Philip Ringler: Darkness Ascending
Philip Ringler likes to get at the deep dark center of things. His photographs, while rooted in tangible objects and settings, seem drawn from the depths of a starless subconscious. They might be images encountered in a nightmare, disorienting glimpses of subterranean memories, emotions and experiences. Intriguingly, the darker the visuals, the more truth is revealed. Ringler affirms that he photographs states of mind, but his work is less about himself than about such universal issues as alienation, abandonment, suffering and, perhaps most important, a kind of redemption. For Ringler, form and content are inextricably linked. His high-contrast black-and-white photographs are created in the darkroom on textured silver gelatin paper with a homemade developer; the prints are hung using rare earth neodymium magnets without frames or glass to encourage and assist viewers to pass through into the other side. The organic, labor-intensive nature of the process itself evokes the struggle to find meaning within ourselves, our activities, and our place in the world. Born in Walnut Creek, California, Ringler currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he maintains a photography studio, and further contributes to the medium as an instructor, lecturer and associate curator. He recently took time to discuss some of the thematic implications of his Nocturnal Sunrise series.
What made you want to become a photographer?
When I was young my family would go on road trips to different tourist attractions across America. I remember standing in front of numerous famous monuments in order to have the rigidly posed “here’s the proof that I was here” photograph taken. Although I understood the basic idea of “capturing the moment” and the sentimental quest to preserve memory, I didn’t feel that those kinds of images were particularly exciting to look at. So I made a decision during one of these vacations to take a plastic disc camera and photograph things I found interesting that had little to do with the specified “points of interest.” I made pictures of chipmunks, feathers submerged in puddles, rusted garbage cans, bent signs, tiny plants growing out of cracks in the sidewalk, etc. I found this new way of interacting with my environment to be really exciting. The act of looking through the viewfinder and composing the world gave me a feeling of creative and personal empowerment. It was like photography gave me permission to care about and examine things that most people considered to be irrelevant.
What specific aspects of the medium appeal to you?
I’m a fan of the photographic medium in all of its myriad permutations, but I am strongly interested in the philosophical aspects, especially the idea of questioning photography’s relationship to consensus reality. I approach photography from a non-documentary perspective, where the things and places in the images are not intended as representations of the outside world, but are like sets and characters from a film or play. The images may be derived from things that exist in the world, but they are transformed by the nature of the medium. Quite simply, photographs are not the things themselves. So questions like, “what is that” or “where is that” somehow become less important than the emotional and visceral responses that a viewer may experience. I attempt to further de-contextualize images by exploring scale, composition, tone and titles, all in an attempt to move the reading of an image away from the literal and closer to the poetic.
What kinds of things helped determine your creative direction?
I grew up in a relatively affluent suburban community where the dominant worldview seemed to be concentrated on the material and superficial, a version of life that I chose not to relate to. I always felt lost in this environment, but fortunately I found solace in things like photography, drawing, poetry and music. I wanted to live my life differently and find a more creative community. In college I became involved in the San Diego, and later the San Francisco, underground music scenes as a journalist, photographer and musician. There was a sense of freedom and unbridled creativity that I hadn’t experienced before. It was a necessary experience for me, but not a place I needed to live in forever. After entering graduate school I drew from my past experiences and found ways of translating them into more universal forms.
The phrase Nocturnal Sunrise evokes a seeming contradiction, and signals the viewer to prepare for an unsettling or destabilizing visual experience. How did you come to choose that title?
The title Nocturnal Sunrise is a direct reference to the image of the Black Sun, the darkness that emanates its own source of light. It is an archetype that corresponds with a crucial and difficult stage of personal transformation where you may face unresolved issues, latent fears, trauma, sickness, depression and mourning. The idea is to examine this emotional terrain in order to accept and integrate it. It is about letting go of attachments to suffering and learning to navigate the darkness armed only with compassion and an open mind.
Where were these images taken, and what are your criteria for choosing locations?
I travel to various locations across the U.S. and beyond. I am drawn to certain types of places like amusement parks, decaying urban environments and similar areas where I’m likely to find evocative imagery. I wander around in a state of heightened awareness looking for interesting graphic and metaphorical elements to figuratively punch me in the stomach. I choose not to reveal the specific locations where I photograph, not because I am afraid that people will steal my ideas, but to emphasize the importance of the image itself. For me, these photographs are not tied to specific things or locations, but contain an opportunity for the viewer to create whatever narrative or meaning they want. The photographs themselves function as self-contained realities that are separated from the medium’s assumed ties to documentation.
You seem to favor urban wastelands and dilapidated interiors — a comment on modern civilization, perhaps?
“Dilapidated interiors” is an interesting phrase because of its implied double meaning in my work. Interiors in my photographs are visual equivalents for the mind and spirit, the inner landscape of the human condition. The dilapidated qualities of these interiors suggest a possible commentary on the nature of the mind in relation to modern civilization. We live in a fast-paced age of information overload, and without slowing down every now and then our minds may resemble these entropic states of disarray. The images can serve as tools for contemplation and deep introspective work.
There’s a subtle, yet definite feeling of claustrophobia in this work. Sometimes it’s manifest in a physical sense, as in “Chrysalis,” and other times it’s expressed on a metaphysical plane, as in “The Great Destroyer,” in which time seems to have stopped. Is this a fair interpretation?
Yes. Your interpretations are thoughtful and honest and totally valid! I have heard similar responses to these particular images before, but I have also had some entirely unexpected interpretations. Several viewers described “Chrysalis” as an outdoor landscape with a large cliff and a low horizon, creating a feeling of openness. One viewer reached out to touch “The Great Destroyer” because they thought it was a 3-D piece (why they wanted to touch it, I do not know, but they were somehow compelled to reach for it and were confounded when it wasn’t a tangible thing to grasp). Other viewers thought that “The Great Destroyer” was a train coming straight at them, which created a kind of anxiety. These are great examples of how the viewer is the co-creator of the work, meaning that I create the images with certain intentions, but the viewer recreates them with their unique perspectives and feelings.
The Great Destroyer
Some of the compositions seem to be arranged; others seem to be scenes you’ve documented without altering anything physically. But even in images like “Refuge,” which belongs to the latter category, there’s a feeling of instability, both physical and otherwise. The viewer is continually made to feel the precariousness of human existence, or perhaps the futility of ambition.
Actually, none of the images were arranged aside from my composition choices. They are all images that I made out in the world, using a 35mm camera, tripod and available light. Of course, I found some really unusual things that may feel arranged, but I look for that kind of serendipity. As far as these feelings of instability and the idea of the precariousness of human existence, these are perfectly valid readings of the images. I did compose many of these images to suggest a particular direction, but the viewer’s responses have been all over the map with “Refuge” and other similar images. I’m just excited to hear what my viewers come up with.
Is there an autobiographical resonance to this series?
Yes and no. I began this series long after a very difficult time in my life. The work was created as a reflection of my experiences with deep suffering. Nocturnal Sunrise is a collection of images that are inspired by my own experiences, but are not about them. I created this series during a state of redemption and healing, not in the grip of suffering. I believe that work made from an authentic, personal place can ultimately become universal in the right context.
A Thousand Lonely Suicides
“A Thousand Lonely Suicides” is a pretty despairing image. Like Celine’s famous novel, it depicts a journey to the end of the night. For me, in fact, there’s a strong literary sensibility at work here, inclusive of Celine’s moral despair, J.G. Ballard’s use of visual metaphor, and the Gothic atmosphere of Poe.
There is definitely a literary sensibility in this work, but I am unfortunately not familiar with Celine or Ballard. Poe is an important influence for me, as far as his lush atmospheric descriptions and ability to illuminate the darkness with a tinge of romanticism. In particular, Poe’s short story “A Descent Into The Maelstrom” had a profound effect on me and I have tried to merge that subtle, yet frenetic energy into my visual language. William Blake’s poetry and etchings also move me deeply and have infused their influence into this series. In Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence,” there is the line “some are born to the endless night.” That idea always sends chills down my spine.
Do you feel the overall tone of this work is optimistic or pessimistic?
I like to think of the work as neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but paradoxical. The images may be read as light emerging from darkness, darkness overtaking light, light infiltrating darkness, etc., but ultimately all of these ideas can coexist together. It is my hope that paradox and ambiguity in the images will allow the viewer to determine whether they feel the work is optimistic or pessimistic or perhaps both.
What Goes On
Do you perceive the world and/or people as fundamentally mysterious and unexplainable?
Ha-ha! Yes! Yes, I do! It’s the mystery and uncertainty that adds vitality and excitement to being a human being. Try as they may, scientists cannot compartmentalize the human condition into a nicely wrapped, rational package. The arts are the closest we can get to these whispers of truth, and even the arts ultimately fail to fully explain the vastness of what it means to be alive.
Many of these photographs are enigmatic to the point where meaning is something negotiated between the visual tableau and the viewer’s own emotional or spiritual baggage. I’m thinking in particular of “What Goes On” and “Severance.” Is this something you aim for?
Yes. Again, this ties in to my philosophy of the viewer as co-creator of the work. I strive for this sense of visual ambiguity in order to let the viewer’s conscious and subconscious mind find its own meaning.
You evince a strong interest in geometric urban patterns — telephone wires, metal scaffolding, intersecting shadows, etc. While interesting on a purely visual level, they also seem to induce a sense of foreboding and entrapment.
For me, these graphic elements serve several different functions. First, they are designed to break up the picture plane with horizontal lines in order to create a sense of ordered chaos. Second, the crossed lines form archetypes that the mind may pick up on and respond to on a somewhat primordial level. For example, the archetypal symbol ‘X’ is loaded with paradoxical meaning, both obvious and subtle. Humans use the ‘X’ to denote when something is going to be removed, going to be put in, to mark something that is already there or used to be there, etc. There are thousand of interpretations within a single archetype, and I like to utilize them as recurring themes, both aesthetically and symbolically.
Is there something about the extra time and effort required to make photographs with traditional materials and processes that affects your approach?
Everything about this project took a lot of time and effort, including finding the right film, paper and developers; traveling to make the photographs; editing, printing, determining the correct presentation method, titling, and installation. I enjoyed all of these challenges as a process, not just as a means to a goal. I love the darkroom because it allows for a kind of mystical experience that you just can’t get sitting at a computer. I adore the arcane instruments illuminated by soft red light, the isolation from the outside world, and the joy of witnessing the genesis of an image from an ethereal source to a tangible object.
Have you been influenced or inspired by particular photographers? Or artists in other mediums?
I’m drawn to artists whose work emanates a kind of raw, guttural energy that pierces me to the core. Specifically, I love Stephen DeStaebler’s enigmatic sculptures; they are simultaneously unnerving and gorgeous, and unveil their mysteries over a period of time. I dig Sally Mann’s glass-plate photography series, “What Remains” because of its haunting atmospheric utterances and its overarching themes of impermanence and fragility. I’m heavily influenced by Anselm Kiefer and Antoni Tapies; two painters whose works are at once epic, graphically stunning and loaded with ambiguous metaphysical symbolism. Films like The City of Lost Children, Dead Man and Blue Velvet influenced my compositions and choices of lighting for this project. Music in general is a huge inspiration for my photographs, but musicians like Godspeed You Black Emperor, Nurse With Wound, Three Mile Pilot and The Black Heart Procession had an effect on the psychological undertones of Nocturnal Sunrise and also influenced some of the titles. I like the idea that art is interconnected and that photography isn’t all that different from music, painting and sculpture. Although I choose photography as my preferred means of expression, I have always been baffled by the separatist mentality that places one medium higher or lower than another. In my opinion all artistic mediums are paths to the same goal, whatever that may be.
The Great Depression
Are there any other themes or ideas you’re trying to evoke in this series?
I think that pretty much covers it. On a side note, it is difficult to gauge the scale and energy of this work in a magazine or a website. Something gets lost in the translation that can only be experienced by viewing the prints in person.
Is this an ongoing series, and do you have any other projects/series on the horizon?
I plan on continuing Nocturnal Sunrise as an ongoing series, but unfortunately have to find a replacement for the luminous textured paper that was discontinued by the manufacturer. I am working on a new series entitled Fierce Absurdity, wherein I am using the same high-contrast/full-tonal-range process as Nocturnal Sunrise, but focusing on more ridiculous subject matter. I’m hoping the synthesis of sinister tonalities and silly imagery will facilitate a paradoxical commentary on the absurdities of life.
[This interview appeared in Issue 77 of B&W magazine. Spend some time in the dark at: www.philipringler.com.]