Interview with Derek Boswell
Interview conducted by Kevin Heslop
This interview took place on October 19, 2018, at King's University College in London, Ontario. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Peggy’s Cove Angel
Sony A7R, Canon 35mm f/2.8 LTM
I thought we might begin with “Peggy’s Cove Angel” for a few reasons. The photograph, at first glance, stuns. It seems to me to be stunning in part because of how coincidental its capture must've been, similar to a photo from “Forest City?” of a deer running across a wintry street at night. Second, because this is one of a small number of photographs I’ve seen of yours that includes an actual, rather than an implied, animate entity.
Yes, that is definitely true.
And finally, because by means of available light, perhaps, there is a tonal and textural sympathy between the SUV, the gull, and the sky, which beget associations we don't usually make (that is, a gull, a symbol of the natural world––which feeds on refuse––is more often portrayed in contrast to the human world). So: the importance of spontaneity in that photograph and in your work more generally; the inclusion of something that breathes in your photography; and Machina in sympathy with Deus.
I quite like that. That’s very adept, and yes, you are right: that is one of the few portrayals of animate objects. And to extend upon that, with humans, which are even less included in my work––I have quite a few birds, and I have some deer, some horses––they’re always in sections, never the whole body. One of my favourite painters is Francis Bacon, in whose work human bodies are always divided up. Animals less so. I know I have more sympathy for animals. I can certainly see that.
You’re separating humans from animals, here.
I do treat human subjects and animals differently. And I’m not really sure why that is. I know I care a great deal about the welfare of animals and our environment, and I suppose I’d like to portray them in a more wholesome way––or, quite literally, a more whole way––whereas humans are more fragmented. And I think that speaks to what the human body does––what the human mind does to the environment: it fragments it. Rather than landscaping it, it landscrapes it.
For farming and habitation.
Farming and habitation, that sort of thing. For our purposes. And I suppose just serendipitously I found myself photographing that sort of threshold between man and nature, where those two things clash. And they often do clash. I mean, we are animals, but we don’t always get along with the wild ones. In fact, quite the opposite, often. And I think there are not many people who are genuinely sympathetic to that. So––
Readily at hand are means by which we can be inauthentically sympathetic to questions of the destruction of the natural world.
Yes, and I think that sentiment also goes well with the democratization of photography that seeps into that contemporary notion of “I am what my photographs portray me as––that is, in effect, my life. What you see of me on Facebook is what I am.”
You know, that sort of thing. Um––
Whereas you feel your work is an extension of your identity.
Yes. Absolutely. And not even just my identity, because I will of course admit that I can’t be righteous all the time. I can’t be that perfect, wholesome person or whatever that I preach about.
I’ve never seen you at a pulpit.
That I gently persuade others to believe, perhaps. And I think photography fills that gap of, if I can’t realize those things on my own, it is what I can say in spite of my own misgivings. You know, the environment is very important, and I can’t be perfect in that respect. But I want to show––If I’m going to go down, I’ll bring others down with me. I may not be perfect but I’ll damn well show the actions of the less-perfect people––those who are doing worse things to our environment––and the actions that we have identified as acceptable or as something to aim towards as a society. You know, that big McMansion in what used to be swamp land, some endangered habitat––
You know, a large, over-the-top, ostentatious kind of house.
I’ve never heard that phrase before.
Chilling. McMansion. M-C as in McDonald’s?
And I’m sure that’s the etymology of it. It’s an American term.
Their McMansions in the eighties: during an era of prosperous growth to the extent that you’re infringing upon the welfare of others, which is where you get most progress from. And we use those products, like cars with their massive engines––stuff that they would never realistically need. But people bought that sort of thing because that was what you did to excel in society, to gain status. Yeah, so I guess my photography looks at those dynamics of status. And going back to the seagull, that’s not a very well-regarded animal.
Nevertheless it’s important, like all animals. They play some function in the ecosystem. If they don’t exist, then something else must take their place.
And you refer to it as an angel. It’s a very ennobling image. You turn that perception on its head.
And I’m not going to be the one to glorify them, to say that all of our possums and raccoons and deer and seagulls are angels, but I want to at least show that they perhaps need to be reconsidered––those other less-seen, in-the-background, not-really-glorified animals and systems and constructs that make our world what it is, in a good way. They often don’t garner the support that they deserve. And I think those characters, those things that make our world what it is in a good sense, they need to be shown. And not even just for their appreciation, but just so people are a little more aware of what goes on every day. And you know, when I started doing this, when I started photographing, I felt like there was a switch that turned on with my eyes, with my brain, with the way I see things, that I could never turn off again. Once I picked up that camera and kind of got in the habit of shooting these certain things, once I kind of found my thing, as it were, that flipped a switch in me that not only have I never been able to turn off, but I’ve never have the desire to, because I see those quotidian things as anything but. I see them as something that can be enchanting or captivating or disgusting, and I get all these very strong very visceral emotions in response to like a fucking lamp post or something, which some people think is kind of crazy, and it may well be. But I’m quite content with it, and I think the takeaway message is that phones and whatever are fine, but don’t just keep looking down, don’t just keep doing your same thing day in and day out, reconsider a little, and––
OK. Now you’re on the pulpit. *laughs*
Yeah, yeah. *laughs* I think you know what I was getting at.
I do. How did you decide upon the title, and what do you look for––I think we discussed a bit the title, Peggy’s Cove Angel, but perhaps you’d offer a little more––and what do you look for, image by image, to determine the tone of the text with which you associate your photographs. They often read as terse, poetic––
––Yeah. They’re strong, and often offer a second or a third way of looking at the photographs. They’re prismatic in some ways.
I’m glad you said that, that they are prismatic. In the last interview I did, I talked about how art and psychology intrinsically relate for me. And I can always use psychology in my art. I can’t necessarily use art in my psychology: it’s not always a transactional relationship, but it is often unidirectional in that psychology influences my art. And I’m aware that the space a print is presented in, the title it is given, really affects the perception of the work. It gives it a new lens. And it refracts your perception of it through a prism that I’ve put in front of it, and I know that I can’t just take away those prisms from the work. You’re always going to see it in a different manner. Every person’s going to bring their own baggage, their own junk, their own insight, whatever. The names are often spontaneous. And it’s really the only automatic thing about my process, because I use manual cameras. I develop it myself in an old laundry sink (here’s hoping no one who pays me to develop their film read that); I scan it myself; everything is done by me, consciously, with intent, and with reason. But the name, that’s a bit more nebulous, and I like to leave it up to chance to some extent. I’m a bit of an auteur when it comes to what photograph I will take, where I will put it on the wall, when and where I will even put it on my website.
I’m very particular, and that’s a nice way to get away from that to alleviate that stress. I think it’s a nice way for the viewer to get, perhaps, a less intentionally-curated interpretation of the photograph through its title.
In reading an interview with Tom Hiddo––
––with whose work one could safely compare yours, a phrase pops out about many “of the signs a photographer looks for coming from that photographer’s past.”
I wonder if we could further enweave your study of psychology here. Is that arising of signs a conscious one, or an unconscious one, for you. Is your knowledge of Jung somewhere here?
Yeah, absolutely. I would like to think that I’m aware of such things. And I’d also like to say that it is forever unconscious: it’ll always be affecting my work in some manner. But it can momentarily be a conscious decision to include my psychology too; include my past in my work. It is indeed making a difference in what I shoot. And I think Todd’s quote is spot-on. I think that could be said for any artist. I remember what I was going to say about––
––the other thing. A lot of artists go with “untitled” as their title, and I know, from talking to some of my peers, the intent with that is it doesn’t bring anything else to the artwork but the artwork itself. It attempts to put no prism in front of it. But, for one thing, I think that’s frankly boring and not engaging. And I want my work to be engaging, especially with the subject matter which I think needs to be viewed. But also, I simply don’t think it really does the work justice to call it “untitled.” So I’d rather put a little bit of effort into it, even if it isn’t as empirical as merely “untitled” could be. It is, at the very least, more engaging, more enticing, and it’s better that someone looks at it and perhaps gets a flawed opinion than that they don’t look at it at all. And I can’t really say what’s a flawed opinion; that’s neither here nor there with artwork anyways.
In the case of the next photo I wanted to address, it’s not so much a prism that’s brought by the title “what is the weight of a headless beast?” but an intensification of the image itself. From a quick look at the photo and its title one might infer that it’s a meditation on humans’ consumption of animals, our carnivorism; but there’s a gentleness in your photographs, not in their subject matter, but their composition, lighting, and balance, that conflicts with what their subject matter is. How do you think of that navigation of the balance between often eerie or jarring images and the beauty of their composition?
“what is the weight of a headless beast?”
Rolleiflex 3.5B, Portra 160
Well, I’m glad you picked up on the disparity there between the subject of the composition and the manner in which it is composed. I think it is important that, especially with something as contentious and divisive as, you know, killing animals, carnivores, even being vegetarian and animal rights and all that sort of thing, I think it’s quite important that you approach it softly––
––and you kind of draw the viewer in with something that they can relate with or at least that they feel safe with, and then you hit them with what is, um, a less, you know––
A rubber mallet rather than a metal one?
Yes, a rubber mallet rather than a machinist’s hammer. I’m glad you brought up this work, because it is one that I always question myself over, you know, and I even have trouble with it, because I am not vegan, I am not vegetarian. I still consume some meat, because of my allergies, a medical condition I can’t change. But at the same time I try to reduce it as much as I can. I have to stick with that, and it’s really tough because I don’t want to. I care a great deal about animals and nature and to actively go against my ideals because of something I cannot change is very difficult. And that’s a sentiment that I think, if I haven’t put it in my work, it always has at least been in my mind while shooting, while tripping the shutter.
So, your medical condition prohibits your being a vegetarian.
I have anaphylaxis, and it would just be too difficult to get the necessary protein--
––from other sources. And it’s something I’m working on, it’s something I hope to better in the future; but it’s a difficult process. I do the best I can, but I’m not one for half-ways or mediocrity or compromises, necessarily.
But your body insists on it.
Yes, my body insists upon it. And it’s that disparity which causes me a great deal of strife. And yeah, like I say, if I’ve not engendered that in my past work, it has certainly been at the forefront of my mind while shooting. And it was liberating to put that sentiment in a very literal piece.
Um, on this note, with regard to “Mass Gravestones,” would you consider whether you’d be more inclined to ascribe to this photo the adjective “beautiful” as opposed to the phrase “morbid, anti-capitalistic statement”? The density and symmetry of this photograph justifies the former, but the mass-production of gravestones feels profoundly removed from a more fundamentally individuated process having to do with the burial of the dead.
I would choose––as much as I said I don’t like half-ways or compromises,––I would choose sublime over beautiful. And I think there’s an important distinction there.
Linhof Technika V, 47/5.6 Angulon, Portra 160
Beauty implies that it is more wholesome and that it is righteous––it is desirable. And I think something that is sublime can be enticing and captivating, but not necessarily––It can be vicariously captivating. I like those gravestones. I find them appealing in some manner. But I also find them repulsive, because as you said, it is emblematic of late-stage capitalism where, you know, we are quite literally selling our souls to the lowest bidder.
*still laughing* Very good.
Thank you. Thank you. And with the largest––
You thought of that phrase before?
I did not. I came up with that one on the spot.
That was great.
Thank you. I’m glad it’s being recorded.
I’ll have to name one of my shows that in the future. So, shooting that––That was at Rock of Ages in Vermont. It’s the largest granite-quarry in the world, and also the largest gravestone-factory in the world, to my knowledge.
You drove there.
Yes, I drove there. It was on a family trip in the summer, and we take this big RV––It’s nice because it’s an RV so I can kind of do my own thing during the day, and––
Together for meals in the evening, sort of thing.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s a very easy way to travel all across the country. I’ve travelled to every U.S. state except for––
Yeah. Except for six …
Not including Alaska and Hawaii. Yeah.
So how regularly do you go with your family to drive?
Once a year for a big trip, and that’s something that I’ve been doing since I was a little kid.
And multiple states at a time, I guess.
Yes. Yes, though this year was mostly in Canada. Remind me to tell you the story about how I got the whole Stowe, Vermont police department out one night.
Go for it.
Just to finish up with the Rock of Ages thing, though––
I was shooting that and-–there was this factory manager or the foreman––There’s the walkway that guests or visitors can just go up and take a look in, and I had my big four-by-five camera, this huge 1970’s Linhof, and it’s on this big tripod, and people don’t really know what it is: it doesn’t look like a traditional camera, and you have to stick your head under a cloth and whatever. And this guy is wondering what the hell I was doing. And I explained it to him, and he actually seemed really receptive to it, and thought, Wow, that’s really cool. And I feel a little guilty for having a more critical view of his factory, but it is what it is.
*shrugs* It’s a document.
It’s a document. It speaks for itself, I think. And I’m just the messenger in that respect, and I have to go by my morals, and I have to have my integrity and shoot what needs to be shot earnestly. I think “that needs to be a subject,” and so be it.
Well, that photo didn’t turn out well, which is a shame, but: I was shooting in Stowe across the street from the gas station––it wasn’t even on their property––and I was just kind of out with my dad and we didn’t really have much time to do anything ourselves. We did some hiking earlier in the day, and that was just kind of our break, and I have my four-by-five with me––
Note to the reader: he’s grinning mischievously.
Yeah. Setting up for a shot––because I know where this always goes––late at night with a big camera. In the States. And this guy goes up to my dad, apparently––I’m on the other side of the road, so I can’t really see or hear anything––and I just see that this guy keeps coming out of the convenience store at the gas station and is talking to my dad, and my dad I guess is saying, Oh, my son, he’s just over there taking a photo. And the guy’s like OK, whatever. So he leaves. And then four police SUVs pull up and there are like 8, 10 police officers––the whole Stowe police department––and they surround my dad’s vehicle, and I’m like, Oh, shit. Here we go again.
Again. This is a thing. And, so, I’m like, should I help my dad? He seems to know what he’s doing; he’s been through this before––
Or should I get the shot. *laughs*
Or should I get the shot. And sure enough, I decide to get the shot. And I hurry up, because I’m not a total sadist. I don’t want to see my dad suffer. Maybe a little bit. *laughs* Yeah, so I take the shot, and I’m just about to go over to the cops when this guy walks up to me and he’s like, Yo, is that a polaroid camera? And I’m like, What? And he’s like, Is that a polaroid camera? And I say, No, it’s a four-by-five camera; it’s large-format; it’s a bit more serious, I guess: it takes a bit more time to shoot. You’ve got to put your head under the cloth, and at night it’s a bit more difficult to do. And the guy’s like, Well, I know what that stuff is too. I was a photographer, or whatever. We got talking; we had a really engaging conversation about commercial photography, and how it’s kind of gone by the wayside. Especially with film. Also, how there are so few people shooting this sort of subject, and how it must be important if I think it should be imbued on a piece of four-by-five film. And you know that got back to me thinking about how it is an autonomous process: the camera’s completely manual; the developing and all that’s very manual; my choice of subject perhaps, most important part of it all, is actually quite autonomous because I just think that’s something that needs to be documented. And I don’t always have that much rhyme or reason. I’ve tried to justify it in the past as, Well, I’m shooting it, but what got me to initially take that photograph is serendipity. It just kind of happens. Happenstance. And so anyway, we had this very engaging conversation about that and he wanted to buy a couple of prints, so I’m writing down my e-mail and contact info and whatever on this piece of paper. There’s very little light. The streetlights are burnt out and I completely forget my dad is over there, and by that time he’s actually having a pretty good conversation with the cops; they’re all wishing him a good night and whatever, saying sorry for the disturbance. I felt kind of bad for him after that, you know. But I sold some prints out of it to some random guy in Vermont.
“I made some money off of it.” *laughs*
And there we go with my principles and combatting late-stage capitalism.
I suppose those who’re speaking from a pulpit are often not only concerned with interests after the world, but of the world as well.
All right. With regard to literature, it's often been said that there is an important distinction between, say, a novel that moralizes, and a novel that contains, perhaps confers, a sense of morality. What I perceive that to mean has something to do with the author removing her or his political or moral persuasion as completely as possible from what she or he is writing, and to reflect, in as detailed a form as possible, the world in which the novel is based. Does that distinction between moralizing and a rendering of morality or moral consideration bear at all on your work as a photographer?
Yeah. Certainly. I don’t want a cult of personality to exist around me. I don’t want my work to garner that, to support anything like that. So, I want it to speak for itself, and I want the morality that is imbued within the subject matter to hold its own. You know, I don’t go––as much as I find those things about the environment and all that sort of thing important––I don’t try and contrive the scene. I think there is a lot to be said about honesty in “what we see” versus “this is actually the way it is.” I don’t need to sugar-coat it; I don’t need to smear more shit on. It already has enough on it. More than enough. And to put any more there would not only be disingenuous to the subject matter, but it just simply wouldn’t help. I think my power as a photographer comes from seeing these things and being able to render the honesty of this situation in a way that still imbues morality, yet in a manner that captivates and entices the viewer to look further. And not further at the artist’s morals--my own morals--not what I brought forth, but what the subject matter did.
What it seems to me you bring, speaking of the beauty of composition and texture and lighting and so forth, is the opposite of putting shit on––it’s taking shit out.
There’s still plenty of––
Do you mind if we go in? I’m just a little chilly.
*We relocate indoors*
That was on the eve of the police fiasco.
Yeah. When we got back to camp.
Rolleiflex 3.5B (Zeiss Tessar)
The eerieness of this image reminds me of a sort of autocratic position towards theatre, for example: because it is fundamentally fictional, it inspires in the performance’s audience members emotions which bear no relation to the world around them, and so can act as a corrupting influence upon a citizenry. I think, however, this photo transcends emotion for emotion's sake. And I’ll add that there’s a very staged component to that photo: you’re working with the light; perhaps you had someone helping you to push one of the swings––
All done myself, actually. If you don’t mind my saying how it was done: a long exposure with a headlamp (an LED flashlight on my head) and a camera-mounted flash, and I used those two in unison. So, I would walk around the subject, and since it’s night you can’t see me––you can’t see the light source because it’s off-camera––but you can see its reflection off the subject and back into the camera as it traverses through time.
And it was done over--I think--15 seconds.
OK. So I think the question is: this photo transcends emotion for emotion’s sake and firmly touches on an example of the question, What, as a species, will we leave behind when we go? The enslavement of farmed and domesticated animals bears on this question in this case. That transitions us into discussion of the Anthropocene and what has been referred to as the sixth extinction––
––now ongoing. I wouldn't bring this up unless I thought it was in deep relation to your work, and so: I wonder if you could speak a bit about how you aim to relate, in your work, to the very time-specific question of the nearing, abrupt end of the Anthropocene.
Well, first off I have to say that I’m absolutely delighted that you included “the Anthropocene,” and identified it in my work, and also this weird stage humanity’s at where you might be seeing the end of our civilization: us doomed to ecological disaster and social upheaval. You know, I don’t think we’re in a very good time. We are, presently, in an era where there is statistically less violence and less crime, but at the same time it’s like the pot is just below boiling. It hasn’t started steaming over yet. But it’s going to get there soon. There’s enough energy getting into the system that, sooner or later (and sooner is most likely the case), it will boil over. We can envision what’s going to happen. So, I think this work is very timely for me to do because we are in this human-built era where we have raped the environment, and only in a manner that, again, is conducive to our own personal reasons. It is always very selfish.
The majority of non-human mammals are domesticated.
Yes, in a manner of speaking: If we look at the eagle, for example, we see it as this beautiful animal, this very––
––ennobling kind of creature, but why? Because of its politicization. America first, and whatever. There’s this very strong tie that when you see the eagle, there’s a specific semiotic relationship: you think of the USA, stars and stripes and all that sort of thing.
Poor bird. *laughs*
Yeah, poor bird. And that’s what I tried to do with that piece, because there are these very identifiable figures: there’s a horse, there’s a duck and a chicken in that photograph; but their identities have been subjected to some commercialization. They are to be ridden and mastered by little children, and they have no say in this. They’re at their mercy––
They’re these plastic––And isn’t that the perfect example of the Anthropocene? We have changed these organic living beings into these plastic and metal, mass-manufactured objects that can be ridden by our children for their own pleasure and used as a device for enjoyment at the expense of their dignity. They’re this cute––whatever you want to call it––little horse, little chicken, painted in this shitty, chipping, probably lead, paint.
It’s pretty old. I didn’t want to touch it. It was a foggy night, so it was creepy enough.
How long did that shot take?
15 seconds, I would say.
15 seconds of exposure, but how long was the preparation?
I was literally just walking through the fog looking for something. Whenever it’s foggy out, that’s my favourite weather to shoot in. I think it’s ripe with conceptual possibility.
Talk more about that.
It’s like the fog of war: you only see so much; you only see what you (or others) want you to see; little beyond what is right in front of you.
So that relates to maybe the short-sightedness of the Anthropocene.
Yeah, exactly. There’s another photograph of mine––“Suburban Proposal”––in which there are these two black monoliths, the backs of these signs from the city of London that say, “Land use change,” “This’ll be used for a commercial, residential development” to paraphrase. It’s the back of these signs and they’ve been rendered as two cubic, black monoliths amidst all this fog, and that is the one piece where what you said about short-sightedness really came into the work for the first time in a very conscious manner. More recently, those same sentiments exist in “Playtime Slavery,” as well as other more recent panoramas; that’s definitely a theme in the work. And if not outright intentional, it is engendered at the very least in a subconscious manner.
Mamiya Super 23, Portra 400
A (perhaps shallow) question with regard to “Suburban Odyssey”: this photo garnered an unusual amount of positive response online. I think it was substantially more viewed than the other photos you have on your flickr account. So, why do you think this was so in this case, and, in your capacity as a photographer who distributes his work freely online, what is it, in your estimation, that people seem to look for in photos or images? Is there a thread or some way to correlate those most well-received photos of yours--or is that correlation of no interest?
Linhof Technika III, Rodenstock 65mm f/4.5, Portra 160
That correlation is always fascinating. As I have said, art doesn’t necessarily help my psychology, but my psychology always helps my art. A big thing about the social sciences in general is that they are empirical, and by that token they are statistical. Statistics are endlessly fascinating to me. You can learn a lot about the world that way. If done right, it is one of the few objective ways of capturing valid and reliable evidence. So, I always find it very interesting why a photograph is more popular than another one, and I don’t always have an immediately obvious answer. Sometimes the immediately obvious answer is actually the wrong one, if you do a bit of digging, which can include just asking people: Why did you like this? Where did you find this photograph? ‘Cause some of my photographs have been used in publications in the past, as unlicensed through Creative Commons. Websites could use them for their own use, if they wanted. I found that was difficult because their politics aren’t necessarily the same as mine.
They’re recontextualizing your work.
Right, they’re recontextualizing. And I had to put an end to that.
That was probably a wise move.
Yes, yes. But that brings me back to the idea of, Why is this so appealing? And I think with that photograph, “Suburban Odyssey,” there’s a funny thing about that related to 2001: A Space Odyssey; but with the photograph, it’s so strange to a lot of people. They’re like, What are these things? And why is there all this hay around? And I wondered the same thing myself on a foggy night wandering through this half-filled, half-abandoned suburb seeing this deep hole filled with hay. And there’s a logical, rational explanation for that: it helps––
Yeah, so it doesn’t get muddy, and to drain it.
That ties nicely into the question of the domestication of animals, too, the symbol of hay.
Yeah, it’s like a stable, a stable for a house. And that is really what it is, because the foundation is soon going to become yet another unremarkable suburban mansion. You’ve seen them already and you will continue to see them again and again.
2001: A Space Odyssey.
Indeed. I find that to be a very contemporary parallel with the Anthropocene, because there’s this one still in that film where there is the monolith that is central to the film, and it is off to one corner––much like those basement forms are in that photograph––and for every location of one of those basement forms, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in this one particular still, there’s an ape, and they’re all doing human-esque things––they’re making tools, they’re becoming humans. And I just love that dialogue which has been made there through that diptych; where we were, and where we are now. It’s a very unintentional diptych that was––how old is A Space Odyssey-- fifty years in the making? I love playing with those themes and I love speaking to past works. Because art is not made in a vacuum; and we don’t live in a vacuum with anything––technology, art, science, or whatever––so I always love to speak to past accomplishments or notable events in history that will help garner a better relation to what is currently seen in the photograph and the full breadth of a story the subject matter can tell.
Would you feel that the question of the Anthropocene and its approaching, unpretty conclusion is of generational interest?
It’s not ubiquitous.
No, it is certainly not ubiquitous because the people who don’t often care about it, the people who, in all truth, don’t need to care about it, those other generations before the two most recent, are going to be dead before the shit really hits the fan.
Right. Big fan. ‘Lotta shit.
It is a very big fan, and they keep piling shit on.
Edging ever nearer to the whirring blade. *laughs*
Yes. I don’t expect us to stop climate change, and I don’t expect to stop us eating animals, which, by the way, is one of the top three sources of climate change, from CO2 emissions from cattle, if you want to phrase it that way. And also the melting of permafrost. Once we’ve reached three degrees above pre-industrial levels, it becomes a runaway process. Yeah. And I don’t intend to stop that. I know we are going to hit that. I know we will end up with global ecological disaster, and millions, if not billions, of people will die.
And the others, many of them, will wish that they would have, maybe.
Yes, exactly. But I also figure I have some semblance of duty in this. It is important, if not for us, for future generations to record these things in a very engaging manner. And one of my favourite stories––if you’re at all familiar with 99% Invisible: it’s the podcast about design that really speaks to a lot of my ideas about the 99% of things that go unnoticed in the world––there’s this one episode where they talked about the United States’ nuclear power plants and how the Department of Energy really had no way to dispose of their waste. So they brought together this team of psychologists, artists, scientists, physicists, chemists, all sorts of different people from all manner of disciplines (which, by the way, I think is important: it’s good to have a holistic committee). One of the ideas that was suggested with the issue of, “How do we dispose of this waste and make it safe a thousand years in a future where there may be no more humans as we know them today; there may be––and I’m pretty sure this will be the case––there may be no more English language. How do you make it safe for future generations of non-human animals?” And they looked back to Egyptian times where what we know about those cultures has been learned through hieroglyphics. What has been learned about medieval cultures has been learned through music, art, writing, and that sort of thing. But the point is, it’s culture, it’s folk art, and the stories that are handed down from generation to generation––look at the oral histories, and the only histories, of some First Nations––what is handed down from generation to generation are those folk art artifacts. And that’s kind of what I feel like I am doing, where I am making these cultural artifacts that can be seen by a future generation where our current methods of communication will be unintelligible. So I think there’s some duty to it in that––Like I said, I’m not trying to change the world; I’m not trying to––
You keep saying that, but a lot of your actions––
I don’t think you’re naive enough to think that you could change the world––
––But I do think that you feel an obligation––
––I feel an obligation, yes. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have the very high and mighty goal of actually changing the world and making it something that is absolutely different or better, but I will do my part. I will scale it to what I am able to do as a single person, and I will fulfill that obligation. Because above all else, that is something that I wish to do, and photography is just an instrument for meeting that need. And that’s also why I shoot film. With digital media in the future, there will be some completely different technology to read it, save it, and edit it. What we have now may very well be obsolete or corrupted, come several decades. With print, you know, it’s right there; it’s right in front of you—it’s unmistakable and it’s tangible. And it can last for hundreds of years, thousands of years. I intend to make my work archival. I’d like for it to speak to something beyond the Anthropocene, because I’m quite sure we’re near the end of that and I don’t have high hopes for whatever successor may come. I’m quite sure that it is imperative that someone, anyone, does their part to document the good, the bad, and the ugly of the present.
So, in addition to that documentarian impulse, I wonder if Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura” and authenticity in a piece of art or cultural artifact bears on your preference for manual, as opposed to digital, cameras.
Yeah, you know, it’s not to say that manual cameras and manual prints can’t be doctored––doctoring has existed for as long as the medium has existed––but it is considerably more difficult to do. And we live in a very post-truth era where the actual facts don’t matter as much as how they’re seen; how we feel about them. And maybe this sentiment won’t exist forever, but I might as well run with it for the time being because that’s the current school of thought and I don’t see it changing soon. May as well beat ‘em at their own game, as it were. With film today, we see something imbued on it and we feel that what lies therein can’t actually be changed; we feel that, OK, it was shot on film, so it must be honest: someone couldn’t have possibly meddled with this analog artifact. And whether or not that’s true is a moot point because the average person looking at it isn’t going to know or care about the history of doctoring film photographs, but they know about Photoshop, they know about, Oh, that’s Fake News. That’s a fake image. And I like to turn that understanding of post-truth on its head. Use it against itself. Acknowledge the well-established (since the inception of film media) semiotic relationship where film photography was a process to make records more objective.
That sentiment has carried on. Then, digital photography happened, Photoshop happened, and that sentiment went away for that part of photography. But it still lingered with analog media. If only because the generations that recalled how film photographs could be doctored had mostly died out or forgotten. Now, it has an aura of purity and humility. And I think it is the most objective medium we have.
And I try and do my part to keep it objective. I can’t always. I know you can never be completely objective, but, at the very least, I think it suits my work well to say, OK, this is actually what I saw. This is actually how it was.
“The most objective medium we have available to us.”
I could certainly say so.
And that’s why it was created. If you look at the history of photography, that’s its initial purpose. People were not happy with drawing or painting.
I mean, there’s also an element here of––so much of what can be done to a digital photograph to improve it, you have to do manually by means of the lighting, the choice of the time of day or night, the choice of the weather conditions and so forth––
Yeah, and I could do it in a darkroom, but I don’t really think that is prudent because the point is it goes against my integrity of photographing what was actually there, what I actually saw. Like I said, it also erodes the popular feelings about film photography’s truthfulness. I have to be a bastion of that integrity in a world where there are very few of those. *phone buzzes* Oh, stupid spam.
Take it if you like.
No, it’s spam. Whatever, sorry. To continue. Yeah, I feel like I have to be a bastion for that degree of integrity, and ... What was your question again? *laughs* I lost my––
About how you manually orchestrate a photograph that could’ve been tampered with post-digital-capture.
Yeah, and I go to great lengths to shoot what I do “in camera”: to get the photograph I want in-camera, not in post-processing of the image. You’re present at the moment, in that setting, with that subject--I simply view it as a more honest interpretation of the subject. And when you can say, Every interpretation I have made of all my subjects has been this honest, you have developed a benchmark. If people know several of your photographs meet that benchmark, and you espouse that with future work, people can bring the old presumptions in with the new things they see and they can say, OK: that actually existed. When a photograph in my lineage of images pops up, which is kinda’ fuckin’ weird (going back to that photograph of the deer), there’s a presumption it actually exists. There’s that correlation there between past and present works. And sometimes I feel like that’s the best we can do in this day and age because anything can be doctored, anything can be faked. Make the viewer feel that a particular image, whose facts are stranger or less comfortable than fiction, ought to be real. You know, if you look at DeepFakes, which is a program for editing videos, you could put president Obama’s face on Donald Trump’s or something and really fuck things up politically. The ground truth of the situation holds little weight compared to how we feel what the truth ought to be.
There’s a study in semiotics for you.
*laughs* Yes, yes. I think technology, as much as it pushes to advance us, it has in many ways reduced us to our most basic principles of just really having to take someone’s word, because we have better tools to validate things, but we also have better tools to invalidate things, and they counteract each other. I do hope people take my word that my work is an honest portrayal of the subject matter, and you have seen that in a lot of my work, and you can continue to see that in future ones. That benchmark will always be met.
All right. I want to bring in another photograph here, “Missing [Squared].” We have a profound sense of emptiness, a longing for something missing, removed from modern western society and the industrial means of social order. Maybe a throwaway question: did you wait for the ‘walk’ sign to light, and if so, why?
Rolleiflex 3.5B Zeiss
I had to stand in the middle of the road for that one, so I waited for there to be a gap in the traffic where I would likely not be hit. And that is often key to much of my work, in that I do go to, not great lengths, but lengths that my mom and dad, my nana and my papa, wouldn’t be too thrilled about when the cop’s explaining to them why my body’s in the middle of the road. *laughs*
Talk to me about that photograph.
I did wait for the walk sign. Because of the shallow depth of field, I wasn’t sure how it would fit in there; but every element in my photograph does have a purpose, whether it was subconsciously framed in there. You know, photography’s an art of exclusion, in many ways. What you do not include. And the things that I choose to include are there for a reason. Whether or not that is conscious or unconscious comes down to the moment I’m taking the photograph and which photograph and all that sort of thing, ‘cause it’s a mix of that. Yes. I did want to include the ‘walk person,’ and if you are at all familiar with the film Koyaanisqatsi, one of my favourites--
You wrote an essay about that.
I did. A lot of the images in that film and all of the themes are produced by––I guess just an assemblage of cinematic images that are quite (maybe not contrived, but) intentionally conceived, mixed with ones that appear more spontaneous. And the ones that are spontaneous, they’re often using these symbols that we as a society have deemed important or notable that exist in our everyday lives. They’re quite unanimous. They’re easily identifiable. They’re kind of like the images and the symbols that are the hieroglyphics of a contemporary era––
Like a pamphlet on an airplane, for example, that has no words––
––because the company would come into insurance difficulties if somebody who––
Can’t read English, yes. And I like to use as many of these very primal, very basic and universally identifiable symbols in my work.
Does that refer back to the documentarian compulsion?
Yes, yes it does. And back to that “thousand-year issue” of, “How can we protect these people from all this radioactive waste using symbols?” Suddenly that transcends written language. I’m not sure if it was necessarily the case in that photograph, but this idea of contrasting those instinctual symbols with this very desperate written language of ‘Something is missing.’ It’s torn, and the missing poster itself is missing. There’s that cyclical nature to it.
Recursion, I know––
––is a theme in postmodernism, and it’s something that comes up in your essay about Koyaanisqatsi. Recursion in your work?
Recursion, yeah. It is a big theme, and I think it manifests itself in different ways. And going back to suburbia, we are building and we are re-building again. We’re building bigger homes and better homes, and do we really need that? Probably not. We should be content with something a bit more humble, and something which survives multiple generations. But we never are; we always want more, more, more. Recursion exists on several different scale:; over millennia, or over a few years--day in and day out with your 9-to-5 job, or from generation to generation. Countries going to war, getting war-weary, then going back to war. That sort of thing. It all speaks to this idea of capitalism and endless growth which I am at odds with: A very (supposedly) linear, ever-upward-swinging trend, but it is predicated upon the recursion of having to buy this product again––
––Ruining this landscape, having to remediate and rebuild again. But there’s always some latent artifact from the first time we screwed it up.
Going back to that photograph there, you have this written language, which is the greatest achievement of humanity, but then we’re going back to this basic, immediate symbol which is the most effective means of communicating a very real threat. We have all this technology, we have all these advancements, but are they really necessary, and do they really make a tangible difference over the last innovation? What is the trade-off in pros versus cons? And with Koyaanisqatsi, the final scene is of a rocket shooting off into space, or at least attempting to, but then exploding mid-air and slowly falling back to earth to the score of Phillip Glass. Our pride falling back towards the earth; returning towards the Lascaux caves, perhaps. It’s beautiful. It’s one of my favourite cinematic moments.
I think a nice way to conclude will be, having just spoken of an image that took place at an intersection, to discuss the desire path, and the phrase of yours “sharp turns are indirect and confusing wastes of time.” The counter-example of that being the Swedish Parliament which, on its grounds, before construction, allowed grass to over-grow such that the organic pathways people would make and follow could then be concretized. So, the movement from right angles to a much more gradiated sort of society.
Um. So, sorry, what is your––What are you wanting to know about that? I just didn’t hear the intention.
I’m not sure, but I want to offer, as, I suppose, bad films do, an upward sort of movement at the end of this rather realistic conversation.
I wonder if you could expand on desire paths as a phrase, and maybe as it relates to cliché, convenient neurological pathways, ways of unchallenged thinking.
Yeah, that’s a great point. I think desire paths, in and of themselves (not seen as some sort of philosophical vehicle), I think they’re a very good innovation because it democratizes these public spaces. What is a public space? It is something for the people, yet it is often decided by those who supposedly represent the people, but often are appointed as opposed to elected officials. The desire path lets us decide for ourselves what we want. But it also works within a framework of what the government wants, what the municipality wants to do. They’re not just going to pave the whole area and let us walk wherever we want, they’re going to put a sidewalk, that’s one metre wide, along these paths the users choose. I think there’s a very beautiful harmony of We get to do what we want, but the orchestrators of that space get to implement the tools––the sidewalks, the roads, and whatever––in a manner that they want with our very significant input. Seen as a more philosophical thing, I never really thought about it as being analogous to unfettered thought.
Let me come in on that. So, I think a sidewalk is essentially like a cliché in the sense that it doesn’t get you exactly where you want to go––it doesn’t express exactly what you want to say––but approximates it, and is mutually intelligible.
You know, on the desire path––
Or, “unanimous” was the word you used before.
Yes, yes. Desire path. It doesn’t necessarily get you where you want either. There are still obstacles you have to go around, but it smooths it out, and allows you go at your own pace. It’s more individualistic. It still serves the community overall, but it serves the individual needs of those members as best it can, while taking in the unanimous overarching vote of what people really want. So, I like that harmony. But if you’re viewing it as medium for philosophical analogy, I guess I could see that it promotes unfettered thought, but I also think that you could say the desire path, like any tool, can be used for good or bad. And I would also say that it can be used for going places––
––as corny as this may sound, going places that others don’t necessarily want you to. Going places that others would think, well, that’s kinda weird, why would you go there. But once you’re at that destination, you might discover something novel and useful that the necessity of the group did not necessarily dictate as worthwhile. Once you’re there, they might be able to say, OK, this is actually a useful proposition. This is actually a useful, fruitful destination to attain.
Kevin Heslop is a student of poetry whose first chapbook, con/tig/u/us, was published by The Blasted Tree in 2018. He won Poetry London and Occasus Literary Journal prizes in 2015. As an actor, he has appeared as Creon, Katherine Minola, and Saul Levi Mortera (forthcoming). He organizes LOMP: reading series & open mic.