Your current project is called Evans Pond, Sequential Photographs, a Long-term Study. Where is Evans Pond?
It’s about 80 miles south of New York, in New Jersey. The pond is part of the Cooper River system, which flows from Pennsylvania into southern New Jersey.
Is it a familiar landscape? How did you settle on this particular place?
I grew up in Haddonfield, New Jersey, so I’m familiar with this landscape from my childhood.
You started your career as a sculptor. How did you move into photography?
I was drawn to sculpture because it’s multi-dimensional and deals with the environment the way we encounter it. It’s in the world. In the 1970s, when I was studying, sculptors were working with movement, installation and performance, and it offered a more expanded concept of artmaking to me than painting did at that time. My early work was installation-oriented.
The sculptors I admired in the 60s and 70s were using photography as an extension of their practice. Robert Smithson was wandering around New Jersey and photographing. His photographic work was an early reference for me, and also the photographic work of Sol LeWitt and Dan Graham and Gordon Matta-Clark.
So you were inspired by sculptor’s photographs in particular?
Yes. There was a sense of continuum between their sculpture and their photography. Their photographs used multi-format shots that were relational. They presented images in grids and matrixes, and thought of the ensemble as “documentary”—as opposed to the “painterly” aesthetic of single photographs. Strangely, no one discussed Gordon Matta-Clark’s photographs as photographs until very recently. Sometime in the late 1990s the Guggenheim finally created the category of “conceptual photography” for work of this type. Now it fits in beautifully with other efforts to multiply and deconstruct the camera’s image.
So how did you finally move into photography, and into this project?
At first, I simply wanted to photograph my own sculpture in order to take charge of its representation. Soon after, I began to study the history of photography, particularly the photography of sculpture. I took a lot of photographs of statuary at that time in order to help my technique with the camera and the darkroom. Then, in 1991, I got permission to research the photographic archives at the Rodin Museum in Paris. The fascinating thing is that the archives are organized by sculpture, not by photographer. All the photographs of “The Burghers of Callais”, taken by different photographers with all different cameras, are in one box. Suddenly I saw photography as a flexible and heterodox medium. And that experience became one of my influences for working in multiple formats, multiple cameras, and multiple media.
Later, I began looking at landscape photographs, and I noticed that most photographers develop a signature style with a signature camera. They go all around the world, photographing different places, briefly, with this one camera, or one technique. And I thought, what if I brought a bunch of different cameras to the same place, and studied it over time?
What kinds of cameras are you using?
Vintage Rollei, Mamiya, Diana, Holga; antique Kodak black box and folding cameras; forgotten brands like Coronet, Lubitel, Genos, Box Tengor, all of which take medium format film. I’ve also used some 35 mm cameras, such as the Nikon F, a 1970s point-and-shoot Kodak Ektanar, and a tiny 1940’s Russian field camera. In 2000 I also started using a Canon Elph digital camera. So I’m studying the media as well as the place.
Using all these cameras, I have become aware of how photographic syntax has changed over time, with technology. I love that a camera that was made to photograph the world in 1910 can be used to take a picture today. The culture has changed, taste has changed, and production values have changed, but the machine will still work.
You’ve used a variety of films, and an incredible variety of printing techniques as well.
I have. I’ve mostly made gelatin silver prints, but I’ve also done a significant amount of color work in slides, transparencies, and some c-prints. I have some straight from the lab RC prints. I’ve printed on clear acetate and duratrans as well as all different kinds of paper, even old paper and paper that’s been fogged. I have digital prints made on the computer, too.
“Evans Pond, Dec. 24, 1999” [above] resulted from darkroom manipulation. I made it from two low-density negatives. One was an underexposed infrared negative—black and white infrared film reverses some dark tomes to white. For the other negative, I photographed the textured, painted surface of a painting I had made, and underdeveloped the film so only the brushstrokes showed on the film. When I sandwiched the two negatives in the enlarger, the result was this image with a ghostly, painting-like surface. I used a warm-toned paper and a selenium bath for this image and it split the color range into grays and mauves. This image is entirely artificial and has a mood I want sometimes.
This project is about ways of observing a single place using many different cameras, formats, films, and techniques. The qualities of observation or the limits of the different tools you’re using are an issue for this project. You’re not providing a definitive portrait of this place so much as exploring what can be observed with these different pieces of equipment. What have you discovered as a result of your explorations?
I couldn’t predict how the project would develop when I began it in 1997. The rules that I made were that I would visit the pond regularly and build up an archive of images. I wanted the project to be documentary, conceptual and aesthetic, romantic and rigorous.
One thing I have learned is that even with this surfeit of description, the forest is extremely elusive. The only way to know a place is to go there and walk around in it. But of course it keeps changing! So, in order to focus my attention more on any changes in the forest—seasonal or otherwise–I ended up going to a few specific places again and again. Originally, I had been organizing the images in chronological order, but now I have them organized by site.
“Evans Pond, March 13, 2004” [triptych, above] is a piece from what I call Site 1, at the edge of the pond. These three images form a broken panorama. I photographed them originally so the frames abut each other, but I’ve presented them here as an incomplete panorama that your eye completes.
So this is a single piece, meant to be seen in a particular way, as an incomplete panorama?
This is one piece that I put together in this way. When you have several images in a row, and they relate to each other, it’s called parallel perspective. This is a concept from Chinese scroll painting. The idea is that the viewer passes along parallel to the scene, rather that going toward the vanishing point, as in Renaissance perspective. I like parallel perspective because it’s kinesthetic and embodies the viewer. This is one way of dealing with the camera’s limitations.
Are the camera’s limitations also our limitations? We add to what we see, to the way we see things.
There’s an involuntary response where your eye wants to connect the images, but it can’t, because there’s always this separation. Intuitively, we know that we can connect the whole scene, if only we could overlap the images. There’s a sense of time in these intervals.
That makes me think of music.
When I was growing up, I played music as much as I made art. When you read music, you think of intervals, measures, time and phrasing. All of that has influenced me. When I started making photographs, it always made sense to me to take more than one picture. I’ve always put them in groups, in sequences and phrases. One note doesn’t make sense by itself, and neither does a single image.
Another way I’ve used multiple images to form one piece is the digital print, “Evans Pond, April 16. 2005,” also of Site 1, that I stitched together from several frames [top of article.] My camera lets me knit together overlapping frames, so instead of the eye putting them together, the software knitted this broken image back together. The irregular shape of the photograph that results is a chance effect of the software that I can’t predict. I could crop off the irregular edges, but I always turn that function off in the camera, and I don’t crop the image afterwards, either.
The original shape of a photograph comes from the lens, which comes from the telescope. It’s round. The convention of cropping that roundness off happened fairly early, because people wanted the photograph to mimic painting’s rectilinear format. The circle shape that the lens makes is bigger than what we see on the negative, because it’s already been cropped inside the camera. Information is lost. This software reminds us that the rectangular shape of the photograph is only a convention, and we see that the boundary of the photograph is elastic. I adapted this idea of the flexible frame from Yve Lomax, a British photographer. She used collage and photography to release the image from the constraints of the frame, and the constraints of time.
You’re thinking a lot about time in your work. Your project is unfolding over time, and you also consider how the viewer might experience an image over time. And the concept of time itself has changed dramatically over the past century.
There’s a weird hybrid of empirical, scientific time and the psychological sense of time in photography, and I have been reading and thinking about that. I’ve read Proust, Henri Bergson, and Gilles Deleuze on Bergson. I’ve thought about Einstein’s theory of relativity, and how all these ideas about time begin to dovetail in the digital era.
Do you consider how attitudes towards nature have changed over time? Nature used to be scary and awesome. Now it’s like a fragile baby. We’re animals, we’re part of nature. But we’re apart from it, and have the power to alter it in negative ways.
This project didn’t start out as an environmental commentary at all, but as I notice changes in the landscape over time, the more this project seems to move in that direction.The Natural Contract is a book that came out in the 1990s by Michel Serres, a French philosopher. He saw that humanity was becoming another massive force on the earth, and predicted that the earth would eventually react to our collective force with its own tremendous, earthly energy. He refers to a print by Goya, in which two men are fighting in the mud. We wonder which one will win. But in fact, he suggests that maybe the earth will swallow them both before either one of them wins.
Are you interested in other photographers whose work addresses the environment in contemporary ways?
Michael Ashkin has done a photographic project on superfund sites, bravely going into these really toxic sites. And David Meisel has flown over ruined lakes that used to be beautiful and lush and are now wastelands. At first, we look at his prints as aesthetic images, even abstract images, but they are not just that. The work of Ashkin and Meisel might be called sublime. My project is a counterpoint to that approach. I’m a pedestrian in a local, familiar environment, and I’m documenting it over time. The drama quotient is low, but the stakes are equally high.
Talk to me about presentation. Your work will be shown at the Hamon Art Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 2006.
I work so hard on the surface of the print, I’d like them to be seen without glass. Prints seem embalmed to me when they’re under mats or glass. And when you go through the mounting process, something is lost. I’ve always loved just looking through prints in boxes, and handling them. Some of my images are unique prints, but I think most could be presented as display prints, as proofs, or sacrificial prints, without glass, with the editions made separately.
You also write about art. Talk about how your writing informs your art. Not every artist writes about art, after all.
I write to learn more about an artist or an exhibition, so my critical writing has a personal, research purpose. At the same time, I want to serve the public by making contemporary art more accessible. Early in my career, I worked as a guard at Dia, and I was struck by how mystified the public was by the work in front of them. I’ve found that my ability to read work as an artist is valuable, and writing is a way to share it. Finally, I’ve been in New York a long time now. I’ve developed a point of view on the contemporary art scene here. My writing is another way to participate in the art world, besides making art myself.
Is there any aspect of photography, any film, any camera, any paper or printing technique that you have not explored in this project?
Definitely! More color photography techniques await, and I’m looking forward to making larger digital prints.
Have you given yourself a time limit for this project?
I haven’t. It seems to reach a limit from time to time, and then I keep going deeper. I’m always glad I did. As long as I have a new way to go with the project, I will keep going.print