September 2013


Jack Spencer: Beyond the Surface
through October 13, 2013 | Exhibition 
Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, Tennessee 

The first major museum exhibition honoring photographer Jack Spencer’s work, featuring seventy images, opened on July 12, 2013, at the Frist Center in Nashville and will run through October 13. As Dr. Susan H. Edwards, executive director of the Frist Center and photography historian, notes about his work, “We look to photography for a clear vision of the truth, but Spencer denies us the certainty of expectations in favor of the richness and rewards of subjectivity. The tonal wealth of his photographs takes us into the obscure realm between fact and fiction.”

One of SXSE’s favorite artists, Jack was kind enough to share some thoughts with co-editor Victoria Amador on this tremendous tribute to his outstanding career.

When did the Frist Center first approach you about a retrospective, and what was your immediate response? How long did it take to pull it together? How closely did you work with curator Mark Scala?

I was first asked to consider having the exhibition around three-and-a-half years ago. Of course I was honored. It is such a beautiful museum and has such a pristine reputation. The hard work began around a year ago, progressing steadily up until the opening. Mark and I worked very closely on the exhibition. He had a fairly clear idea about what he thought to be a good approach. He was never dogmatic, however. We did butt heads on a few things, but he was always a gentleman and would listen to my points carefully and either come back with a rational counterpoint or an agreement as to why or why not an image should stay or go. I trusted him completely, even though this would not be the show I would have made. And that is probably a good thing. My show would have terrified small children and old ladies…and possibly large children and young ladies.



Did you want to organize the show as an overall depiction of your growth as an artist, or was it more of a coherent, organic statement about your aesthetic? Can you discuss how you came up with the six sections of the show (Portraits and Figures; Apparitions; Mythologies; Day into Night; This Land; and Color as Light)?

We were all quite clear that this would not be a “retrospective.” I am still making new work, and I am far from the porch! Also, my work is quite diverse. I have not stayed in one place over the years. I see bodies of work as investigations or puzzles looking for solutions. I explore something until I have some clarity on the subject and then I move on to the next puzzle. I do not revisit old subjects. An artist’s work should have growth rings. But Mark saw common qualities even in the diversity and wanted to break that down. It is something I had never really considered.

The press release speaks about your early influences – can you speak a bit about how Edward Steichen’s process informed your work? How does his mystery and softness find compatibility in the pictorialist tradition of Robert Frank in your work?

I loved the pictorialist quality of Steichen. I started off as a painter. I do not like the idea of simply having the machine (the camera), do the work for me. However, I also loved Robert Frank, and I think that he produced some of the very best photography ever made with “The Americans” and “London and Wales.” The camera did not make those images, however. His intent and his soul “saw” those images and called them forth. My intention was to combine the two, to make documentary photographs and render them pictorially in the darkroom for emotional content.

The Southerners you’ve captured in your work have a dream-like quality. Is that in a way how you see the South – as a kind of strange dream? Can you explain your changing view of that part of America? 

Native Soil was a body of work that was started over twenty-five years ago. It was a reminiscence of my youth and upbringing, and a clarification, of sorts, of that time in my life. Those images were subconsciously attached to or referenced my personal history. So, in that respect, I suppose they were rendered in a dreamlike way. That “South” no longer exists as it was during my childhood. Nor does that “South” expressed during the making of Native Soil exist today. The South, like most elements of Americana, has vanished and become more homogenized. It looks a lot like the rest of America. I dislike the “faux” South that has emerged. So many people these days are working so hard at being “Southern.” It is so unauthentic and can be spotted a mile away. You either really like grits or you don’t.

You’ve moved into exploring color and abstraction. How did that approach evolve? Were there other photographers who influenced you initially in this process?

I have moved into a place where I don’t have many outside influences. I believe self- inspiration is the only valid inspiration if one wants to move forward. You have to jettison everything and act from pure intuition. I love color and abstraction. I like what happens when one color is juxtaposed against another color and the energy that is born from that action. I have also always loved the ambiguous in art. More questions should be asked by a work of art than are answered. The viewers of the show have room for their own interpretation.

Would you talk a bit about “Light Vessel,” the image used by the Frist Center to publicize your exhibition? Can you discuss how the idea came about, the process, the camera used, and the concept?

I never pre-plan work. It all happens spontaneously of its own volition. My photo sessions are sometimes intense. Not in an uncomfortable or hectic way. There is always a swirl of ideas and electricity in the air. Indescribable, really. I don’t really remember how it happened. The camera could have been a Canon or it may not. I don’t really pay much attention to those things. Whatever camera was handy!



Were there any particular comments you received during the events honoring your retrospective which you found particularly insightful? Amusing? 

No. Not really. There was just the standard gallery banter. Of course, I am always pleased somewhat to be patted on the back. But that is not why I do this.

Have you always had a sense of the ephemeral in life, in art? In other words, were you born with that sensibility, or did it appear as a result of certain events in your life?

I don’t know. That is like asking me if I have always liked the color blue. I am not sure of what is innate and what is causal. I do think in those terms often. There is no permanence. All things are gossamer. I approach all things as if they were really important…knowing of course, that they are not. I know that today is a beautiful day and that tomorrow, it may rain.

If you had to be remembered by three photographs, which would they be, and why?

Oh, that is not possible. I am happy sometimes to come across an image of mine that I have not seen in a long while. It is like a visit from an old friend. Most all of them at one time or another filled me up. Sometimes, they are the simplest of images that maybe never caught on with the galleries. But they hold a special place for me.

Can you discuss how the literary influences upon your work are incorporated? Are there particular works by Faulkner, Borges, and others which you tried to capture in particular photographs? 

Not really anything in particular. I think there is an overall feeling from many artists and writers of creating things that did not exist before and now they do because I intended them to exist. I get the same thing from Beethoven and Radiohead. That is my job. What a way to live! Making things that did not exist before and people paying you to do it.



What were your favorite moments during the opening events for the retrospective? 

I can’t say there was anything specific. But overall, I enjoyed being surrounded by friends and fellow artists and having them share in my glowing moment. There was a swirl of activity, and I tried my best to keep my awareness intact and not let it become a blur of activity.

What is coming up in the future for you, Jack? 

I may be going into filmmaking soon. I don’t want to jinx it at this point….