If you had to describe your overall photographic vision in 25 words or less, what words would you choose?
My photographs explore the emotional and symbolic significance of the natural world as it reflects internal, subjective experience.
Why are you drawn to long exposure photography?
Although probably most of my photographs are made in the traditional 1/100 of a second or so, I very much enjoy making long exposures through a pinhole, and in fact, have made exposures as long as nearly six months that way.
Under less extraordinary circumstances, I’m particularly drawn to making long exposures of moving water, which can create a visual sense of great tranquility. At one shady creek I’ve photographed, I’ve made pinhole exposures of up to 48 minutes. When I first calculated those exposures, I found myself thinking that this would be a time for a river meditation. So I sat beside the creek, watching the water flow more rapidly in some spots and more slowly in others, and watching the trees’ reflections in the creek shimmer as an occasional breeze passed over them, and I thought about how each of the moments I was witnessing would be overlaid on the moments that had passed before, how all of these moments would combine to create the pinhole image. It also seems to me that these long exposures promote the kind of empathy with the subject that Ruth Bernhard described. You sit with the subject, that leaf or that creek, for a (relatively) long time.
Long exposures of a few seconds can have another kind of charm, creating a dreamlike blur as breezes create motion in foliage or flowers, for example.
Why do you prefer black and white photography?
I work mostly in black and white, although occasionally I’ll use color when the project or the image seems to call for it. That said, I’m very much drawn to the element of abstraction that black and white photography introduces into an image. The photograph becomes less a picture “of” something and more a picture-in-itself – that is, less a means of recording and more a means of expression. I’ve been told that my photographs suggest a sense of place, and it’s true that I love wandering in the hills that are familiar to me; but at the same time, I don’t see my photographs as being about those particular hills, but instead, being more about my personal, internal experience, which, like anyone’s, is in some sense unique and in some sense shared by other people, no matter where they are.
Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
I’m sorry, but I have to mention at least four.
First, it might sound trite, but I can’t not mention Ansel Adams. I remember being absolutely stunned by the beauty of his black-and-white landscapes from as early as my junior high school years, and his writing has had a huge effect on how I approach my own photography. In my days of using a 35mm SLR exclusively, I found The Camera, The Negative, and The Print surprisingly accessible, and began incorporating the Zone System into all of my photography. Even though I’m no longer invested in previsualizing in any traditional sense, and the Zone System is of limited use with cameras that have little or no exposure control, this perspective has become an integral part of the way I understand light. And Adams’ technique is inseparable from his art. He said, “to photograph truthfully is to see beneath the surface.” Which is very much what I want to do, to discover photographically the truth beneath the reality that’s on the surface.
I’ve also been very much influenced by Ruth Bernhard’s work; in particular, her Gift of the Commonplace project. She said that “there is nothing unimportant in the universe” – which takes the emphasis away from the “subject” of the photograph, the thing in front of the lens, to the way it’s photographed, the light, the meaning, the photographer’s subjective experience. She wrote about what is essentially empathy with what one is photographing; in her words, “knowing what it feels like to be a leaf.” Her photographs “Doorknob, 1975” and “Teapot, 1976” are probably my favorite illustrations of the ways in which this approach reveals magic in everyday objects.
Jim Rohan’s plastic camera photographs are a huge source of inspiration for me. In front of his lens, a rock becomes a mysterious symbol, magical light sifts through the trees and meanders along a coastline, a path becomes a gateway into another world, and reflections disclose meaning in their depths. I’m inspired by the ways he sees nature and light. And even though he doesn’t do much pinhole photography these days, it was one of his pinhole photographs (“Swirl”) that moved me from thinking about pinholing to doing it.
Amy Nicolazzo makes the most moving plastic camera photographs I’ve ever seen. They’re intensely subjective, full of emotional resonance, inviting me to see deeply and to discover meaning … and often leave me quite breathless. Often as I try to describe my experience of these photographs, I find the words slipping from my grasp, and I suspect that’s because the feeling is in the picture, not in words. This, too, is an important aspect of what I hope to do in my own work.
What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?
In one sense, that depends on what you mean by “best.” Since I use mostly plastic, pinhole, and vintage film cameras, I’m not particularly interested in the “best” equipment in the traditional sense of the highest-quality glass lenses. Perhaps the best camera (if not the camera you have with you, and I think there’s something to be said for that definition) is the one that best expresses your experience. I love what Ted Orland wrote in Light Leaks magazine:
Ansel Adams was my first and only formal photography teacher, with the hardly surprising result that for the next few years, large-format B&W landscapes became my definition of fine art photography. It took me years to realize that I didn’t actually lead a fine-grained life … I still love the images I made in those early years, but where Ansel’s world was monumental and sharply defined, my world has become increasingly quirky – and decidedly fuzzy around the edges. My ability to capture that world took a great leap forward in 1990 when I discovered the Holga … Simply put, it sees the world the way I do (issue 18, p. 27).
In another sense, to a certain extent, I tend to be of the “it’s not the equipment, it’s the photographer” school. So if I make an image that’s meaningful to me with my cell phone, that’s fine too. I read a wonderful story somewhere, I don’t remember where, that encapsulates this idea very well. The story’s about a photographer who goes to a friend’s home for dinner. The photographer shows the host some recent photographs, and the host compliments the pictures, adding something like, “You must have a great camera to take pictures like these.” At the end of the meal, the photographer compliments the meal, adding something like, “You must have great pots and pans to make a meal like this.”
I also think of your question as addressing the relative importance of depth (having less equipment and more experience with it) and breadth (having more equipment, and as a result, proficiency across the different techniques that are characteristic of each). I see myself as being more drawn to depth than breadth. But I also sometimes find it difficult to balance between them, and feel pulled to try some particular kind of camera after seeing especially inspiring images that were made with it. That doesn’t always apply to trying a camera for the first time, either – I’ve also had the experience of being fairly absorbed in, say, project involving plastic camera photographs, and seeing some zone plate photos that have me wanting to do more zone plate work soon. I recently experimented with using just one camera (a Holga) for a few weeks, and found it immensely freeing – there was none of the internal dialogue about which camera I was going to bring with me or what kind of work I was going to make, just the spontaneity of making the images.
If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
I think it’s essential to be emotionally present while making photographs, to be in a receptive state in which you’re making a personal connection with what you’re seeing. I don’t think that necessarily means having a lot of verbal awareness or conscious intention, though. In my experience, the unconscious often knows what it’s doing. We just need to trust it. That doesn’t mean pointing the camera randomly, without looking; it means allowing our unconscious to guide our seeing.
What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?
Online sharing has been a real source of inspiration and support for me at times. I’ve seen some amazing work, learned a great deal about technique, and gotten to know people around the world – a few of whom I’ve very much enjoyed meeting in person – through this process. These connections have occasionally led to collaborative projects that have truly expanded my experience, most notably, my work with Al Brydon. At the same time, I’ve seen a lot of change in online sharing in just a few years, with sites coming and going, and in general less emphasis on depth of communication and more on collecting large numbers of “faves” or “likes.” These changes make online sharing substantially less of a resource for me than it once was.
If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CDs, what would they be and why?
I’d choose a plastic camera, probably a Holga, for two reasons. First, I love the process of making photographs with it. The spontaneity that comes from not needing to be concerned about camera controls seems to me to promote access to the emotional logic and metaphoric thought that are often just beyond immediate awareness, to facilitate emotional presence, allowing me to be drawn to a subject that resonates with me, being available to be moved by what I see. Second, I love the dreamlike quality of the images – the softness, the vignetting, the surprises.
Since these cameras don’t have interchangeable lenses, I’m guessing that the choice of a lens is moot, but I’d include the Holga close-up lens kit and neutral density soft surround filter (which makes the Holga image look even more Holga-ish). I’d choose a red 25A filter, to photograph white clouds in very dark, intense-looking skies. I don’t have a strong preference as to which tripod, just so it’s heavy enough to be effective (with a very lightweight Holga) but not too heavy to carry around, and has a ball head. And a magically unlimited supply of film and chemicals, of course.
- Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver
- A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
- 6- and 12-String Guitar — Leo Kottke
- Bonnie Raitt Collection
- Ladies of the Canyon — Joni Mitchell
- Leave Your Sleep — Natalie Merchant
- Skip, Hop and Wobble — Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg, and Edgar Meyer
- Signs of Life — Barbara Higbie
- Steady On — Shawn Colvin
- Stop Making Sense — Talking Heads
- Taking the Long Way — Dixie Chicks
- The Trinity Session — Cowboy Junkies
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
I’m not sure this counts as “specific,” but I’d like to continue making series of photographs with increasing emotional depth and resonance.
Is there any specific place that you would like to visit to take photos?
I don’t have any in mind. Just beautiful natural environments. I don’t see my photographs as being “about” a place in any usual sense.
Is there anything else you wish to add?
Thank you for inviting me!
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