phototalks

PHOTOTALK WITH SCOTT CONARROE

BY DAVID POLLOCK

1. You photograph within a tradition in which travel or a road trip becomes part of the process. How much do you prepare regarding locating sites. Also, since the photographs are made from an elevated position I am interested to know whether you sense photographic opportunities from the ground level.

 «Well, I arrived at art with a functional road trip practise already in place. Most of the decade between high school and my BFA was spent living out of a van… yes, The Nineties. I’d work seasonally in the mountain parks or bush, then I’d enjoy a few months skiing and farting around. Even my art school years were split between the van and apartments. The case could be made that my primary practise is vagrancy and photography helps me masquerade as a professional.

For By Rail and By Sea I didn’t plan the routes much. I set up a few artist talks and drifted between them. These were nice, expansive projects but structured concisely enough (railroads, coastline) to keep me on track. Sometimes I consult Google Earth to see the lay of the land, but usually I just go places I’d like to spend a day or three or twenty and ride my bike around looking for things to climb up . The things I photograph are often determined by their proximity to something I can get on top of. There’s a spiel about how/why the elevated perspective functions aesthetically, rhetorically and in the history of image making, but mostly I like the privacy it affords me.  Sometimes I make exposures at ground level (and sometimes I really like them), but generally I feel conspicuous and a little silly on the street. Up high, where I’m hard to notice or approach, it feels like watching the show rather than setting up a 4x5 spectacle.»

2. The By Rail pictures present the tracks as a constant within diverse landscapes. What interested you initially about the idea of rail transportation and how did it evolve into this series?

«In 2003 I went from Vancouver to Canada’s east coast for grad school. Two years later I moved halfway back. With each move, stuff got thrown out. I noticed a lot of the photos I kept keeping -pictures of various places and things- had train tracks in them. It struck me that most everywhere I went was defined at least in part by railways. At the time I was also trying to evolve beyond my station of thirty-something year-old labourer with an MFA. I’d gotten a little recognition in Atlantic Canada by living there and making work, and I was gaining traction in southwestern Ontario for similar reasons. I got it in my head that to be relevant beyond a regional context I should go make pictures in and about the larger world. From there it was easy to get excited about the project that became By Rail.

As a thread of continuity, railways could take me a lot of places. As a conceptual device, the constancy they inscribe on such a vast landscape is inspired. As a motif, train tracks are fairly charming. And as a subject, North America’s relationship with rail fascinates me. They were crucial in our journey from hinterland to industrial power; they opened up the interior and west for settlement, they dictated the fates of immigrants and industrialists and native populations, and many modern cities grew out of whistle-stops. In a sense railways defined this westernmost of Western civilizations, then somewhere along the way we became uniquely hostile to them. For decades we’ve insisted rail doesn’t work while every other developed nation refined their systems; this suggests something distinct in our psychology. Much of North America’s rise came along with the creation of a rail infrastructure, and I see its dismantlement as emblematic of that era’s conclusion.

It’s also telling that By Rail is kind of seen as a throwback project. While I shot it the term “peak oil” entered our vocabulary, and the same auto sector that revived musclecars also needed huge subsidies just to keep the lights on. China began a massive rail expansion that will transform it like Interstate highways redefined America in the last century. Obama, the newly-elected symbol-savvy multi-racial Leader Of The Free World, rode a train to his inauguration and named “Amtrak Joe” Biden his vice-president. By Rail is as much about the world we live in as it is about the past.»

3. The elevated viewpoint, the time of day and the subject matter of the By Rail and By Sea projects makes me reflect upon the transitory nature of things. Could you talk about Time in relation to your pictures?

«Maybe I’ll confess it was just a few years ago I began identifying my work as documentary. I suppose because of where and when and with whom I went to school I tended to have Conceptual Artconversations and think of my practise in those terms. I always made work about Time though; Photo is good for that.

I like beauty and have formalist tendencies. The scene I knew privileged concept and process-driven art. To make my pretty landscape pictures acceptable I built aspects of that photographic looking-at-one-moment-from-the-perspective-of-another logic into every stage of my work. On one hand, I like how twilight looks and the ways dimness can translate onto film; I can make exposures for several minutes or until a car is about to push its headlights into my frame, or I can accumulate intervals of stillness a few seconds at a time. On the other hand, the transition between day and night is symbolically rich for someone resolving contradictory values. I like when the sun’s afterglow plays off a few electric lamps, and how those different illuminations allude to tensions between a world that unfolds gradually and one with a binary on-off intelligence, and between  romantic and pragmatic ideals… I like that the sun is already shining somewhere else when I make a photograph and that the lights in the scene don’t do much but call attention to the fact of light. My pictures aren’t about the “decisive moment”; they’re about durations condensed into instants and how a camera abstracts Time and Space and Light into static image planes. Somehow these are the notions that led to my documentary practise.

The elevated viewpoint is useful in this conversation because it dislocates the usual vantage of five or six feet off the ground. By suspending perspective, Place becomes less an area we could hypothetically occupy and more a diagram of such a space. It is rendered somewhat placeless. I think these senses of being and being without are what you’re describing as transitory.

Over the past few years I’ve chosen seemingly basic topics that become ambivalent quickly. Rail lines are the subject of By Rail, but they function like extras rather than stars; they’re seldom the focus of scenes and often they’re barely even there. I see the tracks and camera as parallel apparatuses; they were born of the same period and revolutionized the world in similar ways, and now they both sit perfectly still while the world washes over them… so yes, By Rail is way more about Time than steel.

By Sea is a similar project, but it’s inverted somehow. It also follows a line, but rather than receding from certainty, the coastline is fluid and flexing. Where By Rail is vaguely elegiac, I think By Sea imagines the dawn of some new era where environmental phenomena dominate our psyches a little more. I read it as anticipating nostalgia for this time when we can still wonder if climate change is really a big deal.»

4. Hilda and Bernd Becher presented their subjects, which included disappearing blast furnaces and water towers, as typologies. The precise and distanced rendering of their subjects, I think, co existed with a romantic vision.  I see your work, in this sense, as sharing this attitude toward your subjects. Which artists, visual or otherwise have influenced the way you make pictures?

«I see the Bechers as romantic too. I think it’s called projection. Regardless, they’re definitely an influence. I used to think I was working in opposition to some excessive tightness -of vision, of thought, of method- but now I appreciate their frankness and fidelity. I’m not in love with the Bechers’ oeuvre, but I am indebted to them. Jeff Wall does something similar for me.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie theatres are pretty perfect though. They’re tight in the best way. I also imagine Simon Norfolk’s Afghanistan: Chronotopia as a sort of friend to my work; when I use to be a delivery guy I’d to go across the street to Duthie Books between orders and greasy up their copy with my restaurant fingers.

I think most of my photographic instincts stem from an early introduction to Impressionism though. When my brother came back from his semester in Europe I think he worried we were complete yokels. As remedy, he presented our family with a gigantic Impressionism book that sat on the living room table for years. There was nowhere else for it. I absorbed it throughout my adolescence, and I even remember reading chunks of the essay.  My palette, ideas on optical mixing, and the way I present space feel in keeping with that legacy.

Outside the visual… Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” and the Richard Ford Frank Bascombe Trilogy were perfect companions during my North America projects. Simon Winchester accomplishes what I’d like my work to do some day; his books are epic and tender and informative and casual and rigorous portraits of places and notions and events. He turns up over and over while I “research” my next project and one I’ve just started turning over.»

Interview by David Pollock

Project were made with assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and Light Work. / By Rail catalog is now available from AGW or Stephen Bulger Gallery.  

© urbanautica | Scott Conarroe

PHOTOTALK WITH MATTHIAS HEIDERICH

BY MARCO RISTUCCIA

1. Colors! That’s what first caught my eye by seeing your works. Geometry was the second one. A series of architectural fragments which could even be joined together, like in a puzzle. Their juxtaposition seems to create a dance, a rhythm. Tell me more about your relationship with architecture and how you treat color in these works.

«Rhythm and geometry are good keywords here. These are definitely things I’m looking for when searching for subjects to photograph. Architecture has never been of big interest to me at all, but since my first steps as a photographer I realised buildings can even be beautiful and interesting. And if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find a lot of beauty and interesting details in the buildings that surround you, yes, even in the ugly ones. What I usually do when I’m out shooting is observing the subjects around me, looking for that detail I can take out of its context to create something new, an artificial contextless world isolated from the rest, ideally colorful and silent. That’s also why I try to keep people out of my photographs, people are loud and distracting, I don’t hate people, but I don’t want them to be in my photographs.

Colors are great, I love colors, whoever invented them must have been a genius :) They transport so much and look great in photographs. I very often miss them in black and white photography. Pictures often look incomplete without colors in my opinion. Sure, there are many cases in which photographs work perfectly without colors, you can play with contrasts and moods, but well, like I said I would miss the colors after a while and get bored. To get the best results here I prefer to shoot on sunny days, using color filters with my cameras and adjusting the colors later during processing. Over time the colors and color combinations I like most became a trademark, I guess».

2. How did you get involved into photography and who are your preferred photographers?

«Photography has never been of interest for me when I was younger. In 2008, I was 26 then, I bought my first digital camera, this was shortly after I had moved to Berlin to write my thesis in linguistics. After finishing the thesis, I spent much time exploring the city with my camera. I did that almost every day and enjoyed being out with the camera and my music a lot - a new and efficient way of escapism for me back then. After a while I wanted to learn more about different cameras, especially analogue / medium format ones, processing photographs, and other photographer’s work. The internet is really helpful if you’re of a do-it-yourself nature, so I basically learned everything through reading and trying out things myself. Photography luckily isn’t rocket science, you can learn to take pictures with almost every camera in a couple of weeks, if you really want to. More important, perhaps, finding out what you want to do with it and to develop your own signature. My biggest inspiration here has always been the music I listen to and the artwork that is coming with it. There are many photographers I really admire, I find new ones on a daily basis. All time favorites are Josef Schulz, Christoph Morlinghaus, Kurt Manley, Garmonique».

3. I noticed a difference in terms of photographic language between your color works, as in the “Studies”, and monochromatic (or rather so) projects like “White noise”. It’s quite like formalism versus expressionism, a cold eye in respect to a more romantic glance. What’s your real nature?

«People are complex and love all kinds of stuff, I’m happy to be no exception here. All I can say is I like different kinds of photography and trying out different things is important to me. Exploring new places is exciting, no matter if they are in the city or outside of it. My natural habitat is the countryside, I love being in the woods and getting up early to see the fog over the fields. Capturing that with a camera is one of the loveliest things in the world to me. But I also enjoy creeping around the city a lot, you can find so many strange and alien places there and feel like a big explorer with a bike as your spaceship».

4. Tell me about the project “Ostseebad Binz”. What’s the idea behind this work? Do you have a particular relationship with that place?

«This series was shot during a camping trip to Binz, which is situated on the island of Rügen. It’s a private project. The weather was absolutely great that week, fog + beach is a fantastic combination, the atmosphere was so ghostly».

5. I saw you live in Berlin. A lot of people talk about it as a dream city, especially for artists. In your opinion what is the truth about this and what are the career prospects for an art photographer in Berlin?

«Berlin still is a great city, especially for artists. But It’s changing a lot at the moment. Attractive places attract mean rich people, too. People try to earn money here, that’s the way it goes. This also means rents are not as low any more as they used to be. I’m sure less and less artists will come to Berlin in the future, and life as an artist will become harder. It’s pretty obvious other cities will become more attractive to artists in the near future. However, so far I have enjoyed living and working in Berlin. It’s easy to find people to work with. Berlin is full of galleries run by young and talented people. It has all been very good for me in the last two years and I’m happy moving to Berlin was the right decision. Thanks Berlin!»

6. In the project “ISO Berlin” what the term ‘ISO’ stands for?

«ISO stands for isolation or isolated. The series focuses mainly on being alone in an overpopulated area, a subject present in most of my photographies. Isolation feels so much stranger in the middle of the city and I wanted to conserve this feeling. Some people said it feels post-apocalyptic, which might be true and not the worst effect, in my opinion. Here again the music I listen to during my trips becomes visible, I love dark ambient, drone, experimental electronic music, music that feels post-apocalyptic, too».

7. By working with galleries you are used to manage print editions. There is a lively discussion about the fact whether an edition should or shouldn’t encompass all print formats of the same photograph. Collectors often complain that if an artist is able to introduce a new print size (and edition) whenever he wants, the value of a purchased work is not preserved in time. What do you think about this?

«Yes, that’s a problem and it will be almost impossible to change that. Digital work can be copied within seconds, you can print it over and over again, nobody can control that. The only way to change it is to develop new systems of handling editions. However, I’m absolutely serious about the editions I offer and I control sales as good as I can and everybody else should take it serious, too. Otherwise it will do harm to all of us photographers».

8. Some words about the future: any new upcoming project in mind?

«Upcoming: Exhibitions in San Francisco, Taipei and Berlin plus hopefully finishing my book, which is kind of an offline overview of the projects I have done plus unreleased pictures and some personal comments - a project I wanted to do for the longest time. However it’s much more complicated then I thought and it might take a while to finish it. Thanks to everyone who helped me so far, it means a lot!»

© urbanauticaMatthias Heiderich

PHOTOTALK WITH BETH DOW

BY GREGORY E. JONES

1. First off, tell us about your history with photography. How did you get started, and what are the wells from which you draw your inspiration?

«My dad was an industrial photographer and filmmaker, so I grew up around cameras and darkroom equipment, and learned pretty early on to see the world through the viewfinder’s rectangular frame. My preferred medium, however, was graphite, and I drew obsessively. I don’t draw very often now, but graphite’s soft gray mid-tones are still evident in my photographs. 

I’ve always been interested in the peculiar ways we shape and experience the land, and this also goes back to my childhood. We lived on a dead-end road that led to a wide, wild field. This field held all the secrets of the suburban neighborhood’s mythology, and was punctuated dead-center by an old black (yes, it really was black) farm house just a little too far away to venture alone. We rode our bikes, spied on smoking teens and roosting herons, caught snakes, and filled buckets with wild strawberries. Here, I learned that the landscape is a messy, dangerous, wonderful place, and that sometimes the most magical things happen on a small, subtle level».

2. The images you make are done through a hybrid of contemporary and vintage photographic processes, could you elaborate on the methods you use to create your work? 

«My work includes technology from the three centuries touched by photography. I shoot 20th century medium-format roll film with a hand-held camera, edit and convert the images to large-format inkjet negatives with 21st century digital technology, and then Keith Taylor, my husband and printer, makes hand-coated platinum prints with 19th century processes. I adore film. Film. FILM. Say it. Use it. Love it.

3. I’m interested in your “Ruins” series because the nature of the subject matter goes hand in hand with your process. You photograph scenes of faux antiquity, contemporary contraptions designed to immerse viewers in the illusion of the true history that these places try to invoke.  Is the irony intended, in that your subject matter mirrors the conceptual stance of you process? Is so, what’s the bottom line?

«The fake ruins are perfect metaphors for me. I briefly considered going the whole route of view camera, wet plate collodion, albumen, etc., but nixed that idea on the next blink. “Ruins” is modeled on the work of Francis Frith and other Victorian expedition photographers. They used the materials and processes they were most comfortable with, so I took the same strategy and shot it with my Fuji 6x7. I kept the tonality rather similar, and cars and power lines are my stand-ins for their two-men-and-camel. I also like how the rich platinum process emphasizes a tension between the high-brow and low-brow. These photographs make me laugh, but it’s a laugh of recognition rather than derision. While these appropriations and approximations of antiquity may be peculiar, they also signal a kind of unspoken agreement that these forms mean something to us. They are follies of pre-crumbled ruins that seem to suggest our mortality, but I prefer to think of them in a different way. I recently photographed genuine antiquities in Greece, and was struck by the tenacity of those structures. Sure, they are cracking, tipping over, wearing away, but they are still there! They persist in the landscape, and their forms persist in our architecture today. Ruins can be markers of endurance».

4. Another series of yours, “In the Garden” gives us images of, from your statement: “formal English and Italian gardens.” These shots, for me, conjure up the work done by Atget near the Palace of Versailles. The tones in these photos are full and dynamic, and give a certain ethereal quality to these places. The garden itself is an oft used motif throughout the history of art, as a symbol of both lavishness and prosperity; your pictures however disregard the warmth and color of the gardens for the sake of something more mysterious. Could you elaborate on this a bit, and perhaps provide some insight into your motivations going into this project?

«I lived in London for years, so these places are familiar. An intelligently designed garden is a magical place, and color, for me, has absolutely nothing to do with it. One of our earliest creative urges as humans was to arrange our environment. This urge evolved into the long, rich history of garden-making that most American probably don’t know exists. Reading about garden history and design touches on all the great themes of life, certainly things like power, sex, and religion. Flowers don’t interest me in any way, and I can’t enjoy gardens that are only pretty, because they completely miss the point and betray an ignorance of landscape history.

The Atget thing is a hard one to shake because he is often mentioned. Maybe because most garden photographs are in color? Color garden photographs are too specific for me, drawing my attention to horticultural and botanical details when I’d rather think of near/far, liquid/solid/vapor, hard/soft/rough, up/down. I can illustrate it this way: the idea of a rose garden sounds rather wonderful, right? Have you ever been to one? Ugh. Chest-high plant after chest-high plant, plenty of color yet about as interesting as a seed catalog. I’m more concerned with why and how we continue to interfere with our environment, especially when there is no immediately discernible practical reason. A well-considered garden is a perfect example of this.

5. What’s coming up for you in 2012, photographically or otherwise?

«I was fortunate to be awarded a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and a fantastic fellowship from the McKnight Foundation this year and I’m using those big boosts to look more deeply at ruins. I’m fabricating a classical history of the Twin Cities, merging images of Greek and Roman ruins with their local architectural echoes. This will include artist books, photographs, and hopefully some experimental forms. I’m also digging deeper into books, playing with letterpress and different binding systems. I’m having fun!

© urbanauticaBeth Dow

1 of 10 fine art @hahnemuehle 16x20 prints that I’ll be showing during my talk February 18th (next week!!) in San Francisco at 7pm (at Grosvenor Hotel, 380 S. Airport Blvd. South San Francisco). Come hang out with me, @bayphotolab , @borrowlenses ,Philip Mauer Photo Mount and see how this photo was made along with my process and approach to lighting. Who’s coming?? Comment below and let me know. It’ll be a blast. Look forward to seeing you you there #abbywambach #uswnt #sanfrancisco #photography #bts #hahnemühle #bayphoto #phototalk

PHOTOTALK WITH PETER BAKER

BY MARCO RISTUCCIA

1. Tell me about your introduction into photography. I see you’re also a designer. How did you get started with photography and what’s the relationship (if any) with your work as a designer?

«I have degrees in both photography and graphic design. Graphic design was always my fallback, commercial art career, while photography had always been purely a creative pursuit. Rather than assisting photographers, which probably would’ve been a good idea, I made the rent by designing logos, magazines, and websites. And I think designing for print for so long absolutely informed my photography, especially compositionally. I saw things in terms of form and color, almost like I was conscious of where I was going to have to later place the type».

2. In your works I can see a delicate and well balanced mix between social and environmental documentation. You often depict open breathing spaces, where few standing people appear calm, happy and stress-free. Not exactly the images that usually comes to us from the States. What are your methodological approach and intent? Who are the artists that most inspired you?

«I’m originally from a very small town in the midwest, and grew up in the countryside outside of that town. It was calm, to say the least. And after college when I was first shooting without structured university assignments, I was living in Chicago, where it’s not exactly easy to find yourself alone with your thoughts, and I was seeking out places that had a touch of the solitude I had been used to. And I think, sometimes unconsciously, I keep trying to depict that feeling elsewhere, especially in places where you’d never think you could find that sense of calm. 

As for inspiring photographers, there’re too many to name them all, but off hand; Bryan Schutmaat is a big favorite, I wish his Western Frieze project was mine. If Noah Kalina wasn’t a friend, I’d hate him, the guy’s so prolific. Mark Wickens has an amazing eye and Hin Chua has really got it all figured out. And I’ve said it before, but Alec Soth haunts my dreams».

3. In your projects “Blissfield” and “The Great Lakes” I notice a contrast between beautiful landscapes, perfectly integrated wooden houses and simple people life in respect to the harsh iron matter of imposing industrial structures. Indeed I often see this in your works. Are you complaining of an environmental disaster or do you think that the two realities can coexist without problems? How do you see the future of your country?

«I think two competing aspects of the great lakes area – abundant natural and recreational resources amongst a once immeasurable industrial economy – has left the region with a really interesting juxtaposed visual aesthetic. The two realities have been coexisting for so long that people stop seeing it as anything but normal, so rather than just taking pictures of the parts we all agree are nice, I’d rather allow people to see it all».

4. The use of the square format makes everything quite static, helping the viewer to slow down and spend more time on every single shot. I often notice that putting the subject on the center of a square frame works, aesthetically and purposefully, better than doing so with a rectangular one. Would you comment on this? Is your adoption of this format coming from love, habit or language choice?

«I’m not sure what originally drew me to square format. Some combination of the symmetry and order it allows, as well as just being different. There are interesting compositions that work well in a square that just don’t feel right in a rectangle of any shape. I didn’t really feel like I was doing anything right until I started seeing things through a waist-level Hasselblad, and then scenes just started clicking, and they were looking like how I had envisioned them. And now even when shooting other formats, I see the scene first as square. So I suppose it went from love, to language choice, and now habit. Shooting large format is helping me kick that habit a bit, but I still get the itch to crop them».

5. The work “Quietude” seems to relate to the previous argument. And this is a mood I feel in all your photographs. Is quietude something you are looking for or is it part of your personality? Does quietude necessarily imply human absence for you?

«I don’t think it necessarily has to require human absence, but it does imply an awareness of our surroundings. We tend to feel like something is only happening is something is REALLY happening, but even at it’s most still, our world is buzzing around us. Being bored is underrated, and being quiet is healthy».

6. Did you see “The Straight Story” by David Lynch? Your photos remind me of the images on that film: a slow and quiet trip of an elderly man across a country street riding a lawnmower, with the aim to rejoin with his brother. Is this the essence of your country, and maybe even of your photography?

«I watched it recently as a result of you asking. I loved it. I don’t know about it being the essence of my country, but is sure did evoke some of the same emotions I feel when I’m photographing. Especially the scene where he sees a storm coming for miles and can’t do anything about it – the lawn mower can’t go any faster – but just as the rain starts to come down he manages to find an open barn to pull in to, which turns out to be the perfect place to watch the thunderstorm roll through».

7. You are also an Art Director, let’s talk about exhibitions. How important is the editing and printing phase for your works? How much time and care you invest on this? Do you prefer small or large print sizes for your photos?

«I don’t spend enough time thinking about exhibiting, printing or displaying. I’m trying to get better at it, but once I’m done with a project in my mind, I immediately start thinking about the next one».

8. What’s coming up for the future? Any new project in mind?

«I’ll be in Alaska for a while this summer, shooting the inner passage between the islands of the southern part of the state. And would like to continue working on what I’ve been shooting around Las Vegas and other southwestern US boom towns. But, like I said above, I need to do more with what I’ve already shot too».

© urbanauticaPeter Baker

PHOTOTALK WITH CHRIS ROUND

BY STEVE BISSON

1. Firstly tell us about how you came to photography? 

My main artistic interests when I was younger was painting but I became increasingly impatient and wanted more ‘instant results’. I began to take a keen interest in photography while travelling (I travelled around Australia in the mid 90’s). When I look through those shots some still hold a certain aesthetic value today, though some art quite cheesy if I’m honest! This interest developed further and I ended up studying at Sydney College of The Arts. I always wanted to take a 'fine art’ approach to my work though and this required me working as a creative in Advertising to help pay the bills, so to speak. Having eased off the advertising side of things these past couple of years have become my most prolific, photography-wise.

2. What kind of research are developing today and how this is linked to your past?

My research of late continues down two main areas. 

Firstly I am always observing the surreal relationship humans have with their surroundings. Subject matter can be from local scenes in my neighbourhood to scenes more further afield in Australia or overseas. This strand of research has also evolved in to analysis of our relationship with nature, not so much from an environmental perspective but from a study of the definition. With my recent exhibition 'Evidence’ I was discussing with the curator (Sandy Edwards) about a hard-line definition of nature expanding to include almost everything that we humans create. We are after all natural beings and have been manipulating our surroundings for millennia, as do many animals.  It is in our nature to do so. What is natural then? Is a mining pit natural? Is a playground natural? I can’t possibly answer this, and don’t adhere to this train of thought, but it’s something I enjoy theorising about (without condoning some of man’s ways). As well as going out and finding new places to document I am interested in constructing my own subject matter both in the field and perhaps in a studio environment - bringing the outside indoors. Hopefully this is something I can begin to work this year. I have a feeling this may evolve in to a whole new strand of thinking, but will take time.

I can see a link to my past for some of my images for sure. Living in the Midlands (in the UK) as a boy I remember painting a landscape that included a power station along the River Trent - at once a pretty scene with trees, fields and animals, but with the footprint of man there for all to see. It’s a scene I should go back and shoot. I was also fascinated, at that time, with the work of John Constable. His English landscapes seemed to me to be the documentary images of their time portraying the landscape as it was, not an imaginary place. This quite different from the Romantic school he is associated with. Perhaps subconsciously this early interest has remained with me.

The other, ongoing and ever-evolving strand of research is my dual British and Australian nationality. These are places that are culturally very similar, yet geographically very different. Having spent a similar time in each country I find myself being both a local and a foreigner in each country. This is covered in my series 'Comfortable Displacement’ which we will discuss later.

3. There are many recognizable references in your work. Tell us what are your major influences and what photographers you particularly enjoy. Besides photography what are the artists, books, works of art that impressed you the most?

There are a number of influences I have had over the years. They can arise from a simply observation in the street, from reading books, and more artistic and obvious influences. Photographically I remember seeing Joel Sternfeld’s photograph ‘Mclean, Virginia’ when I was young and have admired his work ever since. In the list of photographic influences photography influences are also Jeff Wall, Joel Mayerwitz, Andreas Gursky, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Edward Burtynsky, Thomas Struth, Geert Glorisand, Frank Breuer, I could go on and on.  

Some of my favourite works of art include the paintings of Constable and Turner through to the likes of the abstract expressionists Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman and Franz Kline. I love the engagement and challenging nature of more contemporary and conceptual art of people like Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Thomas Locher to name a few. I also think my career in advertising has influenced my thinking - I have always believed in communicating with great ideas (where possible!!) and I think this filters through in to the way I structure my work. 

4. Some of your series are works in progress, to which you add new images regularly. We really like this open attitude. Let’s talk for example of the series 'Comfortable Displacement’ that deals with a very important issue for us at Urbanautica - the emotional bond between the individual and a place. Years ago, in an interview, I wrote that landscape photography, while maintaining geographic representation, is moving towards an introspective dimension, almost psychological. In this way you can also tie together different countries as you did. Did you find the meaning of identity? Tell us about this project, the difficulties you encountered and its prospects.

This project has helped me answer some of the questions that arose when I asked myself “why am I drawn to the subjects I photograph?” ie: living in Australia but being drawn to overcast light and somewhat gloomy conditions (maybe it’s because I’m by the beach on the nice days!) and photographing the kind of landscapes one might find in any developed country.

Not sure I found the meaning of identity yet, but I’m perhaps closer. I love both countries (hence 'comfortable displacement’) but during my questioning I found that I was maybe a little too dismissive of my English heritage, but now I realise it drives a lot of my aesthetic choices when making photographs. There are a difficulties with a project like this. Firstly a practical problem: it requires photographs from both countries and some hefty travel expenses! The main issues though were to do with the subject matter. Did I want to show surroundings I was familiar with in order to convey a bond (or broken bond perhaps)? I thought about this a lot but my thinking was that I didn’t want to be too literal. I concluded that to be true to the idea I needed to be unfamiliar with my surroundings, in essence dramatising the concept and creating fictional representations of displacement. Hopefully this accentuates the feeling of displacement to the viewer. 

I am quite sure that this project will continue for many years, at least subconsciously; I will always have a close association with each country and, so as long as I am creatively active, this background story will most likely influence my work to some degree.

5. In the series 'Fragile beast’ you put out a recurring theme in the documentary landscape. The fragility of the soil and the environment. All this invites us to reflect on the value of photography in witnessing the transformation of the territories. Do you think from your experience as a photographer that the post-modern society has understood this need to document the time through its signs?

Interesting question Steve. Hey I’m no philosopher but I think that individuals and small groups (artists, writers, photographer, activists etc) understand this need and can use it to powerful effect in post-modern society, but governments and big business don’t (or choose not to). Today, with such an interconnected society, with so many image making tools available to people, modern life (in all it’s forms) is being documented more comprehensively than ever by individuals across the globe and this continual scrutiny is hard to avoid.

Perhaps this documentation has also become more diverse and fragmented, replicating the post-modern, globalised society - from introspective, self-conscious documentation to broader themed documentation like environmental and societal issues. From my perspective the process of documenting through photography is still hugely important and will continue to be - even if the subject matter is a chair that was sitting by the side of a road one day (and is gone the next) to a pristine environment that is gradually quarried for its resources. Perhaps now though, more than ever it’s imperative that we record and document because the rate of change is increasing exponentially, in all walks of life from innovation in technology to transformation of the environment. 

What interested me in the Cornish China Clay mines, though, was also that the area was once so economically vibrant simply because of what was found lying under the soil, much like the boom we’re experiencing in Australia at the moment. The Cornish mines have now been hit by global competition from developing nations offering cheaper ore prices, cheaper labour prices. 

This has left the landscape and also the community (now with high unemployment levels) scarred for life. I wonder if this is prescient as we are already seeing Australian mining companies struggle to compete with cheaper labour costs from other nations. History repeats so I wonder if photographers will be telling stories about the demise of mining in Australia, in Brazil, China etc  in 50 years time when the world either runs out of demand, or supply (or both).  

6. Landscape photography by definition owes much to painting. With the project '21st century settler’ you inspire a dialogue with painting. Today we observe instead that the painting is taking a lot from photography, thinking of hyper realism. What is your relationship with the arts in general and the history of art. And how was created and developed the idea for this project?

I mentioned earlier my interest in Constable - I was always very interested in art when I was young and painted but was always frustrated with the time it took, hence my interest in photography (not an un-common reason to switch I believe!). However I also had a keen interest in modern art and my tastes and my reading clearly followed a chronology from The Renaissance to Constable and Turner, then Fauvism, Cubsim, then Abstract Expressionism and through to conceptual art and the contemporary art of the past 20 years or so. I love experiencing great new ideas and so my main interests today generally lie in what’s happening 'now’. 

The idea for 21st Century Settler came during a visit to the Kangaroo Valley (country NSW, Australia) in the winter of 2011. It was a damp and misty weekend and the scenes reminded me very much of some of the paintings made by early Australian artists - of their surroundings and of settlers making a new life for themselves. Of course with my English background the overcast and damp weather was conducive to me taking pictures! I began to ask: how would some of these painters tackle this scenery today, and with a camera? The scenery reminded me most of the ones Frederick Mccubbin painted and some his most famous works like Down On His Luck, Lost , Bush Burial and The Pioneer were tonal and processing reference points for me. It’s also interesting for me consider this idea in the context of my later series 'Comfortable Displacement’ - many of McCubbin’s paintings deal with the emotional difficulties of settling in a new country in the 1800’s. Perhaps it could be seen as a precursor, though my life is far easier than theirs ever was!

7. Plans for the future?

This year my show 'Evidence’ will be travelling to Melbourne to be shown at at Edmund Pearce Gallery, a great gallery dedicated to showcasing contemporary photography. I have also been invited to participate in the Ballarat International Foto Biennale and I am also trying to organise a couple of group shows. I will also keep shooting more ideas and adding to existing ones, and this year I plan to experiment some more both in the field and with some studio based work. I will also enter some more awards (budget permitting) - it’s good to aim for some recognition here and there. Long term plans will evolve, as hopefully my work will, so I will take it year by year but I think my next major long-term step is to really push myself conceptually.

© urbanauticaChris Round

PHOTOTALK WITH LOUIS PORTER

BY STEVE BISSON

1. How did you get into photography, what schools did you attend and what drives you and motivates you to continue this research.

I can’t remember exactly when I developed an interest in photography, but by the time I was 18, I was taking photographs with increasing frequency and had setup the first of many darkrooms. I began and left two university courses and although one of them was in photography, I think it’s probably more accurate to say I am self-educated. I began making a living from photography in my mid twenties and in 2003 I embarked on a series of long-term photographic projects.

© Louis Porter, ‘Cheap Flights’ from Fun

I am an inveterate wanderer, both in my interests and movements and I believe this tendency instigated my involvement with photography. Like many, I am motivated by a desire to describe the world, how it works and why. In order to do this, some form of mediation is required: language, science, faith and so on. Any act of encapsulation, ultimately envelops the subject in its own representation, a kind of metaphysical bait and switch. What began as a simple act, the desire to “collect” fragments of the world, has evolved into a fascination in the effect the process of collecting and collating has on reality. Therefore, much of my drive to photograph has been generated from the photographs I have already made.

2. Let’s talk about landscape or human geography. A recurring theme, that crosses many of your works. What attracts us is the curiosity with which you deal with this research. The series, or rather the archive, 'The Small Conflict Archive’, is a collection of practices and urban behavior from which emerge several aspects of everyday life both social and anthropological. A project that also masks a desire to realize and enhance what is 'already there’ but not seeing anymore (Rupture and Repair, Crap Paint Jobs, Men Up Ladders…) Tell us a bit more of it and also what are the plans for this archive that we hope you will keep growing in the future.

There is a common assumption that in the performance of the everyday, the expected and ordinary, there exists a natural equilibrium, a normality that we consider to be the correct state of being. It is this framework of normality that we see broken or shattered by acts of violence, such as assault and murder. The Small Conflict Archive proposes that acts of violence are not simply deviations from a stable norm, but part of an arrangement of varying shades of conflict, of which normality makes up the majority.

© Louis Porter, 'Rupture and Repair’ from The Small Conflict Archive

To the Archive, the surface of a city is made up of vast networks of signification, but because of the sheer quantity of information we are confronted with, our minds treat this visual cacophony as a form of optical “elevator music”. Much as a scientist uses a prism to diffract light, I’m trying to use photography to break down the surface of the city, to reveal the hidden connections.

© Louis Porter, 'Men Up Ladders’ from The Small Conflict Archive

I very much see the project as ongoing and a selection of the work is being published early next year under my imprint Twenty Shelves, with the support of the Victorian Equal Opportunities and Human Rights Commission.

© Louis Porter, 'Bodge’ from The Small Conflict Archive

3. Some of your projects use the memory, for example through the use of historical images, or archive. As in the series 'The Anatomy of Business’ or 'Record and Analysis’ for instance. Tell us briefly about these works, and above all, how important is the size of time in your narrative. 

Both “The Anatomy of Business” and “Record and Analysis” involve the appropriation of a pre-existing archive and the addition of photographs produced by myself, in response. The final projects are presented in such a way, that the context and authorship of the images are brought into question.

© Louis Porter from The Anatomy of Business

The writer Jorge Luis Borges, suggested that the history of literature could be told without referring to individual authors and that what we see in literature are metaphors and ideas that thread in and out of history. I think this can also be said of photography and my archival projects forgo the: who, why, what and when, to attempt an examination of the structure of the message, to look for continuity in the photographic act, in its gestures and motifs. Time is fundamental to photography, but it is always the present that mediates our understanding of the past, so that any historical record, such as a photograph, is hermetically sealed the moment we look at it. With these projects, I have attempted to break this seal by fracturing the very things that make these photographs unique, their context and in particular with the “Anatomy of Business”, their source.

© Louis Porter from The Anatomy of Business

4. Going back to the urban landscape, we find that you often have recourse to a vernacular attention to highlight what you call 'cracks’, as in the series 'Unknown Land’. Why is it important to tell the country in this way, and what draws you to it?

Australia could be viewed as an example of the “transportation of place”, the imposition of the social, cultural and physical characteristics of one place (Europe) onto another (Australia). Although the continent was made up of hundreds of socially and linguistically distinct nations, forged over many millennia, it was considered by the British government to be Terra Nullius (land belonging to no-one) and treated as such.

In light of this, it becomes difficult to view the urban landscape, without addressing a process of colonial erasure. The “cracks” I am interested in, could be equated to the “tell” of the poker player, the twitch or curled lip that gives the game away. These, like the poker player’s involuntary tic, do not show what is being concealed, but demonstrate that an act of concealment is taking place. My intent with “Unknown Land”, is to produce a series of images that illuminate a sense of disquiet in the Australian Landscape, without directly revealing the source of the sensation.

© Louis Porter from Unknown Land

There is a very mysterious quality to the Australian urban landscape; at times it can feel like being on a film set before the actors arrive for work. I find this feeling, from an artistic perspective, deeply compelling.

5. Some series tell us about Chinese and China. Recently, the Chinese landscape photography is becoming a little cliché. In your images instead we find more curiosity (100 Flowers, Wires at Night) and less willing to judge. Images that raise questions rather than answers. What attracts you to this country, what has struck you in particular and what would you like to see again?

China is a remarkably complicated country and one that for the most part, is very easy to photograph in. I have worked in China as both a professional photographer and an artist and the more I see of the country, the more complicated it appears to me. The temptation to photograph China in an exotic, industrial-picturesque fashion is understandable.

© Louis Porter '100 Flowers’ from I love China

However, although the massive factories and imposing concrete skylines certainly exist, they tell us no more about the country, than photographs of the Statue of Liberty and the Whitehouse tell us about America. It is in fact almost impossible to really get to grips with a country as a visitor, and all we can ever engage with is the surface of a place.

© Louis Porter '100 Flowers’ from I love China

To counter this, the projects I have produced in China, all engage directly with the engineered surface itself, be it the Olympic flowerbed decorations of 100 Flowers or the theme parks, shopping centres and museums of I Love China So Do You. What attracts me most to China, is it that it is simultaneously a society that appears to be in constant flux and yet almost without flinching, bears the weight of thousands of years of history. As with most of my work, I have tried in China to produce projects that have several layers. The title 100 Flowers for example, is a reference to a campaign initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong in 1956, where he called for the opinions of the Chinese intelligentsia on the revolution’s achievements. The far from glowing report led to a crackdown, that in turn germinated the Cultural Revolution.

© Louis Porter 'Wires at Night’ from I love China

6. Finally, can you suggest to our readers a recent show, artist, book, movie that you particularly loved?

Walid Raad’s exhibition/performance at Documenta 13, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow - A History of Art in the Arab World blew me away. Also the exhibition at the V&A of work by Arthur Bispo do Rosário, a Brazilian psychiatric patient and “outsider artist” was some of the best work I’ve seen.

© urbanauticaLouis Porter

PHOTOTALK WITH ERIC TABUCHI

BY MARCO RISTUCCIA

1. You mention that you studied sociology. In which way do you think these studies influenced your photography? Don’t you find it somewhat strange that a sociologist completely avoids people in his works?

Through sociology I discovered the work of Augustus Sanders and the photographers of the “New Objectivity”, particularly the Becher and Lewis Baltz. At that moment, it appeared to me that showing the infinite diversity of what men build was a good way to describe the men themselves, with the particular distance that belongs to sociology. Each building or object that I photograph - they are always very humble in nature - is in my view a counter-field of the humanity as such. I always try to photograph the “things” as they “are” because it seems to me that the sense of the landscape environment described those who live there very well.

2. Being born from Japanese father and Danish mother, and living in Paris, how did you get in touch and love with American photography? Tell me more about your photographic and artistic growth path.

With hindsight, and to be very honest, the influence of American culture on exercising my imagination is probably due -precisely- to my lack of imagination.By this  I mean that the enormous power of American art, be it literature, cinema, music, art or even propaganda made it difficult in the 70s not to be undergoing this force of attraction. Having said that, I first “entered” in American photography with Lee Friedlander, especially the pictures of the roadside. I think at that time I was a lonely young man and I identified with this melancholic universe, which was reminiscent of Hopper’s paintings. However, the real turning point, the one that really drew me into photography is the discovery of the work of Lewis Baltz. His thoroughness, the silence of the suspended world, which he described in “Park City” for example. Parallel to this, and in a much more “lighter” spirit, I’m passionate for Californian artists using photography like Douglas Huebler, John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha and many others. For completeness, the way Robert Smithson used photography to document his work has also played an important role in that it realized the connection between the “pure” photography of Baltz and the conceptual approach of the “Californians”. In fact, my relationship to photography is the result of the blending between this objective rigor and pop flippancy.

3. Have you ever been in America? Which country do you love the most: France or America?

I went shortly twice, in New York and Los Angeles, that’s just to say that I haven’t traveled in the United States. As I hinted in the previous question, my fascination for America dried up over time to the point that today I no longer feel attraction for this country. If my eyes had to go elsewhere it would be much more to Europe or Central Asia, on the other side of the Atlantic. Anyway, when I started taking photos there, it was soon clear in my mind that I will not do those images of France just because I was somehow indifferent. I refuse still now to take pictures outside my familiar territory. I’m often saying something that is certainly not appealing to everyone but I have some difficulty with images taken in spectacular places of the planet and returned, as if we were still in the nineteenth century, to be exhibited in galleries or museums. So yes, definitely, I prefer photographing France.

4. As you have confirmed, your works are also clearly influenced by the Becher’s series. What is your intent in creating series? Is it a mode to classify reality? Or a way to document and save things from oblivion? Or is it rather a method to strengthen the message you want to communicate by using repetition? Please highlight the mindset behind this language choice.

The ambition of bringing together the totality in a serial work has always fascinated me because of course it is a mirage: the more we have the feeling of approaching a very readable and coherent sense of it, the more indeed it moves away. In this sense the work of the Bechers is absolutely exemplary. What makes this work so compelling is, in my opinion, the absolute failure of their ambitious intent because, in the end, what we absorb from their photographs is that they consist of pure forms, interlacing materials that with the force of precision and obstinacy become abstract design and,sculpture. For me the photographic series constitute the beginning of a research doomed to failure, an attitude that has much more of the pathological rather than of the rational, even if it uses the objective argument for concealing this truth. For a long time, because I owned nothing, I thought I could not be a collector. It is only relatively recently - after the death of my father - that I deeply realized that I was so non materialistic because all my work is reduced to a few megabytes on a hard drive, so after all it is the same.

5. It is often said that the use of black-and-white contributes in highlighting forms, volumes and graphics more than color does. How important is color in your photography? Which value does it add to the message and atmosphere you produce?

My visual culture comes for a large part from the Painting, but also from advertising - I quickly found that I saw the world as I dreamed it, that is with colors. Certainly there was more in my choice of color, a desire to not to place myself in the great tradition of black and white. Today I put a little black and white and mostly gray in my colors. To be even clearer, I’m saying I’ve never much appreciated black and white, and after some time, namely since I searched on the Internet in the attic of photography, that is true for all photographs.

6. You prefer to think of yourself as an artist rather than a photographer. Do you make or plan the use other media or artistic languages beside photography?

It’s not just that. I do not define myself as entirely belonging to the photography side because, indeed, I use other media, including sculpture. But, and this is important, I make no hierarchies between these different practices, and often find quite absurd the distinction between being a “photographer” or an “artist”. Regarding the future, I began working on hybrids of photo and video, more precisely on the idea of the projection of static images but with the potential that video gives today.

7. In some works you make use of images coming from Google Earth and Street View. Do you think this might reinforce your attitude of distance and neutrality leading it to extremes?

Internet recently, has become a second world, a sort of replica through which we have condensed the notion of distance. Beijing, Moscow and Lima are equidistant in the virtual space. With new means of transport like Google Earth and Street View we can be “tele-transported” with one click from one point to almost any other in this parallel dimension that is the Web. Being capable of exploring this huge library is a significant innovation and I would find the idea very strange that a great curiosity would not grow for this new “world”. Whatever opinion one may have with respect to this company, over the last ten years Google has realized that in terms of storage and construction and finally conquered our planet. No man, no army, no civilization has ever realized even a tenth of this and I believe artists should concern themselves with this unparalleled change in history.

8. Could these new digital worlds, born from a systematic and objective sampling of reality, constitute by contrast a new field of subjective expression for a modern artist? Is it worth re-exploring what was already “fixed” by someone else’s eye?

I don’t know if a world viewed from three meters in height, in which all the faces are blurred and where the route is ultimately the only horizon, can seen as an objective representation. It is true that by assembling the infinite number of available images differently from Google the photographer or artist can for example make the information hidden inside the monotonous or anecdotal flow of Street View become more accessible.

9. Can you explain the meaning of the “Memory Machine/notes” work section in your site?

Initially the idea was to have a kind of notebook in which I would have noted the different sources, references or documents which inspired my work but after several months this section took such importance that I decided to do a parallel site dedicated to archiving images from all origins. For this reason I removed the “Memory Machine” from my site.

10. I saw some photo-documentation of your exhibitions. Most of them have quite original and interesting settings. Very beautiful indeed. Do you arrange them by yourself? How important is the exhibition phase and how much time do you invest on it?

Yes, this point is very important to me. For my works exhibitions are a bit like reconstructing a landscape with elements collected during the real shooting. An exhibition does not consist so much in showing singular images as these produce only other images that would then be exhibited as a meta-construction. I have much pleasure in doing so that the exhibition (modestly) “remakes the world” as we say in French. It seems to me that too many photographers consider the space of the gallery or museum as a simple surface on which to hang their photographs, this could be great but it can also be interesting to consider the space and not only the surface as essential.

© urbanauticaEric Tabuchi