A conversation with Daniel Shea, March 2011
Daniel Shea: So since talking to you last year, it sounds like you’ve been pretty busy. What have you been up to recently?
Lucas Foglia: Since we last talked I made a final trip to the southeastern United States, and revisited many of the people who I have been photographing since 2006. Nazraeli Press is publishing a book of the project, titled A Natural Order, this spring. The book focuses on Americans who responded to environmental concerns and predictions of economic collapse by leaving cities and suburbs to live off the grid. My hope is that the photographs seem both exotic and unnervingly close to home.
Daniel Shea: And since the book is about to be published, are you working on a new series?
Lucas Foglia: Yes, I have been dividing time between San Francisco, mining boom towns and ranching and farming communities in the western United States. The working title of the series is Frontcountry. Many of the people who I have been photographing live on the boundaries between small towns and wild roadless areas. It’s not yet profitable for chain stores to move into the most remote communities. Jobs opportunities there are also limited, and as ranching and farming become less lucrative, many families are struggling to reconcile their fierce loyalty to the land with their growing dependence on industries that extract from and degrade the land.
Daniel Shea: So you’re based in San Francisco, and your van.
Lucas Foglia: Yes, although the photographs I have been making recently are closer to home.
Daniel Shea: What prompted the move to where you are now?
Lucas Foglia: Friends, community and landscape. Some of my closest friends are here in the Bay Area. San Francisco feels like a small town even though it is a big city and there are good photographers here. And it is near the landscape that I’ve been photographing.
Daniel Shea: You said you live with friends in a co-op?
Lucas Foglia: Yes. We grow vegetables, and buy most of our food in bulk and from local farmers. It makes it easy and affordable to live in what would otherwise be a fairly expensive city. As for what allows me to stay here, most of my time goes to my personal projects that I fund through print sales, grants and commissions, but I do some editorial and advertising work as well. I like working with non-profit organizations, so the photographs I make help to promote a cause I believe in. I have also started to teach at the San Francisco Art Institute.
Daniel Shea: The ambiguity in your work is a narrative strategy that you use well. The work you do for magazines and non-profits involves telling a clear story. Are the photographs you make for them are completely non-ambiguous?
Lucas Foglia: I think all the best pictures have some ambiguity. But they have to be accessible: they have to tell a story and make a viewer want to keep looking at them.
[We trail off for a bit, but then Yale comes up...]
Daniel Shea: Yale is frequently mystified and enlarged by the rest of the art/photo world and prospective MFA students. It’s a thing of its own. And the reality might be different than that. How was your experience in the program?
Lucas Foglia: It’s surprising that it is so frequently mystified… I know that it is statistically hard to get into as a graduate student, but anyone can go to any critique and listen. Before I applied, I visited some critiques, so I knew what I was getting into. Different photographers and curators are invited to the critiques but when I was there Tod Papageorge ran the show. And Tod’s photographic references were consistent: John Szarkowski, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand. Each graduate student showed work every 5 weeks. The panel of critics sat behind a table. The photographs were pinned on the wall, and the graduate student sat in a chair in the middle of the room, facing the panel, with an audience behind him or her. There were some classes each semester, but there were no real obligations besides having to produce work for the critiques.
Daniel Shea: So were you traveling between the critique sessions?
Lucas Foglia: I was traveling a lot. I would extend the school vacations for a week on either end. I drove or flew to photograph and then came back to make up the work and class time. It was a really intense and stressful couple of years.
Daniel Shea: Are you happy you went with that program?
Lucas Foglia: I am. There were times when I was doubtful about it. The critiques were harsh and I was being pushed in ways I wasn’t always comfortable with. But then I realized that even when I was being told to do something, all I had to do was react and make more photographs. I didn’t always agree with the critiques but I had the time and facilities to make new work in response. When artwork gets obliging or defensive in graduate school, it’s a slippery slope. Above all the photographs have to feel personal. What the faculty wanted to see was an effort towards change or experimentation. And if I responded by working my ass off and that showed in the pictures, then it was commended.
Daniel Shea: What’s interesting to me is that, in the context of the rigor you mentioned, practically I imagine that applied to the process of making work. And for your work, the process is so specific. And so I imagine it being tricky to rigorously take apart your process.
Lucas Foglia: It was tricky because of the personal relationships I have with the people I photograph.
Daniel Shea: So what’s the variable that changed in that equation as you went through this process?
Lucas Foglia: What changed at Yale was not the collaborative process of making the pictures, nor was it my personal connection with my subjects. Rather, I tried to make the form, or composition, of my photographs more rigorous. I learned that a great photograph relies on both form and content.
Daniel Shea: So that translated to a working methodology that you have continued to use?
Lucas Foglia: Sure. I think the photographs I make result from my relationships with the people and spaces I photograph, and the narratives of my projects result from my choice and sequence of the best photographs. And I always leave room for surprises. For instance, I went to an area south of Eden, Wyoming, where a rancher was herding his sheep. The railroad company that owned the land nearby had recently sold the mineral rights to a company based in Houston for natural gas drilling and the land was about to be mined. When I arrived the rancher was counting his sheep, thousands of them. It was a long process and I felt stuck, but then I saw two of the sheep dogs away from their herd. The small dog really wanted to mate with the larger dog. He kept mounting her and she fought him off every time. The photograph that resulted from that experience is still about land use and sheep herding, but it is also about dogs mating when they were supposed to be watching sheep. And I like that.
Similarly, someone couldn’t hire me to go to the woods in Virginia to find and photograph a dead bear that looks human. For me, there has to be a discovery.
[We begin talking about the intersection of art and politics]
Lucas Foglia: I want my photographs to be connected to my values. I want my work to be relevant to the viewers. And above all I’m interested in making a great photograph. To quote Taryn Simon, the photograph has to be seductive.
Daniel Shea: I understand.
Lucas Foglia: With your work it’s the same thing. You traced the lines of the coal between mining and electricity generation. If you had just made photographs of the smoke stacks, then who would care? But when you made seductive photographs, people paid attention to the smoke stacks.
Daniel Shea: With a lot of work that is based on these very topical issues, a problem that I have is that the photographer looks at the subject with eyes that are too fresh or too eager. For example, like in Southeast Ohio, these smoke stacks have a very casual presence in the landscape and within the culture. If you grow up in the shadow of towering smoke stacks, they become just another element in the landscape, and you’re used to it, and it’s not this crazy, completely polarizing element that we tend to think of when we read about places online before visiting them. But if you treat the subject in a way that marries both being somewhere new and understanding the reality of wherever you are, that intersection generates interesting pictures, and narratives that open up a lot more for viewers to enter into. And people become more sincerely invested in the emotional and political issues that you are working with. Instead of a very didactic image-making process that people are turned off by.
Lucas Foglia: I think any photograph that is didactic, that tells you what to think, is paradoxically easy to forget. Good photographs rest on an ambiguity that makes you want to keep looking at them to figure them out. And I agree, tourists drive across a landscape, stop at a lookout point, take a picture and leave. The lookout points are obvious, predictable and beautiful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it is a vantage point that I’m not interested in. I am interested when the landscape or the smoke stack is contextualized by everyday life.
Daniel Shea: I was looking at your website the other day and was trying to figure out what made your photographs feel personal, like what made me assume that you knew the people and that you had spent actual time with them, and that it was an investment. A lot of them don’t necessarily say that explicitly, but I always knew that for some reason. How important is the extended experience in these places with your subjects to how you want people to perceive your work?
Lucas Foglia: I like spending time in the places, and with the people, I photograph. I think the time I spend allows me to portray a wider range of events and emotions.
Daniel Shea: What is your relationship to activist circles? If we talk about this work in a more ideological context, larger than art, what is your personal relationship with these movements and these people? Were you ever an activist?
Lucas Foglia: Yes — I try to have the photographs I make point towards things I believe in or topics that I think are relevant. I like the fact that photographs can be used in so many different ways. I exhibit editioned prints in galleries, and publish the images in books and magazines. I give small prints back to the people I photograph, and I give digital copies to local and national organizations to use for advocacy. It might sound like a general statement, but I have seen people and causes benefit from the use of the photographs.
Daniel Shea: No, I totally get it.
[We talk for a while about current work life, how to make ends meet through a variety of work — magazine work, teaching, partnering with non-profits, selling work, but still trying to focus on working for people and companies that you are interested in and can stand behind.]
Daniel Shea: Is there a 5-year plan? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Teaching?
Lucas Foglia: I’m going to keep on making photographs. Working on the book with Nazraeli Press has been a really energizing experience. And I have new projects that I am excited to start. I really enjoy teaching. Can I imagine myself becoming a professor at some point in the future? Sure, I can imagine really enjoying that. What’s your 5-year plan?
Daniel Shea: I feel ok in terms of a work-life, but I’m completely terrified about what I’m going to do next, because I have no idea. I’m in graduate school now, so I want to do a decent job at that and make better work.
Lucas Foglia: I think the best thing that graduate school can do for students is instill a culture that emphasizes making new work that matches their values and leaves room for discoveries; that cements a work ethic that continues after graduation.