Barry Underwood: Metamorphoses
Photographer Barry Underwood engineers audacious transformations of wilderness landscapes by synthesizing elements of film, theater and land art into unexpectedly moving hybrids. Having scouted suitable terrain, he creates light installations that often exist apart from their visual documentation. While the works blur the line between installation art and photography, the unifying factor is light: dancing elegant arabesques in dark woodlands, emerging mysteriously from watery depths, or darting around trees like some alien vessel in a science fiction film. Ultimately, Underwood’s light takes on a life of its own as it shapes fleeting meta-narratives of energy, beauty and transfiguration.
Barry Underwood (with Sophie)
What influences shaped your thinking about photography?
The first photographer to make me think about constructing images instead of taking images was Robert Frank. There’s a piece he made for his daughter Andrea that’s a kind of combination of painting and photography; it showed me that you could apply an image into a photograph as opposed to just taking it. I also like the way that Francesca Woodman works with environments, and how she works with the idea of photography, even through something as simple as positive-negative processes.
What was thinking behind this body of work?
I was a theater major, and used to build sets, so I think much of the theatricality of the work comes from that. The early images in this series essentially channel set design: the natural objects function as set dressing, the sky as a cyclorama, and the lights as the performers, if you will. I had been looking at my photography and noticing lights in the background that were perhaps incidental, just part of the atmospheric or visual background. From there I started thinking in terms of how to incorporate that light as the main subject matter.
So you’re treating these natural locations like stage settings.
That was the original idea. Over the years I started thinking more about land art and installation art, and about how these objects interact in the landscape.
Environmental issues are implicit in this work as well.
They are actually now pushed more to the forefront. I was dong a residency in 2009 at the Headlands Center for the Arts outside San Francisco, which included a discussion on eco-visual criticism, and so I’ve started thinking more about environmental issues. Wondering about the kind of damage that photography is doing, the damage that even I as an artist am responsible for, and how can I help change things. I’m trying to say in a subtle way how these natural settings can be altered with these installations. Putting a blue line across several redwood trees, (in the image Blue Line), instead of being a magical thing that’s happening in the environment, became something that points more towards an issue that could be a problem.
Can you clarify how you see photography damaging the environment?
Chemicals for one. E-waste for another. Like, where do the sensors come from? Where do the computer chips come from? Silicon Valley is toxic because of leakage from underground tanks. Photographers think: Well, we’re not pouring chemicals down the drain as much anymore, which is good. But electronic manufacturing and electronic waste is a very bad thing, and might actually have a greater impact than traditional chemistry, and on a bigger scale. What does it mean to be an environmentalist as a photographer? It’s almost in contradiction. So I think about the footprint that we leave, and in that sense the images might be a little persuasive or subversive in order to get people thinking in a different way about these things. It’s literally like putting a spotlight on something.
Blue Line, 2010
Do you think this theme comes out in the images?
That’s kind of where I’m headed now. Some of these images are a couple or five years old, so I’ve been slowly going from these ideas about theater to ideas about one’s photographic footprint. I’m trying to make these images function in the way that photography functions in a vernacular sense. Being referential in some way, or documenting an event subjectively. I think about all that and try to make these images very subjective, kind of hyper-real, or surreal, or a kind of heightened activity or performance. That’s kind of how cinema plays into it a bit. It’s an exaggeration, a stylized way of looking at something. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, that’s definitely an extreme to the everyday.
How does the light play into the notion of the footprint we leave behind?
The work that I was making wasn’t so much about that. The light was more about how photography functions, about the kind of vernacular that photography has around it. It was just being a little more heightened. Looking at the environment around me from a photographic perspective, and doing these kinds of installations, helps me relate to the planet, as in, how can I interact in this landscape? So the landscape becomes more than just a field or hill or mountain.
Can we get into a bit about what goes into these images, how you make them?
I’m working with film, because these images require long exposures, anywhere between 15 minutes and four hours. With the light being applied to the film over a period of time, what starts out as a simple small line becomes broader as the light bleeds onto the emulsion in that area. I’m kind of playing with the process of photography as much as the vernacular of photography.
Blue Ice, 2004
What do you use to create the light patterns?
I use a variety of party objects: balloons, LED lights, glow sticks. I try to keep them as battery-operated as possible, so I can recycle the batteries, and I can re-use the LED lights themselves. Using LEDs allows me to try things again, whereas with glow sticks or anything chemical-based I have a shorter window in which I’m able to photograph these things.
Not all these images are done outdoors. Blue Ice, for example...
That’s a diorama.
You built that.
Yeah, I totally built that one.
That one looks totally artificial compared to the others.
A few of the pieces are dioramas, although I haven’t finalized any in the past couple years. They wind up being almost like maquettes at this point, which is kind of where they were originally. I would have certain ideas and that needed to be interpreted on a grander scale. For this image I had an idea for a piece of ice just kind of pushing through one tree and into another one. I used that idea as a maquette, and I liked it a lot, so I kept it as a final piece. I see them almost as drawings. That’s where everything really starts, with a drawing. Every piece has a drawing companion to it.
Trace (Yellow), 2009
Even when working with actual landscapes, you’re altering them, so they are congruent visually with the artificiality of the dioramas. Any differences in how you work with each?
I’m more anal-retentive with the dioramas. I scrutinize every detail. The ones I do on location I have to be very open to problematic issues about availability of light, and of whatever might come my way, either an animal or a person.
For images like Pink and Trace (Yellow), are you creating the light during the exposure, moving it around, painting with light, so to speak?
No, those are actually static pieces, in which you can walk around. Pink is probably ten or 12 feet high. Trace (Yellow) is about 350-feet long. For these kinds of things I build a suspension system in the trees; I’ll climb one tree, tie a rope, then climb another tree and wrap it around or tie it to that tree. And from that rope I could drop down, I use this stuff called spider wire, so you can’t see it. These are actually suspended lights. You’re right, there is a little bit of movement in Trace (Yellow), but it’s there to raise a question about the provenance of this light.
I realize that you probably don’t like to focus too much on how these are done.
Right. It’s more about calling into question photographic realities. The way we understand things in terms of photographs. That’s where I’m being referential. I’m pointing back to the process of photography and pointing back to the language that’s used and the theories that are around photography to conceive these pieces. Like the pumpkins can be pointing back to other photographers, like the Joel Sternfeld pumpkin piece, right? Some of the work points back to land artists and painters as well. I think about contemporary abstract painting. I think about historical landscape painting, especially the Americans from the Hudson River school. We have these kind of grand skies and magnificent illuminated landscapes. And the two of them coming together in some sort of crash.
What factors into your choice of locations?
Availability. In recent years I’ve been making work in residencies. In 2008, I was at a place called I-Park, in East Haddam, Connecticut. That’s where I made Trace (Yellow), Blue, Pink and a few other pieces. What was nice about that place was that I could build things, and I could come back to a particular location day after day, and take up to a week to create something. Trace Yellow took four days to build. When I was at the Banff Center in Banff, Alberta, it was more of an in-and-out approach. I was limited to temporary structures that could only be up for one evening, which means I had to be more creative.
I need to find places where I’m able to have time to myself to think about the environment around me, and to have time to construct these things. Wintertime is when I have these things scanned, and then clean them up in Photoshop. As far as how I handle Photoshop, I think in terms of traditional photography. For most of the older pieces, say, until 2007, everything was done in the darkroom. I wasn’t even scanning these except as reference images. So with Photoshop I work in terms of dodging and burning, adjusting color, and spotting. I try and keep it as minimal as possible. But I have been thinking about continuing the construction: starting with the construction on the film, i.e., the application of light, and then constructing a little bit further in Photoshop. Not too much, but just a little subtle addition or shifting of something.
Miwok Trail, 2010
Besides availability, what else do you look for?
Wildlife is always a concern. Not doing any damage to them, first of all, and not letting them do any damage to me. Weather conditions are a major factor, so I’m always paying attention to what the weather’s going to be like, and hoping that I can get the right conditions. Moisture is a big problem. This past summer the Headlands had a lot of moisture because it’s right there on the Pacific. I pay attention to the lunar chart to make sure that the moon is out if I need it to be out, or not out. I try to align myself with any ambient light popping off of the city. San Francisco is great in this respect because of the fog, and the way that ambient light bounces off the clouds and the fog. I only have so many hours to work with, so I can’t set these things up a day ahead of time. I might only have a couple of hours before sunset, so it’s a mad dash to get the installation up, get everything focused, and get the camera shutter opened in time. Once I begin the exposure, this weird kind of tranquility sets in.
In terms of aesthetics, do you look for certain types of locations from a visual perspective?
Yeah. I think working at the Headlands Center was the trickiest, because there were a lot of buildings there and I had to make sure they weren’t going to be in the shot. Like I said, I usually start from a drawing, but that’s just to get a thought moving around about a piece. I’ll do a lot of walking around the environment, or I’ll just sit in the space. I’ll do test shots with a digital camera and try to figure out how I want to compose the shot. Then I’ll maybe go back and do another drawing or draw on the computer how I want to line things up.
So when you’re looking at a new space, it’s almost like collaboration between you and the landscape.
It is. The pieces also draw from the energy of the people who assist me. It’s not really there in the read of the work, but it’s definitely there for myself. Sometimes a composition might shift a little bit depending on who is helping me. Some people have made suggestions that I’ve incorporated. For example, the staggering of lights might be a little dependent on who puts them there.
Once you’ve taken the image, what do these installations look like? Would they resemble the photographs if you hadn’t taken the photographs? Do they have a life of their own apart from their photographic representation?
When I talk about documentation, it’s in the context of how installations are sustained and understood through photographs, like Richard Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. I think about the way land artists, like Andy Goldsworthy for example, document their work. Some of his work actually functions through the lens, so that’s how I kind of think about my installations functioning, through the lens. But some of them do have a bit of a life of their own as installations. The people who assist me can come and view them. I’m on residencies with other artists, so they can also come and see them, depending on their size. Trace (Yellow) was something that we could all walk around and walk through while it was being exposed, because the exposures were so long that the film didn’t pick us up. Norquay (Yellow) was another installation that people could access and view. And I sometimes send out announcements, so other people can experience them.
Norquay (Yellow), 2007
Sometimes the pieces work solely on the photographic plane. Sometimes they will be successful as a photograph, and sometimes they won’t be successful as a photograph, but they’ll be successful as an installation. That’s something I’ve been trying to figure out how to do on a more permanent sense. It doesn’t have to a permanent piece, but something that’s up in a location for a while. I’ve been thinking about how to shift gears a little bit more towards that. Especially here in Cleveland Heights, where I live. I’d like to do a piece in the neighborhood.
I imagine these pieces exert a kind of trance-like or meditative effect on viewers.
I wish I understood that a little bit more. I can never get into somebody else’s mind. I usually get responses like: This looks beautiful, or How did you do it? But I do sense that people consciously try to figure out what the images are saying, which is nice.
The otherworldly forms and colors evoke a kind of alien presence, especially images like Blue and Aurora.
Yeah, I like sci-fi too. My mom calls them that. She calls them my alien shots. It’s a heavy influence. There’s some Close Encounters of the Third Kind inspiration there. It’s like when the little star kind of moves across the sky. It’s very subtle. There’s also the Dr. Who-inspired, something that’s bigger on the inside that it is on the outside kind of thing.
You’re an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of Film, Video and Photographic Arts at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Does your work there influence or impact your personal work in any way? And vice-versa?
One of the beautiful things about working in an academic setting is working with brilliant colleagues and sharing ideas back and forth. The students are always hungry for knowledge, and they also come up interesting ideas and concepts, so it’s a very reciprocal and rewarding environment.
(Further exploration may be undertaken at www.barryunderwood.com. This interview was conducted in late 2009 for a Color magazine article.)