by Thieu Riemen

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

John Lusis (JL): I approach photography as means to investigate subjects that interest me while at the same time allowing a space for discovery. I started making photographs as an aid to my graphic design process, but soon realized that I was spending more time making photographs than designing.

Built structures within the space of a city have been a focus of mine for the past 6 years. I am fascinated by the interface between what a building projects out into the world and how through photographs this is perceived, obscured, or shifted over time. I try to create photographs that respond to the constant churning and upheaval present within the built environment and the anxiety felt within.

Some of my photographs deal with how buildings shift away from their original intent coming back again as something else. Others investigate buildings in states of construction or rehabilitation. I would say that overall in these projects I am interested in the idea of obsolescence and how this causes an abstract value judgment to be placed on buildings. Most recently I have been interested in creating photographs that mimic the chaos and creative destruction caused by obsolescence forcing an ever-present ruination and reinvention inherent within the built space.

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days?

JL: Early on I knew I was interested in creating photographs about built structures and my research evolved into looking at theories surrounding the built environment. Recently I have been reading Daniel Abrahamson’s book Obsolescence, which deals with architecture’s attempts to deal with the devaluation of buildings. Anthony Vidler is another theorist that I enjoy looking at. His work links the theory of uncanny by Freud and others with architecture and how this is manifested in the space of the city.

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

Tell us about your educational path. What are your best memories of your studies? What was your relationship with photography at that time?

JL: As I mentioned earlier, I initially went to Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design to become a graphic designer, but soon realized that I was more interested in photography. I’m grateful for the professors there who taught me how to use a view camera and the lineage of photographers who used the same camera. My relationship with photography has shifted significantly since I arrived at Columbia College Chicago to pursue my MFA. I began to make work that was based in documenting specific places like Milwaukee, but realized that even though I was trying to make work about a specific place it still was always about built structures. Over the course of the last two years I started to just focus on buildings. I began to remove contextual elements to create work that is about the upheaval found within the built environment rather than specifically about place.

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to better understand your work?

JL: I think that Bob Thall, Ross Sawyers and Paul D’Amato have been extremely influential on me as a photographer. Bob for his attention to detail with his view camera; his pictures are mathematical and taught me to always be critical when you are looking. Ross taught me that photographs don’t necessarily have to be about a specific place and can function on ideas or a conceptual framework. Paul for his passion for the photo book and sequencing images, but also for being an awesome cheerleader for my work and always willing to talk about photographs or baseball.

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

JL: Photography has gained a great deal of popularity and saturation into our everyday lives as a cause of digital and social networking. I enjoy how this has affected fine art in terms of the fact that there are artists now who respond to our current rapid paced condition. I think the one are that It has effect is that because photography is so accessible on the internet people’s notions of what a photograph actually physically looks like is warped. For someone to really understand my work or others’ they have to see it as it was intended to be not on your computer screen.

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

About your work now. How would you described your personal research in general?

JL: In general, most of my research revolves around the built environment and architecture. I tend to be less interested in researching specific places that I photograph and rely more heavily on theories I encounter. Some more recent books I have been reading are Warped Space by Anthony Vidler and architecture and capitalism. I also enjoy reading fiction that has to do with some built structures like JG Ballard’s High Rise or Concrete Island. Lastly I watch a lot of X-Files for inspiration in terms of aesthetics and how there are moments where what appears to be normal is turned on its head.

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?

JL: Since I shoot architecture and like to display my work large; I prefer to use a view camera and 4x5 film. I have been working this way for a long time now and it has always felt right to me. I enjoy the struggle to create each image and how using film forces time to occur between initial capture and final product.

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

Tell us about your latest project Odradek

JL: Odradek looks at buildings in Midwestern cities, concentrating on structures showing either dilapidation or the process of construction. Older structures in decay can often suggest the history of these places. Empty facades face outward projecting the height of vitality now lost in their current form. Sometimes new architectural developments attempt to reference the past, but often these new structures that wipe out all evidence of the history of a place. Economic forces create a perpetual shifting in the built environment. The cities in our capitalist country are in a constant cycle of obsolescence and reconstruction. To me this process creates a landscape where the present seems unstable and the future seems unpredictable.

Similarly, the uncanny causes a fearful mix of opposites where what appears familiar becomes unfamiliar. Within architecture the uncanny takes up residence in artificial attempts to recreate or cover up the past or in structures hollowed out by the constant churning of the built environment.

Odradek takes its name from a central object in a Franz Kafka short story entitled “The Cares of a Family Man.” The Odradek has no apparent purpose and its presence in the story may be read as a critique of capitalism and materialism. Similarly, many of the buildings I photograph no longer serve a purpose, and I think that the quickly constructed new buildings seem destined for purposelessness in the near future.

© John Lusis from the series 'Odradek'

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

JL: Geert Goiris has influenced my work for how his pictures consider the passage of time on built structures. Specifically, his photographs of modernist structures, which have not stood the test of time; a utopia never attained. At the same time, I admire how he takes something that is rather mundane and through the transformative power of photography turns it into something otherworldly. Philosophically, I also enjoy how he shies away from the term documentary meaning that his images attempt not to show things as they are, but more as they seem.

Three books of photography that you recommend?

JL: Daniel Shea’s – Warehouse Condo Warehouse, Federico Clavarino – Italia O Italia, Daniel Everett – Throughout the Universe in Perpetuity

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?

JL: Daniel Shea’s recent exhibition at Andrew Rafacz Gallery was interesting to me in terms of how he is dealing with a similar subject to my work. He has been photographing condo construction sites in rapidly developing areas in New York, failed modernist structures in Brazil, and slowly dying towns in California’s Searless Valley. Some of the pieces have another layer of glass with imagery sourced from condo construction sites. I enjoyed the way the overlaid images played off slippage between the reality of the situation and an idealized version of the buildings.

Installation view of the exhibition 'Daniel Shea : 43-35 10th St.' at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Chicago

© Daniel Shea, LIC 8, 2016

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

JL: For now, I intend on continuing to push my most recent project Odradek forward. I will spend the next year or so trying to travel to different cities to find other areas where there is massive construction or dilapidation. I have also been collecting construction site objects which I intend to photograph and explore how that could augment the project.


John Lusis 
United States