billboards are not bad things, but good things can happen in billboards’. So I think the billboard company was using us – good public relations – and we were happy to accept the billboard as a gift to us.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Oranges on Fire 1975

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Oranges on Fire 1975

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

Later, we were more connected to how advertising imagery became our subject matter. When we got to Oranges on Fire 1975 (fig.3), that was the billboard where we really understood the language of advertising on a billboard – the very short window on being able to process the information that is there – we had to make an image that was very easy to read, very quick to read. We wanted to create an image that didn’t mean anything and therefore broke the trance when you are driving on the street, you don’t really notice what is on the street, you know, you are lost in your thoughts, and when you see something like Oranges on Fire that doesn’t make sense, our idea was that people would have an ‘ah ha!’ moment, where you would ask: ‘What is this?’, ‘What does it mean?’. And maybe that would translate to how people would look at other billboards. That was one way of understanding how to create imagery that could do that – an ambiguous opportunity to break out of people’s transfixed state.

As far as the first billboard goes – I think we got the location because the billboard company saw it as the least valued billboard – it was in a run-down part of Emeryville, the industrial part of town – they weren’t giving us much. We made the picture, and thought it’d be funny to photograph across the street from the billboard, like a Magritte idea, and put it up as a mirror of the billboard. So you would be looking across the street as you looked in the opposite direction, and it just so happened that a guy was in our picture, so we got a couple of friends who were painters to paint him in, like a fantasy figure floating away in an air balloon, but the balloon wasn’t really a balloon but a California orange, our image was a big black and white photograph, made on mural paper – it was really truly a photographic image on a billboard made from these giant rolls of photo-paper and then painted on top of. What struck us from that piece, and what kept us going, was that the people who showed up to the party were our friends as well as the people who lived around the corner, people who saw that there was an opening at the intersection, and they came up and said they appreciated the fact that it had a connection to the neighbourhood and had some humour to it – they connected to us. I think that was really a great moment for us to realise that the audience of our work doesn’t necessarily have to be an art audience, a museum audience or an academic audience, it could be a popular audience. It gave us much more of an idea of commitment to the idea of doing work in public. That fuelled us for quite a while. We did billboards up until the 1990s.

Andrew Witt: The second billboard was titled Cornucopia, and that was taken down quite quickly after it was put up – was it three days? One thing that always confounded me about your work was that even though the billboards might not have a clear message they all mobilise frightening or catastrophic imagery – whether it is your early billboard work or the photographs you found and assembled in Evidence. This is very clear to me in Oranges on Fire where you show the utopian bounty of a California citrus harvest ‘on fire’. What can be more disturbing than this image? This is similar in the billboard Cornucopia where you have these oranges slowly disappearing …

Mike Mandel: Yeah, with Cornucopia, we found this postcard where the back of it read ‘California gold fills the horn of plenty to overflowing’, which is a sexual innuendo because the image was of this woman lying on a pile of oranges coming out of a horn aplenty, you can see her breasts pretty clearly. The overflowing part was not only the fact that the oranges were coming out of the cornucopia, where the woman’s breasts were the same shape as the oranges. Also, there was a similar postcard that we found on Florida oranges. It was, in fact, made at the same photo-shoot, with the same woman – it was just at a different angle. It was just one of those generic pictures that could be used for anything, but in this case we chose the California one. The idea there was that the oranges would disappear and the woman would be painted in more clearly – she was actually black and white in the first image – she became slightly colourful in the second picture, and much more ‘alive’ in the third image. So it was a reference to California’s transformation from an agricultural landscape to entertainment, where movies were being made – the woman in the bathing suit represented this young, sexually alluring character – a representation of entertainment.

We worked on that piece for a month to make it – to make the prints – we got our friends to paint it and then we got the permission to put it up for a month, and then it was taken down after three days. We got some publicity in the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle did a story about it. We were confused with an ad for oranges – there was too much irony there. The company said they made a mistake, but it obviously wasn’t a mistake – we said our project was about oranges and there was no way that people would get it confused with an ad for oranges. We visited the billboard with our friends, who turned into lawyers and not artists, and demanded that something be done to right this wrong. The billboard company said that they would give us ten free billboards which was really the best thing that could have happened.

[Oranges on Fire] was really our way to get back at the billboard company who had ‘burned’ us, so we decided to burn the oranges. There is also Ed Ruscha’s picture LA County Museum on Fire [1965–8] – I didn’t think we even knew about that work at the time. In our piece, hands are holding oranges on fire – there is something wrong with that, something violent, distressing and also the simple statement ‘oranges on fire’ is a redundancy of what you see in the image. Again, it worked really perfectly for us on many levels, we were ‘burning’ back the billboard company and we were making an image that was very simple and dramatic and very clear – in terms of how to process it – but very unclear with what it meant. That was really the first time where we really understood how to use the billboard language.

Andrew Witt: Was the Replaced exhibition at the Darkroom Workshop Gallery in 1975 one of your first public shows – aside from your billboard work? There is not much information on the show besides the fact that you rephotographed images from the Kodak how-to manual Clinical Photography (1972).

Mike Mandel: There was a lot from that book, there were a lot of other images from other medical books – how to make photographs of medical issues – it wasn’t just the Kodak Clinical Photography manual. The Kodak book on Clinical Photography is pretty amazing. If you ever find it in the library it’s pretty hard to believe that they’d ever produce something like that, ostensibly it’s about how to set up lighting and how to make pictures that are workable for analysis, for diagnostics, or whatever. But all the images are of prepubescent young girls that are naked, or oftentimes, naked women.

Andrew Witt: I actually have a copy of it. It is strange and also quite gruesome at times too (photographs of skin peeling off of hands, acid burns…). The photographs are really gross.

Mike Mandel: Right, I think with those images they were clearly made for one purpose but obviously had other capable meanings – anxious feelings, violent feelings or sexual references. We were able to take those images out of that clinical context and put them into a sequential context, so that those social feelings would come forward. From How to Read Music to that exhibition Replaced, that really informed where to go next – honing in on photographs that did that, but we decided to go to NASA’s Ames Research Institute in Mountain View.

Andrew Witt: What made you make that decision to travel out to the Ames Research Institute [to begin to collect photographs for Evidence]? Did you have a connection to the institution already?

Mike Mandel: For one, it was halfway between where we lived. Larry and I lived about 100 miles away from each other the whole time we worked together. We just had a hunch that the space agency would have some imagery. There was all this publicity around the moonwalk, images from space that were made by the astronauts. But we realised that there had to be more than that, there had to be more than what people saw, more than the publicity of those events. We did find things that were a little ‘off’ – there was a picture of one of the astronauts who carried a snapshot from home of his family and put it in a plastic bag and then laid it onto the surface of the moon, and then set up a little tripod that had a colour target on it – registering different colour values so that you were able to match how the snapshot should be printed in relation to the colour chart – it was just a weird and funny snapshot of a family picture in this technological setting (the target, the tripod and the plastic bag) on this weird moonscape, with this dark sky and background. There was another picture of a guy who was holding a prototype for a video camera and it looked like he was holding a gun – it was a funny side-view of this man. Again, it was just a picture that you just didn’t expect to see in the NASA archive – pictures that were ‘off’ in some way or the other.

We just figured that we had to look at the fact that we were living in California where so much work is going on in applied technology, weapons manufacture, space exploration – like Lockheed aircraft, TRW – all of these places were well within our neighbourhood. Whether it was in the Bay Area, or whether it was in LA (Larry and I both had our parents living in LA and visited our parents anyway) it just became a hunch that played out. We realised that when we went to other places as well, like police departments and other kinds of places that would have evidence files, we thought we found some interesting things in those places, like the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles – we found things that were ambiguous – but the trove of images of the strange world we didn’t understand held a lot of implications about trying to harness the power of human technology – a technology that could make something happen, something big happen – this was the place to go: the institutions that were building spaceships, building cities, like Bechtel, places like that.

Andrew Witt: One historian of California, Carey McWilliams, has written that California has ‘invented’ itself through research and development – the state appears as if it is positioned at the ‘edge of novelty’.4 In a sense, you have these corporations, like NASA, Lockheed and Bechtel, who are ‘building the future of America’, but what makes Evidence interesting is that the photographs that you were looking at were not of the 1970s, but rather from previous decades, like the 1950s and 1960s, since the photographs from the 1970s were labelled ‘classified’. Your project folds together all of these different temporalities.

Mike Mandel: That was really fortunate for us. Here we were in the mid-1970s, Lockheed was working on a project at that moment that was ‘classified’, but they would say: ‘Hey, if you want to see pictures from ten years ago, these projects are over with’. They wanted to help us out because we got a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, and we had a letter from the San Francisco Museum, and we told them that we were doing a show of ‘great industrial photography in California’, so they were into helping us out. But the kinds of pictures that we were able to see were always a decade old or so. What was great about that was that all of the pictures that were made as ‘documents’ for these engineering projects were made with 4 x 5 cameras. I can’t remember looking at anything but 4 x 5 contact prints, either in books or file cabinets – that was everything that we were able to look at at that time. That really enabled us to see things. If we had to look at 35 mm negative contact prints we would’ve probably just given up. I remember when Evidence came out and some people were trying to figure out what it meant – some of the pictures looked like pictures by this photographer or that photographer – people really didn’t get what the message of the book was about. Everyone recognised the professional, high degree of definition, but that was really just part of the imagery and people didn’t really expect that. They didn’t expect that they would have that inherent photographic beauty with its tonalities, sharpness and clarity.

Andrew Witt: This actually occurs with John Divola’s 1997 Continuity project – I’m not too sure if you know of that work – he works with these ‘continuity stills’ that were produced by Hollywood studios in the 1930s and 1940s. These continuity stills are technically perfect.

Mike Mandel: I don’t know that project, but I would expect that would be the case – photographs shot with large-format cameras, stage lighting and really beautiful images.

Ed Ruscha, Spread from the photobook Royal Road Test 1967

Ed Ruscha
Spread from the photobook Royal Road Test 1967
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

© Ed Ruscha

Andrew Witt: To bring it back to this question of the time and temporality of the image, with Evidence there is clearly a connection to detective fiction but there’s also this science fiction quality to the project too.

If it could be said that the early avant-garde turned to the detective novel as an aesthetic model, or underlying trope, what you have in the 1960s and 1970s is this turn towards science fiction as an aesthetic resource. What unites the two genres, however, is that detective fiction and science fiction both rely on conjectural forms of knowledge – the novel is built from scraps, fragments and clues that you are asked to make sense of. In a sense, this is similar to what is asked of the reader of Evidence, it seems. You don’t know where these images have come from, they have this future-orientated staging, and they are ‘evidence’, but evidence of what? I wonder if you could reflect on this aspect of science fiction or the detective novel. We talked briefly before about the work of Ed Ruscha and one project that stands out here is Ruscha’s Royal Road Test 1967 (fig.4), where Ruscha, Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell took a typewriter ‘on the road’, threw it out of their car’s window and photographed the wreckage in forensically exacting detail.

Mike Mandel: That was a really good example. Out of all the projects that Ruscha did that was probably one of the most connected to us and it had that humour as well. The pictures in Royal Road Test were shot as if they were being used for clinical analysis for a courtroom to evaluate. In fact, it is really kind of ironic that it was a typewriter, right, because I think back in 1967 nobody was really thinking about the computer and that the typewriter was actually an instrument of the past, or would become an instrument of the past.

Andrew Witt: Right, the typewriter as an obsolete technology. In a way, too, it’s a joke on the Beat poets – they’re literally taking the typewriter ‘on the road’, throwing it out of their window.

Mike Mandel: Ha. Right. Yeah I never thought about that, I wonder if Ruscha has talked about that: throwing [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road out of the window. [laughs]

There is the same idea of looking at the forensic analysis of something. The idea of evidence of something that we don’t really understand without putting it together with other pieces of evidence – that is what we ended up with. It got to a point where we knew the pictures we were looking for were lots of pictures that we could’ve easily chosen that we weren’t interested in – too violent or too stuck in the original context in which they were made – they didn’t have that ambiguous quality. Or they were too pretty or they didn’t sit in that place we were looking for, that uncomfortable strangeness we were after.

When we did the second printing of Evidence we included a double-page spread of the pictures that didn’t go into Evidence.

Andrew Witt: The outtakes.

Mike Mandel: Yeah. It’s worth looking at those to understand why we didn’t use those. There was a photograph of a woman with a big bruise on her thigh, or there was a radio tower that had some beautiful geometric shapes behind it … I’m trying to remember the other ones…

Andrew Witt: There is one of a man fishing a car out of a pool, I think.

Mike Mandel: Right. There was a man standing in a lab and his head was covered with a plastic bag and being lit on fire. There was another one of a guy doing some sort of examination under water and he was completely naked and you could tell that his pubic area was slightly visible in the image – there was absolutely no reason for that guy to be naked! – but the fact that that was there was too strange and too sexy for us to include.

That shows what we weren’t looking for but it doesn’t show what we were looking for. What we were looking for were implications of technology that is part of the future that is being studied and imagined that will produce a future that turns out to go astray. As you get into the book you see things get out of control, things devolve into failure – a failure of that faith in technology’s ability to get us to a good place.

Andrew Witt: Reading the existing literature on Evidence, writers seem to stress two things that I find both incorrect and misrepresentative of the project: they always stress the ‘meaninglessness’ of the project, or they state how the work doesn’t necessarily have a message. Another aspect that they stress is the archival nature of the project, which seems to undermine the sequential or poetic content of the work. You just mentioned that the sequence slowly builds up to this aspect of failure, but you could also read how this failure is inscribed in many of the photographs early on in the sequence – there is a general feeling of disaster or catastrophe. This relationship, it seems, is articulated through the operations of montage. Because the photographs are printed on facing pages you read each image through the operations of simultaneity but also succession, delay as well as anticipation. Obviously, there is a clear sequence but this sequence is constantly complicated and undermined by the operations of montage. There are narrative rhythms within your work but there are also these sharp discontinuities and breaks.

Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Untitled 1977, printed 2001, from Evidence 1977


Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel
Untitled 1977, printed 2001, from Evidence 1977
Tate P14499

© Larry Sultan/Mike Mandel

Mike Mandel: We worked really hard to put these pictures in the right order and to work with facing pages. There would be these continuing tropes that we would have throughout, whether it was a clinical presentation with a backdrop (photographic backdrop), broken machine parts, or measuring devices and parts of people being measured – these aspects all tend to be coming back into the pictures (fig.5). We would go from an interior place (like a room or rooms), and then you would go outside, and then you would go back inside, and then there would be explosions that would happen (without actually leafing through the book and giving you a more accurate description). It is sequential. I think the fact that these photographs are artefacts, that they are documentary photographs, gives them that much more drama, or import. They were not just made by us to look like they were part of a test. But they really were part of a photographic connection to believability, they were actually made by somebody in one of these organisations for some real activity. They are documentary by definition. But they are also as conditioned by being in a sequence, they are like, as you described it, part of a detective novel. You get a glimpse of clues of things that suggest, and implicate, and create a psychological or emotional response which builds as you keep going through the book.

The fact that they are artefacts is extremely essential. If these pictures were made by us and we made the audience believe that they were made by us – that would be a lot harder to do. It’s much more fun to find them and realise that they actually exist. We couldn’t come up with these ideas anyway: how do you even think about setting up a hospital bed outside?! Trees that are growing in plastic boxes, like little wombs. The model of a nuclear power plant set up with these elevators in the background, which suggests either you are going up or you are going down; there is a horizontal break between the elevator world and the model for the nuclear power plant, these two worlds are coexisting. All these things you could never conjure with your imagination, they were part of the consciousness of these organisations that were doing what they were trying to do. They were living in the confines of their world: their labs, their landscapes where they are doing their testing, that’s why the pictures looked the way they looked.

Andrew Witt: There is a story attached to your work that I hope you can clarify. I read in the Carter Ratcliffe essay on your work that when Larry presented Evidence at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design he was critiqued for not using captions to describe and anchor the photographs to a definitive political or social content or meaning; instead they are merely free-floating.5 How would you respond to that criticism today?

Mike Mandel: That was definitely Larry’s experience. We were certainly in dialogue with what happened and talked about the criticism of the work. At the time, there was this Marxist attitude that photography should provide a direction that leads one to political action. By looking at the photograph and its caption you can understand it, and it enables you to take action in the right direction. In Evidence here are these pictures that are supposedly representative of ‘these builders of the future’ (these high technology companies) and they don’t do that. The photographs don’t do that – they don’t really tell us what is going on. What these weapons are, what these projects are … we don’t know any of that. Like you said, the photographs are ‘free-floating’. I guess back then we would say that photographs are poetic (and these critics are suggesting that this is not good enough). I would say that that’s what going on here, that’s what we are doing. We were not didactic. We were not trying to indict anybody – we were not proving anything. All we were doing was recognising photography’s potential to create a psychological insight or understanding that worked more like a suggestion, more like a poem, operating on a very different level. Having lived through the criticism and now being comfortable with the fact that this is OK, and recognising that not everything had to be that way, I would just say that Evidence was exactly what we wanted it to be and that it does function on a more metaphorical and poetical level in opposition to a Marxist dictum or requirement about the ethics of photography. That seems to me to be a fascist requirement for how photographs should work. If you want to be [photographer and critic] Allan Sekula and make a case I am not stopping you! Go ahead! Go for it! But don’t stop me for working on a different level such as poetry or music – these forms operate on a different level and way of thinking. I am much more interested in that.

Andrew Witt: Another way to respond to this criticism is to view the project as a training manual that teaches us how to see critically. I think that is the power of project: it really demands a type of visual literacy that is not determined by a caption. The work makes demands on the viewer and you have to face up to these demands. If you don’t, there’s the tendency to view the work as ‘meaningless’, which is lazy. If you spend a significant amount of time with the project you get to see relationships that may not implicate in a juridical sense but force the reader to see how these corporations of hyper-rationality are actually products and forces of irrationality and catastrophe.

Mike Mandel: I don’t know what I have to add to that – that makes sense to me.