Billy Buck graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with a BFA and currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.
Can you talk about the texture in your work?
Most of the textures, to me, are derivative or relatable to anxiety and pensiveness. They are abrasive and often times a mixture of pleasure and discomfort. I find my shoulders to be really tense, especially when I am hyper aware of my surroundings, while making pictures…I feel like photographs have residue of the environment in which they were made, which has something to do with “texture”.
What is lost in a photograph when it is in black and white, and what is gained?
A black and white photograph loses a sense of temperature for me. Whenever I look at black and white work, I never really get the same sensations as color photographs. Maybe that is where the anxiety comes in. I find this to be both a gain and loss.
What are the appendages in your photographs? Where do they connect? Are they yours?
A lot of my photographs have to do with objects and/or small moments, which are stripped of their assumed meaning, usually resulting in awkwardness. I think this awkwardness is an appendage that really rings throughout all of my work. Alongside this awkwardness comes a darker sense of humor that simultaneously frightens and excites. This slightly schizophrenic feeling is where all of the work can come together as a whole. The most concise description of my work is like a really weird dream you have that just keeps going on and on but is constantly changing each time you go in and out of consciousness. It’s like taking a lot of information and experiences from your head, putting them into a blender and having to come to terms with it.
I guess you could say these appendages are mine. It is similar to what I mentioned earlier about residue that a photograph contains; thoughts and feelings seep into the work.
How important is sexuality in relation to your work?
I think there might be suggestions of sexuality in my work, however, I don’t really think of it as playing an active role. Maybe I’m wrong though.
How deep does artwork need to go to make a worthwhile statement?
That depends on what one considers worthwhile, but I think that its all about being engrossed in the artwork; encountering it as its own reality.
What keeps you caring?
Pictures that don’t let me blink
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What is something embarrassing you are willing to admit, that relates to your work?
I didn’t stop being afraid of the dark in my basement until I was 14.
Eric Ruby is a photographer that lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts.
There seem to be language signals even when no man-made words are present in the photographs. Symbols on asphalt, sticks bent into characters. Can you discuss language in your photographs?
I definitely have a soft spot for non-sensical phrases, and also symbols or characters or objects that potentially look like they are trying to relay information. I am interested in attempts at communicating ideas that can never be fully realized, whether that is through visual information or written characters (which are also visual) and the gaps between what is known and unknown. I like the play between having something appear legible and hinging on investigation. I also think my photographs exist as thematic symbols that require the same type of interpretation and abstraction of knowledge as the written form. Like a crossword puzzle, it’s about where the words/images intersect.
Are photographs about being alive or about dying?
Perhaps photographs are about trying to experience both at the same time.
Does the world ever visually overwhelm you? Do your photographs show that?
Of course it does, I don’t know if my photographs scream “overwhelming”, but I believe my best photographs organize chaotic space to make it appear rational. Depending on the situation, ratcheting up or down the complexity of the relationships between objects to create a sort of “whole” stimuli within the photograph. Although, most things you can’t control(or at least I don’t want to) and I think that when I am the most visually overwhelmed I just let things unfold while remaining observant and they seem to work themselves out. The camera ends up being an equalizer.
When you bring your camera up to your face and look through the viewfinder, do you take a breath before, during or after taking a photograph?
I’ve never really thought about breathing, seems to come natural to me! I would say this is also situational though, I guess I don’t mind doing all three, if you are implying that those are three different types of images/image makers.
Do you have to be smart to be a photographer?
Anyone can be a photographer these days, so no? (assuming not everyone is smart) It’s not a requirement, but I think that it is a requirement of the editor. Whether that is the photographer him/herself or a another entity entirely, the work is truly formed in the editing process.
Are your photographs interchangeable? Is each series set or do all the photographs relate to each other?
My photographs intrinsically relate to each other since I made them all, but to me, photographs made within the same time-frame stay interchangeable until they are solidified either by time, or by putting them in a specific category and/or series. I do keep an open mind about images recurring or functioning in an alternative mode. Such as, the same or similar image serve multiple purposes based on its applied context.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Can you shamelessly plug your book publisher that you and a few friends run?
Justin Thomas Leonard is a photographer based out of Bowling-Green, Ohio where he currently teaches. He received his MFA from Yale in 2009.
Tara Wray is a filmmaker and photographer based in Vermont.
Why do you mostly photograph ‘animals and lonely spaces’? How do these two things connect?
Animals are not judgmental the way people can be so I feel much more comfortable approaching them to make a picture. I also see in certain animals very human characteristics. You know how when you look at a dog sometimes you can just tell it used to be a person - I love finding that. For the most part I enjoy the company of dogs and other animals more than people, except for my immediate family.
Animals are often found alone or with other animals - farm animals anyway, or wildlife - so I guess that’s one reason I’m drawn to lonely places. I like not being bothered by modern life for a little bit when I photograph.
Are your photographs comedic? How should someone look at your photographs of dogs?
I certainly think so. I find my "Cat Cheese" picture hilarious, if I may say so myself. It’s my aunt Debbie feeding one of her feral cats Cheese Whiz, but not just any Cheese Whiz: it’s specifically noted on the can that it’s the cat’s Cheese Whiz because there’s so much Cheese Whiz in her house she felt she had to make that distinction. I love my aunt Debbie for that. It’s both funny and sad - my favorite combination.
I hope that people will look at my photographs of dogs the way a three year old looks at the entire world - as a beautiful and exciting adventure.
Or they can view them knowing that the dog pictured will likely be dead within 0-15 years of looking at the image.
Up to them.
What is the biggest difference between making films and making photographs? Are you photographs for the same audience you had with your films?
Photography is like writing a poem in a solitary cave and filmmaking is like writing a novel by committee. I have no desire to ever make another film ever, until the right story comes along that can only be told through moving images and not stills.
They’re both battles for eyeballs and to that end, I’ll take all the eyeballs I can get in either medium. If people find my photos from my films I think the sensibilities are similar, even some of the subject matter - I’m currently working on a sequel to Manhattan, Kansas: a photo book about seeing my grandma for the first time since making that film in 2005. It’s my first foray into autobio stuff since I swore it off forever after making Manhattan, Kansas. But for some strange reason I can’t seem to stay away from autobiographical work even though I resist it so thoroughly in my head. I recently decided I’d like to see my mom again for the sole purpose of documenting her in photographic form. It’ll be an anthropological study of the effects of untreated mental illness (haven’t seen my mom since making Manhattan, Kansas) only my subject is the woman who gave birth to me and not some random person with whom I have no emotional connection. It will be the ultimate in detachment-based photography.
How do you choose your subjects for projects? Are there things that tie them all together?
Subjects that I’m obsessed with often wind up as project fodder. I have a short attention span so if I’m not really connected I won’t get very far. Things that make me sad or make me laugh or otherwise wake me up from my day to day routine are worth investigating, I think.
What do you think animals personify that people cannot express?
Unconditional acceptance even when you raise them for the sole purpose of one day eating their flesh or drinking their milk or stealing away their babies. Humans are the most viscous of all animals.
Is sadness intrinsic to animals?
I don’t know. I suppose animals don’t have brains the way we do so they don’t express sadness the way we might. I’d love to see a dog writing sad tweets though. Or a cow just comfort eating the fuck out of a pint of ice cream.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
“Do picnic boys go in green cars?”
“I want to eat my noodles with my hands.”
— Excerpt from a conversation my three year old sons had with each other
Catherine Larré studied at the Royal College of Art in London and currently lives and works in Paris, France.
Which ones more imperative to your photographs, understanding or seeing?
It is about believing in what we are seeing, my pictures are not as real as what is shown. The picture are made up in a studio with a retro-projection technique, they are “hyper real” as they express the notion of real sentiment on a very short instant of some event that might never happen!
Surrealism has always been a great source of inspiration to me. My practice usually involves constructing images layer by layer; this technique has lent itself very well to ‘audience participation’, as it is readily understandable as a form of storytelling.
You photograph a lot of body forms as optical illusions- how does this fit in to your perspective as an individual and a photographer?
In the body series called “landscapes” the flesh becomes a thick liquid that could slip and disappear on the sides.
Can you talk about the link you’ve created between memory and body in your work?
Memory of the skin with it’s folds and creases, looks like a maze: no beginning and no end. In the calcifications series - the thought or memory is something hard and crystalline, but also living and organic that thrives and grows on the body’s juices - grows perhaps as a disease. And although it may end in darkness inside the body that growth is luminous even beautiful.
Do you make art with specific purpose? Are you trying to prove something?
I’m trying to interpret the traces of childhood fantasies.
Can you talk about your work in relation to nostalgia and dreams?
I think it is more about reminiscence- a projection of remembrance. Nostalgia depresses me!
Visually, your pictures are dense and unclear. Is there a part of your work or thought that has significant clarity?
As I’m working with projected pictures where I add layers of objects it seems that the darker the picture is, the clearer it is! Looking at the reality on the other side (of the retro-projection), makes the image “a proof” of it’s reality, adding objects, clothes, hair on it makes it “really” real, it brings the image back to the very essential.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Did you really see this?
I did, but was it really there? It looked like time expanding!
Stacy Renee Morrison is a photographer based in New York City. She currently teaches photography at School of Visual Arts, Montclair State University and Cooper Union.
How do you straddle the line between fantasy and reality in photography? How is photography a time machine?
By creating all of my photographs in color, I am negating any possibilities that these images are actual photographs from Sylvia’s lifetime. If I use a historical process, this would confound the viewer as to what they are really looking at, based solely on the medium. This seems like such an obvious choice and one that does not satisfy my intentions.
I want this hesitancy, this uncanny uncertainty of time and place to extend to the viewer by means of the subject matter rather than to achieve this through technical processes. A wet-plate collodion photograph would be too illustrative and easy for the viewer. By making color photographs, my objective is to compel the viewer, even for the briefest of moments, to consider that this photograph is a record from Sylvia’s time, when in reality it was made in my time.
All photographs tell atruth, but all photographers are in some ways liars. I am very keen on the notion of photography dispensing fiction. My photographs invent indirection, and I do wish to deceive.
These images are all based on certainties that I have learned about Sylvia’s life, but her reality is long gone; and what has replaced it is my fantasy.
My photographs serve more as an imaginary time machine. I hope the beauty of them lies in the fact that they are born in a space I have come to know as no-when. No-when takes place in the 19th century and the present, but no-when also does not take place in the 19th century and the present. No-When never exists.
How do you make work about someone who is dead? Does Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander represent something more internal?
The first thing to acknowledge when photographing the dead is that you must trust that they have faith in you, the living, and the judgments you will make about their lives. Secondly, you need to regain the hopefulness of their lives which death has stolen. Furthermore, you need to imagine the life of the deceased, and your own life, and confuse the two beyond recognition.
Sylvia functions as my friend and my 19th century alter ego. I communicate with her as if she is alive and I try to be her. It seems odd to consider that she can function in my life in both of these ways, but she simply does.
Sometimes when I am walking the same streets she once traversed in New York City, I feel this great desire to talk to her.
Luckily for me, with the way the world operates today, there is the assumption that someone is on the receiving end of a conversation by means of an earpiece. No one needs to know that the person I am talking to has a birthday 133 years before my very own.
I am fiercely protective of Sylvia and try to shield her from some of the information that I have subsequently learned about her life, even though she obviously knew these facts because she lived them.
And there are the times I boldly assume her identity. In social situations where I need not necessarily be me, I am often so audacious as to introduce myself as Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander. I recently went to a book signing, and when the author asked my name, I stated Sylvia, because I thought she would have really liked this book and I wished it to be signed to her.
How are pictures like ghosts?
Pictures are ghosts because they are of the present, but immediately predicate the past. We exist for this moment, in this very way, and in another moment perhaps even a second later, we exist in a completely different way. Photographs can hold all the evidence of who we once were, and yet are only truly evident of one thing, our mortality.
Have people become more permanent in our time?
When I first began my research on Sylvia, all I had was her birth date and the knowledge of her family’s slave trading past. Her birth date led to the dates of her marriages, the birth of her son and eventually her death date. While the archives were brimming with materials on the male descendants of her family, information about the women were conspicuously absent. It was not until I found Sylvia’s living great-granddaughter, who had an abundance of Sylvia’s personal papers, that I learned what I know today. For a long time the coldness of these dates, found in musty old ledgers, was her only proof of existence.
There was a moment or two when I thought I almost had to give up Sylvia to historical fiction. Now, if you put “Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander” into Google, a plethora of biographical and personal information comes up about her because of The Girl of My Dreams. If Internet presence can be considered existence, which for better or worse it is today, then Sylvia exists more now than she did then.
If all that’s left are bones, what impression does a skeleton make? How are your photographs skeletal?
This is a lovely question.
On October 11, 1866, Sylvia writes in her journal: My darling mother was carried out of the house for the last time. We put flowers that she loved so dearly around her and laid her in the grave where she is with the Lord.
In September of 2010, Sylvia sits in the same dress that she was wearing in a studio portrait from the early 1860’s. At this present time, the formality of that earlier pose is gone, as well as the props and the directed lighting, and she is sitting in relaxed repose by a large picture window with the early morning light seeping in. Is she aware or unaware of the camera behind her? This is unknown.
The window where she sits is on the second floor of the grand house in Bristol, Rhode Island where Sylvia grew up and the very place where her mother died now 144 years ago.
The air changing to fall is perceptible, she notes to herself staring out the window. Black horses, two of them adorned with feather plumes, are whinnying and wheezing and the slightly broader horse continuously kicks its foot back nervously. They are waiting to receive the weight of the newly deceased.
Sylvia is very distressed and disheveled since her mother died 3 days ago. In this early morning hour, her hair has not been bound up, and she is haphazardly arrayed in her mourning dress. She is even bare foot.
They carry her mother’s body out of the house, carefully navigating the turn of the center staircase. She turns away from this scene to peer outside, to see the last glimpse of her mother.
With the greatest of generosity, the current owner of Sylvia’s house allows me to explore and make photographs. Immediately upon seeing this window, I knew this spot, where the light floods the space even on the grayest of days, was where she sat to say goodbye to her dear mother.
This is how my photographs are skeletal.
What does Sylvia DeWolf Ostrander have to say to your audience?
Sylvia has graciously accepted her death. She is flattered and grateful for my attention and I know she appreciates my devoted remembrance. She is happy with the simple recognition that she once existed. She asks nothing of me. I am the one who wants to give her the world.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What did you wear to the Ball honoring the Prince of Wales in Boston on October 18, 1860?
After trying on dress after dress, I finally decided on a deep midnight blue silk that would offset my blue eyes and pale complexion. The skirt had stripes of this silk about a foot wide and smaller six-inch vertical panels of elaborate bone-hued lace with matching blue silk thread embroidered with a fine floral and butterfly pattern.
The bodice was striped but instead of wide panels, it tapered into two-inch wide silk strips, followed by two-inch stripes of lace. In the smaller lace stripes the blue embroidery did not mirror the pattern of the skirt but did a zigzag pattern up the entire length of the bodice. This was visually dramatic and graciously slimming. I wore navy lace gloves and a large sapphire and diamond brooch pinned to my neck. A thick black velvet ribbon was fitted to my waist, and in my hair was a lovely long strand of pearls woven among my braids.
My dress comprised of 18 yards of raw silk, 10 yard of lace, and a zillion more yards for my undergarments underneath.
My dance card, affixed to my right wrist with a cream silk ribbon, was filled for every single dance.
Allison Grant is a photographer based in Chicago. She received her MFA from Columbia College, where she currently teaches.
When do life and nature intersect? How has this changed over time? Is it important?
Well, the word “nature” is tricky because it can mean different things. Speaking broadly, nature encompasses all aspects of the material world–so life doesn’t intersect with it so much as it exists within it. Colloquially, “nature” is more commonly used to describe areas of wilderness and natural beauty that are uninhabited or sparsely inhabited, serene, self-propagating, and distinct from industrial and domestic spaces. The vast majority of representations in our image culture depict nature using the characteristics I have just described and those images reinforce a common definition of nature as an ideal that exists out there, apart from and at times in opposition to human endeavors.
This is a critical point because how we envision nature and our role within it has profound implications. As we enact environmental policy on a societal level and make decisions about our own behaviors on an individual level, we assess the positive and negative impacts of those decisions using images and our interpretations of the world we inhabit as guides.
When I started making my pictures, I was interested in considering imagery that depicts nature as an ideal, as made famous by photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter and painters including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. I was less interested in looking at those artists as source material and more interested in the continued production and deployment of highly-romanticized imagery. I want to make artwork that asks questions about the role of idealized images in shaping21st century ideas about nature and our sense of the ecosystems that surround us.
Do you believe in transcendence? What does your work have to do with it?
Yes, I do. The experience of standing in solitude in areas of natural beauty can be incredibly spiritual. I think people are attracted to images of nature (i.e. photos of grand vistas and primeval woods) because they can provide a momentary sense of the peace and wonder that one would experience if they were actually physically present at the location the image depicts. Unfortunately, it isn’t the same as being there, and I think–and I don’t think many people would disagree–that experiencing a place physically is quite different from viewing imagery of that particular place.
The title of one of my photographic series is Unsoiled and I chose it because it has a double meaning. Unsoiled can mean pristine or untouched but it can also be read literally to mean without soil, which alludes to the experience of looking at a representation that is separated from the dynamic characteristics of the physical place it depicts. I do think my images have the potential to provide viewers with small jolts of satisfaction; however, I’m fairly certain they don’t gratify the soul in the way true experiences of transcendence do. That is a part of my point. Images can’t be reality and they don’t possess the same power as real places.
You are using artifice to question authenticity. Is photography itself already an artifice?
Yes, photography is always artifice, but it is a slippery medium that isn’t always interpreted as artifice.
Which one will last the longest: nature, waste, or your photographs?
I wish I could say my photographs, but of course it is nature. Nature in one form or another will outlast us all.
But your question does bring up an issue that I am very interested in. My photographs all contain disposable consumer plastics. I choose this material specifically because it contains polymer chains that take a very long time to break down. I am interested in our ability to look at a piece of plastic and imagine it as temporary and disposable, as something that has a short-term use. The sense that our relationship with plastic starts at the point of purchase and ends as we discard it in a trash bin is, of course, a luxury afforded to us by our waste management systems. We all know it doesn’t really disappear, but I don’t think most people carefully consider the lifespan of the items they consume and throw away. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance. I consider plastic to be a legacy material for humankind. This synthetically produced substance will leave an imprint on our surroundings for a very long time.
Is this the last way to photograph nature? Is there any more exploration left?
No, it isn’t. Many photographs depict “natural beauty” using visual conventions that predate the photographic medium. Perhaps those conventions will eventually fall out of favor, but from what I can tell, they are circulated more than ever before on all kinds of platforms and for varying uses: in art works, commercials, propaganda, social media, activism, etc. Perhaps these images do not represent ground-breaking ways of imaging the world, but I believe that they mean something different today than they did 10 years ago or 100 years ago. I also believe that their ubiquity can be an exploration in and of itself.
Can you talk about depth of field and the importance of foreground to your images?
Yes, this is a very important part of my work. I often use a short depth of field and narrowly focus on the foreground of my images to create the illusion of deep space. In my best work, I think viewers misread my images and at first think they were taken in wide open spaces, only to realize that they are in fact small and enclosed illusions. I also use scale to distort the spatial relationships in the images so that they at first appear expansive but reveal themselves to be composed of small scraps of plastic upon close inspection. I print my images very large so the materials often appear larger than life. It is my hope that viewers experience a tension in the work where the images tip back and forth, seeming both deep and shallow and also large and small.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
I’m always curious to know what books people find to be most influential. Here is a short list of books I’ve returned to over and over while thinking about my work:
David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous
Rebecca Solnit, As Eve Said to the Serpent
Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
Sherry Turkle, Alone Together
Allison Grant is in a group show in at the Chicago Art Department called “Process of Abstraction”. The show opens tonight, September 27th, from 6-10 PM. We hope to see you there. See link below.
AnnieLaurie Erickson received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently resides in New Orleans where she is assistant professor in Photography at Tulane University.
Do [the Oil Refinery images] have a relationship with fantasy or mysticism?
While many of these images look like cities I could have imagined, I would say that this body of work has a more direct relationship with the real world than most fantasy or mysticism. The color and texture has been affected through the afterimage process, but at their base level they are all images of objects that are actually there. This was one of the reasons I decided to title the individual images with the geolocations - to say directly: “this place exists.” You could go see it with your own eyes. Although the colors and the textures will be different, who’s to say it isn’t slightly different when I look at it versus when you look at it?
If they do not truly depict, and they are fashioned after imagination, what realm of reality or unreality do you believe these pictures exist in?
My work comes from a belief that photographs never “truly depict.” But I also don’t consider them to be fashioned after imagination. Although I allow myself some artistic liberty when I make the artificial retinal plates, these images are still very much based in reality - although there has been a secondary shift added through the process. Is an image I see when my eyes are open more real than an image I see when I my eyes are closed? In a way, of course it is, but in another way both are filtered through my spectrum of vision and neither feels like some objective picture of reality. By creating photographs that are suspended somewhere between a representation and an impression, I hope to point to the illusory nature of human vision.
How important is beauty?
It’s important to me to make things that I want to look at for a long time, and in that regard to make things that I find to be beautiful, or at least steadily intriguing. Part of the original idea with this work was to come up with a photographic process that would mimic how “beautiful” I find it when I close my eyes and see afterimages of light that has since passed - to make something that has become a normal part of my day to day experience more beautiful through it’s absence. It’s a phenomenon closely related to nostalgia. A memory can sometimes seem more beautiful than the present because it’s easy to idealize the past in its absence. In this same way these often grotesque oil refineries become more beautiful through putting some space and time between the normal exposure and the secondary exposure onto the retinal plates. In a way, I am photographing their absence, rather than their presence.
What effect do your photographs have on the 5 senses? What effect do photographs have on you?
Well, you can’t really taste, smell, hear or touch them (at least you’re not supposed to), but I do aim to make them slightly more visceral than more traditional photographs. I’ve always been drawn toward detail, both in the world and in photographs. My whole life I’ve cared quite a bit about detail and control. I have a tendency to want to control everything in the images I make, but I also try to find space in my work where I can relinquish some degree of control. I’m interested in the tension between those two modes of art-making.
The process of photography - and the experience of looking at a photograph - allows me to freeze, examine, and evaluate details. In that way I’ve always found photographs to be extremely fulfilling and rewarding, regardless of how much I may love or hate any given photograph.
Where does the interest come from in photographing “the unphotographable”? What did you learn?
Photography has been my primary interest, and subject of study, since I was 17. One of my earliest realizations about photography was that it couldn’t capture a lived experience as accurately as I wanted it to, regardless of how technically sophisticated the photographer might be. I became interested in the looseness of this correlation between photography and visual experience, and by extension the inherent limitations (and strengths) of photography as a medium.
Through my work, I try to patrol the boundaries between what photography can and cannot do and figure out where it’s possible to push those boundaries. It’s a more self-critical approach, but a necessary and increasingly common one for contemporary photographers.
What is the difference between an image and a photograph?
Technically, the definition of a photograph dictates that it was made using a camera. Although these images can look surreal, everything that is framed within them - the relationships between the objects depicted - was initially translated through a lens, not my mind or hand or some other form of image-making. Further, the final result exists on photographic emulsions. Although there is the secondary mediation involving the retinal plates - where my hand as the artist comes into play in a significant way - it still begins with the translation through a camera lens, and ends with the fixing of that image onto light sensitive materials, which is the defining characteristic of a photograph. So these images are all still photographs by definition, but photographs with an additional translation in the middle that puts them somewhere in between images and photographs in my mind. On a technical level, it’s comparable to painters that project images onto canvases and then paint based off of the photographic projection. So there is an added layer of subjectivity that gives the photographs their impressionistic feel.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
When will the Singularity occur?
March 12th, 2062
Noelle McCleaf received her Master of Fine Arts in Photography from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2008 and currently lives and works in Nokomis, Florida.
Can you talk about the light in your photographs? Why do things seem to glow?
When I began A Bee in Her Bonnet I was still living in Minnesota. I lived there for three years after finishing my graduate degree. I would come home to Florida during mid-winter, and it felt like when I got off the plane I was on another planet. Northern light is harsh, white, and stark. The light in Southern Florida is a golden-yellow, and the rich vegetation diffuses it beautifully, even in mid-day. Most of the time I prefer creating work in the evening when the shadows are long and the light is the most golden.
Where are the men in your photographs?
This is a question that comes up often with my work. I was raised as an only child with a single mother, and my mother often took on both roles—mother and father, and has both masculine and feminine energies about her. Since my father did not play a significant role in my upbringing, it was only natural that A Bee in Her Bonnet focused on my relationship with my mother and our reconnections since childhood.
Are you creating a mythology?
I wouldn’t say I’m creating a mythology in the broader sense of the term, but rather a personal mythology or sacred narrative. Our history and ancestry, and things we find sacred form the backbone for the body of work.
For instance, in the image For All Relations (Of Flesh and Feathered Kind) we are shown mourning over a dead seagull. My mother has long been a collector of natural things; her laundry room is filled with animal carcasses, bones, and thousands of seashells. This particular seagull she found on the beach in perfect condition and it sat in the bait fridge for months before I found out it was there and decided I should use it in an image. She uses the feathers, parts of the bird, to create artwork and ritual objects. She’s very interested in Native American Spirituality. For All Our Relations is a Native American saying that comes from the language of the Lakota people (in Lakota: Mitakuye Oyasin—for all our relations). The term reflects the Native American idea of oneness and connection with all forms of life: humans and animals, plants and trees, rocks and rivers, and bugs and bayous.
What is your relationship to the Earth? What is the single most important thing on it?
My mother was raised Episcopalian, and I grew up in Northern Virginia. I attended Pohick Church as a child, a church that served as a congregation for some of the nation’s most prominent families (the Washington’s, Mason’s, and Fairfax’s.) I attended Sunday school there, but as my mother likes to joke, once the creative activities subsided I lost interest, so she let me explore other paths.
Most of our time spent together was traveling or exploring the landscape through camping and outdoor activities, so I gained an appreciation for the land at an early age. So to answer your question directly, the single most important thing on the Earth is the Earth itself. We all return to it, and in the Florida humidity and heat, things decay quickly. I like to use fruit as metaphor for how quickly this happens, as well as how gravity impacts the female form.
In the image Erma and Milly’s Collars, 1898, my mother and I are shown standing outside of an old trailer, wearing collars worn by women of former generations in our family. These collars were pinned onto a conservative style of dress. My intention here is to contrast our openness and wildness as individuals with the feminine history of conservatism in our family (Daughters of the American Revolution), and to illustrate the echoing familiarity of our bodies.
Is there placidity to the work?
Most of my photographs are created on a large plot of land off Route 70 that leads from the Gulf Coast out toward Central Florida. My mother’s best friend owns the land, and before I began the work we would spend time there together unwinding, away from the chaos of the civilized world. It’s a very secluded space so it offers a perfect place for creating work. Creating A Bee in Her Bonnet was a way for my mother and I to reflect on our past and collaborate by creating new narratives together, so I would agree that there is placidity to the work.
One of the most striking images in the series The Deep Woods Kitchen was created at the far end of the property where a shack was erected as an outdoor kitchen. This image was very much a performance to create, in that I had my camera set up with the timer on a tripod and had to run back and forth barefoot amid red ants and mosquitoes, but my mother did an excellent job in calming me so we could go through a few rolls of film to get the perfect shot. I am standing behind her in the shot, and she is still playing the role of the protector guardian, as she did most of my life, and she lent me the perfect expression I was hoping for.
How does the environment in your images exist with the women in your photographs?
My new body of work Evie Lou and Laura Jane is moving away from my relationship with my mother to the relationship she has with her best friend Laura Jane. Laura owns the property in most of the photographs, and it is very significant to them, so I knew this was the perfect evolution to my recent work. Both of them have been like mothers to me over the years, and to me they signify women who are not well represented in the media—aging, yet still very beautiful. They are the caretakers of the Earth, the grandmothers, from which we have much to learn. Laura is from the Robin Clan of the Blackfoot Indian Nation, and has spent her life working as a hospice nurse. I’m very excited to explore their converging journey through images.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What contemporary photographer’s interest you?
Lately I’ve been studying portrait photographers working in the South, particularly the work of Tammy Mercure and Stacy Kranitz. Mercure is based out of Nashville, and creates images all over the Southeast, and Kranitz works in and around the Appalachian region of the country. Their work is extremely inspiring and very different from my own, so I’m learning a lot from what I’m seeing.
Carl Gunhouse lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and received his MFA from Yale University in 2003.
You write about the reaction of politics on life as being, “once-monumental shifts” that take place, only in the end the shift seems less monumental and more self-evident. Can this be said the same for your photographs?
I certainly felt that way making the pictures. At the time, it felt very important that each turn in policy was going to have huge impact on how we lived, but like most things, after a while you forget, and abandoned gas stations go from making a telling statement about gas prices to just being old gas stations. When the work started, it was coming from a place of alarm and anger. As the project came to an end, it felt like things were always this way. In the moment, the way you see the old gas station was more important than the gas station itself. But that’s the magic of photography, turning the everyday into something more meaningful, if only for a short period of time.
Do your photographs have a resolution? Are the problems that each individual photograph pose the same from one image to the next?
At least for me, the pictures that make it through the edit have a meaning that I hope is resolved enough that there’s a chance it expresses a similar meaning to someone else. And hopefully picture to picture the meaning / content might vary, yet as a whole add up to something larger. I am not trying to be overly didactic. That fine line between art and reporting, for me, has something to do with how much of an artist feels a responsibility to be clear and I am more than happy to include work in the edit that was attractive or just sets a mood without necessarily being about anything specific.
Where in your series ‘America’ is the movement and action that is in your series ‘Hardcore’, where is the lamented familiarity of your series ‘Woods’, how do they all relate? Are they all the same America?
Well, I do have some blurry trees in that picture of a helicopter and some blurry fireworks down the shore! So I guess there is a little movement, but you are correct. I am not sure the action is as present in the America work as in the Hardcore work. Some of that is due to using a 4x5 vs 35mm, or approaching a project differently, and having different interests. Same with the familiarity of the Woods pictures. Being on the road a lot, moving around, the America work is from places that are more foreign to me. And I’d be lying if I said some of the pictures I did for the Woods series didn’t end up in the America series and vice versa. But in all of the projects, and maybe this is more for me than for the viewer, but they all come out of a very similar place. They are all bodies of work that represent a large part of who I am as a person. I am a suburban kid who grew up near the places in the Woods pictures, and like a lot of suburban kids, I spent a lot of my life as an angry hardcore kid. Out of both of those experiences came an interest in politics. So as varied as the projects might be, I’ve tried to express stuff about myself and the world around me as best as I can. And man, it’s hard capturing action with a 4x5.
Are you taking on a more universal perspective in these pictures or would you say they are more personal?
I think when making and editing the work, my audience is myself, with the hope that I am not completely crazy and if it means something to me, it might mean something to others. I also spend a lot of time trying to get other people to look at the work to see if it registers with them. So with any luck I am making pictures that are very personal to me but speak to others as well. Oddly, the more specific to your own experience you can make work, the more other people are able to relate to it.
Would it have been possible to drive around America without making politically natured work?
Yeah, I think so. When I started, it was with my ex who is a photographer, and she wanted to make some work on the road. At the time, I was just interested in walking around the woods near where I grew up, but I spent a month on the road with her, stopping every time I found stuff that looked like New Jersey. I can assure you a lot of the east coast looks like New Jersey, and the pictures I made looked like stuff that was in my Woods project. In my case though, my interest in being on the road very quickly became to make political work. But I am sure, you can, for instance, Lee Friedlander has done a lot of work on the road that wasn’t political.
Can any form of narrative be gathered from the America pictures, due to the road trip, political discourse, personal feelings or otherwise?
I am more than ok with people taking away from the work whatever they want. I do my best to try to get across a point of view, but eventually the work goes out into the world and has a life of its own. But certainly being on the road in America has some heavy baggage, both in photo history and culturally, and I am sure that colors the interpretation of the pictures to some degree. I just hope on some level I am able to bring something of myself to that greater conversation.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
Who is your favorite professional wrestler and why?
Well, good question. Being off from teaching for the summer, I have been wasted some time reading professional wrestling biographies, and despite his recent run in TNA and his issues with the law, I would have to say my favorite wrestler is Kurt Angle, because he was so ridiculously talented at varied styles of pro-wresting. He could do a moonsalt, work stiff in a brawling style, was okay taking bumps in a more hardcore style and, as a real deal Olympic gold medal winner, his ability as mat wrestler its hard to question. But even more impressive, was his ability on the mic. He could be serious in a legitimately intimidating I got arrested in a parking lot with car full of drugs kind of way, but also downright funny portraying a heel who oblivious to why people don’t like him. So Kurt Angle is my favorite pro-wrestler with Shawn Michaels a close second.
Scott Alario is a photographer based out of Rhode Island who recently received his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Juan Madrid recently received his BFA from Rochester Institute of Technology and currently resides in New York.
Where do we/you find the hope for these people? Do they need it? How does religion play into this?
For me at least, it’s not as much about having hope for the people as it is about them showing me that there is still hope. Whether it’s through an actual story they tell me or a look in their eyes, I believe that people have a chance at redeeming themselves regardless of any mistakes they may make. I don’t think they need hope; one needs to look within oneself to find that.
Religion is a big part of life regardless of whether or not you follow one. I am not religious; the imagery associated with religion, Christianity in particular, is a part of my visual history nonetheless. This type of imagery is often associated with feelings of power, safety, and hope. I would hope the portraits I make put a viewer into a conflicted/uncertain state, where they don’t know exactly how to feel about the person they are looking at. I hope that the religious symbols incorporated into my work make that relationship more complex without making religion the main issue.
Do you first have to be happy in order to know sadness?
I think happiness and sadness are intertwined, making it impossible to know one without the other.
What is the best reason for looking into the past?
To learn more about yourself/others or for a good laugh. I prefer to live in the present as fully as possible.
What do you think it means when a subject closes their eyes while being photographed?
It can mean just as much as having a subject’s eyes open. It usually tends towards a more dreamy, meditative, or unsure feeling for a viewer. We’re not used to seeing portraits of people with their eyes closed, making it strange when we see such a photograph.
Do you think as a photographer you can know your photographs entirely?
No. At some point you should have some understanding of your need or desire to photograph but to completely understand your photographs is to completely understand yourself. If at least some of my photographs didn’t surprise me regularly, I probably would’ve quit before too long.
Do you work with a purpose or an interest?
By labeling myself a photographer, I choose to engage with the world through a camera so as to experience it as I react to what I see and experience. My most basic interest lies in “seeing” - not literally, as I know how to use my eyes to look at what’s actually around me, but rather to see beyond the surface and seek out some deeper truth.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
My encounters have made me more empathetic but also shown me the complexity of people. I’ve gotten even further from believing in any ideas of good and evil - morality is so situational that such notions don’t mean much to me. I think I’ve gotten better at reading people without prejudging them.
Even when I’m not taking photos, I try to observe what makes us human - gestures, expressions, interactions, reactions. It’s also helped me better understand timing and influenced my working method - different ways of talking to a subject and other small tricks I’ve picked up.
John Vigg received his MFA from Montclair State University in 2013 and is currently living and working New Jersey.
How does the landscape work fit into the more conceptual projects? Are they all pieces to something larger or is their a trajectory?
I am interested in the production of space. I am curious about and make photographs of places that relate to the ways in which we occupy and alter the landscape. This is a term borrowed from geography, how people make space and then the space makes the people. These ideas started all the way back in the 50’s with groups like the Situationists. These artists looked to see how areas changed by people in turn effected the people back.
What does distance do in your photographs?
I choose my distance based on composition. Certain times a telephoto look will give a fee of suspicion. A wide angle could be a little more whimsical. Most of my present work has reverted back to a fixed 50mm lens for ease and a more uniform look to my images.
Can you talk about how there is only the slightest evidence of life in the pictures?
My interests lie in the landscape and our sense of place. Often when you include a figure or a person in the scene it could distract or change the meaning of the photograph.
However, I am aware in my image making that people have contributed to the space to which I am photographing.
Is every inch of a photograph important? how much can we live with out?
Of course, I’d say anything you point a camera at becomes important. The selective nature of photography over other art forms like painting allow you to really concentrate on making a composition. What one decides to include can drastically change the meaning of the image. As an artist, that is my pleasure in being able to select and record what I see and feel in the scene. There are great photographers that cram a ton of stuff in a scene and those images are amazing to view. However, I try to focus on a specific subject.
Can you talk about this area as a large in-between, an area only meant for passing through? Does this mirror anything else?
It is still the wild wild west. Unlike other areas, some of the traditions still stand like the rule: “Don’t cross another man’s fence.” Also I can only imagine there are still areas that have not been recorded. The idea of this area being transitional is evident by looking at the two coasts. The west is what we make of it, we know it through nostalgic sources. When you are not from there, we carry that with us. I suggest to anyone working in a landscape tradition that also travels to read “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat-Moon, It’ll make you hop right in the car and take off.
The sky takes up half of your image in almost all of the photographs in your series, An American West, it seems instinctual for a viewer to ignore the sky, should we?
The sky will always affect the mood of the image. Including pretty clouds in a bleak scene, could give the viewer a more positive sense of what they are looking at. A lot of the times I am photographing the desert, I am just as interested at the dirt and the sand, as I am the sky. A photographer is a looker, and needs to look all over, up down and everywhere else, although in this series I worked to keep a more traditional composition.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What are the consequences of being a contemporary photographer?
I find myself working in a highly research based mode. My investigations start in books and the internet before I set foot on locations, Collaboration with thinkers and other academics become an important way to advance my own vision and what I am working on. I have also learned to embrace installation and mixed mediums into my practice. Found maps and reference material sometimes does a better job of depicting what is to be described. The importance of scale and pacing in photography installations is amazing. I love seeing what changes in the meaning of a body of work when laying things out on the gallery wall.
I have also been embracing technology and how quickly it is advancing the photograph. We are now used to an always on type of photography, from cell phones to google earth. Photography is often used as a form of data now. The sheer number of images we are all now exposed to become a collected bank of information. Meanings are being made from the collective group of images rather than just one.
Monique Atherton recieved her post-baccalaureate degree in photography from the San Francisco Art Institute and is currently living in Brooklyn, NY and Washington State.
How do you decide what to photograph? How do you decide what not to photograph? What is your personal understanding of a ‘good’ photograph?
I used to photograph everything - I carried a camera at all times and went around shooting strangers at fairs, flowers, trees, sidewalks and stuff. As I matured in my process and found my voice I stopped carrying around the camera unless I was specifically working on a project. My projects for the past two years have involved exploring my relationship to specific places and the people in those places. When I make pictures, I look for two things, I look for images that will complement other images that make up a part of a larger series and I also look for moments that evoke a particular feeling - so it’s not the subject that is as important to me as finding the right elements to create a mood.
I try not to photograph the obvious, the one-liners, and photography that promotes the idea of the other. I try to draw from my own experiences to create a photographic world that can’t be experienced without me. I want to represent an undiscovered place where the secret languages and the tensions that exist on a subconscious level are revealed.
For me, a good photograph makes you stop and look, it makes you question and it stays with you. Getting all three of these things in one image is super challenging.
Can you talk about motion blurs? What effect do they have on a photograph? On the senses?
Ooooh! I love motion blurs. Years ago, when I first began making pictures, I saw the work of Nikola Tamindzic, who at the time, was making these amazing nightlife photographs of the NYC party scene. He combined a slow shutter with a flash which added another dimension to his work. Those images had a big impact on me and I’ve since incorporated the technique into my own practice. Since photographs are just fractions of seconds I use blurs to add a little extra time to the image. I also feel like motion blurs help to create a dreamlike and/or intoxicated feeling to the viewer - there is something very fun about that to me. To be able to feel intoxicated just by looking at something.
How far removed from daily life is your photography? A lot, not at all…?
A lot. My photography portrays a daily life that I wish I had but don’t.
Do you feel stifled by the limits of photography?
Yes, but as with all relationships, there are ups and downs. My relationship with photography is quite tense at times but I’m constantly working on ways to ‘spice things up’ and to push myself to capture scenes that are less likely to happen in everyday life. For the first part of this year, I was feeling particularly stifled. At this time, I was also an artist-in-residence at the Wassaic Project in upstate New York and I think something happened up there that was super inspiring and helped me work around some of these limits. I made a conscious effort to move away from the usual documentary approach and I began staging photographs using mostly inanimate objects or people that acted as inanimate objects. I would create specific scenes or sculptures and incorporate that into my narratives. Photography is a very stifling medium but I think that’s part of the pleasure of it - the challenge to push yourself to work harder and create better images.
How much of the content of your work is random? If none or very little, why does it feel random?
The work is not random at all. Each of the different series I have presents my version of incidents in specific places with people that I am very close with. Going back to my first answer, the photographs appear random because I’m looking for more of a feeling rather that a common subject matter. Also, I’m documenting the various microcosms that I exist in and those are all very different from each other. For example, in my series ‘Holding Pattern’ I had this corporate job where I documented the relationship I had with one of my co-workers. She and I were completely in sync on a professional and personal level and we both did not quite fit into the corporate mold. During this same period, I was travelling to Tacoma on a regular basis to see my partner where I worked on making pictures about that relationship in that space. So, while my pictures can seem random, the images and the series that I work in have a unifying thread - me and my relationship to the people and places in the images.
Are the people you photograph still themselves in your photographs? What do their bodies take on for you?
Definitely, when I am shooting, the people are themselves. However, after my intense editing process (I will probably take around 4,000 photographs for one project and then I lock myself in my room for days/weeks/months and edit down sometimes reshooting if needed) the people begin to become more abstract to me. I guess that’s because rather than trying to tell a story about a specific person, I’m trying to make it more relatable and so I tend to choose photographs that are not necessarily representational of the people I photographed but more of a stand in for a particular emotion or feeling. In my most recent body of work, “The Excitement of Something New” I avoided faces altogether. To me, obscuring the faces makes the work relatable to a wider audience. I want the viewer to not be distracted by the particulars of a person and for them to be able to insert their own experiences into the photograph.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What do you love about being a photographer?
I love pressing buttons. Physical buttons. Elevator and camera buttons to be specific. In regard to the camera, I love the sound the shutter makes. I notice how the sound a shutter makes differs among cameras. If I could sit around and push buttons all day I would.
Bryson Rand is a photographer who received his BFA from University of Colorado in Boulder and will begin pursuing his MFA at Yale this year.
Describe the event in your life that left the biggest impression on your art making practice?
That is a hard question to answer and I don’t know that I can pin it down to one thing. I use photography to investigate and react to my place in the world, therefore what is impacting my work is always shifting. When I look back at older pictures I can see the connection between what was happening in my life at the time and the pictures I was making. But that connection isn’t always apparent while I am making the work, which can be a source of frustration at the time.I’ll find myself unsure of why I made one picture or another, and it is not until I have had some distance from the work that it starts to make more sense. I used to fight this and my work ended up becoming one dimensional as I tried to make it about a specific thing or idea. Lately I’ve given in to the ambiguity of this process and it has allowed me to open up the scope of my photographs.
There are a few events that have changed the course of my life, and in turn lead to shifts in my approach to making photographs. Seeing The Americans for the first time as a teenager, coming out to my parents, and the death of my grandfather are events that continue to inform the images regardless of whatever else is going on in my life at the time.
If you stripped off layers of your pictures one at a time, what is the final thing that remains?
My primary motivations for taking pictures are to gain a better understanding of my interactions with other people and places, and to do so in a visually compelling way. Regardless of what I am photographing, I am always aware of the potential beauty of the subject. I think it is important that the work is first and foremost pleasing to look at, and that the meaning(s) of each image will emerge as you spend time with them. If the concept or idea behind a photograph is strong but there isn’t that visual hook, I consider it a failure. So, I think if you took everything else away from the work you’d be left with a visually seductive description of the interactions that take place between myself and my surroundings.
How do your photographs without people reinforce the photographs of people and vice versa?
I try to edit my photos in a way that the pictures communicate with one another and begin to create a photographic world. The images without people serve to establish a setting, but also to build a mood or atmosphere that runs throughout a group of pictures. Photographs of places can possess a psychological weight that is equal to those that are inhabited by people, and I try to keep that in mind as I’m shooting and editing. Since I don’t want the work to be about an actual, specific place, the ‘landscapes‘ function on a symbolic level, giving insight into the emotional state of the people in my photographs. In the same way, there are visual cues in the images of people that change and add to the meaning of the pictures of places. Sequencing the images plays an important role in how the images inform one another, and I am always surprised and confounded by how much the meaning of a picture can change depending on what comes before and after it in a sequence. As much as I hope that the pictures can stand on their own, I think the work has more impact when seen in a group.
Has your work ever revealed something to you that you didn’t know about yourself?
All the time. One of the ways I judge whether or not an image is successful is if I feel surprised by it. If I am startled and excited by the images, then hopefully other people will be as well. The uncertainty in a photo is what keeps me engaged as I try to figure out what i’m looking at and what it’s meaning is.
About a year ago, I went to Colorado for my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary and had the opportunity to photograph my family, which is something I had not really done before. I went in with no expectations of producing any real work and the results were kind of a shock. The photos revealed and articulated a lot of the turmoil that exists between the expectations my family and I have for each other and the reality of our lives. Coming from a conservative, military background has made me question my role as an artist and gay man for most of my adult life, and has been a source of turmoil for me and my family. I thought I had dealt with a lot of these issues and moved past it, but when I saw those images I realized I still felt a lot of inner conflict about my identity and how my family and I view and understand one another. While I have not had the chance to photograph my family again, those few pictures have served as a jumping off point to take my work in a new, more complexdirection, and has challenged me to figure out how to make work about these issues without directly showing my family.
Can you talk about the eyes in your photographs?
It’s funny you should ask about eyes because I have a tendency to obscure or hide people’s faces in my photographs. Eyes can reveal a lot about a person’s inner state, but they are also quite mysterious, and can be deceptive. Frequently the people in my pictures are gazing at something/someone that is outside the frame, lending an air of mystery to the image and allowing the work to remain open to interpretation.
Part of the reason I often hide my subjects’ eyes is because I’m interested in the ways gesture and posture can reveal something about the subject. Hands play an increasingly important role in establishing tension in my photos, and I want to see how far I can push the idea of communicating primarily with gesture.
The lines created in your photographs have a tendency to direct the viewer and also obscure the view, why is that?
Lines in the work function in a similar way that gestures do. While they direct or reveal something about the image, they also work to make the pictures more layered and therefore require more time to understand. To me a successful photograph is one that leaves you asking more questions than it answers, while still being engaging enough for you to want to spend time trying to figure it out. Also, by obscuring parts of the picture the viewer is forced to place himself within the frame to try and see around the obstruction, and engage with the image in a more physical way.
Ask yourself a question and respond.
What Simpsons character are you?
Ms. Krabappel. But you can call me Edna.