I considered myself a “faux” landscape photographer. I meticulously build model landscapes and environments and photograph the results. I enjoy working with my hands; I like getting messy, and part of me, subconsciously or not, is a bit of a control freak. Since picking up the camera, I’ve tried my hand at portraiture and photojournalism and I’m horrible at both pursuits. By creating my own miniature worlds, I can take as long as I like to build to scene, compose the picture, and snap the shutter.
I’ve always employed a sculptural element in my photography. As an undergraduate, I studied ceramics, woodworking, and photography. In graduate school I learned how to weld, make paper, and hone my woodworking skills. (I must admit I have a fondness for power tools.) In graduate school I built room-size sets, such as a beauty salon and a business office, and put myself in the picture.
I was born in Norton, Kansas, which at the time had a population of 3,500, two stop lights, and plenty of open space. I lived in a neighborhood surrounded by pastures and woods, where I fell out of trees, got stuck in mud and snow so deep I had to leave my shoes behind, and lit a couple of tumbleweeds on fire. I’m also a product of 1970’s disaster flicks such as Towering Inferno and, my favorite, Planet of the Apes.
These colorful childhood experiences inspired the body of work “Accidentally Kansas.” As a child, for instance, I heard sonic booms regularly and spent many hours staring up at the contrails crisscrossing the sky, wishing for one of those planes to come down and rescue me from my boredom (Airplane, 1998).
I’ve returned time and again to the landscape in my later series Some Other Place and Lost, concentrating on the darker edges where the urban and rural meet, and where everyday life becomes dangerous, unexplained, and haphazard. Elysian Fields, for example, depicts a mysterious interaction between a milk truck and a tanker carrying liquid hormones. Much like my previous work, these series continue to blur the line between truth and illusion. The idea is to trick the viewer, but only for a moment, because my photographs will never truly fool anyone. The rich colors and theatrical lighting magnify a sense of isolation and melancholy. Yet the way I have always dealt with adversity is through humor, and when confronted with an unusual or difficult situation, I try to find the silver lining, or rather, the inside joke. The humor lies in the lie itself, the combination of disaster married with humor.
My latest work recreates interiors synonymous with urban surroundings. Public spaces, some once grand, lie deteriorating and neglected. With the apparent absence of humans, nature is slowly reclaiming these sites. Their purpose no longer clear, they lay in wait for the next phase of their existence.
Most of the dioramas from the series Accidentally Kansas are pretty small, ranging from 16×20 inches to 30×40 inches in diameter. They are constructed out of simple materials such as plaster, cardboard, paint, and extruded foam. Some of the props, such as buildings and automobiles, were purchased from hobby stores and online supply stores.
When I began Accidentally Kansas, I bought How to Build Realistic Model Railroad Scenery, by Dave Frary, (second edition). My copy is now dog-eared from use and has been my bible of sorts, a go-to book for suggestions on materials and paint, and how to make fake fur look like field grass and plaster look like hills.
In those days, it took anywhere from a couple of weeks to two months to build the sets and begin photographing the results. I photographed the scenes with an inexpensive Speed Graphic 4×5 camera and three studio flashes. I opted for a shallow depth of field to control where I wanted the viewer to look, but also to hide my lack of painting skills. I know how to make the camera lie. I shoot the scene on negative film, make a contact print, hate what I get, and begin making changes to the set-up and reconfigure the lighting. I shoot again and go through the same process.
A few years ago, I moved to Brooklyn from the Midwest, and added city life into the mix. My entire apartment has been given over to my studio. I build the dioramas in the middle of my living room on top of a couple of hollow-core doors I picked up from the hardware store. As my scenes have become more technically complex, they’ve also grown in size. Now they are approximately six-feet wide and up to six-feet deep. I am also relying less and less on pre-made objects and must scratch-build some of the more unusual things found in the scenes. I have begun to rely on artist friends to help me with the set building; I’ve enjoyed this collaborative process immensely. It feels like I’ve not only built a diorama but an artistic community as well.
I’ve also graduated to an 8×10 Cambo large-format camera and a Super Angulon lens, thanks to eBay. I’ve added more studio lights, now employing up to 10 flash heads to light a set. A typical scene now takes around seven months to build and photograph. I will use a combination of flash and continuous lighting, depending on the desired look. It can take up to two weeks and several boxes of film to achieve the final photograph. I’ve always worked in a color photography lab, so this extended way of shooting has always fit into my “day job.”
I get a lot of satisfaction working with the constructed images. I love turning simple materials such as foam board, paint, and plaster into fields of grass, mountains, and crumbling buildings. What I enjoy most is the problem solving. Since I do not do any digital retouching, I have to figure out how to make paint and light look like lightning, how to make plastic look like bodies of water, and cardboard like weeds. Some of my favorite materials include extruded foam, polyester resin, paint tints, and a fog machine. Everything else is a secret.