Marc Ullom: Time and Transformation
At the heart of Marc Ullom’s photographic odyssey is a fascination with how we negotiate our sense of self through our bodies and our environment, a process that unfolds on both the conscious and unconscious levels. This dynamic is most powerfully evoked in his “Transience of Self” series, comprised of elegant and ominous self-portraits taken in derelict buildings in advanced states of decay. Ullom’s photographs raise challenging questions about who and what and why we are. Answers are optional.
How did you become interested in photography?
I first picked up a camera when I was about three years old, turned it around, looked down the lens and took my first self-portrait. I still have that photograph. It wasn’t until the “Transience of Self” series that I began shooting self-portraits seriously, however. In 1985 I became interested in photography as a hobby, and soon thereafter I was able to purchase my first SLR, a Canon EOS 650. It was with me all the way through high school, and the experience led me to consider pursuing photography as a major in college. In short, it was a series of disjointed experiences that built upon my love of creating crystalline moments out of time. Besides, I couldn’t stand the idea of a normal desk job.
What specific aspects of photography make it your preferred medium? In other words, how does it allow you to communicate themes and ideas in ways that painting or sculpture, for example, are unable to?
In the beginning, I was simply fascinated with the idea of capturing things—of seeing in new ways and of framing the world, boxing it up, taking a piece of it and putting my mark upon it. I didn’t know that at first, but I did know my interest in photography and of looking at photographs was not a fleeting one. In college, I was obsessed with the darkroom, printing hundreds of images each semester, performing endless toning experiments, and shooting my own work in addition to class work. One day I realized that creating images didn’t feel like work—it felt like the greatest fulfillment of what I was meant to do. That sounds dramatic, but it’s true. In dealing with the more traditional methods of self expression, I always felt stifled, like my hand could not fulfill what my mind’s eye desired. And so, with little innate talent in the traditional fine arts, I was happy to stick with photography and became fully immersed in the challenge of making the little box work like I wanted it to.
You’ve written that you cannot make a photographic image from memory, as you can with painting or sculpture. Yet doesn’t photography lend itself to suggesting memory more effectively than either of those mediums?
I don’t know if it lends itself more readily to suggesting memory, but I know that what photography has always done is control time. Yes, it records, reduces and separates small slices of time from the fluid experience of existence, but we tend to associate those two-dimensional representations as a fact of place or time. With that being said, I realize that writers and critics can argue it either way. My use of photography in the past was linked to objects, places and structures, but over the past five years or so it has evolved to dealing with the emotional connection of being in the places I photograph, whether it’s a landscape or self-portrait. It’s an important distinction. My work has taken a fundamental turn: It has moved from what the camera does so easily, recording the fact of a place in a beautiful way, to working in conjunction with my ideas, my emotional connections, and most importantly, my state of mind to create work that is intended to be something more than the individual parts.
Has your environment influenced your work? I sense a certain fascination with decay, which often seems to be the case with photographers from the Midwest and eastern regions of the country.
I believe that environment always influences the work an artist produces. I grew up on the East Coast, and spent much of my time in the country exploring old houses and other uninhabited places. You are correct that I have a fascination with spaces that have lived beyond their useful life and are being reclaimed by nature. I have not identified where that fascination comes from, but I do know that when I am fascinated with something, my interest sometimes fades when I figure out why.
What was the catalyst for the "Transience of Self" series?
This two-year project started innocently enough with a single thought: “How does the camera see my physical form compared to how I think I look?” It rapidly evolved into a more well-rounded group of ideas that coalesced into an exploration of how our physical bodies interact with our environment, and how they change with the environment. There are many layers to how the project can be viewed, but the basic inspiration was simply wondering why I looked like I do. The initial title of the work was “Looking Out, Looking In.”
How closely, in your view, is our relationship with our environment bound up with our sense of self?
How we see ourselves is a complex blending of our childhood environments, the places we spent time around as adolescents, and those places we choose to live in as adults. These externally experiential surroundings subtly mold how we identify with our inner sense of self. The work I have created in “Transience of Self” explores both man-made and natural environments with an injection of a human form in both. The spirit of the two environments is profoundly different and intended to draw a strong response from the viewer. How all of this ends up influencing my sense of self is at once subtle and profound.
Is there much of your childhood represented in the Transience imagery?
No intentionally, but I’ve always had a love of the mysterious and unknown, so a literal exploration of these spaces is tied to that interest.
Conversely, are you trying to connect somehow with your future?
I think that by coming to terms with the physical changes to my body over the course of this project I was also attempting to come to terms with my future. This acceptance of the way things are, and will be, occurred largely outside the process of making the work, mainly by thinking through the process. I realize this group of photographs will engage each viewer differently, but for me the experience helped me to feel more connected with and at the same time detached from my body.
I sense a kinship with Ralph Eugene Meatyard, to some extent visually, but primarily through a kind of secular spiritual and emotional tonality.
It’s interesting that you mention this. Arno Rafael Minkkinen, one of my mentors on the project, said some of my images reminded him of Meatyard, and it’s also interesting that I fail to see it. This is something that I am going to be looking into, as it is possible that I am merely not that familiar with Meatyard, even though I have seen quite a bit of his work. Clearly, research is needed.
The work is beautifully ambiguous and obviously lends itself to a wide range of interpretation. In your bio, you state that it involves “an observation of the transient nature of our physical form in relation to our environment.” Are you basically saying that our interpretation of self, as well as our interpretation of our environment and how the two interact, is in constant flux?
The interaction we have with our environment and with our physical form does change over time. I wrote at one point about this project being a flag planted in the river of time, a testament to those who see it in 50 years. I will be interested to see how I view the work in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years, to see if it’s the keystone of my understanding of self, or if it’s merely a single block in my experience. Work can become more powerful to the photographer as time moves on, or it may lose its luster. I’m interested to see how it pans out.
The interiors in which you photograph exhibit an advanced state of physical decay, which is a form of transition. Beyond providing a visual echo of the body’s physical transformation through time, are you suggesting other correlatives between our bodies and our immediate environments?
You have touched on the main intent in how the environment and the physical body interact.
Would you care to comment on some of the other narrative motifs, such as the link between past and present consciousness; or the personal journey through time and space?
The more I worked on this project, the more I became aware that the essence of who we are is so much more than our physical bodies. Maybe this isn’t news to anyone else, but it was a profound revelation to me. It was this realization that allowed me to become much more accepting of the current and future state of the body. It helped me to find my center as well. I don’t feel like I’m drifting anymore, but more like I’m anchored in an understanding of the nature of where our identity lies, and it is not, at least for me, in our physical bodies.
Your work is intended to raise questions for yourself and viewers alike about the temporal nature of existence, but without necessarily providing answers. Is it enough to just raise questions? Do you experience any frustration at not finding answers?
I definitely believe it is enough to simply ask questions. The question is the most important thing. Answers will change, and many are relative, but the question is the thing that engages the mind and creates an insatiable curiosity that leads to personal insight and understanding. I have found some answers, but those answers are mine alone. Imposing my view on the work may cheapen it for others, so it’s my intention to simply to allow the work to speak for itself, while also provide a loose starting point for interpreting the work.
Did you shoot everything in a single or multiple locations? The consistency of detail and texture seems to suggest the former.
Actually, the work was created in several states and approximately four different buildings. The exterior images were photographed in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, while the interior images were taken in Michigan and West Virginia. Thousands of miles and hundreds of hours were poured into this project. My exploration of the unknown and mysterious was a significant factor in the choice of locations.
The physical atmosphere in these photographs is somewhat ominous, like a setting in a Harold Pinter play. Also like Pinter, I think they communicate as much by what they hide as by what they reveal. Is this intentional?
Ominous is a strong word, but a legitimate one. Yes, the hinted-at environment, or the things I left out, is quite intentional and helps add to the mystery.
The figure’s nudity lends these images a provocative aspect, but it also seems to imply vulnerability.
My mentors on the series strongly suggested that I should be nude in the work. I resisted this initially, and wore shorts, but the clothing created too much cultural context, so the nude body became a necessary step to remove the last shred of separation between body and environment. It’s not intended to be provocative, but vulnerability, intimacy, raw exposure, these descriptors work better. Nevertheless, I understand that some people cannot get away from the fact that there is a nude body in the photograph.
This may be a reach, but are you also trying to convey any kind of subtext equating decay and death or sexuality?
Not at all.
By imaging yourself in terms of shadows, blurs, reflections and fragments, you seem to evoke instability on a number of levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Mostly the instability of our physical form, and an exploration of the body in a constant state of flux. I can see how people may see these images as morbid or depressing, but that’s not my intent. There is a spiritual connection, as this project challenged me to carefully review my own conservative Christian upbringing, and in the end I think I understand where I came from and who I am better now because of these challenges. There is a strong connection in the work to the idea of memory and the idea that we really live in our memory, that every moment instantly becomes memory—so the mental instability you speak of can be seen as simply the constant change within our brains as we move through time and absorb our environments and experiences.
How spontaneous are these images? Are they pre-planned to any degree, or do you find yourself reacting to the physical environment at the moment of image capture?
Towards the end of the project the creation of the work was fairly spontaneous, mainly because I took so many images over the two years that the technical considerations became second nature. Self-portraiture of this nature is not easy if technique is lacking. Working in dangerous buildings without clothing requires a fair degree of methodical planning, but over time the process became more spontaneous. The post-production phase was more contemplative, in that I modified the environments through burning and dodging.
I like the tension between the images’ visual simplicity and thematic complexity, something I see in your other series as well. Do you have to think much about this balance, or does it emerge organically?
The visual balance in the work evolved organically because of my lifelong love of balance and structure in the photographic image. These visual characteristics are an innate part of who I am as a visual artist.
Have you achieved all you set out to do with this series?
I feel that I have closed the chapter on this particular body of work. I may return to it in the future, but for now I’m content to move on to another genre.
(Marc Ullom is a professional photographer and educator currently based in Michigan. A radically abridged version of this interview appeared in the June 2009 issue of B&W magazine. For more on Marc’s work, visit www.marcullom.com.)