H o u s t o n C e n t e r F o r P H o t o g r a P H y


H o u s t o n C e n t e r F o r P H o t o g r a P H y
H o u s t o n
C e n t e r
F o r
P h o t o g r a ph y
Nikita Pirogov, Natasha, from the series The Other Shore, 2009- 2011
March 16 – April 29, 2012
1113 Vine Street
Houston, TX 77002
Houston Center for Photography
March 20, 2012
30th Annual
Call For Entries
Juried by Anne Tucker, Gus and Lyndall Wortham
Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Deadline for submissions: April 20, 2012
Exhibition Dates: June 22 - August 19, 2012
Opening Reception: June 22, 2012, 6-8pm
For more information visit www.hcponline.org
IMAGE: Ben Ruggiero, Untitled, 2010
Cyanotype, 9 x 11 inches.
Courtesy of the artist
All submissions will be on cafe.org
Houston Center for Photography
Spring 2012
Editor Bevin Bering Dubrowski
HCP’s 2011-2012 Supporters
Managing Editor Susie Kalil
HCP Benefactors
Houston Endowment
The Brown Foundation
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Copy Editor Tanita Gumney
Founding Editor Emeritus David Crossley
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Peter Brown, Jean Karotkin, Poppi Massey, Ed Osowski,
Mary Virginia Swanson, Madeline Yale
Design Antonio Manega, Gazer Design
Printing Masterpiece Litho
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Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.
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The Theatre of War/Or La Petite Mort
by Stephen Mayes
Archiving Eden
Dornith Doherty with Elizabeth Avedon
Stephen Shore and Tarek Al-Ghoussein
with Madeline Yale on Emirati Expressions
Ben Ruggiero and Chris Wiley discuss
After Icebergs with a Painter
Aaron Schuman with Bevin Bering Dubrowski
on Redwoods and
Once Upon a Time in the West
spotlight: Stephan Hillerbrand writes about
HCP’s Master Class Exhibition featuring
Tiina Anttila and Mary Riggs Ramain
AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.
July 2008. Sergeant Elliot Alcantara sleeping. 7/15/08
Courtesy Tim Hetherington and Magnum Photos
From the Editors
Welcome to the Spring 2012 issue of spot! This
installment coincides with the FotoFest 2012 Biennial
– a time when the international photographic
community makes Houston its home. It is fitting
that the interviews and work in these pages present
international photographers working with current
global topics as well as issues that have permeated
These photographers have made work in the United
Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Spain, Norway and the
United States, yet many of the same issues thread
throughout their work. Political, personal and
transcendental topics traverse time and continents.
Death, love and the life cycle linger in the layers of
these photographers’ work. I invite you to discover
some of the many thoughts behind these remarkable
Many thanks to the photographers and contributors
who have made this issue possible – your works and
your words are thoughtful, enriching, and profound.
I would also like to thank everyone who is receiving
spot – you are either a member of HCP or a subscriber
to the magazine. Your dedication to supporting
Houston Center for Photography allows HCP to fulfill
its mission and its goal of connecting people through
–Bevin Bering Dubrowski
HCP Executive Director and spot Editor
In this issue, national and international
photographers, writers and scholars attempt to sift
through the chaotic swirl of ideas that daily inundate
contemporary life, parsing the most urgent questions
about time and memory, truth and reality. None of the
answers are routine – each handles the medium in a
distinctly different way, and that makes for a useful, if
not revelatory, crossfire of ideas.
The five photographers bring a palpable and poetic
vision to the ecstasy and exuberance, fear and
confusion that live in our collective imagination.
Tim Hetherington’s photographs represent the
“hardware” of the war machine, run by the “software”
of young men. His powerfully iconic series Sleeping
Soldiers turns the masculine aggression of war into a
sensual, mesmerizing meditation on sex and death.
Dornith Doherty’s Archiving Eden addresses the
complex ecological and spiritual issues surrounding
international seed banks. Her images aim to make the
invisible world visible and express the shape-shifting
nature of time itself. Stephen Shore and Tarek AlGhoussein examine how barriers, land, longing and
identity inform, shape and define each other in the
Middle East. Working with Emirati Expressions, they
explore the boundaries between the natural and
cultural, searching out the liminal spaces and forms
that are both and neither.
If there is any way in which Americans have traditionally pictured the world, it’s through an abiding faith in
the sublime. For Ben Ruggiero, the Romantic ideal is
merely being awake and conscious of what is at hand.
His recent project examines shifting perspectives of
a new American Romanticism. Finally, Aaron Schuman’s images of redwood trees brought as seedlings to
the UK during the California Gold Rush and photographs from eroded sets of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti
Westerns” investigate the fictive American archetype.
He comments on photography’s role as a witness to
real world history: how we construct it; how we define
ourselves. All of the photographers draw upon unconscious desires; mine subjects from the flow of history
or employ archival strategies; respond to urban and
exotic landscapes and construct multiple identities.
– Susie Kalil
spot Managing Editor
Houston Center for Photography
Stephen Shore’s work has
been widely published and
exhibited for the past forty
years. He was the second
living photographer to have
a one-man show at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art
in New York.
Stephen Mayes has worked
as Director of Network
Photographers, as SVP
Content for Getty Images,
and as Creative Director
of eyestorm.com. He is
currently CEO of VII Photo
Bevin Bering Dubrowski
is spot Editor and HCP
Executive Director.
Dornith Doherty received
a BA from Rice University
and a MFA in photography
from Yale University. She is a
Professor of Photography at
the University of North Texas
and a member of the Board
of Directors of the Society for
Photographic Education.
Known for his documentary
work, Tim Hetherington
reported on social and
political issues worldwide.
His directorial debut film,
Restrepo, was awarded the
Grand Jury prize at the 2010
Sundance Film Festival.
Hetherington was tragically
killed on April 20, 2011 while
covering the conflict in Libya.
Aaron Schuman is an
American photographer,
editor, writer and curator
based in the United Kingdom.
He is also the founder,
director and editor of the
online photography journal,
SeeSaw Magazine.
Ben Ruggiero received
his MFA from Bard College,
NY. He currently lives in
Austin and teaches at Texas
State University.
Madeline Yale is an avid
fan of HCP; she currently
serves on the organization’s
advisory council and is a
past executive director and
curator. Yale lives in Dubai
and London where she is
pursuing her doctorate at
the University of the Arts
London on the topic of
contemporary photographic
histories in the Middle East.
Elizabeth Avedon
collaborates with museums,
publishing houses,
galleries and artists as an
independent photo and
design professional. She’s
a regular contributor to the
Life.com award-winning La
Lettre de la Photographie
and committed to supporting
the photography community
through her photoblog,
Tarek Al-Ghoussein
is currently Professor of
Photography at the College
of Art and Design at the
American University of
Sharjah. His work has
appeared in international
exhibitions throughout
Europe, the United States
and the Middle East.
Chris Wiley is an artist,
writer, and curator based
in Brooklyn, NY. He is a
contributor to Kaleidoscope,
Frieze, and ArtForum.com,
and has worked on
numerous curatorial projects
at the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in New
York, and on the 8th Gwangju
Biennale in Gwangju,
South Korea. In April, work
from his series Technical
Compositions will be the
subject of a solo show at
Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in
New York.
Susie Kalil is spot
Managing Editor.
Stephan Hillerbrand
works with his wife
Mary Magsamen as the
collaborative artistic team,
Their experimental video and
installation projects critically
examine their relationship,
family and everyday activities
within a uniquely American
subjectivity. They live and
work in Houston and have
two children, Madeleine
and Emmett.
The Theatre
of War/
or La Petite
Houston Center for Photography
By Stephen Mayes
Tim Hetherington, photojournalist and filmmaker, was killed
in Misrata on April 20th, 2011 while covering the civil war in Libya. Shortly before his
death, Hetherington’s friend and colleague, Stephen Mayes, talked with him about his
fascination for the front line and what it had taught him about masculinity, aggression and
war. Tim Hetherington won the prestigious World Press Photo Award for his coverage of
the Afghan conflict for Vanity Fair, which he later worked into the Academy-nominated
film Restrepo (co-directed with Sebastian Junger). This is a continuation of his ten-year
exploration of aggression and masculinity that began when he lived in Liberia for five
years, during which time he covered the brutal civil war with visceral intimacy.
AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.
July 2008. Sergeant Elliot Alcantara sleeping.
Courtesy Tim Hetherington and Magnum Photos
eath cannot exist without sex. There’s an obvious connection
that without sex there is no life and without life there can be
no death. It’s about flesh, pulsing blood and that hot, wet loss
of control that marks the start of life and its end. We seek
to manage the vicissitudes of life, to control our destinies,
but we abandon that control at orgasm and at death. It’s no accident
that the French capture the experience of orgasm in the phrase la
petite mort, expressing our joyous fear of the release that transports us
from the world in the pure physicality that is the body taken out of the
control of the mind. Shakespeare revels in the salacious metaphor of
death meaning sex, and in Sanskrit nirvana means to extinguish, to be
blown away. Susan Sontag wrote, “What pornography is really about,
ultimately, isn’t sex but death.”1
We fear it yet we seek it, and we will find it. And what man cannot
control society seeks to contain. The experience of both sex and
death is held distant from polite society; we don’t see it, we don’t
hear it and we don’t speak of it except in metaphor and the theatrical
circumstances of fiction and of course in some representations of war.
We must understand though that the out-of-control experience of war
and the sexualized fetishes we attach to it, is experienced differently on
the front line and on the home front. The theater of war means one thing
to the actors and another to the audience, and as we cannot witness
the performance first hand (or so most of us hope), we are dependent
on the image-makers to mediate the reality for our consumption. What
better than photography to bring us into intimate yet vicarious contact
with the action? The sweaty, bloody physicality of men performing
society’s wishes is caught in the frame for our prurient fascination.
Houston Center for Photography
“Society back home tends to eroticize war, to fetishize it and
tends also to pathologize it,” says photographer and filmmaker
Tim Hetherington, referring to the 300,000 American veterans
currently known to be on medication, and also to society’s
coy fascination with the process of war. “I’m really suspicious
when I hear people use the word pornographic about images
coming out of a war. There is a desire to fetishize war, to make
it pornographic, and I want to contest that. We sexualize
killing at home. I’ve never heard a soldier call a dead body
pornographic. Why is a picture of someone with his head blown
off “pornographic”? Because it titillates you? It’s not that to the
soldiers – they’re doing a job.”
his conflation of violence described in sexual language
hints at a deep human interest and the interpretation
of sensual, sexualized and aggressive masculinity. Its
representation reaches back even before photography.
Goya’s print series The Disasters of War was made
twenty years before photography was invented and
vividly depicts violence with a strong sexual dynamic.
Hetherington looks even further back. “Look at The Iliad, which
is all about war and sexuality – how can our princess leave
us and go off with our enemy? It was over a woman and the
control of sex.” It seems that the audience has always sought
a sensual, sexual dynamic in its war reporting, finding in it the
same horrified fascination through the ages. We want our men
lusty, lusting and lusted. For some viewers images of aggression
are about desire and for others it’s a vicarious expression of
suppressed intent and for nearly all, it’s about raw emotional
fascination with the life forces of sex and death.
It’s easy to see how such fetishes develop. “Defining your
masculinity is part of the process [of war]. You go to the
front to prove yourself and you’ll be rewarded; defining your
masculinity is part of the process.” (“And the same is true of
photographers,” Hetherington adds, including himself as part of
the process and very much more than an invisible observer.)
“Young men are instrumentalized by the state using their energy
and aggression and that’s why they end up the vanguard of
the fighting force. Young men have that energy that can be
channeled and that energy is about defining themselves as men.
And they’re willing to risk a lot to define themselves as men. And
how does society deal with representations of that?”
“What better than
photography to bring us
into intimate yet vicarious
contact with the action?”
AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.
June 2008. Lizama sleeping.
Courtesy Tim Hetherington and Magnum Photos
Houston Center for Photography
AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.
June 2008. Tad Donoho sleeping.
Courtesy Tim Hetherington and Magnum Photos
AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.
July 2008. ‘Doc’ Kelso sleeping.
Courtesy Tim Hetherington and Magnum Photos
etherington’s answer is to subvert by seduction. The
apparent naïve honesty in his imagery wraps a subtle
message. The series of images, Sleeping Soldiers
shows us fighting men naked, vulnerable and sensual
in their beds. His images of fighting men out of “role”
as soldiers and revealed as men at play, often close
and physical in their activity, create powerful sensual
representations that overtake the fetish of the uniform. This is
indeed about love and this is where the viewer’s confusion starts.
“War is one of the very few places where men can express love
for each other without inhibition.” Hetherington’s work is very
much about love, but on examination, it’s less about sex. These
are images that are explicitly masculine showing men in sensual
intimacy with each other and with the camera, onto which the
viewer imposes their own fantasies. The sexual energy of men
on the front line is real but more often finds its expression in
displaced activities such as horseplay, exercise and, of course,
fighting. But then the viewer steps in to share Hetherington’s
intimate gaze, imposing secret desires on these public displays
of physicality.
The mechanism of photography plays a particularly important
part in the process, sharing a crucial role as it does in depicting
the forbidden topics of sex and death. The erotic physicality of
fighting flesh is an illusion, partly sought by the viewer and part
imposed on the viewer. After all, photographers are performing
for the audience too, working in collaboration with editors, and
of course, with the soldiers (often “embedded”, no less) to give
the viewer a taste of what they want. While Hetherington’s work
explores many aspects of these men, mixing sensual intimacy
with more familiar representations of “kinetic” warfare, he is clear
that the sexual experience is more in the viewer’s mind than in
the hot, dirty experience of conflict.
Houston Center for Photography
“Trying to understand my own fascination with conflict and
war has become something that’s started to focus on what
it means to be a man. What is it about war that really draws
men? Is there something that’s connected with masculinity
and the answer is yes.” Hetherington comments that
editors stereotype certain subjects as “women’s subjects”
and women are routinely assigned to cover issues such as
pregnancy, domestic activities, women at work and similar
subjects. “Well, there are men’s subjects too, and most
obviously one of the real male subjects is war,” he says,
referring to frontline action (described as The Bang Bang
Club by photojournalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva2).
Sontag opens her book Regarding The Pain Of Others with
a discussion of Virgina Woolf’s 1938 essay Three Guineas,
saying in summary, “Men make war. Men (most men) like
war, since for men there is some glory, some necessity, some
satisfaction in fighting... war is a man’s game, the killing
machine has a gender, and it is male.”3
Hetherington takes this as the starting point for his work on the
front line. “The fighting of war seems to be a particularly male
preoccupation, wrapped up with aggression and masculinity.
And yet when you come to the subject of war and looking it’s
interesting that there are so few [other] straight men making the
connections. I think they all get drawn into the thing of producing generic photography.” Pictures of equipment, uniforms and
dramatic action dominate war reporting, disguising the humanity
of the men that drive the war machine.
any photographers have made serious and
important studies of the war machine but so
much war photography is about the equipment,
the role of the soldier in uniform, the history and
context of conflict. And yet, says Hetherington,
there’s more. “The truth is that the war machine
is the software, as much as the hardware. The
software runs it and the software is young men. And in some
ways I’m part of the software. I was a young man once.
I’m not so young any more but I get it, I get the operating
system. I am the operating system, this is really the domain
that I understand. I understood this back when I was living
and working in Liberia. It dawned on me when I was with the
fighters that if there would be a choice between sitting in a
refugee camp or being on the front lines and fighting I would
be fighting. There’s something about me that, hell, I would be
fighting. My interest is in the zone of conflict, with that software
where you can see the code more clearly. My gaze is very
particular. War is interesting because it’s where killing becomes
legalized and if you’re not in that zone you’re far from the very
place where people are killing and being killed.”
Here, Hetherington makes a direct connection between sex
and death. “We know that war is a zone of killing just as we
know that the bedroom is a place of sleeping but also of sex.
We know these are two intimate things, sex and killing, and
we’re fascinated by them both but we have an inability to allow
ourselves to represent them. Interestingly, sex is the one that
we allow ourselves to represent, and we call that pornography.
Killing is something that we don’t allow ourselves to represent.
It’s filtered out even though the photographers are taking the
images of killing to the best of their ability, or indeed their
desire. But those images are filtered out by the editors and
by society itself.”
The imagery of war exists to fulfill a need and it’s shaped by
photographers and editors to express social expectations and
indeed desires. The uniform has long been a fetish object,
sexualized by generations of men and women, representing as it
does so many male attributes of disciplined strength and channeled aggression. And with it comes the fascination of violence
eroticized by those same qualities, enhanced by the exposure of
raw flesh, hot blood and extreme emotion. What began as the
Military-Industrial complex has evolved in recent decades into
what James Der Derian has called the Military-Industrial-MediaEntertainment Network 4 as strategists have embraced ever more
subtle techniques to bottle the lightning of public opinion and to
pacify dissent. This is a step beyond the age-old performance of
nationalist propaganda. Learning the lessons of Vietnam, states
around the world have come to embrace imagery as part of the
very fabric of conflict, willingly aided by the image-makers and
publishers serving the system. Seventy years after socialist realists launched their heroic vision of the man-machine in service
of the Soviet state, image-makers and publishers continue to
perpetrate the iconography of military fantasy. Maybe here the
word pornography has a place, referring as it does to characterless objects devoid of history or any role beyond their visible
form, empty vessels to receive our projections.
In recognizing our warriors as living men with all their frailties as
well as strengths, rather than as mere mechanical operatives
of political commands or as avatars of our most violent desires
(and perhaps the repository of those now forbidden and shamed
masculine virtues, those martial virtues, in which we take secret,
even erotic pleasure), we will learn to separate our own longings
from theirs. And in the process maybe we can learn a little more
about the world and about ourselves.
1.Partisan Review, Sontag, Spring 1967.
2.Regarding The Pain Of Others, Sontag, Picador, 2004.
3.The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War, Marinovich and Silva,
Basic Books, 2000.
4.Virtuous War – Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment-Network,
Der Derian, Routledge, 2001.
“This is indeed about love
and this is where the viewer’s
confusion starts.”
Houston Center for Photography
Tim Hetherington was born in Liverpool, UK, studied literature at Oxford University, and later returned to
college to study photojournalism. He lived in New York, serving as contributing photographer for Vanity
Fair magazine. Hetherington was interested in creating diverse forms of visual communication, ranging
from multi-screen installations and fly-poster exhibitions to handheld device downloads. Known for his
long-term documentary work, Hetherington lived and worked in West Africa for eight years, reporting
on social and political issues. His directorial debut film, Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers in
Afghanistan, was awarded the Grand Jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. He is the recipient
of numerous awards, including a Fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology
AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province.
July 2008. Specialist Steve Kim sleeping.
Courtesy Tim Hetherington and Magnum Photos
and the Arts (2000-04), a Hasselblad Foundation grant (2002), four World Press Photo prizes, including
World Press Photo of the Year (2007) and the Alfred I. duPont award (2009). Hetherington was
tragically killed on April 20, 2011 while covering the conflict in Libya.
Stephen Mayes’ fascination with photography has led him to work in the diverse areas of
photojournalism, fashion, art and commerce. He has worked as Director of Network Photographers, a
co-operative of world-leading photojournalists, also as SVP Content for Getty Images and as Creative
Director of eyestorm.com, working with artists such as Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, Richard Misrach
and others. Stephen spent three years as US CEO of Photonica and as Director of the Image Archive
with Art + Commerce in New York representing work by Steven Meisel, David LaChapelle, Robert
Mapplethorpe and more. He is currently CEO of VII Photo Agency and has maintained his annual
assignment as Secretary to the World Press Photo competition since 2004. Stephen has written,
lectured and broadcast extensively on the ethics and realities of photographic practice.
A reflection of life itself from within the seed:
Dornith Doherty with
Elizabeth Avedon
Houston Center for Photography
Dornith Doherty, Caper, 2009
Archival pigment photograph, 36.5 x 36.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist, McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Photographer Dornith Doherty has been working for
more than three years on her series, Archiving Eden, a
photographic project using individual seeds as its most
basic subject.
Working in collaboration with the National Center for
Genetic Resources Preservation in Colorado, the Millennium
Seed Bank in England, and the Carestream Molecular
Imaging in Connecticut, Doherty traveled to the North Pole
in 2010 to photograph the Svalbard Global Seed Vault –
also known as the Doomsday Vault.
The importance of Doherty’s work is both timely and
spiritual. In case of world disaster, seed conservation
is of global importance to everyone as we all depend on
plants for food, to create oxygen and to purify our air and
water. Many of Archiving Eden’s images radiate a spiritual
dimension, emanating wordlessly like hieroglyphs from
nature, seeming to reflect life itself from within the seed.
Elizabeth Avedon: What motivated you to begin your series,
Archiving Eden?
Dornith Doherty: When I first read about the opening of
the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2008; I immediately wanted to
photograph it. I was inspired by the hopeful/pessimistic nature
of the seed banks; on one hand volunteers and governments
from around the world were collaborating to create a global
botanical back-up system, and on the other hand the gravity of
climate change and political instability created the need for an
inaccessible ark located near the North Pole. It’s such a vividly
heroic vision.
ABOVE: Cryogenic Racks, National Center for Genetic
Preservation, USA, 2010
Archival pigment photograph, 30 x 23.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist, McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Using x-ray technology, I am able to peer into the infinitely
delicate structures of seeds and plantlets not visible to the
human eye. When I look at the seeds, I am looking at the
beginning of life. The collages made from the x-rays, which vary
from aggregates of monumental numbers of seeds such as 1,400
Ash Tree Seeds to individual plantlets such as Pea are a way for me
to address questions and philosophical concerns I have about
the role of humans and science in relation to gene banking.
The mission of seed banks is to conserve seeds or clones at a
certain point of perfection and then stop time or try to prevent
the botanical materials from changing further.
EA: What seed bank contains the rarest species?
EA: Would you discuss what you were aiming for vs. the final
result – including your process in achieving these images?
DD: Initially, I worked with a view camera to photograph the
spaces and technology of seed banking. I’m interested in
what photographs of the architecture, technology and types
of collections reveal about our cultural aspirations and fears.
It’s interesting to see how scientific heritage, philosophical
perspectives and access to economic resources are made
manifest in the photographs.
My project expanded in an important and unanticipated way
when I was granted permission to use the on-site x-ray machine
at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation.
A collaboration with a leading research scientist, Dr. Dave
Ellis, allowed me to choose clones and seeds to grow for
photographic purposes. Each time, the process takes about
two to three months from germination.
DD: For the most part, seed banks don’t collect rare plants due
to concern about the impact of removing and reducing the
number of important seeds from the native habitat. Instead,
they collect plant species with robust populations that are
typical for their habitat.
There are some really interesting exceptions to this rule. For
instance, the head of research at the Millennium Seed Bank
in England, Dr. Hugh Pritchard, showed me a very odd looking plant in their research greenhouse. A family had found
a leather wallet in their home that belonged to a Captain of a
ship that traveled to the South Pacific about two hundred years
ago. It was filled with unidentified seeds he had collected as part
of his natural history collection. The scientists at the Millennium Seed Bank were able to germinate some of the seeds and
found that the plant is extinct. They are researching it to see if
they might be able to save the species.
“We are at a serious juncture environmentally,
and I hope Archiving Eden will serve as a catalyst
for thoughtful action.”
Houston Center for Photography
Dornith Doherty, Whip It, 2009
Archival pigment photograph
36.5 x 36.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist,
McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Dornith Doherty
Coneflower #2, 2011
Archival pigment photograph
38.5 x 38.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist,
McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Dornith Doherty
Thirst, 2009
Digital chromogenic lenticular photograph
26 x 47 inches
Courtesy of the artist,
McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Dornith Doherty, Red Yucca, 2011
Archival pigment photograph, 38.5 x 38.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist, McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Dornith Doherty, Door, Svalbard Global
Seed Vault, 2010
Archival pigment photograph, 30 x 38.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist, McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Dornith Doherty, Nordic Genetic Resource
Center Seed Vials, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, 2010
Archival pigment photograph, 30 x 37 inches
Courtesy of the artist, McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Dornith Doherty, Pea, 2009
Archival pigment photograph, 15 x 15 inches
Courtesy of the artist, McMurtrey Gallery (Houston, TX),
and Holly Johnson Gallery (Dallas, TX)
Houston Center for Photography
EA: How did you construct the image, Whip It, 2009 – were you
influenced by the geometry of snow crystals?
DD: Ha, I like that question, Elizabeth. Do you know those
wonderful 19th Century photographs of snowflakes by Wilson
Bentley? I love those, especially in light of how he made them.
I made Whip It before I went to Svalbard, but I wasn’t really
thinking about snowflakes at the time. I was thinking about time
cycles and human reproduction. However, now that you ask that
question, it makes me think about how a snowflake’s perfection
is only perceived for a fraction of a second before it melts. It’s a
perfect metaphor for seed banking and photography.
EA: What do you see as the role of an artist and your works of art
in society?
DD: That’s a tough question and one I think about a lot. I
frequently encounter situations that pose this question while
teaching. I can’t speak about the role of artists in general; I can
only speak for myself. What I’m interested in is making original
work that connects to really important issues like environmental
justice in a poetic and Szarkowskian “trusted witness” kind of
way. It’s like reading a novel – you have an intimate, one-on-one
experience with a work of art, and maybe the work makes you
think about things in a way you hadn’t considered before. In
regard to my current project, we are at a serious juncture environmentally, and I hope Archiving Eden will serve as a catalyst for
thoughtful action.
Speaking of rarity, about a year ago, Egypt’s seed bank collection was destroyed during the rioting and the political instability
there. Its collection focused on desert plants, and unfortunately
there was not a back-up collection for the species contained in
that collection.
EA: Many of your images, for example Seed Head 1 and Seed
Head 2, appear to have an “aura” emanating from them. What
are your thoughts on these images?
DD: The photographs pose questions about life and time
on a micro and macro scale for me. I am struck by the visual
connections – some look like astronomical bodies or microscopic cells. When I work with x-rays, you are literally gazing
into the plantlets and seeds – things you cannot see with an
unaided eye. Tiny seeds (many are the size of a grain of sand
or smaller) that generate life remain simultaneously delicate and powerful. The scale of time that is ingrained in the
process of seed banking, which seeks to make these sparks last
for two hundred years or more, makes the life cycle very much
on my mind while I work. I also contemplate the elusive goal
of stopping time in relation to living materials, which at some
moment, we would all like to do.
Dornith Doherty, born in Houston, Texas, received a BA from Rice
University and an MFA in Photography from Yale University. She is
currently Professor of Photography at the University of North Texas.
She is a recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, the Japan
Foundation, the United States Department of the Interior, the Indiana
Arts Commission and the Society for Contemporary Photography. Her
work is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the
Milwaukee Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Elizabeth Avedon has received recognition for her curatorial work
and publishing projects, including the exhibitions and books: Avedon:
1949-1979 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Avedon: In the
American West for the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery and
the Art Institute of Chicago; Tibet and Zanskar for the Menil Collection;
and worked with the Estate of Diane Arbus. She is a regular contributor
to La Lettre de la Photographie, as well as a curatorial consultant and
designer. elizabethavedon.blogspot.com
Stephen Shore and
Tarek Al-Ghoussein
with Madeline Yale
In November, Stephen Shore and Tarek Al-Ghoussein conversed about their recent work made in
Abu Dhabi. Over a 4-month period, Shore, assisted by Al-Ghoussein, led a series of workshops with
10 emerging Emirati photographers. Both discuss Emirati Expressions, their newest series, and their
experiences as educators (Al-Ghoussein is also the Professor of Photography at American University
in Sharjah (AUS) and Shore is Professor of Photography at Bard College). Emirati Expressions
culminated in an extensive publication and exhibition on view at Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island from
November 2011 - January 2012. Madeline Yale begins by asking Shore about the project.
ABOVE: Tarek Al-Ghoussein, (In) Beautification 1535, 2011
Lightjet print, 39.25 x 59 inches
Courtesy of the artist
Houston Center for Photography
Madeline Yale: What is Emirati Expressions and how did you
become involved?
Stephen Shore: Following my commission for TDIC (Abu
Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company) in 2009,
I was asked to lead a series of workshops that culminated in the
exhibition and publication Emirati Expressions. I reviewed portfolios and selected 10 photographic artists to participate. I wanted
to build a group who collectively achieved a variety of aesthetic
goals and approached the medium from different skill levels.
Tarek Al-Ghoussein: TDIC was committed to fostering
a dialogue between the “international” artists, like Stephen
Shore, JR (another artist) and myself, and the participating
Emirati artists.
MY: Emirati Expressions is accessible from varied semiological
perspectives. Some work contains language that is foreign to
some Western audiences. What are your perspectives on work
that may carry a mystique of foreignness for some?
TAG: It’s interesting that you refer to a different ‘language’
because ultimately all photography is characterized by a shared
language. The actual written text contained within some of the
work is obviously important, but I don’t think it is the strength
of the image.
SS: I can understand the pictures in visual terms, and I think they
are completely approachable and wonderful, but I know that there
is another layer that you [Tarek] as someone living here might see
in some of this work because of specific cultural references.
ABOVE: Afra Bin Dhaher, The Lesson, Self-Portrait, 2011
Digital photograph, 36 x 23.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist
“They are taking
all of it in, and
adding what they
bring to it – they
are producing the
living tradition.”
Stephen Shore
TAG: Just as with any other culture, it is difficult to define what
is essentially Emirati. I think that some artists in Emirati Expressions present ironic juxtapositions that seek to comment on
what is considered Emirati and what may be understood as
Emirati but may have originated elsewhere and been assimilated
over time.
MY: How do you see culture and identity as a construct of place?
And how are these entities communicated photographically?
TAG: Since coming to the UAE, my understanding of the words
identity and culture has been challenged. I also feel there is
a struggle to define identity. The UAE – the Middle East in
general – is changing rapidly in ways that we do not yet fully
understand. We may assume that identity is fixed and static
but that may not necessarily be the case.
SS: One of the workshop participants, Salem Al Qassimi, said
that ‘we are creating the tradition’. At the time, I asked him
what regional and cultural identity meant to him. His work,
Here, There, is a lot about this – it is about the exchange of language and culture. As soon as he said it, it just made so much
sense. I look around here (in the UAE) and see some architecture that is essentially international style architecture with
‘Arabic’ fenestration. That’s not cultural identity.
ABOVE: Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009
Chromogenic print, 16 x 20 inches
Courtesy 303 Gallery (New York, NY)
Houston Center for Photography
TAG: Exactly. But often people think that these architectural
elements are the way to maintain identity but often the elements are merely decorative.
MY: Yet it may provide clues to geographic identity.
SS: The other aspect Salem is saying is that he and the other
artists here are making contributions to that identity. These
(young artists) are a product of their heritage, they are as
exposed as anyone in the contemporary world is to cultural
influences from all over the world. They are taking all of it in,
and adding what they bring to it – they are producing the
living tradition.
TAG: My earlier work is an exploration of the term identity. I’m
of Palestinian origin, born in Kuwait, residing in the UAE. I’ve
lived in the US, UK, India and Japan. The Self Portrait series considered how many in the West may perceive Palestinians, and
Arabs in general, as terrorists. I wanted to use the headscarf, the
keffiyeh, as a kind of symbol to both reference and challenge
that perception.
MY to TAG: Your new series (In) Beautification, all shot on Abu
Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island in 2011, further explores the relationship between identity and landscape.
OPPOSITE TOP LEFT: Tarek Al-Ghoussein, (In) Beautification 1713, 2011
Lightjet print, 39.25 x 59 inches
Courtesy of the artist
ABOVE TOP RIGHT: Salem Al Qassimi, Here, There (Arabic), 2011
Digital photograph, 21.5 x 14.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist
ABOVE: Tarek Al-Ghoussein, Untitled 2 (Self Portrait Series), 2007
Digital print, 21.75 x 29.5 inches
Courtesy of the artist
TAG: (In) Beautification series documents processes associated
with landscapes in transition. The images illustrate a desire to
diminish the distance between the subject (myself) and the
MY: In 1713 the earth and the vines seem to reclaim you as their
own, while modernization in the distance is fast encroaching.
There is a beautiful cinematic foreshadowing to this work.
TAG: Relying on subtle interventions and non-invasive
interactions, the images explore how constructed landscapes
reflect struggles to forge an identity while abandoning
indigenous horticultural elements that are particular and
serve to define a place.
ABOVE: Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009
Chromogenic print, 16 x 20 inches
Courtesy of 303 Gallery (New York, NY)
Houston Center for Photography
MY: Stephen’s exploration of Abu Dhabi is visually quite
different, though it thematically draws some parallels with
explorations of cultural space. Stephen, you previously said you
don’t want to repeat yourself. When you’re aware of repeating
yourself you look in different ways, see in different ways and
perhaps explore different spaces?
SS: With the Abu Dhabi series, I wanted to find a middle ground
between approaching a culture that is very different from
mine with the freshness of the eyes of an outsider, but with the
insight of someone who can tap into some of the forces that are
creating the culture. In a way I was being a visual anthropologist.
I am interested in cultural forces, but I can only photograph
them where they become visible. I found myself attracted
“We may assume that identity is fixed and static
but that may not necessarily be the case.”
Tarek Al-Ghoussein
to architecture and artifacts where I can see cultural forces
manifest. For me, this has simply grown out of traveling and
looking at places in the same way over and over again, for years.
With a good digital camera, I can take a kind of picture that
couldn’t have been taken 5 or 10 years before. I used a Nikon
D3X, which has extraordinary optics. It produces a print that
might have been made with a 4x5, but I have the flexibility and
spontaneity of a 35mm.
MY: You said you enjoyed the process of slowing down
through the use of large format negatives for Uncommon Places
(a semi-autobiographical exploration of America begun in 1973,
following American Surfaces which was shot with a 35mm).
SS: That slowing down forced me to be consciously aware of
every decision I was making. Because of the cost of 8x10 color
film, I couldn’t shoot five pictures. I didn’t bracket, I didn’t
shoot from two different angles. It was not meant to be an
intellectual discipline, it was a matter of simple economy. I
didn’t want to take pictures that I only knew would be good,
because I’d only take safe pictures. After a number of years
of doing this, I got a sense of what I wanted. The end result
was I would walk down the street and see dozens of pictures
around me; I would see far more pictures than I could possibly
take with an 8x10. What happened over the years is my mind
speeded up. So I made the decision that I would give up the
ultimate quality of the 8x10 for the pleasure of solving more
photographic problems in a day with a smaller camera.
ABOVE: Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009
Chromogenic print, 16 x 20 inches
Courtesy 303 Gallery (New York, NY)
“What happened over the years is my mind
speeded up.” Stephen Shore
Stephen Shore, Abu Dhabi, 2009
Chromogenic print, 20 x 16 inches
Courtesy 303 Gallery (New York, NY)
Houston Center for Photography
OPPOSITE ABOVE: Tarek Al-Ghoussein, (In) Beautification 2581, 2011
Lightjet print, 40 x 59 inches
Courtesy of the artist
MY: How do you negotiate between the “matter of simple
economy” approach to photography and your students’
introduction to thephotographic medium through their cell
phone cameras and online networking? Going back to what
Stephen said about Emirati Expressions photographers “producing
the living tradition,” how do you as educators help students
develop their photographic engagement with a place where its
identity is characterized by its exponential development?
TAG: I introduce film as a starting point, but we soon move to
digital. Working in large format certainly changes the way you
work – not just because of economy, but because in most cases
it demands that you work on a tripod. I work digitally, however
I always use a tripod because it forces you to slow down the
process of making an image. For my students, working digitally
allows them to shoot more images of a particular scene. A
follow-up critique is necessary in this context because many of
the students at AUS come to the program with no formal visual
background. However, they learn very quickly.
SS: What you’re saying, implied in your question, is a serious
pedagogical problem: how does digital affect the discrimination
that young artists learning the medium are expressing? I think
what Tarek said about the tripod is absolutely insightful. Not
only does it slow you down, it changes your relationship to the
camera. The camera is no longer an extension of your eye.
It becomes a tool that is outside of you that you manipulate.
And that simple change alters your consciousness about
photographic decisions.
Tarek Al-Ghoussein is an artist based in the UAE. His work has appeared in international exhibitions throughout Europe, the United States and the Middle East. His
images are also featured in several anthologies and a monograph on his work In Absentia was recently published by Page One and The Third Line. Tarek Al-Ghoussein’s
photographs are in permanent collections at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Royal Museum of Photography
in Copenhagen, Darat Al-Fanun in Amman, Sharjah Art Foundation, the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE and Mathaf Museum in Qatar. Tarek Al-Ghoussein is currently
Professor of Photography at the College of Architecture Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah.
Stephen Shore's work has been widely published and exhibited for the past forty years. He was the second living photographer to have a one-man show at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He has also had one-man shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; International Center of Photography, New York;
George Eastman House, Rochester; Kunsthalle, Dusseldorf; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Jeu de Paume, Paris; and Art Institute of Chicago and has received
fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His series of exhibitions at Light Gallery in New York in the early 1970s sparked
new interest in color photography and in the use of the view camera for documentary work. Books of his photographs include Uncommon Places; Stephen Shore:
Photographs 1973-1993; The Velvet Years, Andy Warhol's Factory, 1965-1967; Essex County; American Surfaces; Stephen Shore, a career survey in Phaidon’s
Contemporary Artists Series, and most recently, A Road Trip Journal. Finally, The Nature of Photographs, a book in which Shore explores how photographs function
visually. His work is represented by 303 Gallery, New York; and Sprüth Magers, Berlin and London. Since 1982 he has been the director of the Photography Program at
Bard College in New York State, where he is the Susan Weber Professor in the Arts.
Madeline Yale is an independent curator and writer of photography based in Dubai and London, where she is pursuing a Ph.D. in photography in the Middle East
at University of the Arts London and is a member of TrAIN, Chelsea College of Art & Design's research center for transnational art, identity and nation. She is a
visiting lecturer at Sotheby's Institute of Art and a consultant to Bonhams. Madeline is a member of HCP's Advisory Council and spot 's Editorial Board. She was the
organization's Executive Director/Curator (2006-09) and Adjunct Curator (2009-10).
Ben Ruggiero and Chris Wiley discuss how a
discarded piece of glass led Ben to photographically revisit
Frederic edwin Church and American Romanticism.
Ben Ruggiero
with Chris Wiley
Chris Wiley: Your series After Icebergs With a Painter
consists of a collection of cyanotype photograms and
traditional photographs – taken both in the studio and out
in the landscape – and take their cue from a found piece of
plate glass that bears a strange resemblance to an iceberg.
This led you to an investigation of Hudson River School
painter Frederic Church’s monumental Icebergs (1861), and
the contemporary fate of the notion of the sublime. Since
this project is both historically and autobiographically dense,
I think it would be good to start with a little background. Can
you talk a bit about what drew you to Frederic Church and to
Icebergs in particular?
Ben Ruggiero: Having grown up very close to Frederic
Church’s estate Olana, in the Hudson Valley of Upstate New
York, I was always aware of his work. In my recent project, I
am revisiting his painting aesthetic, motivation and history
in order to contend with the imprint his work has had on
a contemporary American visual aesthetic, especially in
photography and my own practice. I am interested in what
American Romanticism fulfills for the viewer, the methods
that Church employed in expanding visual naturalism, and his
ability to render a lens-based illusion of a receding landscape. I
am interested in the assertion that materials inherently inform
process, in Church’s era as well as now – their ability to render
and reveal intention. Icebergs is perhaps the most emblematic
image from the Hudson River School from a time period
that began the complex relationship between painting and
photography’s as mediums. I took the opportunity to use that
historic moment to address a series of questions that I have as
an artist working with photographic processes now.
CW: The shift from photographing in the landscape to making
cyanotypes in the studio is a fairly radical one, both in terms of
process and representational strategy. How did this shift occur,
and how did it change your understanding of photography?
BR: I would say the shift for me was process based and
unexpected. Eleanor Jones Harvey’s book, with contributions
by Gerald L. Carr, Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church’s Arctic
Ben Ruggiero, Frederic Church in Color, After Mathew Brady Variation I, 2010, Archival inkjet print, 19 x 13 inches. Courtesy of the artist
Houston Center for Photography
“I am infatuated with the desire to recreate the sensation of an experiential awe-inspiring
moment that is invoked by one’s natural surroundings in imagery.”
Houston Center for Photography
Masterpiece (2002) wonderfully details the rich history of
Church’s painting. At around the same time I was reading
this text, I came across a discarded piece of glass. I began
to photograph the glass on the site where I found it. As
I was revisiting the site, and the glass was breaking and
being repositioned over time, I began to see qualities in my
compositions that were unintentionally akin to Church’s.
Bringing the glass to my studio to shoot then shifted the
context. I began using it for its material properties like the
distortion of lenses in photography, as well as its ability to
reference an ice peak. It seemed natural to make reproductions
in multiple ways. I chose cyanotype, because it is an applied
emulsion, but also because it was a technology that was available
to Church. In the contact printing, it was my intention to
utilize photography’s most objective or mechanical potential
(contacting on a one-to-one ratio). I wanted to be as apparent
about process as possible (as opposed to Church’s illusion), yet
there were still unexpected results, which were the catalysts for
the images that followed.
I followed the wall text from Church’s exhibition of the
painting in Brooklyn over 150 years ago that instructed
audiences in seven different ways to view the mammoth work.
I used Church’s seven ways of looking as a framework for
the project. I tried to resolve a series of questions that are
both contemporary and consistent with Church’s steps. By
working with the glass in photographs, I followed the ideas of
making representational images out in the world, subsequent
iterations in the studio and ultimately within a studio space.
The final image completes a cycle that inverts the situation in
which it was found – that is, on the edge of the shared public
and consumer environments by displaying the glass against
the inside of the front window of my studio, and viewed it
from the outside. With the cyanotypes, I confronted the direct
representation in multiple ways. In one instance, I placed a
one-to-one negative of the glass under the corresponding area
of the glass it copied and then contact printed them together.
The two misaligned representations reveal their inherent
distortions. I also broke the glass of the contact printer to
challenge the assumption of the mechanism’s supposed
neutrality. By using Church’s structure, an intuitive logic
emerged that allowed me to communicate while realizing
more of the potential of photographic processes.
CW: We’ve also talked a lot about what seemed to be the
increasingly narrow possibilities available to artists working with
photography in a world in which everything seems to have been
photographed – what philosopher Vilém Flusser referred to
even in the early 1980s, long before the ubiquity of the Web, as
a world of “redundant” images. Do you think that this project
represents a way forward to you?
Ben Ruggiero, Untitled (Double Contact), 2010
19 x 24 inches
Courtesy of the artist
BR: Yes, I think that this does represent a way forward for my
work. The digital workflow has brought forth new challenges.
For me, this moment happened when I no longer had access
to Chomegenic printing for making enlargements from
negatives. Many assumptions about my process had disappeared
– it was a way to for me to address questions about materials
and their inherent effects on the interpretation of imagery.
“Photographers” like us are excited about the potential of
purely photographic images to extend the new lens-based
Ben Ruggiero, Untitled (After Icebergs with a Painter), 2009
Archival inkjet print, 19 x 13 inches
Courtesy of the artist
“Producing work well after the New Topographics, I find
that many sentiments from American Romanticism are
still present in our relationship to landscape.”
imagery into a wider art context. I see this as the continuation
of a historical pursuit from Henry Fox Talbot onward. There’s
a great opportunity to utilize precedents from history that
have already addressed similar concerns. The grouping or recontextualizing of imagery, like Oliver Wasow, Cory Archangel,
and Penelope Umbrico represent really interesting tactics
for utilizing “redundant” imagery. I feel that sequences of
straight photographs will continue to have their own unique
CW: One of the most interesting things we’ve talked about
concerning your series After Icebergs With a Painter is the work’s
relation to 19th century conceptions of the sublime – how
you’ve attempted to explore, and perhaps update, the idea of
Houston Center for Photography
the sublime for a present in which our relation to the natural
world is radically different from that of Frederic Church and his
contemporaries. Can you talk a little about this?
BR: I am infatuated with the desire to recreate the sensation
of an experiential awe-inspiring moment that is invoked by
one’s natural surroundings in imagery. My proximity to the
actual paintings and landscapes (that were being depicted) by
Church and Thomas Cole make them the most overt examples
of this type of endeavor. I was inspired by Ed Ruscha’s Course
of Empire (2005), and that he exhibited these works alongside
Cole’s Course of Empire (1833-36). Ruscha acknowledges Cole’s
cautionary tale but amends Cole’s logic with more detail,
specificity and nuance of current conditions. They vacillate
between Cole’s rigidly dictated stages in the progression of
mankind’s effect on the landscape, until it cannot support
those systems. Producing work well after the New Topographics,
I find that many sentiments from American Romanticism are
still present in our relationship to landscape. There has been
a shift from traditional moments of heightened introspection
towards looking for the same outlet in the “social landscape”
or the increasingly urbanized landscape. Projections made in
relation to natural elements in American Romanticism can also
be realized in communal man made spaces. The materials that
are used to achieve these affects equally intrigue me. In this
project, I had the ability to physically utilize materials from the
landscape and call attention to those that shape our ability to
render with photography.
Ben Ruggiero, Untitled (Willing Exposure as Gesture), 2010
Cyanotype, 19 x 24 inches
Courtesy of the artist
Ben Ruggiero received his MFA from Bard College. He had a solo show at Testsite
entitled After Icebergs with a Painter and is a member of the Austin based
photography collective Lakes Were Rivers. He lives in Austin and teaches at Texas
State University.
Chris Wiley is an artist, writer, curator and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.
His writing has appeared in numerous publications and catalogs, most frequently
in ArtForum.com, Frieze, and Kaleidoscope, where he also acts as an Associate
Editor. He has worked on numerous curatorial projects at the New Museum of
Contemporary Art in New York, as well as on the 8th Gwangju Biennial in
Gwangju, South Korea. A solo exhibition of his photographs will be mounted this
spring at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in New York.
Houston Center for Photography
On Redwoods,
Spaghetti Westerns and
other American Myths
Bevin Bering Dubrowski: Aaron, this interview intends to focus on your own
work as a photographer rather than your curatorial and editorial projects; what are
you working on now?
Aaron Schuman: Photographically, I’m working on a project called Redwoods, which I started
about a year ago. A friend of mine in England, a tree surgeon, told me over lunch that he’d been pruning a number of redwoods in a nearby estate the previous day. I was surprised to discover that there
were redwoods in the UK, as I’d always thought of them as a distinctly American species. But once I
knew about them, I kept spotting the tops of these trees piercing the horizon, towering over the rest
of the landscape. I began to do some research and discovered that during the California Gold Rush
a number of British botanists and seed collectors traveled to the American Northwest in search of
‘exotic’ plants that would flourish in the British climate. They sent back sacks full of seeds, cultivated
them in vast nurseries, and then sold them to the landed gentry, who planted them in their estates
and gardens. The redwood was one such plant, and acted as a symbol of wealth, stature and imperial
reign – in fact, the Giant Sequoia, one of the most famous indigenous plants of North America, was
also dubbed Wellingtonia gigantia, in honor of the 1st Duke of Wellington, who died around the same
time, in 1852. Anyway, I started to photograph them.
BBD: How have you approached this subject photographically?
AS: Since they were planted, many of the original redwood seedlings have matured into fully grown
trees, but many of the estates and gardens where they were planted have changed hands, have been
subsumed by urban and suburban expansion, have been turned into housing developments, retirement communities, public parks and so on. Nevertheless, the redwoods have managed to survive,
albeit completely out of proportion with the rest of the surrounding landscape. So I’ve started by
visually toying with their scale in relation to their surroundings. And I’ve developed a real affinity
for them; almost a camaraderie, in the sense that I’ve now lived as an American in England for most
of what I would consider my adult life – I’ve grown roots, begun a family, matured and in a sense
flourished – and yet I still often feel slightly awkward or at odds with my surroundings. It may seem
strange, but every time I find a redwood over here, I instinctively feel the need to walk up to it and
give it a good pat on its trunk, like I’m patting the back of an old friend; it's comforting. Then I
gradually circle around it, finding different vantage points within the surrounding environment, and
make photographs.
BBD: Beyond the personal and historic, are there some other topics that this series
brings to the forefront for you?
AS: Yes, apart from these obliquely autobiographical or personal references, I have also found that
there is fascinating allegorical potential in the photographs in terms of notions of imperialism, dominance, strength, power, allusions to the respective rise and fall of the British and American empires.
Aaron Schuman
[Untitled], Once Upon a Time in the West
2008-2009, Digital C-print
Courtesy of the artist
Bevin Bering Dubrowski
BBD: You have such a strong knowledge of photographic history; I’m wondering, is
there a piece of this history you are working through here as well?
AS: As you said, I’m very interested in the history of photography, so when I look at photographs I
initially try to read them as literally as possible – or at least as the photographer intended – but subsequently I can’t help but see various links and relationships between them and other photographic
works, both past and present. The exhibition that I curated for the 2010 FotoFest Biennial, Whatever
Was Splendid: New American Photographs, was very much about this; it looked at how contemporary
photographers depict and define America today, but also drew distinct parallels between their work
and Walker Evans’ American Photographs (1937), and explored the embedded legacy of this particular
photographic history within American photography’s most current practice.
Similarly, when I started to look at and edit Redwoods, I began to notice similarities – visual, strategic
and conceptual – between my photographs and those shown in New Topographics, the now infamous
exhibition at George Eastman House in 1975. Firstly, I realized that the mid-century British bungalows and housing developments that I found in England bore an uncanny resemblance to the tract
houses and suburban developments of the American West, as photographed by Robert Adams and
Joe Deal. Furthermore, the notion of maintaining a constant motif throughout the work, and collecting together a sort of ‘typology’ – in my case, redwoods; in their case, industrial structures – shared
something, conceptually if not stylistically, with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. And finally, the
way in which I was composing the photographs – in black and white, incorporating street furniture,
telephone wires, road markings, foliage and so on, and playing with these elements in terms of their
linear, geometric and formal effects within the frame – reminded me of the seemingly casual but rigorous compositions of Frank Gohlke, Henry Wessel Jr., and again, Robert Adams, in which otherwise
unassuming environments are constructed into subtly complicated, two-dimensional visual puzzles.
So again, I found myself developing a sense of affinity or camaraderie, but in this case with photographers of a previous generation, with each unconscious nod to their work also acting as that sort of
fraternal, comforting pat on the back.
But, it’s important to stress that, firstly, these photographs came from an interest in photographing
the subject matter itself in a way that felt most appropriate and natural to me, and that the historical echoes only emerged in the process of making the work, rather than vice versa. I didn’t set out
to make a New Topographics project; I stumbled upon something that I thought would be interesting
to photograph, began to make pictures, and then realized that the photographic solutions that I was
coming up with when faced with this particular subject matter shared something (but not everything)
with several of my favorite photographers – which was thrilling.
Houston Center for Photography
“I've never been particularly religious,
nationalistic, or obese; I've never lived in a
sprawling suburb, been a quarterback, dated
a cheerleader or held a loaded gun. But these
were all things that, when I moved abroad,
instantaneusly became associated with me in
some strange way.”
Aaron Schuman
[Untitled], Redwoods, 2011-2012
Digital fiber-based silver gelatin print
Courtesy of the artist
Aaron Schuman
[Untitled], Redwoods, 2011-2012
Digital fiber-based silver gelatin print
Courtesy of the artist
BBD: Your earlier series, Once Upon A Time in the West also explores national
identities. Could you tell me a little more about this project and the political
aspects of it?
AS: Once Upon a Time in the West is a portfolio that I made on the eroding sets and locations of
Sergio Leone’s 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, in the Almerian deserts of southern Spain. At the time,
I was interested in photographing American myths and ‘ruins’ abroad, in an attempt to explore
how America as an empire has colonized parts of the world – not necessarily in a physical sense,
but in a cultural and ideological sense – and to understand how the rest of the world continues to
see, understand, absorb, portray, reflect and occasionally propagate certain notions of America. In
this case, it’s a distinctly American archetype, but the place itself – the reality – was created by an
Italian in Franco’s Spain for the purposes of fiction. And again, there’s an autobiographical subtext
embedded within the project as well.
BBD: How does your own role as an American who is now rooted in Europe come
into play in this project?
AS: When I first moved to Europe, I was surprised by how people perceived me as an American.
I grew up in a liberal part of New England and moved to New York for college, so in terms of
the stereotypical portrayals of American culture as seen in mainstream media, I don’t have much
experience. I’ve never been particularly religious, nationalistic, or obese; I’ve never lived in a sprawling
suburb, dated a cheerleader, or held a loaded gun. But, these were all things that, when I moved
abroad, instantaneously became associated with me in some strange way. So Once Upon a Time in the
West was initially an attempt to explore and photograph America without actually stepping foot in
America, but instead by way of representations of an America that, in reality, was entirely a fiction,
and wasn’t in fact American at all. Nevertheless, for many people (including many Americans), this
particular archetype – the cowboy, the Wild West – remains an important symbol in terms of defining
America, the American character, American culture, and the American spirit at large.
BBD: Do you see this work as a critique or a form of investigation?
AS: To be honest, it started as an investigation, of the place itself and what it might represent. But in
the editing process I began to notice certain motifs and metaphors reoccurring that implied that there
was a definite critique, or at least a critical investigation, embedded within the work. The project was
made in 2008-9, just at the end of the Bush administration and in the midst of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and there were obvious associations – cowboys patrolling (and dying in) the deserts, and
so on. So ultimately, I would say that in Once Upon a Time in the West I’m actively critiquing a national
identity (one that I don’t particularly identify with personally), in terms of the way it is disseminated
and is subsequently perceived, imagined, and understood by others; whereas in Redwoods I’m, in some
ways, quietly investigating and identifying with my sense of national identity – as both an individual
and a photographer – and exploring its relationship to and within other wider physical, historical,
cultural and conceptual contexts.
Houston Center for Photography
AARON SCHUMAN is an American photographer, editor, writer and curator based in the United Kingdom.
He exhibits his photographic work internationally, and regularly contributes photography, articles, essays and
interviews to publications such as Aperture, Foam, Photoworks, ArtReview, Modern Painters, Hotshoe International,
The British Journal of Photography,The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Sunday Times. Schuman was the curator
of Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, one of the principal exhibitions at the 2010 FotoFest
Biennial; most recently, he curated Other I: Viviane Sassen, WassinkLundgren, Alec Soth for Hotshoe Gallery
(London, 11 October - 27 November 2011), and he is currently curating an exhibition for the Houston Center
for Photography, opening in September 2012. Schuman is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton
and the Arts University College at Bournemouth, and is also the founder, director and editor of the online
photography journal, SeeSaw Magazine.
Aaron Schuman
[Untitled], Once Upon a Time in the West
2008-2009, Digital C-print
Courtesy of the artist
Aaron Schuman
[Untitled], Once Upon a Time in the West
2008-2009, Digital C-print
Courtesy of the artist
Stephan Hillerbrand speaks to two photographers selected for
Master Class: An Exhibition of HCP Master Class Students.
Everywhere we look today, we see photographic images. They are on our
phones, computers, TV screens, as well as countless books, magazines,
billboards, posters and, believe it or not, they even reside in our cameras.
Last year, an article in the The Wall Street Journal reported that Creative
Writing is the number one MFA program in the United States. The article went
on to say that the statistic was not surprising because this type of program
simply does not just teach the technical aspects of how to write better, but
teaches the students the lifelong skills of creative problem solving, which
translates into success in any profession one might to pursue.
This is where the Houston Center for Photography steps in. Photography
is not just cameras, software and technical know how, which are so easily
attainable with a simple Google search. Photography is a way of creatively
seeing the world. HCP doesn’t teach people photography, but how to
take a picture – and there is a difference. This exciting literacy is exactly
what I encountered when asked to jury the HCP Master Class exhibition in
December 2011. The evidence of fervor and commitment to photography
made the selection process difficult, but fun. Even more challenging was
the opportunity to choose two works that represent a balanced view of
the scope of exceptional work that HCP educational programs
and Master Class have nurtured both formally and conceptually.
The two artists featured are Tiina Anttila and Mary Riggs Ramain.
– Stephan Hillerbrand, Assistant Professor, Photography Department,
University of Houston and HCP Board Member
spot light
Tiina Anttila
The Way of Life
Inkjet print, 12 x 12 inches
Master Class: Visual Narratives with Susan Burnstine
Courtesy of the artist
Houston Center for Photography
Stephan Hillerbrand: In your photograph that
was presented in Master Class: An Exhibition
of HCP Master Class Students, there is a
wonderfully rich dichotomy of both beauty and
foreboding, as if something strange was about
to happen. Do you think this is true?
Tiina Anttila: I am inspired by the magical
and dreamy side of life. The life that moves
between the real world and the imaginary
world that at first appears dark or hidden.
I like finding the mystery or magic in the
commonplace. Sometimes this may create
the dichotomy that you observed. I am
also interested in the shadow side of life
and finding the hidden beauty there. As a
psychotherapist, I get to hear lots of secrets;
and those secrets become an everyday
occurrence to me. Bad things happen to good
people; the line between good and bad, as
well as normal and abnormal become blurred.
Normality may be a myth; imperfection and
expression of the shadow side seem to be
the condition of everyday life. It is often times
in the shadow area of life that the magic and
potential exists.
SH: Your image seems to celebrate the idea
of process. How important is the role of craft
in your studio practice and did taking a Master
Class at HCP help develop that?
Mary Riggs Ramain: In capturing my images,
I am not afraid to let the process show. In fact,
my work celebrates beauty in the imperfection of
my process. However, in fine-tuning the images,
I am all about the craft. But most important to
me is what the image expresses. In my critique
Master Class with Sally Gall, I was able to see
that some of my images allowed too much of
the process to show, which was distracting to
viewers and would prevent them from looking
for my meaning – that was very helpful to me in
developing this series. I am definitely a lowtech person. I only know just enough technical
information to do what I want to accomplish –
so, I really won’t talk about lenses, etc. But what
I want to get from and give to the community of
photographers is communication – what we are
expressing and what else we do in our lives to
support that process.
For full interviews, visit www.hcponline.org/spot
Mary Riggs Ramain
Inkjet print, 28 x 22 inches
Artistic Development Retreat with Sally Gall
Courtesy of the artist
MARCH 16 - APRIL 21, 2012
Participating in the FotoFest 2012 Biennial
The Pawn Game (Jose Raul Casablanca), 2012 archival pigment print 25” x 43 1/2”
Houston Center for Photography
Libbie Masterson
March 2nd - April 14th, 2012
Opening Reception:
Friday, M arch 2nd 6-8pm
4411 Montrose Blvd
Houston, TX 77006
Ph: 713-521-2977
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