Friday, May 22, 2009

Lucas Foglia Interview – Re-Wilding


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Lucas Foglia just finished his first year in the Yale graduate program and his series Re-Wilding should probably be familiar to you by now, since it’s been making its way around the internet. If you’re not plugged into the blog world, you may have seen the image above on a recent PDN cover.

His images, while modern in terms of photographic convention, are not always easily placeable. They seem to have a film aesthetic, yet are shot digital. They vibrate with a variety of anachronistic subjects, clothing styles, tools, settings. They are concerned with a very small segment of the population, yet don’t seem to be a freak show – the subjects are not harassed by the camera. Some of them are heavier than others, but it is unclear how much of the weight is brought by the viewer, by the camera, and how much is actually pressing on the subject of the image.

While I am content to let the individual images have their mystery, I wondered about his methods of working, his feelings on this ambient ambiguity in his images. I sent him an email and he was kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

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Ian Aleksander Adams: Mostly, I’ve seen the statement for Re-Wilding reprinted with your images, but I did come across a little interview with you at Feature Shoot.

I was intrigued by this statement:

“‘I think of my photographs as fictions that are accurate to the spaces in which I am photographing. Utopia implies a place in which social, legal, and political justice exist in perfect harmony. While I admire my subjects’ skills and intentions, I do not want to depict a utopia. Instead, this series is about the complexity of people’s relationship to nature and survival in one of the few developed countries in which there is still a wilderness we can return to’.” (emphases mine)

This idea of accurate fictions is one I think is very relevant in contemporary photography. These images are not studio, but I hesitate to call them documentary. Do you find people classing your work as “documentary” often? Is this a classification you shy from or are willing to work within?

Lucas Foglia: Philip Gefter, a former picture editor for the New York Times, said that “a picture may not be worth a thousand words, but a picture and a good caption are worth one thousand ten.” The caption specifies the date, the place and to a large extent the meaning of the image. The photograph alone, by putting a frame around a portion of the world at a specific moment in time, can only ‘look real’ and imply form, movements, emotions and relationships of the subjects within the frame.

Recently my photographs have been classified as documentary, as environmental portraiture, etc. I’m not sure I fit into any specific doctrine for making images, so rather than defining my work in relation to a classification, I’ll describe my process.

Since 2006 I have visited, befriended, photographed and interviewed a network of people in Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia who have responded to environmental concerns by moving to rural areas and adopting wilderness or homesteading lifestyles. My subjects vary in their religious beliefs and cultural practices but they all share a desire for self-sufficiency; a desire that, at least in part, guides their behaviors and stated values.

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During my visits, I participate in daily life. I take candid photographs, but often ask my subjects to hold still or alter their actions for the sake of a better visual image. I also work collaboratively with my subjects to recreate events that I have observed, occasionally re-photographing and compositing different images. My process of making images varies; what matters to me is the form and content of the final image.  At the same time, I want my art to make a subject accessible, a subject that is, or is made to seem, accurate and relevant.

When I began the series, the individuals and families I photograph did not self-identify with a single, centrally organized movement. Incorporating early American, Christian homesteading and hippie cultures, in 2007 I borrowed a term from Green Anarchism to call my subjects Re-Wilders. In recent news coverage, the term Re-Wilding has been adopted and used.

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A Bit of Background: I come from an agricultural background, although one that was far less removed from the grid than many of the people who I photograph. My paternal grandparents purchased a seven acre farm in Long Island in the early 1960’s. When I was born in 1983, my parents purchased three adjacent acres with the idea of creating an agricultural lifestyle inspired by the back-to-the-land ethos of Helen and Scott Nearing and the counterculture movements of the 1960’s.  As the land around us continued to develop into suburbs, we heated with wood, grew and canned a portion of our food and bartered plants and landscaping for everything from shoes to dentistry. At the same time, we remained connected to the electrical grid and, by the time I left for college, my immediate family owned four cars, five computers and one nonworking television.

When I bought my van and started traveling South, I was in many ways looking for visual proof that people could live according to utopic ideals. What I found was a network of people who, like my family, worked to maintain alternative lifestyles but also drove to stores, used cell phones and chainsaws, etc. I learned that there are no hard and fast rules, no absolutes. I am fascinated by the points of intersection between my subjects’ ideals, the ubiquitous availability of the mainstream world and the hard work necessary to maintain an alternative lifestyle.

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IAA: How important is it that the images are “truthful?” Is truthful the same as accurate? Like, you mention the “complexity of people’s relationship to nature and survival” – are people too complex to ever be summed up by something as unflinching as the common idea of “truth.” Perhaps artistic and expressive truth is more fluid.

Lucas: I don’t want my photographs to have truth or authority over a subject. I would rather have insight.

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IAA: In a totally different direction, I had a few questions about your education as a photographer. A lot of my readers are undergraduate students, and since you are finishing up your first year at grad school, I was wondering how that experience has been for you.

Lucas: I did just finish my first year of grad school in the Yale School of Art, and on a basic level I think of photography in a different way than when I entered the program last fall. The Yale MFA is about making photographs. I think the challenge is to make photographs that are complicated in both form and content; photographs that reveal instead of illustrate; photographs that try to advance the medium of photography. So far, I have been showing images from my Re-Wilding series and from a handful of other projects. The critiques have been difficult and constructive, as expected. They want me to push at my comfort zone and experiment.

In our first class meeting, Greg Crewdson recommended that we choose the one percent of what we hear in critique that is helpful and use it to make better pictures…

Lucas can be found at http://www.lucasfoglia.com. As he notes on his website: A portion of the proceeds from every print sale will be donated to the subject of the photograph or a related charity.

posted by Ian Aleksander Adams at 6:41 pm  

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