John Messinger on photography, the art world and Instagram

John Messinger is taking the art world by storm, one Polaroid at a time.

The New York artist photographs computer and television screens using a Polaroid Land camera and Fuji instant film to photograph different images on his computer screen, from his screen savers to his Facebook profile picture to even the glow of the screen as it’s powering on. He then creates large grids using thousands of these Polaroids, resulting in giant tapestries that reflect on our digital age.

Messinger’s resume includes a long list of shows with Unix and artMRKT, as well as awards including the Watermill Center 20th Annual International Artist in Residence. You can currently see his work in a solo show, “We Dream Alone,” up at the Unix Gallery in Chelsea until Jan. 8, 2015.

Messinger clues us in to what it’s like to be an artist today and his love/hate relationship with Instagram.


How did you start in photography?

My godmother, who’s a photographer, moved into our house when I was 8 and built a darkroom in the basement. That was it for me.


Is it hard to break into the art world?

For sure, but honestly, I try not to think about it that way, because then I’d run the risk of doing certain things or making certain works for the wrong reasons, and then the work would be born from an inauthentic, calculated place. Is it hard making a living as an artist? Absolutely. But I think as long as your work seeks something true, and you just keep at it and don’t stop, no matter what happens, eventually it’ll find its place.


What’s been the biggest challenge as an artist?

Well, being an artist is a lot less glamorous than people imagine. Honestly, it’s a difficult road. Can be very isolating and lonely, and a bit scary. You’re forced to look at a lot of your [work] in a very unfiltered, vulnerable way. And you have to force yourself each day to get up and get back at it again. It’s kind of like meditating. The hardest part about making work is making work.


You have your own show at Unix Gallery on 24th street. Are you nervous?

Nervous? I’m not sure that’s the word. More excited than anything. It’s a good feeling to spend so much time and thoughts and energy on something and finally getting an opportunity to share it with others. And I think that’s true whether the show is in Chelsea or not.


What separates you from other photographers?

There are a lot of strong image makers in the world so I try not to think comparatively. I think with my personal work I’m less interested in making pictures of pretty girls or sunsets, and more so interested in examining why we make the pictures that we make, and how those pictures help or hurt us in shaping our perceptions of reality.


How do you achieve the same light for each of your Polaroid works?

It’s actually a lot more math and science than one would imagine. To create a tonally consistent instant photo with a Polaroid camera takes a lot of note-taking and timekeeping. I have to know the temperature in the room, the moisture levels, the distance and angle from the subject, exposure of the camera and, of course, the time I allow the image to develop before opening it.


Which artist do you admire the most?

That would be a long list. There’s a quote, “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: it makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.” Not sure who said it. To answer your question: Eva Hesse, Picasso, Roald Dahl, Sophie Calle, Andrew Bird, J.M. Coetzee, Walid Raad, Rembrandt, Junot Diaz…it’s a long list.


What do you think of Instagram?

Honestly, I have a love/hate relationship with it. I think Instagram is an incredibly powerful tool, and I think it reveals a ton about what’s wonderful and simultaneously sad about human beings in the 21st century. It very much reveals how self-centered and vapid we can be, but I also think it speaks to our desire to share and connect with others, which is beautifully human. With all that being said, follow me at @johnmessinger. Just kidding! Kind of.