Monday, 19 March 2012

Bruce Haley's Panoramic Landscapes



Bruce Haley's  book, Sunder, (published by Daylight) is a fascinating and quite poetic take on the demise of the Soviet Union and communism. I see it and am instantly drawn to the landscapes,  the combination of complete environmental and industrial devastation mixed with romantic, rural landscapes and economic decay. I've been corresponding with Bruce Haley (see interviews here, and here) for a while and he has a fascinating take on photography that includes thoughts on landscape, politics, narrative and process.

He's currently shooting panoramic landscapes on the history of mining in the US. These are shot on 10 inch negative in an extreme ratio - click on the pictures for more detail as the layers that are revealed are quite amazing.



CP:  Is SUNDER a testimony to different kinds of apparently empty landscapes?

BH:  It’s very interesting to me in that SUNDER seems to be different things to different people...  mostly I stay out of it, and just let it be a mirror to the reader/viewer...  there are 55 images in the book  -  29 of them have one person or multiple people in the frame, and 26 of them have no people whatsoever...  so in terms of plain numbers, the book is slanted towards the human presence  -  and yet you have come away from the book with the notion of landscape and “emptiness”...  for my part, SUNDER is the end result of eight years of wandering, photographing a very wide range of subject matter, using both 35mm and panoramic formats, using both fast grainy film and slow film, and then trying to somehow bring all of that together and distill it down into a sequence that makes some sort of sense, that has a certain flow and fits between two covers...  the only thing I would say is that it is not meant to be didactic in any way  -  it is basically impressionistic, a visual diary of what I found to be fascinating...  you can’t take 55 images and put them into a book and then claim that it represents the whole of the former USSR and Iron Curtain countries  -  other people or publications may make such claims, but I don’t have that sort of hubris... 


CP:  What different kinds of emptiness did you photograph and what are the differences between them?

BH:  I suspect that my notion of “emptiness” may be different from that of many others...  for instance, I have friends who were born and raised in Manhattan and have lived there all of their lives  -  if those people leave the city and go to a town of 50,000 inhabitants, that qualifies as “emptiness” to them...  I grew up on a ranch, and at age 55 I have almost always lived in a rural setting; right now I live in a canyon, a quarter-mile behind a locked gate...  I avoid towns and cities like the plague  -  and my work reflects that...  we were discussing the images in SUNDER  -  and that book is definitely an example of what I have just stated...  between those covers one can see that, for the most part, I only skirt the edges of the urban, and prefer the margins, or the wastelands, or the rural...  and that’s a reflection of me and me only...  had I wanted to make a more “accurate” book, one that truly showed the post-communist experience in those countries circa 1994 - 2002, I would have had to include the big cities, the new developments, the high-rises, the Burger Kings and Kentucky Fried Chickens and such...  but I had no interest in that whatsoever... 

Anyway, back to the notion of “emptiness”  -  I can go to those areas in the US that have been dubbed the “Flyover States” by those on either coast, who use the term in a derogatory fashion, as a verbal shorthand for “a flat nothingness populated by hicks and rednecks”...  but when I stand in the middle of those vast plains and prairies I do not see or feel “emptiness”...  to me, the volumes of space, the wind rippling the grass, a breeze on my face, the birdsong, the flight of crows  -  this is the exact opposite of emptiness:  it is a fullness, a richness that I just want to drink in, that I want to have envelop me...  on the other hand, if you drop me into the middle of Manhattan, I just want to shut down  -  the hordes of people, the noise...  it’s just maddening to me, and something I’ve chosen to avoid as much as possible in my life...


So all of these feelings also inform my idea of what constitutes “emptiness” in any sort of visual medium, and most specifically in my own work  -  which is a very long way around actually answering your original question...  and perhaps I’ve only just devolved the conversation into one of individual perception and semantics, or hair-splitting over the experiential connotations of a term...  or perhaps it’s my way of saying that where others may look at an image and see “emptiness” due to the sparseness of the visual content, or the lack of an actual human being within the confines of the frame, I see something else entirely  -  I see the “fullness” of a blissful solitude...    

I photographed a great many places where there were no people, from abandoned industrial sites to interstitial spaces to rural farmland to gloomy mountain forests  -  I suppose that these are the literal “different kinds of emptiness” that you asked about...  but I’m so steeped in Romanticism, Byron and Keats and Shelley, the whole “Spirit of Solitude” thing, William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Caspar David Friedrich and the “sublimity” of ruins, Millet and Breton and the Barbizon, the Pre-Raphaelites, 19th century landscape painting, the Luminists, the Tonalists, George Inness, even up to the strange metaphysics injected by Charles Burchfield into his work...  I just can’t look at what you refer to as “empty” landscapes without bringing all of this along with me...!      

CP:  How did people react to or live in these landscapes?

BH:  Well, here is where we must cut the wings from our flight of fancy...  I may look at some of these areas with the weight of the above-mentioned influences behind my eyes, but the people who actually live there sure as hell don’t look around and color their view in terms of 19th-century Romanticism...  what informs me as I frame a photograph in such a location, with my mental steamer trunk full of notions of classical and formal composition, is certainly not how the inhabitants live their lives on a day-to-day and hour-by-hour basis...  they see the aftermath of war  -  rebuilding their lives and their infrastructure...  they see toxic ground that will never be reclaimed...  they see the results of decades of neglect, or poverty, or hostility...  the Roma I photographed see constant persecution, where they live at the edge of a garbage dump and get shaken down by the local cops just for the “privilege” of being allowed to remain camped next to the rubbish... 

I may capture a beautiful split-second in a Roma woman’s life, where she is holding her young child and the light hits her amazing eyes just right  -  and this image may end up in my book and may be shown in galleries and museums, etc. etc...  but the unfortunate reality is that her life up to that point was probably pretty damn difficult, and has no doubt been damn difficult ever since my shutter closed...  she was living in a makeshift shelter of plastic sheeting, in a camp with a high rate of tuberculosis...  so how does one reconcile a moment of grace, caught in the split-second firing of a camera’s shutter, with the broader reality of the subject matter...?  Why do I hear the word “beautiful” used so often in describing my images of some of the most horribly polluted places on the planet...?


CP:  There is also the sense of in-between-ness. When you made the book were you using ideas of terrains vagues or temps vagues, in-between times, to structure the narrative?

BH:  To a certain extent, yes...  but in doing the edit and sequence for the book, in pulling together such disparate subject matter and different camera formats, I kept going back to the idea of symphonic movements  -  where there may be darker, heavier passages followed by lighter sections, and vice versa...  much of SUNDER is pretty heavy going, but I didn’t want to just bludgeon the viewer over the head from start to finish...  I wanted a section of, say, industrial images  -  all sharp twisted metal and toxicity  -  to be followed by farmland, or rural architecture, or something of that nature...  I had this notion in my head of sequencing the images in “waves,” where there is the crashing thunder of the heavier images, followed by that quiet lull of the lighter images...  and then the crashing starts again, and etc. etc...

CP:  Did you consciously use ideas of the surreal in SUNDER?

BH:  As tempting as it is to say “yes,” in order to make myself sound smarter and more artsy, I would say that this probably occurred mostly on the subconscious level...  in painting I love the Symbolists, but am actually not a big fan of the Surrealists  -  although I do love Cartier-Bresson’s early work, and it is certainly considered within the boundaries of surrealism...  in all honesty, I would have to trace most notions of the fantastic in my work back to a childhood love of comic books, science fiction and fantasy...  I’ve said in numerous interviews that my industrial work owes a huge debt to Jack Kirby and his “Kirby Tech”...  all of that art in the old pulps and comics, it’s just fabulous stuff...!

Your question also brings us back to what we have already discussed  -  the photographic layering-on of notions of Romanticism, classical and formal composition, or Surrealism, or whatever, over the often-brutal reality that shapes the lives of those who inhabit such harsh places...  so  -  where to reconcile how the two dimensions of a photograph pluck the surreal from difficult human circumstances and ruined landscapes...?

 
CP:  You mirror the industrial desolation with a sense of rural desolation, the lonely forest. What inspired this?

BH:  Again  -  REALITY...  you can photograph one of the most toxic landscapes on the planet, and then walk a few miles and be in the depths of a dark mountain forest...  plus, this takes my photographs of people and places them within their context  -  a husband might be in a factory or a coal mine, covered in dirt and grime from head to toe, while his wife and kids are in the woods a few miles away, gathering mushrooms or something...  you make a photograph of a family in their single-room dwelling in some small settlement  -  a half-mile east there’s a mountain full of forest, while a quarter-mile west there’s a massive factory...  why not show all facets of this...?  From the beginning, in gallery and museum shows, I mixed all of these types of images  -  people, industrial, rural  -  and I wanted to do the same with the book, even though some advised me against it...  many editors, etc., thought the varying types of imagery should be compartmentalized into their own separate categories and publications, but I just can’t see it that way...  and life certainly isn’t like that...!

In this respect I see Paul Strand’s books as sort of a spiritual model...  I love the way he would go to a country or region and photograph...  the final result would be this glorious amalgamation of portraits and landscapes and architecture and small details  -  a family or a woman in a doorway, a row of houses, an alleyway, a window box, the heavy collar of a plough horse, a row of scythes  -  all pieces of the puzzle of existence, sequenced between two covers...  Paul Strand and Josef Sudek are my photographic idols  -  don’t even get me started on Sudek...!

CP:  Is there any optimism in the places you photographed?

BH:  Oh, of course  -  hope springs eternal, as Pope said...  throughout my career as a photographer I have had the privilege to witness the most incredible examples of optimism, even in the face of the most horrific situations of conflict or famine...  it boggles the mind what the human spirit can endure and still push forward...  so, yes  -  I see optimism and redemption everywhere, both in people and in the landscape...  although there are some physical places on the planet that I believe will never be reclaimed  -  they are too damaged, too deeply toxic, and the money it would take to accomplish a reclamation project of such magnitude will never be forthcoming in those places...  in other areas where there is damage, the will to repair or reclaim won’t be there, but Nature has a way of healing herself through time, and this will occur in many of these ignored or forgotten locations...  just not while you and I are alive...! 

CP:  You have continued your landscape projects with pictures of mining towns in the US  -   are these grounded in your SUNDER work?


BH:  Not really, though I suppose one can follow threads that link all of my work together, if one were so inclined...  personally, I need to make changes that cleanse my creative palette, so to speak, and also I try to remain ever-vigilant against falling into any sort of comfortable creative rut, that would result in my making slight variations of the same image over and over again ad nauseum...  for example, I did a project in the US where I spent a great deal of time in the depths of these huge factories, shooting large format in extremely low-light conditions, often with exposure times of an hour or more...  the images were dark, metallic, with extremely complex geometries, and in black-and-white...  and as much as I enjoyed that project and its resultant images, for my next project I needed (cue the Monty Python) “something completely different”...  I came up out of those deep, dark interiors, back out into the sunlight, and shot a project in color, with a very very Minimalist look  -  which was a 180-degree turn from the Stygian, geometrically-complex project that preceded it...  and the more I go along in my career, the more I feel a need to work in this manner, to sort of “push back” against what I have just finished, to not just comfortably repeat myself...  in fact, a few images in the new project were somewhat reminiscent of the industrial work in SUNDER, so I ejected them, never to be used within the context of this new series...



So  -  the new body of work, relating to the history of mining in the American West, was shot in large format panoramic, at a more extreme 4:1 aspect ratio, on a 10-inch negative...  it was very influenced by 19th-century frontier photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, in combination with the sensibilities of the New Topographics movement...  and like the old saying where every trip of the shutter takes two photographs  -  one of the subject in front of the lens, and one of the person behind it  -  this latest project also reflects my personal life...  much of the work is more distant, more pulled back, than anything I’ve done before  -  and this mirrors my life, my gradual pulling back, away from all but a small circle of family and friends and obligations, and trying to spend as much time as possible in the most remote places I can find...  then again, for years people who know me have joked about me being a hermit, a recluse...  in fact, a while back someone was doing some research for an article about me, and he said “You can Google the phrase ‘the reclusive Bruce Haley’ and actually get a match!” 

CP:  In the mining pictures, there is a sense of people surviving and staying on in places that are ‘finished’. Why do you think people do this?

BH:  At this moment in time there are grave financial crises on a worldwide scale  -  mining areas are something of a microcosm of this...  they traditionally experience “boom and bust” cycles, an expansion/contraction of a very localized nature, that effects every aspect of that particular town or settlement...  they flourish, then wither...  sometimes this cycle repeats itself numerous times to varying degrees, sometimes not...  and it’s fascinating to me to think of this history, the fact that pure geology, mineral resources, extracting something from the ground, is what brings people to some of the most remote and rugged places imaginable, and what keeps them there, with the notion of making such a place “home”...  that is the basis of this latest project...

To answer your question, I think there are a multitude of reasons why people stay after such settlements are, to use your term, “finished”...  there are the “easy” or flippant answers:  such people are “desert rats,” hiding from the world, wanted by the law, cooking meth, etc. etc...  the real answers, however, are much more complex, and extend well beyond such simplistic and pejorative “white trash” and “dirtbag” stereotypes...  sometimes the big mine will only partially close, or will keep a minimum crew going...  sometimes there will be a complete mine closure, but a few people will continue to work the area on an individual or small group basis...  often it is the young people, or those who came to the settlement from a different area just for a specific mine job, who are the first to move on, seeking work elsewhere...  some of the older people, with roots, with home ownership, who can make it without the promise of that steady paycheck, are the ones who remain...  or the ones who are willing to drive 30 miles of dirt and gravel road every day, to work in a bigger town, and then drive back again that night...  some own homes and can’t sell them, and thus can’t afford to move on to those so-called “greener pastures”...  and some people just love where they are, and can’t imagine living in a more crowded place...  in reality, there is no simple or one-size-fits-all answer to your question  -  the reasons people stay in “finished” places are many and complex, and as individual as each person who remains...


CP:  How do your landscapes reflect this hanging on?

BH:  With this latest project I attempted to encapsulate some notion of this entire history we have just discussed  -  from images that are pure geology, the latent notion of those mineral resources waiting beneath the ground, to varying aspects of industrial archaeology, old mining structures, stamp mills, head frames, open pits, etc., then on through the small settlements and larger towns, to street views, individual homes, yards, vehicles, etc. etc., from the broad sweep and vastness of some of these remote areas all the way down to the small details of lives lived...  hopefully somewhere within all of these images the viewer can see  -  and feel  -  what it is like to “hang on” in such places...

CP:  Why do you like working with landscapes?

BH:  In the broader sense, my photographic interests lie with humankind  -  what we do to each other, and what we do to the land we inhabit...  when I started out, my focus was almost entirely upon conflict and its aftermath...  as the years went by, I felt a need to extend my scope and range of image-making, in order to follow my own path through the wider world, to follow my fascination, to try to see and understand and depict  -  from the horrors of war to how we live our daily lives; through happiness and sadness, kindness and cruelty; what we build, what we neglect, what we abandon, what we damage and destroy...  this is how and where the notion of “landscape” fits into my work...   

6 comments:

Stan B. said...

His portraits, like his landscapes, capture extremes- extremes of beauty, extremes of hardships, all interspersed, all revealing the complementary and seemingly random interactions and relationships between a very fragile planet and its all too transitory inhabitants.

Dave said...

Amazing photographs! Fascinating views in to different worlds. I like the idea of showing what a lot of folks have neglected to see even if it's right in front of them.

Dave said...

Wonderful photos of places either not seen or just not looked at even if they are seen. Nicely done. Great interview too.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Stan and Dave. Stan, have you seen any of the panorama prints yet?

simon anstey said...

That was a really nice interview to read. Fine to hear a photographer talking about their work and not trying to convince the reader that they have some truth to tell, or that an epiphany is about to pass. The images reflect that too. Cheers for that,
SA

Stan B. said...

I have the book, and I've seen everything on site- of course, like anyone, I'd love to see the prints... particulary that Eve in the Garden of Eden panoramic.