Monday, July 6, 2015

Q & A with Steven B. Smith

Steven B. Smith by Mary Ellen Hawkins
Steven B. Smith is a photographer based in Providence and Utah. His current Utah work can be seen on Tumblr.

When did you arrive in Utah? Do you go there most summers to photograph?

A few weeks ago. I love living on the east coast but need to be out west for at least a few months of each year. I have been trying to make work on the east coast but having grown up in Utah and then lived in LA and the east coast for long time I find that I see so much when I go back there. I am drawn there but can't live there because of the culture and politics.

What don't you like about the culture and politics?

I grew up there and found it stifling. Between the Mormon culture that runs the state and the rednecks there was not a lot to relate to. I love the mountains and all of my family is there. When I go back to make work I get to be a critic from both the inside and out. The politics are crazy. I can't read the newspaper when I am there. The local state legislature makes Ted Cruz look like a wimp.

Where in Utah did you grow up?

I grew up in Springville, the town just south of Provo. The population is still upwards of 85% Mormon. I have lived in Salt Lake City for a few years and found it to be great. A small island of Democrats and mostly very cool folks. It is the areas just outside Salt Lake City that are still very one dimensional. Growing up there it seemed like no one I knew questioned anything or thought differently. My peers and the folks I knew seemed like the were in a race to think the same. I knew from an early age that I wanted to get away to a place where everything was not forbidden or repressed. I was not a rebel but just wanted to be somewhat normal.

When you say "we" leave next Tuesday, is that you and your wife? Does she come along on your photo trips? Is she from Utah also?

I dated my wife in high school for two years. We broke up because she was religious and I was not. After twenty five years and a string of artist girl friends I bumped into her and we just knew that we should get married. We had both been with partners that made us appreciate what we had when we where young. I know her family and they are great and that helped get me over the fear of getting married for the first time at 45. We have two kids who are 22 and 18, and since 2008 we have been driving out to Utah from Rhode Island, usually twice a year to hang with our family. Hanging with family is great incentive to shoot for long hours. She is great. She was raised in a cultured family of thinking Democratic folks. Her parents were both music professors. Her dad was also a photographer and this is so great because she understands what I do in a deep way and she has music as her art. She understand the effort it takes to try be be artistic. We  can relate and don’t directly overlap or compete. We are both much more patient and generous to each other now that we are older. I am very lucky.

Ivins, Utah, 2008, #7

Wow, what a great story. That's like a movie script. It's funny that you wound up marrying someone you knew as a younger person. And you travel back to your childhood home each year. Some unconscious (or maybe conscious?) sense of primal yearning at work there. My armchair psychiatrist take.

Great observation. One could argue that everything is projection to some degree. Being older and living away helps clarify how I feel about the place I grew up. Now when I visit Utah I know how the outside world might view the place. I see everything here as familiar and exotic. 

So you all drive out, the four of you? Do any of them accompany you during the process of making photos?

All four of us and a big standard poodle drive out each summer. We fly out sometimes but we can't stand to leave the dog for long stretches. The drive is too long but is a great way to change gears. I have taken my wife shooting with me. She is and avid knitter and I thought working together could be great but what I do is too boring for her. My dad was always curious as to why I only had one hobby. He used to say I was too serious about this photography thing. He would master something and then move on. Finally he had to go out with me one day to see what I actually did. He could only take three hours before he made me take him home.

He thinks of photography as a hobby for you? Even at this point.

My dad started to get it after a lot of years. I would have to go golfing or shoot guns to be able to have conversations with him. He was a modest but gifted and would become bored after he mastered something. But golf stuck with him because it is so hard to stay on top of your game. I told him that this was the reason I was smitten with photography.

You might be onto something. A way to generate more interest in photography by appealing directly to millions in the golf crowd. When does photography become a respectable trade? If ever?

I have accepted that it is disreputable. I try to sell my students on the fact that it is so hard and that this is a great challenge but not many folks buy into that.

You mean your students consider photography to be easy? As a career path? Or just the making of good photos?

I feel like many don’t get to explore photography in depth before they feel pressure to move on to other media or areas of image making and are missing out on a lot of the interesting complexity of working within the restriction of trying to make good photos. That is a bit harsh. There are a lot of really amazing things happening in the photo / art world and not everything fits into nice boxes. But I am still interested in lens based photography and try to share that passion. I am lucky to have a lot of really smart, interested and hard working students. They are under a lot of pressure to find jobs that are precious and few, and to have art careers right out of school. All of which are strange values but this is what a fancy art school is supposed to supply.  

Herriman, Utah, 7-2-15

It's just like mastering any skill. You can't learn anything worthwhile in a heartbeat. It takes years. Your dad can probably relate to that, as can most people. But photography is tricky because everyone has a camera and thinks of themselves as a picture taker. And the difference between a museum photo and a snapshot is not always readily apparent. It's a field full of evaluative pitfalls

So how did your "hobby" start?

I took a few photo classes in high school but mostly looked down on it as a second tier art for photo journalist. I went to USU to study drawing and painting and took another photo class for an easy course to fill out my schedule. I was lucky to study with Craig Law and he was the first person that showed me how seemingly simple photos could be amazingly complicated. That you're sort of in control and out of control and that this is a deep area to explore and that one should try to be thoughtful and conceptual in your approach but also be present and use your intuition. Once I got that I was hooked.

What does "in control and out of control" mean? Do you feel like your photographs have some out of control element? To me they seem very controlled.

There is an idea that John Szarkowski gets at in The Photographer's Eye about how smart photographers know that they can only control or realistically  convey a portion of their intention when making a photograph and that this lack of control is something to pay attention to and use. Being able to break your work down into potential interpretations of what you want the photo to mean, knowing what it might mean to others and then being aware of other open ended possibilities is a useful skill. Embracing the factually descriptive and contextually confounding nature of a photograph is a way of being in control and out of control.

Was there some photographer in particular at that point that really hooked you?

I shamefully was not aware of Robert Frank or Garry Winogrand. When I saw their work I was blown away. I really identified with Winogrand's take on the world. He seemed like he was caring, hurt and pissed and that really resonated with me. I happened to read this great article by John Brumfield in a 1980 Afterimage. It was about The Americans and he diagramed what he called the three chapters and how Frank crafted his own language through sequencing and repetition. I have been in a big fan ever since. It is boring to talk about it now but I am still awed by the ambition and realized achievement of the book.

Everything always comes back to The Americans. Damn. It's like the Ur-tablet of photography. But your photos don't look very much like Robert Frank's. I mean your style is quite different in the Utah suburban work. Actually the new book is more in Frank's vein. We'll get to that...So not aware of Frank or Winogrand. Who was the person back then for you?

I ended up making what could be called street work in Utah. I felt like I had something to say about the culture that I grew up in and that was the majority of my work as an undergrad. I took a few landscapes but was very aware of not making pretty work or including the mountain horizon. I ended up going to Yale for grad school and the first crit there was really harsh. I showed my street photos and promptly moved on to other work. Being in New Haven made me want to start studying the New Topographics folks. I spent lots of time in the library looking at Adams, Baltz, and Deal. They really worked for me. I don't think I completely got Robert Adams until his book What We Bought came out. Then it all fell into place. I am a slow learner.

Alpine, Utah, #1

One way of interpreting that sequence is that you arrived at Yale with an interest in a certain method. That method was perceived as a dead end. I mean, street photos? At Yale? Yuck. So they steered you in another direction. Which may have worked. But which direction was really you? This loops back to the new book. Why are those photographs, which I'll call street photos, surfacing now?

That is a great question and part of the reason why I had to pick up street shooting again. I felt like a baby for giving up at Yale so easily. I figured out that street photography was dead in the late eighties and  but after years of shooting landscape and trying to make pictures of our culture without people I realized I could do both. People started showing up in a some of my landscapes. I realized that it expanded the landscapes and eventually my work started to look like street photos in the suburban sprawl. I realized that all of the photographs were pictures of our culture and that it was great to have them together. I don't really consider myself a landscape photographer but I see how the new book is a bit of jump from the first.

When did you shoot most of those pictures?

Most of the pic in Waiting Out The Latter Days were done as an undergrad from 85-87. I shot a lot in the year I had off before I went to grad school. I was a slightly older undergrad as I had to keep dropping out of school to work construction to pay for school. I was actually working in some of the same subdivisions when Lewis Baltz made his book, Park City. There are 14 photo from the past two summers, and the rest from 85-57.

You worked construction. And construction scenes appear in many of your suburban landscape photos. Is that conscious?

The Weather And A Place To Live,
Duke Press, 2005
After I graduated I taught for a few years part time. I realized that I was never going to make serious work if I did not change the way I was living. I decided to take a break from teaching. I had a plan to move to Los Angeles to be with my girlfriend who was in her last year of film school. I would start my own contracting business and pay off my student loans as quickly as I could and then set up the business to work half of each year and then shoot for half a year. I was not happy working construction as I missed my artist community but I made a lot of work. Most of the photographs in The Weather and a Place to Live were made near jobs that I was working. 

You said earlier that those early "street work" photos "had something to say about the culture I grew up in." What did they say?

I saw this sad defeatism in they way many of my elders grouped the cold war and the impending nucular war with Jesus coming back to take us home. We were constantly being chided to clean up and prepare for the end. My dad used to be very critical of the Mormon culture. He grew up there too and said that the mormons were bad stewards of the earth because they could not wait to get to heaven. So I was trying not to be to accusatory but I wanted to make work that dealt with a culture that I viewed as secure but brain dead.

That's funny. I don't read them as being so critical of the culture. I think your suburban landscapes are much more politically opinionated. 

The landscape work grew out of my time in LA. Working construction in LA opened my eyes to this building process of prepping the land to keep it from washing away before it could be developed. I knew I was in Joe Deal and Lewis Baltz's backyard but I thought I saw something and really went after it. There was element of Baltz's New Industrial Parks that worked for me. I saw a minimalist treatment of minimalist architecture and thought that was a smart combination for dealing with ugly landscapes. Rarify them into art by excessive formal design. His work takes the idea of a pretty landscape and uses it against its subject. I was always troubled about not making pretty landscapes. 

Bloomington, Utah, 2010

What looks "pretty" to you? And why is it bad?

I wanted the work to be smart and not just formally interesting. There are a number of folks who are members in the dirt pile school of photography. Dirt piles are hard to resist and I was worried about making sappy propaganda: "Look what man has done to the landscape." I love the formal qualities in the work of Toshio Shibata but I wanted my formal decisions to animate the erosion control systems, to transform them into earth sculpture and ridiculous public art of suburban expansion.

You mentioned an the impending nuke war with Jesus. What was that about? It seems like two fantasy ideas colliding. Do two negatives make a positive?

In this case, yes. In the early part of the book there is a baton twirler next to a wagon that was converted into an atomic bomb cloud. A big light went on inside my head when I found that scene. It is not as prevalent as I might like but that idea of the nuclear war being the end of days started me looking. It seemed scary to me to put a calm face on nuclear war.

What about the Weather book? Do you view those photos as political? 

Water and development are very political topics especially now. The restraint of land and control of water are threads that run through out. The work is political but I hope also funny in a satirical way. The last thing I wanted to do was make man-against-nature, or look-what-man-has-done-to-the-earth photos. It is hard for them not exist on that level to some degree but I wanted to use humor to rarify the absurdness of this situation and  to provide a cathartic release.

What about the recent series Irrational Exuberance, which seems more critical of the culture, at least to me. Do you think it's a step in the direction of direct commentary?

This project deals with desire to live close to nature. This desire is often expressed by building dream homes that destroy nature. Many home owners and planned communities adopt decorating and landscape design themes that are inspired by nature and seek to blend this new development into the adjoining natural areas. Being able to afford a sculpted landscape effigy or a small scale replica of nature is the highest form of patriotism. I see a sincere yearning on the part of consumers to express their love for nature with the process they know best.  I am also trying to get at a class element by showing folks of a certain class who are working in the landscape and others who are recreating. 

Was your dad a Mormon? Or you growing up?

My mom is still sort of Mormon. My dad stopped going when he was a teenager. When I was 13 I stopped going. My mom wasn’t going and she tried to make me go but I told her that she couldn’t make me if she did not go her self. My dad did not like growing up mormon in Utah either. He planted thoughts that allowed me to feel that it was ok to question things.

One thing which jumps out at me as a subtext is how white and middle class the culture is. It's like a Leave It To Beaver world, with no other races or disabilities or (visibly) sexual variance or outside ideas. Just a nice little bubble.

It is a time capsule in many ways. It reminded me of how people used to describe the 50s and 60s under McCarthyism. I thought it was still going on there. It is a very white place as a lot of the decedents from mormon pioneers were Scandinavian, lot of blondes. Every one who is not blonde is sort of suspect. No mention of sexual difference, everything was repressed or not spoken of. When I was young there were no people of color.  Once in a great while you might see a non white person. It sounds backward but I always felt bad for anyone non white in Utah. I knew how I felt and could not imagine looking dramatically different in this culture.

Salt Lake City, Utah, #11

I'm not sure I understand. You felt bad being different yourself?

Yes. I felt like an outsider after I rejected Mormonism. In my town there were no other social groups to bond with. The Mormons were backward but accepting of other races as long as they eventually converted to Mormonism. So I was projecting, trying to empathize with folks that were seen by the cultural majority as even more outside the Mormon norm. 

The Weather book has photos from both California (where you were living) and Utah. Do you think Utah and CA are similar in some ways?

Great question. There are a lot of Mormons in CA and growing up in small town Utah there would be a few new kids in school who moved to Utah from California. They were always the cool kids. They had real culture. Utah has long looked to California as model for things good and bad. Later I felt like I needed to live there at least for a while to get to know that place. The main subject of the Weather book was sprawl and typically along mountain benches and foothills.  This elevated view provided a better vantage point to deal with the sedimentary layers of development. California had much more sprawl to mine and Utah has more epic mountain horizons and some tacky down home touches while aping what was going on in California.

I understand how they looked similar in development patterns. But it seems odd for Mormons to look to CA as a cultural model. But it all connects too to the Latter Days photos. It's all commenting on a certain outlook or mode of lifestyle. You're like the prodigal son returning to the promised land to explore with eyes open.

Now that have lived on the east coast for 18 years I feel like a prodigal son in both areas. I think California and Utah have a lot in common. California has more culture but more sin. A lot of CA folks move to Utah to be in the rarified air of mormon totality. Some move back right away as they can't handle the backwardness. Some love it. There is something that is said a lot about the difference between California Mormons and Utah Mormons. In Utah they are the large majority in most places and because they run the show Utah Mormons are more uptight. There is a more rigid moral standard to uphold and people are less forgiving. There is a competition in Utah to be the most pure. CA mormons are typically normal nice folks who have a funky religion and try to live a good clean life with in a larger culture. They tend not to be as tyrannically zealous.

Whoah. Competition for purity. That's wacky! Tell me more.

When you have a culture or religion where folks that know they are going to the highest level of heaven they can't help but look or talk down to non Mormon folks or even each other. They have a surety about the after life that gives comfort and creates a weird elitism. They are like most groups in that they feel sorry, take pity and look down on folks that are not them. They are not interested in gray. When I was a young boy I was constantly ratted out by my neighbors. They were trying to help and they knew best. This is how a lot of folks there feel about free thought and free will. They know best and they are not afraid to help you.

Why are you drawn back there?

Yes, good question. I go back a lot to see how I was shaped by that place and to try get over the anger and I had at being repressed. I also came to see being repressed as an artistic gift - an axe to grind. I am mostly interested in the landscape nowadays. These folks claim to adore it and yet need to control and consume it. I am interested in how those compromises get worked out. But this happens everywhere. In Utah I know where and how to look for it in.

You express strong negative feelings about Utah and Mormonism. Do you think your photographs are therapeutic for you? Do they help you come to terms with Utah, Mormonism, and your childhood there? And do you want your photographs to provide a cultural critique of that lifestyle?

I am a little weirded out by the therapy word but that is a sign that you are on to something. I did feel a great sense of relief when the book was published. When putting the first sequences for the book together I made a very biting edit. I had to get that out of my system. The book that we published is a critique of mormon culture but it is also look back at my childhood. There are a lot photos of boys. When I was making this work I was living away from home and my youngest brother was still living with my mom and our third step father. I knew he was going through a really bad time and I tried to help but there was not a lot I could do. Now I see these photos as projections or surrogates for me and my brothers. There are a lot of subtle Mormon jokes that some folks might not get. 

I'm curious about your annual road trips to Utah. Do you just drive straight there? Or slow down for photos along the way? You could probably find similar development scenes along the way. So are you interested in exploring those scenes? Or more interested in Utah?

St. George, Utah, 2002

I do bee line it for Utah. I want to start taking more time and exploring more widely but it takes a lot of money to raise a family and make work. So we mostly get to Utah quick to stay with relatives and keep costs low. But we stay for a month or two so it is not cheap. We are lucky right now because both my wife Heather and I teach school and have summers off. 

It might be cheaper to stay in Rhode Island and make photos. Do you ever shoot there?

I have been working slowly on a few projects on the east coast. I want to be shooting all the time but school has a way of sucking up all your time if you let it. It kills me going back and forth or making most of the work in the two shittiest light months of the year.  One of the things that is great about being out West is you just have to drive over the freeway or along the foot hills and you get a grand view of what to go explore. The green canopy here makes my progress a bit slower.

I spend a few weeks in Maine every summer and that's one thing that always hits me about the east coast. The perspectives are capped at such a short distance. You see a mile or two and that's it. In the west in the right spots you can see 30 or 50 miles at a time. It's a different spatial reality. I probably shouldn't say this but I think the spatial dynamics are reflected also in east coast culture, with myopic perspective applied to life path, career, and general sense of possibility.

Yes, I have a built in GPS  out west with all the mountains running north/south. Any time I can just look up and know where I am relative to the horizon and here (in RI) I have to know where the major freeways or streets are but I get lost a bit still. Living in Rhode Island for a number of years I have run into a good number of myopic folks. I live 15 minutes outside of Providence and there are neighbors who have told me I am crazy to drive that far.

I think anyone who spends a long time somewhere develops built in GPS. East or west coast or wherever. But the physical presence of the landscape out west is so much more expansive. 

Yes, I'm starting to put it together a sense of place with the shorelines but that changes so much in RI. It is one of the most compelling things that I miss about being out west. You can see the extended world and there is something calming about seeing more. Probably just what I am used to. I like the forests here very much but I always feel good when leaving for open space.

I just took a little road trip to eastern Oregon. I've been there before. But even so I am still blown away by the sweeping vistas out to the horizon. You don't get that very often in the east. I think the folks in your Weather book are trying to tap into that. But in a very artificial way.

The horizon line was something I avoided like the plague early on when I first started to study photography in college. Now that it is a decorating element. I see horizons everywhere.

I'm curious about the new book with TIS. You said that publishing house was put together by some of your students? What's the story there?

Waiting Out The Latter Days,
TIS Books, 2015
This book project came about in a fun way. I was giving a lecture on my work and one of my former students was in the audience. I was showing some of my early street work as an example of when I actually made work with people. He liked the work a great deal and told me that he wanted to publish the early work some day. I was like, thanks and sure, just let me know when. Thinking him's sweet but a bit odd. A few years later he mentioned that he and his good friends were going to create their own imprint and that they would like to publish my early work. I was kind of taken aback that they were serious and started to edit the early work. I had a great time going through contact sheets that were 22-25 years old. I am a much better editor of my work now that I have had a nice long digestion period. 

Right place, right time, right student. The book turned out really well. For a new publisher they have the production issues dialed in. 

We got together and I thought maybe we could do a small book and that is when I got the fire to go back and shoot in Utah again. People were showing up in my landscape photos so I went for it. I was having a blast visiting my youth and exploring what may have changed since the Berlin Wall has come down. Were people still afraid that the apocalypse was around the corner? Did they live in that same fear or dread? I know that these issues would be hard to see in the work but that was what piqued my new interest. I was not sure that the new pictures would work with the old but I had to check back in.

Wait. There are new photos in the book? I thought it was all older stuff.

There are 14 photos that I took over the summer in 2013 and 2014. I bought a Zeiss Ikon and some Tri-X and jumped in.

They blend pretty well, especially with no captions. Now I have to look harder.

I tried to edit the photos in sections of old and new but it made more sense to just edit them together for the best overall sequence and let the time stamp of the various eras provide more mystery.

Were you deliberately trying to fake readers out by mixing the two eras? I mean, even now as I look through the book, you have to look pretty hard to separate the new photos from the old ones.

I wanted to address the issue of old and new photographs in titles and captions at the end of  the book but after thinking about it for a while I just wanted to stay out of the way of the sequence that I had going. I felt like we were at a great level of having flow but not too much of a linear story and I felt like the captions would have made folks go back and take that apart. I'm not trying to pull a fast one. It is a timeless place to me in some ways. The title grew out of my early need to get out of Utah and live before the end of days. It is also my reference that the saints were waiting out their last day before being called home. When I was young I would imagine how cool Utah would be if had not been discovered by the Mormons. Then I look at Denver or California and try to find a way to like my home warts and all. There is a great Robert Adams quote from the book To Make it Home. It has to do with the process of learning to live with what you can not accept. There will constantly be folks in Utah who will tell you that these are the latter days and you better prepare.

Was it just former one student involved in the publishing or was the whole crew former students?

I feel really fortunate that the great guys at TIS thought so much of the work. The three principals are Nelson Chan, Cary Wooly, and Tim Carpenter. They were all students in the first year of the Hartford Low Residency Grad Photo program. I taught a digital photo class there in the summer and got to know them. I was a bit worried when I first started working there thinking that there would be some students who were not so great. 

Why did you expect not great students? From personal experience with grad students? Or some other reason?

I just did not know what to expect and was surprised at how good they were. I think that one would naturally wonder about the type of student who wanted to put in part time effort. The great thing about grad school is that you totally immerse yourself. I was expecting working professional students who were good at compartmentalizing their various roles in life but all of the Hartford students were truly passionate and wholly committed. The program was really well run with great faculty. There was a pent up need for this type of program. Their grads are continuing to make really great work after grad school and a lot of them are getting attention. I still teach there and I love working with them. 

I have a few friends who went through that program and gave it a positive nod.

TIS01, 2015
The principals at TIS were part of the first class at Hartford. They were all located around NY and they grew into being close friends.  They are crafting their own idea of what a publisher can be in this fast changing photo world. They are trying to take the freedom and quality of printing via indigo press and make something good and lasting from it. I feel very fortunate to have been part of their launch. They have some lofty and interesting ideas and are just getting started. The TIS website has some great writing and commentary.

It's indigo press? Does that mean the book is printed digitally? The quality looks as good as any offset book I've seen.

The first imprint was TIS 01, a set of four books by Carl Wolley, J Carrier, Nelson Chan and Tim Carpenter. The TIS 01 were printed in Indigo and Waiting Out the Latter Days was printed in quad tone offset, all books were printed at Brilliant Graphics in Exton, PA. The quality of both projects was great and I was amazed that we were able to print the BW work on the press. All of the TIS lads are highly skilled, especially in taking film scans to digital output. There was a learning curve but Bob Tursack the CEO of Brilliant was very hands on and super helpful. I was surprised to learn that the number of indigo printers have forced domestic printers to lower their prices on offset.