Andrew Phelps - Photographer, U.S.A.
“The exotic and the mundane”
LS: To what extent is your childhood imagery still present in your photographs?
AP:My father was quite the hobby photographer who invested a lot of time and energy in documenting our various out-door adventures. These usually ended up in big, theatrical slide productions to share the experience with family and friends. Of course the „experience“ couldn’t be transmitted and I think this problem of our expectations of photography, wanting it to be more than it is, is a pivotal part of how I approach my work. So the imagery of my childhood doesn’t necessarily mean the images of me, but more the images which I collected with my father as we tried so hard to share an experience of the wilderness. It didn’t work, and that is inspiring in a way.
LS: Looking at your work evokes a feeling that connects all your projects: a sense of comprehension to life and mankind: like an intimate space for contemplation, meditation, thoughts… Where can the common thread of your work be found?
AP: It is not easy for me to describe that thread you are talking about, I guess that is why I photograph. I don’t strive for that moment, but it is what I am interested in, so it seeps into the work unknowingly. I think it stems from the fact that I am not interested in photographs (either as photographer or viewer) which immediately answer questions. Most images we see we move along after a few seconds and “get it”. I tend to be attracted to the images on my contact sheets which sort of lay there quietly for a while, not the ones which jump out in the first moment. There is nothing dynamic or spectacular in my images. But this is still not answering your question…I think that feeling which you talk about comes from the fact that photography, in the simple documentary style which I incorporate, utilizes a language which we all think we understand. But my premise is that photography alone can’t lead to understanding, or render truth if you will, about a place or a culture, though that is often its role, so we, as viewers, begin to ask ourselves questions.
LS: How did the Higley project start? How deeply are you influenced by the surroundings an places in which you grew up?
AP: The Higley project was the result of several events converging at one time and place. I grew up in the east valley of Phoenix. My sisters moved out to the new housing subdivisions far east of Phoenix, Arizona in 2005, at the height of the housing boom. There is nothing special about this, it was and is happening on the edge of almost every major city in the Western world. What interested me was the fact that my grandparents used to be dairy farmers out in this same area and when I visited my sisters in their new house for the first time, I was struck by the contrast of what used to be a farming paradise had become the bedroom community for Phoenix; my sisters were striving for one form of the “American Dream” as were my grandparents 50 years earlier, it’s just that the dream has changed drastically. This was also the time when my first daughter was born and my initial intention was to simply document this place to show it to her someday. As I was working on the project (8 visits of 1 month each in 4 years), I realized that a lot of the issues I was thinking about, progress, globalization, family and history were topics which applied to the general political and social stance of the US at the time. Higley was at the heart of the housing collapse of 2008 for example. I can’t say I am influenced by the place where I grew up, it doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t go back there. If anything I am influenced by a memory of the place.
LS: Every place or landscape is full of meanings and particular stories. You were born in Arizona and you live in Salzburg. What does it mean for you to photograph in the United States (or Europe)?
SB: It took me along time to actually photograph in Europe. The NATURE DE LUXE book was actually the first work I did in Europe, and I had already been living here for 10 years before I got around to doing it. It took me this long to somehow see myself in this landscape. And then when I did find my interest here, it was based on my childhood experiences of camping with my father and the adventures we would undertake in the desert and mountains in the American west. NATUE DELUXE is an exploration of the camping culture in Europe and how it differs so much to the memories of my childhood in the US. It is certain that my views in America are becoming those of an outsider. Each time I visit the states, the more foreign it feels. Bernard Plossu once told me that every photographer eventually gets around to making a work about the place they are from.
LS: Tell us your strangest “landscape story”?
AP: I had an uncle, his name was Harold. He was our family photographer. He was the one with the camera at every family event, documenting. One day he announced that he and my aunt were going to go to Hawaii and that he would take so many pictures and give us a slide-show so fantastic that none of us would ever feel the need to go to Hawaii ourselves. When he returned from the trip, and before the slide-show was compiled, I asked him how the trip was. He answered, “I don’t know, I haven’t gotten the films back yet…”. This moment was very inspirational for me, though I wouldn’t think about it again for years. It says so much about the role of photography, memory, experience and reality.
LS: Could you tell us something about the importance of people in your photographs?
AP: I always dream of being able to make better portraits than I manage to do. It is by far the most difficult for me and the genre where I am the most self-critical. These 2 factors lead to me throwing out so many portraits. The window of success for a portrait is so small. So many elements have to come together for it to work; the sitter must deliver as much as the photographer. The combination of portraits, still-lives and landscapes has always interested me. This combination lets me create a story of sorts. Not always a “true” story, but a sense of feeling that I want to convey about a place.
LS: Your last work “720-(Two Times Around)” plunges us in the suggestiveness of the skateboard culture, which fed by the post-punk movements and by a certain form of counterculture, characterized by an attitude of rebellion against the establishment. How much of this “non-conventional” view did you bear in your photography and how much do you take delight still nowadays for a well-done “photographic trick”?
AP:There is such a deep relationship between photograhy and skateboarding. They are creative processes which are tied to real spaces. A skateboarder reacts to his or her environement as does the photographer. As was the case in my skateboarding career, often a successful trick was the result of dumb luck. But when the luck comes together a few times, you learned how it felt and began to utilize it to your advantage. So is the case with me and photography, I often have a grand plan, but then stumble along the way, make a wrong turn and bump into somebody who sends me in a new direction to find something I didn’t expect. Thankfully there are still moments when I turn a corner and am confronted with a space or a person which gets my heart racing behind the camera. I think being open to that moment, and trusitng that it will happen again just when you think you will never make another interesting photo, that moment is the real “photographic trick”.
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena