This spring SFMOMA was lucky to be the recipient of a gift of five pictures by San Francisco-based artist Doug Hall. Hall studied anthropology at Harvard University and received an MFA in sculpture from the Rinehart School of Sculpture of the Maryland Institute of Art. He is known for his multimedia installations, films, and photographs and is represented in San Francisco by Rena Bransten Gallery. He is in conversation here with Lisa Sutcliffe, SFMOMA assistant curator of photography. And, more information about the artist here.
LISA SUTCLIFFE: Doug, I wanted to start out by talking a little bit about your background in media other than photography, how you decided to begin using photography, and what about the medium interested you.
DOUG HALL: Well, my background is in media art. In the 70s I was part of an art collective called T. R. Uthco. In the 1980s most of my focus was on video and media installations. I still consider myself to be a media artist more than a photographer. I started doing the kind of photography I’m doing today in 1988 or 89 in conjunction with research I was doing for a media installation, People In Buildings, which dealt with public and institutional spaces and the interactions of people within them.
It was during this time that I started photographing institutional corridors and other transitional spaces that I called “Non-places.” The corridors interested me for several reasons, but what struck me the most was how they referenced perspective and, by implication, its relation to humanism. These early experiments from 1989 and 1990 culminated in a series of large black and white photographs, and I must admit that after working so long within the soft focus of video, I was seduced by the clarity and richness of the photographic image.
I felt that photography was able to do things that video—moving images—couldn’t do. Each allows a different relationship to time. The corridor photographs were taken with very long exposures. There were people moving through while I was shooting but they disappeared into the temporal flow surrounding them. This interested me. The architecture remained and the people were obliterated. I was also aware of their connection to the earliest photographs before film had become fast enough to arrest motion.
Time was arrested. With the image at a standstill, the viewer is allowed a less hurried relationship to the content than is possible when images are moving and building into narratives. Still images invite a sort of retinal drifting. I think this is one of the things Walter Benjamin is referring to when he speaks about photography and an “optical unconscious.”
LS: It’s interesting to me that you went from working with video, which records over time, to working with large-format photography and a long exposure, which still records over time, but in one frame. How else has time continued to play a role in your still photography?
DH: In a lot of my photographs, particularly those involving arrangements of people, I will take several photos in or around the same location. From these I organize the people within the space. In this sense I treat the spaces like stage sets which I then populate. Two of my pictures in the collection were done this way: Trevi Fountain, Rome and Union Station, Los Angeles. In fact, Union Station is the most extreme example of this process to date. The right side of the space was created by mirroring the left side and the people are from an entirely different location – in front of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
I do this for several reasons. One of them has to do with photography’s conceit about the special moment in time. Some of my photographs depict multiple moments, often stretched over several hours, which are folded into what appears to be a single moment. It involves me in a kind of game of time.
LS: Has digital technology changed the way you work?
DH: For better and for worse, I suppose. I’m a control freak, and I think that the kind of control that digital media allows is wonderful. I should explain that I shoot negative film, have it scanned and then edit in a digital environment. The process is a lot like editing video.
I have a strong sense of what I am after when I take a picture, but because I don’t stage my photos with actors and props, I’m dependent on what is actually taking place. Digital post-production allows me to coax the image in a direction that interests me while maintaining many of the mistakes and surprises that happen in front of the camera. The trick for me is to do all of this without killing the picture’s feeling of immediacy or of its being part of the world.
LS: This spring you generously donated five photographs to SFMOMA, adding to the films and media installations already in our collection: Squaw Valley, California, The Grand Canyon, Tokyo (Looking Northwest), Trevi Fountain, Rome, and Union Station, Los Angeles. In contrast to your earlier work, these pictures largely examine the interaction of people in space. How do they fit into your greater body of work?
DH: To be fair the donation has to also be credited to Rena Bransten, whose gallery represents me here in San Francisco. A lot of my work has come out of my interests in the spaces we move through and how they impose themselves on us, both aiding and restricting our access to the things we are seeking. In the earlier work from the late 1980s, the corridor photographs and the series that I called Non-places, for example, I concentrated more on the spaces themselves and human presence was suggested through its absence. But I thought of it as more than a mere absence. It was like an annihilation, as if humanity was devoured by its surroundings. I was consumed by thoughts about the brutality of the built world. The photo Tokyo, Looking Northwest, with its garish colors and smoggy skyline, might also fit into this category. Looking back, I can see that there was a shift in my thinking that began to happen in the mid 1990s. It’s not that I started denying the brutality of our surroundings so much as I began to admire our attempts to find meaning, joy perhaps, even solace within them. In order to get at this I needed to repopulate the spaces. To return the focus to the real subject matter of my work, which is us. More recently – say within the last ten to fifteen years – a lot of my pictures have included people, usually in groups and often in striking settings. I find poignancy in these momentary collections of people gathered in search of something – an experience perhaps, in a place they know from postcards.
LS: As you were saying it’s as if the architecture becomes a theatrical stage set. How do tourist destinations complicate this for you?
DH: Exactly. It’s this idea of staging experience. But we aren’t passively moving through these stage sets. We are fantasizing through them. Our minds wander as we walk down a corridor or along a busy street, stand before a magnificent landscape. We eroticize, we remember, we look, we feel. Stimulated by our surroundings, we become lost in our thoughts. I look for these instances and am drawn to those places where this might happen.
My interest in architectural or constructed space has a long history. I guess I’m looking for the psychgeography of a place, to borrow a Situationist expression, while realizing that photography may be incapable of locating it. For example, take the Trevi Fountain, which is a tourist destination, but historically, it’s a Renaissance space that reflects something particular – Western humanism. It still retains that residue today even as it is besieged by bodies pressing around it. Spatially, psychogeographically, I think it is very much in contrast with other kinds of spaces that I photograph—the corridors, for example, which have a more hostile relationship to our bodies and our psyches. I think that the physicality of these places impinges on us and influences the way we perceive ourselves in the world.
At one point, tourist destinations were of interest to me because of all the anticipation we carry with us when we visit them. And of course, there’s always this level of disappointment. These places are never quite as we imagine them. I think the Grand Canyon is this kind of place; Squaw Valley as well but for different reasons. They are constructed in our imaginations long before we ever see them. [The picture] Squaw Valley I think has an odd sort of beauty that comes not so much from the natural setting but from the way the bodies and the red chairs intersect the landscape. It’s not like I’m creating some great critique about the incursion of people into the landscape. As John Ruskin pointed out—landscape has a relationship to industry and human perception. I’m interested in how it’s affected by that and how we receive it, as such.
LS: How do you situate yourself in terms of landscape? For me, these two photographs—Gene Autry Rock, Alabama Hills, California and The Grand Canyon—initially relate to the grand, monumental landscape tradition. But when you look closer, the scenes resemble a constructed set. In The Grand Canyon the people are dwarfed by the magnificent landscape, but it also appears unnatural and staged.
DH: Right, Exactly. There are two primary locations that were used to represent the western landscape in the early American cowboy movies. One is the Alabama Hills and the other is Monument Valley. My photograph, Gene Autry Rock, is named after an important location – the site of an ambush as I recall – in a Gene Autry film. It looks completely artificial, like a diorama, partially due to its familiarity and because of the way the late afternoon light rakes across the foreground accentuating the tire tracks and foot prints. The Grand Canyon is a different kind of picture. It is grander, more scenic. The arrangement of the sightseers in the distance was carefully constructed from several scanned negatives. These are the locations from which our images of the western landscape are constructed through film, advertising, tourism, and the like.
LS: I think it’s really interesting that you focus on places where nature and culture collide, for example in this photograph of Squaw Valley. These in-between spaces illustrate a breakdown of our systems.
DH: That’s right. I’m not one who looks at the corners of things. There are some people who do that so beautifully. But I’m interested, as you say, in this liminality that sort of explodes and then dissipates again. I completely agree with you about Squaw Valley. I think that’s what is interesting about it – the way the boundary formed by the skis in their ski racks defines this social area, which is set against an incredible mountainscape beyond, which is totally overrun with people – both natural setting and social space.
LS: Something else I’d like to talk about is your use of scale. Your photographs are very large – often extending past our field of vision. What role does scale play in your work?
DH: Well, as I said, I come to this out of media installation where issues of scale are important. From the very start, I made big photographs. In so called “straight” photography emphasis was on exhibiting fairly small images, arranged in horizontal bands. Exhibitions tended to be like books on the wall. I wanted my images to have a stronger relationship to the body and to better account for the act of standing in a room and looking at an image – to experience images somatically as well as retinally. It’s not that I was after this idea of the photo as a window onto the world. Rather, I was interested in a more phenomenological relationship between the viewer and the image; not just a mental one
LS: You mentioned that you don’t believe in the idea of a picture as a window on the world. I think there are some things you do technically, like the hyper-real detail, that make the viewer stop and look carefully. They’re information rich in a way that the unaided eye cannot see on its own, which both allows for what you call “retinal drifting” and simultaneously keeps the viewer from being able “to enter” the pictures.
DH: The consistent reference to and reiteration of single-point perspective in my work is my way of dealing what I call the problem of vision that comes to us through mechanical means. What I mean to say is that the formality of large-format photography makes the world appear much more stable than it actually is. Everything is filtered through the monocular eye of the camera and by implication places us at the center of everything it views. And of course we are not at the center of everything. I think this is an aspect of the hyper-real you are referring to. Another aspect is how the optics of large-format photography allows incredible depth of field in which everything from the closest object to the most distant can be in sharp focus. This is impossible with the naked eye. What I noticed was how this proposed – to my mind at any rate – an epistemology of equality in which everything is of the same order. It’s not that the photograph represents reality as much as it provides an interface, which our eyes and bodies then engage. In a sense, as we look at the photograph we become part of this interface. Our eyes meander. Details arrest our attention. Time stops. I think these are the great attributes of photography: the ways that it condenses the world, stops time, and does this while maintaining detail.
LS: And time comes into play again, because here you present one moment, but the viewer can take an extended time to look closely at everything happening in that instance. In addition, you recently made a film which combines still photography and text—providing further layers of information about each place. In the film you refer to your pictures of cities as self-portraits—which relates to your earlier discussion of psychogeography. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.
DH: I know the text you are referring to. I can even quote it. The words appear over images I took in Moscow in 2007. It reads, “It would be a conceit to think that one could ever describe a place, a city. All we may be able to account for is ourselves within it. It is in this sense that a personal description of a city is really a self-portrait. Perhaps this is why Victor Shklovsky in Zoo, or Letters Not About Love is initially unable to write about the city to which he has been temporarily exiled and simply says, “Berlin is hard to describe.” It seems like one of the presumptions of photography is that somehow we know something by looking at the photograph. Well, certainly, we know something. But we know just a tiny bit, and what we know is not fixed. Even though the image is static, it changes as we change. It provides new meanings as time passes because we are not frozen in time. Our time is fluid. The photograph is an interface that we engage and which changes as we change. It is in this sense that a photograph is interactive.
It’s what Wittgenstein said about philosophy: philosophy is like the ladder you use to climb somewhere, and then you make sure to kick it away as soon as you get there. And I’m sort of that school.
Gene Autry Rock is on view now through June 27 as part of the California photography exhibition The View From Here. Some of the pictures from Doug Hall’s recent gift will be on view in the fall, as part of the upcoming collections exhibition The More Things Change.