Interview with Douglas Ljungkvist

© Douglas Ljungkvist

How did you come to be interested in fine-art photography ??
Well, I started photographing almost nine years ago and was pretty much hooked right away.  But it took some exploring to learn what type of photography I was interested in. Stephen Shore’s book Uncommon Places, before I had any idea who he was, was a confirmation that one could photograph (uncommon) places and the vernacular.  I learned over time that how something looks and feels is more important than what it depicts.  That pretty much ruled out most other types of photography (for personal work), which was fine with me, as I see photography as a form of self expression.  If I could paint, chances are I would be a painter, too, or a writer.
How do you identify and develop a project ??
It starts with place for me.  By that I mean location(s), environments, private or public, places with names.  I’m interested in how and where we live, but more so in the place itself, than the people that live there now.  I think it stems back to my interest in geography and history in school and having traveled extensively since a very young age.  My process includes going back to places over and over so it’s important that I like spending time there, or be really curious about them.
I had visited and vacationed at Ocean Beach several times before I started my project there.  But I had not been there for 10 years when I went back to scout and started shooting.  I have photographed in Brooklyn since 2007. Mostly around the industrial areas as Park Slope, where I live, is too ornate, full of people, trees, and cars —- things I seldom include in my photographs.  Middletown USA is really the only body of work so far, and my first long-term project, that I had not visited before I started photographing it.  I was driven by curiosity how different 16 towns in 16 states that share a name, Middletown, would look.  And I wanted to experience small-town USA and photograph outside my urban comfort zone.
Please tell us a bit about your Ocean Beach project. What forms has it taken ??
I started by photographing the architectural landscape in the off-season. I loved the process of walking up and down rows and rows of cottages looking for visceral subject matters. Sometimes I could go all day without seeing a person.  After a while I contacted the rental agency for permission to photograph inside the cottages.  To my surprise they said yes.  Being interested in places stuck in time, especially the 70’s, I was disappointed to learn how many of the cottages had been renovated to be more attractive on the competitive rental market, from when I had vacationed there in the 90’s.  But with more than 2,000 cottages there were still enough that interested me.
About 2/3rds of the way through the project I started adding some personal items to select cottage interiors.  I wanted to create these fragmented self portraits what I might have looked like had I grown up spending summers at Ocean Beach.  The project was scheduled for publication in the spring of 2013.  But of course the timeline was thrown off after Superstorm Sandy.  Ocean Beach was hit really hard. More than 90% of the cottages facing the ocean were destroyed.  Many on/between the bay and ocean-sides were destroyed, too.  My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to photograph the aftermath.  I have never liked how post-disaster photographs look with all its debris and disorder.  Another concern was that it might look too documentary or like it was made by another photographer.  I think not having access to the thin barrier island for a couple of months helped change my mind about resuming the work.  I still didn’t think I wanted to include the post-storm work in the book though.
After a few visits it was clear that the post-storm work could co-exist visually.  But we didn’t want it to take away from the older work in the book so we solved it by adding a separate section with its own introduction.  It wasn’t until after Sandy that I started including photographs of the ocean and beach, which after all is what the place and book is called, Ocean Beach.  It felt appropriate as the ocean and sand had contributed to so much of the destruction.  I went back often to photograph the demolition and beginning of the reconstruction process.  My solitary work process was gone and things were changing very quickly. Looking back, I think it made the book deeper with the context and contrast of having documented a natural disaster area long before the catastrophic event.  Since the book came out I’ve been back a half dozen times checking on the reconstruction.  I find it hard to stay away for too long.
How did you develop a relationship with Kehrer Verlag ?? Any advice for artists looking to publish books ??
I made a mock-up every now and then, using Blurb, and forwarded a preview link to a few publishers that were on my wish-list.  Kehrer Verlag was the publisher that showed the most interest and always offered feedback.  Luckily for me they were on top of my wish list.  So when their acquisitions director was reviewing portfolios at the CONTACT Festival in Toronto I decided to go.  Having only seen the work on screen she really liked the prints and said that she wanted to publish the project.  But it was still up to the owner to green-light it of course.  But she must have done a good sales pitch because shortly after I learned that we were in business. 
In terms of finding a publisher, I would try to resist the temptation to show work that is not nearing publication or at least has a clearly defined outline.  The risk being that it can be difficult to get a publisher, or anyone for that matter, to look at a project (again) if they have formed an opinion early on.  Most important, research publishers and target ones that publish books similar in nature to yours.  Learn who the decision makers are.  Try and include them in your marketing efforts.   Ask other photographers who have already published books with them what the experience was like and what to expect.  Meeting the publisher at a portfolio review might be your best bet to get your work in front of them.  If so, bring a book mock-up in addition to your portfolio prints.  Oh, and make sure you have a big bag of money saved up.  Expect to contribute to the books production cost in the area of $15-20,000 for a top-quality publisher with international distribution. 
What’s your next project ??
I have several in mind.  I want to get back to work on Middletown USA.  I hope to do that during several extended road trips starting this fall.  Hopefully I can get a grant or fellowship to make that happen financially.  I have a couple of project ideas in my homeland of Sweden, too, and there’s a nude project in the back of my mind.  I have some conceptual and studio/still life ideas, too.  I would want to do something in Pennsylvania in the future. I love how its small towns look and its working-class history: gritty, melancholy, and stuck in time and economic change. I think urban landscape photography will always be a part big part of my photography.
Your work is not currently for sale as prints. Could you please explain why that is ??
Though none of my work is available for sale now I will probably make Urban Cars available first.  But with other bodies I like the idea to release prints after a book release.  But I don’t have any immediate distribution plans for Ocean Beach.  Many reasons why.  The natural progression would be to secure gallery representation.  Based on today’s model I’m not even sure I could afford that, especially in several markets.  I don’t believe in the direct sales model even though there are several good platforms, unless you’re famous or have a large following (I’m 0 for 2).  I’m playing with the idea of selling work in editions of one print, or only as a series of prints.  I know these ideas are probably not feasible, especially for an artist not that well known yet.  I don’t hate the idea of leaving the work for my daughter either, to sell after I’m gone.  Perhaps a few decades will increase its value and demand, too.  But until I know which way I’m going, I’d rather hold off. 
How helpful do you find social media in your practice as a photographer ??
Very helpful, no doubt.  I have a fairly small social media network compared to many other photographers.  But online in general has been very helpful to get my work exposed the last several years, blogs, magazines, etc.  And several Facebook groups that I belong to have proven very valuable in connecting with other photographers.  But I have downsized my online presence in the last year.  I used to post a photo a day on Facebook.  The second half of last year I reduced that to 2-3 a week in a “less is more” exercise.  And I pretty much restrict it now to my typology Urban Cars.  Sometimes I get in trouble online for being too opinionated or saying how I really feel.  Now I’m trying (hard) not to say anything, unless I have something nice to say. I know some folks are looking to get a reaction out of you and too often I take the bait.  People generally find me more pleasant in real life.
I often find myself doing the opposite of what the majority is doing.  So when so many photographers are posting so much in so many places it kind of feels right to do less.  My work needs to be strong enough that it can survive despite not being top of mind everywhere all the time.  Besides I like the idea of slow and steady leading to longevity as opposed to trending.  As part of my online strategy I don’t belong to Instagram, Flickr, or Tumblr and I’m not very active on Twitter either. 
How do you see the future of photography, including your own ??
It seems to me that we’re going through a period of short-term trends.  The medium and its critics, curators, and tastemakers all seem to be searching for what’s next.  Right now abstract and conceptual is big.  Perhaps it’s also to more clearly define and separate the artists from the non-professional photographers considering the enormous amount of photographs being made and looking for viewers.  Looking back it’s kind of funny how digital photography was going to ruin photography.  And in retrospect the film vs. digital discussion and impact turned out to be pretty minimal compared to smartphone photography and social media.
I spend very little time looking at contemporary photography except what I see on a few favorite online magazines and blogs.  I live in a bit of a bubble.  Movies, not photographs, are by far my biggest sources of inspiration.  And not even so much the cinematography as the overall art direction, mood and atmosphere created by location, time of year, shooting, and light.  I’m going through a period of re-watching Italian neo-realism movies now.  As for my personal photographic future, in an ideal world, I would like to see 50% of my income come from personal projects and the rest from editorial and commercial work.  Commissions would be the ultimate way of working for me and I would love to teach some workshops, too.

How has photography changed you as a person?
It’s changed me tremendously. When I photograph is pretty much the only time that I’m not affected by sometimes disruptive OCD and ADD. So from that perspective it’s therapeutic. Though I don’t photograph people that often it has also changed how I interact with people. When I started out I was very defensive even hostile at times when people would approach me about what I was photographing or why. Coming home from a portfolio shoot in the Dominican Republic I had all these stories about people I met and engaged with and my wife pointed out how I had turned a corner in how I was communicating with people. Now if someone approaches me in an aggressive manner we almost always part on friendly terms.

Photography has also taught me to trust my instincts and grow my confidence. Almost all hobbies or interest I’ve had in the past, and even in my previous business career, I was never the most confident person. I was often better than average but never really stood out or excelled. At times I could feel intimidated, especially by authority. Where a colleague might be excited to run into the boss and have a chat I would take a detour to avoid them.

With photography it’s different. Sure, it’s easier to be confident about something that is subjective. But having found my photographic voice and receiving some praise and accolades along the way has given me the confidence that an artist, or anyone for that matter, needs to be successful. I’m almost more embarrassed by praise than the hurt of criticism, but I’m working on that. Regardless how I compare to others, I have found what I do better than anything else that I have ever engaged in. Being a middle aged, self-taught white dude, from the digital revolution might not be the ideal platform to start from, but with my newfound confidence and the fact that I’m still growing as an artist makes me feel very good about me and photography having a future together.

Is there anything else you’d like to say ??
I would not recommend my online strategy to a photographer just starting out.  They need to be in as many places as possible.  I would probably not recommend it to someone in my shoes either.  But doing what suits your personality is important to me.  I come from a culture where self promotion is considered in poor taste.  I’ve always said; if I’m “going to make it” it’s going to be based on the strength of my work, not who I know, not my personality, or how popular I am.  However, deep down, I don’t think it is only about the work.

— Interview conducted and edited by Willson Cummer

254 West Bayview Drive

© Douglas Ljungkvist3

Interview with Liese Ricketts

Fallen Giants seems to be the most intimate of your projects. How did it start ?? When will it be completed ?? How will you know ??
Fallen Giants is the most intimate series that others can see. I have made very personal work in the past, so personal indeed that I don’t choose to show it to anyone. Sometimes work can be therapeutic, or the only outlet when going through a difficult time. During my mother’s cancer, I made a lot of written and visual pieces to help me deal with that nightmare.
Fallen Giants began in my head with some words my mother said before she died. She had gone to Florida to rest, after the grueling chemo, and when she came back home, she noted, very sadly, that things seemed to be falling apart on the farm, and that it looked rather ramshackle. “I always thought it was perfect here, but things look so shabby.” She was seeing her mortality in her intimate surroundings, I thought.
It has been twenty years since then and the old outbuildings are as fragile as my 96-year-old Dad. I want to image the relationship between his physicality and the structures bending with age about him. It has been noted that people become like their pets; I think people also become like the spaces they inhabit or vice versa.
I will photograph there throughout the seasons and the time I have left with him. These days I make plans to go there to make more images but something pulls me back. I allow the internal feelings on this one to lead me to continue, to tell me when to go, and when to stop.

What photographers inspire you ??
The photographers I love the most have a quality in common with me, although their images are not like mine at all. There is a subtle intimacy between the personal and the subject; I feel I am looking through their eyes. I can feel the photographer ‘s intelligence, behind the camera’s back.  It is that moment when the camera disappears and one is face to face, engaged, with the subject.
I melt before the work of Robert Frank, Robert Doisneau, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Martin Chambi, Hiroshi Watanabe, Diane Arbus, Eugene Richards, and, most recently, Vivian Maier. What an eclectic bunch!
I feel the same way every time I stand before a Van Gogh.

Your projects usually involve portraiture. For Fallen Giants you mixed in landscape and still life images. How did you decide on that mix ??
I didn’t make the distinction between those genres as I made the images. They are parts of a whole, as one would photograph the whole body or a close up of one part, an eye, a hand.

Writing is very important to your projects. How did you develop your writing skills over the years ?? Does it help your shooting to be able to write so clearly about what you are doing ??
To my mind, photographs are like jumbled sentences, with parts that can be diagrammed to make sense. One mentally assembles the meaning based on one’s personal experience and culture.
I don’t think about what I mean while I am doing it. I click the shutter, experiencing a moment of engagement. It is in the editing that I can start to write about what I have made and what it means to me. Words help the viewer, and me, assemble the meaning.
I really have done nothing to develop my writing, other than doing it. I am drawn to words in images, and the complex play between thought, text shapes, and meaning.

You teach professionally. How do you like that ?? How does it affect your photography ??
Without teaching, I don’t believe I would have remained as passionate about photography as I am. My young students inspire me with their passion and excitement. I found exactly what I am meant to do in this world. It is a joy.

You usually shoot film. How does that affect your work ??
Sometimes I shoot film. Sometimes I work with found images and work digitally. I tend to work digitally in the months when Chicago weather keeps me inside. I have to work on something every day. So I have about five projects going on simultaneously in order to pick and choose.
I really love black-and-white film, as much as I love objects. I have six houses in Capricorn (no eye-rolling, please) so that explains my attachment to physical things. I am on the verge of becoming a hoarder.
My favorite part is developing the film itself. Agitating the canisters, being accurate in the science of it, thinking about how the film is changing inside, and waiting to see the magic. I love film cameras as well, beautiful and functional objects. Medium format is what I prefer; the square is so perfect, so orderly.

— Interview conducted and edited by Willson Cummer

Interview with Vaughn Wascovich

How did you start the Tar Creek project ??  What first drew your attention to it ?? 
A former student at Columbia College was from the region and doing a project down there. I was intrigued as I’d never heard of it and had never seen anything remotely like that particular landscape. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio during the death of the steel industry. The sky was always orange, the river orange, and while I was in school there you could write your name on your notebook in soot after you left it open on the ground for five minutes. So I suppose I’ve always been drawn to marginalized, polluted places. In a lot of ways it’s home for me. 

Who do you consider to be influences on your photography ??  How do you go beyond their work ??
Certainly Robert Adams was and continues to be a big influence. Emmet Gowin is huge. Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan. I saw the work of Lewis Baltz early on and I didn’t think you could take pictures like that. I also had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with Frederick Sommer in Prescott, and I’ll remember him, his integrity and his work forever. I’ve also been a huge fan of Josef Sudek. Of course that’s just a few photographers. I’m also influenced greatly by music, painting, and poetry. I have a rather large ceramic collection. One of my good friends, Tim Wright, is arguably the best custom knifemaker in the country. His dedication to his principles scares me to death. How do I go beyond their work? That would be for someone else to say. I just hope I don’t embarrass them. 

Why did you use a digital SLR instead of the often-used 4×5 for this landscape project ?? How did your tools support your artistic goals ??
I had built and shot with 8×20″ and 12×20″ view cameras, but a good friend of mine, Henry Domke, has been shooting digital landscapes for years, and making ridiculously large prints. He talked me into it just from seeing the work. I’d been shooting landscapes with a Hasselblad for a while, so the jump wasn’t that big a deal. And once I did, I never looked back. As with all things photographic, I think it was and still is a trade-off. But no coolers of film, and no scanning? I think one of the big differences is that I edit at the computer now, and shoot more in the field. For a long time and with the majority of the images from Tar Creek, I was always on the tripod. In the past year or so though, I’ve decided to loosen up some, and have been shooting with the 85 f1.2, wide-open, handheld. 

You have an interest in the indigenous people of this polluted area, but you do not use portraits in this project. How do you explore the identity of the indigenous people ??
I always try to imply people in the photographs without photographing a specific person. I’ll look at a finished print and can’t help but see the people that “belong” in that landscape without them being there. Of course I do have many images of the people from the region, and those (and the people themselves) are probably among my best memories of the place, but are also the least successful images. I’ve photographed the annual powwow that’s held there (the oldest in the country) for a number of years. I also had the opportunity to photograph in Hoppy’s pool hall. It was unchanged forever, and filled with old photographs of miners and the mines. Every monday night a group of musicians would gather to sing songs. They shared one microphone and everybody got a chance to pick their favorite song. Often I’d be the only person in the audience. The best part of that experience was when I took the photos back to Hoppy, and he included them alongside the great old photographs on the wall. I finally felt as though I was a part of that place.

Is this project complete ??  If not, how will you know when it’s complete ??
I’m planning on going back again sometime in the next few months to do a little shooting and see what’s left of the place. I think it’s often hard to know when a project is finished, but in this case, it’s really leaving me. A few years ago, the government decided to move everyone out of the area, so three towns have been completely razed. Then a few years back a tornado came through and destroyed much of the largest town, Picher. There are a few holdouts, and oddly I’ve heard that some people are actually moving back into the area, but yes, I think I’ve pretty much stopped photographing Tar Creek. 

What is your goal for the project (to make a book, have shows, sell prints, raise awareness) ??
I’ve had several shows with the work, and my goal in the next few months is to get a proposal off to a few publishers. It’s a fascinating place with a remarkable history that should be recorded. The challenge, of course, is in tying it all together and having it make some sort of sense, and to make it worthy of the people and place whose story you’re trying to tell. 

— Interview conducted and edited by Willson Cummer

Interview with Brian Kaplan

You are represented by the Panopticon Gallery, in Boston. How did you build that relationship ?? How long have you been represented by Panopticon ??
The short answer is: I got lucky. One day I got an email from Jason Landry, the owner and director of the gallery. We had never met. He contacted me because he saw several images from my Blank Billboards series in a juried show at the Danforth Museum and loved them. In addition, one of the photographs had been purchased by a collector and board member of the Photographic Resource Center, whom Jason knew and respected. Jason had also spoken with the director of the museum, Katherine French, who had good things to say about my work. Everything seemed to converge and point Jason in my direction.    

What is the fine-arts photography community like in Boston ?? What are the centers you find important ?? Who are the local photographers you admire most ??
There are a lot of great photographers in Boston. My favorites include Laura McPhee, Shelburne Thurber and Neal Rantoul, but really there are so many. Three local institutions stand out as especially supportive of emerging photographers: the Griffin Museum, which is a small museum of photography just outside of Boston; the Photographic Resource Center, which is affiliated with Boston University; and the Danforth Museum. They all have juried shows offering an opportunity to exhibit, and they take part in portfolio reviews. As I mentioned above, the Danforth and its director, Katherine French, have been especially important to me.    

How did you start working on I’m Not on Your Vacation ?? When did you begin the project ?? How will you know when it’s complete ??
My wife and I live in Boston. Six years ago, we bought a small cottage on Cape Cod. We go there most weekends year-round, plus a few full weeks here and there. For most, the Cape is a place to go for a summer vacation at the beach. The more time I spent there, the more I became fascinated with the other side of the Cape — what happens in the off season, when the population plummets and it’s quiet, lonely and raw. There are interesting characters who are drawn to “end-of-the-road” places like the outermost part of the Cape. The thousands of Jamaicans and eastern Europeans who come each summer, not for vacation but to work long hours at multiple jobs – and for a chance to see America. Tensions between man and nature, which are particularly stark on the Cape – it is, after all, just a narrow sand bar that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. I decided to bring these themes and narratives together into one project. As for how I’ll know when the project is complete, I’m not quite sure. I’ve been working on it for a year. I think I’ve probably got another year or so to go. I’ll probably be done when I’m no longer excited about working on the project – which is something that’s hard to imagine ever happening right now, but which seems inevitable. One final point:  I didn’t grow up on the Cape and I don’t really live there. So, I’m not really the one saying, “I’m Not On Your Vacation.”  It’s a somewhat obnoxious phrase on bumper stickers I’ve seen on the Cape. If anyone, it’s the subjects of my photos who are “saying” that. 

With its mix of portrait, landscape and still life photos, I’m Not on Your Vacation reminds me of the work of Alec Soth and Stephen Shore. Are they conscious influences ?? How do you deal with those influences without feeling overwhelmed by them ??
Alec Soth and Stephen Shore are two of my favorite photographers. So yes, they’re influences. But when I’m out looking for people, places and things to photograph, I’m not thinking about them or their work. I’m just trying to make the most interesting and compelling images that I can.

How is your camera equipment important to the project ?? What do you shoot with, and why ??
I use a 4×5 camera and Kodak Portra film. I have three lenses:  a Rodenstock 90 mm, a Nikon 150 mm, and a Schneider 210 mm. I love the camera and lenses because they’re extremely sharp, they give me the option of making big prints, and they give me maximum control over the plane of focus and depth of field. A view camera also forces me to think more about my pictures, because it requires more time and effort to take each picture. I can’t just fire off 20 frames. But that can also be a limitation. And, the camera can be a real pain to use when it’s cold and windy and my fingers are numb.    

For your Blank Billboards project you decided to render the images in B&W. Why did you make that choice ??  
For the first few billboard photos I took, I used color film. But I didn’t like the results. There were too many different colors in the various sources of light: red tail lights from cars that drove by, and street lamps and security lights that sometimes had a yellow cast — sometimes a blue cast. It was distracting. It stole attention from the billboards themselves. I wanted a look that was more simple and stark. So I switched to black and white film for the rest of the project. And I re-shot those first few billboards that I had taken in color.    

— Interview conducted and edited by Willson Cummer