Neal Auch a fine art photographer, based in Hamilton, Ontario. Most of his recent work concerns the commodification of suffering and, in particular, his own rather contradictory feelings on the ethics of eating animals. You can read his full bio here.
I came across his work on Instagram in the middle of a clicking spree and I thought it was really interesting. I'm drawn to things that are a little dark and things that are different. My birthday is on Halloween, maybe that has something to do with it.
I contacted him about doing a shoot, and interview for the blog and he said yes to both.
1. How did you get to where you are as an artist?
I took a somewhat chaotic trajectory to get to where I am now. My background is in pure mathematics, and I spent the better part of a decade in academia, doing rather esoteric research. Those kinds of jobs are almost all short-term contracts, so I moved around a lot. The frequent moves took a toll on my personal life, and my passion for the work I was doing waned. I hit a breaking point a few years ago, while I was living in the UK, and I rather abruptly abandoned my post there to come back home to Canada and settle into a more stable life with my spouse. To make ends meet I did contract work for a while and, in my spare time, I made a lot of art and I did a lot of introspection about what I wanted to do with my life. I stumbled into photography at this point and fell in love with the process. Since then I’ve devoted pretty much all of my creative energy to taking pictures.
2. You’ve lived a lot of different places. Do you think that where you live affects you creatively?
I don’t think that the specific locations I’ve lived have influenced my work a great deal; these days art is more accessible than ever and one doesn’t (necessarily) need to live in a big city to be exposed to interesting stuff. That being said, I spent a long time without many roots — when you move every few years it’s difficult to maintain close relationships — and I think that that sense of transience definitely informed my worldview and my output as an artist.
3. Has your current work about meat as art helped to resolve your contradictory feelings about the ethics of eating animals?
At the risk of getting bogged down in semantics, I think that your use of the word “resolve” here is important. It suggests a role for art as the answer to a question, or a means to an end. I don’t think about my work in those terms. For me the process is less about looking for logical consistency, and more about the exploration of a theme.
If anything, perhaps my work has helped me to get more comfortable with the idea that one can harbour mutually contradictory thoughts around ethical issues. The mathematician in me likes to imagine that a person’s worldview should be logical and self consistent. However, these days I’m increasingly inclined to see cognitive dissonance and inconsistency as a part of what it means to be a human.
4. Your current work is pretty dark. What has the reaction been like? Have you had to deal with any misconceptions about the type of art that you create?
I came into this work expecting a negative reaction, so I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. There seem to be more people interested in this pro-vegan horror movie aesthetic than I would have guessed. I certainly have had a few people react negatively to my choice of subject matter, but those voices have been a minority and, in any case, I certainly understand that this kind of stuff isn’t for everybody.
5. Describe a typical day for you.
For a model shoot, like the one we did together, it takes about a week to get everything in order. I will usually have some ideas in mind about what kind of sets I want to place the model in, but these are contingent on finding appropriate props at thrift stores and on the availability of organ meats at my local butcher. In the lead-up to a shoot, I’ll make a few trips to Value Village and also to the butcher to get all my raw materials in order. After that, I like to play around with the furniture and I will generally spend a day doing self-portraits to figure out what I want in terms of lighting and composition. Finally, on the day of a shoot I will thaw whatever meats I’m using and assemble the props. This can be rather time consuming; for example, it took several hours to sew the goat stomach lampshade that I used in your shoot. At the end of the day, I freeze whatever meat is salvageable so I can re-use in in a future shoot (my preference is to minimize my financial support of the meat industry) and I dispose of the rest. Finally, I spend an hour or two cleaning and sanitizing my studio.
6. Who or what inspires you?
In terms of visual aesthetic, I get more out of looking at paintings than I do from looking at photography. I love Goya, Bosh, Cezanne, Caravaggio, and a lot of Dutch still life paintings from the 17th century. The photographer who has inspired me the most is Diane Arbus. While she and I don’t share much in terms of visual style, I definitely find that studying her work has helped to impress upon me the importance of having a compelling subject matter in photography.
7. Do you have any advice for emerging or aspiring artists?
I also think of myself as an emerging artist, so I feel more than a little self-conscious issuing such advice… That being said, if I had to give advice to other photographers I would say this: spend a lot less time worrying about camera settings or gear, and instead spend a lot more time thinking about how to put interesting things in front of your camera. I look at a lot of photographs and there seems to be a vast surplus of technically competent shots, but a real scarcity of images that reveal something I’ve never seen before.
8. Do you think a formal education is important in art?
No. I do think that it’s important to be literate in your subject. So, if you’re a jazz musician I think you will benefit from listening to a lot of jazz, if you’re a director I think you will benefit from watching great movies, etc. But I certainly don’t think that one needs to go to art school to acquire that kind of literacy.
9. What’s next for you?
My work with meat is ongoing, but I do also have a few other balls in the air. I’m strongly pro-choice, and I have two projects in the pipeline that explore ideas around women’s reproductive freedom. I’m also very interested in the subversion of religious imagery, and I have another project in the pipeline that concerns the eroticization of violence in Catholic iconography.
If you're in the market for a goat stomach lampshade, or maybe you just want to stay up to date with Neal's work, you can do so here:
Interview by Glodeane Brown