Lee Brumbaugh: Metaphysical Investigations
Lee Brumbaugh is one of those lucky souls whose professional gig dovetails nicely with his visual concerns. As curator of photography at the Nevada Historical Society, Brumbaugh oversees a vast image archive that provides a window onto the state’s rich cultural heritage. Much of his personal work is also focused on structures and artifacts of the past—the abandoned press room of the Eureka Sentinel newspaper, ghost towns, historical industrial equipment. However, while his photographic approach is grounded in objective representation, Brumbaugh subverts viewer expectations through his subtle exploration of the transformative effects of time. Like Alfred Stieglitz, he consistently reveals ambiguous thematic fissures lurking within commonplace subject matter.
How did you get started in photography, and what formal training did you have?
I started photography as a child, in Hartsville, South Carolina, not with a Brownie, but with a “Blueie,” or blue plastic camera that my parents gave me around the age of six. I have very few memories unmediated by photography. Early photographs of my cat and turtle did not reveal a precocious talent; the process of becoming a photographer in a more substantial sense was very gradual. My father took vacation travel slides, and I started doing the same in high school. I also started looking at creative photography during this time. Paul Strand’s book, “Time in New England,” was among the first to make me realize photographs could be more than factual records. Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, Paul Strand’s work was the first I saw that made me want to become a serious photographer. His images, especially in his early work, capture everything I most love about photography, including its ability to capture not just the facts of scenes, but the essence of places.
I next ordered several Popular Photography annuals, as well as the book version of Walker Evans’ 1938 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Around 1966, I taught myself how to develop and print black-and-white negatives in the Coker College science department darkroom. My father was the chair of the art department and would later teach photography as the department expanded. Attending photography workshops with noted fine-fine art photographers, such as Garry Winogrand, Paul Vanderbilt and George DeWolf, raised both my ambition and skill levels. In 1974, I completed a bachelor’s degree with a minor in photography at Coker College. At the time, Coker was attempting to become a progressive Goddard-style school. Although that plan changed with the conservative backlash, I went on to complete a master’s degree in photography through Goddard College. I wrote my thesis on Alfred Stieglitz and his influence on modern photography. In 1981, I enrolled at Washington State University, completing my MFA in 1983. Working with Arthur Okazaki and Francis Ho, I consolidated my current medium-format technique and style.
Window, Goldfield Hotel, 2006
Did your environment influence your artistic development?
My personal style in photography came about from my experiences growing up in the rural South. As a child I collected arrowheads in the cotton fields near my home and along the larger rivers climbed the overgrown Native American temple mounds. Exploring abandoned tenant houses and ruined farm houses, still filled with the dust-covered remnants of their former occupants’ lives, added to a growing sense of the mystery of the past. Observing firsthand the lives of African-American farm workers led to an interest in the Farm Security Administration photographers. Summer vacations in the North Carolina Mountains also led to an interest in geology, mining and folklore. The desire to make photographs arose from my love for the land and ambivalence towards its past. The fact that my parents were from Indiana, combined with my own scientific or non-Christian persuasion, cemented a natural inclination to be an outside observer in small-town America, rather than an uncritical sentimentalist.
The conquest and displacement of the Native American tribes, the heritage of slavery and the subsequent well-crusted culture of denial seem to cast a near-visible pall over the Southern landscape. This guilt-based twisting of the collective psyche may well provide the core of the Southern Gothic style in art and literature, as well as, no doubt, that of the earlier version in New England, where the Native Americans were first betrayed and where the slave ships originated. Similarly, the rapid destruction of the primeval forests and swamps in the name of greed added to this guilt-based foreboding of natural revenge and sinister doom. To this psycho-cultural jambalaya was added the pattern of registering personal and family sins against the template of puritan perfection, all of which moved west with the frontier and was played out on more against a backdrop of remote deserts.
Train Wheel on Lathe, Ely, Nevada, 2006
Your work exhibits a keen understanding of the connection between man and his environment; the beauty and energy of man-made objects; a sense of place and history—all very Strand-like. Yet I sense in your work something a bit more abstract and enigmatic. How would you characterize your work compared to Strand’s? Or just in general?
At one level I agree with Walker Evans’ axiom that there is nothing more mysterious than a fact clearly stated. I am perhaps more like Paul Strand in that I often I find the strongest sense of a place in the smallest details. However, I probably go further than Strand in the direction of abstraction and what Stieglitz termed equivalence, or the capture of personal meaning and mood. The New Topographics of the 1970s and the so-called New Objectivity (1980s to present) have tried to eliminate the photographer from photography, except as a consummate technician. To me, photographs are most interesting when there is a tension between the personal and documentary elements of the image. Like Strand, I want my photographs to create not just a sense of place, but of time. I often use the darker tones and the contrasts of light and shadow to symbolize the passage of time and the fleeting nature of human existence. In this, Wynn Bullock’s images and Edward Weston’s Point Lobos series were additional early influences.
Do you try to communicate certain themes or ideas through your work, or do you feel that the interpretative responsibility rests with the viewer?
I feel that when photographs try to communicate a simple, clear meaning they end up becoming relicts of the past, rather than a commentary on the past and present. For example, Walker Evans’ work, which he personally regarded as a modern expression of Transcendentalism, remains as interesting today as it ever was.
Your approach seems to be one of confronting your subject matter directly and letting it speak for itself, while infiltrating your own perspective through subtle choices in framing and lighting.
Yes, I think photojournalism is the field in which the meaning and intent of photographs must be stated clearly. To me, fine art photography has a different appeal, one consisting of an ongoing and long-term interaction between the photographer, the subject material and the viewer. I agree with Garry Winogrand that photographs should be first and foremost visually interesting. I operate on the premise that it is most interesting for the viewer to discover layers of meaning in factual-looking scenes, rather than being fed simple, predigested visual messages.
Ruined Ceiling, Austin, Nevada, 2005
You have a knack for uncovering the mysterious in the seemingly mundane.
Alfred Stieglitz, in an effort to prove that good photography was not based upon inherently interesting subject matter, made a series of photographs of ordinary clouds in the sky. In these photographs he seemed to capture not meteorology, but the mysteries and moods of human existence. A number of documentary-style street photographers such as Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand found the visual equivalence of mystery in mundane scenes of everyday life. In my own work, I have tried to blend aspects of these two schools of photography. Winogrand saw photography as visual play or wit, while Stieglitz saw it something more profound. I don’t see why it cannot be both. I find photography to be both fun and something akin to my own version of meditation, although without any guruistic notions eternal truth.
There’s an astonishing amount of visual information in the “Eureka Sentinel Press Room” image. In addition to the wealth of purely documentary detail, there are numerous undercurrents of humor, irony, sexuality and representation of self. It’s as if you’re documenting the past, bringing it back to life and interacting with it all at the same time.
The Eureka Sentinel press room is one the most remarkable places I have ever seen. As I looked at the collage of show bills and flyers on its walls I seemed at one level to be drawn into the mindset of people from the past, but at another level I felt they expressed an understanding of the universals of the human condition that speak just as much to the present as the past. The original messages, if any, the Eureka pressmen were sending to the future have been altered by the passage of time. Fragments of text and image are now juxtaposed in ways that create entirely new associative meanings. My own selection of final elements determines the apparent meaning of the images as I have recorded them.
Eureka Sentinel Press Room, 2002
The faces in the show bills evoke a fascinating range of personality types; these “portraits” almost seem more vibrant than images of living people.
In some ways exploring this world of long-dead people may also be more revealing, in that the images can more directly address the issue of how portraits have been used in our society through time. Fine art and documentary portrait photographers face concerns over whether they are objectifying or even causing harm to real people. The people in these advertising images were objectified by American society long ago and are now quite beyond harm. I have the freedom to explore the symbolism of their original portrayal and to add my own interpretations, with relatively little chance of harming living people.
The pipe jutting into the wall has obvious sexual implications, especially given the “interaction” between the male and female figures in the show bills; R.E. Graham seems to be flirting with the young woman in the lower-right corner.
In recent decades, there has been a pronounced anti-Freudian trend in social science and art history. At the same time, the American advertising industry has been quite open in admitting that they study and apply Freudian theory as the core of their enterprise. The idea that sex sells is hardly new. The Victorian advertisements found on the walls of America’s ghost towns are full of sexuality and sexual repression in all its myriad forms. Many of the love themes on the Sentinel walls, both profane and ideal, seem to have been intentionally created by the workers in print shop, no doubt entertaining themselves in their spare time as early-day collage artists. I added my own obviously Freudian juxtapositions in the manner of Garry Winogrand, partly for the purpose of visual wit, and, secondarily, to let discerning viewers consider, if they choose, the possibility that sometimes Freud might have been more right than wrong. In the low light of the press room interior, it is impossible to read every caption and graffiti addendum. Often, juxtapositions not consciously seen or understood at the time end up being the most interesting.
The hyperbole of the printed advertisements is quite amusing, and analogous to current ad-speak, which gives the image a nice sardonic edge. By pushing these to the edges of the frame, are you adding your own attitude towards inducements to consumerism?
It seems hard not to be ambivalent towards consumerism in American society. We have young women literally dying to fit internalized, consumer-based models of perfection. Everyone is taught that they are imperfect unless they posses the right consumer goods to convey success or anti-establishment coolness. Zen workshops are just as much consumer goods as sports cars. The artist or photographer fears both being unrecognized and being turned into a commodity of the art market.
Advertisement, Eureka Sentinel, 2002
“Advertisement, Eureka Sentinel” provides a nice contrast in that you have scaled back the amount of visual information, yet it’s still a very complex image, especially from an emotional perspective. The girl’s expression is direct, almost challenging, yet somehow shy and withdrawn as well. Moreover, she seems to register pride in her beauty as well as resignation at being consigned to commodity status. And there’s something odd about how her face seems to be emerging from the wall, like a print in a developing tray, yet simultaneously be fading into the wall. Are these dichotomies what drew you to this particular advertisement? And do you typically look for these kinds of visual contradictions?
The young woman in this torn and stained poster seemed like the perfect archetype of the advertising model in consumer culture. At one level, she has achieved the immortality of personal fame, if only on a small scale; while at another level, she is not only long dead, but visibly fading from cultural memory. Her message that happiness and beauty can be purchased at the corner market has been belied by the realities of encroaching nature.
The details help support the mood, which I read as slightly mysterious if not foreboding. The dark mass of a cabinet pushing up into the frame and partially obscuring the poster, the torn edges of said poster, the enigmatic declaration scrawled on the wall, the missing adjacent poster. This seems to go well beyond pure documentary.
Part of the modern understanding of photography is that photographs are not facts, but questions, opinions and enigmas. Photographs are neither messages nor mirrors, but messages in a mirror. For me, addressing these contradictions through my work is part of the excitement of making photographs.
Hoist House Door, Tonopah, Nevada, 2004
In your images of a hoist house door and a rotary snowplow, you utilize the recurring visual motif of centrally framed circular objects with strong straight lines radiating outward. The pictures celebrate the functionality and aesthetic beauty of these objects, which is a tribute to the men who made them. But they also evoke an underlying energy and power of their own, apart from their intended use, that borders on the metaphysical.
Carl Jung’s archetypes, as well as the mandala concept found in Buddhism, became a part of American and my own visual iconography in the late 1960s and 1970s. I even took a workshop in Zen photography. Again, my interest was primarily in how such concepts might be applied to making interesting photographs. In the photographs of the carved wood on a door at Tonopah, I saw a tension between the quest for personal wholeness, symbolized by the mandala; and the dangers of totalitarianism and consumerism, symbolized by the radiating lines that reminded my of the computer matrix of movie fame. In my view, archetypes stem from the shared elements of human experience, not from genetic memory.
Again, they bring to mind Stieglitz’ “equivalents.”
The most important single influence on the style of my photographs is Alfred Stieglitz’s concept of equivalents. Stieglitz argued that the best photographs capture not just the facts of a scene, but their emotional equivalents as experienced by the photographer. The viewer then, if the photographer had done her or his work well, can experience not just what the photographer saw, but what she or he felt. Most of the photographers championed by Stieglitz in his modernist gallery, including Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, fall into this category.
Rotary Snowplow, Ely, Nevada, 2006
Has this always been your philosophy, i.e., finding more complexity and ambiguity in a straight rather than expressionistic visual approach?
I have always been drawn to the “straighter” photographic images that still have a sense of seeing beyond the surface, whether the social satire of the street photographers or the broodingly surreal cacti of Frederick Sommer. When I lived in New Orleans for a year and a half, I also discovered the straighter work of Clarence John Laughlin. I had found his more familiar and, to me, hokey double-exposure romances uninspiring if not offensive. Much more interesting to me is his “found” surrealism, such as his photograph of slave-cabin porches receding in the distance, like a tunnel into an alternate reality. My own photographs of a young woman’s face emerging from the press room wall and the seemingly multidimensional door in Tonopah were conscious tributes to Laughlin’s particular technique.
I’m also intrigued by the strong abstract quality of these photographs. Do you consider them abstracts, documents, or both?
I view my photographs as neither abstractions nor documents. A document attempts to provide unbiased facts about a place or subject. My photographs are more about my perceptions of a place. Abstract photography, especially that of the 1950s and 1960s, was about exploring the unconscious mind of the artist. I see my photographs more as details of a place that reveal material facts and my own interpretations of those facts. If the meanings of the images were entirely clear, the work would constitute a photo essay, rather than artistic expression.
In a sense, you seem to have liberated these objects’ hidden/neglected qualities through your photographs. Is this a conscious (and consistent) goal of yours?
The idea of revealing the animate qualities of inanimate objects is quite consciously drawn from the Surrealist photographers Frederick Sommer and Clarence John Laughlin. I personally agree with these photographers that such visual magic is a psychological phenomenon, rather than a matter of mystical revelation. However, I think such illusions of transubstantiation can be read as metaphors for the real mysteries of the universe. After all, when I was a child, physicists were looking for a unified field theory to explain the nature of nature, and of course, today they still are.
Are you primarily interested in man-made objects and environments, or do you also interact photographically with the natural environment?
I have included the natural landscape in all but my ghost town series. My landscape series on rural South Carolina examines natural areas, but as part of an inclusive study of place, rather than as examples of pristine nature in the manner of Ansel Adams.
As curator of photography at the Nevada Historical Society, how much time are you able to devote to your personal photography?
Being a curator is more than a full time job. I can still only devote occasional weekends and our annual three-weeks leave to my own work.
What are your current and future projects?
I am still working on my ghost town series, “Time in Nevada.” I am planning separate exhibitions and possible books just on the Eureka Sentinel press room and the Nevada Northern Railroad shops in Ely. I recently started taking photographs of burn areas. This series explores the interaction between wildfire, global warming and the human spread into fire-prone former wild lands. I hope to find a publisher for these various projects.
(I profiled Lee Brumbaugh in the June 2008 issue of Black & White magazine. For print information, contact him at email@example.com.)