Kevin J. Miyazaki is featured today on Flak Photo as part of the WINTER PICTURES special. I’ve been following Kevin’s multifaceted contributions to the photography community over the last year and it was a pleasure to connect with him about this photograph. While Kevin makes a living as an editorial photographer shooting portraits, travel and food assignments for magazines, I know him for his other work. Kevin is the genius behind collect.give. He teaches the Professional Practices class at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design with its accompanying resourceful blog MIAD-FA382, including the extensive list of interviews (699 and growing). His personal projects include Camp Home and Early Places and he has self-published the photobook(let) titled 38. This snowball photograph is not tied to a specific project but is part of work featured on his personal blog. He says “the blog has been really important to me in the past few years – it’s the platform onto which I can toss little visual thoughts. I come from an assignment-driven background, so I became used to passing up interesting images if there wasn’t a logical place for them. With the blog, they have a home.” I enjoy the journey that Kevin gives the viewer in his “visual thoughts.” I asked him to talk about his wonderful white on white study of a snowball and this is what he had to say:
“I made this picture last winter on Christmas eve, just after shoveling my walk. I packed the snowball and brought it inside to shoot, both on black and white pieces of paper. To me, this kind of picture is like a quick sketch (it only took about five minutes to shoot) – but is also a fully realized photograph. I like making pictures in a variety of ways, and not being limited by particular situations, conditions or equipment. I think we photographers all first began making pictures with a great deal of excitement and wonder, looking through the viewfinder with a really open mind. I hope to never stray too far away from that type of visual freedom and curiosity. It’s important to me to just always be making pictures, whether it’s part of a large scale project, or in fact, just a small, quickly melting snowball.” – Kevin J. Miyazaki
Throughout the month of July, Flak Photo, in its WEEKEND series, is featuring photographs by Zwelethu Mthethwa from his self-titled monograph recently published by Aperture. (Check out each weekend image: JULY 3, 10, 17, 24, & 31, 2010.) It has been my pleasure to team up with Andy Adams again and present this interview with Zwelethu Mthethwa. Mthethwa’s work is pivotal in broadening the discourse on the history of photography and I hope this interview adds to the conversations that have preceded this one; the insightful interview in Zwelethu Mthethwa between Isolde Brielmaier and Mthethwa and the conversation between Mthethwa and Okwui Enwezor at the Aperture Foundation in March 2010. They are essential reading and viewing. I recently corresponded with Zwelethu by email as he prepared to travel from South Africa to the U.S. for the opening of “Inner Views” at the Studio Museum in Harlem on July 15. We talked about his monograph, two specific images from his Sugar Cane series, the South African photography community, and briefly about the current show at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
book cover of "Zwelethu Mthethwa". Courtesy of Aperture.
Larissa Leclair: As an internationally acclaimed artist (photographer, painter, video artist) with over one-hundred solo and group exhibitions, I wonder why it has taken so long for a monograph of your work to be published. Thankfully and finally Aperture recently published the beautiful monograph Zwelethu Mthethwa (Aperture, 2010). While a traditional first monograph primarily includes one body of work, this book is almost like a retrospective exhibition, with work from many series. Can you talk about your journey of finding a publisher and producing this monograph?
Zwelethu Mthethwa: It has been a very long journey. This particular book has been in the making for at least 4 years, but the major reason why nothing like this has been published before is because I was waiting for the right publisher (who would be able to distribute the book internationally). A few people have approached me before, but because they did not have the qualities that I was looking for, I turned them down.
The book presented me with an opportunity to showcase most of my projects over the last 20 years. However, there are some projects that we haven’t included because we were limited in terms of the size of the book.
From the series Gold Miners, 2006, and Quartz Miners, 2007-8, pages 66-67. Courtesy of Aperture.
LL: Your work as a whole addresses the economic and political reality of marginalized communities primarily in South Africa. Can you talk about your personal interest in these communities and professions (miners, sugarcane workers, etc.). Are you personally an outsider or is there more of a connection to these people and circumstances -politically, economically, culturally?
ZM: The work is about my personal history and personal observation. I grew up in contact with these different communities all the time. I was always interested in how the migrant workers would be ostracised from the main community, which was the community that I came from. The migrant workers were always seen as “the other” – they looked different, talked different, dressed different – they were just so different. As a kid I was curious to understand the dynamics of these differences, mainly because we were all black, I assumed we were all the same. Growing up as an artist I came to realise that I was also an outsider because with my views on life I probably didn’t belong to any of the communities, even the mainstream community.
In terms of my interest in these “professions” I have always been fascinated by the way that people make lives and livings for themselves. Despite economic hardship, political hardship, all kinds of hardship, including that of just trying to fit in, people continue to work and live even in the strangest circumstances. Through my years of experience in photographing these communities I have found out that the periphery after some time becomes the mainstream in the way that fashion follows them, the way that interior decorators decorate their houses and in the way that musicians have developed their sound too.
LL: Can you talk about two specific photographs from the Sugar Cane series – the image on page 39 that starts this series in the Aperture monograph, which is also the cover of Snap Judgments(ICP/Steidl 2006), and the photograph included in Enwezor’s essay on page 111. I am curious about how you approached photographing here and the dialog that occurred between you and the workers, and then your internal dialogue as you were photographing. I am struck by the attire, the landscape, and stance – very raw and powerful – and am curious why sugar cane workers wear skirts?
ZM: Approach – first of all, I explained my intentions to the farmers that owned the land. Once they had given me permission to photograph the people working on their land, I then further approached the individual farm workers and explained to them my intentions, so that I could get permission from them to take their photographs. Once they agreed, I then took the photographs; but this was a long process because I would have to fly back to Cape Town, process the photos and then go back to Durban to give the sitters their photographs. It was important to me that they had copies of the images. I would then, while in Durban, shoot some more, and start the whole process again. So this all happened over several months.
My first attraction to the sugar cane workers was that they were wearing skirts, and that they looked to me like Samurai worriers. I then found out that, not only were they wearing skirts, but also many other layers of clothing. This was odd to me because Durban is an incredibly hot and humid area. I thought they must be crazy to be wearing so many clothes and still doing manual labour. I discovered, through speaking with them, that the reason was to protect themselves from the burning ground and soot (sugar cane is burnt before harvested); from the very sharp leaves of the cane; and also from the many snakes that like to live in sugar cane fields. The most difficult part of taking these photographs was stopping them from working. These guys are paid according to the weight of sugar cane that they harvest; there is no hourly rate. I felt guilty that I was interrupting and taking their money away from them by asking them to pose for me. So this forced me to move in and out as quickly as possible, interrupting their flow of production as little as possible.
With regard to the photograph on p.39, it was shot in the afternoon, the clothing that the worker is wearing is quite specific – his hood is obviously to protect him from the harsh sun. His crew neck shirt is there to stop insects from getting into his clothes. His rubber boots prevent snakebites to his feet. He has also tied some rope around his legs above the knee to stop snakes from crawling up his pants.
The other photograph – the reason why they wear skirts: they can’t wear tight clothing because it chafes against the skin, so a skirt is a good way to add another protective layer without the discomfort of the chafing. Underneath the skirt he is wearing loose pants.
LL: Okwui Enwezor mentions in his essay in the book the environment surrounding your study at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town in the early 80′s. Was a history of photography class part of the curriculum there? And I am wondering which history of photography? Did you learn about South African photographers and photography?
ZM: There was no history of photography, but photography (practical) was an elective course. I remember people such as David Goldblatt and Omar Badsha visiting the school to talk about their work.
LL: Can you talk about the photography community in South Africa – what was it like in the 80′s, then in the 90′s and now?
ZM: There was always photo-generalism and a rise of documentary photography in the ’80s, which was always black and white photography. Most of the photographers were commissioned by different newspapers or magazines for specific projects, rather than producing their own work in the fine art sense. We are now seeing a beginning of photography being accepted into the realms of fine art in this country, as “new media”. There are a few South African photographers who produce mainly for the galleries. The new photographers are using colour photography as a medium, as opposed to black and white. Their sizes have also changed from the standard 8×10, 16×20 to larger sizes, like 50×50 or even mural-size. There is an interest in presenting photography as limited editions in the most archival form, as opposed to producing photography for the magazine or the newspaper.
LL: Currently you have a solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 15-Oct 24, 2010). Which series will be on view?
ZM: The work on show at the Studio Museum has been selected by the curator, Naomi Beckwith, and will be presented under the title of “Inner Views.” The selection includes work from the “Interiors” series, “Common Ground” series and “Empty Beds” – all these projects were completed from the early 80s up to 4 years ago.
ZM: One project I have been busy with recently is shooting power lines in informal settlements the lines have been illegally connected, hooked up to strange makeshift structures, big knots and tangles of cables. These power lines have changed the landscape within the informal settlement, which is a phenomenon that is interesting to me.
LL: Thank you very much Zwelethu!
Installation of Zwelethu Mthethwa's fifth solo exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York - April 23-May 23, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY
FLAK PHOTO: WEEKEND series: SurfLand by Joni Sternbach
Throughout the month of March, Flak Photo, in its WEEKEND series, is featuring photographs by Joni Sternbach from her monograph SurfLand. (Check out each weekend image: MARCH 6, 13, 20, & 27, 2010.) Joni embraces the difficulties of using a large format camera and the wet-plate collodion process in a windy and sandy ocean environment to create these one-of-a-kind stunning portraits of surfers. In the midst of AIPAD, I talked with Joni and asked her what impact being a Critical Mass winner has had on her as a photographer, her audience for this work, and about her connection to water and historical photographers.
Larissa Leclair: In 2007 you were a Critical Mass winner along with Peter van Agtmael. What kind of impact did that award and the resulting monograph SurfLand, published by photolucida in 2009, have on you and your work?
Joni Sternbach: Winning the Critical Mass book award had a huge impact on me, and really changed my life as a photographer. I think it grounded me in the world of photography and gave me a place that I didn’t have prior to it. Also, having the book showcased my work and gave it more visibility, which I believe opened the door to the solo show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Books are circulated in a completely different kind of way than artwork is in a gallery or on a website, or in any of the other ways photographs travel around the web these days. The book is a tangible object and the work is interpreted through that format. I think books are a beautiful medium. They lend a certain narrative to the work that my individual plates might not convey. Not only did the book add to my marketability as an artist, it gave me a forum for my work that it didn’t have before.
LL: The exhibition “SurfLand” at the Peabody Essex Museum in 2009 launched a regular schedule of photography exhibitions at the museum. Phillip Prodger is the first curator of photography at PEM and also the essayist for your book. How did you come to know Phillip and how did this harbinger exhibition come about? What an honor!
JS: I first got to know Phillip Prodger when he was Assistant Curator of Photography at the St. Louis Art Museum. I sent him a show announcement and he liked the work and wanted to consider it for an exhibition he was curating on landscape photography. This led to a period of communications that spanned many years. He later left the museum, curated independently, but his successor ended up using my work in that landscape show. When Phillip went to the Peabody Essex Museum, we connected again and I brought him some of my surfer tintypes. Seeing the actual plates was the decisive moment in his suggestion to propose a solo show. By this time, I had won the photolucida book prize and because I admired his work I had already asked him to write the essay. So it all came together in this very perfect way. The book then acted as a catalog to the exhibition even though it was not produced for that specifically.
LL: I would imagine that your audience for tintype photographs would be completely different than the audience for photographs of surfers. This work has appeared on the cover of PDN in the context of historical techniques (October 2009) and also in surfing magazines. I’m not sure what my question is… I find the juxtaposition of these audiences interesting. The broad audience that this work resonates with is great. I wonder if you have any stories related to this audience mixing.
JS: Although they do seem like disparate audiences, strangely enough, I think these two groups connect. On one hand there are the people interested in 19th century photography who collect tintypes and daguerreotypes, and then there are the surfers. Photographing on the beach is a performance of sorts and many people are drawn to the large format wooden camera and then to the photographs as I am making them on location. Being able to see the finished product right there on the beach is central to my project. The reason these two groups mix is because many surfers are photographers and some are artists or they are involved in creative fields. One surfer that I met on the beach and photographed, was also a designer. A few years later he opened up a hotel in Montauk called Surf Lodge, and he wanted all varieties of surf photography for decoration. He bought 4 of my photographs, depicting some of the local people in Montauk who are well-known as surfers and who also have a reputation in the art world. So there is this mix between the art world and surfing.
LL: Do you continue to add to the “Surfers” body of work or is it a finished project?
JS: I am still working on it. I was just in California for two weeks in February continuing the project. There is a certain magic that gets generated by being out there on the beach and making these pictures – connecting with people in a very random way. Often times I just go to a beach where I don’t know anybody, introduce myself, and take pictures of people who happen to be surfing there. Other times I have a planned meeting with one person or a group of people. Sometimes, they are complete strangers. What I want to convey to you is this incredible encounter that happens when I meet these people and make pictures on the beach that transcends photography. It’s about chance and it’s about spontaneity. It’s not about control, but rather letting go of it. It’s about intuition and allowing the interaction to develop solely because you are in a certain place at a certain time. That is something that I love. I am working on other projects as well now but I don’t feel like I have finished with this project.
LL: Everyone asks you this question, “Why tintype?” I’m going to you ask you a bit differently. I’m wondering if you are interested just as much in the process and ritual and the physical art of making the tintype as in the final feel and quality of the finished photograph. Does it connect you personally with certain historical photographers and methods of the past?
JS: It’s true, I get asked this question all the time. One of the things I am trying to do, is to use the medium of collodion (tintype, ambrotrype, negative) as a valid contemporary tool. I relate to it as a choice in photographic medium the same way that large format represents a valid choice over 35mm or even film versus digital. To me it is yet another tool in the history of photography that people are paying more attention to now because photography has taken a digital turn. Making hand-made objects is a way for me to be self-reliant from the marketplace and is a really satisfying photographic process. My tintypes are one-of-kind and made in-camera. So that is one of the reasons. As I’ve described, the act of making the photograph on location is something that involves my subjects as well as myself. So when I am out there taking the picture and processing it and then fixing it in daylight, my subjects are watching as I am doing this and they are just as excited and thrilled by the result as I am. And that engages them and it also encourages other people to participate in the project. It is live performance: I am making art in public. It involves camera work, chemicals, and people.
19th century photography has had a huge influence on me, though in the “SurfLand” series, I am using a 20th century camera and 20th century lens. I have opted out of using antique brass lenses without a shutter. I am not trying to recreate a 19th century aesthetic. But I am interested in the way 19th century aesthetics inform photography and inform my work.
LL: I have recently been researching Muybridge for the major retrospective at the Corcoran and I keep thinking of Muybridge when I look at “The Salt Effect” and “Abandoned.” He photographed the expansion of the railroad in Utah, an example of progress that in the modern day has effected the landscape there. And in “Abandoned” you are photographing the antithesis of “new-world progress.” Can you talk about these two bodies of work in relation to history?
JS: It’s really interesting that you mention Muybridge whose work has been very influential. In a previous body of work, not on my website, is the series “Untitled Silhouettes” from the early 90’s. It is a group of silhouette portraits of women modeled after Muybridge’s study of the human figure in motion. The prints are made in platinum-palladium from Polaroid negatives in two sections that are pieced together. I was completely interested in the way Muybridge used the figure in scientific study. His models are naked and the women are holding objects associated with domesticity while the men are holding things related to masculinity or sports. I made this entire body of work in dialogue with Muybridge, so it is interesting that you mention him.
The series “Abandoned” was my first body of work using collodion. My foremost concern was scouting locations close to or directly on the water, searching for the mystery of an abandoned past. Structures and places that have lost their functionality are now emblematic of a more primitive time. They represent the last stand, the human effort most poignantly seen through decay and the return to nature. So I like your phrase “the anti-thesis of new world progress.” Westward expansion and the birth of photography happened simultaneously. As an Easterner I did not have the same physical connection to the west as people who live there. Going to Utah was my first Western landscape experience. I didn’t believe the literature that said this was not the “romantic west.” They even warned me the weather was on steroids. When I got there, it was cold. It was windy and it was really difficult to make pictures in those conditions. I had brought along film as well, so I did a combination of wet-plate and film shooting that was an investigation into understanding the implications and effect of salt on the environment. What I didn’t know when I got to Utah was that I was going to be surrounded by an invisible body of water, with all the salt beds there, so it was the opposite of where I had been photographing along the coast line. Of course there are contemporary artists, such as Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire and Mark Klett, who have this connection and who have been working on the West for years. But for me, it was all completely new.
LL: With the longer exposure time for the wet-plate process, water is captured as a magical surface, an element in your photographs that I absolutely love. You focus on it in “Ocean” and “Sea/Sky;” it grounds your surfers; takes on its own life in “Abandoned;” and then is referenced in “The Salt Effect.” What is your connection to water?
JS: There is an intuitive pull for me. I grew up around the ocean, and had the ocean as a destination. I spent time as a kid with my grandmother in places like Rockaway and Long Beach. That is my early connection. It is a place I feel I must be close to. I love to swim in the ocean. I feel it is a primal source. I love its cyclical nature and its timelessness. The beach is a place where we can exist in some other time frame and for me, it is a complete escape from the “dressed-up” lifestyle required in the city or at work. I do think that photographing water allows us to think about time and time passing. The photographs capture time or slow it down, giving the water a quality that’s hard to imagine without the medium of photography.
(This intro and interview were originally published in ArtVoices Magazine, December 2009.)
In his first solo show in Washington, D.C., Christopher Colville, photographer and teacher at Arizona State University, explores the themes of time as manifested in death and memory in a selection of work from his series “Emanations,” “Iceland Trilogy” and “Sonoran Project.”
Colville pushes the boundaries of the medium, embracing traditional and experimental processes. Included in his contemporary photographic work are photograms, ambrotypes, and decay-generated images. In “Emanations,” it is the energy given off from a decaying squid that exposes the photographic paper. Colville records this journey of life, of self, of death, in a myriad of colors that conjures up cosmic matter, unknown worlds, micro and macro ecosystems. It is ephemeral and magical.
“Iceland Trilogy” is an interconnected body of work of ritual and connection to the landscape. Two series within “Iceland Trilogy,” Cairns and Small Tragedies, are intimately tied together in terms of the artist’s ritual of creating one photograph each day in the Icelandic landscape of his ancestors. Cairns themselves are stones used to mark pathways, as well as markers placed as memorials to the dead. Colville reflects on his own intersection with the path of others – now and of the past.
“Sonoran Project” is one of Colville’s latest body of work. Life in the Arizona desert is both miraculous and tenuous. In the vast landscape there are traces of life in all stages. His photograms capture a mythical spirituality of the natural world.
This selection of work seen together for FotoWeek DC, explores the cycle of life, the passage of time, history, and the landscape that embodies us all. The exhibition “Christopher Colville” is on view November 4 – December 11, 2009.
Larissa Leclair: Your process behind the “Emanations” series is absolutely amazing. This is an older series of work, but I am always drawn back to it. Who or what was your inspiration for that?
Christopher Colville: I wanted to make images that hinted at our connection to a more organic reality and the transformative nature of life. At the time I was thinking about how to do that photographically I was reading “The Beauty of the Husband” by Ann Carson and was struck by the passage, “[a] wound gives off its own light surgeons say. If all the lamps in the house were turned out you could dress this wound by what shines from it.” Carson’s quote brought to life a beautiful image of the power of healing and the suggestion that through pain we grow stronger and more full. That same week I learned from a friend that squid glow as they decompose and I couldn’t let go of the vision of an organism giving off energy in death. I think we all want to feel connected to something greater than ourselves, whether that is a religious spiritual connection or just an organic redistribution of our bodies providing nutrients for life after we die.
LL: I see that mythical spirituality of the natural world in all your series. Do you have any other contemporary influences?
CC: I have been thinking a lot about the work of Fredrick Sommer, Richard Long, Gabriel Orozco. Most recently I found the work of Cai Guo-Qiang extremely inspiring. I have also recently been influenced by the writing of David James Duncan and Cormac McCarthy.
LL: In William Jenkins’ essay in “Michael Lundgren: Transfigurations” (Radius Books, 2008) he begins, “[n]ot long ago Mike Lundgren, two others and I were camping in one of the most beautiful Sonoran desert landscapes I have ever encountered.” I know you have been camping many times with Mike Lundgren. Might Bill Jenkins be referring to you as well in this sentence?
CC: Probably not, but as it happens I am heading into the desert with Bill Jenkins, Mark Klett and many other ASU photo faculty and graduate students this weekend. Last week I spent four days in the Pinacate with Mike Lundgren and Richard Lagharn. We have a great community of artists living in the Phoenix area, many of whom seek refuge or solitude in the Sonoran Desert. One of the best things about living in Phoenix is the ability to leave the city quickly. For those people that are tuned in, the desert’s calling is hard to resist and sometimes it calls us out in packs.
LL: One of your latest series is the “Sonoran Project.” Can you describe the terrain of the Sonoran desert and how it is to photograph there?
CC: I don’t know if I will ever fully be able to describe the Sonoran desert and that is part of the reason I am compelled to spend time there and make work there. The terrain varies so greatly from seemingly barren flats to lush riparian areas as well as unforgiving mountain ranges. In the summer you hide from the sun by day and work through the night and in the winter the days are luminous and the nights are frigid. The terrain challenges you but at the same time I feel more at peace out there than anywhere else. In addition, the rich cultural history embedded in the landscape reveals itself in a way that resonates with my desires in art-making and enable me to feel connected to this greater history.
LL: Creating each one of your bodies of work seems to incorporate a prolonged period of time in the environment that you are photographing in–a journey if you will–and an exploration of self both physically and mentally. Do you agree?
CC: Yes. I am not interested in just documenting space. Instead my desires are more internal. They lay in an arena of sharing experience through the transformative process of image making. Life in the desert is both miraculous and tenuous. The harsh reality of the desert and the complex transitions speak to the evolution of life. The shifts in extremes–in the Sonoran Desert, in Iceland, and in life–resonate with the extremes of human emotion. In these spaces there is no insulation, yet life erupts from the most unexpected places. Spending time in the desert brings me closer to an experience that can escape the confines of language. It is an experience that is more essential, more tied to the immediacy of life. I feel that these more essential experiences reveal a lot about an individual. My work has always been about learning who I am–an internal dialogue that resonates on a broader level. How do we connect to this world? There is always a journey.
Colville’s series Instar is also from the Sonoran Desert. About this work he says:
“Instar” describes the periods between successive molts of a caterpillar as it sheds its exoskeleton before reaching sexual maturity. Each molt leaves marks and scars on the body of the organism as evidence of its previous existence, similar to the marks left on the earth from natural events as well as the scars left on the landscape as we manipulate it for our needs.
I am interested in making images that translate the wonder and horror embedded in our landscape by these manipulations. The images in this portfolio represent one sequence from a growing body of work that uses the transformative power of photography to speak to our fears of life, death, and regeneration. These images reveal visions both apocalyptic and miraculous while searching for the possibility of redemption and beauty.
I was transfixed by the frozen natural ice sculptures of “Valhalla” on the cover, the interview with her by Patrick Amsellem (page 16), and one photograph that looked to be of tiny colored dots on a white background that almost blended into the white of the magazine page (page 19). I could barely decipher the image, but could not stop looking at it. Sadly to say, that was the last printed issue of the Photo-eye Booklist with Darius Himes as Editor, but that horizon-less photograph of fishing huts started my photograph collection. It wasn’t until much later that I was able to see more of her work in person with Debra Klomp Ching of KlompChing Gallery in DUMBO.
Her inclusion in Flak Photo’s weekday series WINTER PICTURES presented a perfect opportunity to ask Lisa more about her work. I corresponded with Lisa from my snowed-in home in Virginia, while she soaked up the sun in mild Arizona. We talked about her Fulbright to Argentina, the reality of photographing in snow, and the new body of work selected by Andy Adams for his online exhibition.
Larissa Leclair: What was your Fulbright proposal that took you to Argentina? Did you go as a photographer?
Lisa M. Robinson: I fell in love with Argentina in 1994, when I lived there for a year. I admired the Argentine spirit that seemed to be optimistic and pure, no matter the circumstance. Interestingly, I had proposed a photographic portrait of the people, in an effort to better understand such complexities. But in the span of time between my proposal and my arrival, my photographic interests had shifted, and I found myself drawn to the private and public spaces that still reverberated with a human presence. I could not experience these spaces without recognizing some hint of the past, and made photographs that investigated light and darkness as metaphors for deeply layered lives. The resulting images are quiet, poetic ruminations on the significance of seemingly familiar moments.
LL: How have you tapped into very international and diverse venues for showing your work — the International Photography Gathering in Aleppo, Syria; the Museo Tambo Quirquincho in La Paz, Bolivia; and Kaunas Photo Days in Kaunas, Lithuania? And the U.S. Embassy in Kazakstan has your work in it’s collection. Which ones?
LMR: I began showing the Snowbound series in 2005, while still in the midst of the project. I was living in New York, and took advantage of every opportunity to get my work in front of people. I think the international opportunities arose primarily from various portfolio review events – FotoFest, PhotoLucida, Rhubarb-Rhubarb. These meeting grounds allowed me to share my work with a broad spectrum of curators, gallerists and editors.
I was surprised to find how profoundly these images seemed to resonate for people from such different cultures. I thought the work to be distinctly American, emerging from a suburban sensibility and rooted in a combined tradition of the New Color photographers and the New Topographics. While I appreciated how many more concepts informed the imagery, I didn’t fully expect others to see or feel what I did. It’s kind of like believing that your own baby is beautiful, while recognizing that you can’t help but have a particular bias. The international receptivity to the images reminds me of the universal language and power of photography to evoke the specific and the immense simultaneously.
“Solo” and “Harmony” are prints in the collection of the U.S. Embassy in Kazakstan. One is an image depicting a lone basketball hoop in snow; the other, a baseball backstop. These sports are iconic representations of American culture, but the stillness of these playing fields under a blanket of snow suggests a more introspective moment.
LL: Tell me about the photograph “Wish” — which is the cover image of your monograph by Kehrer Verlag.
LMR: From the beginning of the Snowbound work, I recognized that I was drawn to elements in the landscape that provided a point of human reference, perhaps as a source of comfort and familiarity in an otherwise unfamiliar world. But as the project deepened, I began to read my images in a different way, on a more metaphorical plane. I began to see the connections that had slowly emerged… not only was I drawn to human elements isolated in the snowy landscape, but also to spaces that suggested a time of year that had passed, or an activity that was now suspended.
“Wish” was one such image. The very discovery of it functioned like the work itself. I was traveling through Utah, looking for frozen lakes in hopes of discovering more ice fishing shacks. I had called a local outfitter store to find out which lakes might freeze over, and had been directed to this summer location. Driving across the snow and ice toward this designated space on the map, I was a bit skeptical. Eventually, though, the road opened up and I could see a lake in the distance, across a mile or two of snow. I parked my car, and as I was lacing up my bunny boots, preparing for the long trek ahead, a pick-up truck stopped and a local resident asked with grave concern if everything was okay. “Sure is,” I said. “I’m headed out there to photograph.” He was perplexed, and didn’t quite understand why I would be tromping off into nothing… “In the summer, this place is full of people,” he said. “But there’s nothing there now. It’s all covered in snow.” “Precisely my interest,” I thought. I had encountered a Rothko-esque landscape, and was going to approach the horizon in order to capture this painterly reality. And as I trekked through the snow, which was up to my knees, approaching the waterline, I could see a black dot in the distance, a dot that grew larger and larger. I thought that it might be a trashcan, and was speechless when I realized that I was standing before a sunken picnic table. It was a perfect moment, the top of the table pristine from previous sunny days, but its legs submerged in snow. My Rothko painting had been punctuated by a memory. Time and space, form and color were all suspended here, in this moment. I feel privileged to have been a witness, and to have made this resulting image.
LL: The images are peaceful and calm – probably not at all adjectives you would use to describe the winter conditions you were photographing in. What was it like to work in the snow physically and mentally?
LMR: I don’t think I chose to photograph snow and ice, as much as I recognized that it lured me with its understated beauty. I remember late one Sunday afternoon, walking across a frozen lake in Maine, heading toward an isolated fishing shack. A cloud passed over the sun, and in an instant, the gently falling snow began to be driven horizontally. The wind had come from nowhere, and the snow stung like icy pellets. The scene before me was sublime – a hand-crafted shelter silently acquiescing to the storm, like a patient sage. At the same time I was being beckoned by this scene, I was confronted by its physical difficulties. I gave up trying to make a photograph that day, my fingers numb from immediate exposure to the wind and cold. I remember defrosting in my car, frustrated but compelled by the challenges ahead. I knew that I must confront the storm, and its attendant challenges and difficulties, in order to find that still center. Learning to embrace the physicality of the work — finding the proper clothing and gear, learning how to read the atmosphere, developing a methodical ritual with my 4×5 view camera, learning the rhythm of my breath in pace with my steps as I walked through snow — all of this was essential to my understanding of this quest.
It is no accident, then, that I became deeply meditative through the act of photography. Often, I would wake an hour before sunrise, in order to light a candle and write in my journal, as a way of finding an internal equilibrium that could be maintained throughout my external experience. I began to practice yoga, and developed an awareness of my body and its connectedness to an outer world that, I believe, manifests in the images themselves. Walking that edge, where the tension between the physical reality and the internal peace, can co-exist, has resulted in images that can sustain such seeming contradictions. Somehow, the blizzard is manageable, when you are inside your own head and inside the storm at the same time.
Such cold, such seeming emptiness, the unknown space before me… I went into it alone, without a guide. No one knew where I was, often times not even myself. That was part of this journey, to confront the unknown, to confront myself, and to glean something from the experience.
LL: You are now in Arizona. Do you miss that kind of snow and winter?
LMR: I never realized how much the winter experience had become a part of me until I no longer had it in my life. You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry… I have spent the last year and a half re-calibrating my inner compass in order to learn from this new landscape and spaciousness. Living far from the sea, from natural bodies of water, has certainly been challenging, and 70 degree winters confound me (though I can’t complain about the long bike rides through the Sonoran mountains). My yearning has compelled me to travel a bit, seeking out the places and atmospheres that I miss.
LL: What brought you to the southwest?
LMR: Love… I fell in love with a man from Tucson who couldn’t relocate, so I moved to his world.
LL: The work selected by Andy Adams for WINTER PICTURES featured on Flak Photo is from a new series. Can you tell me a little about it?
LMR: During the last two winters of the Snowbound work, I was especially drawn to areas of water, where this primary element existed in multiple states, often simultaneously. This new series has taken water as its starting point, perhaps because I have yearned for the vastness of the sea at the same time that I am trying to embrace the mystery of the desert. There is a deep history embedded in the land here, a past that is characterized by oceans and water, but only suggested by the traces left behind. Walking through the Sonoran desert, one can almost sense being on the floor of an immense sea, where cacti are like anemone. I am seeking a connection between the water and the land, trying to understand a larger arc. This search is taking me from tumultuous water to the frozen edges, from desert tundra to underground formations. The image in WINTER PICTURES is one of transition, illustrating stillness and movement, that nearly imperceptible shift in time and space that underlies every passing moment.
The book form is not going anywhere and the photobook “publishing” industry of today is ever expanding – limited edition artist books, print-on-demand, indie publishers, self-published books, and the gamut of small to large traditional publishers. (After all, what would replace books as the backdrop for countless expert TV interviews? Okay, sarcasm aside.)
When Words Without Pictures (another crowd-sourced discussion on the “directional shifts in photography”) came out last year in book format, it was offered as either a printed book or a downloadable PDF. While I saw the benefits of getting a digital version (easily searchable), I preferred the flip-able, tangible book and made the conscious choice of buying a traditional printed and bound book. As the title suggests though, there were no photographs and this is a discussion about photobooks.
I’ll approach this topic as a collector of photography and photography books. There are different reasons to love and collect photobooks – the photographer, the body of work, the design, the aesthetics, the new-book-smell, the object itself, etc. The photobook is a creative expression in its own right. Losing the book as object is losing a unique visual expression. Having an e-book on some sort of e-reader defeats part of the purpose and the reason for collecting. Just look at a photographer’s website if you are going to look at photographs on a digital platform photobook – unless, that is, if the digital format has furthered the photobook in ways that the traditional book cannot.
The digital format does prove beneficial when talking about out-of-print books or of photography work not available on the internet. I’m thankful for Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: A History Volumes I and II so I can reference books not in my personal collection without spending the entire day at the Library of Congress. I’m also thankful for Errata Editions for resurrecting classics through their Books on Books series. And I like that Google is digitizing books. Putting aside the debate over copyright issues, being able to virtually flip through a hard-to-find book in order to do research, as a reference, or to assess if I want to buy it or not is extremely useful. If the choice is a digital version or nothing – I will choose the digital document and then eventually seek out the original hard copy.
So what will photobooks look like in ten years? I see more limited edition artist books, self-published and independent ventures, more photographer collaboration, and multi-media “books.” Maybe there will be a museum for photography books (different in nature than a library) and maybe someone will have come up with book materials that aren’t so delicate – no scuffing, no paper disintegration, no cracked binding, no pages pulling away from the spine. It would solve my neurosis of wanting to own a pristine copy and be able to enjoy it at the same time.