Corey Olsen’s photographs put up a loud, ostentatious front. Vivid colour, harsh light and high contrast all make a visually arresting body of work. The real value of Olsen’s images, however, lies in the subtlety with which they are composed: they confront the viewer with an off-kilter nostalgia, but upon closer inspection, they reveal a carefully crafted and often personal surrealism. A disconcerting moment of defamiliarisation precedes a reconsideration of how meaning itself is constructed. In this brief interview we discuss objects with/without meaning, perspective and serendipity.
There’s an uncanny quality to your photographs. Is defamiliarisation the goal, or a reconnection with what is familiar?
Yes, I’m very interested in the uncanny. I’d say both. For me, a cliché is less of a dead end and more of a challenge; something to revive into a new life. But at the same time, I’m always asking: who did this to you (created this cliché)? Was it photography? The photographer? The viewer? This is usually the just the entry point of my photos, not the only content.
Do you want to change people’s perspectives through your images, or just give them a glimpse into your own?
Once again, both. I’d like viewers to reconsider their expectations, and yet I’m also interested in sharing. I usually have ideas that I put into my photos but I want my personality in there as well.
Tell us about the series Garage Still Lifes: do they tell any sort of story through the objects you’ve combined? Is there ever a concern for the symbolic qualities of objects, or do you think more about texture, colour and composition etc.?
My family stores all our old junk in the garage instead of the basement because every spring, when the three-to-five feet of snow melts, our basement floods. A lot of these objects are important to me. Relics of old sports and hobbies, seasonal decorations and tools: there are a lot of loaded objects for me and probably for others with similar upbringings, but maybe not for everyone. So I wanted to use these almost as my paint: to try to strip the meaning from them by combining them in a strictly formal way. It’s nice to have a photo with something for the whole family.
Do you prefer to photograph friends or strangers? What about familiar or new places?
I like to photograph friends more often because they usually know what I’m trying to do, whereas strangers are perhaps uncomfortable and don’t know what my intentions are. For example, in my project called City Island I would cast friends to play a character and ask them to dress a certain way.
Do you get more enjoyment out of capturing a chance encounter, or out of carefully constructing a scene?
I’ve taken a lot of my favourite photos when looking for chance encounters. When I find them I slow them down, light them, and possibly modify them a bit. I like to have a plan but I think most photographers enjoy the thrill of serendipity.
Can you talk about the photographers who have influenced you most, and some of your current favourites?
William Wegman and Stephen Shore got me into the game. People like Wolfgang Tillmans, Cindy Sherman, Roe Ethridge, Jeff Wall, Torbjorn Rodland, Edward Weston, and Elad Lassry got me hooked. And my friends and peers keep me going (Molly Matalon, Tim Schutsky, David Brandon Geeting, Caroline Tompkins, Timothy O’Connell, Damien Maloney, and Pat O’Malley to name a few).
Finally, what is the most important thing about creating art for you?
Corny – but it’s the only thing that comes naturally to me.