It’s difficult to fathom a photographer naming an abstract artist as a major influence. O’Keeffe and her desert flowers, maybe, but Rauschenberg and his mixed-media “Combines”? Really?
“My dad is an artist and printmaker,” explains Simon Blundell,” and we’ve always had Rauschenberg’s books around the house.”
His father, Martin, was mentored by Robert Kleinschmidt at the U during the mid-‘70s and is known for mixed-media collage drawings and paintings. (He’ll be doing more of those now that he’s retired; he and his two partners sold SDI, a large Salt Lake City screen-printing business, a couple weeks ago.)
You can map Rauschenberg’s influence on Simon in Fragmentation and Language, a show of chromogenic prints of collaged images that race across the frames confining them: patchworks of color and motion, crazy-quilt photomontages of well-thought-out memory and meaning. They represent “segments of my own experience,” says Blundell. It’s a fantastic, dreamy exhibition in a nearly perfect space for it, the fourth-floor Gallery at Library Square in the Main Salt Lake City Library until Feb. 23.
It hangs nicely opposite a show of paintings by Rebecca Pyle, who emailed to say:“Simon B.’s photographs phenomenally beautiful. Rippling as if found memories/objects underwater. The Comments book at the library is filling up with commentary about him.” Blundell, clearly embarrassed upon hearing this but looking somewhat pleased, too, says he’ll “probably” go check out those comments “one day soon.”
The photographer also picked up an affinity for Bob Dylan through his father then took up the guitar, and though he still respects Dylan (“His lyrics are collages, he just mixes up these lovely visual images”) says, “I really love U2 now. In fact, they’re my favorite band.” Seemingly veering off subject, he proceeds to chat comfortably about the group’s new album, “Songs of Experience” versus their most popular album “The Joshua Tree.”
It seems U2’s “Songs of Experience” really isn’t that far off point, as photography (which Rauschenberg did, too) is “a language that I use to describe my experience,” Blundell writes in an artist statement. “Photography, like any language, has a grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. By manipulating the syntax and grammar of photography, I explore and express the concept of fragmentation,” he says of his exhibition and its title. “Each photograph is a piece of time and space. It is associated with and represents our memory. Photographs also become symbols of the real. We save and collect photographs in albums, boxes, and now on hard drives. We take photographs to help us remember. They are a way to document and record our lives. They help us reconnect to ourselves,” he says. “And share who we are.”
In addition to working with both fine art and commercial clients, Blundell frequently shoots for 15 Bytes (see our recent artist profiles of Cody Chamberlain, Joe Carter, Bonnie Sucec and Bret Hanson – and much earlier images of the studios and smiling faces of Maureen O’Hara Ure and Earl Jones as examples of Blundell brilliantly telling the other half of the story through his lens). He has shown his work at Bountiful Davis Art Center and elsewhere, currently has a video piece at UMOCA (he thinks adding a motion component may be a logical direction for his collage work to go) and is also an assistant professor, lecturer at the University of Utah where he’s teaching three courses this semester in the areas of photography, design, and arts technology. That’s where Blundell studied as an undergraduate and also earned an MFA in photography and digital imaging.
He previously taught photography for five years at Utah Valley University in Orem, but finds he’s much happier living in Sugar House near his two younger sisters and his two nieces and two nephews. He values spending time with family and with friends and also enjoys riding his Harley Sportster 1200 (a couple steps down from a big Hog but a lot of fun to drive, we gather), seeing films (he loved the new Blade Runner), hiking, fly fishing, cooking (when his mother isn’t making excellent meals for him), snow boarding, and, of course, he’s still playing that guitar.
Blundell, 43, was born in Salt Lake City and lived near the Capitol for a decade before the family moved to Bountiful where he eventually attended Woods Cross High. “I grew up painting and drawing, but in high school I started fooling around with a camera and really wanted to be the Student Body Photographer but my editing skills weren’t strong enough. I was able to help out, though, and later, when I just needed an elective near the end of high school – I was heavy into math and science because I thought I was going to be a plastic surgeon one day – a friend said we should take this photo class.” They spent a lot of time goofing off, taking pictures with cheap rolls of film and his dad’s old camera: “It was really pretty sweet, an old Canon 35 mm. I mostly used the 50 mm lens. It had a really wide aperture, F 1.2.” He also had a wide-angle 35 mm lens and a telephoto 135 mm. “I’d wander around and take pictures of people and crows and whatever. I felt like the camera gave me a way of accessing the world. So that’s where it took off photography-wise. I got a camera for graduation and started taking classes up at the U,” Blundell remembers.
Today he uses a Canon 5 DS 50 megapixel digital body and uses a 24-70 lens, as well as a 40 mm lens for most of the work he captures, “but if I need a reconnection with film and my past will also still use an old Hasselblad that I shoot film with,” says Blundell. “And then I had a little Olympus XA that was a point and shoot and it had a 38 mm lens on it so it was kind of wide but not really distorted and so I would just run film through it and I loved it because it was a quiet and a simple little range finder.” He returns to it every so often, and though he found a digital camera that had the same resolution in a small size, he’s stuck with the Olympus. “I realized I had to have the viewfinder. It was just the way I was taught. I even have problems with the phone. Someone will ask me to take their picture and I have trouble framing it because it’s just the screen.”
He has a large format 4×5 that he’ll sometimes shoot with. “There’s some magic still to watching a print arrive in the developer in the darkroom. I don’t think that’s ever going to get old for me. It’s awesome. And film makes you wait. I like that feeling of discovery,” he says.
Blundell doesn’t do a lot of landscape photography. “There always seems to be this Ansel Adams religion. It’s like ‘This is the perfect print.’ And they are usually male and they love to talk about camera technology. Lenses and film — and I got so turned off by that. And it always seemed like these photographers never had their own voice or their own vision, it was just like they’re a cover band that sings other people’s songs and they’re always trying to get that Ansel Adams image. I love Adams’ work, but it’s HIS vision. It’s not anybody else’s. So I think that kind of turned me off to the natural landscape,” he says.
“And I like the fluidity of the city. You walk through a city taking pictures and things are changing all the time. There’s not this epic huge shot that I wait for; and I think that’s more of this landscape thing: you find the shot and wait for it, wait for the light and wait for the moment and take it. I like the speed and the quickness of the city.”
Blundell says that he took a history of photography class from Joe Marotta at the U and he discovered “kindred spirits” in the “35 mm range of photographers,” the street photographers of the ‘60s like Andre Kertesz and Robert Frank. “That stuff really just resonated with me: The poetry of the moment; it’s quick, it’s small. I loved the idea of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment,’ but then I look at, like, Robert Frank — to me it’s the in-between moments. Bresson is, like, I’ve got this great perfect shot where everything is lined up perfectly — and I want to know what happened after that, in between those two big moments. And I think that’s what Robert Frank captured for me. I responded to that, to that poetry,” he says.
One work in the Library show, “Re-Framed Attachment,” is made up of eight or nine, or maybe more, images shot on the streets of New York City and seamlessly blended together, reflecting on the ephemeral nature of the city, as well as photography. There are buildings going up to the sky and people down to the ground, as Dylan might observe, and probably did. There are reflections on the window, so you see through it and on it, too. “The ad in the window is taken down with the next fashion season,” says Blundell. “Exploring in New York I started seeing a lot of this.” People seen through concrete girders on a subway platform look like images on a contact sheet, “like analog photography. You never see all the things that get thrown away in the process.” There’s also the dichotomy of the female model, from a fashion shoot, and the male: He, of course, is a piece of sculpture from the Met that lasts forever. “What’s transitory and ephemeral? What do we hold on to? What do we get connected with? This is about how photography reframes things.”
Blundell says his education came on the cusp between digital and analog. “I was educated when digital was just kind of coming up.” His montage images like “Re-Framed Attachment” actually came about from an analog mistake. “I was at the university doing a project where I had to compare black and white and color and I had to load my camera with a slide roll of film and I would take a couple of pictures and I would rewind it and then reload it and I didn’t have two camera bodies I only had one and so I’d have to work with two different types of film and swap them out. I was rewinding film and in the process one had an accidental double exposure. I was editing those slides and my dad said, ‘What’s this one?’ and I told him it was a mistake and he said, ‘Well this is the best thing you’ve ever done.’” He decided to turn to the digital to take advantage of this discovery. “I was working with early Photoshop and I found there were simulations where we could actually stack images and simulate that double exposure because it was cheaper and I had more control over it. There’s still this randomness when these two images come together but I had the computer to see quickly what those results were. Not only what happens when you put two images, three images together in one single frame, but the ability to branch out from that and rearrange the scale of the film, I could blow it up or mask out parts. That turned into my MFA.”
What Blundell finds interesting is that because of that process in the computer, it’s not just photography. Though Photoshop is spoken of as photo-related software, he says “it’s built more about painting. I mean all of its tools are on brushes and palettes and its main format is called a canvas; I mean those are painting terms. So a lot of times the materials that I’m using are like paint that you start throwing on a canvas and start rearranging and pushing around. I can change the color and all sorts of things. But it’s the assembly of how I’m putting the images together that’s a lot more in congruence with a painter’s process. The idea of Motherwell saying let’s make a mark on the canvas, react to it, make another one. In a similar way, here is a photo, what is it saying. I guess the difference is photography has such a connection to the real denotative meaning, but then there’s all this personal meaning or cultural meaning, and those then can get collaged. So as soon as I throw another image to that you start to have dialogue and those meanings collide or interact both in a real literal sense or culturally and personally. Now I can create layers of possible meaning.”
And then he’s off. “That image needs some blue, but is it a wall, or the ocean or sky or what?” And he goes to his archive of images and searches until he finds something that he thinks will work and tries it out. Or if he doesn’t have the image he makes it. He might plan a trip to the ocean to get the image he needs – he’s planning one this summer. He’ll show his students his technique, but they have to discover on their own, as artists, how to put two images together and why. He doesn’t see anyone else doing what he’s doing. “I think my style is mine. I’m blessed in that sense. Avedon said that every photograph is accurate but none of them are true. Maybe that’s pushed even further now that Photoshop is part of our culture,” Blundell says with a smile.
A piece in the library show, “Collection of Guiding Light,” that he thought might inspire kids as they walked by, is of a room in the library, camera angled down four or five floors, collaged with bookshelves and a table holding a stack of books “that they could check out if they wanted to,” says Blundell. “I was remembering one of my first assignments was shooting neon signs on State Street. I found Walker Evans on my teacher’s recommendation and looked at how he was photographing signage in the ‘30s. I loved the idea that I could look up this reference, this ‘go look at so-and-so.’ And I still love art books. So I photographed some of my favorites.” Robert Frank’s The Americans has a photo from Utah in it, and is open to that page. But not all the books can be checked out because Blundell added some of his own books that inspired him. “More Robert Frank. David Hockney was a great inspiration. More Rauschenberg, Irving Penn, and Anton Corbijn, who was U2’s photographer and also was inspired by Irving Penn and Robert Frank. I like his graphic quality and portraiture.”
Blundell sees everything in terms of photography. Thinks it. That’s what happens, he says. “I see it in all those bits and pieces. And the bits and pieces then speak to the whole. Maybe it’s a struggle of trying to figure out who we are and why we’re here on this planet, why we’re going through this human experience. You know, what does it all mean? These BIG, big questions. And then you wonder, ‘What the hell was this little thing, why did I have to go through THAT?’ And then over time you start to relate it to all these other experiences and you realize it makes sense.
“I wonder if that’s some part of collage work for me. I might be looking at one single image and then as I get further back it turns into a bigger picture and I get a better view of what’s happening and over the scope of a lifetime I start to relate and say ‘Oh, yeah these are consistent’ and it starts giving me greater understanding of who I am and what’s important to me in my life. There’s a lot of self-discovery that occurs through the image making,” Blundell concludes.
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.