A Particular Species of Place-Making
Interview by Simmons B. Buntin | Gallery by Frank Gohlke
About Photographer Frank Gohlke
Frank Gohlke is a leading figure in American landscape photography. He has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Known for his large-format landscape photographs, Gohlke’s work has been shown at museums all over the world and included in collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, the National Gallery of Australia, and the National Gallery of Canada.
Although he was born in Texas, Gohlke’s geographical range includes central France, the American South and Midwest, New England, and Mount St. Helens after a volcanic eruption.
Gohlke received his BA from the University of Texas at Austin in English literature. At Yale University, where he received his MA in English in 1966, Gohlke met Walker Evans and then studied privately with Paul Caponigro. Gohlke’s photographs came to notice in the influential 1975 group exhibition New Topographics: Images of a Man-Altered Landscape at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York.
He has taught at Massachusetts College of Art, the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley College, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. As of September 2007, he is Laureate Professor of Photography at the University of Arizona and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Creative Photography, both in Tucson, Arizona.
He is represented in many private and public collections, including the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
Gohlke has participated in important commissions from the Seagrams Corporation; AT&T; the Laboratorio di Fotografia in Reggio Emilia, Italy; and the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland. He has received commissions for public projects for the Tulsa International Airport; for an office complex in Basel, Switzerland; for the City of Venice; and for the Mission Photographique de la DATAR, a French government-sponsored agency documenting the French landscape.
In 2009 Hol Art published Gohlke’s Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews. In interviews, essays, artist statements, and lectures, Gohlke focuses both on his own work and life, and on the works and lives of the photographers around him. Woven throughout is his affection for and loyalty to the landscape around him, and his uncanny ability to convey the richness of his experience to readers—in words just as in images.
Terrain.org: The exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, appearing in 1975, “crystallized a new view of the American West, one that denaturalized the sublime ‘American’ vistas of Ansel Adams, replacing that pristine and timeless ‘America’ with a landscape inundated with banal symbols of humanity,” according to the new book Reframing the New Topographics. How did you come to be involved in that exhibition? Has its notoriety changed how you consider photography—your own, and landscape photography in general? Looking back more than 35 years later—and considering the new book, which analyzes the exhibition—what do the exhibition and its influence continue to mean for the photography of place?
Frank Gohlke: I knew that a show was being put together from my friend Nick Nixon, who’s in the show as well. He knew that, I think, because of the late Joe Deal (also in the show), who was working at the Eastman House with Bill Jenkins, the curator of the exhibition, and with whom he was in more frequent contact than I. I presume Bill was familiar with my work through Joe, whom I knew because he was in graduate school with Nick at UNM, and the three of us, Joe, Nick and me, would go on little photo expeditions together when I visited Albuquerque and then trade prints afterwards. Then I heard from Bill Jenkins with the invitation to join the party, which I was happy to do because of my high regard for the other photographers.
The current notoriety of the original exhibition provokes contradictory responses from me: “I can’t believe this” on the one hand and, “It’s about time” on the other. The episode confirms things I have learned about the dynamics of the art market, the way history is written and the necessity for artists to take the long view when contemplating the public reception of their work, or the lack of it; my ideas have evolved through the years, certainly. It would be a big problem if they hadn’t. But New Topographics is just one factor among many.
I agree that it marks a watershed in the way landscape, as a genre in photography, is understood; but the landscapes of everyday life, in particular the distinctive marks of culture in the visible features of inhabited spaces, had been a subject of interest in academic fields including geography, history, anthropology, art history, literature, and environmental science among others for some time. Since the 1950s all of those disciplines had been contributing ideas to a loosely defined but concrete amalgamation frequently referred to as “landscape studies.” New Topographics is one indicator among many of the movement of ideas that had long been of interest mostly to geographers and other specialists into the culture at large. It’s hard to imagine Simon Schama’s Landscapes of Memory being a best-seller in the 1930s or the possibility of careers like those of Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit, or Bill McKibben, for example, occurring prior to 1970.
Terrain.org: In a 1993 panel discussion at the American Photography Institute’s National Graduate Seminar, you said, “Taking photographs is dangerous. You ought to feel that you are treading on dangerous territory.” While I recognize this quote is about the entire photographic endeavor, can you speak to the risks of the actual making of the photograph: selecting a location, framing the scene, finding just the right moment to capture the image? Or if not danger, how about the challenge, the conscious and subconscious sense of being in place, the spiritual connection?
Frank Gohlke: Well, that may have been a little bit of hyperbole tinged with bravado for the benefit of a particular audience. It’s undoubtedly dangerous to one’s long-term financial prospects to choose a life pursuing any kind of art, but that is not life-threatening. And I’ve certainly done things in pursuit of photographs that most sensible people would avoid, but I suspect that most of those moments looked more hazardous than they actually were and that I’m far more vulnerable to serious injury on my 15-minute drive to the university than in any situation I’ve put myself in as a photographer.
The biggest dangers are those you accept when you commit yourself to anything: that it won’t work out, that you were wrong or deluded or just not up to the task. That kind of disappointment can be soul-crushing; it can change a person into someone they themselves don’t like, if they’re still even capable of seeing themselves clearly. The biggest challenge is to resist turning the hurt inward and creating permanent damage to your character, or turning it outward, creating harm to others. The biggest danger is that you won’t resist and thereby become a smaller person than you might have been.
Terrain.org: Can you talk a bit about the process of developing the photograph, the darkroom experience—something perhaps lost in this age of digital photography? Have your photographic and developing techniques changed with the evolution of digital photography, and if so, how? Is the craft of developing in the darkroom essential to the art of making photographs? What of the bridge it serves between taking the photograph in the field and exhibiting the photograph?
Frank Gohlke: The darkroom is a particular pleasure that I share with many people, but it’s no more essential to making a photograph that imprints itself on the consciousness of a viewer than the technique of fresco is to making a great painting in oil. It’s a wonderful way to introduce photography to beginners because what happens there can seem like magic. The advantage of analog photography pedagogically is that it allows students to experience light physically. They can see in the resulting print the effects of the various motions they have made at the enlarger and the decisions behind them, going back to the moment the negative was exposed. Those decisions form an unbroken chain that connects the final print to the original impulse to make a picture here and now. The maintenance of that continuity turns out to be very important to me. It’s not so for everyone, and for many kinds of pictures it’s not necessary.
Terrain.org: In your 1988 book, Landscapes from the Middle of the World: Photographs 1972-1988, you write, “I admire those pictures most that acknowledge our predicament without causing us to lose heart, just as I am most touched by those places where damage and grace are inextricably entangled.” What role can exhibiting photographs—in galleries, in books, in any accessible space—serve in helping us not to lose heart? More broadly, what are your thoughts on exhibiting your photographs? Is exhibiting the essential conclusion to the making of the photograph; or perhaps exhibiting is, rather, the opening of another door? How does exhibiting impact you as an artist?
Frank Gohlke: That is such a complicated question. It would demand a book-length essay to do it justice. And my statement itself is more the expression of a hope than the statement of a fact. The evidence for art’s redemptive potential is purely anecdotal; in a court of law it would be judged hearsay and thus be inadmissible as evidence of anything. Robert Adams would locate the necessity for art in its service to Beauty, which he associates (identifies?) with Form. (I don’t believe he’s talking about Form in the sense of composition or the disposition of visual elements on a surface. Adams’s idea of Form includes the narrative and discursive elements that are activated by our apprehension of and reflection on the things that are pictured. The play of shapes in two dimensions is augmented by the play of ideas that cluster around what’s in the photograph.)
Form and Beauty can solace and sustain us because they assert, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that life makes sense after all. Adams’s work is powerful in part because he is willing to seek out places where our culture’s influence has been the most destructive, places where the temptation to throw up our hands in dismay and turn away defeated is strongest, and in those very scenes find the Form that connotes the possibility of meaning. Montaigne said “Nothing human disgusts me.” Adams’s photographs can be angry, harsh or uncomfortable, but they are never dismissive or contemptuous.
I have learned much from Robert Adams. Without exhibitions and publications I would have had no such opportunity. At their best they are part of an ongoing conversation whose existence by itself can be a source of strength. We are social beings; we look at others and see ourselves. To know that you are moved or inspired by something that has moved or inspired another person enough to create the works that provoke your response is to be a little less alone in the world. It connects us to a community without boundaries whose members could be anywhere; it gives us heart.
Terrain.org: You have said that “[a]mong the few positive things we humans may do that other species don’t is to create Places.“ And that “places, like landscapes, do not occur naturally; they are artifacts.” How so? How does the recognition of landscape and place as artifact inform “landscape photography”? What, indeed, is landscape photography?
Frank Gohlke: It’s a matter of definition and usage mostly. “Landscape” was early associated more with the act of viewing than with what was being viewed. It was pictorial rather than geographical. Gradually, through a process familiar to historians of language, the view, the picture of the view, and what the view is of became so entangled that the word could refer to any those senses, depending on context. In contemporary usage “landscape“ is often used with a modifier, as in natural landscape, human landscape, cultural landscape, arid landscape, and so on. My own favorite definition of landscape is “whatever you see when you walk out-of-doors.” That should take care of any contingencies.
Places occur within landscapes; people make places. Sometimes a place is simply identified, named, singled out from the raw more-or-less undifferentiated space around it. Sometimes a place is the result of work, whether it be the work of an afternoon or of generations. The creation of place always involves human intention. Places can be private or public, individual or social. Do other animals make places? If they do we have no way of knowing.
A landscape photograph is a particular species of place-making. Whether the subject is an Amazon rainforest, a field of wheat on the Great Plains, a suburban street in Los Angeles, or a hidden corner of Central Park in New York City, the photograph makes the claim that the space described within the boundaries of the frame is, perhaps only for the instant of exposure, a place. The photographer proposes (this candidate for placehood), the viewer disposes (“Yes!” or “not for me”).
Terrain.org: How has the work of geographers such as J.B. Jackson informed your work? Who do you read now? You seem to share a special relationship with the writer Rebecca Solnit, whose essay “Comfort and Debris” speaks to beauty and place in the photographs contained in 2007’s Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke. Is place-based writing and critical analysis by Jackson, Solnit, and others—including yourself—a necessary complement to landscape photography? As you and your work have matured, has the relationship of the written word to the photograph also changed?
Frank Gohlke: J.B. Jackson changed the way I look at the world. That could be an understatement. I have valued the work of many writers since then, but when I read Jackson for the first time, my scalp tingled. Parts of my experience I thought were disparate suddenly looked like parts of a much larger mosaic of connection, causality, and exchange. I felt as though the landscapes of my past and present were explicable in ways I had never considered before; I’m not sure I ever considered landscapes required explanations. I am profoundly grateful to him.*
Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire for many reasons, but I have only met her once and we did not really talk on that occasion. The piece she wrote for Accommodating Nature was based solely on my photographs and not on any personal contact, even of the electronic sort. My interest in her as a writer for my book had to do with the breadth of her interests and her ability to make connections between them; like J. B. Jackson did, she wears her knowledge lightly.
Because of its narrative content landscape photography benefits significantly from the association with landscape writing and vice versa, but is it necessary? I don’t know about necessity, but here are a few things to think about: J. B. Jackson and his most prominent student from his time at Harvard, John Stilgoe, lectured almost exclusively from slides. Jackson’s writings were published for most of his career with little or no direct visual support, largely because of cost I would guess. Stilgoe’s books have become increasingly expensively produced, with more and more color pictures, many from Stilgoe’s own slides. It’s a reminder that studying landscapes begins with asking why things look the way they do and following the clues wherever they lead. Landscape photography asks the same question but without a good way of providing the answers; the best landscape photographs make explanations of that kind beside the point. They provide satisfactions beyond the reach of rational discourse. The peculiar complementarity of certain kinds of writing and landscape photography may have to do with making clear the difference between information and intuition; each provides in full measure what the other can only hint at. (Before I am set upon by an angry clutch of writers or photographers, let me hasten to assure each group that I know I’m making firm distinctions where none exist .)
* I have come to feel that about some aspects of contemporary life, Jackson’s determination not to judge so that he can better understand, sounds uncomfortably close to complacency, an attitude that all change is inevitable and benefits someone, so why fight it?
Terrain.org: In a 1979 interview with Mary Virginia Swanson, you questioned whether you could teach, noting that “[t]here would be this constant necessity to judge yourself . . . Who needs that?” You’ve been teaching now for more than four decades. In fact, just a few years ago I had the good fortune of taking your excellent landscape photography course at the University of Arizona, co-taught with Center for Creative Photography then-director Britt Salvesen. How do you like teaching? Do you find your early comment to hold true—that you must constantly judge yourself? How has the teaching of photography changed your own photography, and what do you see as hopeful in today’s photography students?
Frank Gohlke: Honestly, I don’t know what I was talking about when I said that—as if life didn’t offer ample opportunities for self-judgment without ever setting foot in a classroom. Take being an artist for example—no, don’t. Self-abrasion is a compulsion that is hard to shed, and I know what of I speak; but it can be done. Avoiding the teaching profession is not the way to do it.
Thank you for the kind words about the class. Britt and I had a wonderful time designing and teaching it. One of my biggest regrets about Britt’s departure was that we wouldn’t be able to teach that class again. However, we (the photo division) would like to get it into the curriculum as a regularly taught course; not only does it expose students to ideas that they might not otherwise encounter, but it offers great opportunities for collaboration with others in the School of Art and beyond: art history, geography, English and creative writing, Arid Lands Resource Sciences, and the Institute of the Environment. Keep your fingers crossed.
The best thing about teaching is always the students, and I’m continually surprised and heartened by the fact that so many of them continue to be interested in photography for what I consider the right reasons; they’re as interested in the world as in their own psyches, and they love the work that photography demands if you want to be good at it. Everyone has their own candidates for what is worst, but I’m happy to say that at U of A, faculty strife is not one of them. Unnecessary bureaucracy would be my top candidate, although the quantification of education, particularly in the arts, which goes hand in hand with the mania for “outcomes“, is moving up fast. Don’t get me started.
In fact, to be entirely selfish for a moment, the worst thing about teaching is the time and attention it necessarily diverts from the photographic work that has called forth my best creative energies for 45 years. I have learned many important things from my students, but I can no more identify particular effects on my photography because of them than I can say what my work would have been like if I hadn’t had children, or if I had different children. Everything in my life affects every part of me in some way; following a particular chain of consequences back to its source is less important than sensing where it wants you to go.
The one thing certain when I reflect on a particular class and assess my own performance: no matter how well it goes, I’ll know there were things I could have done better. So I guess my misgivings as I expressed them to Ms. Swanson were not so far fetched. I was just mistaken in imagining it would be so bad.
Terrain.org: In addition to serving as the Laureate Professor of Photography at the University of Arizona, you are a senior research fellow at the Center for Creative Photography. I imagine you also have a strong relationship with the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which with the Center for American Places published Accommodating Nature. What role do such affiliations play in your photography and writing?
Frank Gohlke: They more affect my ability to do the work than its content or form. Publication and exhibition help to complete the circle of engagement that links the world and its inexhaustible supply of subject matter with the photographers whose intuitions lead them to a specific area within that field with viewers whose imaginations are roused by the photographer’s choices.
Terrain.org: You have said that when you moved to Massachusetts in 1987, “I determined to dig into something that was close to home and stay with it until I felt I understood what it was about.” One of the results of staying close to your new home was the series of photographs of the Sudbury River. In 2007 you moved to Tucson. Have you been able to create as intimate a relationship to the Sonoran desert as you did to the Sudbury River watershed? How has that considerable geographic change impacted your photography and thinking on place?
Frank Gohlke: Well, the first impact was to force me back on myself, because I had no idea what constituted a Place in a desert. I photographed indoors for the first year I was in Tucson, constructing a manageable world from the materials that were used to pack my work for the trip out here to Tucson: corrugated cardboard and wads of thick kraft paper mostly. I had never spent a significant amount of time doing nothing but “studio“ work, my studio being a room within my living room with cardboard floor and walls. You enter my house from the south and pass through the kitchen. From there it’s a straight shot to the north wall, two-thirds of which is a sliding glass door opening on to a deck that overlooks 35 acres of desert. It is impossible to walk into my house and not be reminded of where you are, and where you aren’t.
My solution? Erect an eight-foot-high barrier of tatty cardboard to neutralize the space and keep the desert at bay; on the other side create a constantly evolving structure whose uprights are two-by-four-foot sheets of sharply folded cardboard, then spend the entire school year with the desert at my back, using the wall of glass only for the light coming through it. My five-by-seven-inch view camera was always set up; I would make exposures when I saw something new or when I had made changes in the piece or when the light did something it hadn’t done before. All unconscious of course; I needed a buffer between me and the radical transformation of the place I was to call home.
I’m still working on it, at least as it concerns my photography. I’ve made a lot of photographs out in the world of desert hardpan, venomous critters and aggressively defended plants, a world where pain is the primary mode of instruction. But my ongoing bodies of work are all centered back east in New England. I adapt slowly, having inherited a Southerner’s languid sense of time, but I’m patient. If I’ve learned one thing about my muse in the past 45 years, it is that she/he/it will not be rushed. Or to put it another way, my creative imagination, or whatever you want to call that part of oneself that makes the connections you couldn’t possibly make based on what you merely know, does not observe the Gregorian calendar, Mountain Standard Time, or any other of the measures that drive the rest of my life. Place has been central to my work because it is in places that I find materials I can shape into the dimensions of my inner life.
Terrain.org: You’ve explored both beauty and natural disaster in your photographic and written work, from a tornado-ravaged neighborhood in Wichita Falls to the aftermath of the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens. 2011 seems a particularly active year for natural disasters across the globe; yet photographers such as Chris Jordan are also using the medium to showcase the beauty and horror of long-developing manmade disasters, such as the impact of ocean-borne plastics on albatross populations in the Midway Atoll. No doubt photography is an essential and imperative tool for bringing these perils to the foreground of the global conversation on such issues as climate change and urbanization. What role does photography play in giving you hope in this age of natural and manmade environmental disasters—or does it? Do landscape photographers have a particular responsibility to use their art to help create better, more livable places? In effect, does art equal activism? Should it?
Frank Gohlke: Photography has great potential for creating the conditions that lead to change; photography by itself changes nothing. I doubt very much if showing Lewis Hines’s compelling photographs of child workers to the owners of the mines and mills would compel them to change the conditions the pictures documented. What the photographs could do is to inform those whose consciences were open to being provoked into action to do so and to strengthen the resolve of those who were already committed to the struggle. The same considerations apply today.
Art can be both a choice and a compulsion; activism can be both a choice and a compulsion. Sometimes they coincide, sometimes they don’t. I don’t believe activism is an obligation for anyone, but being an engaged citizen is just good sense based on self-interest. I applaud and admire those who use their art to foster awareness and change; but a sense of responsibility to make a certain kind of work that explicitly addresses particular issues is not a charge I would lay on anyone, and I certainly don’t want it laid on me.
There are many ways to meet the demands of one’s conscience; being an artist does not obligate anyone to turn their work in that direction. I had more than enough in the late 1970s and 80s of self-righteous adherents of one or another theoretical persuasion telling everyone else what they ought to be doing. It was entirely too reminiscent of the methods of my Calvinist upbringing; guilt is an injury to conscience, not a spur.
Terrain.org: What’s next for Frank Gohlke?
Frank Gohlke: I’m as curious as you are.
Gallery | Photographs 1972 – 1997
By Frank Gohlke
The following images were selected by Frank Gohlke, and represent his photographic work from 1972 through 1997. Click a thumbnail to view the full-size image or view all images in a slideshow. All images in this gallery copyright Frank Gohlke; images may not be copied or otherwise used without express written consent of the artist.
Header photo, “Woman watering her garden, near Kirkwood, Mississippi, 1986,” by Frank Gohlke.