Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling
Kathy Brew interviews Mark Alice Durant
Cover of 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in
Photography, Saint Lucy Books, 2017
KB: Tell us about your forthcoming book, Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling, and how you made the shift from art-making to writing and publishing.
MAD: I started Saint Lucy Books in 2017 to extend the mission of my website, Saint Lucy, an online journal about writing on photography and contemporary art. I had just finished a book of essays, 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography, and was shopping around for a publisher. Several were interested but were unsure of how to market it. It wasn’t criticism, theory, photo history, memoir, or monograph; it was all of those things simultaneously. I then spoke with artist and writer Laura Larson, who I knew was also looking for a publisher for Hidden Mother, She was having a similar experience. It occurred to me that maybe I could fill a gap and publish books that combined words and photographs in unexpected or unconventional ways.
I had been around the photo and writing world for a long time, and knew a lot of small presses. After talking to a few people and just thinking about the logistics of it, I approached Laura Larson to see if she would be interested in my idea—and she was! And it has been a great adventure.
Our books came out in 2017, and both got a lot of attention, particularly Laura’s book. It was shortlisted for Best First Photo Book of the year by Aperture and Paris Photo. We went to Paris together for the party! It was amazing. And Hidden Mother has done very well in terms of sales and critical response.
Next Saint Lucy published Conversations with Saint Lucy, which is a collection of wide-ranging interviews with five contemporary photographers—Elinor Carucci, Rania Matar, Sarah Blesener, Ron Jude, and Doug DuBois. Then in 2018, we published Oliver Wasow’s book, Friends, Enemies, and Strangers, which got a tremendous amount of attention. It was recognized by Jerry Saltz and Aline Smithson as one of the best photo book/art books of the year.
Cover of Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling,
Cover image by Julia Borissova. Saint Lucy Books, 2020
Saint Lucy will release its fifth title Running Falling Flying Floating Crawling in early November. It’s a compendium of images and texts that picture, evoke, and examine the human body in those states of being. There are over 70 contributors. It includes canonical images from the history of photography by Cartier-Bresson, Harry Callahan, and Yves Klein, as well as more contemporary photographers and performance artists: Chris Burden, Bas Jan Ader, Lilly McElroy, Pope.L, Nan Goldin, Rania Matar, and John Divola—to name a few. The texts are from many amazing writers: art historians, artists, and curators—such as Lynne Tillman, David Campany, Susan Bright, Lia Purpura, Diane Seuss, and Jennifer Blessing.
As for the shift from artmaking to writing—I had always been writing along with my art making—mostly for photography journals, art magazines and artist monographs. I made a lot of art in the ’80s and ’90s—photographs, installations, and performances—and I had a solo museum show in 2000. After it was over I had a distinct feeling that I had no more pictures inside of me. I had never felt that way before. It was as if the well had dried up. But instead of feeling depressed, I felt liberated. And I decided to devote myself to writing.
White Wolves / Berlin, 1984, photograph © Mark Alice Durant
KB: Let’s rewind to the fact that you are an alum from SFAI. Talk about your time there: who you studied with and how you feel the school had an influence on your trajectory as the hybrid artist/writer/cultural person/educator that you have become.
MAD: I grew up in Boston and the only reason I wanted to go to the Art Institute for grad school was because I wanted to live in San Francisco. I applied three times before I got in. It’s hard to summarize, but those two years were everything to me. It was a break from my upbringing. It was a break from Boston. My father hadn’t even graduated from high school, so my going to graduate school was a big deal.
SFAI gave me a sense of freedom, of creating my own path. The Art Institute was a perfect size for me; it was in a perfect spot. I loved San Francisco. I loved the Diego Rivera mural. I liked the people I met. And I liked the views of Alcatraz. I liked everything about being there. It was a really beautiful time for me. I was very productive. I worked really hard—I was into it. And I was also writing at that same time. As soon as I graduated from the Art Institute, I started writing for Artweek, which sort of started my writing career.
There are two essays in my book, 27 Contexts, about my time in San Francisco: ‘The End, or Something Like It,’ and ‘An Image for Larry Sultan,’ about my teacher, Larry Sultan , who had a huge influence on me.
I was at SFAI from 1983-1985. Besides my fellow students that I met there, some of whom I am still friends with, I worked in the library, so Charles Stephanian and Jeff Gunderson were great mentors to me. I had a blast with them. I also worked in the photography dark room as part of my work study, and I became very close to Larry Sultan, who was a mentor and then a friend. And so was Linda Connor, of course. Linda was just really important—supportive, loyal and I just adore her. We’re still in touch. Both Larry and Linda became my models of how to be an artist in the world—devoted to their work but also devoted to teaching. I learned so much about teaching from them.
Lorca, 1994, photograph © Mark Alice Durant
KB: We were there at the same time.
MAD: That’s right—I would see you in the hallways...
KB: Do you have any memorable stories or anecdotes from your time there? Anything unique, amusing, or strange? Inspirational anecdotes?
MAD: Well…lots—it was such a vivid experience.
I would pull all-nighters in the dark room making giant black and white photo murals. I was using a large room with big vats of developer and stop bath and fixer. I would come in with my boom box and mix tapes at 10 o’clock at night, and would basically spend the night listening to music and printing. Just the intensity of it—the physical involvement, but also all the music I was listening to and being there mostly by myself—it was very sensual and atmospheric to be there overnight. I did that a lot—I did all my printing overnight, in these very long sessions. My big murals would be hanging all over the photo area like wet laundry. That was really special.
My graduating class, the class of ’85, was the first graduating MFA class to do an exhibition off site, at Fort Mason. Jim Pomeroy was in charge of the whole thing. I really liked him. He was very dear, very helpful and enthusiastic about the whole enterprise. I spent a lot of time with Jim, setting up my own work but also hanging around helping others. We all did that for each other. The Fort Mason exhibition was a very special event. And then there was an incredible party at Mission Rock afterwards that went all night!
Durant Portrait, 2020
Mark Alice Durant is an artist and writer living in Baltimore. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985. His photographs, installations and performances have been presented internationally. He is author of 27 Contexts: An Anecdotal History in Photography, Robert Heinecken: A Material History and McDermott and McGough: A History of Photography, and co-author of Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology, and the Paranormal. His essays have appeared in numerous journals such as Art in America, Aperture, Dear Dave, FOAM Magazine, Photograph, and many catalogs and anthologies, including Vik Muniz: Seeing is Believing, Jimmie Durham, Marco Breuer: Early Recordings and The Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire. He is founder, publisher, and editor of Saint Lucy Books.
Kathy Brew is an award-winning filmmaker and artist/writer/curator/educator who spent 14 years in the Bay Area but returned to her hometown, NYC, in 1994. She worked at SFAI on two separate occasions – as Director of Public Relations and Publications from 1984-85 and then as Humanities Department Manager in 1990-91. She currently teaches in the MFA Art Practice department at the School of Visual Arts and most recently served as Guest Curator in MoMA’s film department from 2016-2020. Her documentary, DESIGN IS ONE, has been screened and broadcast internationally, and her very first video, MIXED MESSAGES, created while living in San Francisco, is available on Kanopy and was featured in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam. She is currently a Consultant for the National Coalition Against Censorship’s upcoming virtual benefit art auction that culminates in mid-November and will feature several SFAI alums (faculty and former students).
The River and the Bridge, performance, Los Angeles, 1995
© Mark Alice Durant
KB: Tell me about your own teaching.
MAD: I think I was born to be a teacher. Before I went to art school, I was training to be a High School history teacher. I dropped out senior year during the bussing crisis in Boston in the mid 1970s, because I realized that I didn’t want to be a public-school teacher for the rest of my life. I really wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know how. I finished my undergrad in photography at the Massachusetts College of Art, and two years later moved to the Bay Area to go to grad school at SFAI.
I stayed in San Francisco for four years after I graduated. I didn’t look for teaching jobs initially because I wanted to stay in San Francisco to have fun and make art. There were a lot of opportunities, good places to show, and so many interesting people there that I could dialog with. So I was in San Francisco until ’89—until I got my first teaching job as a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I stayed there for two and a half years, and then I was offered a temporary position at UCLA, where I spent almost four years. Then I went to the University of New Mexico for a year before going to Syracuse University—where I started to really commit to the academic thing, getting tenure. But then I was offered a job down here in Baltimore, and I’ve been teaching here for almost 20 years.
My teaching has followed my professional interests. I taught in Photography throughout my career, and I now teach in the Art History and Museum Studies department. At New Mexico I was a visiting critic so I was teaching Contemporary Art Theory and writing about art, and that’s what I do now—I teach History of Photography and History of Media. I teach a course called ‘Cultures of Display’ which is about the history of museums and the rhetoric of display. I am still really devoted to the classroom and what can happen there—to the dialog that happens there.
My goal has always been to demystify the arcane or obscure aspects of art making, art theory, and art history. Because I come from a working-class background, many of the people I grew up with feel alienated from art—they feel left out or are made to feel stupid because they don’t get it. Many of my students, especially at a state university, are the first of their families to attend college, so I feel like I can use my experiences as a way to open up that world a little bit.