STAFF Art Directon Eric Grignol Editor Sofia T. Romero Advisory Board Gary Cardot Michael Jones Heather Lipinski Anita Snider
CONTENTS Ellen Susan
Using a photographic process popular in the 1800s during the American Civil War, Ellen Susan takes portraits of U.S. Army service men and women who have been deployed to Iraq. The unique plates made from long exposures provide an intense gaze — a counterpoint to the anonymous representations in the media of soldiers who are repeatedly sent into a war zone.
10 Ériver Hijano
Alone and vulnerable at a given moment of time, several individuals are halted by the camera and the weight of life in their heavy struggle with the human condition. The scenes portrayed ache with lonely desperation. Clinically, aphasia is the loss or impairment of the ability to understand words or speech, usually resulting from brain damage. Looking at Hijano’s images makes the viewer wonder what caused the wounds these individuals have been dealt.
16 Julie Blackmon Volume 3 2008
Blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, Julie Blackmon’s photography explores the wonderment found in daily life. Blackmon discusses her Domestic Vacations series in an exclusive interview.
26 Lung S. Liu
As with many competitive, full-contact fighting sports, Muay Thai focuses strongly on body conditioning and intensive training, designed specifically to promote the toughness required for ring competition. Of interest is how Liu trains his lens particularly on youth who are hoping to achieve success in the ranks of Thailand’s national sport.
Cover: 1LT Jeffrey Des Jarlais, (2007); Above: SPC Melvin Moore, (2007).
Ellen Susan Soldier Portraits
that many members of the local division were being deployed to Iraq for the third time. Looking into the impossibly young face of a uniformed kid in front of me at Home Depot, and connecting that face to the current war, was a shift for me in the way I thought about soldiers.I had a lot of questions about what the military was like, who these people were, and why they decided to join. I thought that photographing them would allow me to spend time with them and ask these questions. Prior to the move to Savannah, I’d experimented with the wet plate collodion process. This was the primary photographic method used from the 1850s through the 1880s, a time which encompasses the American Civil War. I felt that the 150-year-old process could be a meaningful way to photograph contemporary soldiers, to provide a counterpoint to the anonymous representations I saw in newspapers and on television.
Using a photographic process popular in the 1800s during the American Civil War, Ellen Susan takes portraits of U.S. Army service men and women who have deployed to Iraq. The unique plates made from long exposures provide an intense gaze — a counterpoint to the anonymous representations in the media of soldiers who are repeatedly sent into a war zone. In October 2006, I moved from a large Northeastern city to Savannah, Georgia. Having lived in both the deep South and the deep North, I wasn’t particularly concerned about culture shock. What I wasn’t prepared for was the degree of military presence—army in particular. Savannah is near two large army posts, Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield. I’d never really given soldiers much thought because I rarely encountered them, but I started seeing soldiers in uniform at the grocery store, the gas station, everywhere. I also began to read in the local newspaper 2
Above: SGT Sandra Muniz, (2007); Across: 1SGT Robert Hindle, (2007). 3
When I set out to learn the wet plate process about five years ago, it didn’t occur to me that I would end up making portraits. Like all viewcamera work, the wet plate process lends itself best to still-life and landscape photography. It’s cumbersome and the exposures tend to be extra long. So living, moving subjects can pose difficulties. In addition, every plate must be processed immediately after it’s shot, which means a darkroom is needed on site, and the subject has to wait several minutes for each image to be completed before the next photograph can be made. Again, not ideal conditions for shooting people. When I started experimenting with wet collodion, I found the way it rendered human faces was too compelling to ignore. So I set up a mobile darkroom in my jeep on the street, and parked my 8x10 camera on the sidewalk at my front stoop. When people walked by and were curious, I’d ask them to sit on the stoop and let me photograph them. 4
Above: SPC Ralston’s Tattoo, (2008); Across, top: MAJ Steven Watts, (2008); Across, below: SPC Brandilynn Corntassel, (2007).
I only did this for a few days, but I learned that people are so interested in the process, and so impressed by the darkroom and exotic equipment, that it gives you a way to connect with them. And, since it’s such a novelty, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and go with your authority, doing whatever you ask of them. One of the reasons portraits made with the wet plate process look so intense and interesting is that the exposures are so long. My exposures for the Soldier Portraits project range from five to 60 seconds. While the lens cap is off, I’m not looking at the subject, so there’s some strange social
PFC William Burnett, (2007). tension in the air as the person concentrates on being still and stares at an enormous lens attached to an enormous camera that’s sometimes only a few inches from his or her face. Because the direct positive produces a reversed image, a viewer may also consider the concept of themselves “mirrored” by a soldier.
SPC Peter Schiavo, SGT Thomas Derr, (2007). 6
The wet plate process is one of the most archival photographic processes. Thousands of wet collodion plates—ambrotypes on glass and tintypes on metal—from the Civil War era survive today. The inherent flaws that appear on the plates of this very hands-on technique are a reminder that the object being viewed was in the room with the subject and handled by the photographer at the time of the exposure. 7
I think the combination of the long exposures and the peculiarities of the look of wet plate images are what cause people to make comments such as “you can see into their souls” or “it reveals so much of the subject’s character.” In contrast, much contemporary portrait work made with view cameras exhibits a neutral, dead-pan appearance. While the slowness and formality of large-format photography can lend itself to this kind of distance, the specific properties of the wet plate process eliminate even the potential for that kind of image. Personally, I don’t think the images reveal much more than the lusciously rendered and highly detailed physical attributes of an individual. I don’t
Above: SGT Scripture’s Tattoo, (2007); Left: CPT Aaron Price With His Wife, (2008); Across: 1LT Jeffrey Des Jarlais, (2007). think you can see anybody’s soul in any photograph, but if the appearance is compelling enough, it lets you imagine that you can—and then consider the face and the person it belongs to, and what they might be all about. In the end, it wasn’t distance I wanted. I wanted to produce physically enduring, visually and emotionally arresting images of people who are being sent repeatedly into a war zone. Ellen Susan lives in Savannah, Georgia. A graduate of the photography program at Massachusetts College of Art, she earned an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. The Soldier Portrait series was recently featured in American Photo’s online magazine PopPhoto.com, PDN, and View Camera magazine. She has exhibited with the New Orleans Photo Alliance, Blue Sky Gallery, and the Photographic Resource Center, among others. More work can be seen at photomediacenter.org and ellensusan.com. 8
Alone and vulnerable at a given moment of time, several individuals are halted by the camera and the weight of life in their heavy struggle with the human condition. The scenes portrayed ache with lonely desperation. Clinically, aphasia is the loss or impairment of the ability to understand words or speech, usually resulting from brain damage. Looking at Hijanoâ€™s images makes the viewer wonder what caused the wounds these individuals have been dealt. 10
Above: Aphasia, plate 3, (year), Across: Aphasia, plate 1, (year).
The feeling of discontent from generations born into the fast-paced lifestyle of the post-modern digital era has increasingly become the main subject of my work. The utopian promise of improvement brought to humanity by the heyday of modernity has evolved into detachment from real life and lived experience.
The title of the series suggests this loss of ability to comprehend expression through speech, as today words are of minor importance when compared to images. I am trying to denounce the insecurity and doubt that divide us in an unavoidable state of ecstasy and decay, freed from earthly boundaries, but vulnerable to the uncertainty of a world at large. The scenes are quiet, melancholic.
The series Aphasia explores this feeling of alienation and delusion. Lonely figures are found in what seems to be a mundane and trivial setting at first glance. Yet the calm situations portrayed become increasingly unsettling to the viewer upon further inspection. The pseudo-narrative staged in all shots is intentional and its surreal quality raises questions that cannot be definitively answered by the viewer. Although the settings are necessary to evoke the mood, the images remain completely anthropocentric.
This strain of decadence can be found in the work of artists such as Edward Hopper, and the photography of Gregory Crewdson and Panos Kokkinias, where the subjects seem to be alone and vulnerable in their own human condition, and each have approached a similar subject in a different and personal way. Currently, the subjects in my work are confronted with, and entrapped in, their own lost paradise.
Untitled (cliff), (year).
Aphasia, plate 4, (year).
Aphasia, plate2, (year).
Ă‰river Hijano lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. More work can be seen at photomediacenter.org and eriverhijano.com.
JulieDomestic Blackmon Vacations
Tell our readers a little about your background and how you came to the medium of photography as an artist. I am the oldest of nine kids. Growing up in that kind of environment with all those siblings, well, it just seemed like a terrible thing at the time. It was embarrassing, in some ways, because my mom was always pregnant or nursing, and no one else had that many kids in their family. Every minute of every day was crazy and chaotic, for example, absent father much of the time, kids crying. It took until I was in my early twenties to really appreciate it and to realize that I was pretty lucky to have had such an eccentric childhood experience. In some ways, as stressful and dysfunctional as it could be, my childhood was also pretty rich and delightful. Somehow, amidst the stress and chaos of it all, my mom found the time to really direct us in a lot of ways, for example, teaching us how to draw and paint, or how to play instruments. We all had our lives threatened if we didn’t practice our piano every day. So I guess the arts were always a part of our lives. In college, at Missouri State University, which was just a block away from home, it didn’t take me long to discover photography, and when I did, I was immediately hooked. And the subject matter at home was endless. But then there was a period after getting out of school that I wasn’t able to do much beyond typical snapshots. Got married, had three kids. It was another 12 years before I got back into it.
There are similarities in the progression from your previous work “Mind Games” and “Domestic Vacations.” Both explore childhood activities. But the “Domestic Vacations” series has a different feel, besides the obvious difference from black and white to color. Can you elaborate on this progression between the two sets? I live in the same neighborhood I grew up in, along with my husband and three children. About five years ago, I bought an enlarger, set up a darkroom, and started photographing my kids outside playing. That turned into the “Mind Games” work. I entered it in a national project competition and ended up getting an award on it, which motivated me keep going and exploring my world at home.
Blurring the line between fiction and autobiography, Julie Blackmon’s photography explores the wonderment found in daily life. The constant chaos of a household full of children and the need to escape is ever present. By fusing the real and the imagined, Blackmon show us that sometimes the best vacations are the ones not far from home. Blackmon discusses her Domestic Vacations series in an exclusive interview with the Photomedia Center. 16
After a couple of years, I came to a point with it where I felt like I was ready to go on to something else. So, I thought I’d try working in color. I did this because I wanted the work to reflect contemporary culture a little more. And color seemed like a good way to start, in terms of emphasizing certain modern details that were part of our lives, like Bratz Dolls or iPods. But still, I didn’t know what I was doing for a while. Across: Cherry, (2006). 17
Across: Powerade, (2005); Right: Cupcake, (2007); Below: Party Lights, (2008).
The image, “Nail Polish,” is set in my sister Millie’s house. I was just playing around with the idea of the mother on the telephone, and I didn’t think of it as being such an interesting backdrop because her house really looks like this and I was so used to it this way. But after I got “Nail Polish,” it was like, okay, maybe this is something I could work with, this surreal sort of setting, and maybe I don’t have to show real life exactly, I can show my interpretation of everyday life. So I started looking at everyday life around me a little differently. About that same time I started looked at a lot of painting, even before I got “Nail Polish” I was sort of on a search for an idea. I loved the Dutch and Flemish genre paintings of the 17th century. I especially loved the paintings of Jan Steen. The subtle humor seemed timeless in a way, and some of the crazy 18
scenes reminded me of my childhood, with all of us kids—even now, since we’re all together so often. This is probably the biggest difference between the color and black and white work. Just the humor or the lighthearted look at contemporary culture.
Your photos of children have a playful yet unsentimental feel of how children navigate their world and space, which is very authentic. How to you generate and capture ideas that continue this thread? I guess I just get ideas from the world around me. My youngest is nine now, but he continues to inspire me, as do my nephews and nieces that I’m around every day. The environment is very much an actor in the images. Tell us bout the locations and more about the world described in “Domestic Vacations.” Most of this work I shot in my own house. But it’s been edited and fictionalized to give it that fantastical appearance. I consider my props and backdrops almost as important as the moment or gesture of a figure in a piece. And maybe I think like an illustrator or someone in animation because I love to make those props in my work—whether it’s an umbrella or a painting on the wall, come to life a little bit—sort of give them some personality.
Your more recent photos tend to show more deliberate staging and digital work. How do you capture such an un-orchestrated look, even though many present a manipulated photo? While my work involves a lot of staging and digital work, usually the moment the photo revolves around—whether it’s a certain gesture or expression—is truly spontaneous and captured in the traditional “decisive moment” kind of way. So in that sense, the way I start out working is still very much rooted in photography. I may give the kids or my sisters some ideas of things to do, but usually the strongest moments are truly un-orchestrated. It’s afterwards that I can change the context of a certain expression or gesture, and imply a narrative.
It is frequently said that now photography has embraced digital processes, photomedia artists work much more like painters. Do you agree? PC, (2005).
Yes, I think the digital process has blurred the line between the two. So what I’m doing feels a lot like painting, but it also seems a bit like filmmaking and illustration, too. And I could give a long list of influences that come from those areas.
Nail Polish, (2005).
Flying Umbrellas, (2007).
It is notable that many images make dynamic use of the edge of the frame, which gives the images an expansive feel. Others are simply loaded with elements and objects. How do you go about constructing your compositions?
You use family members as models: sisters, nieces, your own children. Where is the line between acting and documentary portraiture?
The starting point is usually just photographing somebody in an environment I find interesting. Then I edit through what I’ve taken and pick out what I think are the strongest moments. It’s not an entire image I’m considering at this point, just maybe one little thing. And then I usually work from that. I try to think what kind of narrative I could imply from, for example, a certain gesture or expression, and then how to enhance that moment, whether it’s through lighting or different props or other moments added in later. And because I photograph on a tripod in the environment that will serve as the backdrop for the entire image, it makes it possible to go back to add in anything later from the same vantage point without it seeming to collaged or photoshopped. 22
That’s always a bit of a challenge to answer. My work is based on my experiences growing up and now as a mother. But it’s a fictional and lighthearted take on it. And the fact that the models are family members really just has to do with convenience and maybe a certain uninhibited comfort level between us that allows me to capture moments that happen because of that relationship. But it’s not as though I only use family members because it’s about my family, it’s not that simple. My husband is a writer and somehow his work tells the truth about our lives more than if he’d written it exactly as it happened. So maybe that’s what I’m doing with my work. And hopefully there are truths within my own family experience that other people can relate to. 23
Above: Birds at Home, (2007); Across, top: The Power of Now, (2008); Across, below: American Gothic, (2008).
Julie Blackmon lives in Springfield, Missouri. More of hr work can be seen at photomediacenter.org and julieblackmon.com. 24
Lung S. Liu
Muay Thai Culture Someone once described my work by stating what it is not. It is not Art, but Craft—windows into a home lovingly built. When discussing photography, we often speak of our intention and the deeper meaning behind our work. Although such things are important, they are not central to my images. It is the content that determines the message and I, as the photographer, convey that message by choosing the subjects.
As with many competitive, full-contact fighting sports, Muay Thai focuses strongly on body conditioning and intensive training. Lung S. Liu’s camera captures this preparation designed specifically to promote the toughness required for ring competition. Of interest is how he trains his lens particularly on youth who are hoping to achieve success in the ranks of Thailand’s national sport.
Above: Going Home, (2008); Right: Cooling Down, (2008); Across: Young Boxer Preparing to Lift Weights, (2008). 26
There are countless Muay Thai (Thai Boxing) camps all over Thailand. It is impossible to visit them all and so I chose to show a small part of it—mere glimpses into the lives of these fighters. They are trained at an early age under a regimen so brutal that their bodies are rarely able to sustain careers past their twenties. And yet, despite what this life demands of them, they continue to fight—on the most basic of levels— for survival. They do it for the body, which is to be fed and sheltered, and they do it for the spirit, which is to be noticed and adored, the attainment of their dreams and desires. Muay Thai, also known as “The Art of the Eight Limbs,” is deeply ingrained in Thai culture. It is seen on every television set, taught in every city and village. It remains the salvation of those who have no other means of livelihood. Camps across Thailand regularly take in orphans, homeless children, and children whose parents can no longer afford to raise them. They are fed, clothed, and provided with an education. In return, the camp typically takes half their earnings. However, not all motivations are monetary in nature, as some of them are taken in because they have nowhere else to go. In taking a portrait, photographers generally try to avoid the archetype and convey something unique about that particular person. It is counterproductive to labor at a creative process which strips away the individuality of the portrait and replaces it with an archetype. Still, portraits in a series must somehow represent a greater whole or illustrate a universal concept. The obstacle with specificity in portraits can be overcome if we are cognizant of the fact that they are true representatives of that greater whole and, when seen together, can give us insights greater than the sum of those single images. This has been my approach to my series on Muay Thai culture. Above: Shadow and Boxer, (2008); Previous spread, clockwise from top, left: Water Break #1, (2008); Pad Training, (2008); Bag Training in Dying Light, (2008); Stretch, (2008).
Above: Young Boxer Posing, (2008); Across, top: Former Boxer Flexing His Muscles, (2008); Across, below: Water Break #2, (2008). Lung S. Liu is a self-taught documentary and portrait photographer living in Vancouver, Canada. He has documented the people and places in Mexico, the Salton Sea, Southeast Asia, and is currently working on a photo essay in Vietnam on his Vietnamese-Canadian identity. More of his work can be seen at photomediacenter.org and lungliu.com. 32
Features the work of Ellen Susan ("Soldier Portraits"), Ériver Hijano ("Aphasia"), Lung S. Liu ("Muay Thai Culture"), and an interview with...
Published on Oct 1, 2008
Features the work of Ellen Susan ("Soldier Portraits"), Ériver Hijano ("Aphasia"), Lung S. Liu ("Muay Thai Culture"), and an interview with...