We’re bidding farewell until next fall with TWO QUESTIONS about the beginnings and endings of photography books. SERGE MAES, a Belgian photographer and psychologist who attended our Barcelona workshop this spring and is working on the long-term project, “Any Given Day,” asks us how photography books begin and how they evolve along the way. West Coast photographer, ALIA MALLEY, who’s attended two of our workshops–– one in the U.S. and one in Cuba –– asks us about endings, a question very much on her mind as she finishes her MFA and is exhibiting work from her series, “Southland,” at an L.A. gallery this summer. (See below for more information about both Serge and Alia). –– Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb
MAKING BOOKS: ON BEGINNINGS AND MEANDERINGS
SERGE MAES: “Alex/Rebecca, could you elaborate on how your book projects have started out (did they start out with a vague idea, with a particular interest in a topic or place, with a preconceived aesthetic notion,…) and on any influences or decisions that may have changed the direction the projects were heading in?”
ALEX WEBB: I often am unaware of the genesis of a project, sometimes remaining skeptical of its possibilities until I am well into the project. The process of looking at the photographs, of playing with them, of making juxtapositions and sequences, usually leads me to begin to understand what it is that I am working on. The process of photographing and editing becomes a process of self-revelation, a simultaneous exploration of the world and the self.
To give you two examples: my first book, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds, began as an obsession, a passion for photographing in certain kinds of places — loosely speaking, the tropics — places where intense vibrant color seemed somehow embedded in the culture, unlike the gray-brown world of my New England background. I had no intention of making a book when I began photographing Haiti, other parts of the Caribbean, northern Mexico, and sub-Saharan Africa. But, as I started to look at the photographs that I had been producing in these places and began to put them side by side I began to realize that despite the vast cultural and historical differences between these various worlds there were links, links of emotion, links of sensation, links of atmosphere, that somehow allowed me to leap over cultural and historical differences and make a book that existed on another plane — a more poetic and atmospheric plane — in which though there were socio-political rumblings, they were only just that — rumblings. The heart of the book lay somewhere else, in a more metaphysical realm.
Istanbul: City of a Hundred Names began somewhat differently. I had a photographic assignment in 1998 to go to Turkey to photograph in several locations, including Istanbul. When I arrived in Istanbul in 1998 I had a kind of revelation: I had returned to the city that I had visited 30 years earlier for a day with my family as a teenage photographer. But whereas in 1968 I had been overwhelmed with the exoticism of a culture so unlike my own, in 1998 I found something strangely familiar, a kind of border. In those intervening years I had been drawn to borders, places where cultures come together, sometimes easily, sometimes roughly. Istanbul, both Asian and European, Eastern and Western, Islamic and secular was another kind of border. I rapidly realized that I had to return to Istanbul and continue photographing, which I managed to do over the subsequent seven years. So one could in fact say that the roots of the Istanbul book, unbeknownst to me at the time, lie in the trip that I made as a teenager in 1968.
Ultimately for the me, the process of creating a project remains somewhat mysterious. Projects move forward on inexplicable happenings and impulses. How they begin, how they end remains couched in enigma. This is part of what I find exciting about the process.
REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: My current work-in-progress, My Dakota, started out as a photographic exploration of South Dakota, the sparsely populated Great Plains state where I grew up, and a place, to quote the Nebraskan photographer Wright Morris, where the Great Plains “…grew up in you.” A year later, my brother died unexpectedly, and the project also evolved into an elegy for him.
How can My Dakota be about the American West and also be an elegy for my brother? This is one of those questions that prod me and humble me. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if I ever will.
I do know that the question itself has provoked me to reread some of my favorite elegies, not necessarily to find an answer, but hopefully to stumble upon a different way of looking at the question, perhaps viewing it from a “slant,” to quote Emily Dickinson.
So, between my photographic trips to South Dakota this past winter and spring, I’ve been rereading Emily Dickinson’s and Walt Whitman’s elegies. In some of these elegies, Death seems to venture West along with the explorers and the prairie schooners. In Whitman, Abraham Lincoln’s corpse heads West on the funeral train, and, in Dickinson’s famous elegy, “Because I could not stop for Death,” Death and the poet also journey West –– sharing the carriage with a third passenger, Immortality.
If nothing else, rereading these elegies reminds me of just how long the Western landscape has inhabited the American psyche – those wide open spaces, those fruited plains, those seemingly endless skies ––as a place of both death and hope, transience and immortality, whether we’re talking about Manifest Destiny in the 19th Century or the environmental movement today.
This meandering process –– being prodded by a question, rereading poetry, continuing to travel from New York to South Dakota to photograph–– has lead, if not to an answer to my question exactly, then at least to something unexpected: Lately I’ve managed to write a few spare lines, which may or may not accompany the My Dakota photographs. Perhaps that’s as much of an answer as I can expect…
MAKING BOOKS: ON ENDINGS
ALIA MALLEY: Alex and Rebecca, I’ve been wondering, “How do you know when a project is “finished”…?” It’s something I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, as I’m starting to work on a new project while still continuing to work on another project still.
RNW: As with any relationship in your life, each photography project or book ends in its own way. Some end more organically or naturally; others end rather abruptly or completely unexpectedly. Each project has its own rhythm.
That said, I have found that there are a few signs that a book or project may be ending. I often slow down at the end of a project, and don’t find myself taking as many photographs as at the beginning. The curiosity and visual excitement ebb, too. .If I happen to be working on another project simultaneously, that second project tends to pull at me more strongly than one I’ve nearly finished.
Right now, I’m in the midst of finishing the My Dakota project. It’s been the most challenging project to date to complete for me, probably because it’s also my most personal project, since it’s an elegy for my brother. I still feel something is missing in the sequence, but I’m not entirely sure what that is. I suspect it may be the final sequence of the book itself, which, is quite different from my past two books whose middle sequences were the last I photographed.
I’ve gotten somewhat used to the notion that making books is ultimately a very intuitive process, and I am learning to trust this more and more. For instance, a couple of weeks ago this line came to me, seemingly out of the middle of nowhere: “In a deep loss, something inside you is broken, and slowly – through the cracks and the gaps and the jagged openings – you begin to see the light again.”
After I read this line during a slide talk in Toronto recently, one of the photographers in Alex’s and my workshop thoughtfully said to me: “Maybe that’s the key to the ending of the book. The light. You end in the light.” Her words made me smile. She may very well be right. If you’re open enough, books, I’m learning, try to let you know – often in rather roundabout ways — how and when they are finished with you.
AW: Knowing when a personal project is completed is one of the more difficult and challenging decisions I face as a photographer. More than anything else, I rely on a kind of gut feeling — a sense of emotional completion. But what that really means is inevitably elusive. Different projects seem to have utterly different arcs of completion, arcs whose duration remains unpredictable. I will give a couple of examples.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1987, a bit more than a year after I had been photographing post-Duvalier Haiti, that I began to sense that a Haiti book was in the making. I started to put together a rough dummy of the work to try to understand what I had been doing, and how it might become a book. That fall, as the November elections approached, I returned to Haiti. As political tensions began to simmer, the country descended into a spiral of violence. A reign of terror spread over the streets of Port au Prince, as dead bodies appeared in doorways each morning, burning barricades dotted the streets, and markets were torched. Ultimately, the elections were destroyed, as paramilitary gunmen in Port au Prince shot down voters. In Gonaives, where I was photographing, the gunmen blew up the town the night before. No one dared go to the polls.
When I returned to the US a book on Haiti seemed utterly irrelevant. What was the point of a book in the face of this violent destruction of Haiti’s aspirations toward democracy? What was a book going to do? But as time passed, as I looked at the pictures more, and especially after returning to Haiti for the next round of elections in January 1988 — elections that were fundamentally fraudulent in installing the army’s candidate — I began to sense that perhaps there was something in a book after all, some kind of document that tried to make sense of this troubled time. A period of Haiti’s history — the cycle of electoral violence, from the fall of Duvalier to the installation of his short-lived successor Leslie Manigat — had closed. And I finally felt ready — emotionally as well as intellectually — to close this chapter of my relationship with Haiti as well.
With my project on the US-Mexico Border, however, I never entertained a sense of urgency of completion. I photographed along the US-Mexico border for the first time in 1975, photographing in black and white. For the next 26 years I continued to return to the border, shifting in 1979 from black and white to color. Somehow, it was a project that I couldn’t complete — didn’t want to complete. Other projects, other books — From the Sunshine State, Amazon, Dislocations — came and went. It was only in 2001, after a trip to the Arizona border, that I was finally able to let go.
Completing a book cuts something off. I return to the same place without the same sense of obsession, without the same sense of passion. For those 26 years I simply wasn’t willing to let go of the border. I still occasionally wonder if I let go of the project at the right time.
I was born in 1976 in Sint-Niklaas, a small city in Belgium. About 8 years ago, I moved to Antwerp where I’ve been living ever since. I work as a clinical psychologist in a therapeutic community for people with personality disorders and in my own private practice.
Photography never held much interest for me until a few years ago, when my girlfriend who is a hobbyist photographer couldn’t come with me on a trip to Stockholm and asked me to take some pictures for her with a disposable camera she bought at the airport. Having only 24 pictures at my disposal I was very focused to get every picture right. Engaging the world in a visual way turned out to be such an involving experience that when I got back from Stockholm I decided to take up photography myself.
Among other things I’m working on a book project on city life with the working title “Any Given Day.” Photography to me is not so much about conveying a message as it is about the excitement of capturing that one fleeting moment in which everything seems to interconnect.
My website: www.statikon.com
ALIA MALLEY (b.1973) was born in California, and raised in Portland, OR. She received her BA in Critical Studies from USC School of Cinema Arts, and her MFA from UC Riverside in 2010. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Her series Southland won the 2010 Merck Award at the Darmstädter Tage der Fotografie, and will be shown at a solo exhibition at Sam Lee Galley, May 22-July 3, 2010. She was a 2009 Runner Up at the Forward Thinking Museum/JGS, and a Finalist/Honorable Mention at the Newspace Center for Photography’s 2008 Juried Exhibition, curated by TJ Norris. She has participated in group exhibitions including the 2009 CAA Los Angeles MFA Exhibition, curated by Alex Klein, and Sculpting Time at the Martin Art Gallery, Muhlenberg College, curated by Ara Osterweil. Her MFA thesis exhibition was on view at the California Museum of Photography, Riverside, CA until May 15, 2010.