An interview with Scott Alario
In his book The Son’s Secret (2020), Massimo Recalcati weaves his way through the Prodigal Son’s triumph and Oedipus’ tortured life to account for “the son’s desire as indecipherable enigma.”
Parenthood, this Italian psychoanalyst writes, involves “leaving the son’s secret to the son… It means knowing how to let him leave, and always being ready to welcome him upon his return.”
Recalcati is talking about sons specifically, yes, but his words probably apply to raising children more generally. One caveat: I’m not a parent. But Providence-based photog Scott Alario is, and his latest body of work, Luna Moth, eschews the documentary or sentimental impulses that have led many parents to pick up a camera.
The first time Alario and I met was in January 2020, when I arrived sleep-deprived to cover a show the artist had curated in Providence. The work of Alario and his cohorts proved uplifting in a moment of need. Color! Shape! Cool frames! Photography, as Alario notes below, can host its creator’s hangups, but here was work that honored the photo as a surface for fiction and invention.
Reconnecting recently, I was pleased to see Alario’s work has lost none of its good cheer. His latest photos, on view this month at Kristen Lorello in NYC, are appropriately springy in vibe and confectionary in color. Each is equipped with a handmade, neodymium-glazed ceramic frame that heightens the imagery’s already quasi-mystical feel. Alario’s partner Marguerite and their two kids star in these photos, albeit abstracted by composition, color and cropping. The photo’s origins in family time are contrasted by Alario’s almost-monastic process, which involves plenty of Photoshop.
As any photog knows, Photoshop’s not about truth-telling. Then again, Alario says of his kids: “I can’t tell their truths, and I don’t desire to.”
And so the child’s secret is left to the child. As for Alario himself, he shared some of his own secrets in our interview, from recipes for ceramic glazes to his favorite farming sim.
Let’s start with the new and (quite literally) shiny addition to this latest body of work: the neodymium glaze on your frames. How’d you find out about this material? Where do you get it? Is it expensive?
I have been working as a technician in an art school, and that includes its ceramics studio. I’ve had to learn so much and still have so much to learn. It’s been amazing. The neodymium glaze came to me from my mentor and co-worker Judd Schiffman (who coincidentally has a solo show of his artwork up concurrently at Greenwich House Pottery, NY). Judd showed me a pottery magazine where they talked about these glazes with dichroic hues caused by rare earth metals when used as pigments, and I got really excited. Through trial and error I came up with my own recipe that gave me a surface I loved as well as a color. The color of the glaze also changes in different lights: under daylight and LED lights it’s lavender, under chemical fluorescent light it looks blue or gray and under UV or black light…well I’ll just leave that as a mystery. Not a mystery though, here’s that original article with some glaze recipes even.
I get the neodymium powder from a ceramics supplier, so it is being used for its intended purpose in my case. As far as expense is concerned, it seems comparable to other powdered oxides/pigments, used for pigmenting anything from oil paint to ceramic glaze, which means, yeah, it IS expensive but fortunately I only needed a few ounces for a large amount of glaze.
That commitment to the medium is what makes ceramic and glass artists so fun to talk to. But the process behind the images themselves was pretty involved too. They’re digital photos you inverted into “negatives,” then colored with a tablet. What are the benefits or reasons for mimicking an analog process with a digital workflow?
Digital photography mimics analog processes from the ground up. Photoshop was built by darkroom people. Many of the tool icons are even forgotten things we use in the darkroom, like the burn tool: a hand making an OK shape, which would allow light from an analog enlarger through your hand made circle to add image density. And conversely, the dodge tool: a lollipop like wand used to reduce light in an area.
For me, emulating an effect from an analog process just means that it is physically “possible,” if that makes sense? These could be made in a chemical darkroom; that is possible. I guess this is important to me because of my education? Like: a photograph, in order to be a photograph, has to be possible by analog means too? Shoot, I could go on and on about this but I’ll spare you. Basically it’s a hangup, photographers have lots of hangups probably because photography is both so easy (everywhere) and so difficult (hard to make new).
I try to fight through the hangups, or work with them, and just let it be energy. I don’t want my process to look gimmicky, but mimicky is ok? Sorry (not sorry) for the rhyme. It is essential to the work being made. It keeps me focused, having a process that is challenging, even if counter intuitive, it keeps me with the image. I’m heavy handed. I want my work to read as a possible photograph and include that believable fiction of continuous tone. But often I’ll make rules for myself and then break those too. Oops.
There’s definitely an abstraction of physical techniques in digital, and I’d argue this can sometimes lead to a lacking understanding of how to really make your process your own. But I think your response goes deeper and suggests what I already suspected: that the…urge? desire? preference? for analog can go beyond fetishizing old technology; it’s more about the necessity of an engaging process.
I’d say, you’re right on. Artists have a need to make their work, and it’s healthy when the work pushes back at them a little, challenges the maker/asks questions. I love learning new things for the sake of art. It becomes this wonderful umbrella under which I can justify most (constructive) things!
It’s funny to think, I had the opportunity to learn analog chemical process photography right on the cusp of a big shift to digital. The conversations haven’t changed a lot. You can switch out some nouns, but it’s the same. Even then, various films and papers were discontinued, and people would reminisce about the good old days, and fear the upcoming. I can’t know the full history of the processes I use, but I can check in from my generation’s place, learn as much as I can, and acknowledge the larger picture I’m lucky to be a tiny piece of.
[The exhibit statement] mentioned the “unsettling” aspects of the negative image. Can you expand on this a bit?
I think when I mentioned negatives seeming unsettling I thought about how there’s a trope in horror cinema to show a quick flash of an inverted image to suggest something terrifying. I haven’t researched this but it’s kind of my association to the negative image. It looks wrong, creepy, dark… It feels off to see flesh inverted in tone, lips, eyes. I’d challenge myself to make skin feel more alive in these pieces. My partner was definitely a little uncomfortable seeing early versions of works where this wasn’t quite right yet.
Come to think of it, the recent meme “Evil X be like” is sort of a goofier take on the negative’s inherent creepiness. The work in Luna Moth has a different vibe from either horror or humor, though, and it’s ecstatically colored. How would you describe the palette you wanted for these images? Any colors you found yourself relying on to evoke certain moods or themes?
I have a personal affinity toward lots of color and all the colors all the time. The color palette in my work now is connected to my last solo show with Kristen’s gallery, Soft Landing, which looked at my young boy child in a gentle color palette. Feminine colors? I don’t think that’s my language for it, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. I’m thinking of color in relation to the way kids’ clothing and toys are sold. Boys/girls/blue/pink etc...I wanted to remove gender from color. He still gets questioned for having long hair and fuchsia sneakers. (Geez it’s 2022…) I think art takes gender out of color, it’s just this specific commerce and some parts of culture that doesn’t, perhaps, but fortunately that’s changing. I really wanted there to be a lot of green in the work, as a contrast to the neodymium hue, and a way to express calmness or the natural world.
Art takes gender out of color: I love that idea. The last time I saw your work, you were using a lunch tray/TV dinner kind of shape for your custom frames. What originally prompted this special attention toward framing and presentation? How does focusing on the photo-as-object (rather than just an image) alter your approach to the work?
Focusing on the photo-as-object helps push the viewer into reading the image as something else besides a literal true document. That is important, but also, it's important for me that my work exists as discrete, unique physical objects. The way it lives on the wall is part of that. In this case, using clay to make frames felt really exciting. I loved the layering of ancient and modern technologies. I love the counter-intuitiveness of it: there is this thing that's strong and stable and will outlive me, but it is also fragile.
I love thinking about clay being used functionally, and with these works, I’m playing with that too: is the function to hold the panels as protective frames? Decorative? Neither/both? I also liked thinking about how much time I spend with each piece as an act of love/devotion/care. When I can’t dote on my kids as an anxious parent, I guess I can be an anxious artist instead.
From your website I’m guessing you’ve been photographing your partner and kids for about a decade now. How do you see your work or subject matter evolving as your kids grow up? How have their collaborations with you already changed over time?
I started making art involving my family when my daughter was born 13 years ago! I had these photo-artist heroes in my mind as a young artist, like Nan Goldin who made photographs of who was most intimate to her. To me, this seemed like a really compelling place to work from, an endless source! As my kids grow up they’re a bit less eager to hold a pose for me. Photography is most often a lie that is read to be true (photos take things out of context, re-place them, etc.) and I feel it’s important for me to be forthright about that. I can’t tell their truths, and I don’t desire to. I can tell a version that I’m making up. It’s all play, and construction and invention, and some part aspirational maybe. I often don’t know that an image I take of a family member will become a work of art that I end up spending lots of time on.
Ha, my first version of that question mentioned teenagers being famously reluctant, so good to know that still holds true. I also like your willingness to acknowledge photography as untruthful, to put it simply. Do you feel the public or collective understanding of photography still tends to presume it’s truthful, or representative of reality?
I do think that. And I don’t blame anyone, I’m not sure we’re taught visual literacy as kids. And still, I think we’re doing an okay job. We are force fed so many images every day, and I think we do an okay job of compartmentalizing all of them. Is this an ad, a shopping list, an artwork, a thirst trap, a poem? Is this problematic? Etc. Photo is analogous to written language. It can be all sorts of things, but how do we know its intention?
Sometimes it isn’t immediately obvious and when it comes to the first read of a picture, the impulse is to assume what we’re seeing is truthful, accurate, representative, factual. We just have to push past that a little, and pause and wonder about the context of an image, its agenda, its author. We’ve seen the negative effects this has on peoples’ self esteem, when the lines are blurred between a reality and an ad space (social media). When we struggle with visual literacy, it’s not good. Marketing firms, governments, influencers all know about it and use it probably for both good and evil. Sorry if this is didactic!
Not didactic to me — image can be a currency and, like all currencies, is manipulable. To switch gears: While writing these questions, I got seriously drawn into Sorry I’m Late, the game/album you made last year. Tell me more about this project and its origins. You made the music, I know, but did you make all the other sprites and assets too? Can you see yourself taking on similar projects in the future?
I’m so glad you looked at it! listened? Played it? I had so much fun with that. It was a major escape. Both the music and the game. I had stepped away from music for years, but re-finding it has been healing!! With a BFA and MFA I can have my head lost in some heavy (self) criticism, but when I play music it is quite the opposite: untrained play. The RPG was a pandemic project with my 8 year old son. But I kinda took over and got obsessed (oops, sorry Mooni!).
The assets are made collaboratively with some wonderful people I met on the internet forum called Open Game Art. I tinted them a color and combined various things by several artists. It was most important to me with this first foray that I figured out a simple system to work with to understand the medium. In the case of Sorry I’m Late, I wanted the game to exist as a small free take-away, like a music video.
I am working on a longer, more developed game and am sooo excited about it… It is addictive, and a fun way to tell stories. I know video games aren’t everyone’s thing, but they’re a legitimate medium, no doubt. I get that folks probably don’t want more screens to stare at these days, but making it was a relaxing escape into a nostalgic (for me) pixel game land.
Yes, I played and listened! Such a sweet experience and definitely one I intend to finish. The past few years I’ve made the occasional beat tape for my personal use so I understand the urge toward music as kind of a playful thing that relieves the burden of a ‘usual medium.’ No joy more spontaneous than humming a tune to yourself, I’d argue.
Beautiful! I’d love to hear if you ever share that with the world.
Ah, I have been thinking about it...I’m happy to hear you’re making another game too. So what are some of the features or design challenges you’re anticipating (eagerly or not) when making the new game?
I have so many ideas and so little skills in this arena, so my biggest challenge is being brave and reaching out to lots of folks to find collaborators. It would be a dream to have a room of people together sharing a vision and each using their expertise to the fullest. I love how games can be social, communal. I love the idea that games today often have their own internal clock system, night/day, or they’ll attach to the users’ clock/time zone. I want to make a game that uses tidal charts, high tide/low tide information to create a beachy coastal world that’s accessible differently depending on actual tides. Not sure how feasible, but in addition to the sun, moon and geography, tides are also math right?
Someone I look up to greatly with this stuff is Eric Barone, who completely on his own created and released a video game project that has sold 15 million copies, since 2016, and gave life to a huge global community. His game, Stardew Valley, is nonviolent, progressive, educational, fun, nostalgic, pretty, etc. Eric participates in fan criticism, makes changes to [Stardew], and this is a game with thousands of hours of playable content for $15. Which is quite accessible. It’s feasible. It’s exciting.
Finally: Is that blue parakeet Piplup named after the Pokémon?
Yes, indeed. Proud and out Pokémon fan. It is just funny and weird and cute and annoying and insane and it is not going anywhere. There are so many real life animals to learn about and be good stewards of, and yet the Pokémon world is here too. I think humans have hearts big enough to love fake creatures and real ones simultaneously. I missed the first generation of it as a kid myself but as a nearly 40 year old man I’m all about it. Our real life parakeet menagerie is very loud and includes: Party and Pippi (mom and dad) and the “Surprise! These eggs have baby birds in them” that we hatched (also a pandemic project): Puff, Peck and Piplup.
That’s honestly a beautiful response, especially the part about loving creatures both real and imaginary. I grew up with Pokémon and I think I’ve seen every hot take on its apparent evil, from evangelists to Deleuzians.
But before I careen into another tangent—thinking about Pokémon and its unending opacity to certain generations me realize something else about your photos: they imply the colorful revolt of youth. Since you avoid the paternalistic impulse in photographing, what fills (or maybe warps?) the space left by the “documentary” in your photos? Is there hope the viewer might find a sigh or relief, or whatever it is they need to be reminded of?
I’m not sure I could say it any more articulately. So I’m going to quote you back to you. Both of those things: “a sigh of relief” and “whatever it is they need to be reminded of.”
Luna Moth, a solo exhibit by Scott Alario, is on view through Saturday, March 26, 2022. The show is
You can see it at Kristen Lorello, 23 East 73rd Street, 5th Floor, in New York City. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11am to 6pm.
(Scott Alario's website and insta)