The Griffin Museum celebrates the craft of photography in all of its forms, as well as highlighting visual artists at the beginning of their creative journey. Over the past thirty years, showcasing luminaries of photography, we have had the pleasure of working with many emerging talents. Perceiving Pathways is a series of interviews, conducted by Tori Currier, looking at some of the artists who have hung on our walls. In conversations with them about their creative paths, often beginning with their first exhibition with us, we share these conversations about the many ways art practices can evolve, and spotlight the various decisions and influences that come together to create the artworks you see.
It is our hope that these engaging conversations are an opportunity to connect with and learn from artists about themselves and their processes, cultivating deeper appreciation of their artwork and a broader understanding of the photographic arts.
Joshua Sariñana, PhD, obtained his degrees in neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, and completed his doctoral thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He combines his science communications background with his neuroscience and art practice.
Connecting with Joshua, we discussed the ways he has joined the photographic arts with the field of science since his 2016 Griffin Exhibition, Prosopagnosia, the right vs. left brain myth regarding creativity, and the importance of programming to purposefully create diversity and inclusivity when working toward racial and social justice.
How would you describe your exhibition experiences at the Griffin?
Wonderful. As an emerging photographer, I had met with Paula Tognarelli for a portfolio review in 2015 to show her my first photo series called Prosopagnosia. I had spent years refining my skills and craft, and when she offered to show my work, I was utterly taken aback. Seeing my images on the wall, framed and in sequence, was almost beyond comprehension to me. For the first time, I felt recognized and validated as an artist; the Griffin Museum and Paula brought that to me.
Tell us how your work has evolved since your first exhibition with us in 2016, Prosopagnosia.
My projects vary considerably from one to the next. With Prosopagnosia, the film stock framed the vision of the series. The images themselves come from pictures I created from the previous decade and helped me understand how I look at the past, a subject very close to me as I studied memory formation for my PhD at MIT.
As I continued to develop, I consciously focused on creating new, more concept-driven images. I applied to and received a grant to pursue a project that used an experimental peel-apart Polaroid type film. These photos, which ended up as diptychs, were taken on a Kickstarter-funded project that produced a portable large-format camera.
One of the aims was to bridge my experimental background and photography with my theoretical knowledge of science and media. This project, called Representation of Hidden Communication, brought research spaces, portraits of neuroscientists, and high-tech scientific equipment to view. This series also had pieces exhibited at the Griffin Museum as part of group shows.
Before the pandemic put everything on hiatus, I was fortunate to show my series Image of Structure at the Griffin. This work was entirely captured in black-and-white on my iPhone.
Over the years, these works went through the Museum to receive important critical feedback via portfolio reviews from visiting experts and Paula. During these conversations, I learned an exceptional amount regarding how to talk about and “read” photography, which was necessary for my education as a photographer and artist.
In getting to know other staff members, especially Iaritza Menjivar, the former Associate Director, I also learned more about the background work, such as the logistics of hanging a successful show.
It is striking how the images for Prosopagnosia were taken a decade earlier. On your website, you wrote that you represented this aspect through circular, “telescopic” frames. Could you share a bit more about your decision-making process for visual representation?
I was approached by Polaroid Originals, called The Impossible Project at the time, to create a series of images for their online magazine. Initially, I was creating new images from around the city. However, they recently released their Instant Lab, which allows photographers to transfer images from their iPhone to their film stock. I thought the circular frame was a perfect analogy for sharing photos taken further back in time.
There was an incredible trial and error to perfect the color correction and alignment at the transfer stage. Many of the original images were also captured on film, which presented its unique challenges. Postprocessing also required very high-resolution scanning for larger prints.
I likely wouldn’t have made the series if Polaroid Originals hadn’t approached me.
2020 – 2021 were reflective years for many of us. They, too, have shown us how supportive art communities are. Which new thoughts or discoveries about your work/practice and role in the photography community will inform it in the New Year?
Tension is a necessary component of creativity, but I’m often surprised where it manifests and how it affects my creative work. The stressors of the pandemic, politics, and race relations directly impacted how I think about photography’s role in the arts and other creative spaces.
I recently directed a project called, The Poetry of Science, funded by the Cambridge Arts Council’s Racial Justice Grant. This project pairs poets and scientists of color to create a poem about the scientists’ research, motivation, and life.
In addition to poetry, portraits of the scientists were created by Vanessa Leroy, who was an intern at the Griffin Museum. Scientists’ portraits are exhibited (including the MIT Rotch Gallery until the end of spring) and the Central Square Theater next to the poems to create associations between the beauty of the imagery with the sense of wonder instilled by the poetry.
Most of this project had to be done virtually and during multiple pandemic peaks. The logistics of carrying out a multi-media project, with dozens of participants, over several months was undoubtedly challenging. Yet, I think some of these pressures partly motivated its success. Finding connections between groups of very talented people and creating a new type of language, I believe, helps bring people together.
Overall, I take from the project that people want to work across disciplines, and that photography deepens and unites elaborate projects like The Poetry of Science. My faith in photography as a medium for storytelling, finding truth and meaning, and providing emotional saliency was, in a way, restored over the past year. No matter what type of art project I work on, I want to bring photography to the forefront.
Reflecting on your path so far, what is one hope or ambition for 2022?
More communication between art programs, grassroots organizations, and established organizations. With the Poetry of Science, I was surprised to see how little cross-talk there is between grassroots organizations and established institutions that are wholly aligned in wanting to promote art, help emerging artists, and bring the craft to the broader community.
Different groups might not have the same audience. Still, there is so much lost opportunity in re-inventing infrastructures and that lost time that could be recovered with a little more organization, which in turn could be used to make art.
I think there’s a fantastic opportunity for government or philanthropic organizations to fund a group to specifically create an agile architecture that connects creative people across disciplines. I did this very thing with one other person and joined dozens of people. The want is there, and people want to create.
Your background in neuroscience has largely influenced your work as an artist. How do you approach translating various scientific concepts into visual art, whether in style or subject matter?
I’ve synthesized neuroscience, art, and media theory for nearly ten years. It isn’t easy to meld all these things, but I’m getting closer with each new project I create.
Sometimes I focus on a particular topic within neuroscience, such as Prosopagnosia, a phenomenon where a person cannot recognize faces, although they can see them. In other instances, I will speak to the larger concept of revealing the shrouded nature of research—a reason I’m interested in science communication and media—an idea that I try to penetrate with the Representation Hidden Communication. The Poetry of Science is quite direct in its approach, but it has the added dimensions of racial and social justice.
By combining fields, I want to get across an important point: creativity across disciplines is not fundamentally different, whether photography, neuroscience, poetry, the humanities, or fine art. There is no right brain v. left brain when it comes to creativity. This is a myth without any scientific merit.
All disciplines create nuanced languages (sometimes jargon); they are structures that people give meaning and value to and create theoretical frameworks that inform practice and vice versa. Like any formal creative endeavors, there needs to be considerable openness and flexibility to advance knowledge, technique, or just the space to have new emotions and experiences.
However, because they are all human endeavors, they can be mired in the past where gatekeepers prevent change and stop progress.
Related to the last two questions you asked, I would like to see purposeful feedback systems built into creative spaces where new voices are purposefully given representation from diverse backgrounds because constantly fighting to be seen or represented is exhausting and stifles creativity. People of color are particularly held back because of this.
What are some examples of purposeful feedback systems that you would like to see?
Great question. I’m happy to consult with institutions to bolster their representation of artists from diverse backgrounds.
I am curious to know more about “shrouded research” and how photography is a powerful medium for visibility, not only in the art world but across disciplines. When working toward social and racial justice, what are some strengths and outcomes of combining the photographic arts with other fields like science?
When I have a “vision” for any creative project, I know what direction to go in to bring it to life. In procuring grants, I must make sure that my vision is understood and that others can see or imagine it. But I’ve come to learn just how hard this is. I can handle ambiguity very well, but granting institutions want more concrete examples or a specific outcome. Photography grounds people and gives them insight; it is a stand-in for vision.
Regarding racial and social justice, photography brings forward representation, which is only just the beginning of equity (a place we have yet to reach). The images from The Poetry of Science, the project as a whole, are powerful and show the participants’ importance through their imagery and stories. Still, those that have historically been stripped of any voice or inclusion also need to have influence and space for leadership positions. There must be tangible ways to measure impact if we can get close to this point. I hope this is just one project that can point us in that direction.
You’re a photographer, so you’re intrinsically a viewer too! How have your ways of viewing and engaging with photographic art changed over the years? Have they been shaped by how you might prefer your own work to be viewed?
Making photographs and sequencing images has had the most significant impact on how I view photographic art.
Before I progressed to where I am, when I viewed photography or art, I would primarily be captured by the image and be in a space where I could be left without thinking. I enjoyed it when photographic art grounded me emotionally, to feel joy, sadness, longing, wonder, helped keep my mind from floating away.
My vision had to develop something akin to a newborn in creating images. Babies can barely see several inches in front of them, and they mimic what they see. Over time they can see further in the distance, and this visual acuity coincides with their ability to reach for things, plan, and imagine.
Similarly, when I first started with photography, I wanted to create what I saw in museums. I tried to imitate the photographers that I found inspiring. If I wanted to create something, then what I saw hanging on the wall had to match the vision in my mind, which had to synchronize with my manual dexterity of controlling a camera.
A hundred thousand plus photos later, I no longer look through my camera like I once did but walk around looking at my environment, seeing several focal lengths at once to align scenes while forecasting upcoming scenarios, figuring out where the shadows might land, and sunlight might pass through. With all these experiences that I’ve detailed above, I can envision larger projects, how sequences of photographs align with other media and tie together other concepts (e.g., science, poetry, social justice).
Now, I come to photographic art with this history, and it’s often tricky—for better or worse–to turn off all the associations that come up when viewing any piece. However, when a work resonates with me, I can get lost in it.
About my work and how it’s viewed, there’s a balance between having my images distributed widely and the need to have an intimate connection with the audience. Digital and social media have changed photography, and the latter is necessary to be relevant in some way. Still, digital presentation and reproduction lack the sensory information that exquisite prints offer when viewing them in person.
When I have a print created by Digital Silver Imaging, I see a new piece of art that’s on a whole new plane of existence. Photography is already a mediated artform; the more we can remove barriers to real-life perceptions, the more we can be grounded in a shared reality that feels infinitely better than scrolling alone on a feed. I want to emphasize that those that manage shared spaces (in person and virtual) should purposefully create programming to increase diversity and inclusivity.
Screens filter out more than texture, color, or proprioception (i.e., your body in relation to the screen). There’s an unconscious sensation that directly taps into emotional processing. Having a direct connection with a print in a specific context created to view art is critical. A dedicated space builds a meaningful interaction that slows down the mind and opens new ways of understanding oneself and others.
When looking at photographic art, how do you clear your mind of associations? I am interested to hear your thoughts about intellect and emotion when viewing an artwork, and if they can be compared to how, as we have learned, science is not separate from creativity.
I don’t find it to be an active choice. Usually, it’s unexpected, and I’m caught off guard. A couple of years ago, the Leica store in Boston had an event–which Iaritza had helped organize–where Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb talked about their work. In the exhibition was an image of some sone flowers, the title is Black Birds, Near Gray Goose, South Dakota. This photograph stopped me in my tracks. To me, the visual elements go about as straight to emotional experience as you can. I prefer not to think about it because doing so would take away from the image.
I taught a course at Northeastern University called The Brain and Visual Art. Throughout the course, I broke down some of the core neural circuits that generate, that is, create our perception of reality. These networks deal with vision, anxiety, pleasure, contextual learning, empathy, and how the brain ties these things together to produce meaning. When creating, people have all of these processes going on to varying degrees at the personal and disciplinary levels. In this sense, there is overlap in any endeavor when someone or a group of people generate new work to give it meaning.
As creatives, we’re always looking to grow. So, what is one metric of artistic growth as a photographer?
How many pictures you stop taking.
Joshua Sariñana is a neuroscientists, artist, and writer. He has exhibited his work nationally and internationally, including the Griffin Museum of Photography, Aperture Gallery in NYC, and the Museum of Sydney. He has received accolades from the Sony World Photography Awards, Photolucida Critical Mass, and Latin American Fotografía.
Sariñana’s photographic work has been featured by Apple and published widely in periodicals such as Black & White Magazine, Silvershotz, and PDN Magazine.
He combines his science communications background with his neuroscience and art practice. Sariñana has provided his expertise to Wired Magazine, MIT Technology Review, MIT News, and as an invited speaker for the Neurohumanities series at Trinity College in Dublin.
Tori Currier is a curatorial intern at the Griffin Museum of Photography and a senior at Smith College majoring in Art History. Passionate about the photographic arts and public education, she strives to support artists at the Griffin by developing educational features which spotlight their work and amplify their voices.