From "The Crowded Edge"
From "The Crowded Edge"
From "The Crowded Edge"
From "The Crowded Edge"
From "The Crowded Edge"
Curran Hatleberg was born in 1982 in Washington DC and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. He studied at Colorado University and at the Yale School of Art. His most renowned works are exhibited in various galleries both nationally and internationally. His personal projects are pulled alongside with his teaching at ICP, New York and Norwalk Community College. Hatleberg has embarked on numerous coast-to-coast trips around the US to compose his photographic works, deeming his travels as a discovery of new places and stories. Although belonging to different geographic areas of the country, his subjects share the same daily life conditions.
Through a social critique against the - sometimes devastating - mechanisms of the American neoliberalism, Hatleberg’s work explores its impact on the life of the working class, by highlighting the intimate aspects that define and consolidate interpersonal relationships.
I think photography is partly a response to the physical world and partly self-examination, a way of filtering the outside world through the inside one. That being said, every project always begins the same way: by getting in a car and just driving around, letting the world roll by until something grabs my attention and snaps my brain into focus. Then all there is to do is to get out of the car. Slide into the scenery. Poke around until something happens. All my pictures originate from a curiosity, a desire to feel things out and express that wonder.
Are these works connected to some assignment/scholarship or are they part of your personal research?
Both of the projects are works in progress and are undertaken as my artistic practice.
Where have they landed so far? The publishing industry, exhibitions, books… ?
A handful of images have appeared in a variety of exhibitions and publications. Most recently in Mossless in America and at Know More Games gallery in Brooklyn, NY. I also have a book of brand new images set for release next year.
We’re particularly keen to know how you build up your work with people, the way you approach them and create a relationship with them, because it seems to us that it’s a focal element of your photographic work. Could you tell us about it?
Every relationship starts because a person fascinates me. Someone sends sharp signals to my radar for one reason or another. Maybe a stranger’s face reminds me of someone else I know but can’t remember. Maybe they are unusual and alone. Maybe they are sitting in a field arguing with the sky. It just depends. Usually this magnetism happens naturally and with a sense that there could be some small mystery to uncover—something to shake out and bring to light. Then, there’s no secret to it. You just say hello and see what happens.
What kind of feedback have you received from people?
Most often approaching someone to photograph, my own curiosity in them is met in kind, accompanied by a mild confusion about why I am interested in them. It’s not uncommon to be approached first either, with, “What are you doing out here?” “What are you taking pictures of?” Things develop from small conversation. The duration of time-shared with someone has wild variances. Sometimes I’m offered a meal at the family table or a floor to sleep on for a few weeks, other times I’m told to beat it. Case by case, just depends.
We think that your photographs highlight a peculiar attention to both interpersonal and people-location relationships. Namely, location features in almost all images, even though it’s not recognizable from a geographic perspective. Is it so?
I’m committed to describing a distinctly American setting or backdrop, but also to withholding the precise location. I like to force those questions of specific location on the viewer—to keep them guessing—letting their imagination decide where and what they are looking at. Providing the geographic location often only reinforces a misguided preconception or stereotype that closes down part of the creative interpretation. When everything is reduced to fact, the mystery dies and the picture wanders towards journalism. The wonder deflates. Remove those answers and the world created by the photograph deepens and opens up to interpretation.
With regard to the above-mentioned works, could the respective photographs belong to the same place even though they were shot in different locations? Did you make this choice from the very beginning or did it mature progressively?
This is my version of America. The pictures share an imaginative locale rather than geographic. I like places that have been passed by for one reason or another, but what’s important is that they cast an undeniable American feeling, not whether a picture is made in Memphis or Oregon.
At first my pictures were all titled based on location. This is something all my heroes do: Eggleston, Friedlander, Evans, etc. I wanted to try disrupt that pattern, in order to reintroduce some mythology about the expansive nature of the country—its vast range of possibility.
In your photographs there’s no reference to the big urban areas of America. How come?
Many of the images are made in large, inner-city America, but downtown centers are less present. I am more interested in liminal spaces. To me these are the areas that showcase the most surprising and unpredictable encounters. These places feel like empty stages or blank canvases because they are not intended for any specific purpose—it’s a place that isn’t residential, commercial or recreational. They belong to a no man’s land, anonymous zones where boundaries break down.
It seems to us that your photographs unveil questions rather than providing answers. They induce further curiosity towards those worlds, especially because it feels as though you’re shooting America on the edge between social identity and several types of decay - yet your view remains faded and escapes simplification. Could you tell us something about this?
It’s not my role to provide answers to the pictures. Instead I want to create puzzles. Ambiguity is one of photography’s greatest qualities. My job is to create a world for the viewer to enter into and walk around in that is complicated enough to sustain prolonged fascination and rich enough to discover new things the longer one stares.
Plenty of your photos feature a constant overlaying and stacking of elements - abandoned things that are still present in people’s lives. We think this characteristic acquires a more general meaning, beyond describing reality as it is. Do you agree?
We live around abandoned things but habitually relieve ourselves of noticing them. Plastic bags skid and bump down the street on the wind. Rusting cars congest driveways and alleys. Abandoned mills clog the landscape. Sure, these signs are less present in suburbs and areas of affluence, but these things are the detritus of quotidian life, we live surrounded by them, they are ubiquitous to every American city. People provide part of the narrative, but then the backdrop supplies this other part—which is so American—of former greatness, hope gone awry, manifest destiny blown to shreds, the permanence of beauty despite our suffering, or because of it. I use structures and setting to add a narrative depth. The subject needs the backdrop and vice versa.
In addition I like to stack the frame visually, with deep focus. Really pack it densely. Keep it busy and layered so the viewer’s eye can’t rest. I enjoy when each object or person in the frame can equally vie for a viewer’s attention—can be presented with equal weight.
Does your photography comprise a political intent, some sort of intention to convey a political interpretation of reality? Or is it a work originating from your thirst for discovering as in exploring, the reality you live in?
What I am looking for are the moments of awe I stay inside long after they are over. Life rings true when it’s narrowed down to intense segments. You know that feeling when you experience something so fully, that every thought in your head disappears and something new rushes in? It’s being overcome with emotion but not being able to give that feeling a name. That’s the instant I try to jam into a picture.
Undoubtedly there’s a focus on the psychological undertones of the people you shoot. Is that so in your intentions, too?
I like the combining the contradictory emotions a person can display all at once. Most of what we experience is a kind of emotional not knowing, what we feel and is unclear. Our feelings are always layered and rarely one-sided. I try to depict those concurrent emotions—the jumble of multiple feelings running together all at once.
Thinking of the American documentary photography that we partly see in your pictures, do you feel like you belong to some specific photographic tradition or do you pursue your own personal path? It’d be interesting to know your take on this.
I certainly identify most with an American tradition of photography—from Walker Evans to William Eggleston. They are my heroes, but it’s undoubtedly a different time. I think it’s essential to take from tradition without being bound to it—to author one’s own time.
One glaring difference I often think about between that generation of photographers and my own is that when they hit the road they were seemingly less tethered. Maybe this is just mythology I have created, but think about it: there was no social media or cell phones. They weren’t constantly connecting with the life and loved ones they cherished elsewhere. They were gone. Out there in the world. Caught up in the breeze. Sure there were good maps back then but now GPS will guide every move with total precision. Now you can yelp the best Thai restaurant in a tri-city area when the mood strikes you. It’s a different world that technology has streamlined for optimum efficiency.
From a technical perspective, how do you approach your works and in which formats do you shoot? What do you bring with you when you travel?
My shooting setup is analog. I strip my toolkit down pretty bare. One camera, the Mamiya 7, with one lens. I also keep a manual flash on hand. I use a tripod very rarely but have one buried in the car in case it’s needed. My output is digital—scan to inkjet.
What informs the choice of a given format over another? How important - or not important - is the choice of technology for you?
I don’t fuss much about gear. However an artist can arrive at the best expression of their art is the best system. It matters little to me how something was made, in face of the made thing itself. I use that camera simply because I know it well. We’ve done a lot together. It’s comfortable and fluid in my hand, I give an order and most of the time it follows. I don’t have to think or do guesswork with the dials. It responds like it’s part of me. I chose medium format because I wanted the description that film size affords but still needed to remain reactive, without burdensome setup of the view camera.
I also feel devoted to film. Principally because I am not interested in seeing what I just shot right away—I don’t want that tiny digital representation dictating my choices or distracting me from the moment at hand. I want to shoot while the moment is happening without interference.
What are the defining elements of your photographic approach? For instance: is your project built and monitored according to a defined plan or does it flow as it develops from the uncertainty with people and situations?
I never feel a project coming until it’s already underway. When I begin it’s as if I am looking for something that’s missing and I’m not sure what it is. It’s as if I am on the verge of something important that keeps eluding me. Every project follows an intuitive route. I rarely see the film I’ve been shooting until months after, so I can operate on whim and instinct. Then once I do get around to looking over the negatives I start to connect the dots and draw meaning. Things push forward from there.
How relevant is the narrative dimension in your work? How do you envision your pictures - as single shots or rather as a sequence of shots?
I strive for the pictures to be both. On one hand I hope each picture is strong enough to support itself autonomously. At the same time I am deeply interested in the rise and fall narrative can take in a sequence, when pictures act as fragments of a larger story.
Do you feel any influences from other expressive forms such as the film industry or art?
Yes. I am an avid reader. I am devoted to literature. I can turn the pages of a book all day. I also feel deeply connected to film, although I am less studied in it. These are the supreme art forms in my mind because they often engage with the everyday—they make sense of the mess of life.
We have found no trace of any multimedia projects of yours. Is it a specific choice? What do you think of the development of this type of media?
All I can say is it interests me. It’s exciting in its possibility. Someday perhaps. For now, I feel loyal to the still image.
How did you start your job as photographer? What directions is it taking at the moment?
My start in photography began without ambition or love or commitment. It was just something I enjoyed happily. At the time I had been studying painting as an undergrad and all the photographs I took were used as source material for the paintings. They were snapshots of friends mostly. It took me some time to figure out I wasn’t cut out for painting. I didn’t like the studio or time commitment attached to the production of one image. It felt like work and often my mind was far ahead of the painting before it was anywhere near completion. Photography enabled my desire to move—to roam—to ditch the studio and get around to seeing something unexpected and fresh. I was already hitting the road by for fun but sometime after college I attached photography to it. Then I became more serious and put all my energy into it. I haven’t stopped since.
Who do you pass the baton to?
To Matt Booth.