For more than thirty years photographer Greg Conniff has focused his attention on the landscapes of daily life—from backyards to the rural countryside—with the conviction that these places and how they look are the soil into which we sink our roots as human beings and develop our sense of home. Conniff’s black-and-white images point directly to the deep beauty of the ordinary world. These photographs are part of his argument that the overlooked, the ephemeral, and what grows unmanaged along the margins play insufficiently understood roles in our ideas of place and our understanding of who we are. In the run up to his much-anticipated retrospective exhibition at the Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery, Conniff took time to discuss photography, philosophy, and gardening with Watrous Gallery curator Martha Glowacki.
Glowacki: Over the course of 2012, you’ve spent time reviewing thirty years of your photographic work, reexamining images that you never printed, and, in some cases, finding connections between images made many years apart. But in many ways your work is remarkably constant. Within the larger subject of landscape photography, you return to the same formal ideas and themes over and over.
Conniff: I believe that each of us has a unique structure of visual organization. I also believe that whatever structure we have is the result of the visual character of the place in which we spent our earliest years. Each of us sees with our own pattern, but artists and gardeners are the ones to find that pattern and build something that we can see around it.
As adults we often signal who we are by where we are—but we are also, at root, where we were. I’ve signed up for the nurture of nature—the idea that place shapes us, the idea that large sky, open water, dense woods, crowded buildings, climate, topography, hills, valleys, and fields form the physical rhythms of the world. Those first rhythms are the foundation for our patterns of sight and also for our most profound sense of home. And it is the idea of home, this deep connection to one place or region, that engages me as a photographer.
Glowacki: I’ve noticed how often you return to the same places to photograph. What do you gain from this?
Conniff: Something I do when I’m in the field is go back regularly to places that interest me to see how they change with weather, seasons, and light to experience those places with a familiarity conditioned by the expectation of change. I am far from the first to do this. My pictures are new, but not news. In Emerson’s words, I am “a new witness.”My goal is to see like a person native to a place, someone at home, someone alert to nuances of shifting shape and shadow on the land in the way one might want to be alert to minor changes that keep a human relationship on its toes.Everything old can be new—is in fact new to someone. I figure, why not me? Or you.
Glowacki: One reason that I am so drawn to your work is because of the way you see beauty in things that many of us would dismiss as ordinary, not worth noticing, much less photographing.
Conniff: A significant part of any idea of home is found in the repetitions we experience in daily life, which include—even in the most barren places—moments that radiate beauty: when light ignites some obscure detail of the ordinary world, or mist envelopes it, or the night plays darkness like every kind of jazz saxophone. Whether we’re conscious of these moments or not, they nourish our ideas of place and identity. We inhale them with the ease of breathing. We are born to beauty. It helps us think. The sum of these beautiful moments is the soil in which we sink our roots as people, as human animals, as souls in place. It is where we plant the future.
Glowacki: I’m trying to sort this idea out; I’ve never thought about beauty helping us to think.
Conniff: When we say, “think,” I believe most of us mean reasoning through a problem by means of language. Sometimes what we need first is a good slap to the head.
Glowacki: I don’t follow you. A slap in the face?
Conniff: Um, “slap to the head.” More Zen-bop wakeup than rebuke. Beauty can be that bop. Beauty can leave us speechless, overthrowing for a moment the tyranny of language, its restrictions and its expectations. Beauty is a form of order that resets the mind to view the world from a different angle—a capacity it shares with love and fear.
Glowacki: I know for me beauty is both energizing and calming, and it is certainly fundamental to my sense of well-being. Too, beauty is at the heart of my work as an artist. But so many artists feel that beauty is too easy, that it’s trite, that it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the contemporary art dialogue.
Conniff: Beauty is not easy. Artists who think it’s easy give us the canned visual order that we refer to as cliché. Cliché is 19th century French for a printing plate containing a common phrase. Rather than setting that phrase for the press one letter at a time, out of convenience people would use a cliché. That phrase became commonplace because when it was fresh it expressed perfectly a widely shared understanding of a set of facts, feelings, or intuitions. However, what began as a sharp point became blunt in the hands of hacks (think of bad “calendar art”). This is one thing artists fear: being seen as a hack. One result of this is that artists fleeing anodyne cliché in pursuit of the new and shocking can become themselves the cliché of the artist as disruptor, as brat.
Glowacki: And they think that photography’s easy, too.
Conniff: Photography is easy, that’s its beauty and its flaw. Why work hard at something that just asks you to snap a shutter or tap an app? The beauty to me is that the camera is the most democratic means of visual communication. The flaw is that, as was once said to me, “any idiot can push a button.”Nevertheless, I work within a structure that has me using my equipment pretty much the way anyone would have used a box camera in the early 20th century. The difference for me and for people like me is, as the revered curator and photographer John Szarkowski pointed out, we’re pretty good at consistently knowing where to stand and where the edge of the frame is. In photography, that’s the starting place for point of view.
Glowacki: You have also talked with me about learning to really see a landscape, to learn what is particular to a place. You once told me that it took you a long time to learn to take photographs in our part of the Midwest after living in the eastern United States. I got the sense that you sometimes felt that you could never take landscape photographs here that had the personal significance you demand from your work. At some point—excuse the bad pun—everything clicked for you here, yes?
Conniff: Well I’m still not sure that I’ve ever really “gotten” the Midwest, but I trained my eye here. Wisconsin is beautiful, but its beauty is subtle and its light lacks the clarity of mountain light and the varieties of light that can animate landscapes nearer to oceans. And, speaking of clichés, it’s a sea of corn and cows. I had to live here for a long time before I could see with conviction and make pictures of what I saw. But when my eye finally knew itself, the first good work came from New Jersey, where I grew up. I had developed access to the visual structures that a New Jersey childhood had given me and I was able to make pictures that were clearly mine. It took most of the next decade before I could do the same for Wisconsin. Send in the cows.
Glowacki: There are other aspects of beauty that I see in your work: the subtle beauty of geometric field landscapes edged by wild foliage, or the beauty of decay.
Conniff: Most of my pictures contain the passage of time or other connections to the fact of mortality. One reason is that I was raised Catholic. The other reason is that I work mostly in the spring and fall: In the spring when the leaves are just coming out I can read the land forms behind the trees. In the fall the bare fields of spring are now filled with the geometry of harvest and the subtle yellows of the foliage look marvelous in black and white.
Glowacki: I want to introduce another line of questions in response to a conversation that I had with one of your collectors. In essence, he told me that it took him some time to understand what was special, fine, and powerful about your work. At first, he thought (and, I’m paraphrasing here): What’s the big deal? These are just regular old Wisconsin landscape photos that anyone can take. And then he told me that he got it. What was the revelation that he had about your work, and what did it take for him to arrive there?
Conniff: That particular collector is describing a phenomenon I’ve been aware of since the late ’70s: it takes about a year for my pictures to get across. They’re slow pictures. But the other part of the story is that when people do get it, they tell me that they see the ordinary world differently than they did before. That’s my job and that’s my reward.A sad legacy of Ansel Adams and the Sierra Club is that they inadvertently persuaded people that beauty existed someplace other than where they lived, somewhere in the wilderness—and that wilderness was about to be extinguished by more places like where they lived. True enough.At the same time the places of daily life became home to photographers whose work was to startle us out of a dream and into a real but less beautiful America. Also true work. My work tries to shed light on a few facts of daily life in such a way that we might develop the same concern for our own region that we do for the sublime places where we cannot live without destroying them. Why not make a place to live that other people would want to visit? No place was without beauty before we built on it. Some places somehow got it right. When a picture of mine works I like to think it holds useful information on how to better value and engage with our visual habitat. It matters how things look.
Glowacki: It seems to me that in a sense the collector’s comments get to the essential work of the artist: how to develop your critical sense and individual eye so that you can communicate through your work in a clear and powerful way. You say that you trained your eye in Wisconsin. Can you describe how you did that?
Conniff: In the mid-’70s I made a vow not to take a picture of a human being for a year—and I was making pretty good pictures of people up to that point.
First I photographed looking down at my feet in my living room, then I went out the front door and shot the sidewalk and some poles, then I discovered the piles of sand and gravel at Madison Block and Stone. I would wander that property and other places with piles of rock on Sundays and return with pictures that were nothing but volume, texture, and line. No narrative, no critique, just looking. Then I stood on the edge of one of these properties where grass was invading the stone and I photographed that—and then continued making pictures with two physical elements instead of one. And one thing led to another and soon there were three elements, and on and on until one day I realized that my more complex images were really a collage of the collapsed simpler pictures. Then I raised my head and began to look toward the horizon.
Glowacki: I have to ask the Photography 101 question here: What sort of equipment do you work with, anything special?
Conniff: I have always used one medium-format camera, one standard lens, a medium yellow filter, one film, one paper, one developer. The camera is on a tripod at about my eye level, my basic point of view. Its focus is between ten feet and infinity. I compose and expose very quickly. When a camera wears out I buy another one. The photographs I get are the result of my intuitions about whatever caught my eye structured by the discipline of those restrictions, especially the lens. It’s something like deciding only to draw with a #2 pencil; there are elements of the world—color at the very least—that are beyond my reach. But in the end, with any luck, there is a consistency to the pictures that I hope is more character than style.
Glowacki: By now you have amassed thousands and thousands of negatives. How do you choose which images to print?
Conniff: Deciding what to print has always been problem. There are more pictures that interest me than there is space to store them. Nevertheless, I really like looking at lots of pictures.So now I’m working on my computer—scanning, doing with a cursor only the things I used to do with my hands and chemicals—and building a visual archive larger and more complex than I could ever have printed.Recently I began a Tumblr photoblog (gconniff.tumblr.com) where I’m posting a picture a day, pretty much at random, although the tags will help sort things out as the pictures become more numerous.
Glowacki: We can’t end this conversation without talking about your other great passion, gardening.
Conniff: Since the late ’70s I’ve built gardens, primarily in my own yard, but sometimes with others. Gardens are pictures on land. And any garden is better than none.
Glowacki: Yes. And they are compositions that we can never entirely control.
Conniff: I would say that for the last thirty years I have gardened with a growing clarity that the digging, planting, dividing, transplanting, mulching, weeding, watering, staring, and even the gatherings that go on in the resulting place, are as much my work as an artist as are the things I do to make my photographs.
Glowacki: You talk about gardens as “pictures on land”; I think about gardens as living sculptures. So much of my work is about surface texture and subtle detail. When I plan a garden I think most about texture and density, not so much about the plants as specimens, the way that a horticulturalist would. Some of your garden photographs are all about texture and density, about seeing into the tangle. And they are about time, seasons passing, and life.
Conniff: When I talk with people about building a garden I talk about volume, texture, and line. Not flowers. Flowers come and go, but the garden has to show its character whether there are blooms or not. In winter, also. And that, I guess, is sculptural, although I’d never grant myself the distinction of sculptor. Picture-making has taken me to places I’ve come to feel at home in. Gardening has allowed me to draw lessons from those places (and my photographs of them) and to put what I’ve learned into practice on the small piece of land that is my responsibility. And, of course, I’ve photographed my own garden.
Glowacki: So your garden has become part of a grand circle.
Conniff: From April through June, the peak time for my idea of a garden, I live in a picture I’ve made. ... One way or another we all do.
Glowacki: From your catalog essays, you talk about an urgent need to develop a sense of place, of home, in order to motivate people to create as well as to save what is particular to their locale so that we don’t all become dwellers in a homogeneous landscape of cultural and environmental degradation.
Conniff: The last line of Voltaire’s Candide is “We must cultivate our garden.” My very simple thought, simple as a hammer, is that if everyone who lives in a house would build a garden—I mean, everyone—the world would be a better place.When we garden we add something to the community that increases its visual character and we increase habitat for birds, insects, and, okay, okay, white-tailed deer and raccoons, too. For birds and insects this is a big deal as development has turned wild and open land into a desert for native and migrating wildlife. It’s important to keep in mind that we are all animals in a habitat and that habitat matters. I’ve gardened with my neighbor on the North side of my yard for over thirty years. She’s cultivated her garden specifically for birds. As far as the birds are concerned we have a woodsy place the width of a city block with water, sheltering brush, and plants that blossom and fruit in tune with the rhythms of avian life. And I can sit in the garden, beverage in hand, immersed in birdsong, spring and summer, while most people nearby are inside watching television, some of them perhaps wishing they were elsewhere. My small city yard and its garden has been a kind of laboratory where, through parties and other activities over the years, I’ve experimented with my ideas of place and human character—the influence of the former on the latter. It’s become clear to me that people seem more open to differing points of view when they’re in open spaces organized around visual pleasure and surprise.Well, duh, I suppose.But once in a while I’m aware that something’s flowered somewhere else that was a once seed in my garden—and that the world is a bit more open as a result. Art has always had the power to change the way we understand the world. That is why we honor art … and also why we love and fear it. If a garden can do the same, is it not art as well?