An Interview with Aaron Schuman
'On Redwoods, Spaghetti Westerns, and Other American Myths'

Spring 2012

by Bevin Bering Dubrowski and Aaron Schuman

An edited version of this interview was originally published in Spot Magazine (Spring 2012):

BBD – Bevin Bering Dubrowski
AS – Aaron Schuman

BBD: Aaron, this interview intends to focus on your own work as a photographer rather than your curatorial and editorial projects; what are you working on now?

AS: Photographically, I’m currently working on a project called “Redwoods”, which I started about a year ago. A friend of mine in England is a tree surgeon, and one day over lunch he told me that he’d been pruning a number of redwoods in a nearby estate. I was really surprised to discover that there were redwoods in the UK, as I’d always thought of them as a distinctly American species. But from that point on, whenever I was driving around, I kept spotting the tops of these trees piercing the horizon, towering over the rest of the landscape. So I began to do some research and discovered that during the California Gold Rush a number of prominent British botanists, plant hunters and seed collectors traveled to the American Northwest in search of their own treasure: "exotic" plants that would flourish in the British climate. They sent back sacks full of seeds, cultivated them in vast nurseries, and then sold them at great expense to the landed gentry, who planted them in their estates, gardens and arboretums. The redwood was one such plant, and acted and a symbol of wealth, stature and imperial reign – in fact, the Giant Sequoia, one of the most famous indigenous plants of North America, was also dubbed Wellingtonia gigantia, in honor of the 1st Duke of Wellington, who died around the same time, in 1852. Since then, many of the original redwood seedlings that were shipped over to Britain have matured into fully grown trees, but many of the estates and gardens where they were planted have changed hands, have been subsumed by urban and suburban expansion, have been turned into housing developments or retirement communities, have been converted to public parks, and so on. Nevertheless, the redwoods have managed to survive, albeit completely out of proportion with the rest of the surrounding landscape. Anyway, I started to photograph them, visually toying with their scale in relation to their surroundings, and I developed a real affinity for them; almost a camaraderie, in the sense that I’ve now lived as an American in England for most of what I would consider my adult life – I’ve grown roots, begun a family, matured, and in a sense flourished – and yet I still often feel slightly awkward or at odds with my surroundings. It may seem strange, but every time I find a redwood over here, I instinctively feel the need to I walk up to it and give it a good pat on its trunk, like I’m patting the back of an old friend; its comforting. Then I gradually circle around it, finding different vantage points within the surrounding environment, and take photographs. Furthermore, apart from this obliquely autobiographical or personal reference, I have also found that there is fascinating allegorical potential in the photographs in terms of notions of imperialism, dominance, strength, power, allusions to the respective rise and fall of the British and American empires, and so on.

BBD: You have such a strong knowledge of photographic history; I’m wondering, is there a piece of this history you are working through here as well?

AS: John Szarkowksi once wrote, “Whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography, the container and the vehicle of all its meanings. Whatever a photographer's intuitions or intentions, they must be cut and shaped to fit the possibilities of his art.” As you said, I’m very interested in the history of photography, so when I look at photographs I initially try to read them as literally as possible – or at least as the photographer intended – but subsequently I can’t help but see various relationships and links between them and other photographic works, both past and the present. The exhibition that I curated for the 2010 Fotofest Biennial, "Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs", was very much about this; it looked at how contemporary photographers depict and define America today, but also drew distinct parallels between their work and that of Walker Evans (“American Photographs”, 1937), and explored the inherent influence and embedded legacy of this particular photographic history within American photography's most current, cutting edge practice.
  Similarly, when I started to look at and edit my "Redwoods" work, I began to notice similarities – visual, strategic, and conceptual – between my photographs and those shown in “New Topographics”, the now infamous exhibition at George Eastman House in 1975. Firstly, I realized that the mid-century British bungalows and housing developments that I found in England bore an uncanny resemblance to the tract houses and suburban developments of the American West, as seen in the work of Robert Adams and Joe Deal. Furthermore, the notion of maintaining constant motif throughout the work, and collecting together a sort of "typology" – in my case, redwoods; in their case, industrial structures – shared something, conceptually if not stylistically, with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. And finally, the way in which I was composing the photographs – in black and white, incorporating street furniture, telephone wires, road markings, foliage, foreground, background and so on, and playing with all of these elements in terms of their lines, shapes, geometric and formal effects within the frame – reminded me of the seemingly casual but rigorous compositions found within the work of Frank Gohlke, Henry Wessel Jr., and again, Robert Adams, in which otherwise unassuming environments are constructed into subtly complicated, two-dimensional visual puzzles.
  So again, I found myself developing a sense of affinity or camaraderie, but in this case with photographers of a previous generation, with each unconscious nod to their work also acting as that sort of fraternal, comforting pat on the back. But it’s important to stress that, firstly, these photographs came from an interest in photographing the subject matter itself in a way that felt most appropriate, effective, and natural to me, and that the historical echoes and references only emerged in the process of making the work, rather than vice versa. I didn’t set out to make a “New Topographics” project and then found a subject, environment, and aesthetic that was suitable; I stumbled upon something that I thought would be interesting to photograph, began to make pictures, and then realized that the photographic solutions that I was coming up with when faced with this particular subject matter shared something (but not everything) with those of a few of my favorite photographers, which was thrilling.

BBD: It's very interesting to me that you have found a subject in "Redwoods" that does have an emotional connection to your own personal history. You have an affinity for these trees, yet you were driven to photograph them in a way that is devoid of emotion. You have stripped them of their romanticism and presented them in a straightforward, dead-pan style. Why have you chosen to focus on the more formal aspects of these trees in the landscape?

AS: I agree that the photographs aren’t overtly romantic, but I wouldn’t say that they are devoid of emotion. The affinity and emotional connection that I have with these trees is expressed simply in my decision to photograph them with due respect, diligence, and care; the photographs are quietly emotional in the sense that they look at the trees and their surroundings both in a literal “straightforward” way and in a considered and meaningful way, and I find the amalgamation of these two approaches to be quite honest, touching, and subtly personal, which may explain why I’m so attracted to the medium of photography. Walker Evans once said, “There is a deep beauty in things as they are”, and the medium of photography is particularly effective in encapsulating and distilling such “deep beauty” from the visual world by allowing a certain formality to be applied to it, and by helping to structure what surrounds us – “things as they are”– so that we can view them clearly with focused consideration, appreciation, and contemplation. Photography helps transform the sense of vision into an active rather than passive affair, into “looking” rather than “seeing”, and to actively look at something is to apply curiosity, meaning, experience, and ultimately emotion to what we might otherwise just see. I’m reminded of my favorite poem (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, was written in response to several encounters with photography), The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams: “so much depends, upon, a red wheel, barrow, glazed with rain, water, beside the white, chickens”. It’s this mysterious, implicit “so much” – contained in these particular trees and their surroundings, and in photography in general – rather than any explicit, romantic, exaggerated, sentimentalized or rarified expression of emotion, that ultimately moves me. Echoing Evans, in the statement that Robert Adams submitted for the “New Topographics” catalogue he wrote, “Pictures should look like they were easily taken. Otherwise beauty in the world is made to seem elusive and rare, which it isn’t.” In the case of “Redwoods”, it’s this prosaic rather than poetic approach that really appeals to me.

BBD: Within the “New Topographics” exhibition, this style was used to force the viewer to question the choices made my individuals that changed and re-sculpted the American landscape. Does "Redwoods" serve as a critique or more of an investigation?

AS: Apart from the underlying autobiographical subtext, “Redwoods” is more of an investigation – into the social landscape and its relationship to notions of status, national and cultural identity, history, imperialism, fluctuations of power, photographic form, and so on – rather than a particularly targeted critique. But it’s interesting to note that the curator of “New Topographics”, William Jenkins, also defined his exhibition in this manner. In the catalogue’s “Introduction” he wrote, “The viewpoint, which extends throughout the exhibition, is anthropological rather than critical, scientific rather than artistic.” Both the exhibition itself, and many of the works included, were meant to be seen as an investigation of photographic style as much as a cultural critique on the transforming American landscape. As Jenkins saw it, “There is little doubt that the problems at the center of [New Topographics] is one of style”, and the photographers included in it shared a certain stylistic approach that was intended, as he describes it, to “prevent the slightest trace of judgment or opinion from entering their work.” That said, he also acknowledged that “the actual photographs are far richer in meaning and scope than the simple making of an aesthetic point”, which implies that the common choice of subject matter – the “Man-altered Landscape” – is rich, meaningful, and potentially critical, and that even within this seemingly limited, “straight” or “dead-pan” aesthetic there is scope for variation, and potential for personal expression. For example, when compared within the context of “New Topographics”, both the Bechers and Lewis Baltz come across as rigorous and thoroughly analytical, whereas Henry Wessel and Frank Gohlke come across as visually playful, Robert Adams seems literal, purposefully subdued and prosaic, and so on. And even Adams acknowledged that his choice of style, which may come across as critical in an environmental sense within the twentieth century, was consciously inspired by the survey photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, which were purely intended to officially document man’s exploitation of and dominance over nature during the nineteen-century, in order to attract settlers to the American West. So in the case of "Redwoods", I am similarly referencing particular photographic histories, strategies and styles in order to investigate and find meaning in certain features of the landscape, but it’s more a matter of asking the viewer to engage with the implied themes, rather than “forcing [them] to question” particular issues that may arise.

BBD: Your earlier series, “Once Upon A Time in the West” also explores national identities. Could you tell me a little more about this project and the political aspects of it?

AS: “Once Upon a Time in the West” is a portfolio that I made on the eroding sets and locations of Sergio Leone’s 1960s “Spaghetti Westerns”, in the Almerian deserts of southern Spain. At the time, I was interested in photographing American myths and ‘ruins’ abroad, in an attempt to explore how America as an empire has colonized parts of the world – not necessarily in a physical sense, but in a cultural and ideological sense – and to understand how rest of the world continues to see, understand, absorb, portray, reflect and occasionally propagate certain notions of America. And yes, again there’s an autobiographical subtext: when I first moved to Europe, I was surprised by how people perceived me as an American, and was struck by their assumptions about my personal history, experience, and background, all of which were primarily based upon what they’d learnt of America through mass media – films, television, the news, magazines, and so on. I grew up in a quite liberal part of New England and moved to New York for college, so in terms of the stereotypical portrayals of American culture as seen in mainstream media, I don’t have much experience. I've never been particularly religious, nationalistic, or obese; I've never lived in a sprawling suburb, been a quarterback, dated a cheerleader or held a loaded gun. But these were all things that, when I moved abroad, instantaneously became associated with me in some strange way. So “Once Upon a Time in the West” was initially an attempt to explore and photograph America without actually stepping foot in America, but instead by way of a representation of an America that, in reality, was entirely a fiction, and wasn’t in fact American at all; as you said, in this particular case it was built by an Italian, in the heart of Franco’s Spain, for the purposes of narrative film-making. Nevertheless, for many people (including many Americans), this archetype – the cowboy, the Wild West – remains an important symbol in terms of defining America, the American character, American culture, and the American spirit at large.

BBD: Again I’m curious, do you consider this project a critique or an investigation?

AS: To be honest, it started as an investigation, of the place itself and what it might represent. But in the editing process I began to notice certain motifs and metaphors reoccurring that implied that there was a definite critique, or at least a critical investigation, embedded within the work. The project was made in 2008-9, just at the end of the Bush administration and in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were obvious associations – many of which were wholly embraced by the Bush administration – between values integral to cowboy mythology, and the ways in which the American government was portraying itself and engaging with the rest of the world at that time. Some of these values, such freedom and individuality, I regard as positive, but within my images such characteristics often seem stifled or under threat, and other symbols and allegories kept arising which I found to be much more pertinent and problematic: brutal light and barren landscapes, threatening exteriors seen through obscured entryways, defaced icons of American bravery and independence, the righteous indignation of faceless assassins, intimidating lawmen swaggering through the desert, dead and dying cowboys scattered across the sand, and so on. So ultimately, I guess that I would say that in “Once Upon a Time in the West” I’m actively critiquing a national identity (one that I don’t particularly identify with), in terms of the way it is disseminated and is subsequently perceived, imagined, and understood by others; whereas in “Redwoods” I’m, in some ways, quietly investigating and identifying with my national identity – as both an individual and a photographer – and exploring its relationship to and within other wider physical, historical, cultural and conceptual contexts.


Aaron Schuman Photography
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