In the prose poem L’Etranger, Charles Baudelaire writes about an “enigmatic stranger” with neither friends nor nationality; a person who, with a singular respect for beauty, contemplates “the clouds… the passing clouds … up there … up there … the marvelous clouds!” The Horizon photos of New Mexico based photographer, Donald Woodman, are equally enigmatic and just as preoccupied with the contemplation of otherworldly elegance. Situated somewhere between conceptual photography and documentary realism, Woodman’s landscapes have a painterly aura about them; arresting the viewer’s eyes by capturing indefinite drifts of clouds passing through an open sky.
I recently spoke with Woodman via Skype about his upcoming exhibition in New York. From his home in New Mexico, he fielded questions about the tech and techniques underlying his Horizon photos, how working with Agnes Martin and Minor White transformed his work, and what he hopes viewers will gain from gazing at the sky.
Jeffrey Grunthaner: In regards to the Horizon photos, which you will be showing in April, how do you go about taking a point of view on something as environing as sky?
Donald Woodman: Well, have you ever been to New Mexico at all? I have lived here since 1972. Landscape, big sky, and the vastness of everything can be really overwhelming. I am always looking at the landscape—the play of light on the ground of the movement of the clouds—I am always thinking about where the best place would be to capture what I see and feel.
JG: You have been photographing horizons since 1972?
DW: Actually, the first image that is in the show is from 1972. I have always been attracted to landscapes. 1972 is when I first came out west from the East Coast. I had been in New York and Boston, so I was overwhelmed and entranced by the landscape of the West, much like the landscape painters who came here during the nineteenth century.
It was interesting to go back to photographs from that early period to find images that really worked. I saw that they needed to be printed at a large scale to have the impact I saw when I originally shot them.
JG: Was there a great shift in your work, transitioning from New York to New Mexico? Did Horizons mark a turning point in your oeuvre?
DW: I came out to New Mexico for a number of reasons. Primarily, I had been studying with Minor White in Boston. I had been his assistant and ran the photo gallery at MIT where he taught photography. Minor came to me one day and said, “It’s time that you go off and find your own voice. You’ve been around here long enough.” I had been offered the opportunity to come out to New Mexico and work at a Solar Observatory. Once out here, I took Minor at his word and made the time to find my own photographic voice. I experimented a lot and looked for the kinds of things I wanted to photograph and the ideas I wanted to pursue which were far ranging. Along with landscape, I was interested in portraiture, the rodeo, and frank considerations of masculinity. What I discovered was I had an irreverent rebellious perspective and an eccentric sense of humor and I tried to express this in my images.
JG: Apart from Minor White, who else would you say has influenced your work?
DW: My attention to the horizon came from Agnes Martin. I was her assistant from 1977 – 1984. She used to go out to the West Coast and stare out at the ocean, at the horizon line. For her, that kind of straight uninterrupted horizon line was a meditative experience. I understood how that helped to bring one’s attention into focus. She was a paranoid schizophrenic so this was a technique she used to quiet the voices in her head.
I was a black and white photographer when I came out to New Mexico. I come out of the Ansel Adams tradition: the 20th century Modernist, black and white, large format, everything in focus photographic tradition.
When my wife and the artist, Judy Chicago and I got together in 1985, there was a real shift for me. I learned how to delve deeply into a subject when we collaborated on a project about the Holocaust. I also became more cognizant of color because Judy is an incredible colorist. She has done a lot of work with color theory and the emotive aspects of color. Our collaboration forced me to look at and understand color. Her critiques of the color in my work have been incredibly influential, especially in creating these horizon images.
JG: Did you use a specific type of camera to get these colorations?
DW: I shot mostly large format 4″x5″ or 8″x10″ view cameras. The work in this series was shot with a panoramic camera FUJI GX-617. The image size is 2 1/4 x 6 ½”. Ninety-nine percent of the work was shot on film but a few of the images were shot with a Sony digital camera from an airplane. I prefer to use film because film translates light totally differently than digital cameras and I like the look that film produces. No matter how much they try to make a digital camera emulate film, digital diodes see color and light differently.
JG: Most of the photos have been taken in New Mexico, but would it be possible to develop this series in other areas?
DW: I photograph everywhere I travel. I try to become in tune with the nature of the light and the shape of the landscape wherever I go. As part of an exhibition, I had in Santa Fe in 2011, Attraction… Addictions… and other Kodak Moments, I showed work that had been shot in Manhattan. For that series, I used a swing lens panoramic camera and the images of landscapes were shot in a ventricle format. This was my response to the man – made canyons created by the skyscrapers of the city. The few horizontal landscape images I made were taken from a high vantage point in buildings; looking out where the views opened up and the picture frame was less like looking into a tunnel.
JG: Do you consider your photos documents of a particular location or landscape, or do landscapes become the raw material for more formal experiments in color, shape, and texture?
DW: In a recent issue of New Yorker, magazine there is a cartoon with a couple sitting on a deck looking out at a quiet rolling landscape. The caption reads, “Of course there’s nothing on the horizon, that’s what it’s for.” My images are formal in structure, and thus, use color, shape, and texture to create an emotive experience for the viewer.
The digital age has given me a tool not readily available to me 30 years ago. I have a wide format digital printer on which I can print fine art quality images in a size that creates an immersive experience. I do all my own printing and control all aspects of the print myself, which I feel is very important in creating the right print.
This enables me to create really big environments where people can sit in front of the photograph and be totally absorbed. I want people to take the time to look and to go deeper than the surface of what they are looking—to see what it will evoke in their psyche and their emotions.
Horizons: Photographs by Donald Woodman will be on view at Agora Gallery from April 5 – April 25, 2018.