Jerry, what motivated you to move from a hard science profession, cytotechnology? And to do so “abruptly,” as you have said? [click on images to enlarge]
I was at a dead-end in my profession; I was burnt out and had been passed over for promotion to a supervisory position the year before. A new manager from the lab in Phoenix had been brought in; there was a marked shift in the culture of the workplace, and I was having difficulty adapting to the new, more corporate environment. I hadn’t actually been planning to retire, but, after discussing the situation with my wife, I gave my two- weeks notice.
We had recently returned from a backpacking trip to the Escalante in Southern Utah, and I saw something in a number of the photos I had made with my little point and shoot camera that stirred my interest. I purchased the cheapest DSLR Nikon made and began taking pictures of anything and everything. I thought that I might, through the sale of my work, supplement my retirement income. That was a little over six years ago. I have experienced a fair amount of success with my work. I regularly exhibit locally, and last year I had work included in one national and one international competition. It turns out that my assumptions regarding the fiscal potential were, shall we say, naïve, and my long-suffering wife has become an unwitting patron of the arts.
Cytology is a highly visual profession, and much of the diagnostic process takes place on a subconscious level. When I was investigating the field, prior to enrolling in the university, I spoke with a practicing cytologist, and she asked me if I was an artist. I thought this a peculiar question. She remarked that artists tended to do very well in cytology. One of the nine sister muses, Urania, created astronomy, another visual science, so, perhaps, it isn’t such a leap as it might first appear.
Your Limbic System Photoworks refers to the limbic system in animals which you define as “a collection of structures in the brain that are the primary locus of emotional life and the formation of memories.” Why do you see emotions and memory as the foundation of your artwork? Do you refer to emotions and memory in the viewers of your artwork or to your own emotions and memories, or both?
My wife came up with the idea of calling the business Limbic System Photoworks, both as a nod to my background in the sciences and as a way of bridging that and this new adventure I was embarking on. I thought it was brilliant! It was such an eloquent way of expressing the connection between science and art.
My goal in my nature work is, first and foremost, to elicit a strong emotional response from the viewer For what it’s worth, I consider myself as not just the creator, but, also, one of the viewers. But more to your question – I am referring to both my own and others’ responses. In my landscape and nature images the response I am usually seeking is a “positive” one – awe, contentment, peace, a sense that the world is a beautiful, friendly, and welcoming place, but other times I like to do something a little ominous, unsettling – impending storms and other extreme environments, processes of decay and mortality. In my more conceptual bodies of work, my intent is to pose questions or create situations that may make some viewers a bit uncomfortable, to create a degree of “psychological tension”. In that work I explore questions dealing, sometimes directly, other times obliquely, with religious beliefs, spirituality, mortality, fear, et. al.
The memory aspect relates loosely to the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious” and “ancestral memory”. I admit to exercising artistic license in this concept. Photography is particularly well suited to bridging an individual’s personal experience with the experience of others, both in the present and across the arc of human history. The collective unconscious deals in archetypes and symbolism. Jung described it as encompassing “the soul of humanity at large”. Someone with no direct experience of wild natural environments, someone who has never ventured outside the confines of the city, can, nevertheless, be stirred by images that depict places, where the hand of man is not readily apparent. These places call out to us and draw us in on a deep level.
At the risk of being branded as a little soft around the edges, I will say that I don’t make the decision as to what palette I use – the work tells me. Sometimes I create multiple iterations - color and straight black & white or toned monochromes, or all three. There is an old maxim in photography that holds the concept of “previsualization”, i.e. knowing exactly what the finished image will look like prior to releasing the shutter, as the consummate expression of skill and artistry. It is held up as a sign of personal integrity (or lack thereof). Some would consider letting the work speak for itself in that way as akin to heresy, but I see it as an organic, evolutionary process. I don’t always know exactly what my motivation is when I release the shutter; there is something at work on a subconscious level that sometimes only reveals itself during subsequent review.
Regarding choice of color vs monochrome, each impacts how an image works on us in a variety of ways. Monochrome work abstracts an image and sepia tones evoke the past, an amorphous dream-like state. Color can abstract to a degree as well. The limitations are essentially endless with digital work. Photography affords the luxury of being able to create, with relative ease, variations on a theme, whether in choice of palette or other aspects, e.g. dodging and burning (selectively lightening and darkening specific areas of the image), contrast, saturation/desaturation, etc. It’s a very powerful tool. Someone who thinks that photography is just a matter of pushing a button obviously hasn’t experienced the “plague of choices” you face in post-production work.
I am considering changing, somewhat in jest, the tagline on my website from “I don’t photograph what is in front of me. I photograph what is inside of me.” to “I hate landscape photography, but I can’t stop doing it.”
Your work is deeply informed by the American Southwest and the Sonoran Desert in particular. Is there any other place in the world that you would really like to photograph? And if so, why?
Yes. Definitely. The American South. I am enamored of The South. I spent my formative years there, and, even though I haven’t lived there in more than 25 years, I still identify as a Southerner. Despite the misconceptions, and, yes, uncomfortable truths that accompany that label, the fact is that the South, even with its issues of race, chauvinism, provincialism, and history of violent oppression, is a romantically and visually (have you ever seen the serviceberry blooming in the otherwise bare springtime woods?) rich and diverse region; culturally, socially, intellectually, and demographically. We of the South have a strong literary tradition - Donald Harington, Faulkner, Harper Lee, Eudora Welty, Foote, and W.B. DuBois. “Southern Art” is an admittedly ill-defined genre, if, indeed, such a thing actually exists. There are Southern photographers whose work deals with the South directly and metaphorically – Greg Banks, Sally Mann, Keith Carter, Clarence John Laughlin, Gordon Parks. Painters from the South whose work holds together stylistically or thematically as “Southern” are harder to find. Southern music is legion and readily identifiable, in all its aspects, as a regional entity.
I would love to photograph in Savannah, Georgia, and I have been salivating over the possibility of being selected to participate in the artist-in-residence program in Hot Springs National Park (in Arkansas), but due to funding shortages it has been placed on moratorium for the past couple of years.
What do you think are the major challenges you and other artists in southern Arizona face today?
The availability of studio space is going to be reduced as the gentrification of downtown accelerates. Thirty artists on Toole Avenue were recently displaced when their studios were removed to accommodate a new restaurant. That will make it even harder for full-time artists to support themselves from their work.