Where Lawns End: The Rumpus Interview with Amy Stein


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Rumpus: Your work involves civilization, culture and the death of nature, especially in Domesticated. To domesticate means to tame an animal and keep it as a pet or for farm produce, but it also means to accustom to home life and domestic tasks. And there are houses in several of your photos (Watering Hole, Trash Eaters, High Grass and Broken Home, among others). What role does the house play in your photographs? And what does the house represent for you?

Stein: I’m so happy you mentioned both definitions of domesticated.  People often miss the part about human domestication and the house as the ultimate representation of our evolution from nomadic hunters and gathers to static dwellers and consumers.

In my photographs the houses are often stark white ranch homes that on first glance elicit feelings of familial contentment.  But, in my mind the homes also look like alien spaceships from another planet plunked down in middle of a pastoral environment.  I’d like to think the houses act as symbols of both comfort and menace.

Rumpus: It has been said that your work captures something about the in-between, at the interstices of a real geographical location and a metaphorical location, such as a sense of the American in your series Stranded, though there is no specific location that those images refer to. Is there such a middle ground in your current work with animal forms?

Stein: Much of the work takes place in the physical ecotone between the domesticated and the natural world.  This space holds a strong psychological connection for us because in our distant past it was a very real dividing line between comfort and danger.  As we evolved and were able to fortify our barriers and exercise greater control over the elements, the relevancy of the ecotone transformed from a matter of life and death to a metaphorical zone between civilization and the “wild.”  With Domesticated I very much wanted to explore the psychic and symbolic elements of this physical space.

Rumpus: You mentioned that you work with dioramas. This interests me because it connotes a sense of control, a sense of wanting to stage a photograph so that it is in a sense perfect, exactly the way you want it. I’m curious about this, because I’ve also read that one of your inspirations is Gregory Crewdson who uses film crews and sound stages to create his photographs to capture a full cinematic story arc with one image. But it is the sense of control that fascinates me. Is the idea of control something that occurs to you when you construct your photographs?

Stein: I have worked on four photographic series and only Domesticated could be classified as tableau vivant. Early on I made the determination that staging the photographs would add an important layer to the work because control is such an important part of the human/animal story.

When I was developing the project I found further inspiration in the contained reality of dioramas at natural history museums and the work of tableau style photographers like Crewdson.  Where Crewdson seeks to present a frame mastered by intention and employs a DP and a stage crew to make sure everything is as it should be, I took a slightly different tack with my images.

Typically, I would scout a location, cast local residents to appear in the photograph, acquire the props and animals and then just see what happens.  I had an image in mind, but often the elements dictated a photograph that was completely different from the one I had set out to make.   This approach was born partly out of necessity—I don’t have Crewdson’s budgets—and partly out of a desire to have the work appear as naturalistic as possible.

Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and Esquire.com. She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →