“highly contrived and stylized”
A Conversation with Poet and Cover Artist Joshua Ware~
OL: You have a tendency to frame one object in your pictures by way of a second object, to comment, in effect, on the moon by way of the barn, or on the sea by way of the Jersey Ferry. You do this by not only foregrounding the first object, but by representing it only partially. I’m put in mind of the East Asian dictum about showing the power of a mountain (or, in Hiroshige’s case, a wave) by depicting in only partially. I note this in your poetry as well, or at least in Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, where your long footnotes frame the poems above them. To what extent do you think about this process as you work?
JW: Well, I guess I don’t think too much about anything when I’m taking photographs. Not that whatever I shoot is random, but I don’t actively consider the subject matter in a literary manner. Instead, I look for abstract lines or interesting color patterns that, to my mind, would make an interesting composition. By interesting, I mean formally compelling. For example, the partial image of the boat foregrounded against the Atlantic Ocean that you mention. I framed the bow in such a way that an abstract line forms from the far left edge of the photograph and points to the layered background, guiding the viewer’s eye along a particular path. By opening up the camera’s aperture as wide as I could, I was able to keep everything out-of-focus accept for the New Jersey boating license tag; this formal characteristic, coupled with its distinctive color and its proportion relative to other elements, attracts the viewer’s attention first. Then, as I mentioned, the eye follows an abstract line toward the bow, then toward the layered background. I love that background because there are at least seven different layers of coloration. And since those layers are out-of-focus, the viewer processes them, primarily, as a sedimented color scale, not as a land/oceanscape that represents (not that it isn’t representational; that just isn’t the primary concern).
As far as objects being only partially visible in my photographs, I think that might be a product of two separate but related concerns. First, most objects aren’t 100% interesting. Certain elements of an object might be compelling based upon their color, shape, size, or positioning, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find something that can sustain someone’s visual interest holistically.
The other concern deals with fragmentation, and maybe this is where the literary and poetic does infiltrate the way I think about, or at least reconcile literature with, certain aspects of photography. Having been inundated over the years with the fragmentary nature and collage procedures of the Continental Avant-Garde and the American High Modernists, fragmentation seems not only acceptable, but to a certain extent necessary for a composition. Or at least necessary for it to hold my attention. Looking at something en masse seems to leave out the mystery of an object. It also necessarily means that you’ll be incorporating its less visually compelling elements.
I guess, when all is said and done, I want to take a photograph, not capture something’s image. The difference is that in the latter instance the goal is to document an object, to represent it; in the former of these instances, like I said, I just want to create interesting combinations of lines and colors and their arrangements with each other.
OL: Color. Even your natural colors are bold, saturated. Your Iowa greens are as green on a bright day as they would normally appear in diffused light, and the same holds for the prepossessing orange of that Nebraska barn. Is this effect of color achieved after-the-fact, or is your eye naturally drawn to striking color combinations as objects? Has that always been the case?
JW: When considering an object for visual composition, yes, I actively think about its color (as I sort of mentioned in the first question) and how it works in relationship to the color of the other elements within a proposed frame. So, on that level, these decisions are pre-photographic in a sense. Of course, I like to over saturate my images in a photo-editor afterward as well. Again, this hearkens back to the the point earlier I made about documentation/representation versus creating patterns. I’m not interested in accurately portraying an object in the way I see it occurring naturally. Instead, I’d like to see it how I want to see it. It’s kind of like that scene near the beginning of David Lynch’s Lost Highway when Bill Pullman tells the detective that he doesn’t own a video camera because, as he says: “I like to remember things my own way … Not necessarily the way they happened.”
OL: Could you tell us about this month’s cover photo, Hotel Mark Twain? This was in Hannibal, right? What brought you there and how did the place strike you?
JW: One of the great things about spending 7 years in graduate school (which I recently completed) is the fact that you can delay adulthood for most of your twenties and thirties and, during the summers, drive around the United States visiting friends, writing poems, reading, and taking photographs.
In July 2011, I was driving back to Lincoln, NE from Midland Park, NJ. Normally that’s a straight shot across the country on I-80/90, but I dipped down to Columbus, OH in order to visit some friends over fourth of July weekend. Afterward, I headed west on I-70, which was the most direct route back. Hannibal, MO is about 8 hours from Columbus, OH so that seemed like a good place to stop.
Hannibal is a strange town, to say the least. There’s a lot of architecture and signage that’s pretty antiquated. Kind of like something you’d see in an old, family sitcom like The Andy Griffith Show. You know, Mayberry. But that type of town you find throughout the United States, whether it’s Hannibal, MO or North Platte, NE or wherever, the places that stopped renovating their buildings 30, 40, 50, or 60 years ago, are beautiful time capsules. Spending a summer night alone in Hannibal, watching the Mississippi River, staying in a rundown motel, and getting drunk by yourself … that’s a solid way to spend a day. If I wrote fiction or memoir, these are the towns I’d want my stories to be set in; they contain a certain magic you’re not going to get elsewhere; no chain stores or cookie-cutter houses. Certainly they have their own problems and issues, but if you’re going to wander the States, why not stop in a less conspicuous place?
OL: Do you make special trips out to take photographs, or do you always have your camera on you? And what sort of camera do you use?
JW: A little bit of both, really. One of my favorite spring/summer activities is to ride my bike and lose myself in a city. While riding around, I’ll see something that catches my eye and snap a handful of photographs.
But I also imagine shots ahead of time. For example, someone recently painted the side of the Esquire Theater in Denver, so it’s really bright blue. And my girlfriend has a lot of pink clothing, so I thought if I put her in front of that wall while she wore a particular pink outfit, the contrast in colors would be make for a fine composition. During the gestation process, I started thinking about ways in which the proposed photograph could be a bit more compelling. Mulling over objects we had lying around the apartment, I remembered a Viking-type helmet she owns. And pink bubble gum. The results were highly contrived and stylized.
As far as my equipment, I use a Canon PowerShot A720IS, which is an old, inexpensive model; the photo-editor I use is Photoscape v3.6.1, which you can get online for free. The fact that I use an obsolete digital camera and a free photo-editor is important because I don’t think someone should be stopped from making art because they can’t afford it, which in most cases I can’t. Sure, there will be some functionality or quality issues when the only equipment you have access to is inexpensive or free, but so what?
There was a great article in an issue of PMLA a few years ago (Patricia Yaeger’s “The Death of Nature and the Apotheosis of Trash; or, Rubbish Ecology”) that dealt with artists creating art out of garbage, literally. It’s pretty inspirational and a great way to think through/about art and its creation: instead of buying fancy new gadgets and materials, why not use materials that have been cast off by consumer culture? It’s also a great critique of our society.
And it’s not just my photographs. I collage a lot and most of the books I use to cut out images from I pick up in the “Free” bins at used book stores; the materials, such as scissors, tapes, glue, etc., I steal from Walgreens or wherever (I guess that’s not rubbish, just free).
Joshua Ware lives in Denver, CO where he writes, takes pictures, and collages. He is the author of Homage to Homage to Homage to Creeley, which won the 2010 Furniture Press Poetry Prize, and several chapbooks, three of which will be published this year: Imaginary Portraits (Greying Ghost), How We Remake the World (Slope Editions) with Trey Moody, and SDVIG (alice blue books) with Natasha Kessler. His recent work appears in Barn Owl Review, esque, Hobart, ILK, and Nano Fiction.