Seyda Deligonul: Whispers Within
Turkish-born Seyda Deligonul initially started out as a painter, working primarily in an abstract mode for the better part of two decades. But his growing fascination with the passage of time impelled him to eventually set aside his brush and pick up a camera, a machine ideally suited for chronological exploration. A longtime resident of Rochester, New York, Deligonul often focuses his attention on what he describes as nature’s “homeless” —flowers, weeds and shrubbery that are lost, ignored or trampled beneath hikers’ boots. This humble wildlife is for him a kind of prism through which he can give expression to time, memory, motion and beauty.
You developed a keen visual sensitivity at an early age. Did your parents encourage your artistic development?
Absolutely. When I look back I realize that they were very deliberate in the way they provided an environment for me, with the tools of the craft and the opportunity to enjoy them. I was never “pushed into” pursuing art, but art was in my life, very naturally.
Did you tend to "fix" images in your mind's eye from childhood on?
How did you know? At this age I still play games in business meetings; I look at someone’s face and compose it around an anchor. I try to develop a wholeness, as if I will mentally go back and reconstruct the imagery later. I play similar games even while driving my car. Jokingly, I say I will come as an owl in my next life. Supposedly, owls can turn their heads 360 degrees with a very keen sense of sight. Once I wrote:
i walked away with a face
stolen from a corner of the minute
raw on my eyes,
in my brain a glimpse
the tilt of a head
i finished the rest: aletheia.
You were a painter before becoming a photographer. How long did you paint?
About 20 years.
Why did you transition from painting to photography?
It wasn’t planned. I started about 15 or so years ago. It was an experiment to better understand depth and flatness.
What differences have you noted, if any, in how the mediums communicate?
In photography, we flow in the moment and our perceptions traverse us in the opposite direction. Photography is temporal in nature, in that things present themselves to us and our interpretations of them vary continuously. Even in the studio, where the photographer supposedly has full control, no frame is the same as the previous or subsequent frame. As such, a photographer is given only once chance in that moment. On the other hand, painting is not temporal; its discourse is based on superimposing perceptions. In that sense painting as an art form removes the element of time from the equation. To put it bluntly, photography is a live conversation with a moment, and painting is a series of conversations within our sphere of life.
Was your painting always abstract?
I started in the figurative mode and later turned to abstraction. In one sense, all paintings are abstract. Even a die-hard realist strips the reality from its moment and delivers it with new phrases and language. That is also true for photography.
What attracts you to abstraction? And how do you feel photography as a medium lends itself to it?
Abstract work requires not only expression of content but also producing the building blocks for the architecture, inventing the grammar, and creating the structure. Moreover, none of these can be random; they have to be harmonious and communicable. What a wonderful challenge that is! This challenge is real in any form of abstraction in art, be it painting, photography or something else.
Your work tends to direct attention toward the kaleidoscopic beauty of the organic forms in our environment. What other themes do you try to express?
When I look at a toddler’s block pyramid what I am presented with visually is a triangle from one side and, with the slightest turn, from the top, a square with two diagonal lines, and a perfect square from the bottom-up angle. These renderings, with our wonderful capacity, are interpreted as a whole. That is, we are presented with a square but we construe it as a pyramid. This leap from what is presented to what we interpret involves many things, including time, motion and an entire language. I am fascinated by everything related to time (and I sway into nostalgic renderings in photography, for instance); I am fascinated by motion (and I enjoy the challenge of expressing flow); and I am delighted by conversing beauty with imagery.
I’m struck by the phrase “whispers within” that you apply to your photographs. You seem to be saying that the natural world has much to teach and inspire us if only we would pay attention. Why do you think we don't?
This is the whole point. Perhaps one reason we feel that the vocabulary and grammar of the natural world is partly intelligible to us is because it’s like a second language, not our mother tongue. Since we are hardly fluent in it, it becomes very convenient for us to silence the nature. It feels hard to use the second language while you have the convenience of your mother tongue.
Is it more important for you to elicit an emotional or intellectual reaction from viewers?
Art is not only about production, but also about consumption. From the two a wonderful conversation emerges. I love to draw out emotional and intellectual reactions from viewers. A monologue is not the best way for art that is innately two-way.
What do you think gives your work its individuality?
I think being simple in phrases, and being sensitive to emotion are typical in my work. I try to adopt a soft and peaceful, almost mystical approach to abstractions. The spontaneity and innocent look are also traits I value. There is some laciness in my photos that some people say makes the imagery very soft, romantic and sensuous.
You reference nostalgia, and your work does indeed resonate with that emotion. What is this nostalgia rooted in?
Fascination with time. We are what we are because of an experience in which we flow. Perhaps the time is constant we flow.
What compels you to photograph nature? Do you work with other kinds of subject matter?
When I do nature photography I focus on the “homeless” inhabitants of nature—those things that are lost or ignored, the things that get crushed under the boot of a hiker. My subject matter will hardly make it to a tourist book. Nostalgia, motion and unrecognized beauty comprise my favorite subjects.
Is it more challenging to express complexity (visual/emotional/intellectual) with simple subject matter? Or, as your statement seems to imply, do you feel that complexity is inherent in everything?
“Tristan and Isolde” begins with a wrong chord. Recognizing Wagner’s intention, musicians, I think, call this opener Tristan-chord. After the first chord Wagner proceeds with a beautiful harmony to bring the off-chord intrigue to resolution. In such complexity, I think, the disharmony becomes the genesis for the simple but beautiful consonance. Put bluntly, complexity is the source of simple beauty. In chaos (also in disequilibrium, or broken patterns), there are multiple opportunities to express the beautiful, repeatedly and in the most simplistic ways.
Through the Garden Fence
With regard to visual complexity, there’s something simultaneously intimate and expansive about these images. Do you consciously strive for this effect?
That is the magic I am trying to be part of. The tension between nature’s complexity and the minimalist expression of it fascinates me. That is my playground.
Certain of your images, like “Mendon,” call to mind Cy Twombly drawings, especially his images of curving white lines on a dark background. Do you recognize this affinity?
You are very perceptive. He is very much influenced by Paul Klee and Franz Klein as much as I have been. We have tons of parallels. I have some abstracts from broken window displays with a duct tape holding the pieces; they display a remarkable resemblance to Franz Kline’s black-and-white expressionism. These were shot in run-down neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York with no intention of arriving at parallels with Kline’s work.
Are your images made digitally or traditionally?
They are digital.
It looks like you’re using a telephoto lens to flatten the image plane and push things further toward abstraction. Is this your preferred lens?
That is exactly what I do. I also play with the focus point. First, I create sense of flatness, and then, holding the focus on a particular anchor within the narrow depth of view, I compose. Within the flatness of a composition there are layers. This is the only way I know of to transform the magic of three-dimensional world into flat imagery.
Would it be fair to say that your pictures express a kind of visual tension between what we think we see when we look at a plant or flower or tree and what that plant or flower or tree actually represents?
Expressionism in photography may sound like a misnomer, but it is possible. And I think to a degree, I can identify myself with it. Often, nature presents itself in complexity that in most ways does not look much different than a painter’s extremely fast work on canvas. It reveals feelings and emotions, expressing gesturally, sometimes with large brush strokes, sometimes dappling with dripping paint onto canvas. The end result is characterized by a strong dependence on what appears to be accident and chance. It is up to the photographer to spot and seize the opportunity. As a side note, my work differs, perhaps, from the typical expressionism by its anchor where subject matter firmly establishes itself. There is no effort on my part to escape from the representation of the subject.
Waiting in the Storm
(I profiled Deligonul for B&W magazine's issue #51.)