Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography

Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography

Posted by on Mar 29, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

This is my last guest blog post and it’s been an honor to share my thoughts about contemporary photography with the Baxter St/CCNY audience. I wanted to end my guest blogging stint with a post about an upcoming continuing education course I will be teaching at the School at the International Center of Photography.

Titled Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography, this course focuses on historical and contemporary representations of family. It is intended to expose students to the range of artists and photographers who have used their cameras to define their concept of family. Though weekly critiques, in this class students will also begin or continue to develop their own body of family work.

Below you’ll find more of the course description plus select images that played like a slideshow in my head when I was thinking about the photographers whose work I wanted to discuss in this course:

Capturing the immediate family as subject matter has almost always been considered a form of vernacular photography, and yet some photographers have made it a part of their life’s work—thus confirming or contesting official discourses of race, gender, and sexuality.

Moving beyond simple snapshots of domestic scenes and the heteronormative, “nuclear” family, this course reexamines the genre of family photography and investigates its cultural politics and new importance, as it is being redefined by historical events such as migration/immigration and queer visibility.

Throughout the term, we will look at and address the family work of a diverse selection of historical and contemporary photographers, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Elinor Carucci, Emmet Gowin, Catherine Opie, Carrie Mae Weems, and other artists, such as LaToya Ruby Frazier, Zanele Muholi, and many more.

Top Image: Renee Cox. Olympia’s Boyz, 2001.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Prayer and Praise, 1865.

Julia Margaret Cameron. Prayer and Praise, 1865.

Lyle Ashton Harris. The Child, 1994.

Lyle Ashton Harris. The Child, 1994.

Catherine Opie. Self portrait / Nursing, 2004.

Catherine Opie. Self portrait / Nursing, 2004.

Emmet Gowin. Edith and Elijah, Newtown (Pennsylvania), 1974.

Emmet Gowin. Edith and Elijah, Newtown (Pennsylvania), 1974.

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Grandma Ruby and Me. From the

LaToya Ruby Frazier. Grandma Ruby and Me. From the “Notion of Family” series, 2001 – 2014.

For more information or to register, visit the Close Encounters: Reframing Family Photography course page on the ICP School website. This is a 5-week, course that will run on Mondays from 6:30-9:30pm from May 22 through June 26, 2017. 

Also note, in June of this year I will also be teaching a one-weekend course titled Layered Narratives: Visualizing Stories Through Photocollage.


Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:

Photography at the 2017 Whitney Houston Biennial
Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli
Five Visual Motifs in the Photographs of Ren Hang
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli at Baxter St

Conversation with Marco Scozzaro on Digital Deli at Baxter St

Posted by on Mar 16, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

Qiana Mestrich: Can you talk to me a little bit about the title and its reference to NYC bodegas (neighborhood convenience stores)?

Marco Scozzaro: That was the starting point. The work is an exploration of the current visual vernacular and I wanted to take different elements from the visual landscape and digest and work with them to create multilayered photographs and sculptures. As you can see the work is very diverse and in a way I like this idea of the deli as a place where you can find everything and anything… opposite elements that by being in the same space kind of make sense together. I’m playing a lot with natural vs. artificial/synthetic and opposite elements that seem unrelated but in the way I work with them they become organic.

Marco Scozarro. BETA 909, 2016.

Marco Scozarro. BETA 909, 2016.

This piece BETA 909 is where the project started from, the backdrop is a vinyl tablecloth that I found in a 99cents store in my neighborhood in Williamsburg, BK. In this still life I use obsolete technology like a Beta VHS player and a drum machine that I use to make music. I like the idea of the cheapness of the background that references nature against these electronic objects that were futuristic when they came out but are now obsolete and almost organic in this constructed image. So  these elements don’t seem related but to me they make sense. From this point on I started playing with images and opposites, incorporating visual tropes or cultural artifacts like a Calvin Klein advertisement or referencing commercial photography, even appropriating my own work. In a way this work is a comment on the identity of photography and the inherent paradox of representation.

Marco Scozzaro. DAMASO LUNARE, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. DAMASO LUNARE, 2016.

Is this a departure from the way you usually work or is more of you having a conversation with contemporary trend(s) in photography?

I wouldn’t say it’s a departure but I’m definitely exploring new possibilities and being open to new layers of interpretation. This image titled DAMASO LUNARE is what my previous work looked like. I guess the subject matter is very related. I’ve always been interested in exploring the relationship between society and personal identity. The previous work was more existential and with this new project I’m talking about the same things but using humor and adopting different strategies to deliver the same message. I’m also trying to make the work more accessible. I realize that the first layer of my images seems funny but if you dig deeper they’re not as accessible.

Marco Scozzaro. OMINY TANDINY, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. OMINY TANDINY, 2016.

There’s definitely a lot to unpack in all of these images. They look simple on the surface and they’re very attractive and shiny but there’s lots of symbolism. I feel like there some larger social statement you’re trying to convey.

There is, I’m glad you noticed that. It’s not just a collection of nice pictures. I’ve always been interested in not glamorizing an image and non-conventional beauty but sometimes that intention has been misunderstood. I like playing with different languages in photography. I’m using still life, landscape… I’m rephotographing my pictures.

Marco Scozzaro. 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, 2016.

Yet there’s also decay and death and playing with the idea of the vanitas, not literally but in that same still life tradition.

Sure! In this picture 516N0RJ1N4 D16174L3, for example I’m making a comment on stereotypical images of the female body in mass media. This is an appropriated ASCII alphanumeric code. I found it interesting that this silhouette of a woman was totally unrelated to the content of the document where I found the image. And then I pasted the silhouette on a photograph of a landscape, that I made using film. Actually most of this work was shot on film, so I became very interested in this idea of using hybrid technology as a consequence of what the work is dealing with.

Marco Scozzaro. DIGITAL CLOUDS, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. DIGITAL CLOUDS, 2016.

There’s also a sculptural quality in your work. The largest piece in the show is a blanket. Is that an image you’ve taken as well?

Yes, all of these images are mine. If there’s any appropriation it’s an image that has been rephotographed or inserted into my composition, like the Calvin Klein advertisement or the Giant Single record sleeve. That image titled DIGITAL CLOUDS on the blanket was a photograph I exhibited at Aperture last summer (Aperture Summer Open: Photography is Magic, curated by Charlotte Cotton). I’ve been thinking and playing around the idea of different materials and how they work with photographs. So at some point I found these digitally woven blankets – you have a jacquard loom that you can hook up to a computer to weave an image. The machine deconstructs the image in six threads to recreate all the colors. I like that this image was shot on film, then scanned and now it has a new life as a woven blanket instead of a print. And it’s also interesting as a “meta photographic concept” because the blanket references the blanket in the image.

Installation view of PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, 2016.

Installation view of PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, 2016.

It looks very painterly as well, so you’re tying multiple mediums together: the art of weaving, painting, photography…

Exactly. Also like this piece PALMS ON PALMS over BLANKETTO, which is one of the newest pieces… as you notice I’m trying to expand the two-dimensionality of photography in the space. The pictures themselves become objects. This particular fluorescent plexiglass that the photographs are back mounted on cast a glow on the white walls.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro's Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro’s Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

In this sculptural piece titled TUBBI, 2016 I wanted again to use opposites, images coming from fields that seem unrelated like rocks or a glitch from my computer or tiles or a pool or clouds and a carpet. The cylinder shape references the way you roll the paper when you make a large print that you just put on the floor and it stays in that shape. So I found a technical solution to let the prints stay in shape there a little longer… I like the idea of having these elements linked together, they become just texture. In a democratic way they are in the same space like when you are viewing multiple images on the monitor of your computer.

Marco Scozzaro. SVIAGGIONI, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. SVIAGGIONI, 2016.

I would say SVIAGGIONI is the mood board for the project. I started taking visual notes with my iPhone and then at some point I realized there was something going on. The photos were re-posted to my Instagram and tumblr, so I had a template and I would see the pictures on my monitor in random order and in slightly different sizes. I printed all those pictures and played around with them and then I made a book. I photographed the book for a magazine feature (OSMOS) and I thought the picture itself was more interesting than the whole book. Then I rephotographed the image of my book in the magazine using different nail polish on the same hands holding the book open.

I thought it was interesting to have this double meaning that reflects the paradox of representation. This mood board combined organic with non-organic elements, associated by the color or shape, creating something visually pleasing but at the same time creating a starting point for new relations. From that book I realized I was working on something but I wasn’t 100% happy with the small prints so I used them as the starting point to make new images – either sculptures in the studio or created in post-production.

Detail of PLEASE and TUBBI, 2016, both by Marco Scozzaro.

Detail of PLEASE and TUBBI, 2016, both by Marco Scozzaro.

What about the word “Please” in this wallpaper?

Please was a way to explore the “bodega vernacular” like Thank you for your business or Have a nice day graphics on plastic bags… So I photographed those 80s/90s fonts, isolated the word “please” and started making this repeated pattern similar to the red carpet backgrounds with the sponsors on them that celebrities are photographed in front of. This piece is making a comment on how sometimes we’re over apologetic and over thankful and this gesture doesn’t even mean anything.

Marco Scozzaro. SMILE!, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. SMILE!, 2016.

Yeah it’s not genuine, it’s just our own programming.

This way of working allowed me to play with text. Like this piece SMILE! I photographed this hot dog stand in midtown. I was on the street and I saw this grumpy hot dog guy and someone just passed and said “You’re never gonna sell a hotdog if you don’t smile!” And I thought that phrase was a metaphorical way of describing our society.

Marco Scozzaro. ISLE OF MOTTE, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. ISLE OF MOTTE, 2016.

Do you think this work is a statement on American culture or is there a more of a world view here?

It definitely starts from an American point of view. I’m not American but I’ve been living here for seven years assimilating into the culture of course. Also I realize that I grew up with Western influence through television. I don’t want to talk about American imperialism but there is a cultural hegemony that in a way is coming back. Now as an adult being here and experiencing everyday American life a lot of it seems like déjà vu and I’m starting to understand the messages that I couldn’t understand as a kid.

Marco Scozzaro. VISA, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. VISA, 2016.

The work definitely talks about mass media and how our perception is influenced by them. Like this image of the Hawaiian shirt and the VISA credit card, which is also a reference to my own situation as an immigrant… These are not literal but hidden or unconscious links, thoughts that come to mind when I look at the images after the fact.

Marco Scozzaro. GIANT SINGLE, 2016.

Marco Scozzaro. GIANT SINGLE, 2016.

It’s nice because the aesthetic is not overtly political but as you dig deeper you do get some undertones.

I didn’t want to make political work but I realize that…

Everything is political.

Exactly. Especially looking at what is going on now in America, I see this work as very political. For example, in Italy we had Prime Minister Berlusconi who as a media tycoon became a politician because of his fortune and influence. So in a way with Trump we are kind of seeing the same thing happening. I didn’t want to mention Trump because he’s not relevant here but I think the work is observing what mass media can do, good or bad. So I wanted to create images that look good but also give a starting point for a conversation that is not about being frivolous.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro's Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

Installation view of Marco Scozzaro’s Digital Deli solo show at Baxter St in NYC.

Marco Scozzaro’s solo show, Digital Deli, is on view at Baxter St now through March 25, 2017.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Five Visual Motifs in the Photographs of Ren Hang
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Five Visual Motifs In the Photographs of Ren Hang

Posted by on Feb 27, 2017 in Qiana Mestrich | No Comments

On February 24th after suffering from a deep depression, Chinese photographer Ren Hang took his own life just weeks before his 30th birthday. Despite his young age, Hang leaves behind a large body of photographic work. Known for his “racy”, erotic images, Hang’s photographs visualized a provocative and constructed world that simultaneously referenced a uniquely Chinese aesthetic and contemporary youth culture.

When I look at Hang’s work, I am less interested in his exposure of genitalia and the titillating effect of his images. As a photographer, I’m drawn to his storytelling techniques, specifically the aesthetic patterns that emerge when seeing the work as a whole. In memoriam I’d like to highlight five visual motifs that Hang repeatedly employed to thus create his signature style. 

 

The Color Red
Considered the most popular color in China as evident by the red field featured in the country’s flag, Hang used this symbolic color in a variety of ways. In traditional Chinese culture, red is associated with celebration and creativity, good fortune and joy. In its most political meaning, red is associated with communism or socialism which in this case may relate to the form of government Hang was always in conflict with.

In Hang’s images you’ll often see red painted on the lips and/or nails of his female models and also as a backdrop color. Whether a face is immersed in crimson-colored bathwater, or as in this image where both model and snake are laying on red bedsheets, Hang uses the same blood-red shade to highlight an idea or frame his subjects.

 

Polycephaly
Popularized in literature by Greek mythological creatures, polycephaly is a condition of having more than one head that can also realistically occur in animals and humans. In several images, Hang has played with the concept of a double-headed being, focusing less on the condition itself and more on the idea of two that share a body. In other images, he’s posed his models to resemble a multi-limbed being, an act that comes across as pure play, fitting bodies together in an exploration of the fantastical human form.


Hair

Sporting medium to long, black hair, Hang’s female models uphold stereotypical and historical visions of Asian femininity. Draped over faces and limbs, jet black hair shines in the glare of Hang’s almost-violent flash lighting. In the art of dream interpretation, hair is recognized as a symbol of sensuality, seduction and vanity – all descriptors commonly used to interpret Hang’s work.  


Flora

Hang often staged his images in nature and in his studio shots, cut flowers and various types of exotic flora also appear, sometimes competing with the model(s) for the viewer’s attention. In the above image, the cherry blossom tree obscures the model as its intricate branches and blossoms dominate the frame. A historical symbol of desire and sexuality, Hang has used various species of flora ranging from the innocuous tulip to the Anthurium with its sexy, patent-leather like red leaves and erect pistil.


Birds

Lastly, one can’t help but notice the winged creatures in Hang’s images. Although domesticated animals (like reptiles and cats) mingle amongst naked bodies, the birds are limp, tamed, as if to be prepared for consumption. Not knowing for sure I insist they are dead or at least taxidermy, as I can’t fathom any bird would cooperate in such foreign, artificial conditions. Hang’s repeat use of birds seems obsessive. He even poses his own mother in the series My Mum with an excess of doves, ducks, peacocks and swans.

In his most complex compositions, Hang arranged several of these motifs together to make a single, confounding image. And though there are bodies, except in the case of his mother, there are no characters. Alive or not, Hang arranges his subjects like objects. It is because of this that I’ve come to appreciate Hang’s work as still life photography. RIP Ren Hang.


 

Qiana Mestrich is a photographer, writer, digital marketer and mother from Brooklyn, NY. She is the founder of Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography History, a blog that seeks to establish a more inclusive history of photography, highlighting contributions to the medium by and about people of underrepresented cultures.

Read her other guest posts on the Baxter St blog:
Photography and the Black Panther Party
The Black Female Self in Landscape
In Memoriam: John Berger and Uses of Photography Quotes
Forthcoming Photobooks by African American and Black African Photographers
New Image Library Specializes in Race and Cultural Diversity

Studio Visit: Maureen Drennan

Posted by on Oct 1, 2013 in Sara Macel | No Comments
 
Yesterday, as the sun set over my studio by Cooper Park and my time as guest blogger for Camera Club also came to an end, I spent a few hours talking about photography, love, and the pleasures of getting lost with one of my favorite photographers Maureen Drennan. During our visit, Maureen shared with me her artist-produced book of the project “Meet Me in the Green Glen” that is currently seeking a publisher and gave me a sneak peek at her latest work made this summer in Portland.
 
"Meet Me in the Green Glen" book by Maureen Drennan

“Meet Me in the Green Glen” book by Maureen Drennan

 
 
SM: As you know, I’m a huge fan of your work.  Your projects tend to follow the theme of exploring small worlds or communities and asking questions like: who are the people that inhabit this space and what is their connection both to each other and to the land?  What draws you to your subjects?  And how does your status as an outsider change (if at all) over the course of working on a project?
 
 

MD: I am a big fan of your work as well! In a word, or two words, you are a bad-ass. I am intrigued with exploring small worlds and communities and I’m curious about the people who live there and their connection to the environment. All sorts of things draw me to my subjects, its an intuitive feeling of attraction. Usually its people’s vulnerability as well as resilience that really resonates with me. I’m attracted to that and want to talk and photograph them. Its funny you ask that about being an outsider, I am in the beginning for sure but then it quickly changes. I feel fortunate because almost everyone I photograph lets me into their life in some intimate way. They will literally invite me into their home or we will have a deep, intimate discussion and then connection right away. Some of my subjects lead such inspiring lives. Of course the reality is that I will always be an outsider but photography allows me to enter the community a little and get close to people.

 
 
From "Meet Me in the Green Glen" by Maureen Drennan

From “Meet Me in the Green Glen” by Maureen Drennan

I used to do a lot of hitchhiking around the United States and Europe with my boyfriend at the time and part of the “code” is that in return for the driver giving you a ride you chat with them, keep them awake during long stretches. But often this thing would happen, particularly at night, with the road feeling rhythmic and meditative, after talking and me asking lots of questions, where the driver would be so open and honest, brutally truthful, about some experiences in their life. I felt so fortunate to be having  this encounter with this perfect stranger. The fact that this person was opening up to me, as though I were a priest, was remarkable. And then, we would reach our destination, the driver would let us out and you never saw them again. But for a brief moment there was this very intimate connection. I love that. And now, as a photographer I’m able to continue having these amazing encounters with strangers. People are naturally guarded and I like recreating that experience of getting people to open up.
The people I seek out and photograph are not polished, they are outsiders and are usually existing in out of the way places. The outsider status resonates with my own feelings of alienation and though photography I am able to satisfy my need to connect with others.

 
SM: You are one of my favorite people to talk about photography with, and we have had many conversations about our work so, I know a lot of the stories behind some of your photographs.  On your website, I noticed that you don’t have any artist statements or text other than image titles accompanying your projects- was that a conscious choice?
 
 
MD: Absolutely, I don’t want the viewer to get caught up in the text. Ideally, I want the viewer to understand the story without a text explanation. Of course, that could change depending on what project I’m working on. Not all photographic projects can be text free.
 
 
SM: As much as your work revolves around communities, there’s an overriding sense of loneliness to your work.  Or maybe quiet solitude is a better description for it.  I know when I’m out making pictures, it can be a very meditative experience.  What are your thoughts on that?
 
 
MD: It’s true, there is definitely a pervading sense of isolation in my work and it stems from a few ideas. The people and communities I’m drawn to tend to be remote and vulnerable, either economically, socially, or environmentally. My own feelings of alienation and solitude also come through in the imagery, though so that sense of isolation may have more to do with me and less about the subject matter.  For example, with “Broad Channel,” that is a community that is legitimately vulnerable as we saw with Hurricane Sandy, but the people there have a lot of love and pride in their community.
 
 
Photo by Maureen Drennan

Photo by Maureen Drennan

Photo by Maureen Drennan

Photo by Maureen Drennan

 
SM: And to follow that same thread, how does being born and raised in New York City, a place steeped in photographic tradition and also a place where you can feel alone even when surrounded by people, factor into your process as a photographer?  I personally have a hard time making pictures in the city- what are you?
 
 
MD: I’m from Manhattan, born and raised here in New York. I’m really attracted to and curious about remote places and communities because it’s so different from what I’m accustomed to. I also find it hard to make images here because a huge part of my process is relying on serendipity and the kindness of strangers. New Yorkers (for good reason) are more guarded and I feel it’s harder for them to open up and for us to make a connection while I’m photographing them. But, of course there are exceptions, I have met some wonderful people on the subway and took this man’s portrait this summer on the subway.
 
 
SM: We both still shoot film for our personal work.  What is it that keeps you shooting film despite the cost and time-consuming process of scanning negs?
 
 
MD: I love the rich color and grain of film but mostly its the medium format that I can’t imagine life without! When I started photographing, I was making images with a large format camera (4×5) and as wonderful as that process of image making is, to come off the tripod was liberating. I really enjoy scanning negatives, I listen to music and take my shoes off, I feel like a kid.
 
 
SM: Your most recent body of work, “The Sea That Surrounds Us,” is a contemplative look at your husband that combines portraits of him with images from Block Island.  What is the metaphorical connection between the two?  I love that you took the same sensibility of your previous work in exploring a community and turned it inward on some level to explore the tiniest and most intimate of communities: your own marriage.  Have you always photographed him?  Is this still a work in progress?  And how has working on this project together affected your relationship?
 
 
MD: The title comes from a love poem by Pablo Neruda and suggests the remoteness one can experience, island-like, but also feeling surrounded and protected within a relationship. We are surrounded but separated as well.The idea that we can never comprehend ourselves fully or loved ones as much as we might want is humbling. There are vast, never ending portals contained within us. In trying to comprehend my husband’s vulnerability due to a severe depression, I made images of him and a landscape familiar to me, Block Island, RI. I felt untethered watching him and trying to comprehend his inner turmoil, I used the island as a metaphor to describe my feelings of isolation. I was an outsider to his experience. Block Island is a place I lived for one year when I was seven with my father during my parent’s divorce. During that winter I felt particularly cut off and alienated from people. I have always photographed my husband, but this feels different, like I’m watching him more carefully, trying to understand him, the impenetrable other. We are particularly connected, even through his depression, we both worked so hard to understand it and grow from it, so working on this with him has been recuperative.
 
 
Photo by Maureen Drennan

Photo by Maureen Drennan

Photo by Maureen Drennan

Photo by Maureen Drennan

 
SM: You recently completed an artist residency in Portland – can you talk about that experience?
 
 
MD: I felt exceedingly fortunate to do an artist residency at Newspace Center of Photography for one month. It was an incredible experience to only work on my photography for such an extended period of time with no other obligations or distractions. I felt spoiled rotten actually. On the advice of my good friend Matt Baum, I read “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit and it provided the backdrop for my time there, I tried to “get lost” in Oregon. I wandered a lot and made imagery responding to the idea of being lost.
 
 
Contact Sheets of photographs by Maureen Drennan

Contact Sheets of photographs by Maureen Drennan

 
SM: You are also an adjunct photo professor.  What are your thoughts on teaching photography?  What’s the best advice you’ve received as a photographer?
 
 
MD: My life has changed in such a positive way due to photography. It allows me to interact with the world in such a serendipitous, stimulating way. I love sharing my excitement for the medium with my students and they teach me a lot as well. One of the most important ideas I try and teach my students is how to be visually literate.
 
 
 
To see more of Maureen Drennan’s work, please visit her website http://www.maureendrennan.net

Photo Book: “Road Ends in Water” by Eliot Dudik

Posted by on Jul 10, 2013 in Sara Macel | No Comments
Photo by Sara Macel

Photo by Sara Macel

I first came across Eliot Dudik’s incredible self-published photo book Road Ends in Water at Carte Blanche Gallery in San Francisco where both our books were featured in a show curated by Larissa Leclair of the Indie Photobook Library and Darius Himes of Radius Books.  And thanks to a suggestion by Jennifer Schwartz of Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, Crusade for Art, and Flash Powder Projects fame, we were recently reconnected to discuss our adventures in the world of first-time book publishing.

Having grown up on the outskirts of suburban Texas where the strip malls meet the farmlands and having spent my entire adult life living in New York City and Brooklyn, I tend to gravitate towards work dealing with the American landscape.  In this body of work, Eliot Dudik chronicles the spirit of the South Carolina Lowcountry: its swamps and dirt roads, its weathered porches and ramshackle churches, and the people that are as much a part of this landscape as the giant oak trees that tower over it all.  There is an ebb and flow to the sequence of images that rolls along like currents in the deep waters it portrays.  This book feels like a baptism.  I spoke with Eliot about the two years he spent working on this project while traveling from Charleston to Savannah, Georgia where he was a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design and his experiences turning this project into a beautiful book.

Bud, Russell Creek Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Bud, Russell Creek Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

SM: First of all, it was such a pleasure sitting alone in our apartment today for about an hour slowly going through the book and then re-reading and re-looking a couple times.  It’s a really great meditation on a certain place and time and on large format photography as a medium.  Large format photography is a long tradition that is becoming increasingly difficult for photographers of our generation to afford or even have access to processing. To that end, I’m going to kind of get ahead of myself and ask: how much does the slow, somewhat antiquated nature of large format photography factor into your process documenting a place steeped in its own deep traditions and slower pace?  Was that something you thought about during the making of the work?

ED: The use of a view camera factors into my work quite extensively.  It is the effects of the view camera on the land, my subjects, and myself that dictates my using this type of camera.  Above all else, I enjoy the slow, contemplative and methodical steps associated with camera.  It helps me to remain within the landscape.  I see it as penetrating into a bubble, whereas I sometimes have difficulty piercing the surface tension with other formats.  When making portraits, I enjoy the interaction between the subject and the view camera.  They often have a look of pride and confidence in their expression and the way they carry themselves that is sometimes lost when looking down the barrel of an SLR.

 

SM: Road Ends in Water is such a great title.  I know it comes from the road sign you photographed that appears in the beginning of the book.  Did you take that photo knowing it would become the title or was that a decision you made once you were in the editing process?

ED: I took the photo for its symbolism and because I thought the sign was funny.  It didn’t become the title of the series until the final editing stages.  A professor and mentor, Jenny Kulah, suggested it as a title, and it made perfect sense.

Snuffy in Salkehatchie Swamp, Broxton Bridge Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Snuffy in Salkehatchie Swamp, Broxton Bridge Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

 

SM: What I love about the title is the symbolism of “road” and “water” that appear throughout the book.  Both are metaphors for the cyclical nature of life and death.  All of the titles of the images refer to their location as being either a river or a road.  There’s a definite sense of a journey or being in between things.  It feels to me that this body of work operates on many levels: it is a documentary of a little seen pocket of America that is disappearing in the wake of government projects and economics, it is a metaphor for your life being in a somewhat transitional stage being a grad student during the project’s making and this new focus of your life in photography, and it has far broader themes of death and lost traditions.  That’s where my head is at, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

ED: You pretty much hit upon everything.  The landscape in this region of the country is renewed, flushed, and emptied by a multitude of rivers and tributaries heading toward the ocean.  The rivers bring folks together here as much as the roads do.  Generations of families have persevered here, living off of the land and rivers.

The Word, Ivenia Brown Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

The Word, Ivenia Brown Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

 

SM: Your portraits have a lived-in quality.  Yet, having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, you are an outsider to this community.  How did you approach the subjects of your photographs?  “Tom & Tommy, Prices Bridge Road” and “Rob & Ricky, Near Martins Landing” in particular feel like people you know or were mid-conversation with when you set up your camera.

ED: I had lived in the Lowcountry for about six years at the point that I made these images.  The landscape and the way of life had initially drawn me to the South.  I felt very comfortable with it, yet at the same time, in a constant state of awe.  Focusing on this series, I allowed myself the time and solitary peace to traverse the roads and waterways throughout this region for hours on end.  I often met folks by happenstance and we would often converse for long periods of time.  In the example of Tom and Tommy, I had passed Tom’s house three or four times very slowly, taking in the landscape, and eventually he stopped me and asked if he could help.  I explained who I was and what I was doing, and he invited me in to see his framed photo within a newspaper clipping about a local barbeque chicken cook-off.  We talked for a while with a couple of his friends, including Tommy, and they asked me to take a photo of them with their barbeque cooker and confederate flags, which I did.  We later made the image down on the dock that is in the book.

Rob and Ricky came flying into a river landing in their pick-up truck, spitting gravel everywhere, and came to a halt about 15 yards from where I was set up to make a photograph.  They jumped out of the truck and proceeded directly into the swamp near by.  I continued about my business, and soon looked up to see Ricky calling to me to let me know that they were going to fire off some guns.  I waved to him, packed up my things, and headed into the swamp.  They were shooting at tree stumps.  We talked for a little while, and they agreed to make the photo that’s in the book.

I sometimes had longer relationships with some of the folks I photographed, seeing them on different occasions as I drove through the area.

Rob & Ricky, Near Martins Landing, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Rob & Ricky, Near Martins Landing, Photo by Eliot Dudik

 

SM: The book contains 3 poems, one of which was written by your father.  What is your relation to the other 2 authors and why did you decide to include these throughout the book?

ED: Brianna Stello is a friend of mine from Charleston, South Carolina, who is also a photographer.  I had read some of her poetry years prior to making the book, and when the time came, I sent her some of my images and asked her if she would be interested in writing something to pair with them.

Dr. E. Moore Quinn wrote an essay that is included in the book.  She was one of my Anthropology professors when I was an undergraduate, and continues to be a great friend.  She had shared my work with her friend, poet Jerri Chaplin, and Jerri wrote a piece to accompany my photographs as well.

I found the writings to help expand the reading of the photographs.

 

SM: I definitely see the Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld influences in your work.  They are big influences of mine as well.  What other artists were you looking at in relation to this specific body of work?  The South is so steeped in incredible writers and musicians- did that offer inspiration?

ED: William Christenberry, Richard Misrach, and Stephen Shore were a few other photographers I was interested in at the time, and still am.  I would have to say photobooks were my biggest inspiration during the time I was making this work.  All sorts of photobooks, I just gobble them up.  I am a big music fan as well, and my taste in music is much like my taste in photobooks, it runs the gamut.  Although it would have been a great time to draw inspiration from music while in the car, traveling through the landscape, but I chose to instead mostly listen to NPR and chew sunflower seeds.

Carew Rice Painting, Back of Old Drive-In Screen, Highway 63, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Carew Rice Painting, Back of Old Drive-In Screen, Highway 63, Photo by Eliot Dudik

 

SM: Let’s talk about photo book publishing.  Roads Ends in Water is self-published, right?  And what influenced the decision to make a book?  Did you always envision this project as a book?

ED: Yes, it is self-published.  I find photobooks to provide a viewing experience much different from a gallery setting.  Often a photobook is enjoyed in a quiet, private, and comfortable space, giving the reader the capacity to fully engage with the work.  It also lends to the narrative nicely, which can help endow the work with new meaning.  I did always envision this work as a book, even before I knew how the work was going to turn out.  The self-publishing process was something I was researching during the entire time I was photographing the area.  Not only does the photobook provide a more intimate viewing experience, but it also helps me to get the work out to  a larger audience than I can solely through exhibition.

 

SM: Is Saga Publishing your own brand, like Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom?

ED: Yes, Saga Publishing is my own brand.  I came up with it at about two in the morning when I was trying to finish a mock-up in time to take to a photo conference.  It seemed fitting at the time.

Marietta & Jim, Wimbee Creek Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Marietta & Jim, Wimbee Creek Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

 

SM: How did you raise the funds to publish 1000 copies?

ED: My Grandmother helped me to fund the printing of the book.  This is only one of many reasons the book is dedicated to her.  She is a great woman.

 

SM: In our past conversations, we talked a bit about the inevitable mishaps that seem to occur with every printing experience.  The advice is always to be on-press, but for me it was so expensive to make the book at all that the additional cost to travel to press wasn’t affordable.  What was your experience with printing with a press in Iceland?

ED: I wanted to travel to Iceland to see the book coming off the press more than anything.  I tried to come up with a way I could make it over there, but alas, I was in my last quarter of graduate school, and had several things to pull together in addition to the book.  Oddi, the Icelandic printing company I worked with, was terrific.  They sent me a physical proof to study, and after that was signed off on, they then sent me a digital proof just to make sure everything was laid out and ordered the way it was supposed to be.  Typically, they would send two physical proofs, but because of my time restraints, they sent one physical, and one digital.  They sent me some advanced copies in time for my book release and thesis exhibition, and the rest showed up on a pallet a few weeks later.  They have a representative here in the States that helps to translate the job to the printing house in Iceland.  Everything went smoothly.

Rouse, Bennetts Point Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Rouse, Bennetts Point Road, Photo by Eliot Dudik

 

SM: We’re both adjunct photo professors.  I remember being an undergrad photo students and always wishing there was more real-world advice for how to get your foot in the door in any area of the photo world.  It’s the same thing I hear from my students now, which I make a point of devoting at least a whole class to answering those kinds of questions.  What is the best advice you give your students?

ED: I treat all of my students as artists, and hold them to the same expectations they will encounter after graduating.  I discuss marketing strategies with them in every class.  I encourage, and sometimes require submissions to publications, calls for entry, juried and solo exhibitions, internships and apprenticeships.  Most importantly, in my opinion, I encourage them to, and mentor them through attending events and conferences like the Society for Photographic Education.  I find these kinds of events to be invaluable for emerging artists for a number of reasons, but especially for the networking possibilities.  I think we had 12 students or so attend the SPE conference in Chicago last year, and I think they would agree that the experience was remarkable.

 

SM: What are you working on now and do you see it as a continuation of or departure from the themes or methods of working that you established for yourself in Road Ends in Water?

ED: I recently began working on a new project that explores the American Civil War, especially as it exists in our consciousness today.  Fortunately, this work is coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.  There are a few different components to this project so far.  I am creating landscapes of battlefields, both well known and obscure, with an 8×20 inch view camera.  However, instead of using black and white film within this camera, I am using two sheets of color 8×10 inch film.  This creates a separation in the image, which I am quite fond of, and lends to all sorts of symbolism.  I am also traveling to reenactments to capture the essence of war among some of these battlefields.  Additionally, I have begun the portrait component of this project this past weekend at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  I am very excited about these.  They are quite unique in their construction, and I think they will lend nicely toward my interests in the cyclical nature of repeatedly reproducing such a bloody war.  I am also collecting sounds as I move through these landscapes and episodes that will permeate the photographs.

I would think this new project is somewhat of a departure from Road Ends in Water in technique and construction, but in many ways its also a continuation.  I think it retains the sense of a journey, an investigation into life, death, conflict, and varying perspectives on an important subject.  Although the equipment I am currently using to interact with the landscape is different, I am still working by the same principals: see, feel, think, create.

 

Battle of Antietam, Maryland, 2013, Photo by Eliot Dudik

Battle of Antietam, Maryland, 2013, Photo by Eliot Dudik

SM: And lastly, what’s your ideal summer day?

ED: Ideally:  Air conditioning, coffee, images, music, ham and cheese on rye, loved one/s, cards or darts.

 

To purchase a copy of “Road Ends in Water” please visit http://eliotdudik.com/ and click on “Book.”

William Eggleston & The Advent of Color Fine Art Photography

Posted by on May 20, 2012 in Austin Nelson | No Comments

There has been a lot of discussion of late of artists’ and collectors’ rights following the Christie’s auction in March wherein William Eggleston sold reprinted editions of 36 of his iconic photographs and raised $5,903,250 for his artistic trust. The photos were 60” by 44” instead of his usual smaller print size and they were printed using a digital printing technology instead of his traditional dye-transfer printing technique. The complaint from collectors is that these reissues devalue their original investments in his artworks, with one collector, Jonathan Sobel, even taking the photographer to court claiming fraud was committed. The Eggleston Trust argues that artists should be able to make money from their works just as art dealers and collectors do and should be allowed to make “new editions in new formats”. While this is sure to be a precedent setting case, I am not attempting to enter the discussion on the issue. William Eggleston is my favorite photographer, but I feel somewhat pulled to both sides of the debate simultaneously. That said, this is simply a biographical introduction to the life and work of Eggleston.

Memphis is ugly.  William Eggleston knows that.  Yet throughout his life, Mr. Eggleston has continuously made extraordinarily beautiful and remarkable images of very ordinary, mundane, and even ugly places and people in and around Memphis, Tennessee, where he was born in 1939 and still lives today.  Largely considered the father of modern color fine art photography, Mr. Eggleston has traveled the world creating his powerful dye-transfer photographs, but his photos of the American South are his most notable, and even his images from Japan, Paris, Germany and elsewhere seem to be drenched in Americana. He has often said that he is at war with the obvious.  His worm’s eye view color photograph of a child’s tricycle on a suburban sidewalk which graces the cover of William Egglestons Guide perfectly elevated a ubiquitous and therefore ordinary childhood toy to an iconic status, turning it into a monument of sorts.

Eggleston spent most of his childhood on his grandparents’ plantation in Sumner, Mississippi, where he was primarily raised by his grandfather who took him under his wing, as he was the first boy born into the family.  He was brought up in a well-to-do household and attended college, admittedly infrequently, at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.  Eggleston never earned a college degree, but it was during his college years that he began photographing, acquiring his first camera in 1957, and his first Leica Rangefinder, the camera he is known for using almost exclusively throughout his career, in 1958.

After absorbing a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, Eggleston says photography finally “clicked” for him, though he was not only interested in photographing images that contained a decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson was, and, both expounding upon and somewhat disregarding that idea, he began to photograph images that he felt lasted longer than a defining moment or were at least less founded in that concept.  Eggleston’s earliest photographs are black and white images that are certainly inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s, but also contain subjects and compositions that seem to linger and convey a subtly unnerving mood.  He also introduced an unorthodox method of cropping the people in his photographs in unusual ways, often showing only parts of faces and bodies of passersby in his compositions.

It was in 1965 and 1966 that Eggleston began to experiment with color film.  It almost seems unbelievable today that this was considered taboo in the art and photography worlds at one time, but it most definitely was.  Black and white photography was the only photographic medium that could be considered fine art, with any deviation disregarded as amateurish and wholly denounced as mere snapshots.  This all changed largely as a result of the work of William Eggleston, but certainly not overnight.  Eggleston met the renowned photography curator of the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, by chance in 1969.  Eggleston was carrying with him a suitcase full of “drug store photographs”, as Szarkowski later described them, but he recognized something special about Eggleston’s work and persuaded the photography purchasing board of the museum to acquire one of his prints.

Though William Eggleston is considered by most to be the father of color fine art photography, his recognition did not come immediately.  It wasn’t until seven years after his first meeting with Szarkowski that his photos were shown in a major exhibition in New York, but the indefinable honor of having the first major one person show of color art photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York belongs to Mr. Eggleston.  Curated by John Szarkowski in 1976, this seminal show was initially blasted by art critics, who clearly did not understand the importance of Eggleston’s work, as “banal” and “boring.”  Eggleston claims that he was not fazed by the negative reviews, but instead felt bad for the critics; they were supposed to be modern art critics and they didn’t even understand modern art, he has said.  Most of these reviewers have since apologized to the artist for their failure to understand and appreciate his photographs at the time.  Many people did not value Eggleston’s photos until they noticed that he was having them printed using the dye-transfer process, the most expensive photographic reproduction technique available at the time, which forced art patrons, museum goers, and art critics alike to reexamine their viewing habits.  Slowly, people began noticing the brilliance of Eggleston’s composition and framing, his unique vision of the world and his surroundings, and, most importantly, and largely for the first time in fine art photography, his use of color.

The dye transfer process is a subtractive method of printing that creates extremely vibrant, saturated colors with bright whites and rich blacks.  Dye transfer prints were traditionally used as a proofing method for magazine advertisements, but Eggleston spotted it on the menu for a photo printing facility, and, after noticing that the option was the priciest the shop offered, he decided to test it out as an alternative printing process for his photographs.  He loved the result so much that he subsequently printed all of his large prints this way until very recently, when the quality of digital printing finally exceeded the quality of dye transfer prints and beat the price as well.

While picking through Eggleston’s endless back catalog of prints for the MoMA show in 1976, one curator opined that all of the photographs seemed to radiate in a circular manner from the center of the frame.  When asked whether or not this was a conscious decision, Eggleston without pause said that all of his photographs were based on the confederate flag. Eggleston famously all-but-refuses to talk about his photographs, instead leaving it up to the viewer to experience the photo for what it is, usually without as much help as a location identifying where it was taken or even what year, with the artist claiming that that sort of information is “not about photography”.  He seems much more interested in talking about his photography, and photography in general, as a canon.  Occasionally you may hear him talking about how he thinks the color red is at war with the other colors, or walk with him while he’s photographing and you may hear him say something like “God damn, that’s a good blue!”, but the particulars of specific images are basically off limits unless he decides to start talking about them and you happen to be there to hear.  The list of Eggleston’s disciples is seemingly infinite, but one notable is Alec Soth.  Soth once visited Eggleston at his home in Memphis to meet him and gain some insight into his photography, but left feeling perhaps even more curious as he had been when he arrived.  It is up to each of us individually, as viewers, to appreciate Mr. Eggleston’s works for what they are: timeless color photographs of the familiar, the obvious, the beautiful, the ugly and the rest, or to borrow the answer Eggleston himself gives when people ask what he is photographing, “life today.”

Robert Polidori, After the Flood

Posted by on Apr 3, 2010 in Bernard Yenelouis | One Comment

In conversation w/ D., about the photographing of ruins.

Ruins were common subjects in the first decades of photography: there are exemplary examples of such, as daguerreotype, calotype, wet plate image, etc. As a technical consideration, the immobility of any site, it’s stationary aspect, facilitated its imaging by processes which were time-intensive. & in these images one can see a cultural shift in the use of the image to delineate time as a physical residue, residue which can be simultaneously historical & touristic.

We can see the Acropolis or the excavations of Pompeii with the new technological vision of the camera. The sites tend to be much dirtier & unkempt than in our present day, or so it seems – it could be a problem w/ early orthochromatic films. It is as the places do not know how to be seen – how awkward they can seem. Or I think of the views by Roger Fenton of fantastical gothic ruins in England, with tiny figures randomly placed in the overgrown sites. This reminds me of how different it could be to experience such sites, physically, in different times. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess could run off to Stonehenge in her great solitude, whereas nowadays one would be on a very controlled guided tour.

The photograph also has air of judgement in it’s seeming ability to discern what is to be preserved & what is to be discarded. For example, the survey by Charles Marville of Paris before the expansion of the city by Baron Hausmann had obliterated the medieval city is an inventory of what is to be destroyed, after it has been recorded by the camera. This is a concrete manifestation of the assertion by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his article about the stereoscope: Form is henceforth divorced from matter. The image is what is necessary, not the thing itself.

Images of war, as the urgency of the conflict fades from memory, become quaint & fascinating for their visual qualities. From the US Civil War, George Barnard’s images following William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea” have an uncanny solitude, like Pompeii, which in no way imparts the aggressive fury of a military campaign of massive destruction. Such a duality in images – their ability to succor us from the horrors which they represent, is where I want to begin w/ my talk w/ D.

There are 2 photo books out this spring of Detroit – Detroit Disassembled, by Andrew Moore, and The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. I have my own ongoing photographic project of Detroit, which includes images of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, & Victorian ruins in Brush Park. More on this another time: but is Detroit a “disaster” or the outcome of capitalist logic played out, & played out on home turf? Isn’t it about economic obsolescence? An end that is now in sight?

From there the conversation led to Robert Polidori’s book of photos of New Orleans, after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori: After the Flood.

For D., the viewing of ruins is a romantic activity. & less substantial than, say, the lyrics of Shelley’s Ozymandias. No judgement is in the image itself, no (excuse the pun) point of view; the photographer is more a camera operator than an interpreter, with a technological recording at hand. The oblique photograph does not hone one’s perspective but instead offers distraction & a puzzlement of meaning. In more general terms, the photograph reduces all to tourism.

Polidori’s images of New Orleans are a fairly exhaustive inventory of damages from the hurricane & subsequent flooding, yet do so in a richly pictorial style we know from Polidori’s earlier work, with it’s sharp focus, rich colors, & intense details. I am partial to Polidori’s book of Havana, for example, which although of a poverty on a scale we ignore in the US (& also of a past sumptuousness equally foreign to our more Puritanical shores), does not read necessarily as a kind of victimization except as a manifestation of an Exotic Other (although I suspect it may function as a prospective real estate brochure for those waiting for the fall of communism in Cuba).

The images of New Orleans are structured entirely around the flood; the images also manage to aestheticize the disaster
& have it read as natural. As if it is the high waters & mold lines constitute the issues at hand, rather than the class warfare & bureaucratic neglect which facilitated the true disaster. & this is where the work becomes troubling, in its delectation of a ruined city, for no other purpose than it’s aesthetic consumption, in a simplified equation of cause & effect.

That said, I find that the void I sense looking at these images is what compels me to continue to look.

2732 Orleans Ave.

2732 Orleans Ave.

5000 Cartier Ave.

5000 Cartier Ave.

Canal Breach, Reynes St.

Canal Breach, Reynes St.