6 December 2016

It's alright, we're alright: the world through the lens of Blaise Cepis


6 December 2016


We tend not to notice stuff until something’s wrong with it. How aware are you of the lights in your house until a bulb goes out? When was the last time you thought about your pancreas? Flaws, problems and incongruities are what make us conscious of a thing’s existence. Without aberration, we don’t just lose our sense of normal, we lose our sense entirely.

This is probably why, in art especially, we’re often attracted to “wrongness” or – clunkier but closer to the mark – “not-quite-right-ness”. Whether a subject is presented in a disfigured way (think: Francis Bacon) or the subject itself is disfigured (think: Diane Arbus), deviation from standard form makes us a bit more cognizant of form in general. Just as nothing reminds us of our aliveness more than death, nothing reminds us that we have a body more than the body distorted.

Brooklyn-based photographer Blaise Cepis makes pictures that are all, in some way, “not-quite-right”. Sometimes this “offness” is overt – many of his images pair naked models with mirrors or printouts in a way that renders the scene abstract. And sometimes this offness is more subtle – Blaise is drawn to scenes that feel a lot like raw mistakes, the kind that yield sterility where there should be warmth, or sexlessness where you’d expect sex.

His style, these tropes and tricks, aren’t original, of course. Take a quick look around the current photo landscape and Blaise’s work looks like a more fun, less reverent version of Asger Carlsen’s fantastically bizarre photographs. Or maybe it’s close to what Lucas Blalock would produce if he took his camera out partying in Brooklyn five nights a week. You could also take a step even further back and see Blaise’s pictures as very Instagram-friendly incarnations of some cubist, dadaist and surrealist stuff hanging on white walls from sea to shining sea.

This is all to say that, at first glance, there are plenty of analytical inroads into discussing his work (and I haven’t even touched on the fact that he falls into the deep lineage of straight white males who have made a name for themselves photographing nude women, leveraging the male gaze). All the themes present; the heavy referentiality, and the unignorable issues of sex and gender, make it very tempting to intellectualise these pictures, and in turn, criticise them. But here’s the thing: it’s possible that the biggest mistake you could make in reading the photographs of Blaise Cepis would be to take them too seriously.

That might sound like a negative value judgement. It’s not. It’s a sentiment that Blaise says he has “absolutely no problem with,” and he shouldn’t, because what draws people to his images is that they aren’t meticulously crafted pieces of art, but relatively spontaneous byproducts of a pretty wild life. Blaise is the guy in your group of friends who is focused on making sure everyone is having a good time.

He admits that he’s partially drawn to photography because it can be a “social pursuit” rather than “lonely” one. When I suggested that many artists thrive in isolation, without distraction, Blaise shook his head: “Look, I love the idea of romantically moving into the woods, getting a cabin and secluding myself. I have friends who have houses upstate, and they’ve offered me their place. After 20 minutes alone, I end up saying, ‘Fuck this! Where is everyone?’” Blaise simply isn’t the type to justify an unpleasant process as a necessary means to an end. He cares more about the fun being had than the images being made, and you get the feeling that if it weren’t that way, his photographs would probably lose their strange charm.

“Look, I love the idea of romantically moving into the woods, getting a cabin and secluding myself. I have friends who have houses upstate, and they’ve offered me their place. After twenty minutes alone, I end up saying, ‘Fuck this! Where is everyone?’”

Blaise Cepis

This is not to say that his process is totally devoid of thought or planning. He’s usually working on a handful of aesthetic ideas at once and, upon meeting up with a model – often his friends or girlfriend – he determines which project they’ll make pictures for that day. But after that, it’s stream of visual consciousness.

Blaise describes it as collecting a “handful of ingredients,” and then following impulse. Sure, that impulse often leads to people taking their clothes off and holding strange and difficult positions for extended periods of time, but while that may sound like a cheap trick, there’s a certain artfulness required to making that sort of environment comfortable and safe. Whether you think he is a good photographer or not, he’s undoubtedly gifted at convincing people to get weird, or as he puts it, “do crazy shit”.

Blaise’s pictures will always be subject to a fair amount of valid and necessary criticism, but these criticisms are likely to exist incongruent with the work itself. What I mean is that, to spend time picking apart the meaning, symbolism and significance of these images would be to imbue them with a weightiness they weren’t created with. It’s worth noting that before Blaise devoted his life to photography, he worked in advertising, a period he describes as relatively “soulsucking,” in large part because he was forced to “come up with a myriad of bullshit – ‘what this work represents; what that work represents’ – to sell ideas through”.

Blaise knows full well how to inject art with intellect and concept, and his choice to not do that in his personal work is a conscious one. So, while we are, of course, free to analyse his photographs, we should do so knowing that, in some way, to think about them may be to overthink them. That is, the stakes are low in these pictures, and part of me thinks that the challenge is to not follow our gut instinct and raise them.  

It’s all there in his Instagram handle, @ItsAlrightWereAlright – a little phrase of reassuring perspective and levity that does a good job of capturing his mentality, in art and in life. Like most things, you can probably trace this attitude back to his upbringing: he grew up the son of a truck driver and a secretary in Philadelphia, parents who he says regularly reminded him that, while their family didn’t have a lot, they were incredibly fortunate.

So, it makes some sense that in his career, he isn’t living and dying with the critical reception of his work. Whether you like it or not isn’t a big deal, not because Blaise doesn’t have feelings, but because in the grand scheme, well, few things are truly a big deal. @ItsAlrightWereAlright isn’t just a moniker then, but a necessary lens through which to view these pictures. It’s a shorthand reminder that in an arena where other photographers are working, Blaise Cepis is playing.

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