interviews, news and photographic musings...
through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Memorium: Lauren E. Simonutti

Last week we lost a truly great artist and soul, Lauren E Simonutti. When I heard the news I couldn’t take a breath for what seemed to be an entire day. My heart is still in knots… I had just seen Lauren two weeks before and I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this amazing woman was no longer with us.

Lauren was an inspiration. She was one of the most courageous artists I’ve had the honor of knowing and her work never disappointed. She was one of the rare breed of photographers who reached deep into their soul to communicate her most personal thoughts. 

This past January, I had the great pleasure of featuring Lauren in my column American Connection in Black & White Photography (UK). In all truth, I feel it is amongst my best columns and I was thrilled that Lauren was more than pleased with my words.

I grappled with what I could do in her honor and since we chatted a number of times about reposting her original Q&A on Underexposed, it’s the only thing I can think of doing. So this one’s for you Lauren. The fine art world has lost a truly great and courageous artist. You are deeply missed.

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

LAUREN SIMONUTTI: I have the first picture I ever took (aged 3 1/2, of my mother).  I blew the focus but I still stand by my composition. I began regularly taking pictures at age 12, trying to do photo essays and landscapes with a 110 camera. I have always taken pictures.  The decision to embark on the pursuit of fine art photography was decisively made when I was 18. I was a romantic (still am) and had no idea what I was getting myself into.


SB: Did you study formally or are you self-taught? If formally, where?

LS: I switched high schools in junior year and was fortunate enough to find a school that had a comprehensive photo program (rare for 1984).  10 enlargers, our own processing and printing, black and white and color.  Quite remarkable really. I souped my first roll of film in my New Jersey high school at 14. At 17 I enrolled to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia where photography was my major.

SB: I read that you have been a photographer since the age of 12. How would you describe your imagery prior to creating this body of work?

LS: For all those years, up until the mid 2000’s I photographed externally.  The world around me.  The people I knew.  There was a time in my life when I was quite a social creature.  These images seem rather alien to me now.  I recognize the faces, I know that was the life I led, but I do not remember much about it.  I cannot feel it.   If I do not have a photograph of something I cannot be certain it happened.  I rely on them for proof.  I still take pictures for that reason - proof, that I saw, that I lived, that I was; but after everything fell apart I shifted my focus from the outside, in.

In my past the only photographs I made of myself were self portraits as myself. The girl holding the camera in the mirror.  It was only after that life ended did I become a character in my own theater, an inhabitant of a world of my own making. 


SB: Would I be correct in assuming you began 8 rooms, 7 mirrors, 6 clocks, 2 minds and 199 panes of glass in 2006? What was the first image you shot for this body of work? (was that Sorry And The End of Sorrow?) Can you talk a bit about that first image and the subsequent series it was part of?

LS: The first image I ever shot that heralded the beginning of where I was heading was ‘Not all books have a happy ending’.   I look nothing like myself in that image and while I consider it a stand alone, not part of ‘8 rooms’ it was the impetus.


The first official image of 8 rooms was my 2006 birthday shot - ‘Tomorrow is my birthday and all my friends are here’.  I had been getting sicker and the people in my life had been systematically fading away; one day I received an email from my two closest friends, a married couple I had photographed, I spent all my time with, I had loved saying they loved me but they could not handle the way I was sick and d good-bye.  (This is not a matter for blame, mental illness is insidious, I was subject to regular hospitalizations/committments-people get scared, they get confused, they get angry, they feel helpless and then they leave.)  I felt that if I was going to be left alone with my illness then it would just be the two of us in the house and I isolated myself from the world.  My birthday was a day away and I gathered up all the things I could find in my house with a face, I bought myself a cake, I lit my candles, I posed my friends and I took the picture.  Thus began a tradition.  I do a photograph every year the day before my birthday, in the same room, with the same cake (it has lived in my freezer for 5 years and only comes out briefly on the 1st October then back it goes again.  It is beginning to look a little the worse for wear.)  These pictures mark time.  They mark me.


SB: Following the completion of your first chapter in this body of work, did you realize at that point you would create a greater body of work or did the process of your creations happen organically and unplanned?

LS: There was no plan.  The was no method to the madness, the madness was the method.  I was taking the pictures because that is what I do.  I was taking pictures because I was lonely.  Because I was afraid I was fading away.  The pictures are what I have.


SB: Can you tell me a bit about each chapter in this body of work?

LS: As I wrote ‘The Birthdays’ mark time, they mark the changes in me.  ’Sorrow and the end of sorrow’ was the last time I allowed myself to play the tragic heroine.  The Devil’s Alphabet was an exploration, an attempt to save my soul.

The 8x10’s are a lament.  In addition to the subject matter, myself or otherwise- the length of the exposures record both the movement of light and shadow and record the passage of time - hours, minutes, seconds, moments.  They are also the only images that feature the house as its own subject, not my model, not my backdrop, but my safe haven.


SB: You mentioned that you rarely create self-portraits and that you are conveying visual narratives within each character you embody. How do the characters evolve? Are they literary adaptations or are they based on individuals from your own life?

LS: The characters evolve as I do.  Through the ground glass I see a space in the frame where a character needs to be and I insert myself into that space. I have a changeable face.  I wear black so my body fades into the background or white so that it stands forth.  I frequently move and at the properly intervals many of me record.  I do know the characters are not based on individuals from my life, those I have known.  I do not know where they come from.  I never know who they are until I see them come up in the developer tray.  That is when I choose my titles.  When I give them a name.


SB: While your style remains consistent throughout all your work, I am curious if the meaning or approach to the work changed, shifted or evolved for you personally at any point in the process? I ask because it’s extremely rare to come across an artist who is so honest about their inner selves and struggles within a creative context. Most would retreat from consistent exposure such as this and either reemerge into something entirely different or fade away completely. But you bravely continue to create bold pieces of work. A true and rare feat I greatly commend you for.

LS: My work has changed tremendously from what I used to be to what I am, particularly over the past half dozen years.  For me it came down to a matter of control.  Ceding control and running on instinct.   A dangerous thing for a woman who has been locked up for hearing voices to say, but comes a point in telling a story where you have to stop trying to direct it and simply do as you are told.


SB: How many handmade books have you created, what are the titles and what years were they produced?  Are they still available and where they can be purchased? To the best of my knowledge, you have three: No Such Thing As Silence, Devil’s Alphabet and Drowning. Did you also create a limited edition hardbound?

LS: My first handbound book was ‘Crash’.  It was a series of 35mm images I made in hospital and during rehabilitation after being run over and partially shattered by a car on the lower east side of Manhattan.  The book is hardbound, complete with cut out pages framing a small toy car and collage of the police report sketch of the stick figure me and my placement in the intersection after the crash.  There is only one.

'A Hidden Monograph' 1998 my first fictional narrative, a tale of tragic (accidental?) death and what is left behind.  I think there may be 2 or 3 somewhere. 

'Not all dolls are pretty', 2004, accordion book, images, doll head, paint & poem. Sold Out. 

'The Devil's Alphabet'  2007 was a hardbound, post bound book of reproductions of the complete alphabet on rag paper with a devious cover.  An edition of 26 - Sold Out. 

'Evidence' - police blotter or sociopath's sketch book?  2008  Edition of 39  Sold Out. 

'Drowning, not waving' 2008 (from a body of work created in 1999), offset, hand made cover, spiral bound.  Edition of 250.  Still available. 

'The Black Book'  portfolio book in all black, 2010, edition of 13.  Sold Out.

'No such thing as Silence', custom sidewinder binding, 19 images on Indian Petal Paper.  This book comes with bells on.  Edition of 43.  A few copies still available.

'The Devil's Alphabet' is the only hardbound handbound book I have made.  I like creative bindings and softbound and fine exotic papers are infinitely more malleable. I do have a print on demand book of 'The Devil's Alphabet' with complete text available through blurb.com in soft and hardcover.


SB: What was the personal impetus for creating your own handmade books, rather than making digital or offset printed books? I assume it is partially because it’s a perfect compliment to your one-of-a-kind, handmade approach to printing. But perhaps there is a greater reason?

LS: The handmade books are something other.  The discipline of bookbinding serves as an ideal counterpoint to the restrained chaos of my shooting and printing. It is the closest I have ever come to finding balance. I also make them because they can be closed.  As much as I intend to make pictures for the rest of my life there are moments when you want to see the series finished, the project complete.  In a book the pictures can be selected, the sequence arranged, the text written, the type set and once the cover is bound in place you can breathe for a moment knowing that you are done. Then of course it starts all over again.

I have designed print on demand books but my marketing abilities are lacking and they languish.  I have one offset printed book, my very first visual narrative, ‘Drowning, not waving’.  The money for that book was a donation/gift from an individual who I have never met.  I live quite literally hand to mouth and offset is beyond my means.  My greatest desire is a proper monograph (or several) from a proper publisher.  It is that to which I aspire.


SB: Catherine Edelman is your sole gallery representation, correct? How long have you been working with her? How did she come to know your work?

LS: Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago (www.edelmangallery.com) is my sole gallery representation.  It was mid to late 2009 that Catherine saw my work online in an interview/feature I did several years earlier with LensCulture and contacted me via email expressing an interest in representing me.  She then flew to Baltimore and came to see the house and my work.  It was important to her to see the work as well as to know the story was true.


SB: What are you currently working on?

LS: The next picture.  Always the next picture.  I find myself of 2 minds lately (no pun intended)  and am working point/counterpoint - 5x7 dark, very little toning and unsympathetic countered by 8x10, concentrating on light, gentle tones and reflecting a softness I do not feel but do remember.  The story continues as long as I do - somewhere between the next 10 minutes and the non-foreseeable future.


SB: Where do you see your work going in the years to come?

LS: It will go wherever I find myself, the location of which (literal or mental). I would not, at this point in time, even begin to hazard a guess.  But it has never abandoned me.

To see more of Lauren’s work, visit Catherine Edelman’s website.

There’s also a wonderful artist talk with Lauren posted here

Rest In Peace, Lauren. Your strength, honesty, courage and visionary imagery will remain with me forever. 

In Focus: Tim Hyde


I’ve known Tim Hyde for a number of years and am quite fond of him as a person and as an artist. It’s been wonderful to watch his recent rise to success and I look forward to seeing all that he achieves in the future.

Recently, I had a chat with Tim about his work. Here’s an excerpt from that recent conversation.


SUSAN BURNSTINE:  What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

TIM HYDE: My grandfather was an accomplished amateur photographer—I lived with him growing up—so that probably had some influence.  I also studied photography and became interested in its social and political dimensions when I was in graduate school, but it wasn’t until many years later that I took up a camera myself.

It is an odd thing.  I used to consider myself a writer, was a journal keeper and perhaps the last daily letter-writer left in North America.  For some reason, when I quit drinking a decade and a half ago, I also quit writing.  Period.  I just stopped and couldn’t find the energy or creativity to keep a journal or write a letter.  It was about that time that I began taking pictures.  I can’t help but think the events are related somehow.  Photography is form of communication, like writing.  For me, it’s the same voice, different pitch.

SB: You are frequently drawn to images dealing with the theme of man verses nature or historical, cultural or environmental transition.  Can you talk a bit about your personal impetus to photograph this theme?

TH: I have always been fascinated by the complicated relationship between humans and their environment, the battle between man and Mother Nature.  When we humans talk about how we are screwing up the planet, it is just another manifestation of our arrogance.  This planet is too durable and the human species is too small and too ephemeral to make much of a difference.  As Emerson said,  “[Our] operations taken together are so are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that…they do not vary the result.”   We might pollute our own nest, make it less pleasant for ourselves, but we are not capable of “ruining” the planet.


In graduate school I studied frontiers, which are classic zones of hostility between humans and nature.  Natural disasters are another theatre of action in the conflict.  Nothing demonstrates the enormous power of nature and the puniness of humans more than an earthquake or hurricane or tornado; the disparity is immeasurable.   I am also struck by the implacable ferocity of these natural forces, like Melville’s Maldive Shark, “pale ravener of horrible meat.”    Sometimes the randomness is apparent, and it is impossible to figure out why this house or that family was taken and another was left in tact, one village leveled and another untouched.  Other times, such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011, the earth is cleansed of nearly all evidence of our habitation—nothing is spared.

SB: Despite the fact that you are photographing places of devastation or impermanence, you have a keen ability to find beauty within the destruction or historical change you are photographing.  Can you discuss how you find the balance between two opposing facets to create an image that is uniquely its own?

One of the things that I always notice about these natural disasters is how beauty can be found in the middle of human tragedy, breathtaking sunsets over the most haunting scenes of destruction, for example.  I think about it constantly.  One must resist the temptation of melodrama, which is why I try to avoid people in my pictures (though it couldn’t be helped in Haiti).  Similarly, I don’t want to dwell on the contradiction between beauty and destruction, so I’m cautious about being too overt.  Again, all of this can become melodramatic in a heartbeat, which is exactly the effect I most want to avoid.  Of course, I’m a photographer, so naturally drawn to the best light and most pleasing compositions; plus, I do want to show the obdurate beauty in nature—pitiless and wholly without remorse—as she dismembers human works.


Sometimes I think that Mother Nature is puckish in a nasty sort of way, and loves to rearrange man’s works and assert her beauty in such situations as a way to tweak our noses, almost as revenge for having insulted her.  That falls into the same anthropomorphic, human-centric trap that I am trying to transcend, of course, so I don’t stay in that place for long.


SB: You photographed Repossession between 2008 and 2012 in numerous locations which suffered natural disasters such as Iowa, Louisiana, Texas, North Dakota, Italy, Iceland, Haiti, Japan, New York, Vermont, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Indiana.  Is there one image in this body of work that you are most proud of or one that embodies the complete spirit and intent of your imagery?  If so, can you discuss this image further?

There is one image taken in Haiti that I like very much.  The subject is the cadaver of a bank building, white with bright blue doors and red plinths for the columns.  (Color is very important to me; I compose my photographs with color, so it is almost always present.)   The building is geometric, but the ragged areas of damage, the cracks, and the carnage around the building are all organic—not geometric.  Somebody has written “Viva Aristide” on the front of the building, and just before I made the photo, somebody took a piss in the dust in the foreground—the wet scar is still visible in the dirt.  Both the piss and the graffiti are utterly futile acts of defiance but each seems to hold some redemptive power.  I actually tipped my hat to the chap who took a leak right in front of my tripod.  By the way, he’s still visible in the photograph off to the left.

SB: Is Repossession an ongoing series or do you feel it’s complete?

That is a good question.  How does one know?  The British novelist Philip Glazebrook, in one of his travel books, talks about the “meridian of a journey.” He said it doesn’t usually occur at the half way point a trip, but at somewhere during a trip a distinct mid-point is achieved.  Every thing before that is the journey out and everything after is the journey home, even if that point comes near the beginning or near the end of a trip.  It feels to me like my journey with this project is coming to an end, and I’m on my way home.  Perhaps I have already arrived.


I recently spent several days shooting the tornado damage in Indiana and Kentucky.  Typically, I will wait a month before visiting a disaster scene so I’m not in the way.  This time, I arrived on site just as search and rescue were winding up, so I was in the middle of things:  the wound was still open and things were in a state of confusion yet.  People were wandering around in a daze:  their loved ones had all been accounted for, one way or the other, but not their neighbors or pets or possessions.  The last photograph I took on that trip was of a makeshift memorial set up by neighbors and survivors for a family of five who were killed in the storm.  The memorial consisted of a cross and the few pieces of the family’s home found in an adjacent field.  The scene was quite moving, and I spent the afternoon and part of the evening there shooting.  To me, it seemed like an ending, the day had the feeling of a period to it, a coda.   If so, I can’t say it was a very satisfactory ending.


SB:  I am extremely fond of your series Country.  It touches an innate feeling of hope, survival and the slow, steady loss that embodies the core concept of the American Dream.  Can you talk a bit about the history of this series and detail the initial creative inspiration for capturing these images?


TH: So often a photographer will be well into a “series” before he or she realizes it is a series. I grew up in Iowa, so feel naturally drawn to rural scenes:  small towns and the agricultural industry.   It is a way of life passing, the way of our grandparents and great grandparents.  In the past couple of years, I have realized that small towns aren’t going away, they are just changing, becoming more multi-lingual and full of vibrant colors.  Of course, Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner and Willa Cather showed us that they were changing a hundred years ago, so this isn’t a new process.

SB:  How long have you been making these images?

TH: About five years, give or take.

 SB: You’ve specified in your Statement that Country is just a chapter or thread in what is to become a larger, life-long project which is to show how human beings negotiate with our physical planet, how we struggle to maintain our precarious and ephemeral perch on its surface.  Do you foresee the next chapter of this work taking a new direction, different locations or subject matter or do you work in an instinctual manner that dictates the direction as you shoot?

TH: Yes, I expect it to take some new directions, but the themes probably won’t change.  As mentioned before, I am beginning to feel like the Repossession project—the disaster work—is coming to an end.  That is only part of the overall story, the most dramatic part.  Country is part of it too…in fact, all my work seems to wrestle with the issues around those places where human beings and nature intersect.  I’m also taken by how humans maintain their stout dignity in the face of this unrelenting pressure from nature.  I’m not sure how long we will reside on this planet—probably not long in the scheme of things—but while we are here, before all evidence of our existence is washed into an oceanic trench to become part of some future mountain range, we exhibit a kind of doggedness.  There is a defiant tenacity about we humans that I find appealing, and it takes the theme beyond a simple narrative about nature kicking the crap out of us.


SB:  Tell me about Perilous Terrain, where was it photographed and if it is an ongoing project.

TH: That is part of the work I am showing with Susan Spiritus Gallery in Newport Beach—how lucky are you and I in that regard, no?   Most of these photos were captured in Iceland and the northern plains, places where human presence provides a stark contrast to the environment.  Again, these images show nature as enormous—visually tectonic—while humans are Lilliputian by comparison.


SB:  Do you have any upcoming exhibits, events or travel?

TH: I am heading back to Iceland in April, and will spend a few days in the Faroe Islands, plus I expect to make another trip to the Great Plains in June.

To see more of Tim’s work pop over to his website. 

And be sure to check out his frequently updated blog.

In Focus: Brad Temkin

While attending Fotofest reviews a few years ago, my friend Dave Anderson suggested I meet his longtime friend Brad Temkin. He was certain we’d become pals and as usual, Dave was right. I was instantly taken by Brad’s work the first time I viewed it. Since then, we’ve been talking about working on an article or interview.

Last week, Brad was kind enough to chat with me about his photography. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation.

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

BRAD TEMKIN:   I began photographing in high school as a “fluff” class.  I was kind of  a derelict, and it was the first thing in my life that I had any kind  of control of.  It directed me to the positive rather than the negative,  and kept me out of trouble. My teacher David Currie, was so encouraging  and exposed us to all kinds of pictures.  He created a community where  all kinds of kids came together and all kinds of work were encouraged.  I  had gotten involved in taking Rock N’ Roll pictures, and I was lucky to  have found my way  into the hearts of promoters, Creem magazine, record companys and many of the musicians. It seemed I was in the middle of it all and then  Currie took us to an exhibit of Minor White’s work in 1973. I was so moved by the poetry of this work that from that time I decided I wanted to make picture instead of take pictures.  I quickly stopped taking  pictures of the Rock N’ Roll industry and began focusing on making pictures about form, content and the visual poetry I found in the world.


SB:  Can you tell me a bit of history about your series Rooftop and the actual rooftop movement as a whole (where they began, etc) ?

BT:   Throughout my career, I have always been interested in the environment and how we affect it.  We take our planet for granted, and I  think it’s funny what we do and how we change it.  Often times it can  have negative affects (which is not funny), but what we do with it is interesting.  I think this is one of my favorite aspects of people…how  dumb we can be, yet how we always seem to stumble into grace. 

In  Private Places,  I  am dealing with people’s stuff, and how we adorn our spaces.  I am  making somewhat humble and personal environments unreal and  exaggerated.  I was always interested in gardening and while making  these pictures, I learned  how the way we tend our garden is imperative  how it will look the following years.  In other words, the affects are  felt several years, maybe decades later.  

In Relics,  I am celebrating our folly by looking at the objects we leave behind.  My approach builds on the sculptural foundation that integrates theobject and the landscape.  The objects become beautiful and monumental “earth works”.   My hope is to symbolize the mark humans leave on the landscape by showing our impermanent, yet lingering presence. 

The color companion to Relics is  Focal Points.  Focal Points continues along similar parallels.  The sculptural foundation remains, yet it is more about sight and focus; in how and what we look at the world and the act of vision itself.   All of this preceded “Rooftop”, but had major impact on how I approached photographing it.  

As I was printing and re-visualizing Private Places,  for an exhibit with the city of Chicago, and heard a piece on NPR  regarding Chicago’s green initiative.  It spoke about green roofs and  walls, and how Chicago currently had the most green roofs in the US. The green roof and wall industry is actually in it’s infancy in North America (about 10 years) but in Europe it has been thriving for over 40 years.  We have taken their  (Europe’s) success, and built on it.  The industry is growing  expediently, with all kinds of new technology being introduced. So I contacted my connections with the city,  and asked if they could help connect me with the appropriate people for access.  This was a beginning however, I needed to get specific about what it was I wanted from this work. 

For the first time in my life I had done research before I went out photographing.  I reached out to landscape architects and roofers for help.  I was able to  gain access to spaces, and people were very generous.    It was different because I  had many more “hoops” to jump through as well as legal issues.  Also, with Private Places  I was interested in changing the reality of these small places, as metaphors.  In Rooftop I am  showing people that these large amazing vistas actually existed.  I am making  these unreal places, real.  


SB: You’ve mentioned that the series Rooftop is ongoing. What cities do you plan to photograph rooftops in the future?

BT:  It is ongoing!  One thing leads to another, and from there it just gets more interesting.  As I make pictures, more situations present  themselves.  Meeting the people behind the Rooftop’s is also  interesting.  Most of these leaders have the same goal  in mind, the good of common man…and coincidentally, they work on many  of the same projects. Some of the cities I am planning on photographing this year are Portland, OR, Toronto, New York, Boston, San Francisco & Vancouver.


SB: In  2005 your series Private Places: Photographs of Chicago Gardens was published in a monograph. Can you tell me a bit about that body of work  and how it began?

BT:  Private Places began out of my interest in gardening and my exploration into color.  I was never really satisfied with color photographic output, and then one day I saw David Adamson’s Iris prints.  I contacted David and spoke with him about working together, and what I had in mind.  This led to the inception of Private Places in where I “pushed” and exaggerated certain colors to lead the viewer.  These Private Places became shared moments…inviting a person to escape into their own mind. 

This was an important time for me, and my sense of color.  Being able to define boundaries.  I feel like this idea is resolved for me.


SB:  Is the book still available? If so, where can it be purchased?

BT:  Yes.  Amazon and Photo Eye Books, besides a few bookstores.


SB:  I’m  quite fond of your series Focal Points. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of this body of work, where the images where photographed and if  you plan to continue the work in the future?

BT:  Thank you!  Focal Points is the color companion to my Relics work.  I’ve always photographed in black & white and color simultaneously because I see things that way, and can’t not photograph both subject matter.  You know, sort of a “yin” to a “yang”.  They usually relate, but I don’t worry about it when making the pictures.  I simply trust they do. 

So anyway, as I was making pictures of these obscure, sculptural objects in the landscape in black & white, but I was also interested in just the space of it all.  That’s how Focal Points happened!  It was simply how I looked at space.  I didn’t need an object, but I did need some color - which of course, I muted.  These pictures (Relics & Focal Points) still happen for me, but less.  I think they were more relevant a few years ago.  What is also interesting for me is how I relate these pictures to events happening in my life.  My work helps me to do that because it is a time I can truly be mindful. 


SB:  Your  work has an extensive reach from Relics to Christiana to Delta to Irish Stories and your most recent works Rooftop and Private Places. As a  whole, your imagery focuses on documenting the human impact on the  contemporary landscape. What is your personal impetus for this overriding theme?

BT:  That is a good question, and one I have pondered over and over.  I don’t want to sound trite, but that question keeps bringing me back to one thing:  that the world is a wonderful place!   People are good, rather than evil.  We are dumb, yet we continue to stumble into grace, in spite of ourselves.  Understanding the world and becoming a better person through my art, is my biggest goal.  I like to think my pictures affirm how wonderful it is to be alive, and life is a gift. 


SB:  You are also a teacher at Columbia College? How long have you been teaching there and what types of classes do you teach?

BT:  I began teaching because of the teachers I’ve had.  It’s sort of a “pay back” for helping me discover my path.  I’ve been teaching at Columbia since 1984 as an adjunct.  It is a terrific place to teach because of the diversity of students, and my colleagues.  I usually teach a few classes per semester, and have taught everything from Photo 1 to Zone System.  It’s a great facility, and I’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to share ideas with some great folks.


SB:  What are you working on now?

BT:  I’m always working.  When I don’t work, I get unhappy…so I have to work.  It’s like chocolate!  Of course, I’m right in the middle of Rooftop and hope to do a book of it in the next few years.  There’s so much that I am finding that it’s hard to see the end to it all.  It’ll probably just morph into something else.  Rooftop has also really gotten me interested in infrastructure, and I am thinking about making pictures about that.  I also love to make portraits, and really admire the work of Nick Nixon, Paul Strand and Joel Sternfeld.   It’s great to be able to stare at things and when asked what I am doing, say: “I’m a photographer, so it’s OK”.


To see more of Brad’s work pop over to his website

And if you live in Houston or attending Fotofest next week, come by and say hi to both Brad and myself. We’ll both be at the Session 2 Portfolio Walk next Friday night, March 23 at the Doubletree Hotel Ballroom. See you there. 

In Focus: Sara Macel

Weeks ago, I happened upon Sara Macel’s work via the amazing website collect.give of which I am a huge fan of. I was instantly taken by the image she’s offering (above) to help raise funds for Camp Discovery, so I contacted her for an interview. 

Here’s an excerpt from a chat we had last week. 

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

SARA MACEL: I went to high school in Spring, TX, a small town outside of Houston. My friend Nadean’s older brother, Brian Finke, was a photographer for the school newspaper.  His bedroom was painted black and covered in black-and-white photos he took, which I thought was so cool.  I had taken art classes all my life, so it seemed like a logical step to sign up for the photo class offered at our high school.  My teacher, Mrs. Fox, really took an interest in me and encouraged me to stick with it.  Of course, Brian went on to become the hugely successful photographer he is today, and his work continues to inspire me.  But it really all started when I was about 14 taking that first photo class.  My mom and I went to Service Merchandise to buy my first camera: a Pentax P30T.  That was it for me, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else with my life other than be a photographer ever since.


SB: Who were some of your early influences?

SM: Well, Brian Finke, as I mentioned was an influence before I was really even aware of it.  He left Texas after high school to study at SVA.  That was a huge awakening for me to see someone from our town move to New York and not just survive there, but actually thrive.  For the first time, I realized that could be me.  And I set about making that happen.  At 18, I left Texas to study photography at NYU where I studied with Tom Drysdale, Deb Willis, Lorie Novak, Jeff Weiss, and Philip Perkis- all of whom continue to inspire me.  Early on at NYU, I saw Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.  I just saw her show at MoMA, which is wonderful.  And around that time I was also just getting introduced to and falling in love with Sally Mann, Francesca Woodman, Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Wisconsin Death Trip.  I’ve always been drawn to work that has a Southern feel and not just in the geographically sense.  I like things that are personal and full of heart and a little bit dark or sad, but also have a sense of humor, albeit a twisted sense of humor.

After college, I worked as Bruce Davidson’s studio manager for two years.  He and his wife Emmy really opened their home to me, and it was an incredible experience.  I feel such a deep connection to his work.  He was working on his re-release of Subway with Steidl when I started working there in 2003.  I was with him until 2005, when he surprised me with a Mamiya 7 for my birthday.  I was so shocked and touched that I started crying.  Then, a few weeks later I got the opportunity to go back to Texas to shoot the Houston Rodeo, something I always wanted to do.  So I gave my notice.  Bruce likes to joke that as soon as he gave me a proper camera, I ran out to be a photographer, which I guess is true.  He was the one who first suggested I do a project about my dad’s life as a traveling salesman, but I wasn’t ready for it then.  The seed was planted, but it took years of my own wanderings for me to come back to what ended up becoming May the Road Rise to Meet You.

SB: Your series May The Road Rise To Meet You suggests a strong resonance of personal history and also establishes a resilient sense of solitude and loneliness, which traveling alone on the road can bring. Can you tell me a bit about the history (whether it is real or imagined), the character we are following and your personal impetus for creating the series?

SM: In between the time I left Bruce’s studio and began this project, I worked a full-time job and saved up all my vacation time to travel around and take pictures.  It was around that time I got interested in the work of the road-trip photographers: Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth.  Once I got settled into SVA’s MFA photo program, I came to realize that all those years of wanderlust really amounted to me revisiting the same places my dad had been traveling to on business all my life.  My dad is a telephone pole salesman with a sales territory that covers almost the entire middle of the country.  Once I made the connection between our mutual desire for the road, I began talking to him more and more about his travels over the years.  He let me delve into his old files and find notes he wrote to himself on hotel stationary during sales conferences and find the names of places he visited over the years.  I began moving in three veins: collecting this ephemeral material of the life he spent on the road, traveling to both actual places he visited and places I could imagine him visiting, and going on trips with him documenting his life on the road now.  And over time, the project morphed into this hybrid of a life lived and a life imagined.

SB: Is this series ongoing or complete?

SM: The project is complete in that it encompasses a particular chapter in both my life and my father’s life of us actively collaborating to tell a certain story.  But, he’s my dad so as long as we’re both walking the earth, I’ll be taking pictures of him and taking photos on the road.

SB: I believe you created a book for this series. Can you tell  me a bit about the book?

SM: With the help of a generous Alumni Grant from SVA, I self-published an edition of 25 hardcover cloth-bound books through a print-on-demand company.  I’m using these books basically as a promo to try and find a trade publisher for the work.  The book begins with my father in his thirties leaving on a trip and ends with him in his sixties staring out a hotel window; an entire career condensed to a single business trip.  Accordingly, the book starts with more nostalgic warm-toned photographs, and then blends into cooler-toned contemporary images. Throughout the book, the images flow back-and-forth from the road, to me, to him. By interweaving visual hints of my presence I have re-written history to be there with my dad all those times he was away from home.  Much as a family album is an idealized record of a family’s history, this body of work pretends that we were always together. 

SB: You have a number of compelling documentary projects that span the cultures and topics of life in Texas to Burlesque to Rodeos to boat yards. If you could summarize all of your work over the past years in a phrase or in a few words, what would that phrase be?

SM: Auto-biographical.  I think anyone who knows me well would look at that list of seemingly disparate subjects and think “Oh, yeah.  Those are all Sara.”  At their core, all those bodies of work come from a place of curiosity and figuring out who I am as a photographer.


SB: Is there one body of work or a specific image in these series that speaks to you more so than others, perhaps because it cuts to the heart and soul or the core essence of your imagery?

SM: May the Road Rise to Meet You is by far my most personal project and really encapsulates why I am drawn to photography as a medium.  At its core, the project is about creating a document or relic of something before it disappears.  I wanted to see the road from my dad’s perspective before he retires, while also portraying him as this dying archetype of the traveling salesman.  But on a much larger scale, it was my way of dealing with my fears as a daughter about him dying.  Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, speaks of the “melancholy of Photography” and its ability to “induce belief that it is alive…but by shifting this reality to the past (‘this-has-been’), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.”  I think that “melancholy of Photography” permeates all of my work, but never so clearly as in this series.

SB: Your body of work Kiss and Tell reconstructs imagined and real locations where a first kiss was shared. Like much of your work, there imagery creates establishes a sense of absence, memory and perhaps loss…almost like elements photographed at a crime scene, rather than sugar coating what many would consider their fondest hopes and dreams. Can you discuss the unique and remarkable approach you took to photographing these images and how you established or happened upon this unusual ambience (almost anti-romance) for what many would consider a love story of sorts?

SM: Just to clarify, it isn’t strictly first kisses.  When soliciting these stories, I try to leave it open-ended to any consensual intimate encounter wherein the location holds some significance in the memory of the person sharing their story.  And I love that you bring up crime scenes, because it was inspired in part by Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel.  Similar to their appropriation of those images, I am, in essence, appropriating other people’s memories and through the visual interpretation of their stories making them my own. 

I would agree that loss or absence plays a significant role in the project.  When I began working on Kiss & Tell, I was in my early 20’s and had just started dating my boyfriend, whom I’ve now been with for eleven years.  I just knew we’d be together for a long time, which is something I never expected to find that at such a young age.  And the same goes for him.  We both knew that staying together would mean missing out on certain experiences.  So, in many ways, the project became an outlet for me to vicariously experience the one-night-stands and random hookups that characterize many people’s lives in their 20’s.  It isn’t about regret, but it does explore some of those darker feelings that come with monogamy.  I love my life with him and feel so lucky to have this shared history of basically growing up together.  He’s my best friend.  But there is a small part of me that wonders what my life would have been like if we hadn’t met, and Kiss & Tell is my way of exploring that.

SB: What are you working on now?

SM: I’m expanding the Kiss & Tell project and currently working on a re-design of that book.  If anyone feels they have a compelling story about a specific place where they had an intimate encounter, you can email me the story and details/directions to the place at kiss.tell@saramacel.com

I also have a brand new project that I am starting next month.  It’s too early to discuss, but I am excited to see where it goes.

SB: You currently have an image that you are offering on collect.give. Can you tell me a bit about the image and the organization you selected to donate all the proceeds to? Also please provide a link. 

SM: The print I have available on collect.give is from May the Road Rise to Meet You and is titled “Plane Over Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”  It is being offered as an edition of 20, and there are still a few prints still available for sale.  All proceeds will go to Camp Discovery which is a week-long summer camp in Texas sponsored by the American Cancer Society for children recently diagnosed with cancer.  The camp allows each child to learn different aspects of living with cancer, spend time with other children who have had similar experiences, and enjoy a week without the pressures of a hospital environment.  More info on Camp Discovery and info on purchasing a print can be found at: http://collectdotgive.org/editions/sara-macel/

To view more of Sara’s work pop over to her website

On The Walls: Josh Sanseri @ Santa Monica College


Last weekend my good pal Polly Chandler visited Los Angeles and introduced me to her longtime friend, Josh Sanseri. Josh is an accomplished commercial and portrait photographer, teacher and he has also created a number of wonderful personal projects.


This Saturday March 10, Josh’s exhibition “Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny” opens at the Santa Monica College Photography Gallery and features portraits and live photographs of musicians and bands who are both established and “up-and-coming” in the indie music scene. Included are images of The Flaming Lips, Little Dragon, Deadmau5, Built to Spill, The Avett Brothers and many more.

The opening reception is from 6:00-8:00pm and the exhibition runs through March 30. For details and directions here


Josh was kind enough to chat with me about his work yesterday. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation. 


SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

JOSH SANSERI: My first memory of picture making is from when I was about nine years old. I convinced my mom to buy a roll of 126mm film for this old camera I found at a garage sale. She paid to have the film developed at the local Fotomat, and saw that I had wasted the pictures on things like chimneys, doors, and mailboxes. She swore that would be the last roll of film that she would purchase for me. She later failed to keep her promise by helping me pay for college where I studied cinema, photography, and fine art.


I first realized photography was going to be a large part of my life in high school. I was a bit of a trouble maker as a teenager, but my teacher, Jeff Stanek, was very charismatic and inspirational. He knew how to relate to and reach students like myself. He was great at redirecting energy into productive activities like photography. It wasn’t long after processing my first roll of B&W film that I was skipping my English and math classes in order to work in the darkroom processing film and making prints. When I saw that first image magically emerge in the tray of Dektol, I was hooked for life. I soon got a job at the local camera store and have since worked in many areas of the photography business.


SB: Who were some of your early photographic influences and who inspires you now?

JS: My list of photographic influences is incredibly long, and it’s difficult to nail down just a few. Arnold Newman was the photographer that I identify with most. His portraits are amazing on every level. He had an uncanny ability to organize the frame while illustrating his subjective point of view about the people he photographed. His acknowledgment of subjectivity in documentary portraiture had an enormous influence on the way I approach portrait making. I’m also drawn to the classic documentary and portrait photographers like Walker Evans, August Sander, and Lewis Hine. They all had an honest but underlying dramatic approach to how they photographed people. Most importantly, they were careful about maintaining their subjects’ dignity while bringing sociological issues to light. They were great at making the viewer care for the people in their photographs. I also really enjoy Garry Winogrand’s sense of humor and prolific nature. The stories you hear about Winogrand are fantastic.


I’m also a fan of several photographers working editorially today. While I was in graduate school, I was fortunate to spend my summers managing the studio at the Santa Fe Workshops in New Mexico. This unique opportunity allowed me to spend a week at a time with some of my favorite photographers like Dan Winters, Frank Ockenfels 3, and Paul Elledge while picking their brain for all things photographic. Those three specific photographers are the ones I learned the most from and had the greatest tangible impact on my photography, but the whole Santa Fe experience was priceless in my development as a photographer.


SB: How did you come about photographing musicians? Do you have a music background or was it just one of those things you fell into?

JS: I’ve always been a huge fan of music and even played the drums in high school, but I first began photographing musicians in college. I worked for the daily newspaper and found that many of the small record labels were more than happy to give a photo pass to a college newspaper photographer in exchange for a little PR. About five years ago I began photographing portraits of the musicians. A great friend and early career supporter of mine, Gretchen Vater, introduced me to her sister Johanna who works for a big San Francisco concert promoter. Johanna soon began hiring me for the two big festivals they produce, Outside Lands and Treasure Island, as the official portrait photographer. If it weren’t for Gretchen and Johanna, most of my musician portraits wouldn’t exist. Those festival portraits have since led to several assignments including a couple of book and magazine covers, as well as a handful of exhibitions.


SB: Did you curate your upcoming exhibition, Rock ‘N Roll’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny? Can you discuss the images included in the show?

JS: For better or worse, “Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Not Dead, It Just Smells Funny” was curated by me. I had a few friends look at my selections for the show, but I ultimately put it together myself. Many of the pictures are portraits of my favorite bands, which made it difficult to look at them objectively and critically. Several of my favorites didn’t make the cut. Most of the portraits were photographed at the two festivals in San Francisco. Since the festivals take place in the same location annually, it becomes more challenging every year to create original portraits of the bands. There’s very little time and limited space to shoot, so you really need to be aware of the surroundings and flexible with your ideas. I love the challenge of looking past the obvious and trying to create something new for each shoot.


SB: I’m extremely fond of your series Individual Dignity which focuses on small business owners. What was your impetus for this series?

JS: Individual Dignity is a project that I began in the late ‘90s documenting small business owners around the United States, and later Australia. The inspiration for the series came from my family’s furniture store, Carlson’s, in Southern Oregon. As a child, I would spend vacations in Klamath Falls and very much enjoyed working with my uncle and grandfather at the shop. They would put me to work dusting the tables and delivering furniture to customers. I found it remarkable that they were able to build a business from scratch, support their families, and be a vital part of the Klamath Falls community. Carlson’s is now the oldest furniture store in town with the 4th generation of family members helping to run the business.


SB: How did you seek out your subjects for this project? Is it ongoing or complete?

JS: This project really began as a way to celebrate and pay homage to endangered small businesses. I was living in Carbondale, Illinois at the time and was noticing that big box stores like WalMart were a serious threat to mom and pop stores on Main Street. As I continued to photograph for this series over several years, I noticed that the portraits were beginning to function as a document for these businesses and towns in addition to celebrating their owners. Many of the proprietors included in the series have been pushed out of business since being photographed. I truly enjoy finding and photographing these people, so I doubt I will ever complete the project.


SB: Is there one image in this body of work that speaks to you more so than others?

JS: The portrait of my grandfather and his brother Gene in our family’s shop is one of my favorites, largely because I’m so close to the subject matter. However, the portrait of Ganelle Bedokis of Rissi’s Bakery means a lot to me for several reasons. Her portrait was the one that helped me discover what eventually evolved into my style of photographing. When I make these portraits, my main goal is to protect each subject’s dignity similar to the way Hines, Sander, and Evans did several decades ago, while celebrating their individuality. At the same time, I hope to add interest and an element of humanity to the portraits by introducing a very subtle sense of humor. Sometimes it’s a difficult balance to strike between humor and integrity without appearing like I’m poking fun at the subject. In the portrait of Ganelle, I feel like I struck that delicate equilibrium, which inevitably set the tone and style for the rest of the series.


My methods for choosing who to photograph for the series are generally pretty intuitive. I’m often a customer of his or her business or just driving by the shop and decide to come in to take a look. In some cases I find the business through referrals of people who have seen the work. Ganelle’s daughter was a friend of mine, so I knew her for several years beforehand. Ganelle’s father was a photographer who ran a studio in the space that was at the time being used as her bakery. In fact, the two portraits behind Ganelle are of her mother and father and were shot in the same space as Ganelle’s portrait. I’m always looking for these subtle visual connections between the subject and his or her background to help relate them to their space.


SB: I’m particularly fond of the image you shot of Ron West. You shared a bit of his story with me personally and I found it fascinating. Can you tell us a bit about that image and Mr. West’s history with the theatre?

JS: I was studying art in Australia in 2004 and continued working on this project while living there. I had heard from several people about this silent film theatre called The Majestic north of Brisbane that showed films a couple of times a week. I found the website for the place and read in its bio that Ron West and his wife Mandy bought the theatre in 1977 and have been entertaining patrons ever since. The theatre opened in 1921 and continued to operate as the last silent film theatre that began as a silent film theatre in Australia. Ron dressed up in his tuxedo several times a week and provided the films’ soundtrack on his beautiful Wurlitzer organ. This sounded like an amazing place, so I sent Ron an email explaining my project and asked if he and his wife were interested in participating. He immediately replied enthusiastically, but explained that Mandy had passed away a few months before. He expressed sadness that she wouldn’t be there to participate, but he would still love to be included in the series. I was ecstatic that he agreed, but felt bad he lost his life partner. A week or so later, I arrived to make Ron’s portrait and we shared some amazing conversation that has stuck with me ever since. There’s more to this story and our specific conversation that I find is best told in person and over a pint of beer…


Two elements of photographing this series that I cherish greatly are the people that I meet and the stories I come home with. It’s truly amazing how people open up and share their stories when you show a little bit of interest in their lives. Photographing these business owners has introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise. I’ve been invited over to their homes for dinner; I’ve been offered jobs; I’ve been offered a place to stay while traveling; I’ve even been introduced to one shop owner’s daughter. Looking back at the photographs, they serve as personal mementos of these experiences, stories, and most importantly the people I met along the way.


SB: You are an accomplished teacher and workshop instructor. Can you tell me a bit about that part of your life and how one can find out about workshops you may be teaching this year?

JS: I currently spend the bulk of my time teaching (and grading) in the Photography Department at Santa Monica College. I absolutely love working with the students there and learn just as much from them as I hope they learn from me. I teach a wide range of topics including beginning photography, introduction to darkroom techniques, a digital asset management and printing class, portrait photography, commercial lighting, and a portfolio course. I’m also teaching an upcoming class at the Julia Dean Workshops in Los Angeles on how to achieve the most out of small and limited lighting equipment. I also teach periodically at the Santa Fe Workshops, UCLA Extension, UCSD Extension, and even a class in Venice Italy. For current course and workshop dates, you can visit the “Workshops” section of my website.

To see more of Josh’s work or find out about his workshops pop over to his website  

And if you’re unable to come to the exhibition in person, Josh has some catalogs for sale here

On The Walls: Andrea Galluzzo @ Camera Work

Last spring, I met Andrea Galluzzo at Photolucida and have kept in touch since. Andrea’s solo exhibition “Know Myself in All My Parts” opens this Saturday at Camera Work Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The opening reception is this Thursday, February 23 from 6:30 to 8:30pm  The continues until March 23rd and there will be a closing reception on March 22nd from 6:30 to 8:30.

Here’s an excerpt from a conversation that Andrea and I had last week. 

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

ANDREA GALLUZZO: I started photography when I was 20 while getting my BFA in college. I was hooked to the instantaneous quality of photography and the ability to create a scene to photograph, rather than creating straight from my mind on a blank canvas.  Ironically, given my current work, the main teacher that I had through my college education preached two things: 1.  the quality of a good print (he was a protege of minor white and Ansel Adams, and a firm believer in the zone system) 2. Digital was “the Devil”.  Needless to say I kept one belief, and ditched the other.

One of the ways I ditched my inherited preconceptions towards digital photography, and how I  grow as an artist, is continually asking if photography still works as my chosen form of expression.  After graduating I was still working with my medium format camera that I used through school.  I was working on a few projects, but felt unfulfilled about the process.  I never really felt the magic of the darkroom. It was always the process of shooting that I loved, but I did want some way to develop the images that I was shooting.  I feel like it wasn’t until I embraced the realm of digital photography and it’s boundless realms did I fully feel like this was the medium that I had been looking for to satisfy my creative desires and fulfill what I was trying to say.


SB: Who were some of your early photographic influences and who inspires you now?

AG: I have always loved the human form, so Edward Weston’s nudes was an early favorite, and I also loved artists who captured a certain dark or nontraditional sense of beauty.  Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel Peter-Witkin, and Sally Mann all are exquisite photographers that unearth aspects of human nature that are startling and captivating.  

The work of Robert Parke-Harrison is a huge inspiration to me, and his ability to tell such complex stories in a single image.  I am drawn to the surreal work of Josephine Sacabo and Kamil Vojnar.  And, I am not just saying this to suck up, your work Susan, the liminal quality in your pictures continues to inspire me.  


SB: What was your personal impetus for creating your body of work Know Myself In All My Parts.

AG: There was a technical force that drove me as well as an emotional response to what was going on in my life that compelled me to create this series.  Like I mentioned earlier, before this series I was questioning where I wanted to go with photography or if that was still a medium that worked for me.  I had been sketching and painting over my photographs in a journal as a way to loosen up the stifling feeling I was having creatively and it was an outlet to express what I was feeling emotionally at the time as well.  With little experience in Photoshop I looked to one of my photos I had taken in the studio of a friend and model and began treating it like I would one of the pages of my journal, drawing and adding layers.  The result became the figurehead for this series entitled “I am the Queen of My Life”.  This image was the destination that I was longing to get to both conceptually and creatively.  It involved a process that was intuitive and painterly, and represented what I wanted in my own life, to be my own authority, to be a Queen.  As I continued to experiment I realized that the series was turning into not what it is to be the Queen of ones life but the journey to find that place in oneself.  This driving force to create this series started from a place of processing my own personal story, but evolved into a desire to portray the pain struggle, and release that I feel are universally present when we face the challenge to truly be ourselves. 


SB: These images have the appearance of charcoal drawings. Can you discuss how you achieve these effects?

AG: Photoshop has been a great program for my work, and allows me to be intuitive and push certain ideas and then pull them back to a place that works.  I feel that sometimes the danger of working in Photoshop is getting captivated by all that can be done, and images can become a mess. A technique that I have found that works well is combining textures that I scan or have found on the web with photographs.  From there I use a tablet and draw using various brushes.  I feel much of the success of my images is achieved through continual experimentation while at the same time keeping my aesthetic standards from traditional photography.  To give an idea about how much it takes to get the effect, each image consists of more than 30 different layers. 

SB: Is this an ongoing body of work? If so, do you foresee any new directions for this project?

AG: After 3 years I feel like this project is finally complete at 21 images.  I feel that all elements of this journey are represented.  Now I am working on the best way to get the body of work out there.  Shows and individual sales have been great, but there is a certain power when viewing the portfolio as a whole so I am playing with ways to make that available, whether it be a book or a special edition folio.  


SB: Your previous bodies of work were straight nudes without any type of post processing manipulations and are vastly different than your newest series. If you could summarize all of your work over the past years in a phrase or in a few words, what would that phrase be?

AG: The power present in our human vulnerability

SB: What are you working on now?

AG: Much of my energy is going towards making little fingers and toes right now: I am almost 6 months pregnant.  It is extremely exciting, and terrifying, so much of what I am creating right now also looks to themes of what it is to be born into a human body, what is our connection and process of death, and what is our souls connection to the universe around us.  Some of my new work can be seen in the current issue of Diffusion Magazine in their “Muse” feature.

To see more of Andrea’s work, pop over to her website.

In Focus: Walker Pickering

About a year ago, my friend Polly Chandler introduced me to the work of her good friend Walker Pickering. I was instantly taken by his imagery and continued to keep track of his work. Two weeks ago, I was thrilled to meet Walker in person when he and his students attended my talk at TWU. And when I returned home from Texas and opened my mail, I was ecstatic to see Walker’s gorgeous image Camaro (above) on the cover of the 2012 Houston Center of Photography Auction catalog…an image which I am absolutely crazy about. 

This past week, Walker was kind enough to chat with me about his work. Here’s an excerpt from that chat.


SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

WALKER PICKERING: I experimented a lot with video in high school. There was never an attempt at anything close to art making, but I started realizing I was strongly attracted to image capture. In college I was a music education major for awhile, but as my passion for that waned I found myself taking lots of pictures with a digital camera that captured directly to a floppy disk. I started with digital photography and worked backwards. I eventually found myself in an introductory black and white darkroom class, and the moment I saw a print appear in the developer for the first time, I was hooked.

SB: You teach full time and you are also a fine art photographer. Can you tell me a bit about how you keep the balance and inspiration flowing?

WP: I started teaching at McHenry County College outside Chicago immediately after grad school, and I’ve spent the past three years at The Art Institute of Austin. My teaching schedule keeps me busy year-round because we’re on a quarter system that goes through the summer. I get about 8 weeks off a year, but only two of the breaks are long enough to travel. It’s during those breaks that I make the majority of my work, although I still manage to shoot when school’s in session. I find it difficult to create work locally—at least with regards to Nearly West—so getting out on the road with no particular destination in mind keeps me stimulated creatively.

SB: What was the impetus for your series Nearly West? 

WP: My thesis project in grad school was called Abundant Living, and part of it had to do with my wife as muse. I was referencing Callahan, Nixon and others, but my heart really wasn’t in the work. I later realized that I was making what I thought was “grad school work”. My problem was that I was creating the work and critically analyzing it simultaneously—two important processes that I think should be attempted separately.

When I moved to Chicago, I started wandering around the South Side and traveling around the lake to Indiana and Michigan. I had no real goal in mind, but I realized that I simply wanted to explore unfamiliar places, and the road trip was the perfect vehicle for that. Returning to Austin forced me to take longer trips because I was already so familiar with Central Texas.

SB: Can you talk a bit about the locations you visited and photographed? Were the locations preplanned or happened upon?

WP: Most of the images were made around West Texas and throughout the American South. There are some oddballs in there from California and the Midwest as well. I generally plan my trips as little as possible. I rely almost entirely upon serendipity. This usually works out, but I’ve taken some particularly poor routes. In December 2011, my wife and I took a trip to New Orleans. After leaving the city, we drove along the gulf coast and up into Mississippi. I’m sure it was the time of year more than anything, but I found next to nothing to photograph. The same thing happened one time in Tennessee, where I decided to take backroads between Memphis and Atlanta. It just turned out to be completely lacking in what I was looking for visually. I still love shooting in Tennessee and Mississippi though.

SB: Can you tell me a bit about the technical aspects of this work?

WP: With rare exception, everything was shot with a Hasselblad and Kodak Portra films. I used to shoot a lot of large format, but even though I liked how it slowed me down and helped me concentrate on each shot, I found I was missing a lot of photos that I’d otherwise shoot with a slightly quicker format. The Hasselblad was the perfect balance between quality and speed.


SB: Is there one image in Nearly West you are most proud of or perhaps one that embodies the complete spirit and intent of your imagery?

WP: Meal is in my top ten, and I think it best represents the series. It was taken in 2009 at a Dairy Queen in Midland, Texas. I don’t even care for the food at that chain all that much, but it’s a staple of my road trips whenever available. Plus, I’ve gone there since I was a kid so it has a certain nostalgia for me. Interestingly enough, I don’t think everyone realizes it’s a Dairy Queen, but I’m fine with that bit of ambiguity.

SB: You shot a powerful series of portraits of a former colleague named Joe K. Can you tell me a bit about that work and what sparked the series?

Joe had worked at the Texas House of Representatives for as long as I’d been alive at that time. He spent the majority of that time as a runner for the photography department, and when I began working there in 2004 we quickly became friends. I liked him immediately because he was hilarious. After getting used to his manner of speaking, I realized most things he said were wisecracks.

In fact, the first time I understood how funny he was, we were walking down a long hallway in the Capitol. The Representatives and Senators all have a tendency to hire very attractive female college students to work for them, and Joe was a fan of all the pretty ladies. A pair of girls walked past us and Joe quipped to me, “Them two is wildcats. They look gooood.”

I only worked for the state for a year, and during that time it became clear that Joe was developing Alzheimer’s disease. He was forced to retire and I wanted to create a set of photographs about that time. I left Texas soon after and I never saw Joe again. He passed away right after I returned to Texas.

SB: What are you working on now?

WP: I still consider Nearly West a work-in-progress, but I’ve started work on a series that has to do with music, but is quite a bit different from an earlier series of portraits of musicians I did in 2003. It’s in the earliest stages and will probably take several years to complete.

SB: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or events?

I have an image in the Houston Center for Photography Auction next week, which I’d love to promote because HCP has been so good to me over the past year. Their entire staff, along with the folks at Fotofest, are incredible and Texas is lucky to have both organizations.


To see more of Walkers work, pop over to his website

In Focus: TWU/UNT MFA Reviews

Last week, I was invited to Texas Women’s University for a whirlwind one day event, which included participating in a panel talk with Mary Virginia Swanson and Kelli Connell, a book signing and a reception for my exhibition. During the morning, Kelli, Swan and I reviewed portfolios for MFA students attending TWU and neighboring University of North Texas. The event was organized by the incredible Susan Kae Grant who is a beloved professor at TWU and one of my favorite photographers.

Kelli Connell and I both have solo exhibitions running simultaneously in TWU’s East & West Galleries until February 15. If you’re in the area, hope you can pop by. More information about the exhibitions can be found here

(above: Susan Burnstine, Susan Kae Grant, Kelli Connell, Mary Virginia Swanson)

Today I’m featuring some work from a few of the students I reviewed including Ashley Kauschinger, Teresa Munisteri, Kristina Smith, Arthur Fields and Elva Salinas. 


Hot Skin is an investigation of everyday life that reflects upon the past and the present. The series shares  commonplace emotions and moments that overlap with the lives of others and connect those lives in understanding. This connection is created through a set of themes and symbols that are present throughout the    series. Implemented themes include sex, long distance communication, domestic living, relationships, and    moments of transition. These themes are examined through ambiguous, narrative self-portraits and still lives  within personal  environments. Each of these narratives has a sense of tension to create an emotional atmosphere to reflect upon. Tension is formed in each image by pinpointing a moment between two places or times, staging  scenes with layered meanings that pull against each other, and using available light at sunset. Symbols representing a personal mythology such as cloth, food, and hair are also present and repeated throughout the  series to create a sense of familiarity with the viewer. Hot Skin was photographed with a 4x5 view camera and  color slide film in Denton, Texas.

Ashley Kauschinger received her BFA in photography from Savannah College of Art in Design in 2011, and is currently studying with Susan kae Grant in pursuit of an MFA in photography from Texas Woman’s University. She has recently received recognition from Photographer’s Forum, National Geographic and PDN.  Her upcoming exhibitions include, Intimacy and Voyeurism in San Franciso andOnward Compe in Philadelphia, both juried by Todd Hido. She lives and works in Denton, Texas.

To see more of Ashley’s work pop over to her website

TERESA MUNISTERI: Vestigial Forests

American identity is closely tied to nature as a birthright. The land in its overwhelming abundance is what the American Dream was built upon – opportunity and prosperity. But as Robert Adams implies, our vision of the ideal American landscape, the Thomas Cole and the Ansel Adams, is no longer true. My work explores the remnants of the primordial landscape in present-day reality. For the past three years, I have sought out isolated landscapes within developed areas that incite my curiosity and imagination. My process involves solitary trips into parks, wildlife reserves, and empty lots. Each spot is chosen for its remoteness and the evocative nature of untamed growth. I insert myself as a performer within the space. By highlighting the duality of the landscape (untamed within the tamed), my character reclaims the primordial landscape through action and gesture. The female figure contrasts and conforms to the unrestrained natural growth, and becomes a non-destructive human presence within the space.

The constant search for wonder in our natural environment is what drives my work. By exposing beauty in the depleted land, it is easy to forget the threat of encroaching development. The landscape in my images envelops both truth and fantasy; these beautiful, isolated locations. 

Teresa Munisteri is a lens-based artist currently living and working in Denton, Texas. She will receive a MFA in photography from the University of North Texas in May 2012. Teresa received her B.A. from Rice University in 2006. Landscape, performance and the figure play important roles in her work which includes film and digital photography as well as digital video. Her photographs are included in permanent and private collections including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

To see more of her work pop over to her website

KRISTINA SMITH: The Place Between Sleep and Awake

The Place Between Sleep and Awake is a body of work created after a return to my hometown after some time away. The title of this project stems from a quote in Peter Pan. It states, “You know that place between sleep and awake? That place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.” This body of work stems from an interest in the point in time where one has awoke suddenly from a dream, and then is unsure of their dreaming or waking state. This work reflects the balance that I am striving to attain between the silence and lonliness of my new home and the comfort and familiarity of my old home, as well as the memories and relationships that these spaces hold. This in-between place is where I find myself longing to be, a place of comfort and home.  

Kristina Smith is an artist that works predominantly in the mediums of photography and installation. Her work is concerned with ideas of loss, isolation, intimacy, home, and the implication of place.

Smith currently resides in Denton, Texas, where she is an M.F.A. candidate in the Photography program at Texas Woman’s University. She received her B.F.A. in Studio Art with a concentration in Photography and Spatial Arts from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. 

ARTHUR FIELDS: Technically Connected

Technically Connected uses staged images to explore the process of self-discovery through narratives of behaviors associated with technology use and the roles that people assign personal technology in their lives.  There are three chapters for this work and I’ve posted two. The cell phone images are part of “Profile Portraits” and the environmental portraits are included in the “Screen Scenes” series. 

Arthur Fields completed a MFA in Photography from Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas in 2011. He earned a BFA in Digital Imaging and Photography at Washington University in St. Louis in 2008.  To see more of his work pop over to his website.


Ashley, is a collection of digital color photo portraits inspired during the creation of Vulnerabilities an abstract photo documentation of ten women. The portrait incorporated conversation on how each woman related to their bodies and where their feelings rooted. In turn, I created abstract landscapes of their bodies. During Ashley’s session, there was a series of conversations and emotion that were witnessed and captured, I was moved to continue to photograph Ashley as a way to connect and understand her emotional struggle with her mind and body during her battle with anorexia diagnosis of Bi-polar disease.

After 6 months, I continued to photograph Ashley and the people closest to her: These are the people who she looks to for support and understanding. It led to the documentation of moments of change, where gestures and emotional expression are one’s mind processing feelings of isolation and the dynamics of one’s relationship to others in our environment.           

The need to create the project came from the ongoing journey though the struggle of traumatic events in my life in which I have been able to overcome by connections with others in my environment. The camera allows me to channel my emotional connection, document my journey and others struggles.  I photograph with an empathetic eye and heart, creating a world that both subject and I can find comfort, understanding, and beauty, leaving behind Isolation.

Elva Salinas is photographer and mixed media artist currently pursing and MFA in Photography with a minor Concentration in Painting at Texas Woman’s University.  After graduating from Incarnate Word University in 2007 San Antonio, Texas, Elva worked establishing herself in her art community by assisting in the creation of an art gallery for emerging artists, and creating her own work. Her work centers on the human form and emotion creating empathetic portraits of people in her environment to invite connections and understanding. 

In Focus: Fritz Liedtke

Last Spring at Photolucida in Portland, Oregon I viewed Fritz Liedtke’s stunning series Astra Velum and was instantly taken by the imagery and artistry. Subsequently, I featured Fritz in my September 2011 column for Black and White Photography (UK).

Fritz and I chatted about his work. Here’s an excerpt from a chat that Fritz and I had last Summer about his work. 

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

FRITZ LIEDTKE: From childhood, I’ve always been one of those people who loves to make things, and to make them beautiful.  From designing and building my own bedroom when I was 12, to drawing and writing and making music, I’ve always enjoyed creating.

When I was 14, my dad and I drove our little turquoise Datsun B210 around the United States, seeing 31 states in 30 days. That’s when I first remember taking a lot of photographs, looking for good composition, going through a lot of film. I kept a journal, and made a large scrapbook of photos and text from that journey. I became more and more passionate about it as time went on, taking classes, winning competitions, filling photo albums and bookshelves with photographs. I was hooked.


SB: Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?

FL: I took my first photo class in the 9th grade, and enjoyed it.  When I was a junior, I had opportunity to drop my math class and take photo again; that was a no-brainer. My high school teacher was very influential, and helped lay a solid foundation for my career as an artist.  Eventually, I acquired a BFA from Pacific NW College of Art.  But as with any medium, there is a great deal of experimentation and self-teaching involved.


SB: You live and work in Portland? Are you a full-time photographer? Tell me a bit about your life outside fine art photography. 

FL: While I shoot professionally, I am diligent to protect my time for creating my own work; this has always been a priority.  I’m also married, live in 102-year old house I’ve thoroughly remodeled, and enjoy travel and family.


SB: When looking at all of your work, it seems you are inspired to find beauty and humanity in individuals who exhibit physical, psychological or social traits considered flawed or against the standard norm. Would you agree? If so, can you explain the impetus for expressing this theme?

FL: A survey of my work would certainly elicit this conclusion.  I haven’t set out to do this intentionally, but it’s certainly what I’m drawn to.  Recognizing my own weaknesses certainly breeds a compassion for those who struggle, suffer, are on the fringe.  Sometimes I think this is also a way of pushing back against the pressure in society to worship those who appear flawless, powerful, pretty.  It’s a challenge—but a worthwhile one—to find the beauty in everyone, however weak or ‘flawed’ they may be.  Flawed people are just so much more interesting.

SB: You state that some people view freckles as an aberration, but you find them enchanting and exotic. How did you come about photographing women with freckles?

FL: It all starts in San Francisco.  I was photographing there several years ago, and I met this girl.  She was the girlfriend of a friend of a friend, and we were all out at a bar for food and drinks one evening.  She had the most amazing freckles, and I finally asked her if I could take her portrait.  She agreed, but the only light I could find was from the sign outside the bar.  That was sufficient, and the resulting image was captivating to me.

After that, I would occasionally encounter someone with beautiful freckles, and arrange to photograph him or her.  I met people in parks, at weddings, middle schools, and through posts on craigslist.  I photographed most of them at my home; It was a simple shoot, generally, and I tried to make each image unique (I’m averse to repeating myself). 

SB: How long have you been working on Astra Velum? How many images are in this series? Is it an ongoing body of work or is it completed?

FL: The first image I shot in San Francisco five years ago, and it’s been an occasional project since them.  It’s mostly completed, but if the right face comes along and inspiration strikes, I’ll photograph more. 

SB: What does the title Astra Velum connote?

FL: I searched for an appropriate title for this body of work for some time.  The working title all along was simply Freckles, but I wanted something a little more exotic and haunting, like the images themselves.  The term Astra Velum is Latin for “Veil of Stars”, which denotes that beautiful texture these men and women are uniquely blessed with.  It also refers to the patterns in the night sky, as if each of these people is imprinted with their own unique set of constellations.


SB: You printed this body of work as Photogravures, which is an extremely labor intensive method. What inspired this decision?

FL: While photographing the images, I was considering how best to present the work in the end.  I tried many different media: modern tintypes, collodion tintypes, inkjet prints, C-prints, letterpress prints, and in the end, photogravure.

I settled on photogravure because—like the images I was printing—it’s all about texture: the paper, the ink, the impression, everything about photogravure is subtly textured and tactile.

In the digital age, I feel more and more distant from the handmade quality of photography—the manual labor of developing film and dodging and burning prints. But even darkroom work—which I never particularly enjoyed in and of itself—created a product that was made by hand, but showed no evidence of it.  For this reason I’m drawn to processes like tintype, encaustic, book arts, and photogravure, which show clear evidence of the artist’s involvement with the final product.

Until now, I’ve not been a process person; I’d rather shoot and edit, and then have a print magically appear (which, of course, is the draw of inkjet printing).  But I’ve found a real pleasure in the process of printing photogravure.  While it’s the most complicated printing process I’ve ever pursued, it does have its advantages.  I enjoy the craftiness of it—cutting out handmade paper for the chin-collé, inking and wiping the plate just so, the steady rhythm of turning the crank on the press, pulling the print off the plate and catching my breath, stunned by its beauty.  I like the rounded corners of the plate, the indentation of the plate in the paper, the traces of unwiped ink at its edges, the occasional fingerprint.  Like freckles, these are not flaws, but beauty marks.

Photogravure also offers a final product imitated but not reproduced by any other photographic printing medium: chin-collé.  This method of impressing a second piece of paper in between the ink and the backing paper is a traditional technique in printmaking.  This creates a unique print, with glowing warm high values (from the warm Japanese paper), placed against the white of the backing paper. The result is a hand-made print whose depth and luminescence is unmatched by any other pho­tographic print-making process.  They really must be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

For these reasons, handmade photogravures seemed the perfect medium for a series which, at its essence, explores the beauty of surface textures: human skin and its freckles and scars, like a thin veil of stars.

SB: Can you discuss your unique printing process, the paper, etc?

FL: Making an intaglio chin-collé print consists of cutting a piece of paper—in my case, a handmade Japanese paper—the exact same size as the plate.  When inked, the plate is placed on the press bed with the Japanese paper over top of it, and on top of that paper a glue is applied.  Finally, the backing paper (which is wet) is placed in register over the plate and Japanese paper.  This stack is run through the press, which exerts approximately 45,000 pounds of pressure on the sandwich of plate and papers.  In doing so, the ink is pressed into the Japanese paper, which is glued and embossed into the backing paper. 

SB: You offer a breathtakingly beautiful portfolio of selected prints from this series in a folio. Why did you introduce this work as a portfolio rather than make a handmade or published book of the images or just offer individual prints? 

FL: I’ve always enjoyed making portfolios (this is my third).  It’s an opportunity to pull together a tight set of images into a finely crafted, limited edition collector’s item, and I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: the custom box, the colophon, any text included, all enhance the viewer’s experience of the work. 

I’m open to a book project with this work, and have a number of ideas on that front. But a book and a folio are handled and viewed very differently.  I love books, but there’s only one way to look at them: in your hands, one page at a time.  However, a museum or collector who purchases a portfolio can handle the prints individually, display the whole portfolio unframed, or frame the prints for display on the wall.

SB: What is the edition of the portfolio? Do you offer individual prints for sale? 

FL: Astra Velum is available as a limited-edition portfolio of 12 photogravures, in a custom clamshell box, starting at $5500.  The portfolio is limited to an edition of 12. Individual prints are available from the broader series, in a limited edition of 30 per image, beginning at $600 each.


SB: Where or how can people purchase the portfolio or prints?

FL: The prints and portfolio can be purchased from me directly (www.fritzliedtke.com), and from PhotoEye.com.  They are also carried by Panopticon Gallery in Boston.

SB: What are you working on now? 

FL: Thinking about photography outside of the shoot-and-make-a-digital-print paradigm opens up another world full of possibilities.  I’m continuing to explore the many options in photogravure.  In art school, I studied both photography and printmaking, but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to marry the two.  I’m also working on artist book and altered book projects, and am photographing for several other ideas.  

To see more of Fritz’s work pop over to his website

In Focus: Bill Vaccaro

Chicago based photographer Bill Vaccaro and I became friends via online forums around eight or so years ago and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Bill has worked with toy and conventional cameras over the years and he has a deep passion for a variety of alternative processes.

Most recently, Bill released a color documentary series about firework venues entitled Boomtown. Here’s an excerpt from a recent chat we had about his work.

SUSAN BURNSTINE: What were your beginnings as a photographer and when did you realize it would become your chosen form of expression?

BILL VACCARO: As a child, I would love going through the family snapshots that my parents and relatives took. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the financial means to get my own camera until I started college and I bought my first 35mm SLR camera. Over the years, I sort of mucked around on and off with 35mm black-and-white street and landscape photography. I had a darkroom or access to one most years and taught myself to develop film and make my own prints. It was a hobby for me but an enjoyable one. 

It wasn’t really until 2004 that I started to get really serious about it as a means of expression. I discovered the photoblogging community and created my own site, which I called Out of Contxt where I posted my photos, sometimes every day. Then a certain photographer from L.A. visited my blog and suggested that I play around with toy cameras. That would be you. From there, I discovered the joys of blur and selective focus. Since then I’ve experimented with homemade lenses and generally settled on medium format photography. With few exceptions, it’s all been one big, happy blur. 

I’ve managed to get my work seen and be in some juried and curated shows. Eight years later, I’m still plugging along. Not bad for someone who’s self taught and has only taken two workshops in his lifetime. Thank Buddha for those Ansel Adams and Time-Life books!

SB: What was the impetus for your latest series Boomtown?

BV: I’ve always been fascinated with fireworks every since I was a boy. I have very strong memories of being taken to the local park for the July 4 celebrations. When I was in sixth grade, I had a friend who managed to get his hands on some cherry bombs and M80s. Pretty powerful stuff for kids to be playing around with. We went through the neighborhood, set them off and then running like hell to avoid getting picked up by the police or, worse, our parents. We never got caught and, fortunately, nobody lost any digits either. 

The project gelled during the summer of 2010 while I was on a road trip through the South to continue work on the Jesus on the Mainline series. The trip started shortly before Independence Day and that’s when I started seeing all the temporary fireworks stands and tents. As the trip continued, it dawned on me that this would make an interesting project combining my love of fireworks with the quirkiness of the stands, tents and stores.

SB: Can you tell me a bit about the road trips that you took for this series and what areas you visited?

BV: I’ve taken two road trips so far. The first one was to northern Indiana in the fall of 2010. Fireworks are illegal in Illinois so Chicagoans get their fix by driving to Indiana where there are dozens of stores right across the state line. In some cases, like Uncle Dan’s in Hammond, they’re literally 100 feet away from the Chicago city border. Besides Hammond, I checked out stores in Gary, Merrillville, Valparaiso, and Portage. I even found several small mom-and-pop grocery stores in Howe, a small town about an hour past South Bend, that have separate rooms in the back devoted exclusively to fireworks. Pick up your bread, milk and bottle rockets. How’s that for one stop shopping?

Late last June; I went on a 12 state, 3500+-mile road trip with my then 18-year-old son who also shares his dad’s pyrotechnic interests. As I like to say, I shot while Chris bought. Our journey took us through the Midwest east of the Mississippi, the mid-South states, the Carolinas and then up through Virginia, West Virginia and the Maryland panhandle into Pennsylvania. We ended the road trip by spending Independence Day in State College where we saw, or should I say experienced, the massive annual volunteer fireworks show on the campus of Penn State.

SB: Is the series ongoing or complete? If ongoing, do you foresee any new directions for this project?

BV: Not quite but close. I’m heading west for a couple of weeks in mid June to explore Missouri and possibility a few neighboring states before I finally put the series to bed. My friend and fellow photographer Ellen Jantzen has been on my case get down to the St. Louis area and visit. According to her, there are numerous temporary fireworks stands that pop up around that time of the year. 

I also intend to spend the night of July 4 back home in Chicago. My home is less than three blocks away from a local north side beach right off Lake Michigan. On Independence Day, the place swarms with locals who detonate all the fireworks that they bought in Indiana and is a great photographic opportunity. The police are there but don’t really interfere that night. I’m also going to try to enlist Chris and some of his friends as well.

I don’t expect to do anything different with the project although I’d love to get more people shots to round out the usual architectural imagery. I had a hard time with that during last year’s road trip. While we met a lot of interesting people, most were reluctant to have their photograph taken for any number of reasons. I think most of it has to do with trust and relationships, as well as the nature of their jobs. And it’s really hard to build that trust when you’re just popping in unannounced, spending an hour or even less at a location, and then hopping in the car to go to the next spot. My plan for this coming year is to bring a small portfolio of images that I’ve already taken and see if that helps break the ice.

SB: It seems your creative inspiration often lies in road trips. Your previous series Jesus Is On The Mainline and Roadside Attractions were also “driven” by the road. Can you talk a bit about this essential element of your process?

BV: I’ve always loved roads trips since I was a kid, mainly because there were so few of them. My parents rarely owned a car, so the trips were always memorable to me. For example, there was the trip to Gettysburg and Washington, DC when I was ten where I can still visualize my first glimpse of the U.S. Capitol Building from the back seat. Another was to visit my cousin’s family farm in West Virginia where I learned to actually milk a cow. So, in some ways, I’m kind of making up for lost time. But then, sometimes, you sometimes just need to go where the visual candy is. And America has lots and lots of visual candy.

SB: Jesus Is On The Mainline teeters on the edges of humor, satire and also exercising your own demons and is one of your most personal bodies of work. Can you discuss the impetus for this series, the years it was shot and how it developed, changed or found its groove as you progressed with the work?

BV: As my wife likes to say, I’m a recovering Catholic. I grew up in a tight knit enclave of devout Italian-American Catholics on the lower west side of Buffalo, NY. I still remember the crucifixes over every bed, the dinners my aunt would make every year for the Feast of St. Joseph, the holy water font that was installed in my grandmother’s apartment so she could say her rosaries and novenas and, of course, the Sunday masses at our nearby parish church. As I grew older, I began to question my faith. By the time I turned 18, I was through with the Church. However, it never stopped my fascination with and respect for the true believers, especially those who wore their faith on their sleeve.

Like most of my projects, the Jesus series sort of happened accidentally. I was attending the Taste of Chicago in 2005 when I took a toy camera photograph of an evangelist who was proselytizing the attendees. He was handing out coins with a biblical quote and wearing a sandwich board that said “Prepare To Meet Thy God.” I still have that coin. The following spring, my family and I hopped into the car during my son’s spring break and drove down I-55 to post-Katrina New Orleans. New Orleans has always been one of my favorite cities in the whole world and I figured that we could help the local economy in our own way by spending a few days there. Both coming and going, we saw a lot of billboards, signs and trinity crosses off the sides of the interstate. I then remembered the evangelist photograph and that was when I began serious work on the project, first locally, then regionally. 

When I attended the Photolucida portfolio reviews in 2009, I showed what I had to Tony Bannon, director of the George Eastman House and fellow Buffalonian. Tony really liked the work in progress but said to me, “You know, this isn’t going to be truly finished until you go to the South.” So, I took his advice and headed out on a 3000+-mile road trip through the back roads of the Deep South looking for Jesus the following summer with my very, very patient wife. It was a pretty amazing journey.

SB: Recently, you’ve been focusing more on straight documentary versus your previous focus on alternative methods. Can you talk about that transition and do you feel there has been a greater shift in your work other than process or technique?

BV: The Boomtown series is sort of a temporary detour from my usual process and a subject that I had to get out of my system before I could move back to my usual processes. I’m really a black-and-white kind of guy. While I’ve dabbled in color here and there in my early work, it never really grabbed hold of me the way shades of grey have all these years. But shooting fireworks stores screams for outrageously vivid color, sharp focus and a documentary style of composition. It been challenging because I had to deal with technical issues I never had to worry about before, especially color balance issues in places whose interiors are illuminated by pretty bad fluorescent lighting. While it meant a temporary abandonment of my usual black-and-white, selective focus style of shooting, I’ve still tried to convey a sense of self in the work.

Boomtown is a time sensitive project because the temporary stands don’t appear until sometime in June. So while I’m waiting, I’m starting to work with handmade processes. I’ve been teaching myself how to use the ziatype printing process that was developed by Dick Sullivan in the mid-1990s. The results are comparable to traditional palladium printing except that chemical development is not required like palladium. It is a printout process in that the development takes place while the print is exposed to UV light. I also took a weeklong workshop with the amazing Jill Enfield at the Maine Media Workshops to learn wet plate collodion last August. My plan is to combine the two while still continuing to work with medium format black-and-white film photography.

SB: If you could summarize all of your work over the past years in a phrase or in a few words, what would that phrase be?

BV: As American as homemade apple pie, worms and all.

SB: What are you working on now?

BV: Besides finishing up the Boomtown series this June, I’ve begun work on two personal series that combine wet plate and other alternative processes. And while I’m in St. Louis this summer, I’ll keep working on a long-term project that I’ve been doing on the Gateway Arch that is shot almost exclusively with toy cameras.

To see more of Bill’s work, pop over to his website