Discussing queer “radical tenderness” and “networks of care” with Brooklyn-based photographer Ian Lewandowski

Ian Lewandowski, Darek II,The Ice Palace is Gone‘.

The Ice Palace Is Gone’ started a couple of years after I’d been diagnosed and treated for lymphatic cancer in 2015. When I was in recovery I was experiencing chemo brain, characterised by a sustained lag in mental clarity and short-term memory”, said Brooklyn-based photographer Ian Lewandowski in an interview with art platform It’s Nice That.

The notion of writing things down about the mundane interactions we share is a link between my curatorial practice and Ian’s working ethics: the need to engage with nurses and other hospital personnel led Ian to meditate on the experience of inhabiting public spaces as a queer individual.

Ian Lewandowski, Shaka,The Ice Palace is Gone‘.

Since I came across Ian’s work, I was intrigued by his approach to photography, which does not shy away from embodying what performance artists Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chavez dubbed “radical tenderness“. ‘Radical Tenderness is to embrace fragility’, says the manifesto and I assume that it can set the tone for my conversation with Ian, ranging between non-hierarchical spaces and temporalities.

Francesco Ferranti: First, let’s discuss your origins. How would you say moving from Indiana to New York has informed your artistic practice?

Ian Lewandowski: I have a very deep and complicated connection to my home state of Indiana. It’s been the subject of much of my work directly, and at this point I’d say it’s still in the work in more subliminal or coded ways. I figure it’s part of me enough that it comes out in the work in various ways. Even just the connection with a very labour-intensive photo process I somewhat attribute to that connection. Living in both Indiana and New York, while they’re not so different, has I think provided an interesting vantage point from which to make this work. They’re totally different energies politically, culturally, but are two sides of the same coin in a way. When I envision the finished work, it feels like an erratic but coherent thread, and this geographic vantage point has been important in that balance.

Francesco Ferranti: Your photography communicates a sense of slowness and tenderness. Can you please tell me more about your approach to photography as a medium for storytelling? How do you go about casting people for shooting? 

Ian Lewandowski: I think the slowness definitely comes from the camera process itself. I didn’t exactly come to the large format camera as a deliberate move, it was more of a gradual progression into using it exclusively. I realized after using it for a few years that it was an appropriate medium to make pictures that were about time, if that makes sense. I want to invest a lot of time and energy into the connections I make that lead to the pictures. Even if I don’t end up being best friends with the people in the pictures, their contribution to this picture-world I’m making, and to a larger context and politics of action is significant to me. I’m usually asking people I’ve met recently, or friends of friends. Recently I like to photograph people who I don’t know that well. There are more surprises and opportunity to notice these very individual, idiosyncratic ways someone’s body exists in space. I think that does something to the pictures.

Ian Lewandowski, Community Board XI,The Ice Palace is Gone‘.
Ian Lewandowski, Community Board XII,The Ice Palace is Gone’.

Francesco Ferranti: Let’s discuss the still lifes section of your project. The section entitled ‘Community Board’ made me very nostalgic in thinking about how often our community is seen as a spectacle and related to messy drug-fuelled parties, while these photographs depict more mundane and quiet aspects. 

Ian Lewandowski: Yes, thank you for bringing this up! I was certainly interested in that aspect, and generally the narratives that are put on minority groups — I think those narratives aren’t just borne out of pure ignorance, that would be too easy to assess. If being from Indiana has given me any context for the USA today, it’s that we’re so inclined to act out of fear rather than actually seeking information, if that makes sense. Seeking information can be more scary than generalizing or assuming. Maybe I’m stating the obvious here. In that way, I don’t want to say all of one group are guilty and all of the other are innocent, and moreover am not interested in depicting some kind of “queer utopia”, honestly, I think that would be too easy. With the Community Board pictures, I want the scene, the composition, to get very complicated and conflicted without including a person in the frame. For myself and most of my friends and those with whom I’m afforded shared space, that space of conflicting values, sentiments, faiths, agendas, personal and financial safety, has to constantly be negotiated to the point where it becomes ordinary and even boring. The “boards” are sites for information and points of contact, even if mythological, and they are meant to be placed in the series among pictures of bodies, likewise sites for information.

Ian Lewandowski, Bryson and Ryan,The Ice Palace is Gone’.

The Ice Palace is Gone’ beautifully merges ideas of queer spaces and queer identity with ideas of hope and fragility. How did this project come about? What does the title refer to? What are your aesthetic references in terms of photography? 

Ian Lewandowski: I think the project came out of this tendency I have to go back to photographing people who are close by — not even necessarily who I’m close with on a personal level, but just in proximity or even friends of friends like I said before. I wanted to really stress and insist on that subject matter, almost in that Dusseldorf school [group of photographers who studied at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in the mid 1970s under the influential photographers Bernd and Hiller Becher] model of constant repetition and excessive seriality. I know there is a method to this and that its pure volume means something. Honestly I’m still figuring that out.  Thinking about the practitioners of this camera, now, but also in the 19th century like August Sander and Julia Margaret Cameron, the types of narratives or roles they were infusing their “characters” with.  I’ve also been obsessed recently with Elsa Dorfman, who was a working-class portraitist using the coveted 20×24″ Polaroid camera in Boston in the 80s and 90s. She says that she’s “so not interested in capturing somebody’s soul” in her pictures, that she’s more interested in their surface.

The title ‘The Ice Palace is Gone‘ refers to a gay nightclub on Fire Island, a gay resort off the southern coast of Long Island. In 2015 one part of the hotel that contains the nightclub was destroyed in a fire, so the club was closed for a while. Even though this fire was not a malicious intent, around that time, I was starting to think a lot about this notion of safety for queer people and the positioning of spaces as safe. Shortly after this was also the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. With these things in mind I’m interested in “Ice Palace” as a mythic grandiose structure that is extremely precarious and fragile. It has to constantly be rebuilt in the shadow of a prescribed “safety” and “community” that occupies it. In part, I want to unpack how complicated those two words are.

Ian Lewandowski, After David Armstrong, ‘The Ice Palace Is Gone‘.

Francesco Ferranti: I was particularly moved by a photo with your husband Anthony. Can you discuss it in relation to what you refer as “network of care”? 

Ian Lewandowski: The network(s) of care certainly refer back to the Ice Palace mythology. I think everyone I photograph is, even in small part, a piece of that network, whether they know it or not. This I think allows the “Palace” or the network to get very complicated and tangled, in opposition to the simplistic ways the discourse around these things tend to be spun. One part of that network for me personally is my partner. In the picture you can sort of see that we are working together to make the picture happen, even if it ends up somewhat awkward and stilted. I like to think all my pictures contain this effort and labour and care.

Francesco Ferranti: Masculinity is now a current theme in contemporary photography. I still believe that there is a particular urge to represent more fluid and femme-presenting versions of masculinity, and you seemed to be sensitive to this need by looking at your projects (including ‘My Man Mitch’). How do you negotiate the desire of photographing queer and gender nonconforming bodies with an inclination to staged posturing and performativity? 

Ian Lewandowski: Great question! I think with the ‘My Man Mitch‘ work, I was almost making the work out of a sort of rage or discrepancy with how I’d experienced men’s behaviour in my life – whether it be in my upbringing in Indiana (a primary setting for that work) or even other gay men I was around. There’d been feelings of a lack of solidarity or feeling of mutual safety with other men. So I was seeking out men to sort of re-enact these very macho poses I was seeing everywhere – in old Playgirl magazines, in advertisements, on Tumblr, etc. 

At that time, I was also heavily using Craigslist as a resource for models, this is before their ban on the Personals section. After a while making that work, I felt less rage and more empathy. I think like I was saying before, we’re all under certain auspices of how to perform/posture our gender and move through the world in ways that are “approved” or appropriate. Each of us has a different way of digesting that. So, in a way I think ‘Ice Palace‘ addresses that shift in perspective. The type of performing and posturing I infuse into the pictures certainly references that. I’d say now I’m particularly interested in the magic sort of creativity with which I see queer people manipulating and perverting that paradigm of approval that works for them. 

Francesco Ferranti: Congratulations on your thesis ‘Gently Worn Out Sister’. Can you tell some words about its content? What are you working on at the moment?

Ian Lewandowski: I was sort of writing about this work from the perspective of my having recently gone into remission from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma , and how that started this thinking of a “network of care.” The writing is anchored by a few primary literary sources (two breast cancer memoirs, both by queer women) as well as the photography archive for Outweek, an NYC gay periodical that ran around the height of the AIDS epidemic. And I’m still working on ‘Ice Palace‘, It still needs some time.

Ian Lewandowski, David, ‘The Ice Palace Is Gone‘.
Ian Lewandowski, Sam, ‘The Ice Palace Is Gone‘.
Ian Lewandowski, Muna, ‘The Ice Palace Is Gone‘.

Taken as a whole, ‘The Ice Palace is Gone‘ offers a poignant meditation on themes of safety and precariousness within the LGBTQI+ community.

Follow Ian Lewandowski’s work on website and Instagram

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