Malcolm Lightner’s work, as seen here from his new book, Mile O’Mud, will be shown at the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery through the end of May.
Watch for my upcoming review of Mile O’ Mud – as I slog through his images of Florida mud racing culture and portraits of the people connected to it.
Malcolm Lightner: Mile O’ Mud Through May 29, 2016 Churning the buttery muddy water at the Florida Sports Park, swamp buggy races keep Florida’s frontier heritage alive. With Mile O’ Mud, 4th generation native Floridian Lightner shows us his home’s beauty; scarred and raw, surrounded by lush blue sky and restorative greens and we witness…
William Olmsted’s work does not hit you over the head, or scream at you for attention. It is smarter than that. He shoots mainly with film and film cameras; opting for the approach of selective shooting. His approach toward taking photos involves long walks around his local area once a week or so with his camera, but it is common that he does not take a picture. Olmsted is thoughtful and patient. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
“Sometimes I see something in the backyard, or the store parking lot. Shooting isn’t really a regular thing for me, it is more like something that might happen…Something that catches my eye for a reason that is hidden from me at the time, something that can potentially fit in a body of work, something that I can’t imagine as a photograph, something I want to record for seventy year old me.”
His work includes images of birds and other animals native to his area. Some of the animals are trapped – both literally or figuratively in their environment. There are also images of discarded or broken objects – found by the roadside, or inside homes that appear to have sections that are not used, or the entire home may be abandoned. These thematic elements, his visual interplay with color or witty juxtaposed views, are well thought out. His recurring images with birds might leave the viewer with the metaphoric idea of flight or escape, in a physical or possibly spiritual way. His use of elements common to his particular area of the country could seem surreal to people who live in very different places. Olmsted’s images that include guns, knives, and the intrinsic artifacts of hunting exposes a distinct difference between people who live in rural areas versus urban environments.
When asked to give a statement or overall description about his work, Olmsted wrote, “All my photographs are from the same small town on the coast of Maine where I have lived my entire life. They are a result of my desire for my hometown’s demystification and a consequence of my liminal place here, a looking-back, to say goodbye before I pack things up and leave for good. While not an authoritative view on what is often portrayed as a beautiful vacation place, I hope my photographs stand as an alternative one, because I find Maine’s marginal landscapes more compelling and important than it’s beautiful ones.”
Wobneb Magazine (WM):Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
William Olmsted (WO): I like the process, the wandering. I wouldn’t have discovered the kind of perambulatory exploration I now enjoy so much were it not for photography and carrying a camera goes well with that.
I feel photography is something I can do and I enjoy its limitations and lessons.
There is also the little excitement of looking at my pictures for the first time weeks or months after I take them. That never gets old.
WM:There are so many ways to express oneself in a 21st-century world; What makes still photography your choice of expression? Do you create work in other mediums?
WO: I drew a lot as a young kid, then in high school I found photography and have mostly had a monogamous relationship with it. For a couple years, 2011 and 2012 I think, I didn’t take pictures at all. I dedicated myself to writing for hours a day, but it drove me nuts. A fundamental thing I learned from it was that I’m not a studio artist. I like being out in the world too much, and photography is a good compliment to that desire.
WM:In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
WO: It would depend on the photograph. I don’t know if any general rule is applicable. Reasons for liking something can often be more ambiguous than not. I can tell you what makes a bad photograph, or why I don’t like something, but when something clicks and jives with my sensibilities, justifications often feel like hollow rationalization.
Maybe the one thing I could say is, something (is) hinted at. There is usually a sense of a thing left unsaid that I like about quality photographs and projects.
WM:What/who are your photography inspirations – and why?
WO: My inspirations are people who work seriously at something over long periods of time. That drive is compelling to me, even when it flies in the face of convenience or even good judgement.
WM:You’ve cited photographers such as Gregory Halpern, Stacy Kranitz, and Lars Tunbjork as influences. In a way, do you see your work being stylistically similar and/or making a statement in a similar fashion as some of your influences? What is your intent for the viewer?
WO: Jeez, I dunno. Those are pretty big names who create really stellar work. To some degree, sure. Between equipment and environment I am probably treading similar path, so I guess it’s only natural that we might share something in common. Their work has influenced me, but so has the work of others across disparate mediums. Maybe there is some relationship between me and them, but that is probably best for the viewer to decide.
I know that a viewer will likely derive meaning from the work, so I might use that as a starting point, but any intent I have for a viewer is mostly non-existent. I guess it’s easy because there really aren’t any that I know of! On some level, I do want people to see my work and I like interacting with other photographers, so I throw my stuff on the internet, but another’s reading of my work isn’t a primary concern right now. Don’t hold me to it though, my feelings about an audience could change from project to project. I could see myself playing with the idea of viewership at some point.
WM:Do you feel your work makes a comment on a universal level, as well as the personal level? Your work is specific to a certain place – is it more about your experience, or do you feel it translates well to other people’s experiences or lives?
WO: My work is related to, and is a product of, my experience; but I don’t know how universal that is. Through the cadence of the photographs perhaps the viewer can enter the landscape and gain or feel something, even if their experience is distant from mine. Maybe that’s using the personal to access something less specific, more universal, I don’t know.
WM: Would you please explain the idea behind the ‘Void Fraction’ series on your website? Why did you select these image to work together/against each other in a multipart series? WO: Within photography’s coupling of vagueness and specificity I try to explore memory, sense of place and time as well as create as kind of clouded autobiography. I think these pictures ultimately reduce useful information about the places they were taken and create a kind of fictive alternate dimension which I enjoy adding to. I wanted to create something that was inspired by a year here while playing with the sense of the seasons and day/night cycles. I also found myself photographing many of the same subjects at different times of the year and I noticed patterns emerging that I thought might coalesce into an interesting project.
WM:There are elements of nature, wildlife, landscape, man’s inclusion/interaction with nature in your work – will you comment on why you choose to depict these elements in the way you do?
WO: Maybe I feel my photos of this place are more honest in some way, even though I feel they are lying too. That desire to portray this landscape a little differently gets filtered through various limitations and comes out as whatever it is.
Mostly its just intuition.
WM:Who are the people that appear in your photographs? Do they have significance beyond the role of a”Figure” in your scenes?
WO: The people in these photographs are all immediate family. I wanted to approach this project from everywhere. Landscapes, portraits, still life, whatever. If it’s lacking one thing at this point it’s more pictures of people, but I still have a years worth of film to develop so we’ll see how things go.
WM:Besides throwing your images out on the Internet, do you see other avenues for your work at this time? Photobook? A gallery exhibition? Have you looked for a gallery to represent you, or do you feel that is an antiquated idea?
WO: I like the idea of a book. I’ve made some PDFs that are on a hard drive somewhere around here that function as a kind of ersatz book. I’ve made some small zines and prints on request, but that is about it.
I’ve never looked for a gallery to represent me and wouldn’t know how to go about being represented. I don’t think I’ve ever even been inside a gallery, so my ignorance is great enough that I have no reason to feel the idea is antiquated either.
WM:Your statement that you are ready to pack up and leave your hometown for good leaves the impression that you possibly are at odds with the idea of your sense of place, and somewhat the idea of Beauty. Are not ‘marginal’ landscapes ones of Beauty as well? You could make strong work wherever you end up, but why leave Maine?
WO: I guess there is beauty, and then there is Beauty, and there is everything between. Perhaps conventional beauty is a better descriptor, or maybe I need to reword something.
Why leave? I’m finding other places more interesting, and this one less so.
Mandy Williams is a visual artist working primarily in photography and video. Her work covers range of subjects, but centers around the theme of the social dynamics arising from contemporary culture – particularly how personal identity is affected by environment and how our social and affective lives interconnect. This interest in the psychology of place has been a catalyst for both autobiographical and voyeuristic projects, documentary approaches to more conceptual ones. Much of her photographic and video works highlight the domestic environment, although some refer more broadly to place and sites in transition.
Her recent series share an underlying narrative about human interaction or presence. Some of these include Unseen Landscapes (2012-15), which use Google Street View as a starting point to create somewhere otherworldly, and Riverbed Stories (2012-15), photography and video documenting polluted river beds in South East London.
Both ‘Unseen Landscapes’ and ‘Riverbed Stories’ stem from the idea of contemporary landscape. The detachment is undeniable in how people interact with the landscape, whether it is by remote observation, or utter disregard. A roadside natural setting is disrupted by castoff personal items such as mattresses, chairs, gloves, floating shoes and discarded baby carriages. The images point to the pollution of the natural setting, and also to a sense of detachment to nature by the people who thoughtlessly threw these items away. Williams depicts these items in the water and weeds with a sensibility toward the loss of both the intimate history of the items, as well as the lost natural beauty of the English landscape she documents.
In the same sense, the detachment from nature in ‘Unseen Landscapes’ starts right at the moment the images are made. These landscape images captured by Google Street view are made without bias, without thoughtful intent. The images are made by an unblinking eye traveling the land. Williams presents her versions of these images as soft, monochromatic toned views. She has used images from this archive to present scenes that she herself has never seen in person, nor visited. Visually, the presentation of the images in a circular format references (intentionally or not) the early photographic prints made by the Kodak No. 1 camera. This makes for an interesting visual homage to one of the earliest commercial photo products (You press the button, and we do the rest) while appropriating images from one of the largest publicly available digital image databases in the world. So much of the world we experience online is via digital captures made half a world away; one has to wonder if ‘Unseen Landscapes’ is a commentary on the subject, or a reflection of it. Either way, Williams has created beautifully crafted portraits of the land which also prompt the viewer to think about their own interaction and connection with the world around them.
Mandy Williams is a photographer living in London, UK. She previously lived in Vancouver, Canada, but has since returned to her home country of England in 2002 and has been contributing to different exhibitions and publications in the UK, and internationally in exhibits and in publications.
Suicide Machine – Living in the Town with No Hope?
The work of Dan Wood is probably not what you might expect from the stereotypical assumption based on the title of his project. Don’t judge a book by its cover. The title stems from a regionally publicized statistic that Bridgend, Wales was experiencing a high rate of suicides in the early 2000s. Wood’s decision in 2013 to document his hometown of Bridgend was different from the skate culture he had been photographing earlier in his photo career. He started to see his town through a different sort of lens; that of a husband, father, and ultimately as a person coming to terms with the love-hate relationship many people have with the place where they grew up. Through his photos, Wood is asking the big question of ‘What does my community mean to me, what impact does it have on myself, my family, and my own child?’
“The simple truth is that you can understand a town. You can know and love and hate it. You can blame it, resent it, and nothing changes. In the end, you’re just another part of it.” ― Brenna Yovanoff from ‘The Replacement’
The resulting landscape of Wood’s beautiful, somewhat melancholy images depict a place where the social fabric is woven with views of a community persevering in the current economic downturn, and people working hard to make a living. One has to wonder if Bridgend’s residents are also coming to terms with the question of whether it is better to tough it out despite the odds, or seek out greener pastures elsewhere. ‘What should we do?’ is a tough question to answer unless it’s done in hindsight. But by then, it may be too late, or the confirmation so desperately desired at the onset feels hollow.
The wait is a bittersweet limbo.
Q & A
Cary Benbow: What is the idea behind your Suicide Machine series? Dan Wood: It all started with my audition of an old Hasselblad 500cm. From somewhere I had the epiphany that I’d make a project about my hometown; and in colour. Originally the project was going to be skateboard culture related, with long exposure night shots of the street spots that the local skaters frequent. The title, ‘Suicide Machine’ was there from the beginning, and when thinking more about the project I realised that I’d already covered the skate scene in enough depth already. The idea was then stored at the back of my mind whilst I worked on another series. Then my wife became pregnant with our first child and something clicked in my brain which made me start to think very differently about things – mainly being, shall we bring up our daughter here or shall we move away – probably overseas. So I started forming a synopsis (which has evolved somewhat) and photographing different parts of the town and also shooting some portraits. It felt so refreshing and new to be using the Hasselblad and colour film, but I was also contemplating our own destiny at the same time – should we stay or go? – this is what the project is ultimately about.
CB: How long have you been working on Suicide Machine, and are you still adding images to it? Why did you decide to shoot color for this project? What has been the reaction to it from people from that area? DW: I’ve been working on the project for 3 years and I shot the last roll of film for the series last week. It’s time to move on to something new – which I’ve already started. The work has been exhibited at three venues in the last year: Including Bridgend itself – thankfully the reaction was nothing but positive. I did receive some challenging remarks on Twitter about the title suggesting I was being ‘insensitive and glamourising suicide’. Their attacks and attempts to drag me into an argument were totally ignorant as it was obvious that they hadn’t ever read the synopsis, only the title, which I refused to change. Colour was fundamental to the project, I just knew it had to be in colour. After shooting black and white exclusively for 10 years and had become incredibly bored with it the time felt right to switch and conveniently coincided with the start of a new project. I still enjoy making black and white prints in the darkroom every now and again.
CB: Do you feel the increasing expansion and widespread use/display of images through social media outlets like Instagram has watered down the impact that medium format photography has/used to have?
DW: Definitely. The majority of people view pictures on their phones these days, so for instance, if you’re posting medium format photos on instagram they’re basically looking at a version of the photo that’s smaller than the actual negative, so the impact is undeniably affected and can’t be fully appreciated.
Medium format photography seems very popular once again, which is fantastic, considering the fact that film/development, etc. is expensive.
CB: In your opinion, what makes a good photograph?
DW: For me personally, a good photograph should ask questions and/or tell a story – aesthetics/intelligent composition has to be in there too. I have an eclectic taste when it comes to photography, I love raw/gritty right through to fine art/minimalistic. It’s all subjective of course, and everyone is entitled to like whatever they want.
CB: What/who are your photography inspirations – and why? DW: I find that just being outdoors is great inspiration. I like to shoot street and road trip photography, too, when taking breaks from projects. My main source of inspiration comes from photo books, and I’m completely addicted to collecting them – it’s becoming a pleasant problem. Visiting photo exhibitions is something I find enriching and really enjoyable, too. I truly admire photographers that can make the mundane, interesting – it’s just so clever. That kind of gift can open up a whole new world, and i’ve been fascinated with unlocking it for a long time. Some of the photographers whose work I admire would be: Trent Parke, Stacy Kranitz, Alec Soth, Joel Sternfeld and Todd Hido.
CB: Do you see your work being stylistically similar and making a statement in a similar fashion as those whom you call your influences? What is your intent for the viewer?
DW: There’s no doubt that there is some influence in my work from these photographers, after all, they have a lot to do with what drives me. I don’t want to seem like I’m imitating them, as I take great pride in the fact that I have developed my own style and approach over the years.
To me, these photographers are ‘real life’ photographers (in the broadest sense) – they tell stories about real life, and they all have their own styles and methods in which they do it. That’s all I’m interested in when it comes to photography, it is real life and real people, that’s what I want the viewer to understand.
CB: What do you feel are the obligations of a documentary photographer?
DW: The obligations would definitely include Honesty, sensitivity and non-exploitative. I see some styles of street photography these days that I find really intrusive and/or crudely voyeuristic. There are unwritten rules to Documentary photography and a certain etiquette to follow. Most successful documentary photographers adhere to the etiquette, and I like to see that.
CB: In a recent interview you did with ffoton, you had a great quip: “With a digital camera, you’re always looking at the last shot, but with film you are looking for the next shot”. What importance has film photography had for you?
DW: Film is what drew me to serious photography in the first place. I was totally fascinated by the idea that a split second in time could be frozen onto a piece of celluloid and become a physical thing. It’s something that you can actually hold in your hand – this obviously comes from my materialistic nature. But it’s always been about film: shooting, developing, printing, scanning, the cameras, I love it all, especially the pace in which you work. For some reason, digital has never interested me, it’s incredible for certain, and I do own a Nikon D90, but there’s no allure there for me to fully switch from film.
CB: Your work is specific to Wales, but do you feel your work makes a comment on a universal level, as well as the personal level? DW: To me, Wales feels kind of neglected by the outside world, like we get the raw deal every time – the ‘nearly’ nation that’s living in the shadow of England and Scotland. Everyone is just plodding along with their lives. Art and Culture are something not to be taken for granted either, and we have to grab onto any hint of that as possible. In regards to the ‘Suicide Machine’ series, I’ve looked at many ‘small town’ projects over the last few years and it’s the same story everywhere. Small towns are suffering a dark depression at the moment – especially evident here in the UK, and probably even globally. Conclusively, Wales is much like so many other places in the world, and I do think it will translate. I really want people from all over to look at my Welsh projects and be able to identify with something in there.
CB: Do you feel comfortable categorizing your work as documentary, or using that label?
DW: I met somebody a couple of weeks ago that I hadn’t seen for a long time and when he asked what I was doing I said ‘documentary photography’ which resulted in a confused, perplexed look on his face (I’m almost certain that most folk are only aware of fashion/sport/wedding photographers) So I tried to explain that I tell stories through pictures and that there is such a thing. I think he got it, unless he was just being polite. So Yeah, I’m happy being called a documentary photographer – I’m completely self-taught and still learning all the time. These days, documentary photography incorporates fine art photography. Great documentary photographers are really taking time to research and engage with their subjects, working slowly and carefully to achieve high quality photos that are technically, visually and intellectually perfect. CB: What’s your opinion on the role of a photographer as publisher and what you think about the recent increased push for photographers to publish photo books? DW: We’re in a golden age of the self-publishing photographer, which is wonderful, and I’m sure will be looked back on fondly if the trend ever dies out. There are so many admirable photographers creating beautiful photo books, which are pieces of art themselves. The only downside is the flooding of poor quality photo books by mediocre photographers, which can sometimes make it difficult to discover the good ones. There’s lots of fantastic little independent publishing houses popping up all over the place too, which is definitely another good thing. I made a few dummy books over the last few years and really like the fact that the photographer has full control over how their book will look at the end result – there’s also absolutely no stigma attached to self publishing these days.
CB: What aspects of Bridgend do you wish to show to viewers through your portraits of residents?
DW:I always knew that I wanted to include portraits, in fact it was fundamental to the project. I wanted to show what the people of Bridgend looked like. At first, I focused on folk that were kind of stuck here for life, but as the project developed I became interested with the people who had left for a better life somewhere else. Bridgend is quite a small town so everybody knows each other in some way.
I’d never plan the portraits, it was always a spur of the moment thing if I felt the time was right. My camera was always with me so it was just a matter of getting that feeling and then asking the person if it was okay.
Over the three years, I inevitably ended up re-shooting the same person, either hoping for a better picture or because I had learned more about their circumstances and needed a fresh shot that consciously included the new knowledge I had acquired of them.
CB: Was your approach making images for this project organic, or did you have a brief of what you wanted to show?
DW: The project was around 90% organic. There was a brief but that kept changing slightly as time went by and the project matured. A project like this was a first for me , so I really wanted to see what would happen and where it would take me – I guess that was why the brief kept evolving too. But the main brief remained – what did the future hold for Bridgend, and would I want to bring up my daughter here?
Dan Wood’s project, Suicide Machine is being published as a photo book by Another Place Press – a small independent publisher interested in contemporary photography that explores landscape in the widest sense, covering themes which include land, place, journey, city and environment – from the remotest corners of the globe to the centre of the largest cities.
To order the book, visit the Another Place Press product page here.
Dan Wood is from Bridgend, South Wales, UK. Wood’s work has been featured in many publications including CCQ and Ernest Journal. He has participated in over 40 exhibitions both nationally and internationally; including four solo shows. Wood is also a member of the artist collective: Document Britain
Dona Schwartz describes her book as such: “In On the Nest, I use environmental portraiture to examine two moments of change that bookend parents’ lives—the transition to parenthood with a first child’s birth, and the transition to life without day-to-day responsibility for parenting when young adults leave their childhood homes.”
The book is comprised of three parts. The ‘Expecting’ series at the beginning of the book shows couples who are parents-to-be. Schwartz has photographed couples in the space they’ve prepared in anticipation of the baby who will soon arrive. The images are titled by listing their names and the amount of time left before their lives will change forever (due date/adoption date). The nervousness and/or excitement shown in the expressions and body language of the expectant parents is palpable. The clutter of all the recommended items for expectant parents in some of the shots is dizzying. Shelves covered with books for what to expect (but can never fully address), or clothes that won’t be worn for months and months after the baby arrives, and the single package of infant sized diapers… as if to declare: “We are ready”.
The middle of the book contains an essay by William A. Ewing. Ewing is a photography curator, author, and former director of photography for several prestigious centers for photography, including the International Center of Photography, New York from 1977 to 1984. Ewing’s essay, ‘Great Expectations’, is written both from the perspective of a parent who has gone through both stages of Expecting and Empty Nester, and that of an expert on the subject matter of a well-conceived and executed photography project – which On the Nest certainly is. These portraits have the power to draw in the viewer and as Schwartz says, “… invite viewers to reflect on their own experiences of change and the trajectories we trace in the course of a lifetime.”
The latter part of the book is the series of images, ‘Empty Nesters’. Presented in a similar fashion as the expectant parents, these couples are parents who are in the phase of life after their children have left home and their bedrooms/personal spaces.
The color images Schwarz presents throughout are practically deadpan. Couples are photographed in these spaces in a direct, documentary style. Couples of diverse races, ethnicities, and genders are all presented in the same way. The extreme wide angle lens used to capture these couples in small rooms results in images with the physical space distorted and exaggerated. Tables and chairs are distorted from their normal shape around the frame edge of the shots and the perspective is off – as if stretched by extreme gravity that warps both time and space. One could suppose this is how the Empty Nesters feel… Where did the time go? How did it go by so quickly? What happened to our baby?
Some Empty Nesters are shown in cramped rooms with some of the same types of knick-knacks as the expectant parents, with the substitution of exercise equipment for bouncy seats, and craft tables for changing tables. The only thing missing is the kids.
In fact, the children are never physically present in these portraits; save for photos on shelves or bulletin boards. The details in Schwartz’s photographs, the artifacts, the evidence that time has passed and are the only clues to the real inhabitants of these spaces. These clues are all we have to guess what the children are like – or in the case of the expectant parents: what they hope their children will be like.
Schwartz captures the broad strokes of the project by stating, “In our lives we experience multiple transitions, and in these moments of change we renegotiate our sense of self. Events like communions, weddings, baby showers, and retirement parties formally mark the new roles and statuses we take on. We cross other thresholds without rituals or celebrations—even though divorce is a momentous life transition, there is no script for marking its passage. I am intrigued by the ways in which we move from one life phase to the next, and I am working programmatically to represent complex processes of changing identity.”
Dona Schwartz is an American photographer living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She earned her PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication and is professionally engaged with photography as an artist, scholar, and educator. Amongst her many academic publications are two photographic ethnographies, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) and Contesting the Super Bowl (Routledge, 1997). Her photographic monograph, In the Kitchen, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2009.
Her work has been internationally published and exhibited at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, London, Blue Sky Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Stephen Bulger Gallery, the Pingyao International Photography Festival, and in numerous juried exhibitions in the United States. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, George Eastman House, the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, the Harry Ransom Center, the Portland Art Museum, and the Kinsey Institute. She is currently on the faculty of the Department of Art at the University of Calgary.
On the Nest – Dona Schwartz (with essay by William A. Ewing) Published by Kehrer Verlag – November 2015
For more information on On the Nest, and other books by Dona Schwartz, visit her website.
(Originally written for and published by F-Stop Magazine in February 2016.)
The bonds we make in life will always have a hold on us. No matter how insulated one might feel from others, we are all inextricably connected and interconnected in some manner or another. Such is the cycle of life.
Tytia Habing has lived a somewhat cyclical life thus far — having been born in rural Illinois, living most of her adult life in the Cayman Islands, and now returning to where she grew up with her husband and son. Her photo series and resulting book,This is Boy, is the product of seeing the world through her son’s eyes; a world like her own childhood of living in a rural area on a working farm and experiencing the natural world around her.
Nature plays an important role in Habing’s work, whether is it front and center, or as the tableau background for her subjects. Her philosophy toward life and photography incorporate getting outdoors. She shoots her commercial/portrait work and her fine art work outdoors in natural light if at all possible. To that end, Habing states, “Plants and beautiful Mother Nature is, and will always be, a great inspiration to me. If at all possible, I prefer to shoot outdoors and somehow incorporate nature into the scene.”
Habing’s scenes are woven together with a visual language that uses her strengths, and speaks to the viewer directly – not over their head – with universal themes that make her images very accessible.
Wobneb Magazine (WM):Can you speak to one of the strong themes in your work — of how we all fit into the world around us, or our sense of place in the environment?
Tytia Habing (TH):Well, my feeling is we need to live with the environment instead of being at odds with it. We are literally part of nature, but it’s as if humans have forgotten this teeny tiny fact somehow. We’re animals. We’re part of the animal kingdom, so that’s pretty good evidence in case anyone is skeptical. I think it’s our responsibly to be good stewards to the earth. Thus far, we’ve done a horrible job at it. Having said that, it feels like the tide is slowly starting to turn the right way. Whether that’s because we’re all starting to grow a conscience or whether it’s fear that we’ll end up killing ourselves and our children if we don’t change, I don’t know and I don’t care as long as there’s a change for the better.
WM:You’ve talked about the theme of nostalgia as it pertains to your work — can you also speak to the idea, or the power of nostalgia, in your work?
TH:I didn’t even realize how nostalgic the series felt until I got several emails from people from my parent’s generation. These are people in their sixties and seventies contacting me. They all said it reminded them of their own and their children’s childhoods, but not their grand-kids. They all indicated they felt sad for the way their grandchildren are growing up. That made me realize I’ve basically been photographing my own childhood in a way. I grew up in the very same spot, doing similar things: playing in the river, hiking through the woods, digging in the dirt. Nostalgia is a powerful thing indeed. It brings you back to simpler, happier times. In this case, it makes me realize most kids won’t have that affection or nostalgia for nature like older generations, and that makes me pretty darn sad.
Habing has had the good fortune to collaborate with one of her inspirations, Kristianne Koch-Riddle. The two produced a book project, The Sixth Sense.The two photographers work similarly, and have documented their sons as they have grown.
WM:Please talk about the role of the photographer as “publisher” and what you think about the recent increased push for photographers to publish photo books; whereas in the past, gallery exhibitions were the pinnacle for a fine art photographer.
TH:I think it’s great that photographers are publishing their own books. I’m a big fan of photo books. It’s an expensive, hard thing to do though and I applaud anyone that’s done it or is trying to do it. From what I understand from photographers that have done it already and my own limited experience, it’s not at all a money maker, but it helps get your work out there in front of eyes.
WM:Your collaborative project book ‘The Sixth Sense’ was named one of the top 35 photo books of the year by Andy Adams in 2014. Tell us what it was like to work on a collaborative book project such as that.
TH:I did the book with my good friend Kristianne Koch-Riddle and she came up with the idea. Our boys lead similar lives in that they both embrace the natural world unlike a lot of their peers. We thought a book showing this would be a great idea. In all honesty, she did all of the work and I really can’t take much credit for it. I love collaborating on projects with friends though and hope to do similar projects in the future.
WM:You’ve listed some of your photo influences for their various strengths, and/or their use of nature and incorporating their subjects in nature, among other strengths. Have you seen the work of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and specifically the photos he made of his children and his wife? What kind of comments do you think other photographers make when they include their own family in their “fine art” images?
TH:I am familiar with him and like him very much. I tend to gravitate towards artists that are a little different or odd, but most artists are that way aren’t they? I’m sure a lot of photographers are trying to say specific things by using their own families in their work but a lot also use their own family because that’s what they have to work with. It’s convenient. I think I’m a little of both. I tend to photograph things and people I love. I don’t get the same excitement shooting something I’m not close to or that I don’t care about. I have to care or it’s of no interest to me.
When looking at the work of Tytia Habing, it is understandable to recall the work of Sally Mann. Although Mann is one of her inspirations, that influence does not define Habing’s work as derivative. There is an immediacy and honesty to Habing’s images, especially her work focused on her son. Whether he is in a costume, bare-chested among the vegetation of their mid-western home, or gazing directly into his mother’s lens for a portrait — Habing’s son (and thus Habings work) rings true. Mann frequently set up her shots in her project/book, ‘Immediate Family’, staging and restaging scenes to depict the concepts Mann was trying to evoke — the photos are unabashed fiction told to reveal truths primarily about complexity of childhood. But Habing seems to pull it off easily with her documentary approach of capturing the world around her, especially when it comes to her son. Habing has said about her approach and preparation for photographing her son, “I don’t think I prepare at all except to make sure my camera batteries are charged and to steel my nerves at whatever dangerous thing he may be doing next. You have to have patience, though. I do bring patience along. Well, most of the time. I never set up a scene. It’s not that I haven’t tried a few times in the past. For me, or my son, it just doesn’t work. The images look forced and awkward. It’s all natural.”
WM:Do you feel there is a significant difference between “documentary” style photography versus “portrait” photography as a label? How do you define those genres?
TH:Oh, this one’s tough. I know what the official, ‘formal’ definition of the two, but here’s my take on it. I feel like I combine the two when I photograph. I can go out with my camera to document my son and get a great portrait while doing it. In general, I think labels are restrictive.
WM:But do you feel your work falls into either of those categories? Or do you feel comfortable categorizing your work in that way? How do you describe your photography to someone who’s not familiar with it?
TH:I feel like my photographs fall into both categories, but I’m not sure things always have to be categorized, you know? Generally, I tell people I photograph my own little slice of life. It’s a minuscule slice of the world at large. Describing my photography on my website and social media sites is a completely different story and not easy for me. You have to describe yourself in such a way that people looking for your type of work can find you, so that’s always tough for me.
WM:You’ve cited both Susan Burnstine and Angela Bacon Kidwell as inspirations of yours. Their work is similar to yours in some respects and different in others. In particular, their images tend to be constructed, layered and visually & symbolically narrative. Your work seems to carry many of these same strengths, but done in a style closer to documentary or straight shooting. In terms of approach or execution of your ideas, could you speak to the similarities and differences of your work to some of your influences?
TH:To be completely honest, I don’t know how a lot of my influences approach or execute their ideas, so I find it hard to compare. I like a vast array of other photographers but I do tend to gravitate mostly to black and white shooters. Each and every photographer I love has a quality that I desire. That’s why I love them, I think. Emmet Gowin is so very honest with all his images, Sally Mann’s work is so very beautiful it’s almost otherworldly, Diane Arbus was bizarre and wonderful, Susan Burnstine’s photos are from a dream world, and so are Tami Bone’s — but hers also have these fascinating animals and magical qualities to them.
WM:So, if these photographers have qualities that you admire/desire — how does that ‘inform’ your own creative process? Is it a conscious act, or something that (as all artists do at some point) add your ‘voice’ to the aesthetics that other photographers have?
TH:It’s not a conscious act. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a photo and consciously tried to make it look like or emulate another photographers work. The brain is an amazing and mysterious thing though, so I’m certain I probably do it in a subconscious way. I’m not sure anyone is original anymore. It’s probably all been done before, and like you said, we’re all just adding our voices to things we’ve seen already.
WM:You’ve been listed as a finalist for the Photolucia Critical Mass Competition this year, and you’ve received a lot of recognition for your work in the photo community. As we speak, you are prepping for yourfirst solo showto be held November 7 through mid-December; How do you strike a balance with your personal photography projects, and your photography you shoot for clients/customers?
TH:I’m not going to lie. I find it very difficult. Even though you would think they’d be similar, they’re not. They’re completely different beasts. If I’m in the midst of working on my own personal work I have to put client work aside and when I’m working on client work, I need to put my personal work aside. I have yet to find a balance that works for me.
WM:Is it relatively easy, or do you find it a struggle to be an artist where you live in the Midwest, or in Illinois? Do you feel isolated in the larger artistic community?
TH: I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s not hard either. Just different I guess. The internet and social media make the world a much smaller place and it’s easier to get your work out there by using it. I think anyone near a large artistic community definitely has a leg up on me, and maybe I have to work a little harder at it, but that’s life. Do I wish I was near an artistic community? Absolutely I do, but it just so happens I live out in the middle of nowhere so that’s not going to happen anytime soon. If I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t be able to make the work that I do. I’m definitely envious when I see photographers I’m friends with get together to attend lectures and workshops that I’m not able to go to, but again, such is life.
WM:Can you speak about what drew you to participate in the Filter Photo Festival this year? What other parts of the festival did you enjoy most?
TH:It seemed like it was time for me to put my work out there in a real way, not just through social media. I also wanted to meet some of the many people I had met online. It’s always nice to put a real face to a profile photo. To be honest, the number one reason I went was because I had been wanting to take a course byAline Smithson for a very long time, and she had a one-day course there. It was an amazing class, and helped me immensely. Oh what I could learn, if I could make it to a week long workshop of hers!Elizabeth Avedon’s class was just as informative. While I’m not planning on making a book anytime in the near future, I love photo books and thought it would be a great class, and it was. Elizabeth is very down to earth, and honest, and she was able to give me a much better understanding of what goes into the whole process. I really enjoyed the reviews as well. The reviews were a wonderful way to get a lot of different viewpoints about my work – whether it was positive or negative, it was definitely a learning experience.
One cannot help but be impacted by the images Habing creates. Her frank honesty leaves us feeling as if we’ve been allowed to view a family album of sorts. Habing’s images form a strong connection between herself, her family and her surrounding world. Much like growing vines that twist and grow upward to form fantastic garden structures, our children grow, change, and shape themselves into independent people who we see ourselves within. These are the ties that bind.
Tytia Habinglives and works in Watson, Illinois very near where she grew up on a working farm. She holds degrees in both horticulture and landscape architecture and is a self taught photographer. Habing’s work has been published in publications such as Lenscratch, Fraction Magazine, Shots Magazine and National Geographic. Her work has been featured in joint exhibitions nationally and internationally, and she has two upcoming solo shows in the works. Most notably, her work has been shortlisted for both the Black and White Photographer of the Year 2015 sponsored by Leica and Critical Mass 2015.
Originally published by Wobneb Magazine, November 2015
Amelia Morris is a photographer and mixed media artist working with themes including identity, memory, and self-perception. Her imagery’s autobiographical content is expressed through both literal and symbolic self-portraiture, and what she lovingly calls “low-grade performance art.”
This is art driven by deeply personal experiences, divulged like a confession to the viewer. Amelia Morris’ work is often raw – but not in the sense of being brazen or brash. It is intimate and raw due in part to the autobiographical nature of the themes she addresses. We, the viewers, are privy to these confessions – often presented with either melancholy, or dark-humored wit. One can’t help but snicker at her image of someone (presumably Morris herself) hanging out the back end of a car, when the image is titled “I love my ‘lil deathtrap”.
But Morris’ work goes far beyond witty images and titles. Through her staged self-portraits and documentation of provocative pennant banners, the ‘An Honest Assessment’ series explores anxiety, inadequacy, anger, disappointment, and other feelings that are often socially avoided in open discussion. The photographs serve as both private confessions and public declarations of living through these emotional states.
In Morris’ statement about her work, she says, “I have trouble maintaining my own psychological well-being and acknowledge the ridiculous paradox of feeling miserable when everything else in life seems to be fine. In that spirit, the elements of handmade whimsy in these photographs intentionally mock these heavier emotions. This is a light-hearted portrayal of serious concerns.”
Years ago, during a time of artist’s block, Morris was dealing with several personal disappointments and found it impossible to force herself to make something happy. During this time, Morris says, “I researched an assignment/project by Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher: Learning to Love You More. Participants were encouraged to take a personal positive mantra, translate it into a colorful display, and hang it where someone who might need to read those words could see it.I decided my banners could retain the outward cheeriness of the original assignment juxtaposed with the less optimistic statements floating through my subconscious. Each piece of the banners are hand-cut and sewn, a labor-intensive but meditative process, and the finished object is photographed in a meaningful setting. Completing each piece offers the catharsis of expressing troubled thoughts and emotions.”
But if the viewer is expecting overly dramatic, cliché “tortured soul” images, there are none to be found. Morris presents her well-conceived and thoughtful images in a way that transforms allegorical vignettes of her life into examples of coping, and hopefully healing, with the intangible troubles many people face at some point in their lives.
Wobneb Magazine (WM): Why do you photograph? What makes still photography your main choice of expression?
Amelia Morris (AM): Growing up, I was lucky to have a few really great teachers who nurtured my interest in art and exposed me to as many techniques as an inner-city public school could. I always enjoyed standard art class exercises like drawing and painting, but would become frustrated when I couldn’t accurately translate my subject or ideas. My first real experience with photography came as part of an eighth grade mentorship program which matched students at my experimental middle school with people working in our areas of interest. I remember saying I wanted to work with a photographer because I had never tried anything like that before, but I didn’t expect my choice would have such a far reaching effect on my life.
When I first started taking photographs, I considered it a means to further explore my world and share it with whomever might be interested. I remember being drawn to photograph the grittier parts of my near Eastside Indianapolis neighborhood. While learning photography I went through a strong phase of documenting trash and blight with the intent of finding something inherently beautiful in it. Looking back, I think I was also trying to express another, more-rounded side of my life, “Even though I appear to be the usual middle-class white kid, this is where I grew up, so don’t think you have me figured out.”
These days I’m still drawn to photography because it implies an element of definitive truth (the idea of “pics or it didn’t happen”) combined with the fact that, like any creative outlet, photography can produce fiction. Since my photos are based on autobiographical experiences, I’m interested in how memory or perception can skew how I express my ideas and how an audience then interprets the information by taking it as face value or questioning its authenticity.
WM: What or who are your main photography inspirations – and why?
AM: I feel like I’m constantly discovering new image makers (not just photographers), powerful artwork or hearing a new philosophy that lends some inspiration, but here are a few artists I enjoy:
I think I discovered Francesca Woodman in my junior year of college and immediately felt drawn to her work due to her performative use of the self portrait. Looking at her work, I always feel like I’m witnessing some private and mysterious ritual where the artist is both vulnerable and self-possessed in her control of the situation. There’s something about how her actions make relatively ordinary spaces (an empty corner, a dusty floor) feel so… dreamy. Her self portrait behind pieces of wallpaper stops me in my tracks every time I see it.
I really enjoy Lorna Simpson’s work, especially those pieces utilizing text. I remember spending lots of time in front of her untitled piece at the Indianapolis Museum of Art trying to decipher her message. I think we’re used to text being joined to photographs to give some clarifying information or add to the narrative. I’m inspired Simpson’s use of text because it can raise more questions than answers. The ambiguity is intriguing. I don’t want everything to be spelled out.
I’m drawn to Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs in the same way that people have trouble looking away from car crashes. It’s disturbing and gross and sometimes nightmare-ish – and yet so strangely beautiful and sensitive and well-composed that I can’t stop studying them. I love that dichotomy.
My teachers are definitely an inspiration. Again and again, I’m drawn to the surreal, and Mark Sawrie’s provocative use of the figure in this photographs, including his own, fits into that category. Jacinda Russell’s exploration of her own life and family history has helped me pause to consider my own inner monologue might be worth expressing.
WM: Do you feel your work makes a comment best on a universal level, or on the personal level? Your work is very specific to your life experience and emotions… Do you feel it translates well to other people’s experiences or lives?
AM: I don’t make work with the direct intention of addressing some universal theme. The images are meant to illustrate a particular thought or emotion or situation I’ve found myself in. But with that being said, even though at the time we may feel that we are alone in our experiences, we really aren’t that unique. I think that given a little life experience, we can relate to someone else’s creative expression, and I’ve seen that in people’s reactions to the work.
WM: Can you please go into detail to explain the idea behind the ‘An Honest Assessment’ series? How many different images did you start out with in his series? Is it an ongoing project?
AM: I graduated from college with several accolades and couldn’t help but feel optimistic that I’d be able to go out and do interesting things in my field. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons I entered a dry spell, creatively, professionally, and socially. Like many people entering the world as the financial crisis hit, I felt stuck. Meanwhile, my younger sister continued to experience success in her creative life as thespian and stand up comedian which was constantly celebrated by my family (as it should be!). I began to feel that no one really cared about me or what I had worked so hard to accomplish. I was being eclipsed.
At some point, I realized I could illustrate this feeling through a double portrait of my sister and me. In the photo, everything seems to be going as planned, except a mysterious breeze has caused my sister’s hair to fly up and obscure my face. It felt like a great metaphor for how I was feeling. The title from the piece comes from a comment a relative made at family gathering. Things people say, especially hurtful things, stay with me, but it feels cathartic to use in the piece.
The series continued to develop by exploring the weird emotions and situations in my “post-graduate” life. I remember talking to someone about some of the early images and acknowledging that while they were sad or even disturbing, I was just trying to be honest with myself and the audience about how I was feeling. And thus the title – An Honest Assessment.
The series is ongoing but purposely slow-going. I don’t want to force the photos, so sometimes months go by without producing anything connected to the series. There’s a pressure to explore an idea and then wrap up the project, but I’d like to keep moving along at my own pace. I’m really inspired by Kelli Connell’s Double Life, a series that began in 2002 that continues to grow as she and her model move through their lives. If the work is good and relevant, I want to stick with it.
WM: Your photos sometimes include hand-made objects (Banners, specifically) – do you see these as being more props/elements to the photo work, or as separate artworks that you are documenting? Why did you decide to include these objects rather than use the sayings as titles, for example?
AM: I’ve gone back and forth on whether the banner photos should become its own series, but the sentiment behind them feels like an appropriate part of An Honest Assessment, and for now they’ll remain in that series.
The banners live somewhere between being props and being separate artworks. When I first started making banners, I intended to hang them in their specific locations, photograph them, and then leave them wherever they were. I thought they could be ephemeral and photographing them would be like documenting a piece of performance art. I’ve followed through on that plan with a couple banners, but I’ve taken many down after the shoot to bring back home (probably with the thought that I want to photograph them differently later). I’m not opposed to sharing those particular banners as artwork separate from the photograph. Even though they were made specifically to be props, the thought and craft invested in making them transforms them into art objects.
WM: How do you approach creating an image to express your concepts? Do you take many different ideas and whittle down, or is it very focused on one specific idea you wish to execute?
AM: I’d like to say I have a designated studio time to work on my projects, but due to erratic work schedules and bouts of general laziness, I don’t. Fortunately, I’ve realized that ruminating on an idea for a while is a huge part of my process. While I’m at work or doing some repetitive task, I think about where I want my concept to go. Sometimes ideas become clear quickly. Sometimes this pondering process takes months. However, by the time I realize that I MUST MAKE THIS PHOTOGRAPH the main part of the idea is tight enough that I can move forward without feeling like I’ll be wasting precious time on a half-baked idea.
Little details (which I’ve realized often make a big difference in the final image) may change over the course of shooting. If I’m working on a self portrait, I tend to shoot much more than I need with small adjustments to pose or expression. If I’ve constructed something for a photograph, whether it is stacks of canning jars or a banner, I try not to take it down immediately so that I can shoot again with variables like different lighting at a different time of day or camera positioning.
Most of the time this method works and I can get the shooting process done in one session, but I’ve had my share of duds. When that happens, I go back, consider what went wrong, and if the idea still seems to have some promise, try it again.
WM: You participate in projects like the Postcard Collective, and Crusade for Art’s program ‘Crusade Supported Art’ for print collectors, as well as involvement with the Society for Photographic Education — How important is it for yourself, and photographers in general, to seek out recognition; to market or self-promote their work? How much self-promotion do you do?
AM: I think photographers are in a unique position in that so much of our work has a digital element which makes it easy to throw work on the internet for the world to see. If you’re trying to make a living with your creative/skilled work, you should probably be out there letting people know what you can do. But of course, there’s a certain delicacy to promoting yourself without appearing to be an egomaniac, a certain turn-off of mine that seems to arise again and again among artists.
For me…well… it’s complicated. I used to tell myself that it didn’t matter if anyone cared about my artwork as long as I could make it. Maybe that thought came from the idealism of youth, but I know I’ll always have a drive to create, even if no one has anything to say about it. However, I’ve realized that it’s quite human to want positive recognition once in awhile. It’s nice to know that people like or respect or are simply curious about what you’re doing. In college, I remember telling a professor that I won an award in a juried show. His response was something like, “Congrats! Now don’t get a big head.” That’s really stuck with me. For better or worse, I tend to downplay my achievements more than celebrate them.
Selections from Postcard Collective
I participate in The Postcard Collective as a way to force myself to make new work (often with subject prompts I wouldn’t have considered on my own) and to be exposed to other people and their work. If sharing my work through avenues like The Postcard Collective leads to other opportunities, that’s great but not expected – I’m just happy to be involved in a great artist community project. As for promoting gallery shows or Crusade for Art’s programs that I’ve been involved with, I spread the word (on social media particularly) to promote the event and the other people involved. I want these ventures to succeed, and if I can help by getting a few more people interested, game on.
WM: Artists over time have addressed the human feelings of anxiety, depression, fears, etc — Since your work is dealing with very personal issues, what type of reaction do you get most often to your work, and what is your response? What inspired you to express these issues in the ‘self-portrait’ technique?
AM: I usually get a couple different reactions. People have said that the work is really funny, “hilarious” even, which I didn’t really understand. There are elements of dark humor in the photos, especially in the self-deprecating elements of “I love my lil’ deathtrap” and “His advice: Fake it til you make it,” but it makes me wonder how much they’re actually looking at/absorbing from the photos. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a friend’s father was struck by “She asked what I’d do when my sister is famous…” and said, “She’s so sad!” I’m not sure if his reaction to the work came from his age and experience or if he could just relate to what he thought I was conveying, but I was happy to hear that someone had a charged response to the work. And some people have said that what they get from the work is a sense of truthfulness. It’s hard to acknowledge tough feelings in a world where we’re not allowed to be sad, and this pushes those moments into the light. I think I appreciate that interpretation the most.
WM: One might think it would be ‘safer’ to use a model and have a buffer of emotional distance – why not play it safe?
AM: There are several reasons why I use myself instead of models. One of my drawing professors at Ball State liked to say that when we are in need of a subject, we can always turn to ourselves. I’ve held on to that advice by using myself as both subject and model. I’ve worked as an model for drawing classes and artists for about 10 years. After being so closely analyzed for other people’s work, using myself as a subject has been a way to reclaim my body. And, well, I can be shy, especially when it comes to asking for help with projects, and even more so when they can be so personal. If the photo is about me and my experiences, maybe it’s best to use my physical self in the image. I don’t have to explain motivation or feelings associated with a concept. The photo is just a natural expression.
WM: What gives you more satisfaction in the creative process – making something handcrafted, the process of image making, or option C (something else, or both of these)? AM: They’re both satisfying in different ways, but my greatest satisfaction comes from simply getting something done and having something to show for my efforts. I spend a long time working out the logistics of a photograph before the urge to get out and shoot becomes overwhelming. After all that planning, it feels pretty good to flip through the camera’s playback and know I have exactly what I envisioned. Working on banners or other objects is satisfying in a different way, probably because I get immediate tangible results. With every step in the process (choosing the fabric, cutting out letters, sewing), I see the progress I’m making toward my end goal. I feel best when I can marry the handcrafted and image making process. I’ll think of a phrase to put on a banner, contemplate the perfect place to hang it, consider lighting and other ambient factors that would contribute to the atmosphere of the final image, adjust my banner components accordingly, go out on location to hang the banner, take a few photos, and hopefully like what I see. I’ve reshot several of the banner photos because one of those elements didn’t quite align with everything else, and I’ve had to put a few photos indefinitely on hold because I haven’t found the right conditions to get what I want. But when everything comes together it makes the whole process worthwhile.
Amelia Morris is a photographer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. Morris’ photographs are included in collections at Ball State University and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She is an active member of the Postcard Collective, an international artist postcard exchange group. Morris was a 2013 Robert D. Beckmann, Jr. Emerging Artist Fellow through the Arts Council of Indianapolis. She won a “golden ticket” scholarship to attend the Photolucida portfolio review festival in 2013 and was a 2014 Critical Mass finalist.
This is just one of the recently submitted projects featured here – if you wish to have your work considered for publication, please send a link to your site, and some kind of information about your work to us via the questions link on our home page, or at wobnebmag (at) gmail (dot) com
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