An Invitation into Mystery
“At a photographic workshop years ago, the instructor encouraged students to ‘fall through the lens.’ Although I’m sorry to say that I no longer recall which instructor said that, or what else happened at that workshop, I’ve carried those words with me. Falling through the lens (or the pinhole) means allowing myself to be drawn to, or moved by, what I see – to experience its emotional and symbolic significance for me in that moment (even if that content isn’t readily accessible verbally), to become absorbed in the process of making a photograph – a silent interaction between me and the scene before me.”
J.M. Golding’s work is a blur between illustrative and transformative photography; largely centered around the themes of landscape, nature and the natural world. She uses a variety of cameras and techniques; whether it is a vintage camera, pinhole, plastic Holga or Diana, or if she uses single or multiple exposures – the results are beautiful, evocative images that convey the deeply personal and philosophical connection Golding has with the world around her.
After talking with Golding for an interview for F-Stop Magazine in early 2016, I knew we needed to revisit her images in order to adequately address her work. She was kind enough to provide some examples of her current work, as well as other images from her overall body of work, and speak at length about her creative process.
Cary Benbow (CB): Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
J.M. Golding (JG): I think for me, the answer lies in both the process of creating and in the images that result from that process. In terms of process, making photographs invites me into what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state, which he describes as ‘‘an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness,’’ a state of deep absorption in the moment. For me, since I most often photograph in natural settings (an intentional choice based on both where I enjoy being and what I generally most want to see in photos), the flow state carries with it an experience of connecting with nature, what Ruth Bernhard referred to as “knowing what it feels like to be a leaf.” Not only is the experience of photographing wonderful (in the full sense of the word) for me, but then I get photographs, too! As much as I know intellectually that there are solid reasons in physics and chemistry that those pictures exist, I still experience photographs as a form of magic, as alchemy. And not just because they reproduce reality – to me, they’re all the more magical because they transform reality, sometimes in ways that can be quite surprising to my conscious self. I get to use these alterations in reality to create and/or discover metaphors that explore and transform subjective experience. Not only that, when another person finds resonance in my work, that’s a form of connection between that person and me. It’s a pretty amazing experience all around.
CB: Can you please explain the idea behind these first few images – are they part of a project, or how did you select these images for the theme of the Wonder-ful exhibition in F-Stop Magazine this year?
JG: I chose the images I submitted from among my best work that seemed to me to fit most closely with the theme of “Wonder-full,” to express or contain a sense of wonder – something that you won’t be surprised to hear is integral to photography for me. Some of the photos are part of various projects; others (including “At the frontier of the known world” [Shown at the end of this article]) aren’t – or at least, for now, no project has cohered around those particular images for me.
(Editor’s note: see exhibit Wonder-full by F-Stop Magazine, March 2016)
The untitled piece is from a project called “Before there were words,” which is about preverbal experience that we retain, perhaps in our unconscious minds, long after it’s become possible, expected, and maybe typical for us to relate to the world largely through words. The photographs speak of pure actuality, that moment before verbal labels rush in to change experience … the moments between sleep and waking, dreams vanishing as the dreamer wakes … matter coming into form … unwished wishes and unspoken memories … moments seeking resonance, concepts in the process of forming, hopes and dreams being nurtured and sent forth.
“The land transforming” is part of the series, “From destruction grows a garden of the soul,” I made these photographs in the year and a half after a 2013 fire ravaged over 3,000 acres of mountain wilderness in northern California. Initially, only bleakness and devastation remained, a landscape of loss. There were subtle signs of hope, easy to miss, and perhaps requiring more interpretation than was justified. Seemingly against all odds, the following spring brought profound renewal to the mountain. I couldn’t resist the metaphor of beauty – and, visually, joy – coming into existence after, and as a direct result of, disastrous loss.
“This moment always” is from the series, “Where you are,” which explores integration of closeness and distance using double exposure. The photographs contain elements of each of two exposures, one focused close and one focused far away, fusing them to create an image that couldn’t have been anticipated by either one alone. In joining near and far, they also join solid and ethereal, objective and subjective, sharp and blurred, literal and metaphorical, real and imagined.
CB: What, do you feel, makes a good photograph?
JG: I think a good photograph is one that moves us, that feels meaningful, that has emotional resonance. Of course, that will differ to some extent from one person to another.
CB: What or who are your photography inspirations?
JG: As you can probably tell from what I said earlier, feeling a connection with nature is a basic inspiration for me. And I’m inspired by light and shadow … by openness to what lies beneath the surface of things … by the emotional resonance of a moment. In my experience, photography is where all of these inspirations meet.
Seeing other artists’ work, and conversation with other artists, are also important sources of inspiration for me. I’d like to mention just a few of those other artists. It probably sounds trite, but I can’t not mention the work of Ansel Adams. I was absolutely stunned from the first time I saw his work, which happened in my late childhood, around the time I took my first darkroom class at summer camp. His books The Camera, The Negative, and The Print were an important foundation for me, both technically and aesthetically (despite the differences of my work from his). Adams wrote, “to photograph truthfully is to see beneath the surface.” Which is very much what I want to do, to discover photographically the subjective truth beneath the perhaps more objective reality that’s on the surface.
I’ve also been very much influenced by Ruth Bernhard’s Gift of the Commonplace project. She said that “there is nothing unimportant in the universe” – which takes the emphasis away from the “subject” of the photograph, the thing in front of the lens, to the way it’s photographed, the light, the meaning, the artist’s subjective experience. Her photographs “Doorknob, 1975” and “Teapot, 1976” are probably my favorite examples of the ways in which she reveals magic in the everyday.
Jim Rohan’s photographs are a wonderful source of inspiration for me. In front of his lens, a rock becomes a mysterious symbol, magical light sifts through the trees or meanders along a coastline, a path becomes a gateway into another world, and reflections disclose meaning in their depths. I’m inspired by the ways he sees nature and light, and it’s clear to me that my sense of composition has changed as a result of looking as his photographs.
Amy Nicolazzo makes intensely subjective photographs, full of emotional resonance, inviting me to see deeply and to discover meaning, and frequently leaving me breathless. Often as I try to describe my experience of these photographs, I find the words slipping from my grasp, and I suspect that’s because the feeling is in the picture, not in words … an important aspect of what I hope to do in my own work.
Al Brydon makes otherworldly landscapes that hold a palpable sense of presence, of subjective reality. They’re truly evocative, often dreamlike and mysterious, and they engage me through their subtle qualities of darkness. Each moment in these images carries significance.
These are just a few examples. I’m lucky to have lots of sources of inspiration.
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
JG: I usually say something like they’re primarily analogue, mostly black and white, soft, blurry, not entirely literal images of landscapes and landscape elements. But I’d rather just show the photos to the person.
CB: There are so many ways to express oneself in a 21st-century world — What makes still photography your choice of expression?
JG: I’ve been drawn to photography since childhood, and I always seem to come back to it. Other media just don’t seem to “stick” with me. And there’s so much I want to do in photography – it’s hard to find enough time and “brain space” to do even part of it, let alone work in additional mediums. I think that by temperament, I’m probably better at depth than breadth.
I’ve asked myself retrospectively what it is about photography, and I think the particular combination of emotional expression, openness to experience, and ritual, the way photography combines art and science, probably fits well with who I am. I also suspect that there’s something compelling for me about the ways photography can be used to transform “objective” reality, as compared to, say, painting or drawing or sculpture, in which the artist in a sense creates their own reality from nothingness (the blank page or canvas, the lump of clay, etc.). I think that on some level this is probably more of a quantitative difference than a qualitative one, but even with the assumption that it’s a continuum, I do seem to be drawn to the photographic end of it.
CB: Why do you shoot almost exclusively in black and white?
JG: This may sound a little odd, but in my mind, this question brings up the distinction between using photography to record and using it to create or transform. As you know, I’m vastly more interested in creating and transforming than in recording. Black and white photographs reproduce literal reality less well than do (realistic) color ones. In my mind, that’s a big advantage of working in black and white. For example, if I make a photograph of a tree in my backyard, I’m not hoping it will look like the tree in my backyard; I’m hoping it will work as a metaphor (for example, of renewal, if I photograph it in the spring, or of complexity, if I photograph the intricate pattern of branches, or – most likely – of something that I haven’t yet thought of in a conscious, verbal way when I’m there with my camera), or perhaps evoke an emotion that I experience in the tree’s presence. Photographing that tree in black and white will automatically make the photo look less like the actual, specific tree. The photo becomes more abstract than it would have been if I’d used (most kinds of) color film. At minimum, it becomes a kind of representation of “every-tree.” If it goes really well, the image can become symbolic.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that color photos can’t be symbolic. I just experience black and white as a route to that destination.
Having said all of that, there are times when a project feels to me as if it, well, needs color, and when that happens, I do photograph in color. I did that with my series, “From destruction grows a garden of the soul” (of which “Once upon a time in the forest” is part). That project includes not only black and white photos, but also several different color palettes. I often find myself drawn to surreal colors, which I think parallels my usual use of black and white: surreal colors contribute to transforming the “objective” reality in ways that make it less specific to the particular thing I’m pointing the camera at, and as a result, more susceptible to functioning subjectively and symbolically.
CB: Please talk a bit about the importance of why you create images in analog processes, and the types of cameras and film you choose.
JG: I’m very drawn to analog processes in a way that feels irrational. I tell myself that I can’t always tell which images are analog and which are digital – although when I look at my own work, it seems easy to tell which is which (over and above having been the one who made the pictures). I tend to prefer the way analog photographs look – I know that can be replicated digitally, at least if you’re really good at it, but why not do the real thing? I actually like the imperfections of analog photographs; they seem to me to reveal the hand of the artist, the influence of nature, in a more immediate way than digital images do. To be, in a sense, more true to subjective human experience, since as human beings, none of us is perfect. Also, there’s nothing else like taking a roll of film out of the developing tank and seeing actual pictures on it – it’s that experience of magic. Plus, I don’t really want to spend more time in front of a computer screen than I already do. I imagine that like most people who photograph digitally, if I worked digitally I’d make many more exposures than I’d ever want to keep, to a much greater extent than I already do (and I think most people do) using analog processes, and the prospect of sorting through them isn’t appealing to me either.
I use plastic, pinhole, and vintage glass-lensed cameras almost exclusively, because they seem most expressive of my internal experience. I love what Ted Orland wrote about the Holga (in Light Leaks Magazine, issue #18):
“Ansel Adams was my first and only formal photography teacher, with the hardly surprising result that for the next few years, large-format B&W landscapes became my definition of fine art photography. It took me years to realize that I didn’t actually lead a fine-grained life … where Ansel’s world was monumental and sharply defined, my world has become increasingly quirky and decidedly fuzzy around the edges. My ability to capture that world took a great leap forward in 1990 when I discovered the Holga … it sees the world the way I do.” (Ted Orland, Light Leaks Magazine)
Each of my favorite kinds of cameras creates its own special kind of blur, its own invitation into mystery.
But, in addition to preferring these cameras because of the kinds of photos I can make with them, there are process-related reasons also. With plastic cameras, the spontaneity that happens when there’s limited to no exposure or focus control seems to me to promote access to the emotional logic and metaphoric thought that’s often just beyond immediate awareness. I think the unconscious often knows what it’s doing, and for me, plastic cameras especially seem to make room for unconscious process to emerge. Pinhole cameras can have a wonderfully contemplative quality, and I’m drawn to their simplicity. Although (as I mentioned earlier) all photographic image creation feels to me as if it’s inexplicable in some sense, there’s a special magic in creating an image using nothing but a tiny hole in what Christopher James calls “a box of air.” The long exposures (I’ve made exposures of up to 48 minutes – and that’s not counting the solargraphs) feel to me as if they promote that sense of empathy with the subject that I alluded to before. There’s also a meditative element in sitting with the image from moment to moment as it is being made, knowing that all of those moments will contribute to the photograph. Vintage glass-lensed cameras (I’m primarily using a Mamiyaflex C2 these days) have a somewhat similar contemplative quality in the ritual of metering and setting the exposure, focusing the lens, and cocking the shutter before making the actual exposure. You pretty much have to slow down.
Plus, in analog processes there are always surprises. There’s an experience of watching the magic unfold.
CB: You spoke of the alchemy, and mystery, of traditional photo processes as they relate to your images – do you feel this aspect is lost or seriously diminished through the widespread adoption of digital photography? Or do you feel there has been a resurgence of analog photography?
JG: I think that for me, that experience of alchemy and mystery would be lost or seriously diminished if I were working exclusively digitally. But I can’t speak for how others experience it. Speaking as one who has never done any “serious” digital photography, I think that in that process, the transformational aspect would come mostly in the post processing, which is different – if nothing else, it’s done entirely with conscious intent, and so there isn’t that same kind of room for the unconscious to emerge. But people who have done this kind of work might have a different perspective.
I should probably acknowledge here that these days, I simultaneously hold two quite contradictory opinions about analog and digital photographic process. On the one hand, I love analog photography – I’ve sometimes described myself as a film snob. On the other hand, I also believe that the individual artist’s process and the emotional quality of the image count for way more than what equipment they used. I’m not planning to make myself choose between these opinions any time soon – I think that at least for now, I need to just hold the contradiction.
It’s honestly hard for me to tell whether there’s been a resurgence of analog photography (in the sense of an increase in interest and/or actual image-making) – I see both ups and downs. But there does seem to be an international community of people who are passionate about it.
CB: You have collaborated with Al Brydon by swapping a camera and double exposing the roll of film to create landscape photos – can you give some background to this project and explain what you both set out to do, or how the result was different from what you thought would happen?
JG: On my end, the project grew naturally out of prior work. As I think back, it began with a series of overlapping, double-exposed photographs I made called “A geography of connection and loss.” To make these, I put each roll of film through the camera twice – I’d expose the roll of film, rewind it, and re-expose it. I was inspired to work this way by an emotionally powerful series by the Canadian artist Paul Romaniuk called “That summer at the lake”, which used this procedure. And the procedure felt like a perfect fit for my intent with the “Geography.” Anyway, I posted my “Geography” pictures on Flickr (where I no longer have an account) and another UK-based artist, Rob Douglas, was intrigued with them, and started using a similar procedure. He was astonished to get coherent images from the process even when he hadn’t (consciously) remembered the initial exposures. In the course of my correspondence with Rob, I found myself inviting him to swap films. Each of us would expose a roll of film, mail the film to the other person, and re-expose the film we’d received. He agreed readily, saying the thought had occurred to him too. We posted our pictures on Flickr. Then Al saw them, and said something to the effect that he’d like to try that sometime. I’ve always admired Al’s work and was delighted by the thought of collaborating with him. So I invited him to work with me on a film swap … and the rest, as they say, is history. We’ve been swapping films for about 5 years now.
In response to the second part of your question, I think it’s fair to say that the only thing that Al and I really set out to do was to make these double exposures and see what would happen. As you know, with a plastic camera, you always get surprises. With two plastic cameras and two people’s unconscious processes involved (not to mention the different light in two parts of the world), it’s surprises-squared, at the very least. We agreed on a few general parameters (for example, we’d use Holgas, and we’d make the exposures at the frame numbers, not between them… at least, that was our intent, but as far as the latter plan was concerned, a couple of times the Holgas have overridden our intentions), and we agreed that beyond those, we’d just let the magic work. We each knew the other’s work, and we realized that that was likely to influence the exposures we made, whether or not with conscious intent.
CB: Thinking back to the beginning of our conversation, I take it there is a significant amount of meaning you draw from your surroundings and subjects of your images. The term ‘transcendental’ comes to mind – is that a term you would agree with?
JG: In terms of the ordinary English use of the word transcend, yes: I hope that my photographs will transcend the literal appearance of their subjects to become metaphors for internal experience, to be expressive of personal meaning – hopefully meaning that resonates with viewers.
All images are used by permission. This is an extended version of the original interview featured in F-Stop Magazine in February, 2016.