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“Re-Visioning” – Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota

“Re-Visioning” - Rebecca Norris Webb’s My Dakota

A conversation with Darius Himes & David Chickey

Editor's Note: I'm a Midwesterner so when I learned about Rebecca Norris Webb's My Dakota the project immediately caught my eye. It's one of my favorite photobooks published in 2012 and I'm thrilled to share her images and ideas with you here. For more information and to order a copy for your home library, visit RadiusBooks.org. — AA

 

Darius Himes: Becky, you grew up in South Dakota, correct? Why did you leave?

Rebecca Norris Webb: I was born in a Rushville, Indiana, and then moved to South Dakota when I was 15. Looking back, it may very well have been my first glimpse of those Western skies of South Dakota — from the backseat of my dad’s 1964 Chrysler 300 — that later turned me into a color photographer. I’d never seen skies so spectacularly blue, except perhaps in Technicolor Westerns. Those big, seemingly endless blue Great Plains skies spoke to the daydreamer I was then — and the photographer I am today.

After I finished a master’s degree in poetry from the University of South Dakota, for some reason my poetry deserted me. Looking back, I realize that perhaps the kind of lyric poetry I was writing during college had become too restrictive, too limiting. It didn’t contain enough of the world, and my curiosity about it. To break through the writer’s block, I decided to apply for a passport and travel for a year, buying a camera in order to take “visual notes” for perhaps a future project. What happened instead is that I fell in love with photography. It was only after taking a year of photography classes in Seattle and in New York, however, that I had an epiphany: I realized that the eye that took the photographs was the same eye that saw the images in my poetry. I think the Nebraska photographer and writer, Wright Morris, said it best: “I don’t give up the camera eye when I write, merely the camera.”

David Chickey: What was your original plan or vision for your My Dakota?

Rebecca Norris Webb: When I started the project, all I knew for sure then was that I’d lived in New York City for some 15 years and still described myself — in the writer Dawn Powell's words — as “a permanent visitor” because New York had never quite felt like home. Photographing that first year in South Dakota, I remember being a little overwhelmed trying to work in that vast landscape with a small format camera. I considered switching to a larger format, until I realized that one of the things that intrigued me most about the Great Plains was the challenge of trying to capture a more spontaneous and intimate vision of the West, a vision akin to the vision of some of the women writers from the region like Willa Cather from Nebraska, Louise Erdrich from North Dakota, and Marilynne Robinson from Idaho. For Robinson, the West is “mysterious, aloof, and rapturously gentle.” Photographing the prairies and badlands that first summer, I was hoping to capture a sense of what all that space feels like to someone who grew up there.

Darius Himes: Living on the Great Plains involves a great deal of driving to do, well, basically anything. You've mentioned that you think of this as a "road-trip" book, a genre that has a long and storied history in photography. Tell us about how this book fits into that tradition.

Rebecca Norris Webb: Well, to begin with, this project began with a road trip in 2005: Alex and I drove from our Brooklyn neighborhood to my hometown in Hot Springs, South Dakota, a journey of some 1700 miles, in our old Saab, which we’d bartered photographic prints for earlier that year. Alex then flew back East, and I had a summer to explore my home state photographically. I’ve learned over the years to follow wherever a project may lead me, so I don’t think I consciously thought that My Dakota would necessarily become a road-trip book like The Americans, although photographing in the West brought to mind some of my favorite Frank photographs, such as “Butte, Montana, 1956,” which he photographed through the sheer curtains of his hotel room’s window.

I’ve always marveled at how Frank managed to capture not only the feel of this Montana mining town’s drab downtown, but also a sense of something else more complicated and difficult to pin down (Melancholy? Irony? Reverie? A mix of all three?), something that suggests a kind of complex interiority of the poetic Swiss-born Frank as he gazed out from his hotel room at the bleak reality of what the once legendary American West had become by the mid 1950’s. It’s a view that shouldn’t “merit a second glance,” according to the cultural critic Geoff Dyer, yet “it demands that we return to it again and again.” For me, that’s usually a clue that I’m looking at a truly poetic image.

Robert Frank, Butte, Montana, 1956

Robert Frank, Butte, Montana, 1956.

The second year of my South Dakota project, however, one of my brothers died unexpectedly of heart failure, and everything changed. All of a sudden, my need to drive through the badlands and prairies of my home state and photograph became heightened, fueled by an overwhelming restlessness, which was my initial and surprising response to the first death of an immediate family member. I say surprising because I don’t normally like to drive. And I was always getting lost — in badlands and prairies, in hard rains and heat waves. Lost and loss. For months.

As I worked deeper into the project, I didn’t feel quite so alone when I ran across other grieving South Dakotans who’d experienced the same restless need to drive — and who’d also gotten lost repeatedly, even in familiar terrain. “Maybe the grieving should be prohibited from driving and wear a large red A on their chests — like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter,” said a woman rancher with a wry smile. “Or perhaps a red, Triple A!” added a South Dakota widow with a laugh.

By the end of that second year, my original vision of My Dakota had expanded well beyond the original borders of those intimate Western landscapes to encompass also my car, the road, and my entire circuitous road trip while grieving for my brother. It was just dawning on me then that if I were working on some sort of variation of the road-trip book, it wasn’t just the poetic Frank’s “Butte, Montana, 1956,” that was, figuratively speaking, coming along with me for the ride. I was also bringing along some of my favorite road-trip poems, whose tension, vitality — and sometimes even epiphany — often arise from the dynamic between driving down the open road and the stopped vehicle: “Two forces — one forward moving, unthinking, one stilled and reflective — connect and disconnect us; the uneasy match seems profoundly American,” notes the poet Marianne Boruch. Some of my favorite road-trip poems include M. Wyrebek’s “Night Owl,” William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark,” and Emily Dickinson’s famous carriage ride that begins,

Because I could not stop for Death ––
He kindly stopped for me ––
The Carriage held but just Ourselves ––
And Immortality.

David Chickey: For me, one of the biggest design challenges with this book was picking a cover image, especially since there are so many great images in this body of work. Can you write a bit about how we settled on the one we did — and how it helps to set the mood of the book as it relates to a road-trip theme?

Rebecca Norris Webb: Early last year, Alex and I had halfheartedly chosen “Blackbirds” as the cover of our rough, homemade book dummy, but we weren’t convinced it had the right feel for the cover. Besides, we’d been humbled more than once by your amazing cover designs, David — such as your startling double fold-out front-and-back covers for our joint book on Cuba, Violet Isle. Alex and I have learned over the years to trust your design sense, which often illuminates our work in ways that neither Alex nor I — as photographers — could possibly do.

So last fall, we were both surprised and pleased when you showed us your cover design at the Radius offices in Santa Fe. You said that since the book was in essence the road trip of my grief through the South Dakota landscape, it made sense to start the journey with an image of my car in the Badlands. Additionally, underneath this dust jacket, “State Map” was printed on the book itself, because — as you also explained to us — I’d need a road map for my journey, too. Taken together, these two images felt like the right beginning for My Dakota — like an open car door inviting viewers/readers along for the ride.

Rebecca Norris Webb My Dakota Cover Spread

"State Map," PLC (printed laminated cover) beneath the My Dakota dust jacket

Darius Himes: My Dakota is dedicated to your brother, who passed away. How does he figure into this project?

Rebecca Norris Webb: I guess I’d say that My Dakota is filled with his absence.

And looking back now, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps this road trip of my grief for him — which seems out-of-character for me, someone who’s never liked to drive — was in part inspired by his — and his identical twin brother’s — love of cars and road trips.

David Chickey: I think it's likely clear to anyone who reads the text here that you have a background as a poet. But I think it's rare to find an artist who so eloquently blends text and images. Can you perhaps explain the process a bit? How does one inform the other — or does it?

Rebecca Norris Webb: When I see an image that intrigues me for some reason, my first response is to photograph it. Since I still use film, it’s often weeks later when I first look at the contact sheet. Maybe it’s the poet in me, but more and more I’m beginning to realize that this waiting period is more important than I ever realized. It’s hard to explain, but something happens to this image in my mind’s eye while I’m waiting for its unidentical twin — the image on the piece of film I photographed — to be developed. The image floats for a few weeks in the back of my mind, and all the while it’s being bathed in all kind of associations — conscious and unconscious. So I guess you could say that two very different kinds of development are going on during this rich, fertile waiting period, and both play a role in my final intuitive editing process.

I call my intuitive editing process “re-vision” because it’s similar to the way I revise poetry. This “re-vision” process — both for editing text and images — is based on a kind a faith that my images are wiser than I am. It can take me weeks, months, and sometimes even years to uncover and to decipher what an image is trying to say to me. One of the first clues that I’ve stumbled upon the book’s main metaphor is when I find myself writing about the same image I’ve already photographed. My writing tends to lag behind my photography. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to be patient with the more erratic rhythm of my writing, which reminds me of a meandering, willful Labrador retriever that can’t help but vanish from my side from time to time, in order to follow a particularly delectable scent into the deep, lush woods.

Another clue to my uncovering a book’s central metaphor is purely intuitive, and hence more difficult to describe. It involves sensing which image resonates with enough of the emotional and metaphysical weight of a project — and, simultaneously, which image is also buoyed by enough luminosity and vibrancy — to lift the image up into the realm of metaphor. And how does an image lift up into metaphor, the poetic term which literally means “carrying over”? “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather,” according to the French poet Paul Valery.

Rebecca Norris Webb My Dakota Title Spread

Darius Himes: Is there a narrative element to this book? Do we go from Point A to Point B? Or is there a different type of road implied?

Rebecca Norris Webb: During the darkest time of my grief for my older brother, Dave, I didn’t turn to photography books for solace, but to poetry. It was my first loss of an immediate family member, which some equate to first love, because you are never quite the same afterwards. Some of the only poems that spoke to me during those difficult first months were villanelles (non-linear poems that resist narrative development): Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Each refrain is repeated four times — like Bishop’s ironic refrain, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” — and each time, the refrain’s meaning shifts, stumbles, circles back, deepens.

If those villanelles hadn’t spoken to me when I was most grief struck, perhaps I wouldn’t have followed the strong pull of My Dakota’s repeated images — apples, deer, waves, brown coat, prairie — both in my photographs and in my spare text pieces, and found the book’s elegiac structure. If those villanelles hadn’t spoken to me when I was most grief struck, perhaps I wouldn’t have trusted My Dakota’s meandering, repetitious structure, which echoes the circuitous journey of my own grieving mind and heart trying — over and over and over and over again — to inhabit the contradiction, as the poet Rilke would say, of my brother’s death and my family’s very much alive love for him.

David Chickey: There is an intimacy to this book that, for me, is heightened by the use of your handwritten text. This is something we talked about quite a bit in the design process, and you were a bit resistant to it in the beginning. Are you getting more comfortable with seeing your own handwriting now? And how have people responded to it in the printed book?

Rebecca Norris Webb: Yes, initially I was very resistant, because I’ve always been self-conscious about my rather loopy handwriting. I slowly came around, however, after I found — quite by accident — an example of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting in a book of essays that I had bought. I just assumed her handwriting would be as compact and as exact as her poetry. Instead, I was startled to find Dickinson also had a rather loopy handwriting! One spare poem was often scrawled over two or three pages. Her handwriting wasn’t at all what I expected. It told me something about her that wasn’t evident in her poetry on the printed page. I continue to be surprised by the enthusiastic response to my handwriting in the book. My favorite comment came from Magdalena Herrera, a friend who’s the Director of Photography at Geo in Paris. My handwriting’s long, sweeping strokes reminded Magdalena of “those tall grasses on the prairie.”

Rebecca Norris Webb My Dakota Handwriting Layout

David Chickey: You and Alex (Becky's husband Alex Webb) work so collaboratively — yet in such a unique way. I think readers would be interested in your process, and the role that Alex plays.

Rebecca Norris Webb: If, for instance, I’m the author of the book — like with My Dakota — I do the first sequence for the book dummy, and then Alex takes a look and tells me what he thinks. We learned over the years that it’s necessary to be tough on each other’s work. Our friend, the artist Joyce Kozloff — who is married to another friend, the art critic and photographer, Max Kozloff — says the most difficult journey her work makes is the trip from her studio out her front door, because Max always weighs in first before her work is released into the world.

Fortunately, one of our house rules is that the author always has the last word. Perhaps that’s why our marriage has survived as long as it has, and why our collaborative projects — such as this new one we’re slowly wading into in the U.S. — are much trickier to navigate…

FRESH: The Wall / The Page / The Internet

FRESH: The Wall / The Page / The Internet

A collaboration with Klompching Gallery

Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to partner with Klompching Gallery to present photography stories from FRESH, a group exhibition featuring five new voices in contemporary image-making. The objective of Klompching's annual summer program is to showcase photography that is fresh in approach and vision. This year's exhibition was curated by photo collector Fred Bidwell and gallerist Darren Ching and is on view through August 18, 2012. For more information, visit Klompching.com

 

Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman, Fraxinus (Ash) impression with Diann, seed pods, 2011

Barbara Ciurej & Lindsay Lochman: The hybrid process used in Natural History is a combination of cyanotype experimentation and our portraits of older women. Lindsay coated one of the digitally printed portraits with cyanotype solution, placed a frond from a bleeding heart plant on it and exposed it to the sun. The black and white portrait emerged through the Prussian blue “photogram” of the botanicals. What developed was a revelation — the moment when ideas synthesize and photography becomes a medium of magical alignment. The impressions created a layering of narratives that we search for in making our work. The process recalled Anna Atkins, the 19th-century botanist who first used cyanotype to produce her books on British ferns and algae. The unpredictable application of cyanotype solution on paper is the antithesis of the mechanical product of the digital print. In these transformed portraits, surface and interior blur; historical processes blend with contemporary techniques and remind us of the evanescence of light and life – the shadow we live in.

Ciurej & Lochman are based in Chicago, Ill. and Milwaukee, Wis. Learn more about them on their Flak Photo Profile »

 

Tabitha Soren, Running 001314, 2012

Tabitha Soren: For the past two and a half years, my Running series has taken me from my home in California to twelve states, Mexico and Canada in search of willing subjects. The only casting requirement was that the people could run. In this series, I’m attempting to acknowledge the world unseen beyond the frame, while caging my subjects inside. When people are running, their bodies contort and we get to glimpse emotions that are normally hidden. The fight or flight response is something each of us can connect with. Yet, the cause and effect of what is happening in each Running picture remains a mystery. I’m inviting viewers to mine their own secrets to expand on each picture's narrative. I want them to participate. The role of accident, panic and resilience are consistent themes in my work and sometimes all three arise during one shoot. For example, for Running 000516, my next-door neighbor, an opera singer, came out of the water with her body covered in flesh-colored leeches. I had no idea leeches came in any other color than black so naturally, a surge of horror and guilt came over me for what I had just put her through. However, because the singer had grown up on a Bay Area commune, she said, “Oh yeah, this has happened before,” and casually plucked them off one by one with her towel.

Tabitha Soren is based in Berkely, California. Learn more about her on her Flak Photo Profile »

 

Martin Bogren, Lowlands 08, Skurup, Sweden, 2009

Martin Bogren: From the beginning, I wanted to make a portrait of my childhood village, but along the way this project came to be more about memories, about growing up — and a more personal and subjective story began to take shape. I've always traveled and I frequently make photographs that tell personal stories in foreign places. It’s easy to fascinate one’s self with exotic locales and the Lowlands project was a way for me to photograph something closer, something part of myself. I began to make images of the people and places in my home village four years ago. In the beginning I worked mostly with pocket and rangefinder cameras, and the pictures I was making resembled classic documentary. A few years ago, I started working with a medium format (6×6) camera, which slowed down my process and put me closer to my subjects. I tend to be most productive in late summer in the seasonal shift just before the fall. There is a kind of "after summer” look to these images. It's something with the light, but also in my mood.

Martin Bogren is based in Malmo, Sweden. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Monika Merva, Irma's Peaches, Budapest, Hungary, 2010

Monika Merva: After completing a long-term, site-specific project I wanted to do something personal, that got back to my roots. At the time I was a stay-at-home mom, so it made sense to photograph my family, friends and the objects I hold dear. These pictures were made in Budapest and Brooklyn, two cities I call home. The imperfect, perfect peaches were plucked from my cousin’s tree, the wet hair on my daughter’s back I see every evening during her bath, the portrait of a woman with a comb in her hair is of my great aunt, who held my hand while I jumped in puddles as a toddler, and the complex expression of the woman sitting in the gold chair belongs to my friend’s mother. Andrew Wyeth once said, “I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes.” I read that quote more than fifteen years ago while studying for myMFA. As I was scanning my bookcase for inspiration I found my bound thesis, covered in dust, and opened it up to read a few pages. Not much has changed my motivations for making photographs. For me, the camera helps convey my love and appreciation; it’s a way to explore the world.

Monika Merva is based in Brooklyn New York. Learn more about her on her Flak Photo Profile »

 

Shawn Rocco, #3321, Flicker (Series I), 2012

Shawn Rocco: Curiosity. It leads to exploration, discovery, understanding and knowledge. That is my attraction to documentary photography; I'm curious about life in all its aspects. How we live our lives, interconnected on so many levels, to each other and the planet. I'm also fascinated at how reality is processed through the mechanizations of the camera. I often photograph for no other reason than to see the world interpreted through the lens. And sometimes, like in this instance, the reward is witnessing a spectrum of reality that would otherwise go unnoticed. I was in an office taking ambient light exposures when I rocked back in a chair and happened to look up. With no preconception, I raised the camera. Surprisingly, through the LCD screen, I noticed that the flickering wavelengths of the fluorescent lighting above me were more distinctive than my naked eye could see. Attracted to the beauty of not just the image, but the act of discovering something new in the ordinary and familiar, I took a photo. Was the pattern peculiar to only this fixture? Is it just in this room? What was going on? This intriguing phenomenon invited exploration. I was curious and my camera showed me something new.

Shawn Rocco is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Get your work seen! Submit your projects for consideration of The Collection, Flak Photo's ever-expanding archive of contemporary image-makers. Featuring community contributions daily, Monday through Friday. Submission Info »

Shelby Lee Adams — Salt & Truth

Shelby Lee Adams — Salt & Truth

A conversation with Catherine Edelman

Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this conversation in support of Shelby Lee Adams' Salt & Truth, a new collection of the photographer's Appalachian portraits published by Candela Books in 2011 and exhibited at Catherine Edelman Gallery in 2012. For more information and to order a copy of the book, visit CandelaBooks.com.

 

Catherine Edelman: I first showed your work 20 years ago. Since then, your photographs have received critical acclaim, resulting in four books and work in major museums and private collections worldwide. Can you tell me how you think you have changed as a person and as a photographer as a result of this amazing success?

Shelby Lee Adams: I have always worked in a singular focused and self-directed manner, telling myself repeatedly I’m only as good as my next photograph. To stop and look at the overview of 36 years work now is a little disconcerting. I have changed drastically over the years, discovering that the only person in our lives we can really change deeply is ourselves and through that tough realization seeing and feeling more interconnected to my friends, subjects and viewing audience as well, trying repeatedly to link, bond and understand that place called home.

Catherine Edelman: Home is a very important concept within your work. Can you explain what it means to you?

Shelby Lee Adams: When I was growing up as an only child, I was raised by my parents moving around the country with my dad’s work, up and down the eastern seaboard He worked in natural gas conversion and was constantly on the move. When attending elementary school I went to eight different schools, but always finishing the school year at the local rural school in Kentucky. The only constant in my life then was the visits and times spent with my grandparents on their farms. That established within me a pattern of behavior to keep returning to Eastern Kentucky, the only home place I knew. The people there, they never traveled and were always home, friendly and accepting of me. That endeared me to them even more. Their homes were always welcoming.

Catherine Edelman: Can you explain a typical visit / photo shoot with one of the families?

Shelby Lee Adams: The rural area I am from has had a great deal of exposure to the news media, journalists, photographers and filmmakers. My standard rule for myself has always been to make Polaroids at each home when visiting, sharing and leaving some images with the family. When I return the next visit, even if it is a year later, I distribute photographs made for the family from the previous visit. If there is a photo I wish to use in my work I then ask for a model release to be signed for that picture, sharing and giving the family a copy of my last book, so they understand the context of the picture's use and then distributing other photos to the family. My reputation now far exceeds me and everyone knows me as the “Picture Man.” In exchange, I ask the family for new introductions to others they might know, relatives or neighbors that might want photographs made.

With established old friends whom I revisit often over the years, the visits are a lot of hugging and talking and catching up on family affairs, what’s going on in the community, sharing pictures, looking at new babies or reading the obituaries of the recently deceased. The visit may include petting the old hunting dog and touring the place to see the new animals, see how the garden is growing, feel how fat the rabbits are, shoot a new .22 rifle, look at the daughter's new prom dress, or admire the father's new deer head mounted in the living room. Eventually, we get around to staying for lunch or supper and making new photographs. All in all, it's a long day. At most, I can do three visits a day, and I usually make photographs at a couple of the homes.

Catherine Edelman: I've had people comment that no one is smiling in your photos. Can you comment on this and explain the types of conversations you have with folks when creating an image?

Shelby Lee Adams: When having someone sit or stand in front of a 4×5 camera, it requires a more conscious commitment. Your subject has to stay relatively still and not move. I often engage people in conversation before we make photographs, making sure that they are comfortable and relaxed within themselves, and we talk about no specific topic. I ask people to tell me their stories and they do. What the viewer does not see is the test Polaroids first made to check exposure, focus and technical issues. I'll make approximately three Polaroids and develop them, sharing them with my subjects. This usually takes several minutes. If one is particularly good, I ask my subject if they would like for me to make a Polaroid just for them to keep. Usually, people want more than one. We study the backgrounds, compositions, eyes, lighting, etc. and discuss the direction to look, almost always right into the center of the lens. After making a couple of images, people settle and become more serious, even children. I tell people to be natural, look for their own reflection within the lens and hold steady, I rarely say, don’t do this or that, only when someone is acting stiff or too rigid, I might say, take a deep breath and relax.

By the time I’m ready to expose film my subjects have overcome their own artificial, smiley personas and want themselves a more serious photograph. Then I will expose three 4×5 film plates. I work in this manner with whomever I’m photographing, in different cultures and environments, even a commercial photo assignment would be no different. I’m interested in the timelessness of portraiture, making photographs that will endure. I guess I consider myself to be a serious person and I’m certain that reflects in many of my photos. But I’ve also done smiling and laughing photographs. For example, in our recent exhibition, Dan Slone is laughing heartily in the photo, Driving Straight to Hell.

Shelby Lee Adams, Driving Straight to Hell, 1998

Driving Straight to Hell, 1998.

Catherine Edelman: Your commitment to photographing the people and region of Eastern Kentucky with a 4×5 view camera has now exceeded thirty years, which I find unique among photographers working today. With more and more artists turning to digital cameras, which offer speed and instant results, you've stuck with analog. Can you foresee yourself turning to digital in the near future and if so, do you think the work will inherently change?

Shelby Lee Adams: Change is usually a good thing. But working more formally, relatively centered in front of people, slowly and methodically, has always benefited my portraits. That is why I changed from 35 mm to 4×5 in 1974. The world I photograph in appreciates the more studied approach. My subjects see where the large camera is at all times, mounted on a tripod that doesn’t move easily, and that adds to their comfort level. This is important to them. We have all experienced the quick and rushed photojournalist approach.

After my first 10 years of photographing with the view camera with many frustrations I acquired a right angle finder for the back of the view camera and started working with artificial lighting. This viewing device eliminated my having to look through and focus under a black focusing cloth, hidden from my subject temporarily, and the tool works great in total daylight. You can engage and see your subject the entire time. Facial contact — which I feel is important to maintain with portrait work — does not have to be broken off. You view what your camera and film will record with one eye while focusing and simultaneously engaging your subject with the other eye, never having your face covered or masked by the camera’s dark focusing cloth the entire time. I have trained myself to work this way since 1985.

My first camera was a German Exacta with various lenses that my father bought for me in Europe. Most of my undergraduate art school photography was made with this camera. I have always used a 35 mm camera to make snapshots, to record events like a tourist, especially when traveling Internationally. In Kentucky I have found certain situations that needed to be photographed in color such as someone’s homemade quilts or a doll collection. I’ve photographed for my friends and subjects in color and I would have inexpensive color drug store prints made to distribute. In 2005 I bought my first digital 35 mm camera to replace my traditional 35 mm film camera, which I use like a sketchbook. I have grown to appreciate the ease of the digital camera's performance and quality. My serious work with digital has evolved into my now using the full frame 35 mm digital camera, but maintaining a similar approach as I've done with the traditional 4×5 format. I prefer to pre-visualize my images and compositions and spend time establishing relationships with my subjects. Some other photographers like to shoot a lot and edit later to find their best photographs.

With digital cameras — unless you're using a tripod — you have to hold the camera directly in front of your face, which blocks visual and facial recognition and contact as with the older view camera and focusing cloth. To remedy this problem I place the digital camera on a tripod, and use a cable release and right angle finder so I can see and engage my subjects while making exposures. So in essence, I now make Polaroids with the new Fuji Instant 4×5 film in my 4×5 camera and expose film and Polaroids. I have both cameras mounted on a quick set release and can slide back and forth from camera to camera on the same tripod using both formats. I feel it's important to give my subjects a print in the moment of the making, in the field, and the 4×5 camera warrants keeping around just for that. To show someone a digital display just isn't enough for me.

I've been working in this manner for the last 5 to 7 years. The lighting I’ve always used is necessary for the view camera and this gives a better degree of sharpness to the digital files. I’m also able to capture more movement and diversity of expressions than before. But to photograph children jumping, shooting basketball hoops — which is common in Appalachia — doesn't interest me. Stillness is more revealing. What is more interesting to me now is when I’m editing back in the studio; sometimes I select the digital color file over the 4×5 black and white negative and vice versa. Each gives a different feeling and expression and I’m open to selecting from both formats now. I have exposed color Kodachromes since the 1970s but I could never afford to make quality color prints back then. Digital printing is eaiser and less expensive, so I’ve been scanning and printing a large body of color work from that time up to my more recent digital photographs. Perhaps a color book will emerge but I just can't see myself giving up my black & white view camera work. I'll continue making pictures like this as long as film is available and I have a big storage freezer in my basement just in case.

Shelby Lee Adams Polaroids

Detail, the photographer's Polaroid proofs, 2012.

Catherine Edelman: Thanks so much for your candor. In honor of one of my favorite interviewers, James Lipton, some final questions. What is your favorite word?

Shelby Lee Adams: Majestic

Catherine Edelman: What is your least favorite word?

Shelby Lee Adams: Impossible

Catherine Edelman: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Shelby Lee Adams: Openness, honesty, vulnerability, chaos, touching, kindness, hopefulness, giving, care, love and omnipotence.

Catherine Edelman: What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Shelby Lee Adams: Set rules & limitations, order, ignorance, arrogance and bigotry.

Catherine Edelman: What sound or noise do you love?

Shelby Lee Adams: The silence of nature, which can be symphonic.

Catherine Edelman: What sound or noise do you hate?

Shelby Lee Adams: Jackhammers

Catherine Edelman: What is your favorite curse word?

Shelby Lee Adams: “F–k This.”

Catherine Edelman: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Shelby Lee Adams: Classical music

Catherine Edelman: What profession would you not like to do?

Shelby Lee Adams: Accountant

Catherine Edelman: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Shelby Lee Adams: Thank You.

A Shadow Remains

A Shadow Remains

A conversation with Phil Toledano and Debra Klomp Ching

Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this conversation in support of Phil Toledano's, A Shadow Remains, a multimedia story that considers the impact that love and loss have on contemporary family life. The film will be availble for online streaming beginning Tuesday, June 12, 2012. For more information, visit MediaStorm.com.


Debra Klomp Ching: It’s hard to imagine, that there is anyone unaware of Days With My Father. Two years ago, 1.2 million people had already seen the work online. How many people have visited the website now?

Phil Toledano: Last time I checked, it was over two million, which is really quite mind boggling.

Debra Klomp Ching: Days With My Father really started out—from your own account—as a way to record and appreciate your relationship with your father. And, poignantly, it was spurred by the sudden death of your mother. Do you feel that you have fulfilled that real need that we all have, to reconnect before it’s too late?

Phil Toledano: Well, the sad thing about life is that sometimes it takes something really miserable, to point out what you've been missing all along. So did I reconnect with my father—well, I never felt disconnected. But what the death of my mum pointed out to me, was the importance of being awake, of seeing what was in front of me, and remembering it. That's what I tried to do with my dad.

Debra Klomp Ching: You’ve said in the past, that the actual upload of Days With My Father to the web, was done without any real objective, except perhaps to unburden. At the time, you didn’t know what you were unburdening, are you able to articulate that now?

Phil Toledano: I'm still not sure I can explain myself very well. It was a kind of animalistic urge, to unburden myself of all the weight I had been carrying for the last few years. In some ways, I felt quite relieved to be so light.

Debra Klomp Ching: Have you felt particularly vulnerable for sharing your story? Or, have you found an additional inner strength, a more solid grounding in your relationship with family and friends?

Phil Toledano: I've never felt very vulnerable about sharing that story, in part, I suppose, because I was sharing it with strangers—who I probably would never meet. But the reaction and extraordinary feedback from so many people has made me grateful, and more aware of how lucky I was to be able to say goodbye to my dad the way I did. Also, in some ways, I do feel stronger for my story being adrift in the world. I'm not sure why, but I do.

Debra Klomp Ching: This journey and experience must also impact on your own family. Now, you’re the father and husband, rather than the son.

Phil Toledano: I've found it quite hard to come to grips with the idea that there is no one left alive who knew me as a child, as a teenager, as a baby. The idea that those memories only exist for me now, is quite sad. And yes, it's odd, no longer being a 'son'. But on the other hand, all the qualities that my parents left me, instilled in me, are drawn in sharp relief by their absence. I can now see their gifts to me clearly, and I’m grateful. I miss their advice, in a way that I never did before.

Debra Klomp Ching: You’ve shared a pivotal experience in your life, something so incredibly personal and intimate, yet something that is undeniably universal. How have you been affected by the collective responses to the story?

Phil Toledano: The annoying thing about clichés is that they're true. So, when I say that the response has made me aware of how similar we all are, it's boring, but quite true. Not to get all John Lennon, but love belongs to all of us. It's just that we let other things get in the way of seeing that.

Debra Klomp Ching: There have also been a huge number of individuals sending and posting messages. One person contacted you and offered to translate your text into Portuguese. Are there other points of direct contact that you’ve had with people through your story?

Phil Toledano: I've had quite a few Skype calls with total strangers, who just wanted to talk about taking photographs of their own parents, and were looking for some advice. I recently received an email from someone in China who is trying to get people together to publish the book. People seem to feel that this story belongs to all of us—and so it does.

Debra Klomp Ching: And of course, there’s been extensive global media interest. Has your relationship with the photographs, the website and book altered due to it, essentially, taking on a life of its own?

Phil Toledano: Well, of course, I often wonder what my parents—especially my dad—would have made of it all. I tried to explain the concept of the Internet to my father once—he was 95 or 96 at the time. He asked if it was 'in color', and 'where was it'. As it turns out, it's quite hard explaining something so intangible. My parents exist, first and foremost in my heart. I don't need the photos to remind me of them, but somehow the experience of making the photographs and writing about them, made me remember all that I need to remember. I do look at photos of my parents, and think about physical aspects of how they were. I remember how soft my father's face was after I’d shaved him, the way I could feel my mother's love, sometimes, when she looked at me.

Debra Klomp Ching: You were recently approached by MediaStorm to make a film about Days With My Father. What is the film about? Is it a documentation of the whole experience?

Phil Toledano: It's about lots of things— my parents, my relationship with them, the website, the book and the experience of both. It's also about me as a father, and my family as it stands now. And of course, it's about love. For my parents, my wife, my child. When I see the film, it's tremendously emotional for me—I inevitably start snuffling into my hankie. I don't know what it'll mean to other people, but it's a thing of perfect crystalline beauty to me.

Debra Klomp Ching: Behind all of this, still, there remains the story of Phil and his dad! A strange question perhaps, but has your relationship with your family (dad, mum, sister), changed as a result of Days With My Father?

Phil Toledano: Well, in some ways, it's made me regret not being a better son, and better brother. I wish there were things I could have told my mum, before she died. But I guess life is like that. It's imperfect, and by the time you've thought of everything you'd like to say, some of the people you'd like to say those things to aren't around anymore. I'm more aware of what they gave me. I'm more aware of how lucky I was to be their son, and to have basked in so much love.

Debra Klomp Ching: What do you believe is the legacy of Days With My Father?

Phil Toledano: I think 'Days' will be the best thing I ever do. If I croak tomorrow, at least I'll have done one good thing, and to be honest, that's a lot more than I expected.

Eirik Johnson: Portraits of the Tattered Fringe

Eirik Johnson: Portraits of the Tattered Fringe

A conversation with Gail Gibson

Gail Gibson: You have two bodies of work on exhibit right now Camps + Cabins, which is work from Oregon and Alaska. Can you tell us about these projects?

Eirik Johnson: The Mushroom Camps and Barrow Cabins are indeed separate bodies of work, however they're linked by my ongoing interest in makeshift architecture and human adaptation within the natural world. With The Mushroom Camps, I’m looking at encampments built by commercial mushroom hunters among the high country pine forests of Oregon's Cascade Mountains. These seasonal mushroom hunts (morels and boletes in the spring, matsutake and chanterelles in the fall) draw together a uniquely American mix of Southeast Asian multi-generational families, rural counterculture folks, and Mexican migrant laborers. They build shacks from tree branches, twine, plastic tarps, and empty rice bags and for two to three months the mushroom hunters call these camps home. The forests are dotted with the skeletal outlines of abandoned shacks, weathered branches offering a faint reminder of a home from a previous hunt. Many of those hunting mushrooms have lost or can no longer depend on once stable employment and have in turn, sought out a living through the global demand for foraged mushrooms. Others temporarily leave their day jobs to spend a few months each year out on the hunt. A former military commander from Laos, a nail salon owner from Stockton, and a runaway from Portland are just a few of those who have made their way to the dusty camps to search for mushrooms amongst the pine needles.

Barrow Cabins depicts seasonal hunting cabins built by the native Iñupiat inhabitants of Barrow, Alaska. The cabins are situated at the Northern most stretch of the United States, along the shores of the Chukchi Sea, part of the larger Arctic Ocean. Iñupiat families travel from Barrow to the cabins to hunt for waterfowl in the summer and seals in the winter. Each cabin has been fashioned out of whatever makeshift materials are on hand, from weathered plywood to old shipping pallets collected from the nearby-decommissioned Navy Base. Children’s swings are rigged from two by fours and plastic milk boxes, while scraps of carpet and particleboard become footpaths across the loose ocean gravel and spongy permafrost tundra. I photographed the cabins in the midnight and early morning hours of the Arctic summer when the sun hangs almost perpetually at the horizon. The hunters are gone, their cabins and the hunting grounds empty.

In both bodies of work, the structures of the encampments take on a sculptural quality that's in dialogue with the surrounding landscape. The barren Arctic tundra shoreline pushes the hunting cabins out into the open foreground of the frame. They remind me of both the toy block structures my three-year-old son builds as well as the humble but elegant homes of mid-century architects including Joseph Eichler and Marcel Breuer. In contrast, the mushroom camp structures are hidden among the branches of the surrounding forest; only gradually revealing themselves when one gets closer.

Gail Gibson: Is there a sense of trust with the people that you photograph?

Eirik Johnson: I hope there is. I try to maintain an honest and transparent relationship with the subjects I photograph. It took some time to make connections in the commercial mushroom camps just to begin to understand the hierarchy, the levels of organization, the various ethnic communities, who's who, etc. Even once I had made those connections, it really came down to spending time camping, picking mushrooms, playing horseshoes, and talking around the campfire with the people I met and got to know. Of course, this changes how and what I photograph.

Gail Gibson: What has drawn you to the environment as a subject?

Eirik Johnson: I've had an ongoing interest in examining human interaction along what I refer to as "the tattered fringe" of the environment: a culverted subterranean river beneath urban wilds in my Borderlands project, migrant workers salvaging cedar shingle bolts in Sawdust Mountain, a burrowed rabbit warren amidst a landfill in Animal Holes, or an altar to the Virgin de Guadalupe in a neighborhood mechanic’s backyard in West Oakland Walk. These are spaces in which the built and natural worlds collide in varying degrees and there's always something surprising, something changing, or something hidden to be discovered.

Think of when we go hiking in a national park like Yosemite or the Olympics. We can go back, returning over and over and expect to find a similar landscape. Perhaps the seasons have changed, there's been a rock slide, or a glacier has receded (not a good thing to notice), but all in all the landscape will be similar to how we remembered it or even how our parents remembered it. I'm fascinated by places that are undergoing some form of unexpected change, that are being marked by both human and natural forces and places that are often ignored are typically those in which interesting things are happening. A large part of this curiosity springs from a childhood spent exploring both urban and remote wilds in the Pacific Northwest, but other experiences like a stint living in the Andes have pushed me to explore the improvised and often imperfect ways humans interact with this "tattered fringe".

Sagging Building, 2001. Photo by Eirik Johnson

Sagging Building, 2001.

Gail Gibson: Is this a 'cause' for you?

Eirik Johnson: I wouldn't describe my interest in the environment as a cause, but I am driven to make work that engages with the concerns and issues I'm passionate about. I do believe that our contemporary world has become more detached and disconnected from the natural environment and that we increasingly view it as a separate space, divided from our daily routine. This propels my fascination with exploring places like the mushroom camps where people have fashioned an improvised existence in the shadow of America's current economic retrenchment. I think that one of photography's greatest strengths is its ability to approach a complex issue (or series of issues) from different directions with clarity and mystery at the same time. I'm always trying to find a balance between posing questions through my work, but not answering them. Another way I like to think about it is that a good photograph is like a puzzle and the details in an image — a cabin's weathered façade, the expression on someone's face, the color and tonal palate of a certain place — are the fragments one tries to put together to make sense of what's happening in the picture.

Gail Gibson: Your work is a blend of nature and culture. Is this an important aspect of the way that you photograph?

Eirik Johnson: That's what the word environment means to me; it's a larger concept of place, people, and community all tied together, intertwined. Whether or not I'm photographing people or landscapes, buildings or objects depends entirely on the specific focus of a given project. I had a professor in graduate school whose background was in performance and installation. He had slightly combative personality and initially wondered why an image-maker like me would want to be in his critique seminar. A couple of weeks into the course, I put up the photographs I had been making in my neighborhood in West Oakland. There were pictures of people, empty lots, junk yard dogs, and one picture of an old building with a sinking foundation. When he looked at that picture, my professor said I had made a portrait of the building and that he felt empathy for the sad, sagging structure in the image. This was illuminating to me and is something I keep in mind whenever I'm making pictures.

I'm always trying to tell a story in my work. In the case of Camps + Cabins, I've focused primarily on the improvised architecture of the abandoned mushroom shacks and hunting cabins. In a sense, these idiosyncratic sculptural structures are stand-ins for the people who built them. They're full of personality and imbued with a sense of the escapism that draws one to forage in the woods for months at a time or to the shores of the Arctic to hunt. They show time's passage and the wear of the elements. They're built from materials salvaged from what's on hand. In the end, they're all portraits to me.

Introducing Flak Photo Stories

Introducing Flak Photo Stories

A closer look at The Collection

Editor's Note: I'm always thinking about new ways to showcase the people whose work I feature here on the website. If you're like me, you love looking at photographs. But it's also fun to hear image-makers talk about how or why they make their work. So I'm excited to introduce Flak Photo Stories, a place for photographers to write about the pictures they've contributed to The Collection. I'm also taking requests: if there are other images from the archive that you'd like to learn more about, send me an email and I'll do my best to coordinate a story for a future installment. I'd love for more people to discover these artists; please feel free to share this post with friends or colleagues. Enjoy! – AA

 

Thomas Jackson, Cups, 2012

Thomas Jackson: When I began my Emergent Behavior series, I didn't have the idea of swarms in mind specifically, just a vague notion of shapes and forms from the natural world occurring in unnatural ways. But like the termite mounds, schooling fish and other "emergent systems" that organize themselves, so too did my swarms. Cups is among my favorites in the series, and probably the most difficult to create. The sculpture itself was constructed from galvanized steel wire and a few hundred plastic cups. I shot it first in Brooklyn under the Manhattan Bridge, but didn't like the result. I aim for radical juxtapositions in my images, and in that man-made environment the cups seemed too much at home. I then photographed the sculpture in rural Pennsylvania, but the setting was too drab and wintry. Since it was January, lush greenery wasn't available so I exercised the nuclear option, placing the cups as shot in Pennsylvania into an image I'd made in the Catskills the previous spring. And after more hours in post-production than I care to recall, I got the image I'd been after all along.

Thomas Jackson is based in Brooklyn New York. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Keren Moscovitch, The Other Woman, 2010

Keren Moscovitch: After years of monogamy, my boyfriend and I began exploring what would happen if we stepped outside the traditional bounds of commitment and opened our relationship to other lovers. Through these adventures, my eyes were opened to a new way of seeing the world. I learned to embrace taboos, challenge all my assumptions about right and wrong and cherish vulnerability as a gateway to deeper experience. This image is about being face-to-face with The Other Woman, and claiming my power by staying present in a challenging situation. The image also represents her strength, the way she stares me down, doesn't look away, engages me in a taboo space, and owns her role. Her fears are revealed in her eyes and mirror my fears back to the camera. It is just as much about the intimacy between two women as it is about the intimacy between the lovers in the photograph.

Keren Moscovitch is based in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about her on her Flak Photo Profile »

 

Matthew Baum, Untitled, 2011

Matthew Baum: Every now and then — almost always in retrospect — I am able to identify a photograph that somehow marks a transition in my work. This picture is one of a very few I have taken that stood out almost immediately. I was early for a meet-up with my dad at MoMA and wandering around midtown with my camera. The light was extraordinary. New York City is at its most dramatic in the late afternoon when the light is low and, chopped and filtered by skyscrapers, only hits certain corners. I was at 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, about to head down the block to the museum when I saw him — a prototypical NYC businessman, a Master of the Universe, screaming into his cell phone. He was standing alongside a big church at a bustling intersection, but in the picture he seems like he is alone on Earth. He was oblivious to those around him and I was able to look for much longer than usual. In that light, it was like watching a movie — or a 21st century Edward Hopper painting come to life. I was instantly focused and thrust into that primal space that happens when you lock in to make a picture on the street. I took a few shots, resisted the urge to look at the LCD, and went to meet my dad.

Matthew Baum is based in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Brian Finke, Untitled, 2012

Brian Finke: I made this portrait of a member of the 4-person rowing team called The Corinthians while on assignment for Kesselskramer earlier this year. The crew had just landed in Barbados after rowing approximately 2,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. I first photographed him in the Canary Islands at the start of the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, after spending several days shooting these racing teams against the backdrop of the sea. As the rowers started arriving, it was my job to record the emotion and the physical toll of completing one of the hardest endurance tests in the world. I think this portrait gets to the heart of what it feels like to spend 48 days on the open ocean in a row boat.

Brian Finke is based in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Malwine Rafalski, Untitled, 2009

Malwine Rafalski: I was looking for subjects for my Holon series, which is about people that have rejected modern society for a utopian communion with the natural world. I had photographed numerous families and communities, but few real “dropouts” living in the middle of nowhere. My research turned up a newspaper article about a man called Öko-Udo (which translates to “Tree-hugger-Udo” in English) who had left his family to live in a cabin without electricity and running water in order to escape western civilization. The article gave a rough description about his whereabouts (between two villages, near a little creek), and so I set out to find his hidden house in the woods. I wasn’t sure how to prepare; of course I couldn’t find a telephone number to call him beforehand, so I brought some homemade cake along with me. I knew that people like him, who lived most of their life isolated in the wilderness, could be complicated, but I hoped to break the ice with my little gift. And it worked! He was very kind and when I told him about my project and he agreed to be photographed.

Malwine Rafalski is based in Cologne, Germany. Learn more about her on her Flak Photo Profile »

 

Kevin Miyazaki, Table Anthurium, 2012

Kevin J. Miyazaki: My mom was born in Hawaii, so I have a large family there and try to visit as often as I can. It's customary to bring food as a gift when you're visiting someone, and I have my favorite local places in which to find treats. If I'm in Honolulu and heading to the Big Island, I like to get Japanese manju from Nisshodo, a tiny bakery staffed by cute, elderly ladies. If I'm in Kona and heading to Hilo, I'll stop at Tex Drive In for a box of guava malasadas. And if I'm in Hilo, it's customary to visit Two Ladies Kitchen for their special mochi. On a recent trip, I asked a cousin in Hilo for any new ideas, and she mentioned the rainbow bread at Low International Food. So I found myself inside this small restaurant with my Auntie Lyn, buying loaves of warm bread. Though there's a sense of calm and order in this picture, it was made very quickly — between placing my order and paying for the bread. Aloha.

Kevin Miyazaki is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Emiliano Granado, Untitled, 2011

Emiliano Granado: I have no idea who this guy is. He was at Umqua Hot Springs earlier this year when I was there photographing a project for a freelance client job. After camping the night before, we planned on waking up super early to catch the sunrise at the springs. Can you say best idea ever? I can! The sun had just started to rise above the mountains when we walked up to the springs. The air was still cold, so when this gentleman walked out of the hot spring, the hot air from his body turned to steam. He looked like a human fog machine. The early morning sun lit the steam up in this miraculous glow. I’ve been in the presence of photographic magic before, but this was the first time that I had seen a photographic miracle. I was speechless for about 20 minutes. I still don’t have many words to describe the moment.

Emiliano Granado is based in Brooklyn New York. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Steve Davis, Richard & Ron, 2006

Steve Davis: This image is from my Rainier School series, which is a state institution for the developmentally disabled in Washington state. For several months I made 8×10 portraits of some the last residents — people who spent most of their lives there and can’t easily be assimilated back into society. Richard and Ron are identical twins and they spent most of their lives apart, living in separate institutions. They had only recently been reunited, and they didn’t get along well with each other. No one thought I could get them together for a picture, but they were both good natured (and totally wired from drinking multiple cans of Pepsi) and it worked. This image is one of my favorites from a very satisfying, if challenging, portrait project.

Steve Davis is based in Olympia, Washington. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Daniel Ramos, Farmer, 2006

Daniel Ramos: I made this image while traveling in Uganda in 2006 to meet my wife´s family for the first time. I lived there for four months and during that time I would walk around with my 4×5 view camera making photographs of the people and places I saw. I was interested in capturing a more dignified Africa than is traditionally depicted in the press. I wanted my portraits to be strong and to present a different story; an alternative to the agony and famine we frequently see in the mainstream news. I come from a working class background so my interest has always been to eliminate negative stereotypes associated with the lower class. My hope with this Ugandan farmer’s portrait is to show what his work meant for him: hope, family and the value of life.

Daniel Ramos is based in Chicago, Illinois. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Corey Arnold, The North Sea, 2010

Corey Arnold: This seascape was taken while aboard a Dutch Beam trawler in the North Sea. I've logged years of my life at sea working or photographing aboard fishing vessels in Alaska and Europe and have probably shot many thousands of pictures of the ocean alone. Very few of these images make the cut to see the light of day. There was something particularly dark and calming about the light on this evening as a great storm was beginning to subside. We had been dragging for sole, flounder, and plaice for nearly six days with nothing in sight except the occasional gas rig, barge or sea bird. I lived with a crew of chain smoking Christians who (lovingly) made fun of me for being unmarried in my thirties and returned to shore with a lifetime supply of sea stories and fish carnage photographs.

Corey Arnold is based in Portland, Oregon. Learn more about him on his Flak Photo Profile »

 

Irina Rozovsky, Untitled, 2011

Irina Rozovsky: My first summer in New York was suffocating. But eventually, the endless blocks of paved concrete in this city-turned-desert pointed me to a place with a promising name: Prospect Park. What I saw in the shady oasis felt astounding, and under the guise of taking a break, I began to work on pictures. Here is one of the first photos I made, and one that laid the foundation to my developing project, In Plain Air. I am chasing after the brief but intense moment of escape from the city and from oneself and the illusory environment where we go to get away. In this picture, as in most in the series, there is a moment shared with a perfect stranger. It was made in a passing exchange — we did not know each other and hardly spoke, but there was an agreement, a fast and fleeting understanding, and suddenly a gesture meant like a gift for my camera. It reminds me of what is easy to forget from behind the lens: that photographs are delicate intersections between the taken and the given. In an anonymous, frantic city it is a heartening encounter.

Irina Rozovsky is based in Brooklyn, New York. Learn more about her on her Flak Photo Profile »

 

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Lucas Foglia’s Natural Order

Lucas Foglia’s Natural Order

A conversation with Daniel Shea

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this conversation was published on Daniel Shea's blog in January 2011. The photographers have revisited that dialogue and updated their responses in support of Lucas Foglia's forthcoming book from Nazraeli Press. The following interview is a mix of telephone transcription and web-based discussion. For more information about the publication and to order a copy for your personal collection, visit Nazraeli.com.

 

Daniel Shea: So since talking to you last year, it sounds like you’ve been pretty busy. What have you been up to recently?

Lucas Foglia: Since we last talked I made a final trip to the southeastern United States, and revisited many of the people who I have been photographing since 2006. Nazraeli Press is publishing a book of the project, titled A Natural Order, this spring. The book focuses on Americans who responded to environmental concerns and predictions of economic collapse by leaving cities and suburbs to live off the grid. My hope is that the photographs seem both exotic and unnervingly close to home.

Daniel Shea: And since the book is about to be published, are you working on a new series?

Lucas Foglia: Yes, I have been dividing time between San Francisco, mining boom towns and ranching and farming communities in the western United States. The working title of the series is Frontcountry. Many of the people who I have been photographing live on the boundaries between small towns and wild roadless areas. It’s not yet profitable for chain stores to move into the most remote communities. Jobs opportunities there are also limited, and as ranching and farming become less lucrative, many families are struggling to reconcile their fierce loyalty to the land with their growing dependence on industries that extract from and degrade the land.

Daniel Shea: So you’re based in San Francisco, and your van.

Lucas Foglia: Yes, although the photographs I have been making recently are closer to home.

Daniel Shea: What prompted the move to where you are now?

Lucas Foglia: Friends, community and landscape. Some of my closest friends are here in the Bay Area. San Francisco feels like a small town even though it is a big city and there are good photographers here. And it is near the landscape that I’ve been photographing.

Daniel Shea: You said you live with friends in a co-op?

Lucas Foglia: Yes. We grow vegetables, and buy most of our food in bulk and from local farmers. It makes it easy and affordable to live in what would otherwise be a fairly expensive city. As for what allows me to stay here, most of my time goes to my personal projects that I fund through print sales, grants and commissions, but I do some editorial and advertising work as well. I like working with non-profit organizations, so the photographs I make help to promote a cause I believe in. I have also started to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Daniel Shea: The ambiguity in your work is a narrative strategy that you use well. The work you do for magazines and non-profits involves telling a clear story. Are the photographs you make for them are completely non-ambiguous?

Lucas Foglia: I think all the best pictures have some ambiguity. But they have to be accessible: they have to tell a story and make a viewer want to keep looking at them.

[We trail off for a bit, but then Yale comes up…]

Daniel Shea: Yale is frequently mystified and enlarged by the rest of the art/photo world and prospective MFA students. It’s a thing of its own. And the reality might be different than that. How was your experience in the program?

Lucas Foglia: It’s surprising that it is so frequently mystified… I know that it is statistically hard to get into as a graduate student, but anyone can go to any critique and listen. Before I applied, I visited some critiques, so I knew what I was getting into. Different photographers and curators are invited to the critiques but when I was there Tod Papageorge ran the show. And Tod’s photographic references were consistent: John Szarkowski, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand. Each graduate student showed work every 5 weeks. The panel of critics sat behind a table. The photographs were pinned on the wall, and the graduate student sat in a chair in the middle of the room, facing the panel, with an audience behind him or her. There were some classes each semester, but there were no real obligations besides having to produce work for the critiques.

Daniel Shea: So were you traveling between the critique sessions?

Lucas Foglia: I was traveling a lot. I would extend the school vacations for a week on either end. I drove or flew to photograph and then came back to make up the work and class time. It was a really intense and stressful couple of years.

Daniel Shea: Are you happy you went with that program?

Lucas Foglia: I am. There were times when I was doubtful about it. The critiques were harsh and I was being pushed in ways I wasn’t always comfortable with. But then I realized that even when I was being told to do something, all I had to do was react and make more photographs. I didn’t always agree with the critiques but I had the time and facilities to make new work in response. When artwork gets obliging or defensive in graduate school, it’s a slippery slope. Above all the photographs have to feel personal. What the faculty wanted to see was an effort towards change or experimentation. And if I responded by working my ass off and that showed in the pictures, then it was commended.

Daniel Shea: What’s interesting to me is that, in the context of the rigor you mentioned, practically I imagine that applied to the process of making work. And for your work, the process is so specific. And so I imagine it being tricky to rigorously take apart your process.

Lucas Foglia: It was tricky because of the personal relationships I have with the people I photograph.

Daniel Shea: So what’s the variable that changed in that equation as you went through this process?

Lucas Foglia: What changed at Yale was not the collaborative process of making the pictures, nor was it my personal connection with my subjects. Rather, I tried to make the form, or composition, of my photographs more rigorous. I learned that a great photograph relies on both form and content.

Daniel Shea: So that translated to a working methodology that you have continued to use?

Lucas Foglia: Sure. I think the photographs I make result from my relationships with the people and spaces I photograph, and the narratives of my projects result from my choice and sequence of the best photographs. And I always leave room for surprises. For instance, I went to an area south of Eden, Wyoming, where a rancher was herding his sheep. The railroad company that owned the land nearby had recently sold the mineral rights to a company based in Houston for natural gas drilling and the land was about to be mined. When I arrived the rancher was counting his sheep, thousands of them. It was a long process and I felt stuck, but then I saw two of the sheep dogs away from their herd. The small dog really wanted to mate with the larger dog. He kept mounting her and she fought him off every time. The photograph that resulted from that experience is still about land use and sheep herding, but it is also about dogs mating when they were supposed to be watching sheep. And I like that.

Similarly, someone couldn’t hire me to go to the woods in Virginia to find and photograph a dead bear that looks human. For me, there has to be a discovery.

[We begin talking about the intersection of art and politics]

Lucas Foglia: I want my photographs to be connected to my values. I want my work to be relevant to the viewers. And above all I’m interested in making a great photograph. To quote Taryn Simon, the photograph has to be seductive.

Daniel Shea: I understand.

Lucas Foglia: With your work it’s the same thing. You traced the lines of the coal between mining and electricity generation. If you had just made photographs of the smoke stacks, then who would care? But when you made seductive photographs, people paid attention to the smoke stacks.

Daniel Shea: With a lot of work that is based on these very topical issues, a problem that I have is that the photographer looks at the subject with eyes that are too fresh or too eager. For example, like in Southeast Ohio, these smoke stacks have a very casual presence in the landscape and within the culture. If you grow up in the shadow of towering smoke stacks, they become just another element in the landscape, and you’re used to it, and it’s not this crazy, completely polarizing element that we tend to think of when we read about places online before visiting them. But if you treat the subject in a way that marries both being somewhere new and understanding the reality of wherever you are, that intersection generates interesting pictures, and narratives that open up a lot more for viewers to enter into. And people become more sincerely invested in the emotional and political issues that you are working with. Instead of a very didactic image-making process that people are turned off by.

Lucas Foglia: I think any photograph that is didactic, that tells you what to think, is paradoxically easy to forget. Good photographs rest on an ambiguity that makes you want to keep looking at them to figure them out. And I agree, tourists drive across a landscape, stop at a lookout point, take a picture and leave. The lookout points are obvious, predictable and beautiful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it is a vantage point that I’m not interested in. I am interested when the landscape or the smoke stack is contextualized by everyday life.

Daniel Shea: I was looking at your website the other day and was trying to figure out what made your photographs feel personal, like what made me assume that you knew the people and that you had spent actual time with them, and that it was an investment. A lot of them don’t necessarily say that explicitly, but I always knew that for some reason. How important is the extended experience in these places with your subjects to how you want people to perceive your work?

Lucas Foglia: I like spending time in the places, and with the people, I photograph. I think the time I spend allows me to portray a wider range of events and emotions.

Daniel Shea: What is your relationship to activist circles? If we talk about this work in a more ideological context, larger than art, what is your personal relationship with these movements and these people? Were you ever an activist?

Lucas Foglia: Yes — I try to have the photographs I make point towards things I believe in or topics that I think are relevant. I like the fact that photographs can be used in so many different ways. I exhibit editioned prints in galleries, and publish the images in books and magazines. I give small prints back to the people I photograph, and I give digital copies to local and national organizations to use for advocacy. It might sound like a general statement, but I have seen people and causes benefit from the use of the photographs.

Daniel Shea: No, I totally get it.

[We talk for a while about current work life, how to make ends meet through a variety of work — magazine work, teaching, partnering with non-profits, selling work, but still trying to focus on working for people and companies that you are interested in and can stand behind.]

Daniel Shea: Is there a 5-year plan? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Teaching?

Lucas Foglia: I’m going to keep on making photographs. Working on the book with Nazraeli Press has been a really energizing experience. And I have new projects that I am excited to start. I really enjoy teaching. Can I imagine myself becoming a professor at some point in the future? Sure, I can imagine really enjoying that. What’s your 5-year plan?

Daniel Shea: I feel ok in terms of a work-life, but I’m completely terrified about what I’m going to do next, because I have no idea. I'm in graduate school now, so I want to do a decent job at that and make better work.

Lucas Foglia: I think the best thing that graduate school can do for students is instill a culture that emphasizes making new work that matches their values and leaves room for discoveries; that cements a work ethic that continues after graduation.

Darin Mickey’s “Archeology of the Absurd”

Untitled, Brooklyn, New York, 2009 (detail). Photo by Darin Mickey

A collaboration with Spaces Corners

Editor's Note: Spaces Corners is an artist-run bookshop, gallery, and project space dedicated to contemporary photography with an emphasis on the photobook. The following is a transcription of a Spaces Corners discussion with Darin Mickey, moderated by founder Melissa Catanese and photographer Ed Panar on December 12, 2011.


Spaces Corners: Tell us a little bit about your first book, Stuff I Gotta Remember Not to Forget and what you’ve been working on since then?

Darin Mickey: I’m originally from Kansas City, Kansas. Stuff was shot there from 2001 until about 2005. My dad is someone I know very well, like most of us knows our fathers for better or worse, but I also saw my dad as sort of an archetypal figure. He is a salesman and he sells storage space in converted caves and mines. His office is in a cave. Growing up he sold everything from electronic calculators to payroll systems. He got a job in the late 90’s working for a company selling storage space in limestone caves and salt mines. They store everything from doctor’s x-rays to movies. I started photographing him and going with him on sales calls. I was also photographing home, taking pictures that I wasn’t quite used to. I was beginning to think about the landscape as well.

The work was eventually published as a small book by J&L Books. Seeing that this work was completed in this nice little book, I began to wonder what I was going to do after that. I wanted to branch out a little and not work on only one project. Since then I’ve been basically working on three different groupings of pictures, one is called Strange Fruit, what I like to call an "archeology of the absurd." Then there’s a landscape group (On Land) and people in offices (Human Resources), which shares some similarities to the work in Stuff, photographing office environments, driving around a lot. With these pictures I felt like I was starting to tap into something that had always interested me in the books and films I liked: dealing with time as it is now, an unromantic sense of now, with very little nostalgia.

The Strange Fruit pictures are pictures that I was starting to take here and there. I didn’t really recognize them as a group of pictures at first. There was this picture in my parents’ garage that was of a pile of chaos, this would probably be my first Strange Fruit photograph, where I started to see objects for their more complex, transcendent qualities. They’re a discovery for me and I’m still looking for that discovery now. When I’m walking around, I have a lot more doubt about what I’m doing as opposed to when I’m photographing in a more linear, narrative way.

Spaces Corners: As the urban dweller that you are, it seems like this work could be seen as Landscape. When you live in the city, this is the type of landscape that you encounter; these are the types of objects that surround you on a daily basis that you stumble upon.

Darin Mickey: Definitely. I’ll take pictures of a broader expanse, but I’m also thinking more of landscape as not being on an infinite scale so much, but on a more finite scale as well. Another influence on my seeing with these pictures is Jan Groover’s early still lifes. I tend to think of these pictures as "street still lifes" at times.

Spaces Corners: Right, it’s like a type of street photography, but not what people initially think of as street photography, like Garry Winogrand, where you’re seeing the people. Here, you’re seeing space and the objects that inhabit the space. Another interesting thing that’s going on is that there’s this hardcore, intense straight looking at things and a very literal rendering. There’s some manipulation to the lighting that’s going on and you’re in control, so it’s obviously very intentional. At the same time, for being so literal, they’re so mysterious. You’re not giving us any clues; you’re withholding a lot of information. I know you do a lot of shooting when you’re walking around on these long walks and we’re seeing the distilled version of that, which is what gives it a feeling of cohesion. It makes me curious what makes the shots that get in to the edit compared to the outtakes?

Darin Mickey: Whether thinking about this work or more traditional documentary work, I’m always curious as to what photographs can be of and where they can come from. What you can get away with showing or not showing and still having it somehow make sense to someone else. I’m still approaching these pictures with the same amount of attention that I would if they were a portrait of a person. When I’m editing I know what I’m looking for visually and there’s definitely things I repeat and there’s things that I catch. Sometimes I ask myself if I’m just doing the same thing over again. I’d like to say something about history and these objects place in it, how they say a lot about our contribution to history. I want to include some iconic elements and I like when there’s a puzzling metaphor. The piece of metal shaped like a snake for example, was something that was more obvious to me when I was taking it, so was the map on the wall.

Spaces Corners: What’s the significance behind the title and did that lead to the photographs? Isn’t Strange Fruit a Billie Holiday song?

Darin Mickey: Where I saw it written first, was on a record. Joy Division had a record on a label named Strange Fruit and it resonated with me. Some of the first pictures were of weeds and phone books, one that particularly looked like a flower; it was finding the metaphor and the strangeness in these overlooked things. I wasn’t thinking of Billie Holiday or a song about a lynching when I chose the title. The title came to me quite a bit later, after a lot of the images were already made. The pictures helped me find a title.

Spaces Corners: I like to think of it as reality is baring this strange fruit.

Darin Mickey: Yeah, reality is often the strangest fiction. It's this "absurd archeology." Not even going back and finding what’s buried, but something that’s right in front of you; seeing things that are of the time and space that you live in. I don’t live in a beautiful landscape. I go to sleep to the sound of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway at night. When I’m in the shower I see a plastic shampoo bottle. When I get food, it’s out of the refrigerator. I like to photograph trees, but I usually have to have a highway in there somewhere; a way to get to the forest. I can’t get away from that.

Spaces Corners: You mentioned that you teach a class called "The Political Landscape." When I look at this work I find it to be political in nature. It’s not overt but there are these undertones. They’re a record of time past, of the material that we’re surrounded by every day, what the world is built from and what we’ve done with that material.

Darin Mickey: It’s less in the forefront of my thinking. I think a picture of an empty parking lot can be loaded with political meaning. What you leave out of a picture can speak volumes. A lot of these pictures are of garbage and there’s the obvious concepts of excess and waste, but I want to leave the pictures open enough so people can arrive at those conclusions on their own. I don’t feel the need to photograph a mall on fire or someone being trampled on Black Friday, or a politician with his fingers crossed behind his back to make a political statement in a photograph. I’d like to show something that’s oddly beautiful and ironic. I don’t think irony is bad, because we’re all conflicted and ironic.

Spaces Corners: There’s a real sense of you stopping and looking, not drawing attention so much to you photographing, but to the process of looking. They also seem to be of neglected items that aren’t totally overlooked because there’s an intervention. They feel like you could have just passed by them but at the same time they have a control. That tension in them is what makes them feel strange. Do you come back to these objects to photograph?

Darin Mickey: These can be pretty slow pictures for me to take at times. I’m trying to show something as clearly as I can which is why I might use a flash so things aren’t too obscured by shadows. I’d like to present all the surfaces in the frame somewhat democratically. I try not to have the technique of taking the pictures overshadow the pictures themselves.

Spaces Corners: There’s a careful control of craft contrasted with the subject matter that wouldn’t normally be given that much attention. In a way, that’s possibly a subversive act. We’re not supposed to look at or question certain things, and in these photographs you’re questioning what is important and what is given value but you’re not giving us answers. There’s this discarded aspect and this intervention that happens. There’s a lot of tape. Somebody took a lot of time to patch up that car or wrap that wood. You’re going back to something anonymous, and maybe even meaningless, and giving it even more care and attention, transforming the object into something else and this revolution that happens between those things.

Darin Mickey: If I expect people to spend time with a photograph, then I should spend some time or thought making it, but there are also decisive, quick moments. It is usually when the light falls in the right way, if it’s not then maybe going back to it. I would like the pictures to have meditative space in them, a space to meditate on things not commonly associated with contemplation. I’m getting to really know the finer points of concrete, newspapers, and phone books. Most people don’t even bring their phone books in anymore. They leave them and I take pictures of them after they get all wet and blown around by the wind.

Spaces Corners: What would you say are some of your influences, including other photographers and non-photographic influences?

Darin Mickey: With these pictures I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Diane Arbus’ portraits; she had a way of taking pictures straight-on and stripping away all other pretense and getting right to the point. Some of John McPhee’s non-fiction books as well, especially the ones on geology.

Spaces Corners: I like thinking of these as portraits because it starts to get at how we define a portrait. A portrait could also be of a space or an object, the non-human world. It seems so obvious and so straight forward at first, but there’s this mystery and uncertainty that’s equally, if not more so, at the forefront of these photographs.

Darin Mickey: That’s good to hear because these are the most uncertain pictures I’ve made. I know when the picture is working for me on an aesthetic level, the lighting is good and all these classical things that I think make a good photograph compositionally are there. But there are things I don’t know and some pictures end up sitting at the bottom of the pile. It might take some time for them to surface with me. I’m thinking about matter in the most rudimentary way, how we’re interconnected with it and that’s strange. We are it and it is us. I don’t think I could ever make photographs that could say that absolutely, but I’d like to make ones that allow the space where you can contemplate that concept. I can only comment on the little things that I see and it’s all just an attempt for me to understand. There’s a sense of magic realism to them for me.

Spaces Corners: Why not just show the objects themselves? Why photograph them?

Darin Mickey: It goes back to the archaeology, finding it unintentionally. It’s the medium I work in. Duchamp’s Readymades get right down to it, but I’m still interested in the object and how it exists in the found environment and in the end how it looks when it becomes a photograph.

Spaces Corners: You mentioned you had many projects going on at once, so how do you decide what photograph fits which projects after you’ve taken it?

Darin Mickey: When I’m looking at the contact sheets or making a print it’s pretty obvious to me and that’s usually sometime after I’ve shot the film. When I’m out photographing I don’t really think about it. Sometimes there’s an oddball that challenges the majority of the group. I like throwing in an interior with a group of pictures dominated by landscapes.

Spaces Corners: What makes you decide to do that?

Darin Mickey: I’m questioning whether an interior can be a landscape or vice versa. I guess it depends on where you live, inside or outside, since all the things in our human world are not really separate from nature anymore. In films, we’re used to seeing an image and then it jumps to something else entirely. We can continue the narrative and it makes sense to us. That jump is something that I like to play with when I’m grouping pictures together. Sometimes it can work nicely with still pictures.

Spaces Corners: Do you see your work in a book as opposed to the wall because of this relationship to film?

Darin Mickey: I don’t really have a relationship to film beyond watching a lot of movies. I usually look at my pictures one after the other or a couple side-by-side. I’ve always enjoyed looking at photographs in books more than on a gallery wall. It’s a more intimate experience. You can sit with a book at home and contemplate the images on your own time in a less chaotic space. I also like how you can approach a book of photos from the beginning, the end, or jump right into the middle of it. It’s up to you when you pick it up.

Darin Mickey's Strange Fruit is on view at Spaces Corners in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania through Tuesday, January 31, 2012.