Rachael Banks is a photographer from Louisville, Kentucky, and is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Northern Kentucky University. In a recent issue of F-Stop Magazine, I was fortunate to interview her and feature her work in the thematic context of animals – while acknowledging her work focuses primarily on family dynamics, relationships, and nostalgia. She is also especially interested in social subcultures and identity informed by place. Banks’ creates work about her family and the uneasiness of those relationships that are strained but also incredibly involved. The inclusion of numerous pets or animals in her family’s life conveys the importance animals play in our lives as she explores feelings of loss, identity, and meaning in the context of family, love and acceptance. It is immediately apparent that she cares deeply for her family – a tough subject to be subjective with, and also intimately close to.
I am the oldest of three, but more like a mother than a sister.
I constructed a family of siblings, both real and assumed.
‘Between Home and Here’ addresses deeply internalized
guilt and the essence of loved ones.
There is a history of pain and an apparent inwardness in my family.
My brother has a rage inside of him that I know others can see.
But, I can’t help noticing the way he delicately handles a small rabbit in his arms, gently stroking its ears and shielding its eyes from the fear of the unfamiliar.
I am a witness to their sensitivity and empathy in how they revere animal life, despite human failure.
This is a story about hating and loving where you are from.
It comes from doing anything to go back to a place that you left.
I left my heart in Kentucky and came back to find it.
The photographs are artifacts from my search.
Rachael Banks – ‘Between Home and Here’
Cary Benbow (CB):Your projectBetween Home and Here explores very powerful tropes of Family and inclusion. Let’s talk about the level of trust and intimacy in your work, and I’d like to ask about the project in terms of portraiture versus straight documentary style photography.
Rachael Banks (RB): While I am extroverted at work (I have to be), I am actually pretty shy and slow in how I go about making work, so it isn’t always as viable for me to photograph strangers. There is definitely a level of intimacy I have to achieve with a person to make work about them extensively. I really like to invest in whoever I am making work about. I go back and forth about my work being more portraiture based vs. documentary. In the beginning, I was interested in the concept of aesthetic beauty and portraiture allowed me to explore that. However, as the work has continued, I’ve thought more about my relationships with people and the place I feel I have in the world. I never considered myself a documentary photographer because I wasn’t sure if photographing my family fit within the scope but as the work expands, I definitely feel like the work is more heavily influenced by documentary photography. Portraiture is something I naturally gravitate towards in respect to my working methodology but my intent goes beyond the mode in which I present my images.
CB: Let’s discuss the role animals play in your work; how much of a role do they play in the lives of your subjects, or in your own life?
RB:I’m not sure if this is a regional or family influence (maybe a little bit of both) but I grew up surrounded by animals. My family members have always had a wide array of pets and my dad lives on a farm. I was definitely raised in an environment that placed a heavy emphasis on respect for animals and to treat pets as family. Because my work is so centrally focused on my relationships with immediate family, it is inevitable that animals become a part of that. Additionally, I see that animals often serve as an extension of the subject I am photographing and that they can help inform the viewer with more insight into the personality traits of the individual. On a personal note, I spend a lot of time driving to make work and I bring my dog Ghost with me as much as possible. If there isn’t an animal in the photograph I’m making, there is most likely one sitting next to me while I’m shooting.
CB: With regard to your earlier statement about your portraits documenting your family, what do you feel are the “obligations” of a photographer, or what obligation do you have to the people, your family, in your photos?
RB: I think it is important to have the ability to stand behind every image that you make. I understand that anything I put out into the world for others to see is coming from my own specific gaze and that I am actively selecting how the subject is framed and presented. I feel that I have a responsibility to myself and others to be able to understand that not everyone will see my images the same way that I do and that I have the ability to contribute (both negatively and positively) to how an individual/region/situation is represented. There is always the possibility that something I make can be misunderstood or that I can even cause harm, so with that in mind, I try to make sure that I don’t share anything that I can’t live with later on in life.
CB: What compels you to make the images you create? Why do you photograph?
RB:My mom photographed my entire childhood – and I mean she photographed everything constantly. While she has never identified as being creative/artistic, I feel that her compulsions have influenced me greatly and my need to document as much of my life/surroundings as possible. I have a lot of anxiety about forgetting defining moments or losing sight of what informs my identity. Photography has always provided a way for me to stay connected to who I am and what matters to me.
CB: Who are your photography inspirations or how to they influence your work?
RB:This is a question where I can go overboard so I will attempt to be as concise as possible. I really love Doug Dubois and the way he documents youth in addition to integrating a graphic novel in his series My Last Day at Seventeen. When I think about the muse in the photograph, I always look at Emmet Gowin; because who wouldn’t want to be loved the way that Edith is? I’m really inspired by Nathan Pearce and the way he photographs his life in the Midwest – he also has an incredible work ethic that always pushes me to be better. Jake Reinhart is another big inspiration for me because of his extensive approach to research and his ability to articulate his work in such a thoughtful way. I am also currently excited about Amy Powell, Caiti Borruso, Susan Worsham, and Dylan Hausthor.
CB: Do you feel there is a significant difference between “documentary” style photography versus “portrait” photography as a label? Or are those labels significant as a category to your work?
RB:I think that there is crossover between portraiture and documentary in my work. In terms of there being a difference, I believe the intent of the photographer is significant in making distinctions between the two. I’ve seen documentary work that is mainly consistent of portraiture so there isn’t much a difference between the two in that situation but I have also seen a lot of portraiture work that is more about visual aesthetics than it is about being documentary. I feel that my work falls in both categories in that I work primarily in portraiture but I am approaching my subject matter as a documentarian. Portraiture is a natural habit for me but I am more interested in the research and document component of making work. I don’t want to be the person that says I don’t fall into a category because I definitely fall into a few! If I had to describe my work in one sentence to a stranger I would summarize it as a documentary approach to family (assumed and biological) portraiture.
CB: Please talk about the role of a photographer as “publisher” and what you think about the recent increased push for photographers to publish photo books and/or zines. I know you are a strong advocate for publishing work.
RB: I am 100% supportive of photographers working in self-publishing and its one of my favorite components of photography. I think there is a lot that self-publishing/zines allow for a photographer in regard to the opportunity for exposure that it provides. While I feel it is still important to show work in galleries, a zine allows a photographer to share work without being weighed down by so many financial burdens. Accessible art is really important to me and I feel that self-publishing allows for photography to be more readily distributed and shared which fosters such a dynamic community that I value being a part of. On another note, I think that there is an over saturation of photobooks in the world right now, but I’m not terribly upset about having more books to collect. If there is a project that isn’t ready to be presented to the work as a traveling solo exhibition or a monograph, it can still be shared/distributed as a zine. Publishing also allows for photographers/viewers to see work as a physical object as opposed to looking at everything through a screen. I definitely appreciate the photograph more as a physical object and publishing encourages this.
Rachael Banks (b. Louisville, KY) is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Northern Kentucky University and is based in Covington, KY. She received an MFA in photography from Texas Woman’s University (Denton, TX). Banks is an avid supporter of self-publishing, accessible art, zines, and collecting. Her work has been shown at The Center for Fine Art Photography, The Kinsey Institute, Black Box Gallery, Darkroom Gallery, and several other institutions. She has also been featured in a number of online photography publications and frequently participates in panel discussions and invited speaker presentations.
Gender is a current topic of discussion and debate — politically, and socially. A political debate wages on in several states to decide who should use which restroom based on their assigned gender at birth, versus the gender with each person identifies themselves. Time Magazine’s cover story for March 27, 2017 is ‘Beyond He or She’; how a new generation is defining how they relate and interact with the world. This ‘non-binary’ sense of self-awareness is not just something one might encounter in psychology or sociology studies; It is literally front page news.
Genderqueer, along with the alternate term nonbinary, are umbrella terms that address individuals who feel that the terms man and woman, or male and female, do not adequately describe the way they feel about their gender and/or the way they wish others to see them. Members of the genderqueer community generally try to distinguish themselves from people who call themselves transgender, because that term more closely relates to a different sense of self in a binary comparison. Generally, it means the individual identifies with a different binary gender than their gender assigned at birth.
For her series “Genderqueer,” Aftel photographed self-identified genderqueer individuals in their homes in an effort to explore a community that she says is too-often misunderstood. Aftel says that a few years ago, she and a friend were talking about the GenderQueer movement and she felt she wanted to explore it further on her own. Aftel feels her gender identity never fell neatly into one group or another, so she was curious what this discussion was grappling with.
She had shot three portraits in her project, when she was assigned to shoot Sasha Fleischman for an editorial piece in San Francisco Magazine. In the fall of 2013, Sasha was set on fire on an Oakland, California public bus because they (Sasha doesn’t use she or he as identifiers) wore a skirt with a men’s shirt. After this terrible event, more people were willing to be photographed and take a stand about the basic human rights that should be extended to any person regardless of gender identification. Aftel has photographed this evolving culture that consists of those living outside or in between the gender binary, refusing to define themselves as strictly male or female.
Cary Benbow (CB): Beyond your project statement, please talk about the idea behind your GenderQueer portfolio. Does it relate to other work of yours?
Chloe Aftel (CA): Gender, identity and sexuality have always been subjects I enjoy exploring. Pieces of that permeate all my projects, I don’t think people fit neatly into boxes, nor should they, so I want to see what that looks like in real life.
CB: It has been a few years since you first started this project, is this an ongoing series? How much do you add to this project on a regular basis?
CA: Yes, I am constantly shooting for this series, until it is close to comprehensive, 1–2 times a month at least. I’ve been working on it since 2012 and it’s been interesting watching how the movement has grown and in what directions. I’ve never had a project that has been completed quickly, sadly! When I begin these, it’s with the knowledge it takes years to do correctly.
CB: As a photographer, what obligation do you feel to the people in your photos?
CA: I think my job is to portray subjects honestly, whatever that means. It’s not about a message or my intent, it’s about letting people be themselves and finding a way to shoot that.
CB: What photographers or artists do you take inspiration from? How does it affect how you work?
CA: I love a lot of the dead and older people, Arbus and Eggleston are favorites, as well as Gordon Parks, and Avedon, but there are so many who are still alive and awesome, like Steven Meisel, Alison Scarpulla, Joe Szabo, Matt Eich…. I don’t know if I am often inspired. I think I just like the work. I like problems and mistakes.
CB: Do you see your work as a way of documenting your life experiences in a way, or commenting on them with intent?
CA: I don’t discuss intent, as i want people to take from them what they will. Hopefully the images have enough structure to stay something and enough room for the viewer to take away what they will.
CB: Is the GenderQueer series specific to a certain place or community or would it be applicable to anyone who identifies as non-binary?
CA: The people in it are from all over the country, from rural Ohio, to Detroit, to Seattle, and a million other places. I hope this series speaks to people no matter where they live and how able they currently feel to be themselves.
CB: What compels you to make the images you create — for this project or otherwise?
CA: Oh man, I love taking pictures, I love making shit, I love making the technical change the visual. I also love making a living. I just don’t want the say the same tired crap that’s already been said. If i can do that, it’s very gratifying. I want to shoot a million different subjects, and I don’t want all the images to look homogenized, so it’s much less about adhering to a certain genre and much more about understanding a subject, if that makes sense.
CB: From the standpoint of a working professional, how do you decide to take on new projects? What type of balance do you try to make between editorial and commercial clients?
CA: I think you always have to do both. They do inform one another, but you need to eat and you need to do work that really pushes you. Once in a while, ad jobs do that, but the personal work is where you just have to figure it out. I think that’s what makes you better in all aspects of the job. You make mistakes and can take some joy in what they teach you.
CB: What are you currently working on? Any new projects?
CA: Yes, many! One on what it means to be a woman now, another on portraits of artists and intellectuals, and a few more. It’s the best work to do aside from making a living.
CB: What advice would you give to someone who wants to take on projects like GenderQueer?
CA: To be patient, it takes a lot of time and learning to figure out how to best do it and there will ALWAYS be problems and challenges that come up. One has to stay the course and remain focused while being open to changing as one’s understanding of the project evolves.
Storytelling is something we humans have always been doing, to some degree. Telling all sorts of tales has been an important part of our lives for millennia. Themes that all great storytellers use; birth, growth, destruction, death, and rebirth are important aspects of what it is like to be human, and what its like to experience life. There are a number of Russian folktales that speak of a mythical firebird whose feathers glow and can even protect the person who possesses it, but the firebird can be both a blessing and a curse. Variations of this story include princes and princesses, magical creatures, omens of the future, immortality, and lessons that test the virtue of the people who encounter the firebird.
Ekaterina Vasilyeva’s project, After the Firebird, uses these themes as a springboard to show us what life is like in the village where her family has lived for generations, and where she has been photographing for the past few years. Her selective use of color, light and environment set the stage for these scenes. The people she photographs include her own family members. Without romanticizing the lives they live, we can view their homes, their activities, and their village through the transformative lens of myth. Vasilyeva captures magical scenes of life – those little parts of common everyday occurrences that suddenly transcend into something more. Her scenes allow us to see a common object as a talisman suddenly made visible, or the relationship between two specific individuals as something that crosses over into a universal relationship for all of mankind… but only if we are watchful.
After the Firebird – project statement
The Russian village is rapidly sinking into oblivion. The sad statistics show that in Russia over the last two decades almost 25 thousand rural settlements disappeared within the map of Russia. Moreover, according to the sociologists, about the same number of them is on the verge of extinction.
My story begins long time ago when my grandmother and grandfather, both from the Pskov region (Russia), met in Leningrad (St. Petersburg now), got married and stayed there for the rest of their life.
But it could have turned out very different. I, now a modern city dweller, could have been born among those flowering fields and hard-working people.
In his village, my grandfather used to be called a gypsy because he could predict the approaching of someone’s death. As for himself, he always knew that he would survive two wars and wouldn’t be injured. And so it happened. With regard to my grandmother, he said that she would outlive him by exactly ten years. This prediction also came true.
Over the last five years that I have been documenting people from the small village Andrushino in Pskov region, I have been subconsciously looking for overt or covert manifestations of people’s magic.
I think that it is as much a part of our being, as history and geography. Faced with a fabulous world of folklore you soon realize that it is rooted in a totally real ground and that all the beliefs and superstitions, charms and rituals, tales and fables are not just a warehouse of archetypes of the collective unconscious, but an immediate response of the collective soul to the mysterious currents of the natural elements.
Cary Benbow: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
Ekaterina Vasilyeva: One can ask yourself this each year – and respond it every time in different ways. At the moment, I would say I do not take pictures in a normal, casual way, as much as I do it to visually study or research something. I consider photographing only in conjunction with the history, geography, mythology and literature on the theme of project. So, the photography becomes a reflection of the knowledge I’ve gained or its interpretation.
CB: Why did you become a photographer? What was your start into photography?
EV: My serious interest in photography arose in 2009 during my two years of residence in the United States, in Alabama. Simple, amateur pictures of nature became unsatisfying to me. I often remember one random picture I made at the beach of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida. A couple was walking along the beach among a lot of birds, and the man suddenly raised his hands up and waved them like wings. At that time, I also realized that I wanted to change something in my life. Maybe even my profession. This time also changed my way of life essentially; I had more time to be alone with myself. Living in a foreign country, being quite closed off, helped me to find, I can confidently say now, my matter of life. I decided that after returning to St. Petersburg, I was going to study photography.
CB: How does ‘After the Firebird’ relate to your other projects?
EV: This project is the only one which is connected, though not directly, with my family and my ”roots”. I am dedicating the book I’m preparing, After the Firebird, to the memory of my grandparents who were born in the Pskov region. And, of course, it is the most mystical among my projects.
The connection of After the Firebird with other projects is the important subject of the relationship between people and nature. For creating my story I was inspired by Russian fairy tales and folklore, literature on Slavs mythology, paintings by famous Russian artists such as Viktor Vasnetsov and Ivan Bilibin, Palekh miniature (Russian folk handicraft of a miniature painting), and movies based on the books of Russian writer Valentin Ivanov (”Russ at First” and ”Russ Great”)
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
EV: I think that first of all, in view of your one’s personal experience, it is an opportunity to surprise yourself. Second, the photograph should resonate with a viewer, regardless if he/she is the editor of a photo magazine or an ordinary visitor of an exhibition.
CB: Where do you get the ideas for your personal photography?
EV: Everything somehow connected with me and the place (territory) where I live, which I love to visit or that I want to explore.
CB: Is it relatively easy, or do you find it a struggle to be an artist where you live? Do you feel isolated in the larger artistic community?
EV: I do not think there is a lot of ”rivalry” among photographers in Russia who are engaged in contemporary photography (the example of contemporary photography for me is the ”Institute” Agency). And almost no magazines, galleries (except Moscow), or good photo competitions, or people who are interested in purchasing photos.
This market is very poorly developed in Russia so far. Therefore, I concentrate on foreign audiences and opportunities offered by the foreign photographic industry. Due to the Internet, and the fact that I occasionally live in Europe (thanks to my husband’s work), I can visit photo and art exhibitions, search and buy books on photography and art.
So there is a minus, but there is also a plus. You need to work harder to delve into all of this, and so you probably only get stronger. By nature I think I am an optimist.
CB: Do you keep a journal or do you keep notes or write about the places and people you see?
EV: Unfortunately, I do not keep a personal diary. For each project I just collect useful information from different sources: quotes, images for inspiration, excerpts from articles, books, etc. I write a plan and some words for the better understanding of what I do want to find for my project. All this is mostly working materials.
CB: Who are your personal photography inspirations?
EV: I am inspired by so many things. For example the movies of such film directors as David Lynch, Wim Wenders and Ingmar Bergman. So I love weird movies. As for photographers – I’m currently attracted to the energy and temperament of Cristina de Middel. And because of calm judgment and a nearly perfect photography narrative, I’m a big fan of Alec Soth.
Art plays an important role for me. Some of my favorites are Americans artists: Edward Hopper for his brevity, realism and melancholy; and Andrew Wyeth for his ”wind” in pictures, a singular style and fantastic sense of place and home.
CB: I would love to learn more about the “mysticism” in your work. What parts of your work are mystic, and how you wish the viewer to “see” the photographs?
EV: I like the idea of combining documentary photography and a certain mystique conditionally. Each viewer has to decide for himself where is the truth and where is fiction for him. Given the fact that I do not make the staged photos and everything happens as in reality, it becomes itself a strange and mysterious. If we want to see something unusual, we will see it. I am convinced of that each time I work on a project.
After the Firebird talks about the mystery and magic of the hidden world and the amazing discoveries that can occur in front of everybody. You need only to look around carefully. With the documentary style of my work, I strive to endow each photograph with a sufficient degree of strangeness and mystery. I think this is the most truthful reflection of my inner world and attitude towards the life. Despite the quite rational mind, the analysis of things and actions, in my soul I also feel the presence of a child whose mother often told and read her tales.
I want to see something beyond everyday life, filled with encrypted symbols. Or maybe just something that brings back memories and the atmosphere of a unique place. More generally, I’m always looking around for magic.
CB: Also, I would like to understand how the relationship between man and nature is important to you? Many people do not live close to “nature” settings, and some people are very connected to the natural world… how does nature influence the way you create?
EV: For me the relationships between nature and people play a very important role . I think that without a clear understanding of its important role in our life, a person to some extent deprives itself of its support, and even health. All my projects are in some way connected with nature, with long hiking (10, 15, 20,… km) combined with deep attention to the environment around me.
I would like to believe that my projects could assist a new understanding and interest in the nature around us and respect for it.
Ekaterina Vasilyeva is an independent photographer from St. Petersburg, Russia, working at the intersection of the genre, documentary and art photography.
In most of her projects, she explores the theme of a particular place (space, territory, it changes in the context of time and historical landmarks, environment problems, interaction with human activity, personal relationship and the myths of the place. To see more of her work, please visit her website: http://www.ekaterinavasilyeva.ru/
This is an edited version of the interview published in Art Narratives in March 2017.
Cary Benbow (CB): Why did you become a photographer? How did you get started?
Carrie Schreck (CS): I messed around a bit with film as a kid but the real answer this: when I first lived in San Francisco, my boyfriend and I never locked our car. It’s best just to leave it unlocked with nothing in it; if someone breaks in, at least you don’t have to replace your windows. One night someone must have been ripping off cars, got into ours and fell asleep. The next morning my boyfriend walks in with a Canon AE-1 left in the back seat. That’s how I got in to photography. Seriously. I still have that camera.
CB: Where do you get the ideas for your personal photography?
CS: I’m looking for genuine moments, powerful moments, and I hope to have the right mix of luck and speed to be able to catch them and do them some justice.
CB: Explain the idea behind your Moped portfolio images – How do they relate to your other projects?
CS: I’ve been shooting moped riders and moped gangs for 7 years. I shoot it because it’s my life and what’s going on around me, but it’s such a close-knit community, it’s a brotherhood and sisterhood. The story lines around each gang, each ride, each rally are a total challenge to capture. I wanted to save the memories for the people in them, that was always my first priority. Say, if Ashlee ever has kids and they are able to see a photo of her bombing the Coronado bridge after racing hundreds of miles, fixing her bike on the side of the road, doing something silly and dangerous but daring… maybe they’ll be inspired. With a photograph, that inspiration can happen long after I’m gone, after she’s gone.
CB: Seven years definitely counts as a large, long-term project. What work are you currently shooting?
CS: ‘Larger series’ is about right. I’ve taken about 50,000 photos over the last 7 years. This fall I’ll be showing a slice of them at Haphazard Gallery in Santa Monica opening October 29. I’ve gotten the selects down to about one thousand, so I’m still editing. This coming week I’m traveling to Europe to meet with some moped gangs over there, tour a factory, follow a race, then I’ll be back in the states for the big national rally in San Francisco. That will be 8 years in total shooting bikes, I’m about ready to find a new subject.
CB: What will you be doing while you are in Europe? Where will you be traveling?
CS: I’ll be in Slovenia and Croatia, so I’m very interested in the lives of people displaced passing through from Syria and Jordan. I’m drawn to human ingenuity and how people excel at making the best of their situation. If I can find people willing to be photographed, I might. There are some moments that just don’t need to be photographed, I’m always aware of that, too.
CB: What or who are your personal photography inspirations?
CS: You know, strangely enough I found out a few years ago that my great Aunt was one of the first famous female photographers, Nancy Ford Cones. Like me, she liked documenting life’s moments. In her later years she started to become more experimental, creating scenes, when her husband died she stopped shooting altogether. Weirdly, I learned all of this way after my own interest in photography began. In a way I feel like I’m continuing to shoot for her, so she’s a big inspiration for me.
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
CS: If Arthur Pollock had a 5D and hung out with grimey gear-head punks. Something like that.
It has been just over a year since the first big interview published in Wobneb Magazine. The old Tumblr site archive is sitting quietly, ready for a travel back in time, but I will point back to the companion post in Vantage on Medium.com so the work of William Olmstead can shine.
Thanks to everyone who has watched Wobneb Magazine patiently evolve and grow. – Cary Benbow
I came across a series of images by Tarah Sloan when reviewing work in the F-Stop Magazine exhibition, Family, earlier this year. The exhibition took place at a time when Sloan was not able to give her input for an interview, but I had the chance to revisit her work; and I am glad for the opportunity. In our interview, she revealed the back-story for her series of images dealing with her mother, cancer, and loss. By dealing with her Mother’s life after the loss of family members, one could presume this work is catharsis for her as well.
Cary Benbow (CB): Why do you photograph? Why did you become a photographer?
Tarah Sloan (TS): I photograph because it is a way of expression and a form of storytelling, for myself and the viewer. The environment I am surrounded by typically compels me to create images. I started photographing at a young age, so over time my skills developed and my love never wavered. After graduating from high school, I knew I wanted to attend an art college to receive my BFA in photography, and that’s exactly what I did.
CB: Your images in this series definitely come across as storytelling. Can you please explain the idea behind your series?
TS: These images are unlike any other project I have created before. My concept behind this photo series is the emotional plunge of grief a person will face in their lifetime. This project is significantly different because it is personal to my family and me, documenting my mother as the subject. I also normally would not have one person as my main focus through a whole body of work. Many of my ideas for my personal work come from observing the behaviors of others in my environment; such as, this work of my mother.
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
TS: A good photograph should pull you in and make you think, feel, react or respond in some way. Photography, after all, is art.
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
TS: That’s a hard question for me, because I can be a little too critical of my own work. I want the viewer to gain some sort of emotional connection from the image. Whether that’s from wonder, amazement, sadness, or joy. Within this series of photographs, I documented my mother.
“I started documenting my mother a few months after my brother Daron passed away in July of 2015.
I watched her daily struggle with grief after the loss of her husband, sister, and her only son – each who had suffered with cancer; all within 5 years.
I watched her put on the daily brave face and try to continue with life as usual.
I watched as the feelings of depression kept her in its grip.
After many lonely hours, days, and nights, I began to see her gaining strength as she finds new life in the comfort of her garden and the surroundings of her music and art students.”
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why?
TS: Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Uta Barth, and Shelby Lee Adams- to name a few from a broad range of individually talented and inspirational photographers. There are many people who I draw inspiration from, including my past professors and colleagues. Why are these people my inspirations? The majority of their photographs are captivating and striking on a number of photographic levels. I think it would be hard for someone to not find inspiration in some way.
CB: What work are you currently working on? Any new projects?
TS: This past summer my mom and I spent 40 days straight on the road, traveling a full circle around the US to visit different grad schools I have looked into. From visiting family in West Virginia, we journeyed upwards to the first art school in Chicago, across to the University of Oregon, down to San Francisco Art Institute, across to the University of New Mexico, then back across to Georgia. Of course, we stopped at as many National Parks as we could along the way, including Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It was an amazing, exhausting, and eye-opening experience to see the grand, ever changing landscapes of the United States- totally worth it! As a (mostly) landscape photographer, I was in heaven the majority of the trip. I’m pretty excited to see where my future leads me.
Memories are not the key to the past, but rather, to understanding our future.
It is a common human trait to construct our own personal histories based on our own story, our own experiences, and this that actually makes us all connected in the same way. Through his own life and experiences, Marc Sirinsky’s work connects to us all in one manner or another, by reaching out to share his own world, and ours.
Sirinsky has been following the same approach for the past couple decades. Whether low-tech or high-tech, Sirinsky’s artist statement addresses his approach directly: “As human beings, we view the world through a haze of our emotions. Though we often use our intellect as a counter balance, we always come back to that emotional home. Often both beautiful and uneasy, our memories are a construction based on our own uniquely personal histories.”
For some photographers, there is a distinct look to their work. There are the people who learned and formed their style before the internet took hold of our collective mind’s eye; and there are those who have been fully digital since picking up a camera and starting to express themselves. For a special group of artists, they straddle the line between the fully analogue world of film-based cameras and darkroom printing, and the world of digital captures and Lightroom or Photoshop adjustments before posting or printing. The work of Marc Sirinsky has a little of both – while fully fluent in the world of manual cameras and wet darkroom processes, Sirinsky has not been shy to meld silver with pixels. His work includes images made with iPhones or plastic film cameras; scanning film and printing onto papers more commonly used by photographers used to working with Epson ink jet versus Ilford Pearl Matte. But one of the common threads and strengths to his work, looking beyond technique and tools, is the ability to mix nostalgia and beauty with a dash of uneasiness and/or tension from his own personal perspective.
Cary Benbow (CB): How did you start into photography, what is your background?
Marc Sirinsky (MS): I’m one of those people that knew as soon as they picked up a camera that they wanted to be a photographer. My parents bought me my first camera when I was 6 or 7…it was one of those 110 film cameras – probably a Vivitar 602 or something. I remember my dad watching me use it and saying “Did you see how steady his hands were? Did you see that???!!!” Of course, my dad was also into photography and had his B.A. and M.A. in film studies, so I think he was projecting a bit. But, what really got me started was my aunt’s Nikon FE2 that I picked up a year or two later. She let me hold it at the zoo and photograph with it and then I wouldn’t give it back. That was truly the most singular moment that put me where I am now.
I then photographed steadily from the end of grade school up through middle school and finally got into the darkroom in high school, where I proceeded to spend as much time as I possibly could over the next 4 years. I actually managed to structure a semester where I had 4 photo classes out of a 9 period day. Not sure how that happened – I think it was my regular photography class, a study hall that I used for darkroom time, an independent study and a gym pass during a swimming unit because I had a chlorine allergy. I became obsessed and it got to the point where they started creating photo classes for me.
From there, I went to art school at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design where I had to spend my first full year pretending to care about drawing. I already knew I was terrible, or at least thought I was because I had been hearing that my entire life, and now I was stuck in a class with a bunch of drawing majors whose work was used to set the grading curve. I didn’t pick up a camera or get a whiff of a darkroom until my sophomore year and it nearly killed me. But once I got there, the same cycle repeated itself – I tore through all the classes the school had to offer and soon enough, I was back doing larger projects, independent studies and testing the school faculty on what they could handle.
I have no regrets about my education, but it was extremely expensive and I got literally zero career counseling. It was either become a fine artist and starve, or become a commercial photographer and also probably starve. I did some commercial photography interning during summer breaks and then freelanced for a year after I graduated. But, I soon realized that I was coming home every day not wanting to create anything. I then happened to see a job posting in the newspaper (yep, not much internet to speak of then) for a photo editor and someone was willing to take a chance on me. I got some gallery representation soon after for my fine art and from there, I never looked back and have had dual careers in publishing and fine art for almost two decades.
CB: What compels you to make the images you create?
MS: In all the years I’ve been photographing and all the interviews I’ve done, I’ve never been asked that. I think for most artists, that question is difficult to answer because what motivates someone to self-expression can be very complex. I will say that for me, it’s a need because after all this time, it’s how I see the world. I see light, shadow, color and texture all the time…perhaps more than most, and I can take those things and create work that expresses me as an individual…my experiences, my struggles and feelings, but hopefully also speak to someone else’s as well.
There’s another piece to this though, and it relates back to my drawing skills. I’ve recently learned (and I mean within the past couple of months) that I’m much better at drawing than I thought, and have my own viable style that I’m quite proud of. But, individual style isn’t something that is taught in that medium…at least not when I was growing up. You drew what was in front of you and you were either good at it or you sucked at it. I fell squarely in the latter category – at least in so far as my teachers and later my professors were concerned. What attracted me to photography was that it was perhaps the most direct artistic expression available without the nuisance of relying on my hands to translate that vision. I’m sure a lot of photographers won’t admit it, but I know others who came to photography under similar circumstances and it’s an element that shouldn’t be overlooked.
CB: Please explain the idea behind your portfolios on your website, and what other work are you currently creating?
MS: The work that I’m most closely identified with is a series I’ve been working on for close to 10 years. On my website, it’s listed simply as “Mixed,” but the work incorporates film, digital and printmaking. It’s a very labor-intensive process and as a result, I sometimes like to take a break from it, which is where my other projects come into play.
Another series I’ve been working on for many years involves shooting film through a Bakelite camera from the 1930’s. It’s a camera that originally took 127 mm film, but I’ve rigged it to take 35 mm and lots of happy accidents occur as a result. I’ve also been working on a group of images that depict vintage toys as objects of play vs. the “real” thing they were made to represent. Of course, there’s also a portfolio of iPhoneography, and I’ve just recently begun to riff off of that by starting a series utilizing a microscope with an iPhone hook-up. But, across all of my projects, I find myself working with the same themes.
CB: Much of your work focuses on memories, and/or family — what else would you say are your main themes (either within or across various projects of yours)?
MS: Though the themes of my work have remained relatively constant throughout much of my career, the way I approach those themes have definitely changed. I don’t address family issues as directly in my work as I did when I was first starting out. I had a very difficult upbringing and my family dynamic was complicated, to say the least. But, I had a wonderful professor in art school who helped me to dig deep and channel those personal experiences into my work. I was one of the few folks at the school that came in with the technical piece somewhat well in-hand because of how long I’d been photographing, but the issues and themes in my work were where I needed the most help. Though it took a little bit of an emotional toll, those deep-seeded issues were very accessible and easiest to deal with in a very up front, in your face type of approach. Lots of art students get their sea legs doing political work and I was no different – I just used my own family as a launching point. But as my career has progressed, I’ve allowed those experiences to settle in a bit and they now come out in much more subtle ways. But, memory and the idea of how human beings recall has always been something that I’ve found captivating.
Childhood, of course, factors into that in a pretty direct way and some of my work certainly tackles that head on. Someone also told me once that loneliness and a degree of melancholy permeates much of my work and I think there could be something to that as well.
CB: Your work is created from both analog and digital processes – how do you feel about working in this way?
MS: I’ll discuss this in the context of my “Mixed” series because it is probably the best way to delve into your question. Honestly, that series is a total pain in the ass, but I love it. Back in the mid 2000’s when I started that body of work, I knew what I was looking for but was having a hard time achieving it technically. And after experimenting with about 10-15 different processes, I finally arrived at what I had seen in my head. The problem was that it involved so many steps and if you take one of those steps away, the whole process breaks down. The film runs through a very old camera that can be quite unpredictable, the digital element can be very tricky to execute and the printmaking portion of the process is all manual, without the benefit of a press…and is extremely temperamental. That’s also part of why each print is done in editions of 10 or less (sometimes a lot less), and within that edition, each print is unique due to the chemical process at play. But, they look great and even though they wipe me out, I wouldn’t change a thing. They are true labors of love.
CB: What or who are your photography inspirations?
MS: Inspirations are hard a thing because I think these also can evolve over time. Many of the artists who inspire me most aren’t actually photographers – probably because I’ve spent so long working with alternative processes that I often look beyond the photography world for inspiration. One photographer who sticks out in my mind though is Holly Roberts. In my view, she is one of the greatest photo artists of my lifetime. She was doing oil painting on photography 20 years before anyone else, and her work still stands up as some of the most interesting, textural, narrative work that I’ve ever seen. I’ve also always found the work of Timothy O’Sullivan absolutely fascinating. Without him, landscape photography as we know it would look very, very different. Another artist who inspired me very recently was a Japanese artist named Ko Ushijima. I discovered his work on Instagram of all places, and he was the one who inspired me to do my first ever series of line drawings a month or so ago. I never knew I had it in me and after seeing his work, I immediately went into my studio and cranked out a whole series. I’d never felt anything quite like it and I have this amazing artist to thank for it. Needless to say, I bought one of his pieces immediately thereafter.
CB: You’ve been represented in galleries in both Chicago and the Washington DC area – what are the important similarities or differences?
MS: The gallery experiences I’ve had have been so different from one another, and the industry itself has changed so much since the beginning of my career. The first gallery that represented my work was a place called Blue Fox in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. I was a wide-eyed kid in my 20’s and fell into a space with a small group of very talented artists and an absolutely outstanding gallery director named Ara Lucia. Some other wonderful galleries in Chicago represented me after that space closed, but I found myself continually longing for the individual attention I got from Ara and the camaraderie with the other artists she represented. I moved from Chicago to northeast Pennsylvania in 2005 and had some great gallery experiences there as well, but I think part of my problem is that I tend to look to the past too much – it’s obviously a crucial part of my work and I sometimes get hung up on it. When I got to DC, it took me a couple of years to get going in the gallery scene again for various reasons and finding a space that was the right fit for me proved challenging. But it finally happened when I landed at Gallery Plan B…an absolutely outstanding space in the recently developed 14th Street neighborhood. They actually closed last year and I’ll be honest that it was a major blow – it can take a long time for an artist to find a “home” that is truly the right fit. But, in order to remain a working artist, you need to be persistent and unfortunately, starting over in this economy occurs all too frequently.
Chicago and DC both have viable art scenes in a true urban setting, but I feel like the scene in DC is still up and coming to a certain degree. There are certainly established gallery districts in DC, but they aren’t of the same size and scope as Chicago’s West Loop or River North neighborhoods for example. You also see galleries in Chicago popping up in other neighborhoods that aren’t even close to gentrifying yet, and I don’t see that as much in DC, which is unfortunate. But, there are plenty of outstanding artists across all disciplines in both cities and quality galleries to visit.
CB: As an artist represented by a gallery, have you found it important to create work with a specific audience in mind? And – what type of expectations are placed on an artist by a gallery?
MS: I’ve been very fortunate during my career in that no gallery director has ever told me what kind of work to make. I will say that the pressure to produce is something that most galleries have in common. They want to see a steady stream of new work – it gives them fresh product to show to their clients and also sends a message to patrons that their stable of artists is committed and cutting-edge. I personally work best under pressure and nothing compels me to create new work like having a show on the books that I need to get ready for.
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
MS: Alternative process photography that deals with memory and how we as human beings recall and process our experiences.
Marc Sirinsky’s photography has appeared in numerous publications and in over 40 juried, solo, and group exhibitions. A native of Chicago, he now resides in Northern Virginia in the greater Washington D.C. area.
For more information, and to see his portfolio, see his website at http://www.sirinsky.com/. Sirinsky’s work is currently in exhibitions at A Smith Gallery: “Pinhole,” which runs through August 28th and “Habitat,” which runs through September 18th. A reception for both exhibitions will be held at the gallery on August 27th from 4-7 pm. Address is: 103 N. Nugent Ave, Johnson City, TX 78636
“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’sGift 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.
Cary Benbow (CB): Can you please explain the idea behind your portfolio images submitted to the Family exhibition in this issue? How do they relate to your other projects, or how is it significantly different?
Nathan Pearce (NP): The photographs of family that I submitted for this issue are all part of my major projects. Mostly my main project Midwest Dirt. Family is important in my life and it’s something that I see as a major theme when I am photographing the Midwest.
CB: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
NP: I love making photographs and zines that include my photographs. It is the most satisfying and important thing in my life. I am constantly compelled to make images. It’s probably because it is so satisfying and rewarding that I do it so often. I simply love making photographs. I’m not sure what originally compelled me to start but I do remember that it was a really long time ago.
CB: Where do you get the ideas for your personal photography?
NP: Everywhere. I usually shoot in Southern Illinois and the Midwest acts as both the backdrop and subject of my work. Where I am from is very inspiring to me.
CB: What or who are your photography inspirations – and why?
NP: Aside from the inspiration that the Midwest gives me, I often look at the work that my friends are making and at my collection of zines and photobooks. I am often collaborating with friends on projects, and that is pretty inspiring as well. I most often make work with Rachael Banks and also frequently collaborate with Jake Reinhart and Matthew David Crowther. Most of those collaborations involve zines created and are released on Same Coin Press; which is a project I co-founded with Claire Cushing.
CB: How are these images different (or similar) to the majority of work you do?
NP: Much of the work that I submitted for this issue is part of my main project Midwest Dirt. Family plays a big part in my work. Family is one of the main reasons I returned to the Midwest and I explore it a lot in my photographs.
Almost all of the pictures I submitted, with the exception of one or two, are of my own family. Several photos are of my nephew Journey. I have photographed him his entire life. I photographed him when he was less than an hour old, and I photographed him yesterday on his 6th birthday and hundreds of times in between. We even worked on a split zine together recently.
NP: In the statement for Midwest Dirt I mention a beauty in having nothing to do. I am often photographing the stillness and the slow pace of life here offers a lot of material and inspiration for photographs. I felt like street photographers in New York often photograph people in a rush on the street, and the constant busy feeling in the city. I try to photograph the opposite here. Midwest Dirt is a project that I started upon returning to the Midwest after years of being away. I photograph the stillness of my native rural Midwest and the restlessness of people in it.
Cary Benbow (CB): Why do you photograph, or what compels you to make the images you create?
Robert Herrmann (RH): I am naturally driven to shape and light. I originally trained as an architect. Besides I have been taking photographs for my own pleasure for a long time. Since a couple of years, though, I more and more found myself using photography as a conceptual medium. I think the way I was trained in design thinking, first analyze, try to fully grasp a subject and then put an idea to work, has a huge impact on how I think and work photographically.
In his book “The Nature of Photographs” Stephen Shore writes “Photography is inherently an analytic discipline. Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture […] imposes an order on the scene – simplifies the jumble by giving it structure.” I like this idea of establishing order in chaos. It is an urge, that is profoundly human, I think.
CB: Can you please explain the idea behind your portfolio images submitted to this issue? How do they relate to your other projects, or how is it significantly different?
RH: I am interested in how human action influences our environment which is something all my works revolve around. The images I submitted belong to my longest (and still running) project “60-second slices of present”. This project is specifically about my fascination for cities. Every time I visit a new city I try to understand its patterns and underlying principles.
The aspect I always find myself coming back to is the human scale, a term mostly associated with discourses in architecture and urbanism. It relates to our physical proportion to the built environment. But I think there is also a temporal aspect about it. As the title suggests “60-second slices of present” is about visualizing time, too. Technically speaking, I expose each frame for a period of one minute, so then what I get is not a capture of a moment but rather a frame charged with a scene of action.
CB: Please say a bit more about the concept of human scale – how do you feel it is important for the viewer to understand when looking at your work?
RH: I don’t think it is important that the viewer understand about this aspect immediately by looking at these images. At first it is important to me while producing them. I have to be able to connect to the space of the city I am in. I find it easier to connect to places that have a human scale, that means, where buildings stand close to each other, but still leave enough space for public activities in between. I think the size and shape of the space in between and how it is used is what defines the character of a city. Still, many places I visit are far from transmitting this comfortable ambiance I am speaking of. In some cities the streets are so wide that you cannot even clearly see the other side, because they were build for cars and not for humans.
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
RH: A photograph I consider a good one makes me think about something I do not necessarily see in the picture itself. A good photo contains a trigger for a possible train of thought.
CB: Where do you get the inspirations for your personal photography?
RH: I read books, I love to travel, go to see exhibitions, talk to other artists and exchange ideas. But when I work, I like to work alone, because it helps me to stay focused.
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why? The Bechers immediately come to mind for me – especially for your project EFH
RH: I love the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto. Especially the “Theaters”, but also the “Dioramas”. His conceptual strength is a huge inspiration to me.
I am also very inspired by Stephen Shore’s “Uncommon Places”, in which he illustrates the extraordinary beauty of the mundane. I am fond of Joel Sternfeld’s “American Prospects”, mostly for his enriching the seemingly banal with a tad of quirky humour.
I also like the works of Julius Shulman, Hertha Hurnaus, Iwan Baan, Hélène Binet, Bas Princen, Gisela Erlacher, Nadav Kander, Martin Kollar and Peter Bialobrzeski
As to the pictorial grammar I used in the EFH series, yes, it is a quote of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies, but an ironic quote I did to find out how it feels to speak their language. It was fun, but I don’t take it too seriously.
CB: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
RH: On the surface it is, at its best, an aesthetic play with shapes, light and composition, at its worst, it’s merely boring. But if you take your time, look and think, you might get an idea.
CB: How do you approach a project that takes years to complete, and multiple cities around the world?
RH: With patience, passion and spending every extra money just for that. It is hard to say, when or even if I ever will complete it, because I don’t know yet how this completion would look like. I have been asked a couple of times, when the first photo book will be published and I am happy to know that there are people who would buy it. Still, I think, I need way more time to travel to many more cities around the globe and I want to collect more image material.
In the end, maybe I don’t care much about finishing it in a hurry, because I enjoy the journey so much.
For more information, and to view other projects by Robert Herrmann, visit his website: www.robertherrmann.com
This interview was originally published in F-Stop Magazine in April 2016
An online magazine featuring contemporary photography