“A photograph is not a documentation of reality, and it is most definitely not about the ‘thing’ in the viewfinder.”
Andrew Phelps (born in 1967 in Mesa, Arizona) is a contemporary photographer currently living in Salzburg, Austria. He studied photography at “Arizona State University” and Salzburg College. His is the author of several photography books, among them “Higley”.
Interview with Andrew Phelps
Andrew, why did you become a photographer?
At first I was fascinated with the science of it. I guess it’s a teenage guy thing, but I loved all the gear and the chemistry and the technology of it. The photographs I was making when I first started were more or less what I thought people wanted to see in a photograph. Wandering around the deserts in Arizona my inspiration came out of the classic beautiful western landscape magazines. So it was not so much about trying to create an image but instead to find the images which I knew out of magazines and post-cards; when I would find it, and if I looked through the viewfinder and saw something that I thought I had seen before, on a calendar, in a magazine, on a poster, then I knew it had to be good and worthy of photographing. I was constantly chasing these preconceptions in the summer and photographing wrestling matches for my high-school yearbook during the winter. The satisfaction came from finding the right solution to the problem; making the picture what was “expected”.
It wasn’t until my time at ASU, studying with people like Bill Jay, Bill Jenkins and Tamarra Kaida that everything changed. I started the photo program so sure of myself because I had all the gear and a nice picture or two to show, but nothing can prepare you for the moment you see the works of Diane Arbus, Walker Evens, Robert Frank and co., and have someone like Bill Jenkins tell you, in one simple sentence, almost as if in passing, that there is a monumental difference between “subject matter” and “content”. If I got nothing out of my studies, or to put it better, if I could break it down to one essential moment, it would be the realization that a photograph is not a documentation of reality, and it is most definitely not about the “thing” in the viewfinder.
So I guess I could say I became a photographer because it was a science that made sense, but have stayed a photographer because the more I do it the less sense it makes.
In 1990 you decided to move to Europa. Why did you choose Austria?
“I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t Arizona; somewhere with high mountains, snow, and long cultural history.”
That really was a spontaneous decision. I wanted out of AZ, if only for a semester, so I did a study abroad at the intense photography school in Salzburg, Austria named “Salzburg College”. I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t Arizona; somewhere with high mountains, snow, and long cultural history. While a student I met not only my colleagues at Fotohof but also my wife Nathalie and now 20 years later with kids, a studio, galleries and the whole deal, I am still here.
How has the cross-cultural experience influenced your work as a photographer?
I couldn’t have admitted it at the time, but within a few weeks of being in Europe I knew this was the place for me. I somehow felt that this lifestyle is the one I was always looking for. Of course even just a short glance at my work shows that I still spend a lot of time in the States, photographing in Arizona, but it is a result of living in Europe so long that I am even interested in the urban sprawl around Phoenix; were I still there I never would have done the 2 book projects from there, Higley and Haboob. So I guess it’s the constant questioning of “what is home, where do I belong” etc. that has influenced the work the most.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
I suppose it was when I was making the “Baghdad Suite” series simply because nothing was planned and I was suddenly standing in the middle of a bombed-out arabic city. I left when my film was gone, hoping to come back the next day but when I did return, the place was completely gone; I thought for a moment I dreamt everything.
What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say? Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.
I think the more I (we) have become overwhelmed with imagery, the quieter and more cryptic my images have become. I am much more interested in the parts of the contact sheets which don’t jump out and scream for attention. If an image (mine or others) is loud and pushy, it tends to lose my attention and interest that much quicker.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Robert Adams. His were the first topographical photographs which I saw which were of a place that looked like where I grew up. Suddenly the place I new and recognized was a legitimate place to make interesting photographs; the suburban landscape.
What’s your favorite inspirational photography quote?
Robert Adams again: „No place is boring with a good night’s sleep and a box of unexposed film.“
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process? How do you plan and execute a project?
“When I see a bit of myself in the work I am doing then I know it’s what I need to be doing at the time, even when it’s not hip or in at the time, which is tough to do.”
My language is quite subtle and usually very subdued and quiet. I’m not interested in the images which jump off of the contact sheet but more in those that I don’t even notice at the first pass. The creative process almost always starts with my own autobiography, it’s where I seem to find the motivation to keep on with something. When I see a bit of myself in the work I am doing then I know it’s what I need to be doing at the time, even when it’s not hip or in at the time, which is tough to do.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
A pivotal point for me was when I decided to spend 4 years on the “Nature De Luxe” series. I was still young and the idea of working on one series for 4 years seemed impossible for me, but it really brought me back around to documentary photography which I kind of left during the late ’90s for more conceptual work as I wanted things to happen fast and was basically just working from show to show on whatever was interesting at the time. With “Nature De Luxe” I set out to make a long-time documentation which meant intense editing and most importantly it meant throwing out a lot of images. when you work on something for a longer period of time you start throwing away images which at one time were your favorites. This time of being able to see images lose their allure is very important for me now.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Not much really to say here. Color has been a big part of the work since the “Nature De Luxe” work, which was the first work I did in color, basically just to capture the colors of the camping world and was immediately interested on how my images looked less abstract than all the black and white work I had been making. So I stuck with color, to this day. Conceptually, I take a very un-dynamic approach to framing and lighting and perspective. I like it best when you don’t really even feel my presence in the images.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
Patience and endurance, it’s a marathon not a sprint. Travel is incredibly important for me, both in making work and promoting it. Flexibility, nothing happens as planned.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Books, my friends, my family’s history, literature, D.J. Duncan books, Calexico songs, driving the autobahn.
What kind of camera and equipment do you use?
Mamiya 7, Toyo 4×5, Canon Mark 2.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
I don’t follow too many anymore. I like “Lens Culture” and “Photo-Eye”, “Landscape Stories” and “Hippolyte Bayard”.
What book about photography would you recommend?
Robert Adams: “Why People Photograph”. It’s very refreshing to read something unpretentious.
Showcasing photography on the Internet is becoming more and more popular. You also write a blog and are a member of the european network “Piece Of Cake”. What possibilities do you see to promote photography online?
“I think it is already leveling off a bit from the photo-blog hype from a few years ago. I wish more people would publish interesting writing on the web, like 5b4 did for a few years.”
Because I write the blog I get so many links sent to me and it is overwhelming how much work is out there. Some of it very good, some not so good, but its impossible to keep up with all of it to the point that I don’t even want to look at work online anymore. I will pick up a book 100 times before I click on a link. I think it is already leveling off a bit from the photo-blog hype from a few years ago. I wish more people would publish interesting writing on the web, like 5b4 did for a few years. What “Piece of Cake” is doing is so much more rewarding. It is a group of about 20 photographers who have banded together in a sense of family, a no-holds-barred relationship with each other where we push and support and go to battle for each other; what it gives is very rare and priceless for me.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?
Find an interesting photographer to assist for and learn hands-on. Don’t sell yourself cheap, ever. Don’t give away too much online with all of the venues we have to show our work; nothing looks good in 72 DPI, keep people interested in seeing original work or in buying a book. Don’t flood and bombard galleries and journalists with emails of links to your work, instead go visit them.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: Why did you keep on in “Higley” by doing “HABOOB” directly after finishing the first book?
A: “Higley” was about the housing boom in the east valley of Phoenix. Just after I finished the book, the sub-pürime collapse and housing market crash of 2008 hit. I had just finished this book which predicted a future that was in the process of falling apart, so I thought I just have to keep going; HIGLEY is pre-housing crash, HABOOB is post-housing crash.
The utopian vision I once felt in the west, and the buzz of a seemingly bullet-proof real-estate market gave way to a social and economic no-man’s land. What was once the new American Dream is now a place symbolic for instability, and vulnerability when capitalism goes unchecked. The unbridled expansion, which began in my childhood, was betting its future on the promise of continual growth and sub-prime interest rates. Considered by many to be unsustainable, “progress” in the form of urban sprawl proved once again to be a facade of a utopian, homogenous vision.
Called by their Arabic name, the East Valley is famous for ominous haboob sandstorms. The haboob is a fitting metaphor, representing the fear and instability in the western US urban middle class as its identity is once again being reformed, reshaped.