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Monthly Archives: March 2012

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Beth Dow‘s photography is unexpectedly cool and non straightforward. Her imagery demands her witnesses to view and look at the work with a slow eye. Tricks, surprises, details abound in her photographs. Tucker Hollingsworth recently interviewed Ms. Dow about her current projects, recent works, and ongoing interests.

Dow’s photographs have been exhibited throughout the Midwest, as well in New York, the United Kingdom, Japan and China. She has been the recipient of two Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowships (2008, 2011), a McKnight Foundation Fellowship (2004, 2011), and a Greater London Arts grant (1989). Her work is represented in public collections such as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Portland Art Museum.

MPB: You like order and design. Why photograph landscape?

BD: I’m actually most interested in acts of rebellion against order and design. That might be why I love formal gardens, especially English ones. We kid ourselves that we can impose artificial structure on living, organic things, and go to great lengths to impose our will. We can only fail, and I love those little gestures of failure.

MPB: Do you respond to fields and plains–undeveloped, unused, or left to hazard?

BD: I tend to overlook those landscapes in favor of examples of more direct human interference. I’m sure the wilderness is marvelous, but it wouldn’t occur to me to make photographs in such a place.

MPB: Are you philosophical at all in terms of contemporary land use/mis-use?

BD: I am in other aspects of my life, but not in my photographs. I recognize that we live on, in, and from the land, and that parasitic existence can’t always be pretty.

MPB: I just want to understand: Chaos in nature is a form of order. Chaos is visually unorganized. I think there would be quite a number of people who would find fussy, over-the-top gardens to be just a slight step away from chaos. Yet, you see an opportunity to communicate order using horticulture-forms, arranging mass and scale into your compositions.  Is your work a conscious reaction to this paradox?

BD: I tried to compose my garden photographs in a way that would slow everything down. They sort of feel like held breaths to me. Having said that, I shoot very quickly, and with a hand-held camera. I’m far too impatient for a tripod! Those photographs are about the illusion of stillness, but insects are buzzing, leaves are rustling, and sap is rising. There is movement all around, but on a small, subtle level. And they are also about the illusion of imposed order, but branches break, and shoots sprout.

MPB: We both manufacture and observe landscapes. We landscape with our tools and shovels and pickets; we observe and interact with landscape as well. Do you have interest in manufacturing landscapes with your camera?

BD: Yes, but that newer work is not on my web site. I’m currently using digital tools to make artificial landscapes that move through time and space.

MPB: That would be a new venture for you, as you’ve mostly involved historical processes with your work. What excites you about the change in your work?

BD: I’m messing around with the malleability of space and time, and the tensions between fact and fiction. I’m trying to make landscapes that look rational at the first glance, but that are also illogical, and digital editing is an obvious tool for that. My previous work, printed in platinum-palladium by Keith Taylor, uses the labor, process, and rich, unsurpassed tones of the medium as part of the metaphor of the imagery. They are meant to be ageless and permanent. This new work is less about the photograph as object and more about it being a fleeting instant in space and time.

MPB: What projects are you working on during your current McKnight fellowship?

BD: I’m combining my interests in the history of photography, world history, geography, and books. I’m experimenting and having fun!

MPB: You’ve received two McKnight fellowships for photography. Does the first inform your current fellowship?

BD: I’m surprised to realize it probably doesn’t. The two projects aren’t related in any way.

MPB: Who and what have been your most enduring non-visual influences?

BD: Literature, always. I especially like people who say seemingly subtle things that, on further reflection, are rather subversive.

MPB: I see your work and I immediately think back to works by Atget. But I understand you respond to Frith–and in a lot of ways that makes sense because your interests to capture exotic locales or unique views seems shared. Are you deeply affected by early photography?

BD: Absolutely, but I’m interested in Francis Frith and other Victorian expedition photographers for perhaps the wrong reasons. I’m mostly interested in the ways their process failed, so I love the white, heavily retouched collodion skies behind graphic pyramids and other antiquities, and I also love the titles in their print margins.

MPB: Do you feel your photos have any relationship to Atget’s work?

BD: I realize it’s logical to mention Atget in regards to my garden photographs, but I was actually thinking about earlier artists, like Claude Lorrain. Garden photographs are usually made in color, so I can see how my tonality has something in common with Atget.

MPB: Do you feel your photos have any relationship to works by Henri Cartier-Bresson?

BD: Most of my early work was shot on the street, and usually included bits of people passing through. I made that work before I knew anything about Cartier-Bresson, but some of my shots look like his!

MPB: How do you see your work in relationship to the photographers of yester-year?

BD: I use historic processes and visual conventions to tell stories about the contemporary landscape.

MPB: Frith’s meta-statement, “Oh what pictures we could make if we could command a view” strikes me as a good entrance to looking at your existing, collected body of work.  Looking ahead at work you are working on currently or want to make in the future, could you offer a statement to viewers as a perhaps for where to “come from?”

BD: Why must we fidget with the world? Because it’s there. And where do our efforts get us? Here.

MPB: One of my favorite images of yours is “Broken Tree” from Fieldwork. At immediate glance I’m pleased by the structure, and miss the comedy or action of what’s happening or occurred. If you remember the details, could you describe if the break-down was a live-action shot, or if it’s part of a slower deconstructive process?

BD: That picture came about in a way that’s unusual for me. It was shot in rural Wisconsin on a road we traveled frequently. A huge wind storm blew apart the weeping willow, and that enormous branch hung there for ages, dangling precariously above the piles of neatly cut fallen branches. I loved that the owners never bothered to just pull that branch down, and finally took a picture after watching it week after week. As I said earlier, my photographs are usually quick, spontaneous responses to things I happen upon. That one festered for months.

MPB: I also think about the way I read that image and I realize: It’s allowing the photo to speak to you versus us reading into images.

BD: My whole Fieldwork portfolio is a collection of curious sculptural arrangements and forms in marginal rural landscapes. Many of these forms and structures were made for utilitarian reasons, and that was their only meaning. I love finding those little intrusions on the landscape, and especially like to leave the narratives wide-open for speculation.

MPB: Another image I enjoy of yours is, “Soccer Game: Bell Field.” The image captures nostalgia, but for me it’s really successful in delineating tension in point of view, trying to see action as it is best happening. When negotiating with the image, I think about where I’d perch myself to see the game, where are the other open spots or other people camped, what’s happening on the field, what’s the geography. Essentially, the photo can be read as a metaphor for how to look and how to interact with space. “Image as space,” I see it more than “image as place.”  I see the image more universally than a Carleton College experience. For you, what about that image works, and what do you see in it?

BD: I love that people are just scattered all over the place. Even though a soccer game is underway, the players are dispersed evenly and show little engagement with each other. Likewise, the spectators are spread randomly on the slope, staring ahead and waiting for something, anything, to happen. The clouds kept opening up, flashing little spotlights on the scene. This photograph has a lot in common with my earlier photographs I spoke about previously.

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Andy Mattern is currently pursuing an MFA in Studio Art at the University of Minnesota. His photographs are receiving attention not only within Minnesota but around the country for their depiction of human life without visualized human forms. Instead, influences from culture are mined to examine our technologies’ and abilities to create and express. His recent projects will be seen at The Katherine Nash Gallery in Mountains Were Oceans, opening March 30, 2012, and in Duluth at PRØVE Gallery (opening March 19, 2012). Just this week, Andy received a 2012 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Grant.

MPB: Why DETACHED GARAGE?

AM: These photographs are from a recent body of work inspired by evening walks in the alleys of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The title refers to the structures pictured, but also to the experience of being separated from the activity of the street while wandering in the alleys.

MPB: In the series, every door is closed. Thematically, the back door or secret portal’s a personal and private place. But these structures are detached from their houses.

AM: My work often begins by locating a certain type of private space in which I can focus intensely and without distraction. The activity of photographing for me is similar to meditation because it is a repetitive attempt to focus on a single point while letting everything else go. I am enamored with the forms of these garages, their surfaces, shapes, and hints of individuality, but more important to me is the pursuit of solitude through seeing.

MPB: Is DETACHED GARAGE is an extension of your series, EMPTY BUILDINGS? 

AM: Inasmuch as an artist is always saying the same thing, albeit in different ways, yes, these two series are related. The connection for me is mainly in the experience of photographing and the desire to be alone, but certainly the content of the images and the way they are presented is similar.

MPB: What are DETACHED GARAGE’s influences? 

AM: The New Topographics has been a big influence on me, Lewis Baltz and the Bechers, in particular. Their formal and systemic approaches appeal to me because they create a method of engagement with the world. This method becomes ritual and the output, although ordered by a set of parameters imposed up front, becomes a surprise.

MPB: Why DRIVEN SNOW?

AM: Last winter was the 5th snowiest in Minnesota’s recorded history. During the months of astonishing cold, I noticed a peculiar product of weather and urban movement: masses of dirty ice and snow that accumulate under cars. I dislodged these forms from parked vehicles, or retrieved them from the street, and brought them back to the studio to photograph. Impossibly suspended in midair, these odd forms are presented like specimens, removed from their context. The visual result is something between scientific record and abstract painting that is a meditation on impermanence.

MPB: Do you have any anecdotal responses from your audiences about the work?

AM: Some people think they are rocks or even organisms. I like this uncertainty. Even though the objects are evenly lit and presented at life size, they are still mysterious.

MPB: What are the scales you present these two series’ work? 

AM: Detached Garage is printed 24×30 and the Driven Snow is printed with the depicted objects exactly to scale, one-to-one, which makes the paper size 17×22.

MPB: Other then geography and place, do you find similarities between these two series?

AM: Both deal with seriality. I am interested in the production of collections of images that work together. The repetition this entails is an important part of the process, not just as a generative strategy, but also as a psychological statement. I love looking deeply at closely related images, finding the nuances and variations. This type of seeing is similar to listening to the same song on repeat, over and over, each time you hear something new.

MPB: What are the next opportunities and venues to share your work to the public?

AM: My work will be in two group shows coming up at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. The first, Regarding Place, is a continuation of the exhibition I helped organize this past summer in Turku, Finland with my colleagues from the Department of Art, Areca Roe, Jan Estep, Erin Hernsberger, Sam Hoolihan, Justin Newhall, James Henkel. This spring in the Nash I will be showing work with my fellow graduate students in our MFA thesis exhibition.