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A conversation with Aaron Rothman and Michael Lundgren
Editor's Note: Earlier this year The Studio Art Department at the University of Virginia mounted a collaborative installation by Aaron Rothman and Michael Lundgren. (An essay by Josh Wallaert accompanied the exhibition — Read it at Places.DesignObserver.com) Rothman and Lundgren have spent the past decade engaged in a common photographic exploration of landscape. At times, their work has been very similar in approach and process and at other times has diverged to opposite ends of a continuum representing a shared vision of photography as an essentially transformative medium. The following is a reflection on the collaboration moderated by curator William Wylie.
William Wylie: Any major thoughts about the work and collaboration after seeing the exhibit on the wall? Does it speak to the ideas you had when you were conceiving the show?
Michael Lundgren: If There Be Such Space was an experiment. Could we make something together that dealt with our individual visions while at the same time threading both the differences and similarities in our work? Having spent so much time with these pictures before the exhibition in the form of small work prints, my first impression on seeing the show was that we had created something unexpected, a strange vision into a landscape that neither of us could predict — some sort of hybrid child, whose origin has roots in each of us.
Aaron Rothman: It was really interesting to see what shifted and what held for the photos relative to how we each think about them in our own work. We made these pictures over a number of years as part of our own individual bodies of work. In editing the show, we tried as much as possible to put the original intent and context of the images out of our minds to create something truly collaborative. The pictures definitely work together, but in a more complex and open-ended way than if Mike and I were just doing our own things. One surprise for me was that pictures I had originally thought less important to the sequence ended up being crucial to how I understood the show in the space of the gallery.
William Wylie: Let’s talk about this ‘strange vision’ or hybrid effect that resulted from your collaboration. I think it is interesting how a collective group of images or in this case, two discrete bodies of work, can become something new and unexpected, yet still have a relationship to your individual visions. I also find Aaron’s comment about previously ‘less important’ or minor images becoming key images to be intriguing, because I never thought of this as a two person show but as a collaboration and that is what it clearly was, a sort of unknown landscape that exists nowhere. How do you think that happens?
Aaron Rothman: We wanted to see if we could build something new out of the material of our existing work — to see if we could shake up our own ideas about the photographs we're making independent of each other. The images that ended up surprising me most in their importance were the two diptychs — Mike's hides and my grayed out meadows — both of which we considered excluding at a late stage in the editing process. After seeing the show I realized their importance, in part because they represent the essence of each of our visions: Mike's saying, "Look at this thing", and mine all but dissolving any sense of figure and ground. The way they work as diptychs is also critical. One of your students, Bill, brought up stereo images in relation to these prints. Like, in stereo images where your mind puts together two photographs, creating a third image that doesn't really exist, the subtle differences between these pairs force your mind to construct a space — not literal but metaphorical or experiential — somewhere between these images.
Michael Lundgren: Perhaps it has something to do with our individual motivations — which are less driven by the notion of place as geography and more connected to place as perception and mythology, relying on metaphor more so than referent. With that kind of intention there exists flexibility in the connotations of and between each image. I'll concede to the landscape being unknown, but does it exist nowhere? For me it exists in the center of the gallery, surrounded by those pictures.
William Wylie: One thing that sticks with me about the show is how you are using photographic images of specific things to refer to an ‘otherness’. This has turned the ‘geography’ depicted in the images into a referent. When I am in the gallery space I am aware that something is odd with the world as represented. It is clear to me that I am experiencing artifice, and as such the landscapes don’t need to represent specific landscapes. The photographs are no longer representing something real. They are something real.
Michael Lundgren: This gets right to the heart of the matter. For a photograph or a group of photographs to become something real in themselves is of great interest to me. I'm always baffled when it happens and at the same time astonished that more photographers don't hold pictures to this standard. In a sense, all pictures are artifice and it’s our job to assemble the artifice into something meaningful. I think of Joseph Campbell and his description of myth as metaphor and his insistence that mythology is real. Yet many people see myth as a series of lies. This is at the crux of contemporary photography — we either want to firmly believe what we see, or firmly establish that it is a fiction. What is possible in between?
Aaron Rothman: The pictures create something real in themselves, but they do also represent something real. The work in this show very consciously occupies the space between photography’s direct representation of the world and its complete transformation of it. The representation that happens in our pictures is not about naming or documentation, but all the pictures immerse you in specific, concrete details of a real landscape, even in the pictures that are obviously manipulated. So the photographs are directly from the world, while also being completely artificial creations. Mike and I are both invested in making sure that our work points to real experience of the landscape, but a type of experience that is slippery and can’t be directly photographed.
William Wylie: But isn't that in the nature of a photograph? Try as the author might to do something different, the photographic image is always 'of' something. A landscape photograph always shows us the geography that was in front of the camera at the moment when the artist triggered the shutter. It may show more, as Robert Adams hoped, but often we get stuck in the 'fact' of the image. I think the way this exhibit works as a whole is helping to move your work away from that seemingly limited reading. Because taken alone, most photographs in the show, even with Aaron's strong manipulation of color, seem to be first and foremost images that reveal specific geographies.
Aaron Rothman: Hopefully, the way we’ve sequenced these images allows both an acknowledgement of the ‘fact’ of the image and a clear way beyond it. We built the show around the smaller groupings of images within the larger sequence, and these definitely work to create something greater than what is in the individual images. Too often, photographers are very literal in how they put pictures together — typically based on subject matter or visual style. Because of the way we collaborated on this show we had to build a much different kind of conceptual structure to hold these disparate images together. The result is a kind of multiplier effect in the images’ impact.
William Wylie: I think this approach is somewhat novel in the history of photography…at least the history of photographing geography. Alternatively I think of Third View, Second Sights where the artists' individual efforts seem to blend into the whole but the history and specificity of the landscape is too important to the content of the work for the kinds of transformations you are talking about. Were there precedents in your minds? Are there particular exhibits or even books you have come across that influenced you, either collective efforts or by individual photographers, where the larger sequence creates something beyond the literal?
Michael Lundgren: My first thought is Mark Klett’s Shikata Ga Nai, a fluid sequence that began as an intuitive response to the Kyoto earthquake. He later structured the work into interconnected groups of images dealing with the larger idea of ruin and memory. Yet precedent in the field of landscape is difficult and we might have to look outside the geographic to find one. Crucial to the way we’re working is that photography is an ideographic language, relying on picture-to-picture associations rather than as Aaron described earlier, a continuity of subject or methodology. Photographing within the space and time of the world, pulling those traces out of their original context and later rebuilding those images in a new context is a seldom seen approach today. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Christian Widmer’s Non Zero Sum, a decade worth of photographs distilled down to an extremely tight connotation-driven sequence.
Aaron Rothman: I can't think of any collaborative efforts quite like this. There are certainly touch points in terms of sequencing, though not too many in landscape photography. When I was starting college, I was hugely influenced by Minor White, both his own work with sequencing and what he was doing at Aperture. I would shy away from some of the more overtly spiritual claims he made, but the idea of structuring a sequence on a deeply metaphoric reading of the pictures still holds strong for me.
William Wylie: Reaction to the show has been interesting from both a pedagogical and aesthetic point of view. Having the show in a university gallery has allowed a lot of students to spend time with the work and many are preparing for thesis exhibits. Seeing your example of how pictures can work metaphorically and in relation to subject matter has been very exciting for them. It will be interesting when their shows go up, how they, in turn, will be influenced. Aesthetically, the exhibit has challenged a lot of artists who haven’t spent much time with photography (don’t ask me how this is possible in 2012) to see the medium in terms of larger aesthetic concerns. I think you two have found a wonderful space in your collaboration to encourage the reading of photographs in a very generous way, still functioning as discrete documents of the world in front of the camera while at the same time being a referent to something Frederick Sommer might have called a “subject that matters”. Thanks to both of you, Mike and Aaron, for a wonderful exhibit and dialog.
Aaron Rothman is photography editor of Places/Design Observer. His photographs, video and installation artwork explore perceptual experience of space in both natural and built environments. His work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions nationally and internationally, including group exhibitions at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Gitterman Gallery in New York, and a solo exhibition at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville, Tennessee. After studying printmaking at Grinnell College, Aaron received a Research Fellowship at the Lacoste School of Arts in Lacoste, France. He obtained a Master of Fine Arts in Photography at Arizona State University, and from 2003 through 2006 he taught and was head of the photography program at Memphis College of Art.
Michael Lundgren was born in Denver and spent his formative years in the hills of upstate New York. He received his BFA in photography from RIT in 1997 and his MFA in photography from ASU in 2003, where he has taught photography since 2004. His recent monograph, Transfigurations, is published by Radius Books. He is coauthor of After the Ruins: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake with the photographer Mark Klett. He is represented by ClampArt, in New York City. His work is included in the fine art collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the Museet for Fotokunst in Denmark, the Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, as well numerous private collections.
William Wylie lives in Charlottesville where he teaches photography at the University of Virginia. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography in 2005 and was recently awarded a VMFA Professional Fellowship for 2011. His photographs and films have been shown both nationally and internationally, including A Complex Eden at The Museum of Fine Art, St. Petersburg, FL, 100 Great American Photographs at The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX, and Forged Power, New Video Work at Arizona State University Art Museum. He has published four books of his photographs, Riverwalk (University Press of Colorado, 2000), Stillwater (Nazraeli Press, 2002), Carrara (Center for American Places, 2009), and Route 36 (Flood Editions, 2010) all concerned with landscape and place. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Art, and Yale University Art Museum, among others.
Posted on Thursday, March 15, 2012.
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