I was fortunate to have a chance to chat with Rebecca Sittler about her thoughtful, engaging and exquisitely crafted book All the Presidents’ Men. The book “combines images made in presidential museums and historic sites across the United States with images from her father and grandfathers homes.” The book is a larger exploration of the “stories we tell in our personal and political lives,” as well as inquiry into masculinity in American culture today.
The 60 page, 9.5×8″ perfect bound book was self-published and printed by Typecraft in Pasadena, CA in an edition of 100. It features double sized handmade inserts that replicate objects from her father’s memory box.
TP: Can you tell us about your background and the origins of your interest in photography?
RS: As a girl growing up in the mid-west, I loved making weird, constructed photographs of my favorite objects, friends and pets. In high school, I learned darkroom photography in a weekend workshop and was hooked. I went to college to study actuarial science, and turned my dorm room into a darkroom (the workshop obviously didn’t include information on chemical safety). I slowly realized that I was more interested in developing pictures, watching experimental films and reading British literature than toiling over applied math problems and statistics. I changed my major to English and art, with a minor in film studies, and then specialized in photography at the graduate level. I’ve been fortunate to have a number of incredibly talented and influential mentors over the years: Dave Read and Shelley Fuller at UNL, Jan Roddy and Louis Kaplan at SIUC, and Abelardo Morell at Mass Art to name a few.
TP: What path did you take to creating the body of work for All the Presidents’ Men?
RS: I went to the Nixon Presidential Museum with a friend and historian in 2011. I truly didn’t expect it, but it was fascinating. The museum is modeled on domestic spaces from the late 60’s and early 70’s, which uncannily reminded me of my grandparents’ houses. I just finished a series on the Queen Mary, a luxury ocean liner docked in Long Beach, CA that now serves as a hotel, paranormal research center and museum. I was struggling with the difference between making photographs about the problem of nostalgia and making nostalgic photographs (which I didn’t want to do), and the Nixon Museum seemed to offer a formidable challenge.
Presidential museums are mergers between private and public funding and as a result, the museum curators are faced with the difficult problem of conveying history while encouraging viewers to identify with and heroicize the president. In Nixon’s case, this was a man who had a very public downfall. Nixon’s legacy, largely outlined in the public mind by Watergate, contradicts American idealisms of integrity, leadership and moral resolve (however tenuous they are revealed to be at times). The museum draws you in through flocked wallpaper, personal effects, human details, sympathetic video narratives and the realization that all presidents at some time or another may crack under the enormous pressure. I hadn’t seen this complexity within a national museum, so naturally I was intrigued. I have always found failure, vulnerability and doubt to be more believable and more human in the face of these enormous responsibilities than the political rhetoric that creates an attractive façade.
My father has a story about meeting Harry Truman by chance after an all-night road trip when he was 18 years old, and it is one of the highlights of his life. At the time I started this project, I wanted to get to know my father better. However, it was hard to bridge the distance between us, created by our different political viewpoints, belief systems and access to education. After visiting several of these museums, I began to see them as an archive of my father’s traditional, masculine American worldview, and I convinced myself that I could use them to understand why he needed to hang on to these perspectives, even when they didn’t suit him or apply to many of his own experiences.
TP: Can you tell us about the experience of making the work?
RS: Most presidential museums play into the desire for heroic narratives while downplaying the complexities of leadership and the pressure of these (to date) largely masculine roles. Based on my initial encounter with the Nixon Museum, I looked for these slippages and contradictions in the images and objects in other museums. For three years, I negotiated access and took trips every few months to presidential museums across the country. This involved flying and driving to places like Abiline, KS and West Branch, IA as well as Boston, MA and Little Rock, AR. Road trips are on the periphery of this work. I was haunted by my father’s presidential encounter and retraced his trip, resulting in the panoramic image within the book cover/wrap and a parallel narrative about my own frustrations with creating photographs that trace or represent the complexities of history and the nuances of personal experience.
Largely comprised by images, objects and increasingly immersive environments, the museums are also a challenge to photograph. Each has its own design elements, mood and nostalgic motivations, yet most follow a similar, collective script. I was particularly drawn to details of exhibits that could be interpreted in multiple ways not intended by the museum curator. Photographically, I saw the museum as a staged visual archive containing hauntingly familiar ideological narratives. I started to think about the ways in which these narratives have shaped my own relationship with my father, as well as what I expect from other men in my life, and I wanted to point this out within the museum as well as challenge it.
Photographs are increasingly a larger part of these museums, and their slippery and contextual mutability is a significant contributor to the museum experience. The series also includes re-photographed images, some photographed within the museum, and others made by cutting a print of an image, placing it over another copy of the print and activating it with motion in order to disrupt the surface of the image.
TP: What story are you trying to tell with this work?
RS: I’m trying to create an altered and more human version of these familiar masculine, American worldviews. Ultimately, I am advocating for more complexity within visual political rhetoric, and am pointing out the ways in which we cling to these odd facades, even when we know better. I also hope for a way to articulate failure and struggle as a part of these stories, and to see a broader spectrum of American masculinity.
My photographs are also about the strange ways museum objects struggle to hold up these abstract ideas, and how these visual ideologies are so pervasive that we don’t see them anymore. They’re almost invisible, yet infused into our homes and familial relationships. Luckily, political rhetoric and the spectrum of political realities and identities are slowly, but surely changing. Surveying all of the presidential museums operated by the National Archives, it was fascinating to see that these forces have always been quietly and insistently at work in American politics, and they are there if you look closely with active attention.
TP: Why did you decide to make the All the Presidents’ Men into a book?
RS: This was one of the most challenging projects I’ve worked on. Throughout the editing process, I noticed that most images were more powerful within the context of others, rather than seen individually. As a collective, they had a great deal more to say about the oddity of these reified narratives, and the ways in which the museum objects can’t completely contain them, and are in fact slippery substitutes. I also wanted to confuse the identities represented by each photograph, and I mixed in images from my father and grandfather’s homes so that there are times in which the viewer is not sure what they are looking at.
I also wanted to convey multiple narratives surrounding my motivations for making the work, and that was difficult to do without text, control over sequencing and subtle design elements that reflect and reinforce my perspectives on the content. Bookmaking is a surprisingly complex process, but one that I have enjoyed and plan to continue with.
TP: What are your feelings regarding the multiple ways – online, phones, prints, books, in a gallery, etc – the public consumes images today?
RS: Visual research has never been more exciting. Search engines contain so many varied combinations, and I particularly love that we can access lesser known moments and histories. However, not all of these are online, and some gaps (and conversely, repetitions) are more prominent than others. I also think that teaching critical, visual literacy is incredibly important and challenging. It keeps me up at night!
I think that artists are just beginning to understand what might be possible within these multiple formats. There’s a lot to think about when facing the reality that your images can be transported across different devices and contexts, and that some of them might not be ideal. Subtlety and complexity are becoming much more difficult commodities to trade in, which is troublesome to me. However, there are still a number of artists, curators, writers and professors who are dedicated to these goals and to thinking about what is at stake. It’s intriguing to me that photo books are leading the way in terms of experimentation with photographic narratives, and I’m continually astonished by the range of documentary practices that have opened up in this climate. I also love being surprised by other people’s pictures and new ways of conveying content. It’s overwhelming, but photography is a rich medium to be invested in.
TP: How do you prefer to look at images – and why?
RS: I prefer to see images in book form, upside down on a ground glass, magnetized to a wall in my studio, or quickly and ravenously online. I’m also intrigued by gifs – and the possibility of exploring the place between still and moving images. I think that books are still the richest source to engage with what photographic artists really do and what their concerns actually are. It’s surprising that photography is so enlivened by what is happening in print.
I’ve noticed that I’m beginning to prefer smaller prints, particularly those that contain something I can’t quite explain – not because it’s bizarre or theatrical or catchy, but because it is quiet yet insistent, familiar and wholly disturbing. I’m less interested in singular images, and much more drawn to narrative and context, as well as the mixing of photographic styles and approaches within a single body of work.
TP: What project(s) are on your horizon?
RS: I’m working on a collaborative book, a newspaper and an experimental museum exhibition with designer Anastasiia Palamarchuk, based on women hiding themselves at sea: female stowaways, pirates and female sailors who often dressed as men. We hope to have the first newspaper available by October. You can follow our evolving research on Facebook and on Tumblr.
TP: What drives you to create photographs?
RS: I am drawn to the ways in which photographs paradoxically both reinforce and distort ideas, and the problems these simultaneous possibilities pose. I also love that this medium is both analytical and intuitive and truly a balancing act.
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