Chris Grunder

Nothing is Unphotographable

John Kildahl asks Chris Grunder a series of fairly unrelated questions.

Chris Grunder is an artist living and working in San Francisco. Chris grew up in Alaska and attended The University of Washington before moving to New York City. Chris returned to the west coast to attend The San Francisco Art Institute, where he graduated with an MFA in May of 2014. Chris and I ran several inter-school (CCA and SFAI) photography critiques during our second years of graduate school. Chris has started a gallery with fellow SFAI graduates named Bass & Reiner, which will host its inaugural opening ‘BANG!’ this Saturday at 7. Bass & Reiner is located at 3265 17th Street, in San Francisco and can be found at You can also find Chris on Instagram @grunder and online at


You are a frequent and dare I say savvy Instagramer. How does Instagram intersect with your art practice?

I’m not sure that I’m the right person to ask frankly, I may not have the proper perspective. But I would say that at it’s best, Instagram acts as a sketchbook for my other work. At its worst, it indulges my desire for reinforcement and praise.  Somewhere in-between those two though, it slips into a really interesting space where it acts strictly as a mode of communication. The photograph is the thing. This idea has always excited me, the moment of lapse, when the viewer isn’t looking at a photograph, or a picture, but they are looking at a linguistic device. I hear a lot of guff about pictures “not being able to say anything” these days, but that’s hogwash. Maybe they can’t say complex things, or maybe when they try at complexity they open themselves up to interpretation, but we’re already waist deep in a world of photographs being used as high res emoji to succinctly serve as grammar. I wouldn’t say this integrates into my practice, but I do think it has a pull on it. My images are often matter of fact, if not all together deadpan for this reason. I find a thing (or a moment with a thing) to be amiss in the world and I try to solidify that with some level on honesty.

In what ways does the prevalence of screens in our lives affect our visual literacy?

Some thoughts on this question that might point you in a direction if you like …  

Is there a different distance between the viewer and viewed when an image in on a screen versus, say, a physical (ink on paper) photograph? For instance we rarely appreciate (carefully consider) images when they are held in our hand … were more used a thing on a wall.

The photograph quickly took on the conventions of painting when it was first invented (or rather as it came into the fine art world) does the screen similarly constrict the potentiality of its power by the constrictions of its dimensions, scale and the associations therein.

I guess I’d need to pin down what you mean by visual literacy. If we take it to mean the act of making meaning from images, then I’d argue screens have helped that exponentially just by allowing for the rapidity of exposure. I follow a few hundred blogs and I use an aggregator. If I’m ever bored, I just open it up on my phone and rapidly look at three or four hundred images. A little mental exercise is going on while doing this that is parsing them into the categories of familiar and unfamiliar. Assigning meaning.

Now, we could go the other way and speak of visual literacy as dealing more with depth than breadth, and if we chose to take it in that direction, I think the positives start to fade. People are nearly incapable of spending real time with a thing, the type of time necessary to find imbedded symbolism, and they wouldn’t want to spend that time even if they could. Since I’m already in the land of dangerously sweeping generalizations, I think it has led to a lot of artists abandoning symbolic meaning altogether. Why hide Easter eggs if no one is hunting for them? Hell, people haven’t even heard of the Easter Bunny. It might be overreaching, but it wouldn’t surprise me if this has some sort of causal relationship with the resurgence in abstraction across mediums aside from photography.  In photography, I do think it has led to a huge rise in stylization and superficiality. I don’t want either of those things to sound negative. They aren’t necessarily.

I’m interested in what’s happening to the camera. As it grows smaller and smaller and becomes embedded in other ubiquitous technologies, will it, as a distinguishable object/tool disappear? 

Will the camera disappear because of its ubiquity? I don’t think so. It’s a tool, not a utility. It’s not gas or electricity or the Internet, things that you forget about until they don’t work. It’s a tool in the way a hammer is, a way that is substantially harder to ignore and forget about, regardless of how small it gets. Although, I do think the service it provides could easily be taken for granted, which is perhaps what you meant. We will still be aware of cameras; CCTV’s, phones on our devices, on our glasses, in planes flying above, on satellites flying above those, but we just won’t care. The march is in that direction and we really don’t seem to have the will to stop it. So when you notice someone taking a photo of you on the street, it won’t bother you. “They already looked at me” you’ll say “Them and a million other people already know what I look like, the spot I missed while shaving, the crease in the back of my shirt, the grin/frown on my face. It’s almost sweet that they want to hold on to that for a moment longer.”

How important is the camera to your practice?

I can’t say that I have one artistic practice, so I’m not sure how important the camera is to me now. I’ve always struggled to find continuity between bodies of work, and have even found it hard to create boundaries around individual bodies of work.  I used to think of it as a problem, but I kind of like it now. It means I’m more focused on making the work that feels important to me at the moment, and less concerned with a maker-ly persona.  Some times I have a camera with me at all times, sometimes I don’t touch a camera for months. Well, that second statement isn’t right, but sometimes I don’t touch a camera with intent for months. 

There are two known photographs of Frederic Chopin – and in both he looks rather grumpy (info courtesy of a recent RadioLab) – this certainly raises the question of how accurately images convey meaning, or something deeper (not a novel concept, for sure) … describe an image of yourself, if only one could exist in the world (keeping in mind, of course, the trite saying that all photographs are self portraits).

There is a photograph by Nadar in the collection at the Met. It’s a portrait of a French writer/politician, Eugene Pelletan (had to look up his name). It’s over the top with expressivity. It’s severe, brooding, and almost theatrical. In my every day, I couldn’t be further from this guy. But there are darker moments I have where my mind goes to this image and coaches me to BE it. BE that man in that moment. I think it’s really odd and I don’t have that with any other image. Willing my self to live for a moment the way another person looks, and to have it be a look that could light someone else ablaze. It’s just a bizarre thing.

Left: Frederic Chopin, Right: Eugene Pelletan

The word scan has two diametrically opposed meanings; to look at something carefully (as in for deep meaning) and to look over something very quickly (as in for shallow meeting) …  

I don’t know that the two definitions of scan are that antithetical. One deals with breadth, the other deals with depth, but both regard the full extent in a way. Seems like they jive.

It may not surprise you that I am drawn to your 37th parallel series. It also seems to wonderfully encapsulate a lot of your ideas about the (natural) world not being affected by our presence in spite of it often being physically effected by our presence/actions. Less of a question really than an observation … am I close?

Yes! Very close, the indifference of nature to us. Well, that and our modern interest in returning the sentiment. Our boundaries, our monuments, the scars we make in the landscape, the way they last for a time that seems infinite to us but is infinitesimal to the earth…this isn’t to say we don’t have an impact, I just find it very reassuring to recognize our insignificance from time to time.

Do you know what the first photograph you took was? If not what do you suppose it might have been – describe. 

The first photograph I took.

Wow, that really threw me into a reverie. I can’t say with any confidence. But I do remember being painfully in love with a girl who couldn’t find her way to similar feelings. We were friends and fairly close, but couldn’t go further for whatever reason. I swiped a shitty camera from my mom’s desk, bought a roll of black and white film (knowing nothing about either) and took photos of this girl as we walked through the woods to a beach. I’m sure that I’ll find them in a storage box in a few decades at my parents’ house under bad circumstances and be floored by them. I can only imagine that they are aesthetically abhorrent, but that’s the first time I remember really feeling the need to commit something to film.  A few years later, seeing photos she took would end up being the catalyst for my own fledgling photographic experiences. So I suppose she’s a double catalyst.

You are in the process of starting a gallery here in San Francisco along with three friends. Can you speak a little bit about what you hope for the gallery?

The gallery comes out of a pretty straightforward need. The Bay Area has very few commercial galleries that support local emerging artists in a non-predatory way. There are definitely some, but a lot have floundered recently. It’s not that we think we can succeed where they have failed. We may fail too. But giving it a fresh try sounds like a fun experience.

Can you tell me one (or more) thing/s I would be surprised to know about starting a gallery?

I don’t know if it’s a surprise really, but artists consistently undervalue their work so we’re constantly coaxing them higher. My mom is an artist and I’ve always told her to price her stuff higher, and yet I fall victim to it as well, pricing my stuff far too low, devaluing the work I’ve put in. 

You’ve been working across disciplines recently by taking abstract images and painting them and then presenting them in many different 3-dimensional ways. Is working from a photograph a way of embedding meaning into the object, or merely a step in a process towards something sculptural? Do you consider them photographs?

I think of the Forms in Progress as being photographs the same way a statue may be bronze or marble. It’s important, it’s symbolic, it has weight, but it’s definitely worthy of a different name. It’s a starting point, both materially and metaphorically, almost a prompt. It came out of these lovely photos not seeming finished and needing a bit of roughing up. Then they became totally different things that in no way spoke of their original form. So referencing the photograph became less important.

What can’t be photographed?

Nothing is unphotographable.

From “A Healthy Presence”

forms in progress