Monday, October 15, 2018

Q & A with Mimi Plumb

Mimi Plumb is a photographer based in Northern California, and the author of the recently published book Landfall.


Dark Days and Landfall seem connected in both time and subject matter, and they're a bit mixed up in my mind. Can you tell me how they relate to each other?

Back in the day when I made the photos I didn't have a title for the series, or at least one I can remember. When putting the work on the website, I chose the title Dark Days for my 1980s photographs. Landfall is the book made from my work from the 1980s Dark Days series.

So they were all part of the same project initially? 

Yes, all from the same project including pictures from The City, also on my website.

Landfall, 2018, Mimi Plumb (TBW Books)
How did the specific photos for Landfall get edited into a book?

I sent TBW hundreds of scans. Basically they did the edit, I think inspired by the written piece at the beginning of the book: "I remember having insomnia for a time when I was 9 years old. My mother told me there might be a nuclear war…” 

The opening text does set a dark tone for the photos. But I think they also manage to remain open to interpretation. Not just photos of End Times or Reaganism or whatever. 

I think I felt a profound dread in the 1980s, a sense of no future, and I looked for subjects to express that. 

What was your process making the photos? Did you shoot specific places/times/subjects? What were the daily mechanics?

I love taking pictures. A lot of these were made in San Francisco but I also liked to travel, particularly to the desert. The subjects essentially presented themselves, things that spoke to my mind set. Such as the pier fire in San Francisco, the pictures of the guys looking at a massive blaze, or the house fire up the street from where I lived, a burnt globe in the living room, a burnt, shredded lamp in the bedroom…


spread from Landfall, 2018, Mimi Plumb (TBW Books)



Were you shooting any happy photos too at the time?

Probably not happy but I do often like to find a bit of humor in a scene.

When did the dread set in? Was it tied to some political event, or maybe to life events?

There was a lot of optimism in the 60s that we could change the world. I think that optimism was challenged quite a bit in the 70s and by the 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor to the presidency, I felt extremely disillusioned. It was in the air, in the music, if you think about the punk movement and what that represented. There was a recognition in the early 80s of global warming which was very worrisome. It didn't seem as if our capitalist system could meet the challenge of it.

So the 80s were a letdown coming on the heels of such an idealistic period. Makes sense. Looking around at the American political scene now, do you feel the same sense of dread?

There are two things happening now that provide some optimism. It's the anger of both young people, the Parkland students for instance, and the anger of women, and their refusal to remain silent. But the times I think are also much scarier, given the current state of our politics and the extreme rightward bent of Trump and the Republican party. 

I agree, scary times. But instead of dread it sounds like you're more upbeat?

I just have a sense of something new happening, of many people refusing to accept where the country is heading, and willing to fight against it.

Well, I felt that in the 80s too, with the punk movement you mentioned, and a lot of radicalism generally. But none of it seems to have had much lasting effect. 

Is the book's release timed with current politics in mind?

from Landfall
The book's release happens to coincide with these times. It certainly makes the work more relevant to today.

How did TBW get involved with the book?

Very serendipitous... Paul Schiek from TBW saw a few of my vintage prints being framed at a local frame shop. He liked them a lot and eventually, a few years later, we met at a book symposium where he was speaking. The next day he contacted me about doing a book! We started on it about a year and half ago.

Did it turn out roughly as you expected a year and a half ago? Or were there some surprises?

Lots of surprises. They had seen a draft Blurb book I'd done along the way and I thought it would look like that, similar to Dark Days on my website. They had their own ideas though that clearly developed over time. The sense I had from them —and it might be worth asking them about this— is that they loved many of the images and found them to be strong, but they were having a difficult time finding a narrative form for the work. The images in Dark Days are disparate and it's hard to find a cohesive grouping for the pictures. At some point they presented me with this edit and I quite liked it. I asked them to add some images that were important to me which they did. They then worked on refining it all.

What do you think of their edit? For me it seems they chose the not-so-depressing photos from Dark Days, the photos from the series less loaded with decay and ruin?

I really love their edit. It seems to touch people in a way that eluded me in some of my previous attempts to edit the work. I think I'm more direct and political. I had an agenda regarding male power, the destruction of the environment, the economics of war...

How did they choose the title Landfall?

It fit the content, and it seemed to work for all of us. 

Since we're now in another political period of reactionary craziness, I'm wondering if you know of other photographers working today or projects or books which carry that same sense of dread, or are reacting somehow to our dark times? One which comes to mind is Alec Soth's Last Days of W but that was a decade ago. I wonder if there are ones you like which are more recent.

There are definitely many photographers trying to address what's going in the world. Joshua Dudley Greer has a terrific body of work, Somewhere Along the Line, looking at America and Americans. Edward Burtynsky’s landscapes are a nightmarish depiction of our relationship with nature. As he says, “if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”  

There seems to be a pictorialist quality to a lot of work being shown today. Maybe it's what the collectors are looking for... not sure. 

What do you mean by "pictorialist quality"?

I think Pictorialism is an emphasis on decoration and beauty rather than content and reality. There are a lot of decorative pictures out there in the art world. 

I think those are basically a given in any time period. 

Don't you think more so now? Maybe it's Photoshop…

Well you could trace it all the way back to the original pictorialists, Coburn, Brigman, etc, and then up through the modernists Weston, White, Adams, Sommer, etc. Their photos were generally non-political. Maybe you could even use the word decorative.


from Dark Days

Can I ask about a specific photo? There's an image of a button up shirt in Dark Days. I believe it's been inverted so that the shadows are white. As far as I can tell it's the only photo with that treatment. What's the story there?

Interesting! Nope, it's the fire. It has that effect.

Oh, It's burnt! I totally misread it.

I'd never invert a picture.

Why not?

I'm a purist. What I love about photography is its veracity. You can argue that it's not reality but for me it is. Often when people start fabricating or obviously manipulating the medium, I become pretty disinterested. 

Hmm. Just to play Devil's advocate, the veracity of the photo would be the same if inverted, no? The indexicality I mean. We may be venturing into the weeds here...

You lost me on indexicality! And we are venturing into the grad school weeds. But seriously I'm interested in work that reflects the world around me, and most often when there's a lot of obvious manipulation the work loses it power for me. I kind of adhere to that adage that "truth is stranger than fiction."

What about the decision to translate reality into monochrome? Is that a manipulation?

I'm laughing now! Shall we go on? I thought we might end up at the abstraction of black and white. Photography, in its detail, even in black and white, I think can have a certain veracity that's undeniable, that speaks of life outside of one's fictions or manipulations of reality. 

True. I'm a purist at heart too. But I like creating thought experiments.

Yes

I suppose that's a draw for most people into photography, the connection to "truth" and also the inherent dissonance.

Yes!

Here's an unrelated question. I know you recently retired from teaching, and your photo career has had a little boost since then, I'm guessing because you have more time now to devote to it. Were you basically chomping at the bit during all those years? Anxious to have more time to devote to your personal work? And now that you have more time, what else is on the docket?


from Local Girls

When I left teaching I had two ideas. One was to concentrate on photographing women and girls, a subject always on the periphery of my projects. The other was to take a closer look at the the many projects I had done over the years. I had no idea that something would come of my old projects. For instance, as I began scanning the farmworker pictures, I was quite shocked at how much work there was, and also the quality of the images. The pictures told a story of the farmworkers rather than of the leadership of the farmworkers, and people were interested in that depiction.

What I found, to my surprise, was a huge amount of interest in my earlier projects. The Internet certainly made my work accessible to anyone looking. My suburbia pictures took on a life of their own, and seemed to touch a lot of suburban kids. 

Personally I was most interested in putting out my 80s pictures. It's difficult work though. The strength of it seems to be that there is a certain relevance today to the work I did back then, which is deeply meaningful to me.

When you revisited the work after many years, what surprises did you find there? 

Something that comes to mind is my excitement in finding numerous iconic images I’d never printed or noticed before. Some examples  are the ‘girl brushing her hair’ in Landfall, the ‘couple at the Standard gas station’ in What is Remembered, and the farmworker carrying ‘downtown boxes’ in Pictures from the Valley
from Pictures From The Valley
Where did you post stuff online? 

Pretty much only on my website. From there it was word of mouth. And then picked up by bloggers, newspapers, magazines, etc.

Do you put much energy into promoting your material online? Or are you more hands off?

I’m hands off. I post events on Facebook, I have a mailing list, and that’s about it. But I do say yes to interviews.

Did you enjoy teaching photography?

The best of times, absolutely. I basically taught the kids (well, maybe not kids) one thing and that was to photograph what was interesting to them, what they were passionate about. It amazed me how often students told me they had never been asked to explore their interests. 

Good advice. And what kinds of things are interesting to kids these days? Were any of them in tune with a sense of dread?

Well, I stopped teaching 4 years ago. Obama was still President then and I think we lived in sweeter times. Or at least lived with the belief that we might be able to solve our problems. But teaching others did kind of take the place of making work for myself. 

It's kinda funny. I have three kids. But I still struggle sometimes to figure out what motivates them or what they're truly interested in. One has gotten into photography. But "shoot what is interesting to you" might fall on deaf ears. He's still sorting it out.

I think the camera is a great tool for exploring one's interests. When you tell someone to photograph what's of interest they start to find what is of interest to them. Super exciting process! It happens during the semester...maybe not with all, but with many.

Dorothea Lange: The camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera. Mimi Plumb: The camera is a tool for learning your interests without a camera.

I think one's interests lead to exciting engaging work, work that speaks to others. That engagement seems to give a person the wherewithal to make a lot of work, and explore a subject in-depth.

I think the lesson might be aimed at contemporary photoland as well as beginning students. A lot of projects I see seem like a stretch.

Meaning that the engagement isn't quite there?

The personal interest. I see a lot of projects that don't tell me much about the photographer. They seem pulled at random from a list of ideas.

Yes, absolutely true.

Not that a photo has to do that. A photo doesn't really need to do anything. But I especially like the ones which feel personally invested. I like to read memoirs too. Maybe there's a connection.


from The City


You studied with Larry Sultan. I saw him give a talk in Eugene once. Best photo lecture I ever attendedWhat sort of teacher was he?

Larry was lovely, super bright, challenging in a thoughtful way. Always seemed to get to the heart of things. And he was very curious… what makes people tick? what's going on in the world? He’s sorely missed!

How was your experience at SF Street Foto last June? 

I enjoyed giving a lecture about my work. It was a lively crowd of people, and I was pleased to see a lot of woman in the audience. Most of all, it was such a pleasure to meet and lecture with Jeff Mermelstein. I think his new iPhone pictures are brilliant. They’re street photos but he’s extremely close to his subjects, and the pictures are raw and edgy due to this intimacy. They sort of hurt to look at, from errant hairs to text messages, but they show something about life on the streets that I’ve never seen before. They get at what it looks like to be human, rather than what we might wish it to look like.

How do you think your work relates to street photography? 

I tend to be most interested in how people present themselves in public rather than in private. Consequently, a lot of the pictures I make are in public spaces.

Two of my favorite photographers of all time are Winogrand and Arbus. Few of my photos are made in the style of Winogrand in which people are unaware that they’ve been seen and photographed. My approach is more similar to Arbus’s approach. I make my presence known, and I often talk with the people I’m photographing. It’s how I feel most comfortable.

All images © Mimi Plumb

4 comments:

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All about photo said...

Amazing work and great interview!

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Lovely article by the way

Stan B. said...

Thanks for exposing this wonderful work to a larger audience!