Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Subterranean Homesick Blues - The Work of Steve Smith

"Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine I'm on the pavement thinking about the government the man in the trench coat badge out, laid off says he's got a bad cough wants to get it paid off look out kid it's somethin' you did god knows when but you're doin' it again you better duck down the alley way..."

I recently caught up with friend and photographer Steve Smith. We talked about photography in general and, in particular, his own work describing the development of the outer reaches of the Suburban West. Originally from the West, Steve has spent a good part of the last 10 years teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and making poignant, tragic/comedic landscapes of the changing Western landscape. Paying particular attention to the intersection of nature and the engineering of suburban communities. Much of this work can be seen in his fantastic book "The Weather And A Place To Live: Photographs of the Suburban West" and at his own web site: Steve Smith.

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

Steve Smith

ME: Was there one photograph or photographer who was instrumental in energizing you to start to this project ?

Steve: "It is embarrassing as this work started during a time when I was trying to cleanse my brain. The project started while looking through Walker Evans' work. I was looking at it trying to figure out what the big deal was. I started looking at the work from the view point of an opinionated artist, as a opposed to some guy documenting, and I started to see a wild man with a camera. Someone who was so clear and forceful in how he used the medium. I was particularly drawn to two pictures that he made of factories taken with a foreshortened view over the workers' houses. I finally realized that he had framed a photo that delineated most of the area where these people's entire lives would take place. That really struck a note with me. I was living in L.A and I was a big fan of the photographers of the New Topographics movement (Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Frank Goelke, and Henry Wessel), but very wary of making landscapes there because of them. Eventually I just started to point and grunt at things and try not to think too hard. I have also always been a big fan of Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand."

Walker Evans

Robert Frank

Garry Winogrand

Lewis Baltz

Frank Gohlke

Robert Adams

ME: How did you start your 'Suburban West Series'? What is the process of doing this body of work? Do you live there while you are making these pictures? Do you go out for days, weeks, months at a time? Have you ever been attacked by a homeowner? Asked in for Tea?

STEVE: "I was really lost when I started this work. I used to photograph only people but I started to see the traces of people in the landscape. The land in L.A needs imported water, yet needs to be barricaded against too much rainfall. I started to try to make pictures of this, knowing that it was another ironic look at what man had done to the land. I wanted the pictures to be more than simply ironic. That problem captivated me and there was a seemingly unlimited number of places with which to work this problem out. I was also working construction at the time and my job took me to many of these sites. It was fun shooting while working. I would watch several sites as they changed and developed. I would think about the light to use and time of day. I would shoot them over and over again until I figured things out. This was really valuable and an element of my process that I miss. I used to think of these sites as my still lifes. It allowed me to figure things out and how to use the view camera."

Steve Smith

"The work was really depressing to make. I would have to take little breaks from it. I found that I could shoot for about two weeks strait and then have to take a week off. The last half of this project was made while living in Rhode Island. I would go back west as much as I could to shoot. Typically about 2 to 3 months a year. I wish I could be there more but I like living on the East Coast very much."

Steve Smith

"I do get yelled at or asked to get the hell out on a fairly regular basis. I usually just drive up to where I want to go and start shooting, acting like I am supposed to be there. I get a way a lot with dressing in construction worker clothes and driving an old truck. There was a week when it seemed that everyone was busting my balls. I am usually good at smiling and making nice but I had run out of patience. This house wife came running out of the house. I was not really near her house, just on the sidewalk across the street. She came out and told me to leave in very curt terms. I had had enough that week and I yelled at her. "I am tired of all you stupid people coming out of your stupid houses and busting my balls for no good reason." She said that she would call the cops. I told her to do what she had to do and handed her a copy of "The Photographers Rights in Public" a little PDF that I had lifted from some one's blog. It is usually very bad having to talk to people who want to talk to you while your photographing. I am getting to old for the student with a project line but I will still try it."

Steve Smith

ME: What's your favorite place to see photographs?

STEVE: "In person at the photographers studio."

ME: What contemporary photographers are you most interested in these days?

STEVE: "I used to really like Struth and Gursky but I am not sure now."

Andreas Gursky

ME: Who do you think are some of the most under examined or underrated photographers? Someone whose work should be seen more often and in more places?

STEVE: "This includes most people doing interesting work. Some names that pop to mind... Joachim Brohm, JoAnn Walters, Henry Wessel."

Joachim Brohm

Henry Wessel

ME: "What over exhibited and over discussed photographer's work do you not care for or "get" ?

STEVE: "I like a few of Alec Soth's photos and I am excited by his success but I really don't understand the level to which it has climbed, especially when there are so many other more interesting folks out there."

Alec Soth

ME: If you could possess one photograph from the history of the medium which one would it be and why?

STEVE: "It would be the Winogrand photo of the young women sitting on the bench with all the different gestures, with one girls head in the other's lap. It seems like one of his most well realized pictures and it is so epic and ordinary at the same time."

Garry Winogrand

ME: If photography seized to exist and you had to choose a medium to express your self which medium would you choose?

STEVE: "Video. I would make videos that look like photographs, and if I wasn't allowed video I would make paintings that looked like photographs.

ME: Photography is more popular than ever. For decades it fought to be valued as highly as all the other creative mediums. More school's are offering it as a subject of study. More galleries and museums are exhibiting photographs and more individuals are pursuing photography as a vocation. Do you have any concern that photography is perhaps becoming a victim of its own success? That the stunning volume of pictures being produced and consumed in all contexts has somehow demeaned the value of the medium and individual images?

STEVE: "I am glad to see books become so popular and easy to print and collect. I find this a sustaining element to the digital revolution but when I start to think about how much work is out there competing for a limited space I usually suffer a panic attack. I think that photography is getting a bit too pervasive and I wonder if the public will burn out and I suspect that photography will probably take a dip in popularity in the future and then become even more popular. I think blogs and the internet have helped make more work available and that is a good thing but also adds to the diluted feeling. It seems like people still like books and prints and that feels good to me but I wonder what the gallery world will look like in the future. It is not looking too good to me right now. There was a great article in the New York Times about the overall average of basket ball players completing their free throws and it mentioned how with all the improvements in training and coaching over the years that the average has only risen 1% over the past 50 years. I really hate people who use sports analogies too much but I think about art as having the same level of improvement. But I will keep looking for the artist's voice in work and that has always been a precious commodity and a worthy goal.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good stuff. I'd seen some of his pictures around but nice to see more.