Yep, I have been gone a while. Such is the life of a nearly-done PhD student who is working overtime and has a family. But the darkness is gone, and though I feel very withered from a tough, tough semester, I can now return to photographing—after all, that’s what I do.
So I began looking for images to warm my skills again after a 4-month hiatus, and to rekindle my visual emotions. And behind a school in a far-flung county in the Nebraska Sandhills, I found a greenhouse that reminded me how much I love the light.
I traveled the Junk Jaunt trail this last weekend, following locations that sold everything from antiques to—no kidding—secondhand underwear. Yuck.
Luckily, I was only interested in photographs, and at a warehouse in Ansley, Nebraska, my students and I found a back room populated with chairs. The owner, Jim, is a retired illustrator with a penchant for three-dimensional storage art, it would seem.
I think he certainly had an eye for creating photo opportunities.
Bouncy House, Elwood
Ah, the unexpected. Photographically, it’s de rigueur at the small rodeos of the West, whether it be those in the crowd, the cowboys, the cowgirls or the children. Honestly, while this project is about much more for me than novelty, it’s what often keeps me coming back to each and every backwater event I can find. This image is case-in-point.
Cowboy and Ferris Wheel, Elwood
I recently wrapped up another stint of teaching at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, somewhere I feel most honored to be an instructor. But that’s not the point of this post. Color is.
Someone I met this year in Santa Fe noted that while I’m known as a black-and-white artist, I haven’t worked solely in monochrome, and what’s more, some of my best—best!—images are in color. Ironic, no? Yet, I often feel like Eeyore when I make such images.
“I might have known,” said Eeyore. “After all, one can’t complain.”
So when I made the above image and chose to leave it in color (which may mean it never goes in my forthcoming book about rural rodeos), upon seeing it, another person made a related comment regarding palette. “Oooh, color! That’s not like you.”
Snow Field, Rocky Mountains
I don’t shoot things because they’re pretty. In fact, I often use “pretty” as a backdrop for troubling things, contrasting the sublime with the symbolic, rejecting simple aesthetic for a more introspective examination of my own relationship with the visual and modern world. Those “fusion” images, to borrow a term from a dear friend, are rare, and even more so those that grab me by the throat and shake me, demanding to be made.
The above image is one of those images for me. I had seen it from afar several times in the high country over the preceding days, but the high altitude light and cheery, puffy clouds had not illuminated the deep, brooding character of the composition. In looking at it, I felt bitter cold, profound isolation, and looming threat. On the third day, with churning storm clouds boiling overhead, and the freezing wind chewing at my face, the photograph finally revealed itself, and I made eight frames in response to its demands.
Doors, St. Elmo
The school year’s over, and except for a few meetings, a vast world of photography awaits me over the next 3 months! It’s my favorite time to shoot, since I can make good time in the field, make tens of thousands of images, and return to my photographic life. I’ll be working on a number of long-term and new ventures during this time, including my rural rodeos project, my abandoned project, and a new, super-secret project that will start appearing here in the next few weeks.
Until then, here’s one of my favorites from the Abandoned project: Doors, St. Elmo.
Nebraska Cultural Endowment: Livelihood
There are surreal moments in a photographic life; after all, that life is often a solitary one, with long, quiet hours spent on the road, in the field, and in one’s own mind. After a time, it’s easy to begin thinking about the absurdity of those pursuits, the frivolity of such a life. But moments like this morning are very nice indeed, and they infuse me with energy for years to come.
Erin Sample, the communications director at the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, the partner organization to the Nebraska Arts Council (where my show Recollections is featuring through May), contacted me in late March and asked if she could feature me as one of their statewide “Livelihood” stories. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, for it is a profound honor. So I sent in my materials, and Erin worked with me to finalize the feature. And then I put it out of my mind, until Erin e-mailed me this morning: “Brett, the story’s up!”
I’ve had a lot—a LOT—of shows. I’ve given lots of talks. Each was an honor, too. But I’m so very moved to be featured in this way, and I’m emotionally and physically humbled as well, because I’m being included in a group of very, very impressive Nebraskans.
And I hope the Cultural Endowment doesn’t regret their decision.
This show at the Nebraska Arts Council’s Fred Simon Gallery has been a long time coming, and like every show I’ve ever done, I’m terrified. I was awarded the show in 2013, and when it comes to this show, I’m in a very different place, artistically (and literally) speaking. Am I too “out there?” Will people not understand the work? Have I been too heavy-handed? These fears are exponentially larger this time, since the concept of the show is so much more complex. This one is…risky. Very risky.
So, either I’ll go down in flames, my photographic career languishing in Icarian glory, or I’ll still go down, but in a pallid hue of boring. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance I might get lucky and people will connect with the pieces and the show itself.
Here’s to hoping.
One of the great joys of my life is working with students, especially on thesis shows. The thesis is an exercise in artistic discovery, of artistic merit, and for artistic tenacity; the show that results is never the show that was planned. And that itself is the most rewarding moment for me in my own shows, too, the looking back on the long and unanticipated road traveled, all the while relishing the destination achieved.
This image is part of a diptych called “The Ostensibility of Nostalgia.” When this project began, I planned no such pieces, and looked for no paths to achieve them. But as I was recovering more pieces from one of the doomed homesteads that have provided many of the materials for the show, several artifacts spurred me to think in groups, in new concepts I hadn’t yet considered.
The show is better for it.
The Recollections show opens in less than one month (April 20), with the reception on May 1 from 5–7. The pieces are composed and prepared, and now mounting and construction will begin in earnest.
Here’s a preview of Intuition under construction.