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through the eyes of fine art photographer & journalist susan burnstine

In Focus: Douglas Stockdale


Douglas Stockdale seemingly has boundless amounts of energy. In addition to a thriving photographic career, he regularly writes reviews for Photo Eye Magazine and he also has a wonderful blog that focuses on photobook reviews, The Photobook.

Doug and I recently discussed his new book release Ciociaria. Here’s an excerpt from our chat.

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

DOUGLAS STOCKDALE: My serious interest in photography began to evolve while finishing my undergraduate industrial design degree.  Which in retrospect I find interesting, since most industrial design products are three dimensional objects, but yet I was intrigued by the two dimensionality of photography. This probably relates to my strong interest in drawing and the two dimensional way I was describing three-dimensional space. Remember, this was well before our current three dimensional software programs.

After graduation, we moved to Southern California from the Midwest and I became immersed in photographing the natural landscape, taken in by the wonderful light and sense of open space. I began working with the zone system and medium format black and white, juggling duties with our bathroom/ darkroom.

After 15 years I realized I was not growing by photographing the natural landscape and did not feel that I was able to visualize subject matter in a new way. I then turned to painting, graphics and collage, progressively becoming more abstract over the next 15 years. I accepted the reality of photography when I realized that more and more of my creativity was structured around the use of Xerox and laser generated photographs I was reconstructing with the new magic software sensation; Photoshop. That was about 1991 or 1992. As a result of my painting background, I have few qualms with mixing and mashing the photographic mediums of analog & digital, color & black & white, static & blurred images; it’s about what works for the concept at hand.

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

DS: As to influence by others, I think to a large degree I am a sponge. I appreciate a broad and diverse range of photographic styles, similar to my diverse taste in music, movies and literature. Perhaps the first photographers who inspired me were George Tice and his book “Photographs”, also my first photobook acquisition, and Harry Callahan.  After moving to Southern California I became particularly interested in the concepts of Wynn Bullock, Minor White and Paul Caponigro, who intrigued me with their ability to photograph the landscape as a metaphor. Over time, I came to appreciate Eugene Atget and Walker Evans and later John Gossage, Hiroshi Watanabe, Lee Friedlander and Joel Sternfield as well as many others.

In a nod to John Gossage’s first book The Pond, I have a little surprise lurking under the dust jacket of my first book Ciociaria.  The book’s title has a similar large type that wraps across the back, spine and front covers of the book, which truncates the title Ciociaria such that the front cover contains the word ARIA, the Italian word for air, symbolic for the light, essence and soul of a place. I love the multi layering of meaning this affords, which hints at other possibilities.

SB: Congratulations on your soon to be released book Ciociaria published by Punctum. You photographed this body of work in central Italy. What first brought you to this area and what inspired you to document the region?

DS: Serendipity brought me to this region as a result of my day job, and I was here frequently over the duration of a year, and I am still returning from time to time. During my available free time, it is my photographic practice to investigating a surrounding area with what I call a dive deep, essentially to spend a lot of time in a small area in an attempt to observe carefully. So in my ensuing walks and local day trips, I slowly wound myself around the region watching people and their built landscape as to how this place might symbolically represent a broader concept. My Italian is very limited, thus I was very much an outsider trying to decipher what I visualized. Much of this region seemed familiar, as the environment is somewhat similar to a mix of Southern and Central California, and the Italian/European heritage has an influence in American culture.

For the first three months I photographed as an immediate emotional response to what interested me, but without any real conceptual framework. During this time I was reviewing Andrew Phelps photobook “Not Niigata”, about an American who lives in Austria, now photographing the small seaside Japanese village Niigata, and reading his essay about being a stranger in a strange land. The Phelps essay resonated with me, as I recalled photographing in China a couple of years ago and having a similar disorienting experience.  But in this area of Italy, I was feeling slightly different; I was more of a stranger in a slightly familiar land. This concept of being a” stranger in a slightly familiar land” then consumed me for the following nine months. I photograph events and situations that on the surface appear to relate to something that I knew and might understand and yet I realize that I truly do not know what actually is occurring.


SB: You traveled to the area intermittently for over a year and you defined the region as being strange. During your time there, were you able to unearth what makes this are so unusual to you? Or did you embrace the oddities so that it became familiar, thus allowing you to create photographs of familiarity in an unfamiliar land?

DS: I think of strangeness in a more subtle way, perhaps expressed as having enough difference as to become almost obviously different, that sense of nagging that makes someone uncomfortable. It is to be conscious of being an American watching the day to day existence of the people of another culture and society.

An example; the people of this area invest in washing machines to laundry their clothes, but many choose to dry their laundry in a very traditional way by hanging it in the open on a line. Due to their space constraints, it was not unusually to see their laundry hanging in very public places, such as on a line suspended above the street or perhaps on a rack on a small space in front of the door of their residence. You could say that they literally let it “all hang out”, publicly displaying even their most intimate apparel. This is (strangely) different from how most individuals dry their laundry in Southern California. From this and like observations I can draw some inferences as to how this society functions differently as it relates to community, trust, candor, and relationships. I think that traveling frequently between Southern California and Italy; I manage to keep my visual perspective fresh regarding the subtle differences I come across. Interestingly, I find the reverse to be true as well; I look at the built landscape of Southern California in a fresh way, as I observe things that I seem to previously have taken for granted.

SB: Is there one image with this body of work that you are most proud of or perhaps one that embodies the complete spirit and intent of your imagery?

DS: Yikes, editing is probably one of my greater weaknesses, so to extract just one image is difficult for me, unlike Marco, who immediately zeroed in on the Madonna cover image for the book. Let me instead share a pivotal photograph for this project, which is one that did not end up in the book, but will be included in one of my two limited edition book and print sets. 

As I was walking down a narrow residential street of a relatively new suburban neighborhood, I saw a young man atop the arch way entrance to his house, spraying down the roof with high pressure water. I have no doubts that this guy knew what he was doing, but nevertheless, he was still under the very watchful eye by someone who I suspected was his father, standing off in the far front door shadows.  The act of cleaning of this archway roof in conjunction with the constant parental supervision seemed odd, humorous and very Italian to me, but it was this scene that triggered the recall of my recent review of Phelps’s “Not Niigata” and crystallized my concept for this project. By the way, this photograph is my contemporary Italian version of “fiddler on the roof”.

SB: How did this book come to be published by Punctum?

DS: This is an interesting story about serendipity of how one thing leads to opportunities for another. I had provided Melanie McWhorter at photo-eye my short list of best photobooks for 2009 and when I had mentioned that I would be working in Italy near Rome, she recommended that I connect with Marco Delogu, the photographer/publisher of Edizioni Punctum who had also provided a short list of best photobooks for 2009. At that time, my interest in an introduction to Marco was focused on a desire to know more about the photobooks of Edizioni Punctum, especially his then recent publication of the South African photographer, Guy Tillim.

Marco was receptive to our meeting and whenever I was back in Italy, we checked our mutual schedules to see if we could arrange a brief discussion, usually over a café corto. After three or four meetings with Marco, I had decided that the photographers he published were synergistic with my own work, so I brought him my Blurb book-dummy of Insomnia: Hotel Noir as a submission. He was very enthusiastic about many of the photographs, but the photographs he selected to exclude were the ones that I thought created the narrative I was attempting to achieve, so I decided to withdraw my submission and continue to look for another publisher for this project. During a subsequent meeting, Marco asked me about my project Ciociaria that was now in full swing by this time and to my surprise, he asked me to submit 3 or 4 images. I ended up emailing him five. His response was immediate, he wanted to publish it, which at that time was a concept that I was only beginning to vette and was in a really, really raw state. I had the idea that it was necessary to bring a completed photo project to a book publisher in order to obtain some consideration, much as I had with my successful submission to Brooks Jensen, the editor of LensWork for my project In Passing (LensWork #74 Jan/Dec 2008). I was amazed and elated with Marco’s immediate positive response, and since the Ciociaria project was still a work in progress, a bit scared shitless. Now it all has come together in this wonderful book, amazing, but true.

SB: Where can the book be purchased? Are there signed copies available?

DS: My books will be soon available in specialty European bookstores and by the time this interview is published, there will be copies in Paris at Le BAL and signed copies at Plac’ArtPhoto. The book is now available at photo-eye, where both the signed and unsigned books can be purchased. I will continue to reach out to some additional specialized photography bookstores, such there should be books available soon at Ampersand Vintage in Portland, OR. The books are also available for purchase directly from me.

I am also developing a signed and numbered book + archival print set in two limited edition versions of 25 plus 5 artist proofs. The photographs for the limited editions set are not in the book. I am very pleased with the response to this book, with some nice shout outs by Aline Smithson, Harvey Benge and Andrew Phelps, and amazed that over 30% of the books have been sold during pre-release. We are now thinking we should have had a larger initial print run. But who knew, this was my first commercial book.

SB: In addition to creating your own work, you also do a great deal of writing and reviewing of photobooks for photo-eye and your blog The PhotoBook. Do you find that writing about photography feeds your desire to create more or does it have the opposite effect?

DS: Definitely writing about photography and photobooks has a positive effect on me in many dimensions. It has motivated me to study the criticism of art, creates the opportunity to careful examine a broad range of photographer’s work in an attempt to understand their photographs in the context of an organized book, further appreciate a book as an object, delve into essays that in earlier days I had passed over, forces me to pay closer attention to my writing style and especially to the proper use of grammar. Regretfully, I still have a long way to go with the latter!

Your question does provide a segway to allow me to share my photobook review style, which provides an indirect answer. I do not believe that I am truly a photobook critic per se, but provide a review that lends itself to what Andy Grundberg terms applied criticism, which is practical, immediate and directed at the work. I am attempting to help the reader experience the photographs and the book through a descriptive and interpretive commentary by a committed observer. I believe that to study the intent of the photographer as expressed by their book and writing about a diverse mix of photography provides a similar opportunity to those who teach, to gain inspiration and understanding during the dialog and exchange.

In one sense, writing my photobook commentaries increases my awareness of the broad diversity of photographic projects and the books continue to feed and enlarge my understanding of the potential of the medium. My interest in attempting to understand photography led me to my initial photobook collection, thus my writing about the various photobooks does not abate my interest; it was there to begin with.

SB: What are you working on now?

DS: On most occasions, I can easily relate with the sentiment expressed by Bruce Haley during your earlier interview, I am in usually in a situation of playing “Smash the Weasel”. I juggle the commitments of my family, a day job, photographic projects and the photobook reviews.

I have a wide variety of projects in various stages of development, and I find myself constantly re-examining a project’s concept and execution as I gain more information. As an example, one of three current projects is In Passing, a project that I thought was fairly complete at the time it was published in LensWork, which itself was the second iteration of this body of work. After I had converted the body of work from a warm tone image to a straight black and white, my interest in the project was renewed and I started to photograph and re-photograph the roadside memorials. After recently reviewing Nathalie Herschdorfer’s “Afterwards”, I realized that this project is in fact an Aftermath project.  I had earlier felt the social implications of this project, but struggled with defining project’s concept in this way. Reading Herschdorfer’s essays about the various Aftermath projects has crystallized my own thoughts, to the point of deleting the black and white adjustment layers to reveal the original color photographs (a nice option for those working in digital, eh?).

Suffice to say, I seem to have a ton of projects that are in different stages of progress, which is very exciting and challenging for me.

To see more images by Douglas, pop by his website

To order a copy of Ciociaria directly from Douglas click this link 

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