Writer, artist, and curator Phillip March Jones’s latest book, Points of Departure, is a collection of roadside memorial Polaroids depicting scenes of reality, often stark eulogies on road sides, highways, and Interstates, that we routinely speed by in our busy lives. The collection demonstrates an irony between our hurried motion and the absoluteness of departure the memorials commemorate, as if the two, at least at moments, exist in parallel universes.
A busy man himself, Phillip March Jones is the founder of Institute 193 – a non-profit contemporary art space, small-scale publishing house, and cultural centre in Lexington, Kentucky – and the director of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, committed to raising public awareness of African-American vernacular art of the South. We were able to catch up with Jones for a quick Q&A about his newest book.
AC: Polaroid as a medium was nearly extinct, but seems to be making a comeback, with many thanks to The Impossible Project. How much does the nature and rarity of instant film and its dated feel influence or shape Points of Departure?
PMJ: The project that led to the publication of Points of Departure was wholly dependent on Polaroid film. I have always been drawn to its color, format, and scale. Early in its development, Polaroid film was widely used by police officers and other law enforcement, because it produced an unalterable instant photo, irrefutable evidence of a particular event. These photographs were conceived as evidence of an unspoken need to commemorate and celebrate our own fleeting lives and stories.
The film’s discontinuation, announced by Polaroid in February 2008, added another layer of complexity to the process. I had to locate the memorials and the film, which was slowly but surely expiring on store shelves all over the country. The symbolism was not lost on me, and the whole process became a race against time. The confluence of these circumstances created a project that can never be replicated. The Impossible Project’s films are highly unstable and expensive. Other instant films made my FUJI, etc. do not have the classical square frame and lack the warm tones and feel of traditional Polaroid 600.
AC: Which Polaroid camera do you prefer?
PMJ: For this project I used a Polaroid Job Pro 600. I bought it at a Thrift Store in Greensboro, Alabama for 5 dollars when I was a student at Auburn’s Rural Studio. The camera’s front is bright yellow and was originally marketed as a “construction camera” suitable for building and work sites. It looks and feels very official. A real pro.
AC: Much of your work, like the workbooks on your website, presents a very ‘in process’ feel. Was Points of Departure a project you deliberately set out to accomplish, or did it come together as you happened to pass the roadside memorials on your way to somewhere else?
PMJ: I have always spent a lot of time on the road visiting artists, attending exhibitions, and working on various projects. I began photographing roadside memorials years before the book was conceived out of a general interest in art made by individuals outside of the conventional gallery and academic systems. When my brother moved to Los Angeles in 2009, I rode with him cross-country and the resulting images made me think of the project in more concrete terms. During that road trip I decided that a publication would be the best format to preserve and share the work. Soon after, I spoke to Tom Meyer, the publisher of the Jargon Society, and fortunately, he was interested in producing the book. The rest, as they say, is history.
AC: In addition to your workbooks, which you share generously online, you also have a photo gallery of nearly every image from Points of Departure on your website. You clearly have a very open idea about sharing work and influences. How much does that practice crossover to your other projects like Institute 193 and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation?
PMJ: I believe that information, influences, and sources exist to be shared. I think a lot of artists, publishers, and musicians feel a need to protect their creative material to ensure their ability to effectively commodify their work. In my experience, sharing images on a website does not prevent people from buying a book, visiting an exhibition, or buying into a project. That notion carries over into my work with Institute 193 and Souls Grown Deep. Both organizations have an open content approach, and function on the principal that education and awareness should always be the motivating interest. All of the work I do is focused on providing access and points of entry to new ideas and material.
AC: In your artist statement for the book and exhibition Points of Departure you write that this work is about slowing down. With a new photograph every day on your Tumblr site, directing and curating, writing, and making art, how do you balance everything and still find time to slow down? Or do you?
PMJ: I don’t think I will ever slow down. There is so much to see and to do and so little time. But the idea of slowing down is very attractive to me. Maybe some day…