Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nathan Troi Anderson: Shadows of Time
One of the most challenging and thought-provoking photographers on the contemporary scene, the Portland, Oregon-based Anderson frequently traverses time zones and cultures in pursuit of a singular aesthetic and philosophic vision. His book Shadows of Time brilliantly contrasted ancient cave art and modern advertising to explore issues of identity, myth, communication and consumerism. His latest book, Decay (a collaboration with photographer John Putnam), is a visual investigation into what Anderson calls “the living force inherent in every living thing.” Anderson’s richly metaphoric imagery provides ironic insights on our ongoing drive for enlightenment as we march towards an increasingly unstable future.

Nathan Troi Anderson

What was the impetus for the book Shadows of Time?
The publisher Mark Batty approached me to do a book on petroglyphs. I suggested instead taking various images, faces and scenes from our so-called modern world and then throwing the mud of the earth at them, ancient symbols and all. We would create a collage of ruin set among sleek futurity. It took about three months to shoot, four or five to print.

Obviously, the shadow of McLuhan blankets this work. You’re both concerned with the meaning and manipulation of media in relation to the collective consciousness of a society. What other parallels do you feel your work has in common with his?
McLuhan’s work was influenced enormously by James Joyce, in particular Finnegans Wake. This work changes your entire thinking; it is really a dangerous book. It could be described as a writing of all and everything at once. McLuhan commented on that “allatonceness” quality of today’s electronic age. In Shadows of Time I tried to add as many elements, disparate and related, as I thought I could get away with. It’s the influence of Joyce, but also society today, wherein everything is a layered collage of infinite, disparate, chaotic information. We seem to be facing in all directions at once without a linear path ahead, and our approach is now turning in on itself.

Twin Towers

I’m wondering if the writer J.G. Ballard is also a reference point and inspiration? I’m thinking particularly of stories like “The Subliminal Man,” which depicts a society in which advertising assumes an ever more ubiquitous and subliminal (hence sinister) presence in the urban landscape.
I don’t think advertising is subliminal anymore. At the beginning of my book we threw in a McLuhan quote about how advertising seeks to create a collective consciousness among consumers: “When all production and all consumption are brought into a pre-established harmony with all desire and all effort, then advertising will have liquidated itself by its own success.” This is the point where it is no longer “your” world and the world of commercial advertising. The two have become one. We are the advertising. I think the younger generations accept this now. In fact, in the current wired environment, it is completely natural for them to do so. I want to read that Ballard story, though.

The image pairings in your book are unique in that they present simultaneous contrasts and similarities. For example, the ancient petroglyphs and inscriptions find their equivalent in modern advertising symbols and copy; skyscrapers register as modern cave dwellings. The past and present thus seem to engage in a kind of metaphysical dialogue across time and distance that somehow brings both into clearer focus while also deepening their mysteries.
I saw the rock carvings as representation of the unknown. They are symbols of the night, the underworld, of darkness. We cannot define them. And so I wanted to take images from our imagination today and toss them within this “darkness,” like someone calling into a cave and hearing the echo reverberate back. I needed to create an environment in which our “modern” imagination could no longer feel secure.

Birth Spiral

The meaning of the petroglyphs has been obscured by time, yet they seem more urgent and “alive” than current advertising imagery and “inscriptions.” Is there an implied comment that today’s advertising message will be equally obscure to future generations?
I think the petroglyphs seem obscure to us today because we can find no use for them. They speak of things that provide no utilitarian purpose, no means of selling. If in the centuries ahead we lose the vision of materialism, then we will understand these fading carvings again and it will be our current media images that no longer make any sense to us.

It’s interesting that the ancient symbols require natural light for illumination, while much of today’s advertising landscape relies upon artificial illumination.
Yes, the stone carvings are inextricably linked to the sun and the moon. They are carved directly into this light, born of it. The same could be said of our incredible cities, but it is a bit more difficult. We have sort of buried the sun, or veiled it by our own excess. Whose light is brighter? As the children of Prometheus we could challenge the sun, but, no matter, we would still be the children of a thief.


Some of the images in both Shadows of Time (and Decay, for that matter) speak to the gradual and inevitable erosion of our individuality and humanity.
I know many people who spend eight, nine, ten hours daily staring into LCD screens. What are we looking at? What could create this kind of living obsession? Is there some promise, something we hope is in this box of light, or is it a Pandora’s box? One of the detrimental effects of our continuing pop culture is the inability for the younger generations, myself included, to look at anything with depth. Yet we stare so much, blankly, into these screens. We flit along like moths right into the burning flame.

Another irony at play in your work: Prehistoric cave dwellers had no alphabet and used symbols to communicate, yet modern city dwellers, despite our alphabet and language, are increasingly reliant on visual, non-verbal communication modalities. We seem to be regressing on some level to a point far back in time.
You’re bringing up McLuhan’s notion of the electronic environment creating a “re-primitivization” of man. It goes to the idea of a prefabricated circle of our own interactive containment, where our sensory stimulation is coming from all directions at once and of which we are all taking part and feeding back into. It is in many ways the creation of a technological womb.


When you include images of people, they’re usually depicted as figures on billboards and posters. You seem to be referencing the increasing artificiality of human thought, discourse and emotions. It’s as if we are gradually dissolving into some kind of digital matrix in which our obsession with the artificial and inorganic takes precedence over our humanity.
Words like “artificial” and “ inorganic” are perhaps becoming meaningless today as we forge ahead into areas like cloning, genetic engineering, etc. Likewise, I think the images that we surround ourselves with are more real than ourselves. They provide for us a sense of identity. Our images are icons. They are our light; we are their shadows. One can also think of it like a spider spinning its perfect web. We are wrapping ourselves ever deeper inside the myriad folds of our mind. At the present, it seems safer inside there. We know where everything, everyone is. It has all been studied and mapped. We are recording and logging every moment, every angle of it. For me, this is all a symptom of the loss of faith in life. We no longer trust and we refuse to surrender. Our guns are loaded and the fortress is being built.

Are you ultimately optimistic or pessimistic about where we are heading as a species?
Forever optimistic. A world without man would still be a Christmas on Earth. I have not made us the exile we seem to pretend to be, but any return to life would be first met with a great catastrophe. We are following the “cold mad feary father,” as Joyce put it, and we must continue in this direction until not a shred of mystery is left. Everything must be exposed. I think we are intent on going towards the source of things. We shouldn’t turn back now.

Modern Figure

Your work is pretty challenging on philosophical, intellectual and emotional levels. Do you find that viewers generally get what you’re trying to communicate?
Maybe not, but the importance is to speak as sincerely and directly as possible. This is showing faith in ourselves and in each other.

(Shadows of Time and Decay are available through Mark Batty Publisher, and other major distributors. For information on Anderson’s books or to order prints, contact

Friday, October 9, 2009

Stanko Abadzic: Old School Lyricism
Few photographers have experienced as many dramatic ups and downs as Stanko Abadzic. Born in Vukovar, Croatia in 1952, he worked for 10 years as a photojournalist until forced to immigrate to Germany at the outbreak of the 1991 Croatian War of Independence. Germany proved less than welcoming, however, and four difficult years later he and his family moved to Prague, where Abadzic’s creative instincts were finally able to flourish. Despite all the turmoil and instability in his life, Abadzic hasn’t let it affect his trademark lyrical humanism. His imagery is notable for its formal beauty, elegantly balanced compositions, and unabashed nostalgia for a simpler, more innocent era. Yet there is also a subtle engagement with contemporary issues that layers in a welcome thematic complexity. Abadzic returned to Croatia in 2002, and currently lives in Zagreb.

Stanko Abadzic

When did you get your first camera?
I was 15 when my father bought me my first camera, a Russian Smena 8. I took my first photos with this camera and I still cherish it. I subsequently joined the Borovo Photo Club, where I refined my technical knowledge of the medium. Through the club my photographs were exhibited at both collective and individual exhibitions in Vukovar and Borovo.

What kind of photography did you exhibit at the Borovo photo club in Vukovar? Was it similar to your current work?
Those were mostly rural scenes, taken in the surrounding countryside and by the Danube River.

Were your family and friends supportive of your artistic ambition?
Friends, yes. I gladly made friends with people who shared my love of photography. Later on my son Srdjan has been very supportive, but he is also a merciless critic of my work.

When did you start to develop a personal style?
Although I worked as a correspondent and photojournalist for the Zagreb daily newspaper Vjesnik, the urge to explore fine art photography appeared after I moved to Prague in 1995, which as a metropolis had a huge impact on my work. The sensation was very intense, like a volcanic eruption.

After the Double

Which photographers have influenced you?
As I lived in the Czech Republic for eight years, I have to acknowledge Josef Sudek, the classic Czech photographer. I also like Willy Ronis, Rene Burri, Henri Cartier-Bresson and certain Hungarian photographers.

What specific qualities in their work speak to you?
Sudek’s consistency and truthfulness to himself and to photography are fascinating. You can rarely find such truthfulness. Sudek devoted all his life to photography. He was not pretentious and he did not care for fame. But if you photograph all your life with such passion it must eventually be recognized. Ronis persisted for 40 years in photographing Paris. He showed Paris to me. His Paris was authentic and true, compared to the Paris of today with its masses of tourists. Both Cartier-Bresson and Ronis lived and worked in the time when photography was at its peak, with many prominent artists.

The names you mention all reflect in one form or another the social-humanist tradition. Why have you chosen to follow that particular path?
Globalization processes tend to speed up the pace of life and bring inevitable changes in the way of life and society in general. It saddens me to see many pleasant city milieus disappear overnight and be replaced by supermarkets and faceless structures. The faster we live, the less emotion is left in the world. This might be the reason why my photographs do not seem contemporary and why I look back to a time when people were closer to each other. The slower we live, the deeper we feel the world around us. This is my general philosophy. I am not against globalization in general, but I am saddened by its negative impact, such as the physical and spiritual uniformity of towns and people. Towns dominated by multinational corporations tend to look alike, with the same visual symbols. Globalization turns us into passive consumers. It is not interested in our creativity. Ever-larger supermarkets and multi-cinemas cannot bring back lost happiness. We lose our happiness when we lose our identities.

Legs, Opatija

Do you consider your work political in any way?
Certainly not. I have never been a member of any political party, although it was not always an easy choice. I like my individuality too much to join any uniform way of thinking.

There’s a muted strain of surrealism running throughout your work, particularly your self-portrait and images like “Legs, Opatija.” Do you consider yourself a surrealist?
I look at the world around me exclusively through the eye of my camera. The strain of surrealism that you identify is accidental than intentional. It is rather a result of careful observation than an orientation to surrealism.

The people in your photographs are often isolated, with only their shadows for company, which produces a feeling of loneliness or wistful melancholy. Are you generally pessimistic or optimistic about the human condition?
I feel for people, I’m very communicative and like to be among them. However, people are isolated. There are more and more lonely people, especially in big cities. Besides, I like individuality, not the mass. In Prague I used to watch masses of tourists every day wandering along the same routes, and I was never attracted to that scene.

A Circle

Your photographs don’t feel very contemporary. In fact, many of them look as if they could have been made in the 1930s or 1940s. Is this intentional?
While living in Prague I witnessed numerous and rapid changes in the city’s architecture and visual aesthetic. Some milieus are no longer around, and it has only been about 10 years since I photographed them. For me, they were the sanctuary of the soul, and because they are disappearing so fast I have tried to preserve them, if only in my photographs. Every time I go to Prague I check to see if some of these precious areas are still there.

Robert Doisneau’s photographs were all about capturing a “small second of eternity.” I sense that impulse of many of your pictures, like “Those Who Like the Past.” Would you say your images have the same goal?
Absolutely. When I hold these photographs in my hands again after many years they send me on a new voyage through eternity, and I do not even have to pay for the bus, train or plane tickets.

Bicycles appear frequently in your photos, as do courtyards, old buildings, cobblestones, traditional dress, all of which speak to your love of the past. Do you feel as if you’re living in the wrong era?
Yes, in a way. All the things you mention symbolize closeness among people, when there was more emotion and less coldness. My father had a bicycle early on when it was almost a status symbol. He never let my brother and me ride it, but we could not resist it and used to take it when he was not at home. All these symbols trace back in my childhood. The circle is now closing in.

Those Who Like the Past

Do you ever have a preconceived idea of the kind of image you want to capture when you photograph? And is the camera an extension of your head or your heart?
The camera is certainly an extension of both my head and my heart. I have many images stored in my head. These are the images I have seen in life or in movies, and they form layers in my head and create a new image. In some cases I make a record of some architecturally or graphically interesting milieu. I study it and keep coming back to see what happens there. I used to watch for hours people’s reaction to underwear ads on Prague billboards. It was very interesting because the Czechs living in the communist era were not used to such ‘bold’ images.

Do you still work as a photojournalist?
Not any more. I worked as a photojournalist for 10 years. Now I am a freelance photographer and I hope that what I do can be called fine art.

Why did you live in Prague for so many years, and what is about the city that inspires you visually?
It was the war in the former Yugoslavia that changed my life and took me to Prague. When the war broke out in 1991 I moved with my family to Germany, where we stayed there for four years. After Germany refused to renew our residence permit we had to look for a new country to move to since we could not go back to Croatia at that time. I remember when we first came to Prague. It was a warm, sunny day in August. I felt the positive energy of the city and was very much attracted to it. The more I explored and discovered about the city the more I loved it. I found myself in an atmosphere of creativity. I met photography students, visited exhibitions, exchanged views and ... matured.

I was never interested in the tourist’s Prague. From the very first day in this beautiful city I sought my own Prague. It took time. I slowly discovered the city, peeked behind the curtain, entered old backyards overgrown with ivy where time had stopped. I met people who remained original and authentic, people in no hurry, who refused to take part in globalization processes, people left to themselves going about their own lives and troubles. Being a foreigner was my advantage over local artists, who were used to all this beauty and passed without noticing it.

In Front of the Mirror

During the four years you spent in Germany, how did you support yourself, and what kind of photography were you doing?
I moved with my family to Germany thinking things would settle down shortly and we would be able to go back to Vukovar. But it did not happen that way. It was a very difficult period for me. We did not have any means; we left everything in Vukovar and ran for our lives. In Germany I worked as a shipping agent, a waiter, a teacher of German. I accepted any job because I felt responsible for my family. The hardest thing was going to the immigration police every three months to extend our visas. Our motto was: think of today, only now exists. That’s how we survived. Four years later we had to leave Germany because they did not want us getting any nearer to the possibility of acquiring German citizenship, which you are eligible for after spending five years there. Because of all that pressure I was not able to take photographs except for a few family pictures.

With so many images coming at us today, do you find it harder to move people emotionally?
Mass media literally bomb us with moving and still images. I do not react to the images of blood, gunpowder or tears, since we have been overexposed to such images in mass media. This is the reason why I no longer visit the World Press Photo exhibitions. I know exactly what to expect there. It is high time we started showing interest in good news, in beauty and aesthetics, not only in wars and catastrophes. I still believe we can move the viewers emotionally. I believe we can provoke feelings of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, for that matter. The point is that we can touch people emotionally.

Bicycle Art on Wall

When you photograph, do you tend to work spontaneously, or do you focus on a particular scene and wait for someone to come along and complete the image?
Both scenarios are possible.

Your images are beautifully printed. Do you do your own darkroom work?
I have my photographs printed in Prague. They have known me for years and they know exactly what I expect of them. I want to concentrate on photographing because I am now in my fifties and I have a feeling that I have missed a lot.

What do you feel you have missed?
I started fine art photography in Prague when I was 40. I studied in Berlin in 1974, when the Berlin Wall was still standing, when the tensions between East and West were still strong. If I regret anything, it’s that I did not photograph Berlin at that time. I was preoccupied with my studies and with going out. Berlin is now the fastest-changing European city. It is a completely different city from the one I knew as a student.

In addition to your fine art work, I understand that you also do portraits, advertising and magazine assignments.
I mostly do pictures for book covers. Since I formed a large stock of photographs over the past 10 years I do not work on orders from publishers. I simply offer them a huge number of photographs to choose from according to the theme and the contents of a particular book.

A Jumping Boy

It seems that you incorporate your fine art aesthetic and philosophy in your commercial work. Do your clients encourage this?
Clients definitely encourage it, especially the publishing house Meandar. They were the first publishing house I worked with on my return to Croatia. They publish my photographs on their covers without any interventions or changes.

How often do you go out photographing, and do you always go by yourself?
Almost every day. Anywhere I go I have my camera with me because it happened so many times that I was sorry I didn’t have camera in my hand. Those missed photographs are still in my head. I used to go with colleagues, but I prefer going out by myself. Photography is an interior process that requires stimulation of the inner eye in order to see the world more clearly. It takes preparation, calm and waiting for the right moment and an impulse to take a photo.

What do you consider to be the most valuable function of photography in today’s world?
To be a testimony and a document of its time, to call upon us to talk to each other and make a better world.


(Stanko Abadzic has published two books of his work and had numerous solo and group exhibitions. You can view more of his unique images at

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Larry Blackwood: Sublime Simplicity
The artist statement on Larry Blackwood’s website is prefaced with this haiku by the Japanese poet Bashō:

an old pond
a frog jumps into
the water’s sound

This form of verse is an apt analogy for Blackwood’s photography, which evokes haiku through its deceptive simplicity; its engagement with nature; its surprising yet appropriate visual juxtapositions; and, not least, its profound beauty. Blackwood has been pursuing visual poetry through the medium of photography since his teens. Now retired from his job as a statistician at the Idaho National Laboratory, he lives in Bozeman, Montana, and devotes himself full time to his art.

Larry Blackwood

When did you first become aware of photography as an art form?
As a young teenager, like a lot of other kids my age, I was big into following the space program. I was fascinated by the whole thing, in particular the photos taken from space. Eventually, I started building model rockets that actually shot several hundred feet up. When they came out with a model that had a camera, I bought one. It used small circular pieces of black-and-white film (about 2” in diameter). Developing the film and getting prints of the images required special processing that I could not really afford, so my father showed me how to use his old darkroom equipment to produce contact prints. Later I bought an old enlarger to make bigger prints.

At some point, on a trip to the camera store to buy developer and paper, I discovered some Edward Weston prints hanging on the wall. In particular I remember his famous nautilus shell photo. That was pretty inspiring, and since I was having so much fun in the darkroom, I borrowed my dad’s camera and went out taking photos of just about anything that looked interesting to me. I don’t know if I thought it was art at the time, but it was challenging and fun. Within a couple of years I took an abstract photo that I still like a lot today that was published in a Kodak-sponsored photography contest in the local newspaper. That pretty much validated photography as an art form for me.

A Long Way Home

Describe your first attempts at photographic visual expression.
My first attempts at expressing myself through photography covered a pretty wide gamut of subjects (and still do). I did a lot of experimenting and discovered early on that I tended more toward the close-up and partial view of scenes rather than the broader view. I took a lot of fairly typical scenic shots that I liked but didn’t move me as much as some of the patterns and shapes I could get from old machinery as well as the moods produced by old abandoned buildings. I was very much self-taught. I took no classes and read no art books that I recall. So it was usually whatever struck me to photograph at the time, with some influence from visiting the camera store, or picking up a Popular Photography magazine as well as Life magazine from time to time. Life had a yearly photo competition issue, and I always enjoyed looking through that issue if I came across one. Certainly I was not a deep thinker about or even particularly aware of the history of art photography or the issues surrounding the meaning of photography as an art form back then. All that developed gradually over the years.

Your work is all about “haiku moments,” in which you draw complex meaning from seemingly simple subjects. How did you arrive at this approach?
The association with haiku moments was originally the product of an attempt at defining rather than directing the style of my photography. It came about during a period when I was doing some self-analysis about myself in relation to my photography—in particular why I liked these simple photos so much. One day while looking for something else, I happened across some haiku on the Internet, and the connection with the amazing mental images that can result from deceptively simple 17-syllable haiku statements seemed obvious. The formal rules governing the structure of traditional haiku also parallel my own interest in rather formal rules of image composition.

Ice on Hyalite Creek

Once I made the connection with haiku, it reinforced my efforts in this direction. For awhile, I even tried writing haiku to go along with some of my photos. I was much more comfortable with the photographs than I ever was with the accompanying haiku, so I dropped that effort and, with the exception of some suggestive titles, just let the images speak for themselves. There are other photographers who write haiku to go with their photographs, or take photographs to go with existing haiku. For a gallery show in 2004, I selected the photographs first, but then looked for haiku to go with some of the images. That was an interesting exercise, trying to find haiku that came close to expressing what I was feeling with the images.

This kind of minimalist expression also ties in with your focus on the absence of light to create meaning.
Using the absence of light to create a minimalist image, and the related emphasis on shadow forms as the central point in a photograph, parallels haiku on both a technical and emotional level. Forcing attention on a light vs. dark comparison or a chiaroscuro effect is like paring everything down to the bare essential 17 haiku syllables. Every single part of the image takes on an important meaning that way, with no extraneous information. At the same time, the emphasis on shadow itself as subject matter can create the same kind of unexpected emotional “ah-ha” moment that good haiku can.

Why do you think the medium of photography is so well suited to this kind of aesthetic?
The same kind of images can of course be created in paintings, drawings or other forms of art. With a photograph, however, there is always the knowledge in the back of the mind that this is a mechanical view of some common daily reality. This connection between what is “just” a picture and the unexpected feeling or emotion that it creates is what gives photographs more surprise impact.


You seem most drawn to nature and rural locations rather than modern cities. Do these kinds of locations better suit the pursuit of haiku moments?
Certainly the rules for traditional haiku stipulate a reference to nature (in particular a season) and usually only indirect reference to humans. So in that sense, rural locations are a more likely place to find haiku moments. But I think haiku moments can be found in cities as well. I like big cities, and my photographic efforts reflect that more and more. But I can only deal with them for short periods of time. Even then I prefer to go out and photograph when there are fewer people around, e.g. in the off-season or on Sunday mornings in business districts. I live where I do because of the better balance between the influence of the natural environment and the hand of man on my day-to-day activities.

You also reference the Brazilian word saudade when talking about the emotional tenor of your photos. Again, photography, with its ability to simultaneously render things literally and imaginatively, seems best suited to express this sense of nostalgia and melancholy.
The relationship between saudade and my photographs is another connection that came about serendipitously. I first came across this term while reading the autobiography of the author Jim Harrison. It really put a fitting name on the feeling that many of my images have for me. In my saudade images, I try to bring the imaginative aspects more in balance with the literal through the use of soft focus, blur and occasional grain effects. These are essentially Pictorialist effects that pull the image firmly away from the literal end of the interpretive spectrum, but still keep the detail information in the scene intact. It’s like being in a dream—the scene comes across almost as in a fog, but at the same time details seem so real.

I like the fact that your pictures don’t insist on literal interpretations, that there is room for viewers to become participants in decoding the photographs’ secrets and mysteries. Are you conscious of this when you make an image?
I don’t consciously think of this aspect when taking photos, but I think it is there on a subconscious level. My best images seem to come when I get into a state of mind that defies verbalization and literal thinking. I think it’s a left-brain, right-brain thing. My wife, who is often with me when I photograph, will ask me what it was that caused me to stop and take a particular picture. Often I don’t have a clue of anything that makes sense verbally.

Ice #8

Along those lines, I think the best images defy adequate verbal description, otherwise a photograph would be extraneous to just writing about what you see. Thus, there is always a non-verbal quality about a good photograph that just can’t be expressed. You can come close of course with a good haiku or even a musical piece. That is because good poetry or music also transcends the mere mechanical presentation of their mediums (i.e., words or musical notes). I love making up appropriate titles for some of my photos, or tying them to song titles or lyrics. This effort steers the viewer in the direction of what the image means to me without a literal explanation that forces them into a direction they can’t relate to and would be inadequate in any case.

I like photographs that give the same undefined feelings that certain music gives me, that inexplicably puts my mind on a different perceptual plane. If my photos were music, I’d like to think they fall style-wise somewhere between Tom Waits and John Prine, with an occasional foray into Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Not a bad place to be.

Your images are largely depopulated, yet a human presence is often felt in the metaphysical margins, if you will. Are you more comfortable photographing unpopulated locations, or is this more of an artistic/philosophic choice?
This is a reflection of my personality as much as anything, I suppose. I crave meaningful and regular human contact, but get my daily required amount much quicker than most people. After that, I’d rather be left alone. And, while watching and even photographing strangers is interesting at times, generally the fewer around the better. I travel overseas and to tourist destinations in this country in the off-season. A day in the mountains or exploring an abandoned homestead on the plains of Kansas without seeing another soul is a godsend to me. Still, there are certain photos in which a human form makes the composition sing. I think I am becoming more attuned to that over time.

Potomac River #1

I like how you consistently find affinities—visual, emotional, textural—between the organic and the inorganic. It seems to speak to an underlying sense of the unity of all things.
To a degree, there is an underlying commonality between the organic and inorganic. In some sense, they exist on a continuum rather than as dichotomous entities. One theme I categorize some of my photos under is what I call re-emerging frontiers. Frontiers represent the interface between man’s creations and nature. While we usually think of the push of frontiers being unidirectional—from wild to settled—there are places in this country, many near where I live or travel, where nature is pushing back and recreating a frontier. There are fewer people in some counties in eastern Montana now then there were a century ago. You can see the organic-inorganic continuum in the decaying houses and rusting farm machinery in abandoned homesteads all over the Great Plains. The feeling of saudade to be found in these locations can be almost overpowering.

What other ideas, themes or attitudes do you try to express in your photographs?
Three other ongoing themes in my work are images falling under the working titles of “Bare Trees,” “Ice and Snow” and “Elevator Music.” The first is a collection of photos of trees that deemphasize foliage, concentrating instead on bare branches, tree trunks and exposed roots. The ice and snow photos are abstract images of bubbles in ice and sensual close-ups of snow forms. “Elevator Music” is a series examining the sculptural qualities of grain elevator architecture in the Great Plains states and the Rocky Mountain West where I live. These are mostly close-in images exploring the marvelous abstract forms, textures and shadow patterns to be found in the various styles of grain elevators.

Elevations #46

Is it more important for you to elicit an emotional or intellectual reaction from viewers?
Someone said that color photos are more about emotion, while black-and-white photos are intellectual. Because I emphasize black and white over color in my work it would suggest I prefer the intellectual reaction. I don’t know about that, even though my own educational background often makes me appreciative of that aspect. I think the best photographs have three essential components: good lighting, an engaging composition and the ability to elicit a significant emotion from the viewer. Evoking emotion allows even the unsophisticated viewer to appreciate what you do. At the same time, if there are components that require a little more introspection and reason to appreciate, so much the better.

What do you think gives your work its individuality?
Certainly being self-taught and at least early on having minimal exposure to the community of art photography has allowed me to develop my own style without undue mimicking of others. I have very eclectic interests in art, music, hobbies, books, etc. I think this comes through in my work.

Has your approach to photography changed through the years?
My photographic efforts have certainly become more grounded and informed in relation to the broader art community (both photography and other mediums) over the years. This has provided me with a useful framework for understanding and interpreting my creative impulses on an intellectual level. As a result, I have been able to pursue a more meaningful development of some of the themes in my work and to develop new thematic interests as well.

Which photographers and/or other artists have influenced you?
As I mentioned before, Weston was an important early influence. His work made me understand the potential photography has for creating beauty and meaning in the seemingly mundane. Later, some of Eliot Porter’s close-up work showed me that there was much more to nature photography than the broad scenic view. The Depression-era photos of the Farm Security Administration photographers from Walker Evans to Dorothea Lange to Russell Lee showed me the power of saudade long before I was aware of the word. More recently, photos of the remnants of that era by Wright Morris have reinforced in me the ability of photography to use simple found compositions to evoke fleeting and indefinable emotions.

Wall at Gare St. Lazare

Sometimes I tend to be influenced in reverse. I did what I thought was a wonderfully unique and creative series of photos of tarred asphalt cracks—soon after to discover Aaron Siskind’s wonderful works at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. However, rather than being discouraged by having my work transformed from wonderfully unique to an unintentional homage, stumbling onto Siskind’s photos in a sense validated what I was doing and led to a whole new emphasis on monochrome abstracts. This then led me to a greater appreciation for abstract expressionist artists such as Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack, and photographers such as Merg Ross. All of which continues to inspire much of my current work.

Two other contemporary photographers whose work I greatly admire for different reasons are Hiroshi Wantanabe and Roman Loranc. The haiku qualities of Wantanabe’s travel photos are extremely engrossing. Loranc produces technically the best prints I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been drawn into a photo more than when I saw a print of his “Backwater” image in a gallery.

What are the most important qualities a photographer must possess?
Individuality, creativity, the ability to see the world in a different way, and commitment to craft. I’m not always sure how much of these qualities I possess personally, but they are something to strive for and to measure myself against.

You switched to digital in 1998. Has that changed your approach to photography in any way?
The switch to digital has not changed the way I “see.” Rather, it has changed the degree to which I am able to visually show how I feel.

Notre Dame Gables

Off the wall question: Have you found any correlations between your work in statistics and your photography?
In my previous full-time and now part-time statistical career, I do mostly statistical data analysis (rather than theoretical statistics). While a lot of statistical analysis is purely pushing numbers through statistical models, there are a number of analytical techniques and methods for the presentation of results that are very visual (i.e., graphical) in nature. Over the years I came to rely more and more on the graphical rather than purely numerical techniques, because it seemed easier to extract important results that way. This reliance on the visual is perhaps a rather superficial connection between statistics and photography.

But surprisingly, even on a deeper level there is also great deal of similarity between statistical data analysis and the process of producing a meaningful photograph. On a statistical consulting assignment you are often presented with a mountain of data and perhaps only vague guidance as to what to do with it, that is, what questions you are suppose to answer by analyzing the data. So you begin to familiarize yourself with the data, sift through it and look at it from all angles, and try different things to see what makes the most sense. You find what relevant information there is and how it can be best presented (through appropriate graphics, mathematical models etc.) to answer questions of interest. I often told my clients that it was a matter of finding out what story the data were trying to tell and then telling it.

The point is that it’s a lot more holistic and creative process than you might think just looking at all the mathematical formulas. In a way, this process is what photography is also about—you take in a scene, sift through all the available information, reject what confuses rather than clarifies an idea, and produce a composition that tells the best story you can in the final product.

(I profiled Blackwood in the October 2007 B&W magazine. Visit to view more of his work, peruse his newsletter or browse his web store.)