The Photo Issue: Dean Dempsey

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SFBG What's it's like stepping in front of your camera?
Dean Dempsey I don't have any strong feelings about it, perhaps because I know there is so much post-production involved. I certainly behave as though I am being watched, or surveyed. A bit like what John Berger said, "Women watch themselves being looked at," and although I'm not a biological woman that rings true for me, and perhaps for many artists who turn the camera onto themselves.There is a spectacle element involved.

SFBG How about the process of being a different person or character or being? What does it feel like -- is it experimental, psychological, revelatory, any or all of the above?
DD Sometimes I surprise myself in how unexperimental it feels. I've never really been a fan of experiment, perhaps because I feel that it suggests a sort of aimlessness. I do, however, feel it is playful, and there certainly is a revelatory aspect to it. Psychologically, I'm constantly having to imagine the presence of characters that aren't in fact there -- especially for the multiple self-composites. I have to imagine eye-contact, gestures, and conversation. In the process, it doesn't make any sense. I just look a bit nutty as I pose in various positions to invent relationships with characters who are not immediately present. In this respect, there again is the resurfacing of "phantom."

SFBG Has it taken you in directions or resulted in visions you didn't anticipate? I ask this because your series' seem to inform each other, and in a manner that doesn't seem predictable, even if the realized images are obviously very carefully composed.

DD The playful,psychological or phantom? Or all three?

SFBG All three. Let's be expansive, for now.
DD The series "You, Me and the Other" has really informed the bulk of these new series', "Fragmentations" and "Artifice." At first I was interested in a more literal interpretation of otherness and spectacle. I wanted, and continue to want, to explore notions of belonging while questioning the ways in which ideas of normality are constructed.
But as I continued with those images, which were about the multiple and theatrical side of my work, I began to explore a little deeper why I was doing them -- why I was so invested in the gaze. I'm not at all interested in making "identity art," but I can't deny the pivotal ways childhood has informed my practice. So from having a whole lot of myself within a single frame, there has been a complete implosion in "Fragmentations." That erasure takes place not just to anatomically dismember my characters, but to emphasise what is left over. There is a sort of implosion in "Artifice" as well, as the characters embody something more subhuman and alienated, making it more difficult to encapsulate into specific meanings, in a way.

SFBG What kinds of reactions have you encountered to "Artifice," and in turn to "Fragmentations"? To me, these series' manage to be interrelated, though in a surface sense "Artifice" is quite brash and overtly performative and imaginative, while 'Fragmentations' is more elliptical.
DD They are very much interrelated. I've been working on both series' at the same time for quite some time now. There are images in each body of work that I haven't shown anybody because there are other images that have to come first. But yes, on the surface, there is a difference. Conceptually, they are both informed by personal biographical history and each series investigates methods of spectacle and exclusion. Although with a difference in general aesthetic, each series is about the pieces that complete us; the pieces of our body, our process, our gender - pieces of social fabric.

SFBG Biographical history is present in your work in a variety of forms or absences. How has your family responded to your photography, and in what ways might you feel a familial influence in making an image or a series?
DD It’s funny, because the only familial influence with my work is more through a variety of absences -- the absence of a father, the absence of a visible Mexican identity, the absence of siblings, and so on. I met my father in 2005, just a few months before I was about to move to San Francisco to attend college. And just two years after that he was hit by a Union Pacific train, losing two limbs. So again, there is a return of absence (this time anatomical) that emerges in my photoworks. He’s been very cooperative in letting me take portraits of him, even at the site of the accident. I even showed him my reenactments of him and he asked, “I don’t remember you taking those of me, when was that?” A lifetime of transiency and drug use hasn’t made him the sharpest of knives, but it certainly has made him an interesting subject.
It was only yesterday I told my mother about it. It took over 3 years for me to process and even begin to find the language to articulate how I felt. It wasn’t so much a secret, I just didn’t know how to say it. The details of his accident continue to reveal themselves in my work, even if they are depersonalized, so I knew it was something I couldn’t avoid much longer. She hasn’t seen him in 20 years. I recorded the conversation, maybe I’ll use it for This American Life. It really is a good story.

SFBG In a different sense, just as there is absence "present" in your photography, there's also a multiplicity of self. Does that come naturally in relation to your personality? I don't mean this in an MPD sense, but rather do you feel a creative urge to perform and discover things through performance?
DD It must come naturally because that is in some ways a more difficult part of my process to locate. I have an idea and I know what I need, or don’t need, to materialize it. But as my various bodies of work develop and expand, I’ve become more aware of their shared concept as well as what sets them apart. It is a constant discovery. Performance is fundamental in my work, whether in the act or in the idea behind the image. My content addresses performance in relationship to the constructs of gender and race, and notions of (dis)belonging. Everybody is always performing, even when there isn’t an audience to see it. So in this way, the performer becomes its spectator. By digitally inserting myself multiple times, or even by dismembering the figures I emobody, I’m envisioning a completed project. I’m thinking of how I will see myself, or the people I perform. Not to reference Berger again, but I’m watching myself being looked at.

SFBG What drew you to photography, and what photographic works have had the strongest impact on you in life?
DD I think I was, at first, most allured by the deceptive nature of photography. The medium is often falsely attributed as being very honest and undiscerning, yet a photo (and the photographer) always omits something from the frame. They deem what is worthy enough to be documented, and they choose what is seen. And I won't begin to mention how Photoshop and image editing software furthers this point.
A good image, or least one I personally find most engaging, is one that suggests a larger narrative but refuses to explain itself. I call them little "cinematic babies," because these sorts of pictures act as a still, forcing us to image what is happening before and after that with which we can see. What good is a piece of art, or anything, without the implication of its audience? Without outside interest it folds. But these are all my personal opinions, I could care less about constituting what is universally "good," I'll leave that to the bigger-headed.
Regarding influences, it's always a tough question for me. I tend to jump around a lot, but I've always enjoyed folks like Carrie Mae Weems, Andreas Gursky, and even sculptural and installation artists like Santiago Serra and Sarah Lucas.

SFBG Ah, and now we segue to the inevitable question -- do you have any interest in making films?
DD Yes! It's funny because I feel sometime these photoworks began as studies for films. Beyond the technical aspect of putting a film or video together, there is still a conceptual formula of sorts that is in the works. But working more with the moving image is definitely in my horizon, I'd say before the end of this year.

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