In Andy Chen's nature photography you might sense an intuitive knowledge of another plane of reality—a spiritual realm, perhaps — overlaying our own. The sci-fi/fantasy novels of Charles de Lint, of which Chen is an avid fan, are set partly in such a world. But in many respects the existence of such a shadow world isn't a fantasy at all, although it would be a stretch to define it in spiritual terms. Entering into this world is a daily reality, in fact, for anyone who spends any amount of time on the Internet.
Social Currency, the show that Chen is curating at StutzArtSpace opening Friday, March 4, deals with the interaction of our physical world and of the World Wide Web; more specifically it focuses on the effect of social media on photography in the Internet age.
Chen graduated Purdue University with a degree in Computer Engineering in 1996. Four years later, he started a successful dot-com. While he's moved on to a career as a full-time photographer, Chen still spends a lot of time in the digital world, blogging, maintaining his website and communicating with friends and family.
I met up recently with Chen and we talked in his study on the second floor of his northside residence in which he lives with his wife Hannah and two-year-old daughter, Ruby. We started off by Chen talking about the upcoming Social Currency show.
Chen: I wanted to get involved in all this social media stuff going on that's having an impact on basically how photography is viewed. Some people call Facebook a glorified photo-sharing site. But then if you look at photography as a medium, it's really had much more of a social aspect than some of the other mediums.
It's part of people's everyday lives and we use it to document vacations and significant milestones like birthdays...senior pictures... so those things have always served as a kind of social currency when you exchange them and show them to your friends and family... it has an impact on how you relate to people and how you share your life, maybe even how you want to establish your reputation especially like when you keep giving a senior picture to somebody. You're really trying to make a mark [to establish that] this is my identity. And now that's really moved online.
It's really a great time to explore the progression of how photographs are used as social currency. So that was the idea for the show.
NUVO: Can you talk about some of the other artists and their work for this show?
Chen: Matt Sommers is making postcards for fictional tourist attractions. So his piece is actually going to be a postcard spinner. And I really love it because of the aspect of sharing your travels. Holly Sommers' piece is going to be like a mobile. And then Ron Kern's piece is about portraiture. So it's going to be a multi-paneled thing and each panel will have some vintage Victorian images all the way up to a portrait of himself.
NUVO: What are you looking for when you put together these photographers? How do they complement one another?
Chen: Really, what I'm looking for is how they explore different aspects of the social currency theme and so portraiture was certainly one I wanted to capture. Ginny Taylor Rosner's pieces are more about this transition into the online world; and so one of her pieces is actually going to be this photo album. Both of her pieces are books. And if you think of the [typical] family photo album with the cling static pages where you have pictures with the handwritten captions, but rather than pictures she's going to put CDs in them. I'm really pleased that it came out that several pieces in the show aren't traditional framed photographs on the wall.
NUVO: You're having the show at StutzArtSpace. What's your history with the Stutz?
Chen: I moved into the Stutz with my studio two years ago. I think last fall they were starting to look for shows for next year. So I had this idea and I proposed it and they were like 'Oh yeah, let's do it.' So that's how it came about. And then in January, I became the director of the StutzArtSpace Gallery.
NUVO: In your previous work you have natural settings, spaces devoid of people — a beam of sunlight entering a clearing for example — and there might be a symbolic content in that work. I guess I don't see a connection between that work and your upcoming show. Is there a connection there, though? Something that I'm missing?
Chen: Well, regarding the work you've seen before: I've always been interested in notions of story and journey. And especially since I've had a kid, the expression of how do you capture someone in images I've been more intrigued with and so of course I've been taking lots of pictures of my kid. And I think even especially after having Ruby I haven't been able to go backpacking as much and I've been spending more time in the city. And so a lot of the project ideas that I have coming up are actually more oriented around the city or with people.
NUVO: Before you were a full-time photographer, you developed software?
Chen: Yeah. I have a computer engineering degree from Purdue (1996). Right when I got out of school I worked for a consulting company for a few years. And then a friend of mine and I started a dot-com in 2000. It was called Quobix. And we had that company for five years, until 2005. We made collaboration software that ran on the Web. We deployed it ourselves for people to use for software development.
Then another startup actually liked our platform and built their whole business off of it. That other company's called Innocentive. We basically ran their technology side for several years... So I still do some part-time software development, but now most of my time is spent on the art side.
This show is really a combination between all my background on the social aspect of the Internet and photography and I'm really excited to be able to bring them together.
NUVO: In addition to you and your family, a number of other people live in your house including a single mom and her three-year-old daughter. On the first floor there's community living space. Does the physical space you live in, as well as your notions of Internet community and culture, have some effect on this show?
Chen: A number of different people have lived here over the five-and-a-half years that I've had the house. It's not a traditional living situation. So people are attracted here or have some time of interest to live with other people. I certainly had my reasons.
I think everyone here now is really distant from their immediate family or they don't live close to their immediate family. So we have kind of a family feel to the house... we celebrate holidays together. We help each other through struggles and conflict. We've also had a numbers of guys going through divorces staying here for a few months just trying to sort out where they're going to next.
That's something that I'm thinking about, how people are connected. And that's something that's important to me in this exhibit is how people connect to each other in their lives.