Duplex: Tell us about your background.
Jay Muhlin: I grew up just outside of NYC and moved to the city in 1996 to attend NYU’s Tisch school of the Arts where I obsessively explored photography. After graduating, I focused on personal projects and shooting editorial assignments. I worked at the Village Voice developing and printing images for the contributing photographers, as well as photographing assignments myself. New York was a different place then. When I go visit now I feel like a time traveler. I miss the people, but not really the place. I never thought I would become a former New Yorker. I truly believed it was the center of the universe, but left for graduate school in 2009 to focus on my art practice.
D: There are plenty of snowy cities the in county, but there is something about Syracuse that adds a layer of isolation to this series. Do you think a different city would have the same impact?
JM: A place and a city are formed by many factors – people and time being central. When I was considering programs, I wanted a place close to NYC because that was what I knew. I spent some time in Rochester, Albany, and Troy, NY and liked the creative energy. Rust Belt towns offer something special – mid-century charm and possibilities. When I visited Syracuse I felt comfortable, connected to the people I met, and it seemed like a place I could call home and be very productive. It wasn’t till my second year in Syracuse that my mother mentioned that my family emigrated from Russia straight to Syracuse for manufacturing jobs before they all moved to the Bronx. Syracuse was an unexpected homecoming and a way of starting over. I do believe that another city would have inspired a different project, nothing like Guilty Pleasures, which is so deeply rooted in a specific Syracuse winter, during a record breaking, snow covered year.
D: Besides the innate creativity that comes with the quarantine-like conditions of wintertime, was there something else about cabin fever that drew you? What did you personally learn or take from it?
JM: In winter I feed on a hyper energy that builds during the cabin fever. Grad school was a time of self-reflection, regression, and experimentation. It was great to focus on my work and try out different projects and visual languages. Having time to think, throw darts, and be self-indulgent was helpful in solidifying my choice to commit myself to making art.
D: You held a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund Guilty Pleasures! What advice would you give other artists thinking about crowd funding projects? Would you do it again?
JM: Not sure I could do it again mentally or socially. I’m deeply thankful for the support, and am still overwhelmed by the generosity and belief in my work. It really was like another job – I am not sure I am 100% recovered from the social media campaigning. It was uncomfortable for me to promote myself so shamelessly and constantly asking for money. If I see a Kickstarter or indiegogo campaign from a friend I am hard pressed not to give a small amount because I know how hard it is and how every contribution adds up. For anyone considering this avenue, I recommend having a local component, like a party.
D: Many of the photos in Guilty Pleasures are shot with a flash. Can you describe when or how you choose to use flash?
JM: I used a flash to prescribe a mood, make my presents known, and create a flattened visual world. I wanted to create a clean white, a snap shot aesthetic, something that felt it was pointing to the present moment. I wanted to be in a conversation with the history of photography – a gesture of my awareness and influence. I enjoyed the immediacy and the kind of interaction it offers – helping me to perform the role of the photographer. Using a flash takes away human vision and extends it, making the actual moment lived a surprise again.
D: Describe your studio space. How often do you work there?
JM: When I first moved to Philly I had my first real studio. It was like a huge living room where I could have access to all my books, gear, and files. It felt comfortable, homey, and a place to create. I even had enough space to have a backdrop up permanently – what a luxury! It was pretty amazing but working multiple jobs meant never having time to use the space. I have always worked from home – the crazy, messy living room in the middle of the apartment in grad school, taking over the small dinning area in my queens apartment, to now leaving my studio and co-working space to take over the dinning room in New Jersey where I live with my wife, Tessa daughter Louisa, and cat, Cake. They have to deal with the mess of my office/studio in the middle of our home. Louisa refers to it as my “trash room” and luckily Tessa is patient tries to help organize. It’s getting there – I have a lot of stuff. The basement is hundreds of pounds of filing cabinets and stacks of bins full of negatives. I work whenever I can – I get crabby if I don’t have studio time. I much rather be up late at night and pay for it the next day then not have my studio time. Headphones, music, and my computer make up that time. I am fine with a desk and a computer – it forces me to make the world my studio with a camera.
D: Describe your process, how do you begin a project?
JM: I think interest in a subject, curiosity, and general openness is the beginning. I generally work on multiple projects at once. That way I never slow down- I redirect, or rethink; I allow one thing to inform another. I don’t ever want to be bored. Guilty Pleasures began with a poem I wrote and became a stress-relieving project from the other projects I was working on at the time. I wanted to have fun with photography and Guilty Pleasures was a way of doing that. I think knowing when to end a project is something that is extremely challenging – I am not sure I believe art is ever completed.
D: What qualities do you look for in a photograph?
JM: I want a photograph to lead me somewhere else – misdirect me, let me wonder, accumulate images into a mood or pattern of though, or create something words are at a lost to express. I look for magic – something that can transform, something that holds onto something fragile and ephemeral like justice. I think recording and making something new that never existed is pretty magical. I’ve also struggled with writing, and the photography helps me form and reflect on my thoughts.
D: How do you address scale in your work?
JM: I think about my work being in a book – so the scale is personal, handheld, and intimate. I think about how you would walk around images – I want seeing the work to be intuitive and encouraging.
D: Guilty Pleasures is your second book project, how long did it take to complete?
JM: Deadlines are good. It took me about two years to finally STOP photographing for Guilty Pleasures. And I made another project I exhibited called Sleeve On My Heart, about the first winter living in Philly/NJ, before returning to Guilty Pleasures. It ended up taking about five years. It was hard to get into the headspace to do the final edit for the published book. That’s how the tarot cards came to be; I wanted another tactile way of entering and editing the work.
D: Are you working on any other projects?
JM: I’m trying to figure out what I will do with my Instagram feed (@jaymuhlin). I have tried a slide show in a public park, web-curations, a book dummy, and making pattered groupings. I’m working on a series of images that are rooted in New Jersey. I have a body of work that uses the season of spring – like Guilty Pleasures uses winter – I need a few more years on that I think. I am working on some collaborative projects about debt. I am interested in curating more exhibits and finishing a project about ghost hunting that searches for meaning in sights where historic violence took place. I would like to publish and exhibit a book I made while visiting Japan.
D: When you are starting a new body, do you always visualize the end product and artist book?
JM: No & Yes – I feel like the book is a bit of a default setting. The book format has become a way of thinking about sequencing and thinking about narrative approaches to making work. I like that it is a container for a small word, it’s portable and shareable. Working from a computer, a book makes sense for the amount of space I can occupy. I’m thinking about daily photos on Instagram as a form of writing, journaling, archiving, and calendar making. I think of my Instagram feed as a book.
D: What’s the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?
JM: Tears. And when someone wants to buy a piece – that’s nice. The tears thing has happened a few times.
All images courtesy of the artist.