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


  1. Nathan has expressed some interesting ideas in this interview. Things that have set me thinking... so thanks for that :)