James Casabere: The art of man-made landscapes

by Jihyun Ro

Over the course of his successful, 30-plus year career, James Casabere has photographed everything from living rooms to Monticello to the theater on the Acropolis at Athens. His photographs show elements of urban, rural and institutional spaces that have a haunting resonance in depth and clarity. The catch? Casabere’s photos aren’t of real spaces. He designs, constructs, then photographs artificially created installations made in his studio. Casabere, who gave a lecture at the Carpenter Center on Oct. 18, provided an audience with examples of his constructed photography paired with the inspirations behind his unique pieces.

Back in the ‘70s, Casabere began his career by photographing household items in whimsical settings — for example, his Fan as Eudemonist relaxing after a long day at the beach, the first image that the artist set up to photograph, features an electric fan lounging on a couch in a living room. The backdrop for the photograph was made with construction paper, which adds a whimsical twist to the otherwise mundane subject matter. Combining everyday household items with greater symbolic elements, Casabere is able to manipulate the composition and the message of his work to the greatest degree.

Apart from his living-room sets, Casabere also draws from philosophy, literature and architecture to construct spaces that instill a "sense of place" that to me felt surreal. I found Casabere’s construction process vaguely reminiscent of the 3D models that architects draft before they build the final product, and, indeed, the artist noted that process as an important step in his craft. When he is considering possible subjects, Casabere heavily involves himself in social theory and historically significant events/spaces, as well as traumatic spaces, like torture chambers, prisons and underground slave holds. For all of his place-specific photographs, Casabere first visited each landmark and then worked from photographs and memory to create his own interpretation of the space.

Following the lecture, I was able to catch up with Casabere and ask him a few questions about his work, and his interpretation of his unique subject matter:

During your construction process, do you ever consider yourself a sculptor or architect, and do any of those mediums come into play?

A little bit. When I was taking those pictures of those subdivisions I was envisioning my own utopian community, and I wanted to design an ideal environment. So it does come up on occasion.

What do you do with the models after you’ve created them?

I’ve actually kept a lot of the houses—they’re in boxes in my house. But eventually most of them get torn up and thrown out. I occasionally repeat, but not very much.

What compels you to construct a landscape, rather than just photographing one? Are you aiming for an utopian/dystopian vision of space?

I don’t really think of it that way—I think now it’s become such an integral part of how I work that it’s more of just like being a painter. I build things, and I photograph them. At different times, there are different reasons for it. It’s almost like an accidental process, and eventually you go with the flow, and then you work with what you’ve discovered.

For me, Casabere’s work seems to be an amalgamation of sculpture and architecture, with photography as the ultimate product. By being able to control every aspect of his photograph, Casabere employs a level of artistic agency that I frankly find pretty enviable, but moreover inspiring. The level of conscious design and planning that goes into one of his pieces really does prove that no detail is insignificant.

[Caption: James Casabere's "Theater (after the Acropolis) #2, 2005, digital chromogenic print mounted in Plexi, 48 x 70 inches, 72 x 111.5 inches & 119 x 184.5 inches (in three panels 119 x 61.5 inches)]