March 31st, 2015
On Aperture Magazine Collector’s Subscription Series
Starting with issue #218, Spring, “Queer,” Aperture magazine will launch its Collector’s Subscription Series, an exclusive opportunity for photography collectors to own work published in the pages of the magazine. Subscribers to the Collector’s Series will receive four signed and numbered limited-edition prints, one from each issue of the magazine published in 2015. The prints will be limited to an edition of 30. From issue #218, we offer Time Past and Time Future,
Utah (2014) by David Benjamin Sherry, a Los Angeles-based photographer who has garnered significant acclaim for his vibrantly colored images of the American West that often reference canonical figures of modern American photography, from Minor White to Edward Weston. Aperture magazine editor Michael Famighetti spoke to Sherry about how his work plays with historical references as well as his interest in process and vibrant color. This article first appeared in Issue 4 of the Aperture Photography App: click here to read more and download the app.
Michael Famighetti: The exaggerated, almost psychedelic, color of your prints is very distinctive. Could you tell us a little bit about how you think about color in relationship to your subject, the landscape of the American West?
David Benjamin Sherry: I am interested in our rapidly deteriorating environment, primarily that of the American West, as it coincides with the end of film-based photography. Also, as a gay man, I’m compelled to “queer” this historical genre of landscape photography that has been tied up to this point so closely with the straight white male perspective, by virtue of its most celebrated practitioners.
I use deep and saturated color (or no color at all) as a way to imbue the image with intense or even sexualized feeling about a place. I’m interested in the way photography and memory are inextricable and permeable. The darkroom is as important to my process as is taking the picture, and I use the darkroom time to experiment with analog techniques, color relationships, print size, and other manipulation. My exploration in darkroom printing is born out of a pure fascination with light, image, and chemistry. As the medium crosses over into a digital realm, I’m interested in exploring the uncharted analog areas and creating something new within this process.
MF: Each of your prints are made using an analog color darkroom. How do you achieve these wild colors? Can you give readers a sense of how they are made?
DBS: My photographs are exclusively analog, meaning they are made completely without the use of digital technology. I use a large-format camera loaded with 8×10 film and, as I’m printing my photographs in the darkroom, I push the photographs’ color to its tipping point (just before it begins to lose shadow detail and exposure), which overwhelms the other colors and creates a monochrome. In color darkroom photography, there are three colors that make up the spectrum– cyan, magenta, yellow– and you add or subtract these three colors in varying degrees of 0–200 to reach your desired color. When studying color darkroom photography we are taught to print natural and real color, which I did for many years. After feeling frustrated with the limitations this element of real or natural imposes, I began to experiment. I found there are countless combinations depending on the film exposure and amount of time the light exposes the paper.
MF: Your images are usually absent of humans, as if we’re back in the days when Carleton Watkins lugged his big camera into the remote wilderness. But some of your photo-locations are in places, like Yosemite, that aren’t devoid of people. Do you work to ensure that people don’t enter the images?
DBS: Its funny you mention this. I am very conscious of it and work hard to ensure that people don’t enter the pictures, yet most of my landscape work is often about human impact on the environment – so one would think that I may embrace human presence– but I don’t. Sometimes I find myself waiting for hours to let hikers pass or other photographers enter and leave my frame while also waiting for the right light or clouds. I find myself waiting most often for people taking selfies; I hate that word and the idea of it– too many humans obsessed with themselves and their lives. But, it’s not always about selfies. For instance, I was photographing El Capitan in Yosemite to find later when I was printing that there were rock climbers holding on to the rock– they are extremely small but if you look close they are there. I enjoy this element. So I guess it depends on what it is, but I do like to control the human presence in my work.
MF: Let’s go back to your comment about the environment: the color here does feel reminiscent of science fiction—or like we’ve entered a moment after some kind of collapse has been experienced. There’s a hint of post-disaster?
DBS: The color does hint at a kind of collapse. I use color as a vehicle. It allows me to lay down more content within the subject of landscape. At times, the landscape acts as the background and I think of the color as an emotive force, I try to capture a feeling that is romantic yet tragic. I’m interested in tragedy and often feel that as a photographer, I am a direct witness to the collapse of our society and planet. The landscape in my photographs is a metaphor yet it is what it is – it’s the once-pure land that we have destroyed and now have to re-evaluate how to live on it. The color can be transformative and it is a reaction.
MF: I’ve contacted you with these questions while you’re in the midst of shooting, in what I gather is a remote location. Where are you now? What’s next for you?
DBS: Yes! I don’t usually go on email while I’m out on the road. I like to feel pretty disconnected and focused on what I’m encountering on daily basis while traveling and shooting. I’m just ending a three-week trip shooting throughout California, Nevada, and Utah. I’m ending now in Death Valley, California and headed home to Los Angeles to start printing all this new work. I’ll be doing a solo booth of pictures at Paris Photo LA in early May and then I’ll begin work for my next solo show at Ohwow gallery in Los Angeles, which opens in October.