November, 2016 - a conversation with Dennis Witmer

Ben Huff  We're having this conversation on the occasion of printing your artist book, Fairbanks in Winter, with ICE FOG PRESS. You and I have known each other for over ten years now, and we've had many long conversations about photographs and history, but there is something that I've been trying to put my finger on lately. I'd actually like to start with a conversation between the, then curator at the Center for Creative Photography, Joshua Chuang and Robert Adams in the Winter 2009 issue of Aperture

JC: Dorothea Lang once said that she hoped the generation of photographers following hers would focus on the American City and what was happening in the suburbs. Is there a particular subject you'd like to see the next generation take on?

RA: What she wanted still seems right, but it remains a tall order. One of the things that I most hope to find when I speak with young photographers is a readiness to ask almost impossible things of themselves, the sort of things that demand three or four years and that might result in fifty or seventy-five pictures of an important, life-sized subject. I want to repeat Miguel de Unamuno's blessing: "May God deny you peace but give you glory."

There's a lot in there, and I don't want to ask you whether you've found peace or glory, but I'm interested in the idea of the city and time.

Dennis Witmer:  Well, nothing like starting off the conversation like the enigmatic riddle from the guru…

But there are a lot of connections in that conversation that do make sense to me—Adams obviously worked in the territory that Lang described—the city and the suburbs.  Lang died in 1965—right at the time Adams was making his first images in Colorado.  Lang was part of the WPA depression era photographers—and a lot of her images were of rural America—where a large part of the population was in trouble—and she photographed them where they were, in migrant camps, or along the sides of the roads.  By the end of her life, America had become much more affluent, urban, and suburban.  I think she was suggesting that photographers focus on what America had become.  Which I think is a good connection to the work of Robert Adams.

I first saw the work of Robert Adams while going to school in Philadelphia—the museum showed “The New West” photographs in 1981—a life changing event for me as a photographer.  The images were so straightforward—in some ways so ordinary—and of such commonplace elements of the landscape that they seemed almost ignorable.  Why would someone make pictures like this, and why would a museum elect to hang them?  But there was no questioning that they were taken from the real landscape, from life itself.  It changed my vision of what photography could be—an honest way of examining the world.  

I lived and photographed in Philadelphia between 1980 and 1985, and got a job in New Jersey after finishing school.  My cameras kept getting bigger—medium format, then on to 4x5 and 8x10, a few months before moving to Alaska.  I tried to photograph things so ordinary that most people don’t see them, because they see them every day.

I’m still mulling over the riddle—“may god deny you peace, but give you glory.”  I don’t know what it means, but I do understand the glory of light in the landscape.  I know that my response to bad news is often to go out looking for pictures, looking for glorious light.  Last week, after the results of the election, I loaded up the 8x10 and spent a day looking for pictures.  Which on one level seems like an absurd response.  How does making a picture of a grain elevator next to railroad tracks matter?  But the exercise of looking honestly, trying to see what’s there, trying to make a coherent photograph, is somehow reassuring.

BH:  The first work I fell in love with of yours, was Front Street Kotzebue. They have that quality of clearly seeing the landscape. Did you have any idea when you first landed in Kotzebue that you'd make pictures in Alaska for over 30 years?

DW:  Did I expect to spend 30 years photographing in Alaska?  Well, I did expect to be making photographs for the rest of my life, and I knew my subject would be the place where I found myself living.

Going to Kotzebue was a bit of a shock.  I married a wildlife biologist—she got a summer job on a wildlife refuge—but I thought if she left for the summer, there was a good chance she’d never be back.  I mean, who in their right mind would come back to our lovely 600 square foot “garden apartment” in the middle of a ghastly suburb?  So I told her she could go, but only if I went with her.

My rule in Kotzebue was the same as in city and the suburbs—make pictures of what’s there.  Of course, Kotzebue is an exotic location, at least by most standards—but I tried to make straightforward pictures of people hanging on to the edge of the earth.  I think I managed to do what Robert Adams suggested—make 50 to 75 pictures of a life sized subject over the course of the four and a half years we lived there.  My last negatives of Kotzebue were of a storm forming over pan ice in front of town.

BH:  You're a photographer who believes, and these are your words "pictures have consequences' Kotzebue and downtown Fairbanks are very different places, but I see a connection with these pictures.

DW:  My goal as a photographer, is to show things as they are, which means not changing them, just seeing them as clearly as possible. Looking at the pictures of Fairbanks in Winter, one of the most obvious elements in the landscape is the exhaust plumes, from the cars, from the coal fired power plant.  In cold weather, the water vapor in the exhaust condenses, freezes.  The carbon dioxide is always a gas, always invisible, but the water vapor allows you to see the size of the exhaust plume, looming over the landscape.  Photographs allow people to see.  And climate change is threatening Kotzebue—it’s only a few feet above sea level.  Maybe that’s pushing a point, but…

BH:  What were you trying to do with Kotzebue in the 80s, and how does it relate to this work in Fairbanks in the 90s?

DW:   I don’t see the photographs as being that much different.  The last pictures in Kotzebue and the first images included in “Fairbanks in Winter” were made a few weeks apart.

When we moved from Kotzebue to Fairbanks in November of 1991, it felt like moving back to civilization.  One of my very first pictures after the move is included in the Fairbanks in Winter project—made a few days after landing in Fairbanks.  And compared to working in Kotzebue in the winter—Fairbanks was easy.  No wind.  Just cold.  Easy.  But the rule is the same—just straightforward pictures of what’s there.

BH:  Right.. "my subject would be the place where I found myself living." I think about that often. I don't want to be too hyperbolic or promote myth making here, but I feel like moving to Fairbanks in 2005 changed me - challenged me in a way I hadn't been before. I don't know that I'd be making photos if I still lived in Iowa - it took Alaska to wake me up. Did you have a similar experience?

DW:  Well, let’s go back to Robert Adams—the title of his 1989 retrospective book is “To Make it Home”—a title with a multitude of meanings.  It could mean either the return from a long and difficult journey, or the creation of a new home in a strange land.  Home is a place that is familiar, a place we understand, and that understands us.  As Robert Frost said, “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.”

The act of leaving home—going to a strange land—is always a shock.   I grew up on a small farm, in a very conservative religious community, and I knew by the time that I was about 14 that I didn’t want to spend my life there. My dad’s farm was too small to support a family.  I went to college—the first in my large extended family to get a liberal arts education—to try to figure out my way into a larger world.  I tried writing, but somehow I never could get the words to sit still long enough to really get an idea finished.

I took an art photography class in 1977, partly to fill one of my liberal arts credits, and partly because I wanted to buy a “good camera” and figure out how to use it.  I’d never taken an art class before—I couldn’t draw—so I figured the only way I could do an art class was to do photography—where a machine does the drawing for you.  The class wasn’t what I expected, in a lot of ways.  The first assignment was a handmade pinhole camera, and the instructor hired a model for us to make pictures of—my first interaction with a naked woman.  I didn’t learn anything about 35 mm cameras on that one, and, to be honest, not that much about women, either.  When I finally did start working with a 35 mm camera, one of the first things I did was shoot a couple rolls of film as double exposures of the city and the country.  I was very conscious of the fact that I was moving from one place to another, and that my life at that time was developing in both places.

The other thing that surprised me about the photo class was the way the instructor would “read” a photograph.  When I showed him my first pictures, he would spend a long time looking at an image before he would start talking about it—and then he would talk about things in the picture that I hadn’t seen either when I made the exposure or the print.  But the things he was seeing were definitely there in the picture.  It was like the camera was magic—it captured things I didn’t see—but later, looking at the photograph, there they were.  It was like the opposite of writing, for me.  I could make a picture, not really knowing why I was attracted to the subject, but later be able to see what it was.  It was a way of getting past words.  Like Walker Evans, who wanted so desperately to write great literature, but felt stymied by the process of writing.  But his photographs are eloquent beyond words.

I moved to Philadelphia to go to graduate school in the fall of 1980—and swore off photography for a year—I was afraid that if I spent my time making pictures, I’d flunk out of the engineering program I was in.  My apartment was about two miles from the Art Museum—and they had free admission on Sundays until 1PM—I’d go there at 10, before the crowds showed up later.  That was when I saw the Robert Adams show.  

My pictures changed immediately after seeing the Robert Adams work.  I understood that I could use the camera as a way of understanding the city I found myself living in.  I could take possession of the city, at least in photographs.  I recall one image in particular—a car in a driveway in front of a row house, with a paint spill on the driveway—I was thinking about Robert Adams’ pictures when I did that shot.  It was maybe a week or two after seeing the show.  It changed the way I saw the world, the way I made pictures.

Philadelphia is only about 60 air miles from the place I grew up in Lancaster County—not that far, geographically, but culturally, different worlds.  I would go back home for a weekend about once a month—I started photographing back home.  My dad’s farm was being carved up into building lots—cheap little houses being built on them.  My home was being turned into something not quite a suburb, in the classic sense of shopping malls—you still needed to drive about 10 miles to the nearest grocery store--maybe more like an exurb.  I got to watch “Denver” happening to my landscape, my home.  I remember making pictures of the new houses, being angry that farmland was being turned into landscaped lawns—only decades later did it occur to me that I was the son, the one that should have taken over the farm—and I left to move into a house not that much different than the ones I resented on my father’s farm.  Those photographs mean something different to me now than they did when I made them.  

When I was in my 20s, I found a quote by Flannery O’Conner, in “Wise Blood”, where Hazel Motes, the anti-hero delivers a sermon:  “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place... Nothing outside you can give you any place... In yourself right now is all the place you've got.”   Which is frightening statement—an indictment of how a lot of Americans feel about the landscape they live in.

For me, the act of making photographs from the place I live is a way of actively resisting the despair of Hazel Motes.  It’s a way of saying, this is my place now.  I belong here, because I can see it clearly.  I do have a home.

There’s another quote, from Joan Didion:  “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”   The act of photographing the landscape is a way of remembering, shaping, and loving that place.  I’m not comfortable with the idea of remaking a place “in his own image”—that’s a job for the gods.  And I don’t like the thought of wrenching a place from itself—I think of it more as trying to reflect back to the place what it already is, to describe where it belongs.  But the act of photographing is a way of taking possession of a place:  this is my photograph, what I saw, this is my view.

BH:  And, did you feel an opportunity, or responsibility to the landscape once you realized you were there for the long haul?....

DW: In Alaska, the opportunity was obvious—the landscape is glorious.  And Ansel Adams, who spent a total of a few weeks in Alaska in his life, noted shortly before he died that nobody had really gotten the place.  I think that observation still holds—no one has claimed the Didion mantle in Alaska.  There are some painters who have spent their entire lives there, and are making some progress—David Mollet is one—and David Rosenthall another—I have paintings by both of them hanging in my house—and hopefully they have a few more painting in them.  Some photographers have done parts of Alaska very well—I think of the wildlife photographs of Michio Hoshino, who was doing splendid work until he made the very bad career move of getting mauled to death by a grizzly bear.  But maybe the place is just too damn big for a single person to get it.

The responsibility:  on one level, that seems like a hard one, because I think at least some would interpret that as a desire to protect the landscape from threats—development, climate change, whatever.  But all of this is a tricky business.  As a research engineer, working on energy issues, I became aware of how my middle class lifestyle—driving a car, flying in an airplane, and living in a suburban house in the Arctic—just like everybody else I knew—resulted in the carbon emissions billions of tons per year we all worry about.  This isn’t the problem of some large corporation or the government—it’s a problem with the way we live.  Even more embarrassing—while living in Fairbanks, my carbon emissions were above the US average.  But it just isn’t as politically popular to photograph a car going down the road and say, that’s the problem—right there.  It’s been said that you aren’t going to get any action on climate change if you tell soccer moms that they need to change their lifestyle.  But who knows, maybe in a few hundred years, a photograph of a car driving down a street operating on gasoline will been viewed as something more than just a mom taking a kid to music lessons.  Actions do have consequences.  Driving a car.  Making a photograph.  And making a photograph of someone driving a car.

But when I made that picture of the car driving down the road, I wasn’t thinking about climate change.  That was 1991—the very beginning of the recent warming trend that most people now think of as visible climate change.  For me, the picture was just about living in a place where there were quick-lube joints—something that didn’t exist in Kotzebue.  There were stories about how some people in Kotzebue would fly their cars to Anchorage to get the oil changed—at a cost of several thousand dollars.  It’s only later that the picture becomes about something else, like climate change.  Emmet Gowin once called photography “a generous medium” which he went on to explain was the act of making pictures before you understand what you are seeing, only to find out later than you need them, and that you have the pictures you need.

There’s the Bob Dylan line from “Ballad of a Thin Man”—“something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mister Jones.”  Which in the 60s, when he wrote it, seemed to be intended as an indictment of the mainstream society—the younger generation was off onto something else.  But often, photographically, I feel like Mister Jones. I go out and I see something, and I know what I am seeing is somehow typical, true—but I don’t know what it means.   I make a picture, and maybe, later, it makes sense.

I do feel a need to explore and describe a new place.  I’ve made a number of moves in my life—from Lancaster to Philadelphia, briefly to New Jersey, then to Kotzebue, Fairbanks and now Spokane.  Of that list, I think the place I felt least comfortable was New Jersey—maybe in part because I stayed there only a year, not long enough to photograph or understand it. I’ve been in Spokane just over four years now, and just this week for the first time showed some of my pictures from this landscape to another photographer.  

So, yes, leaving home and being in a strange place was a huge part of why I photographed what I did.  Adams’ work was about making sense of the place he lived—I could try to do the same.   

But that act of leaving home, trying to find a new one, seems like a critical part of this way of making pictures.  Robert Adams was born and spent the first 10 years of his life in New Jersey—so he had the experience of coming to the west as a child.  And Emmet Gowin married into a family much different than his own—and there is that sense of exploring something new about the world that makes his pictures different than ordinary family snapshots. And most of the images of Edith and her family were made after he moved away to go to art school--they were a way of looking back at a place he and Edith were most likely leaving behind.  

But to connect to the earlier thought—for me, making photographs of a place is a way of making it home.

BH:  But to return to the work at hand:  how do you think that your way of working resulted in the photographs in “Fairbanks in Winter”?

DW: During my first summer in Alaska, I read “Going to Extremes” by Joe McGinniss, and there was a line I remember from Ray Baine in that book, “Summer in Alaska is a lie, a beautiful lie.  Winter is the truth about Alaska”.  After reading that, once we decided to stay on past summer, I knew I had to photograph winter.

As a landscape photographer, summers in Alaska are splendid—the light lasts forever—a great time to get out of town—out into the country.  Working with a large format view camera is part of the way I experience the landscape:  finding a great view, getting out of the car, setting up the camera, and doing the shot—all ways of lingering in a great place, with the hope of having made a good photograph.  Alaska is a big place in the summer, a great place to make big pictures.

Winters are a different story.  The days are short—in December, the sun barely clears the southern horizon for at most a few hours, most of the day is darkness. When the ice fog settles in, the whole day seems nothing more than a grim twilight.  And the cold—bone chilling, frostbite inducing cold—makes travel both painful and dangerous.  Winters are a time to stay close to home, to fire, and wait for the sun to return.  Getting a camera out takes conscious effort.

But there also is a beauty that happens only during extended cold snaps.  The hoar frost forms thick on everything, and when it finally warms up to thirty below, the sun hits, and the landscape is magical, covered in white lace, beautiful.   A consolation for suffering.  It doesn’t last long—only until the first breeze blows it away.  Living in a place, you come to know how ephemeral those moments are—to be ready for them—to seize them.   

The question I've always had about my pictures is, why didn't someone else make them already?  And the only answer I've ever been able to come up with is, because they didn't see them.  Or, maybe more accurately, they didn't see these things as worthy of being made into a photograph.  They didn't see them as beautiful.