Larry Blackwood: Sublime Simplicity
The artist statement on Larry Blackwood’s website is prefaced with this haiku by the Japanese poet Bashō:
an old pond
a frog jumps into
the water’s sound
This form of verse is an apt analogy for Blackwood’s photography, which evokes haiku through its deceptive simplicity; its engagement with nature; its surprising yet appropriate visual juxtapositions; and, not least, its profound beauty. Blackwood has been pursuing visual poetry through the medium of photography since his teens. Now retired from his job as a statistician at the Idaho National Laboratory, he lives in Bozeman, Montana, and devotes himself full time to his art.
When did you first become aware of photography as an art form?
As a young teenager, like a lot of other kids my age, I was big into following the space program. I was fascinated by the whole thing, in particular the photos taken from space. Eventually, I started building model rockets that actually shot several hundred feet up. When they came out with a model that had a camera, I bought one. It used small circular pieces of black-and-white film (about 2” in diameter). Developing the film and getting prints of the images required special processing that I could not really afford, so my father showed me how to use his old darkroom equipment to produce contact prints. Later I bought an old enlarger to make bigger prints.
At some point, on a trip to the camera store to buy developer and paper, I discovered some Edward Weston prints hanging on the wall. In particular I remember his famous nautilus shell photo. That was pretty inspiring, and since I was having so much fun in the darkroom, I borrowed my dad’s camera and went out taking photos of just about anything that looked interesting to me. I don’t know if I thought it was art at the time, but it was challenging and fun. Within a couple of years I took an abstract photo that I still like a lot today that was published in a Kodak-sponsored photography contest in the local newspaper. That pretty much validated photography as an art form for me.
A Long Way Home
Describe your first attempts at photographic visual expression.
My first attempts at expressing myself through photography covered a pretty wide gamut of subjects (and still do). I did a lot of experimenting and discovered early on that I tended more toward the close-up and partial view of scenes rather than the broader view. I took a lot of fairly typical scenic shots that I liked but didn’t move me as much as some of the patterns and shapes I could get from old machinery as well as the moods produced by old abandoned buildings. I was very much self-taught. I took no classes and read no art books that I recall. So it was usually whatever struck me to photograph at the time, with some influence from visiting the camera store, or picking up a Popular Photography magazine as well as Life magazine from time to time. Life had a yearly photo competition issue, and I always enjoyed looking through that issue if I came across one. Certainly I was not a deep thinker about or even particularly aware of the history of art photography or the issues surrounding the meaning of photography as an art form back then. All that developed gradually over the years.
Your work is all about “haiku moments,” in which you draw complex meaning from seemingly simple subjects. How did you arrive at this approach?
The association with haiku moments was originally the product of an attempt at defining rather than directing the style of my photography. It came about during a period when I was doing some self-analysis about myself in relation to my photography—in particular why I liked these simple photos so much. One day while looking for something else, I happened across some haiku on the Internet, and the connection with the amazing mental images that can result from deceptively simple 17-syllable haiku statements seemed obvious. The formal rules governing the structure of traditional haiku also parallel my own interest in rather formal rules of image composition.
Ice on Hyalite Creek
Once I made the connection with haiku, it reinforced my efforts in this direction. For awhile, I even tried writing haiku to go along with some of my photos. I was much more comfortable with the photographs than I ever was with the accompanying haiku, so I dropped that effort and, with the exception of some suggestive titles, just let the images speak for themselves. There are other photographers who write haiku to go with their photographs, or take photographs to go with existing haiku. For a gallery show in 2004, I selected the photographs first, but then looked for haiku to go with some of the images. That was an interesting exercise, trying to find haiku that came close to expressing what I was feeling with the images.
This kind of minimalist expression also ties in with your focus on the absence of light to create meaning.
Using the absence of light to create a minimalist image, and the related emphasis on shadow forms as the central point in a photograph, parallels haiku on both a technical and emotional level. Forcing attention on a light vs. dark comparison or a chiaroscuro effect is like paring everything down to the bare essential 17 haiku syllables. Every single part of the image takes on an important meaning that way, with no extraneous information. At the same time, the emphasis on shadow itself as subject matter can create the same kind of unexpected emotional “ah-ha” moment that good haiku can.
Why do you think the medium of photography is so well suited to this kind of aesthetic?
The same kind of images can of course be created in paintings, drawings or other forms of art. With a photograph, however, there is always the knowledge in the back of the mind that this is a mechanical view of some common daily reality. This connection between what is “just” a picture and the unexpected feeling or emotion that it creates is what gives photographs more surprise impact.
You seem most drawn to nature and rural locations rather than modern cities. Do these kinds of locations better suit the pursuit of haiku moments?
Certainly the rules for traditional haiku stipulate a reference to nature (in particular a season) and usually only indirect reference to humans. So in that sense, rural locations are a more likely place to find haiku moments. But I think haiku moments can be found in cities as well. I like big cities, and my photographic efforts reflect that more and more. But I can only deal with them for short periods of time. Even then I prefer to go out and photograph when there are fewer people around, e.g. in the off-season or on Sunday mornings in business districts. I live where I do because of the better balance between the influence of the natural environment and the hand of man on my day-to-day activities.
You also reference the Brazilian word saudade when talking about the emotional tenor of your photos. Again, photography, with its ability to simultaneously render things literally and imaginatively, seems best suited to express this sense of nostalgia and melancholy.
The relationship between saudade and my photographs is another connection that came about serendipitously. I first came across this term while reading the autobiography of the author Jim Harrison. It really put a fitting name on the feeling that many of my images have for me. In my saudade images, I try to bring the imaginative aspects more in balance with the literal through the use of soft focus, blur and occasional grain effects. These are essentially Pictorialist effects that pull the image firmly away from the literal end of the interpretive spectrum, but still keep the detail information in the scene intact. It’s like being in a dream—the scene comes across almost as in a fog, but at the same time details seem so real.
I like the fact that your pictures don’t insist on literal interpretations, that there is room for viewers to become participants in decoding the photographs’ secrets and mysteries. Are you conscious of this when you make an image?
I don’t consciously think of this aspect when taking photos, but I think it is there on a subconscious level. My best images seem to come when I get into a state of mind that defies verbalization and literal thinking. I think it’s a left-brain, right-brain thing. My wife, who is often with me when I photograph, will ask me what it was that caused me to stop and take a particular picture. Often I don’t have a clue of anything that makes sense verbally.
Along those lines, I think the best images defy adequate verbal description, otherwise a photograph would be extraneous to just writing about what you see. Thus, there is always a non-verbal quality about a good photograph that just can’t be expressed. You can come close of course with a good haiku or even a musical piece. That is because good poetry or music also transcends the mere mechanical presentation of their mediums (i.e., words or musical notes). I love making up appropriate titles for some of my photos, or tying them to song titles or lyrics. This effort steers the viewer in the direction of what the image means to me without a literal explanation that forces them into a direction they can’t relate to and would be inadequate in any case.
I like photographs that give the same undefined feelings that certain music gives me, that inexplicably puts my mind on a different perceptual plane. If my photos were music, I’d like to think they fall style-wise somewhere between Tom Waits and John Prine, with an occasional foray into Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Not a bad place to be.
Your images are largely depopulated, yet a human presence is often felt in the metaphysical margins, if you will. Are you more comfortable photographing unpopulated locations, or is this more of an artistic/philosophic choice?
This is a reflection of my personality as much as anything, I suppose. I crave meaningful and regular human contact, but get my daily required amount much quicker than most people. After that, I’d rather be left alone. And, while watching and even photographing strangers is interesting at times, generally the fewer around the better. I travel overseas and to tourist destinations in this country in the off-season. A day in the mountains or exploring an abandoned homestead on the plains of Kansas without seeing another soul is a godsend to me. Still, there are certain photos in which a human form makes the composition sing. I think I am becoming more attuned to that over time.
Potomac River #1
I like how you consistently find affinities—visual, emotional, textural—between the organic and the inorganic. It seems to speak to an underlying sense of the unity of all things.
To a degree, there is an underlying commonality between the organic and inorganic. In some sense, they exist on a continuum rather than as dichotomous entities. One theme I categorize some of my photos under is what I call re-emerging frontiers. Frontiers represent the interface between man’s creations and nature. While we usually think of the push of frontiers being unidirectional—from wild to settled—there are places in this country, many near where I live or travel, where nature is pushing back and recreating a frontier. There are fewer people in some counties in eastern Montana now then there were a century ago. You can see the organic-inorganic continuum in the decaying houses and rusting farm machinery in abandoned homesteads all over the Great Plains. The feeling of saudade to be found in these locations can be almost overpowering.
What other ideas, themes or attitudes do you try to express in your photographs?
Three other ongoing themes in my work are images falling under the working titles of “Bare Trees,” “Ice and Snow” and “Elevator Music.” The first is a collection of photos of trees that deemphasize foliage, concentrating instead on bare branches, tree trunks and exposed roots. The ice and snow photos are abstract images of bubbles in ice and sensual close-ups of snow forms. “Elevator Music” is a series examining the sculptural qualities of grain elevator architecture in the Great Plains states and the Rocky Mountain West where I live. These are mostly close-in images exploring the marvelous abstract forms, textures and shadow patterns to be found in the various styles of grain elevators.
Is it more important for you to elicit an emotional or intellectual reaction from viewers?
Someone said that color photos are more about emotion, while black-and-white photos are intellectual. Because I emphasize black and white over color in my work it would suggest I prefer the intellectual reaction. I don’t know about that, even though my own educational background often makes me appreciative of that aspect. I think the best photographs have three essential components: good lighting, an engaging composition and the ability to elicit a significant emotion from the viewer. Evoking emotion allows even the unsophisticated viewer to appreciate what you do. At the same time, if there are components that require a little more introspection and reason to appreciate, so much the better.
What do you think gives your work its individuality?
Certainly being self-taught and at least early on having minimal exposure to the community of art photography has allowed me to develop my own style without undue mimicking of others. I have very eclectic interests in art, music, hobbies, books, etc. I think this comes through in my work.
Has your approach to photography changed through the years?
My photographic efforts have certainly become more grounded and informed in relation to the broader art community (both photography and other mediums) over the years. This has provided me with a useful framework for understanding and interpreting my creative impulses on an intellectual level. As a result, I have been able to pursue a more meaningful development of some of the themes in my work and to develop new thematic interests as well.
Which photographers and/or other artists have influenced you?
As I mentioned before, Weston was an important early influence. His work made me understand the potential photography has for creating beauty and meaning in the seemingly mundane. Later, some of Eliot Porter’s close-up work showed me that there was much more to nature photography than the broad scenic view. The Depression-era photos of the Farm Security Administration photographers from Walker Evans to Dorothea Lange to Russell Lee showed me the power of saudade long before I was aware of the word. More recently, photos of the remnants of that era by Wright Morris have reinforced in me the ability of photography to use simple found compositions to evoke fleeting and indefinable emotions.
Wall at Gare St. Lazare
Sometimes I tend to be influenced in reverse. I did what I thought was a wonderfully unique and creative series of photos of tarred asphalt cracks—soon after to discover Aaron Siskind’s wonderful works at the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D.C. However, rather than being discouraged by having my work transformed from wonderfully unique to an unintentional homage, stumbling onto Siskind’s photos in a sense validated what I was doing and led to a whole new emphasis on monochrome abstracts. This then led me to a greater appreciation for abstract expressionist artists such as Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack, and photographers such as Merg Ross. All of which continues to inspire much of my current work.
Two other contemporary photographers whose work I greatly admire for different reasons are Hiroshi Wantanabe and Roman Loranc. The haiku qualities of Wantanabe’s travel photos are extremely engrossing. Loranc produces technically the best prints I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been drawn into a photo more than when I saw a print of his “Backwater” image in a gallery.
What are the most important qualities a photographer must possess?
Individuality, creativity, the ability to see the world in a different way, and commitment to craft. I’m not always sure how much of these qualities I possess personally, but they are something to strive for and to measure myself against.
You switched to digital in 1998. Has that changed your approach to photography in any way?
The switch to digital has not changed the way I “see.” Rather, it has changed the degree to which I am able to visually show how I feel.
Notre Dame Gables
Off the wall question: Have you found any correlations between your work in statistics and your photography?
In my previous full-time and now part-time statistical career, I do mostly statistical data analysis (rather than theoretical statistics). While a lot of statistical analysis is purely pushing numbers through statistical models, there are a number of analytical techniques and methods for the presentation of results that are very visual (i.e., graphical) in nature. Over the years I came to rely more and more on the graphical rather than purely numerical techniques, because it seemed easier to extract important results that way. This reliance on the visual is perhaps a rather superficial connection between statistics and photography.
But surprisingly, even on a deeper level there is also great deal of similarity between statistical data analysis and the process of producing a meaningful photograph. On a statistical consulting assignment you are often presented with a mountain of data and perhaps only vague guidance as to what to do with it, that is, what questions you are suppose to answer by analyzing the data. So you begin to familiarize yourself with the data, sift through it and look at it from all angles, and try different things to see what makes the most sense. You find what relevant information there is and how it can be best presented (through appropriate graphics, mathematical models etc.) to answer questions of interest. I often told my clients that it was a matter of finding out what story the data were trying to tell and then telling it.
The point is that it’s a lot more holistic and creative process than you might think just looking at all the mathematical formulas. In a way, this process is what photography is also about—you take in a scene, sift through all the available information, reject what confuses rather than clarifies an idea, and produce a composition that tells the best story you can in the final product.
(I profiled Blackwood in the October 2007 B&W magazine. Visit www.larryblackwood.com to view more of his work, peruse his newsletter or browse his web store.)