The Rumpus Long Interview with Doug Fogelson

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I keep the first picture in mind, but I frame each new picture as if it’s its own composition, bearing in mind that it is related to what came before it and what’s coming after it.

Back in the ’20s, Alfred Stieglitz moved away from human shots and began to photograph clouds because he wanted to show that  his “photographs were not due to subject matter–nor to special privileges…clouds were there for everyone.” He paved the way for abstract art by focusing on perception itself–perception, that is, plus exquisite technique. With the recent publication of The Time After, Front 40 Press founder and Chicago-based fine art photographer Doug Fogelson is working with a new, “architectural” version of the Stieglitz philosophy.

Seeking to “stimulate deeper consideration of the ‘post climate change’ era,” The Time After presents multi-directional, panoramic photographs by Fogelson and essays by Derrick Jensen, Eiren Caffall, and Bridget R. McCullough Alexander. Designed by Tim Hartford, the large-format book is distinctly elegiac, sometimes dark, sometimes playful, not necessarily happy or sad. Like Signs of the Apocalypse/Rapture, an exquisite art-and-music book published by Front 40 last year that pointed out work that “blurs the line between annihilation and euphoria,” The Time After can be seen as a series of questions.

The Apocalypse book, which features work by everyone from Ed Ruscha to Sonic Youth, has an accompanying show opening this weekend at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center. When I caught up with Fogelson on the phone, we started by laughing grimly about how hard it is to get people to buy art books, even when the LA Times selects your book for its “favorite books of 2008″ issue. I mean, what does it take? Front 40, distributed by the University of Chicago Press, is not a nonprofit, said Fogelson, “but that doesn’t mean we’re making any money.” Too bad, since they’re doing amazing work.

The Rumpus: The world is becoming more fluid.

Doug Fogelson: I guess new media is equalizing the playing field a little. We did a project with Urban Space, which we found through wooloo.org. The project curated photographs of urban spaces, sent in from people all over the world. It was like this global city. We tried to bang together a book design. There was no money because of the atmosphere right now, but it was pretty cool to see the “unedited” version of everything, the four corners of the earth plus the other corners besides.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about your new book, The Time After. I really like the London photos. They’re very specific.

Fogelson: I need to go back there. Badly.

Rumpus: They are so relentlessly specific in terms of London’s built, iconic environment. I don’t know how to say this without sounding cheesy, but there’s a shimmering, refracted sense of unity in the book, the whole “one world, one planet” thing that got beaten into us in elementary school on Earth Day.

Fogelson: That’s part of my intention. The bad part is that, unlike awesome projects like Earth from Above, I haven’t been able to get around the world to places like India, Turkey, or Morocco. I haven’t been to a lot of places, but you’ve got just to work with what you’ve got.

The Rumpus: In the Biota series, I like how the geometries of light are in the background, subtle and textural, and although they are repeating, they don’t quite completely repeat. It’s sort of analog…I guess this rests in your process.

Doug Fogelson: My technique is to use the same process and let the subject matter define the outcome. The process is very, very simple. I exploit the camera’s shutter and winder mechanism so that I don’t completely advance the film. I’ve been doing photography for awhile and the reason I first got interested in it was to manipulate it because of its inherent quality of taking light from two dimensions. I was trying different ways of touching it, stacking it, sandwiching it. When I came around to this process, I just got hooked. It’s so simple. I had to find a camera that would allow me to control how much the film advances.

I have a lot of rules and self-assignments. I don’t take one picture and then turn the camera sideways. I’m very architectural about it. I keep the first picture in mind, but I frame each new picture as if it’s its own composition, bearing in mind that it is related to what came before it and what’s coming after it.

[What's important is] the cadence of the subject matter, the performative aspects. On the urban side, I’m out there doing a little foxtrot or a tango across the crosswalk. I’ll take a picture, cross the street, take a picture back where I came from. Halfway across the street I’ll shoot down the street. I’ll shoot kitty-corner. There’s a pattern that I try to do that helps me and the camera disappear so that I’m not getting noticed. For urban subjects, it’s very geometric, with people and the built environment. But with the natural world, you get fractals and chaos, like with leaves. As viewers, we have a different reaction to it. It feels like it’s all the same thing, since it’s all the same structure.

Rumpus: Your urban shots capture what it’s like to slowly discover a very particular area, where someone lives in the city. A thousand aspects of the same zone are revealed at once. It’s kind of the same with the wilderness shots.

Fogelson: The urban shots can take a couple of hours, waiting for people and the light. With the airplane shots or water pictures, it can take a few minutes or a number of hours. I bring up the duration because people look at the final photographs and say that it’s all “the same moment,” but actually it’s multiple moments added up.

Rumpus: That relates to the them of this volume. All of these human actions have combined to put as already in “the time after.”

Fogelson: Yes, we are for so many reasons. Photography is a  momento mori of something past. And this process–even though I feel that it brings a more present sense to the subject matter–is still past. It’s just multiple moments.  It tricks our brains into vibrating closer to that. You can have an interactive thing with it instead of just saying, “Oh, that’s a picture of the tree from the past.”

Rumpus: And checking it off your list.

Fogelson: Yeah. There’s human time, there’s natural time, and then there’s cyclic or cosmic time. We’re trying to hint at that without being really overt. The pictures themselves don’t speak to climate change directly, but hopefully…

Rumpus: Even without the essays, the book would have a resonant sense of cyclic time. Nonetheless, I was moved by Eiren’s piece about images in the mind forming a sort of mantra, in the sense that they remind us how we “existed once.” It’s like we’re now in art where we used to be in climate science. She writes, “I live in the time after the time when we had no idea that we’d ruined things for good.”

Fogelson: I love the way Eiren writes. She really thinks things deeply. The eulogizing-the-planet thing might be macabre and hard for people, there’s something very loving and beautiful in her presentation. She’s a musician, too.

Rumpus: At your Elmhurst Art Museum show, there were sounds of air travel along with the photos, which were taken from airplanes. Was that a one-time thing?

Fogelson: No, I like to do sound and video. The funny thing is that being a photographer you’re supposed to have shows at photography galleries and there are supposed to be prints in a regular format, but I always wanted just to be an artist and not have to worry about the photography-versus-art crap. My goal with the shows is to create an immersive environment. I think that’s a part of the goal when I stick the camera up in people’s faces or into tree branches or waves. The idea is to bring the immediacy of the experience closer to the viewer.

At the Elmhurst show, the idea was to make viewers feel like they were levitating a little bit. The sound was panned between two speakers, so the sound was located in space, and the photographs were different scales, so we got people to move around in the gallery “in time and space,” so to speak.

At a show of the waves pictures, I did a huge wave sculpture of cast resin and we built a lifeguard stand. There was a video projection and a soundtrack. And the pictures were hung at odd intervals along the wall, plexi-mounted so that they were “floating” and wet-looking.

Rumpus: Was there a long period of experimentation with your current photo technique until you made a print and knew that you’d found it.

Fogelson: I’ve basically been experimenting with the technique and the subject matter since the beginning, which is odd since I didn’t know it at the time. I was looking back at intervals thinking, what is interesting to me? Why is it interesting? Do I want to keep messing around in the darkroom, or with pinhole cameras? I tried manipulating the surface of the prints. How [my current technique] came to be was that I was experimenting with collaging various negatives on top of each other and then putting them on flatbed scanners, and I really liked the way that those overlaps worked. This was in the ’90s. I was working as a commercial photographer then, too. Before digital, I would go to a shoot with a 4 x 5 camera, lights, chords, cables, sandbags the whole nine yards. I was hungry for some way to get out and still be touching the medium but without being typically laden with so much stuff, without having to shoot a ton of roles or sitting in front of the computer for too long.

Rumpus: So it was a drive toward immediacy in your actual process?

Fogelson: Yes, [and eventually] I found this weird sweet spot.

Rumpus: So you’re not manipulating them at all on the computer?

Fogelson: No. I shoot very carefully on film, though it’s impossible to pre-visualize what all the overlaps will do, even as controlling as I am. When I get the film back, it’s all connected. I look at the film to find out which portions might work. It’s possible to go back and redo things. Once I have film that works, I will sit in front of the computer with it, but just to get it ready for printing; I never collage it digitally. Then we take it to the lab and they print it onto regular photo paper with a light-based process, like a lambda print.

There’s another reason, a spiritual reason, for that, too. If you just took a bunch of pictures and then sat in front of the computer and tried to collage them, I don’t think it would have the same energy. When you’re shooting it, you’re being impacted by the real space and time.

Rumpus: So are there any particular shots in the book that have stories behind them that would be impossible to know just looking at them?

Fogelson: Well, the one of London was cool because it was taken from the top of a church and it was a massive climb to get to the top. For almost all of them, I’m putting myself into weird situations—sneaking through crowds, treading water. It’s all about vantage point.

Rumpus: Have you had situations in urban environments where people get nervous about what you’re doing or try to stop you?

Fogelson: That’s the cool thing about photographing in different countries: each country has a different reaction. I was in Tokyo in April and the people were very cool, fairly ignoring you. In Hong Kong, I thought that they were ignoring me and then I went back and looked at the pictures on the light box and found that everyone was looking right at me! In California, people will say, “Hey! What are you doing?” In London, people were like, “That’s totally cool! Right on!” In New York, people are pretty good about ignoring you.

Rumpus: I was looking at the shots of waves and wondering if there were clouds superimposed on top, but I guess not.

Fogelson: Nope. Things are getting more and more abstract in my current work. There’s a lot of stuff bleeding through into the negative space.


Rumpus contributing editor Ari Messer was a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian from 2006-2010. Here is his web life. More from this author →