A few years ago, I was asked by a magazine to take portraits of several landscape painters (what an assignment for me, an on-site outdoors/landscape photographer). I walked into April Gornik’s studio at our appointed time and was swept into this large shimmery mass of paint: a row of planted trees and their reflection in water below. I couldn’t believe how much it looked and felt like a photograph I had just made of a similar place, feel, and mood. Not that the subject matter was particularly bizarre, in fact quite the opposite, but that we were both attracted to this situation and had made it seem so familiar—until you really looked—and that we had both made it at the same moment, seemed uncanny. I guess we just figured we would be friends. At least I did. Those moments in April’s studio were the start of a long conversation, sometimes casual, and sometimes very serious—and of a friendship.
Sally said our work had a lot in common, but until I saw it I would not have guessed how amazed I would be by her photographs; by their beauty, complexity, and sensibility similar to my own. Sally and I have discovered that we can both speak articulately about landscape, that most verbally elusive subject matter, and so decided to make our conversation public. Likewise, the selection of photographs in this issue reflects our personal bias and obsession.
April Gornik Landscape is a very abstract genre. A figure tends to frame where a picture might happen, defines where action starts or stops. The presence of a figure provides context. But when you look out into a landscape, how do you determine the perimeter? It’s susceptible to being projected onto.
Sally Gall Are you saying that landscape has no real narrative content?
AG I’m saying that landscape is essentially metaphorical. It doesn’t lend itself to narrative. It lends itself to abstraction.
SG But since your subject matter, as mine, has turned almost exclusively not to the depicting of a certain landscape, but to the elements of landscape…
AG It’s such an experiential situation. The most potent experiences I’ve had, particularly growing up, have been being alone in the wilderness. The problem is that landscape as art can get very corny and very romantic—Freud’s ocean of the unconscious. But I do remember as a child these moments of feeling, having an experience outside of myself, bigger than just me. These experiences were rooted to being in a place where I felt physically, emotionally, and even intellectually stimulated and enthralled—outside of my own, immediate, day-to-day life, sort of the classic, romantic experience. Now I make my landscapes so that I can be in them. That’s why I alter them, that’s why I make them somewhat artificial, because I want to take possession of them. My relationship with landscape is somewhere between being enthralled by it and wanting to be in control of it. Wanting to be invited into it, and to invite the viewer in, but wanting it to remain enigmatic or inscrutable. Do you do that in photography, manipulate your work so much?
SG I want to re-create the visceral experience of being in a landscape. The visceral experience is both physical—the way sunlight feels on the skin, or the way we hear the wind rustle—and contemplative and meditative. What compels me is that I walk outdoors in some beautiful, natural space, and I feel very content. I look at things long and hard, and staring at the meadows and woods becomes a springboard into free-association about bigger things. Taking a picture out of the experience is putting myself, and thus hopefully the viewer, into that state of reverie.
AG That’s where our work is linked. Bachelard talks about reverie and poetry as the point at which your perception of the world becomes the world scaled to your size. Often times I’m drawn to an image, and then as I’m working, I start to have this dialogue with it. I’ll think, “I have to paint a depthless blue.” But then how solid does the thing next to it have to be for it to be “depthless?” How to paint that becomes the life and the meaning within the painting.
SG This past summer I was in Northwest Scotland, fascinated by this very brutal, rocky, unsensual, sparse landscape. I started taking long hikes, carrying the camera with me, enjoying the sport of walking through it more than anything. Now, I’m quite conscious of what attracts me to certain landscapes, mainly tropical and warm, and balmy, and leafy. At one point, I got to this mountaintop and looked around: it’s a very watery landscape, lots of lakes on the edge of the ocean. I realized that the experience of this landscape was understanding how the land was made, its geological features were the remains of the earth’s movement. It was like seeing the earth’s skeleton. That landscape had an indention, a footprint of its formation. That became intellectually fascinating to me. It seemed the origin of all land.
AG You said you’re drawn to warm, tropical, balmy places. I’ve been to the Caribbean three times now and that experience as a particular type of landscape is starting to creep into my work. And it’s not about humidity and torpidity as I would have expected. There is a certain kind of starkness, a severity to the Caribbean land versus the warmth of the air that I want to exaggerate. The landscape and the quality of light seems hyperbolic, the essence of tropicality. The colors are so lush, but the light is so blinding. Yet ironically, both of my paintings influenced by the Caribbean have to do with the severity of night, with this undercurrent of warmth and heat still coming out of the land.
SG Your experience of the place is what you’re trying to paint?
AG Definitely. Even if it’s not my actual experience of the place. It could be a retro-active experiential depiction. (laughter) My paintings are fictionalized, recognizable but always riding that edge of artifice. I’m too self-conscious at this point in the 20th century to be oblivious to that, or to think that I could simply depict the sublime.
SG I hate to admit this, it seems so unpopular today, but that is what I’m interested in.
SG Those aspects of the sublime in 19th century Romantic ideals. That might seem ridiculous at this point in the 20th century, but I want to make an absolutely gorgeous photograph of physical nature where millions of thoughts about life and fertility and burgeoning things—some great and enthralling experience—occurs when you look at it. I want to make images that are so beautiful they lift you out of everyday consciousness and take you somewhere else. These things are seemingly older, not relevant to our lives anymore, or so our culture thinks.
AG When I make something that I think is sheerly beautiful, people see something ominous. Maybe what they’re seeing is mortality or the frailness of the fiction of it. Existential consciousness, if you will.
SG I hiked one clear and sunny day to the top of a mountain in the Rockies. I got higher and higher and suddenly, in the middle of this amazingly beautiful day, a storm rolls in. And I am in this very exposed place. There’s a seeming contradiction between the beauty, the benign peacefulness of the day and suddenly, out of nowhere, this scary rolling thunderhead. I felt very exposed and was anxious to get away from the impending storm. That seems so metaphorical. For what? For everything. That experience fascinates me and that’s what I want to take a picture of: that which feels inclusive of seemingly contradictory things. It’s like getting rid of all the traffic. It’s elemental and it’s raw. Early American landscape photographers went out West with geological survey parties and took pictures literally to show people what the landscape looked like. There was no other way to see it, short of walking into it yourself.
AG Did they make beautiful photos?
SG Many of them are fabulous photographs. Many of them are purely descriptive. Many of them are purely descriptive, plus. They didn’t go as artists. They didn’t go with the self-consciousness of making a beautiful picture. I feel the same impulse, the same impetus: to go into unexplored territory—personally unexplored territory—and to photograph it and bring those pictures back.
AG Your fantasy is of someone going to the farthest reaches and bringing back evidence of what’s out there. My fantasy is more like Rimbaud—I’m finding the underside of everything. Like how incredibly brief a moment of beauty really is. How intense can it be? Compositionally, when I’m finalizing a painting, I’m going for a tension in which it could almost come apart. Take one little element out of it and it wouldn’t work at all. But that’s the fantasy of a poet, not the fantasy of an explorer.
SG I can actually go into the field and rub elbows with it. I just go into it, I walk into it and walk through it. That’s why I became a photographer rather than a painter. I want to physically be in the stuff of the world. The photographs become—somehow that act of being in it, of being hot or being cold, or being afraid that the waves are going to wash you off the lava rock on the edge of a Hawaiian beach—I seek the experience as much as I seek to make the photograph. And yet, the experience is one thing and the photograph is totally different. It might contain the experience, but it also fails to contain it; the depiction of the photograph becomes its own thing. I do use a lot of artifice.
AG You couldn’t get to the photograph without going through the experience, whatever the relationship becomes.
SG So many times I’ve taken pictures of places, and then I’ve altered them so much, subtly, that people can’t believe it’s the place that I say it is. Even I don’t see it as the place where I was.
AG Are you altering it with the specific memory in mind?
SG I’m adding on another layer. I have the memory of the place. For instance, it’s been snowing as we’ve been sitting here, and the sun has just come out. Its an enthralling moment—its been gray and snowy all day and suddenly the sun comes out. I find it so profoundly beautiful and amazing that I want to hold that moment, and that’s what I want to photograph. The change that just occurred in the moment of illumination. That’s my whole impetus for the photograph. Then I make the negative and I’ll go to the darkroom, and I’ll start messing. That’s when the memory level comes on, and I’ll start thinking, “I can make this a little more extreme, more ominous, more threatening,” or whatever. But it’s such a simple beginning moment. That’s the reverie: you contemplate what’s been here forever. To contemplate the constant in the midst of everything else, I find to be a very exalting experience.
AG I’ve never started with a blank canvas. There’s always a vision that I’ve had, perhaps a photograph of a rainstorm with a certain kind of light. Looking at the painting is like looking through an exterior into an interior, on either side of which is the wet center of this rainstorm. These two different sides are like a mirror image that doesn’t mirror evenly, it poses a mystery that doesn’t have a specific interpretation. I want to be somewhat confounded.
SG You give people enough opening to come into the paintings and have their own emotional experience, which is what I crave in my own work, in looking at other people’s work. It’s a form of generosity when the artist allows the viewer to come in and have their own experience. It brings out the semi-conscious. The work acts like a trigger.
AG When a painting is done I feel it actually recedes from me. Everything coalesces and moves away, and I can no longer focus on a single part of it. It suddenly does this gestalt.
SG It is its own being, its own self.
AG Does that happen to you in the darkroom?
SG No, taking pictures is a different experience, it is about time passing. Subtle changes in where you hold the camera make radical differences in the way you see the photo in terms of space. But it is still already an entire image. My role in looking at contact sheets is to recognize that moment in which I made an image that appears whole.
AG “It’s me, I’m the one you can print!” Does it identify itself to you in that way? In your case it separates itself from the others, in my case a painting separates itself from me.
SG It is fascinating because the process of making paintings and making photographs is so completely different. And yet, there are several of your paintings that are so similar in matter and emotion to the things I photograph that it is uncanny. Your painting of a dark thundery sky with water and rocks where the gravity is uncertain: What’s land, what’s water, what’s moving, what’s still? An enveloping world of water yet a charged world comes from your head as you are putting paint on canvas. Mine literally depicts a real place. One can’t make a photograph without having something in front of the camera, and yet I find that I try to obliterate the detail in a “real” place because I don’t want it to be that specific, that much of a document I want the “camera never lies” to make the picture believable as a real place, but then to undercut and question that too—make it surreal, super real, abstract, not-of-this-world. To take what’s familiar, what’s known, what’s specific, and make something else out of it.
AG There is a rhythmic punctuation to your photographs. The one with the branch sticking out of the water slows the rest of the image down. Orchestrally it would be like a long viola note in the midst of busier things.
SG It is like a punctuation mark. The issue of choice of subject matter becomes specific and unique to photography. I’m always thinking about subject matter, and I’m drawn back and back and back to these places where everything is lush and developing, earthy and moist, rocky and watery: primal, alone and in contemplation.
AG In your photograph of a girl sitting on a rock in the middle of a pond, the girl is about the same size as the rest of the landscape. One has this experience of her flesh and the water. It’s monumentally sensuous, monumentally physical. Its about the equity of flesh as nature.
SG That was a quarry and it kept conjuring this figure. It’s a visceral moment we all experience—skin feeling water, water feeling skin—that seems very potent. I’m working in an archaic tradition in a traditional sense.
AG We both read a lot of fiction. What I’m looking for in fiction is to be moved, shifted. Not necessarily taken out of my present reality and put into some fantasy land, but jarred by something. Most of contemporary art is too self-conscious in saying what it already knows, what it’s doing, where it fits with art history. It’s almost an apology or a correction for art. I get so frustrated because I’m not moved by it and I know from reading great contemporary fiction. That’s what art can do. I know when looking at Matisse for example, that’s what art can do. I don’t want to look at art that doesn’t move me, it’s a waste of time. Much of the art that’s going on right now is so like the art that was happening in the early ‘70s, it’s like a deja-vu.
SG But you make paintings in a traditionally established method.
AG Not only that but I use space. The whole message of the 20th century is to be flat, but I want to go into the work. That’s where I’m happiest. I look at Piero della Francesca and I see these paintings with weight and sculptural presence, and strong, dumb forms. I can move through that, I get the most intense sense of satisfaction from it. I get more satisfaction from that than I get from most contemporary, flat images, that tell me they are aware of their own physicality.
SG What you’re saying also implies a narrative, implies that you enter into a picture and go somewhere, not necessarily in the sense of a story, but in time.
AG I guess, if you define narrative in that sense. I want a bigger territory, frankly, a much bigger more visually lush territory to roam around in.
SG Let’s talk for a minute about the impulse of art-making. I want to tell you a little story. Years ago, when I was sixteen, I went with my mother on a trip to Scotland.
AG Oh, you were there before?
SG Oh, I’ve been there a lot of times. I went to Southern Scotland with my mother to visit this uncle. I had—in my typical researching of everything—gotten my hands on some information about a place like Outward Bound, an adventure camp in Northern Scotland. I was determined to get myself to this place for a week and take these courses on kayaking and sailing and living on the land: survival. But the week in which I was to go on this trip, my father got really sick, so we were forced to cut short our trip. This past summer, for a number of other reasons which are unimportant to this story, I decided to go to Scotland again, almost by accident. I had this visual image of the brochure for that place that I had wanted to go to when I was sixteen. I couldn’t remember where it was in Scotland, what it was called. All I could remember was a really dark, terrible xerox reproduction of the cover of that brochure—a rocky black landscape and a desire to find a landscape like that and to make photographs that were in my vague memory, similar to the image on that brochure: dark, murky, and disturbing. So I go to Scotland, get in a car by myself and start driving. I figure I’d just drive, drive, drive and go all around the east, north, west coast and I’d stop at places I liked. I had a month. The first few days I had anxiety about not quite liking where I was, but I kept going, going, going, until I got to this more interesting landscape area: really remote, hardly any people or civilization, one lane roads for both directions. Incredibly odd peat flow landscape, kind of ugly, but exhiliratingly barren. Hotels were very few and far between, and often full, and I started worrying about where I was going to spend the night. So I arbitrarily picked this place on the map. It started to get dark and the landscape started to get more and more beautiful, but I thought “You cannot stop until you get to the place you’re going to stay, and when you get to that place you can stay for a few days.” But I started getting into more and more beautiful landscape and being so drawn in. I wanted to stop and photograph, I just didn’t want it to get too late. I didn’t want to get lost in the dark. I didn’t want to not be able to see. So I kept driving and driving, and finally the landscape got so amazingly weird, I thought, “I have to stop, it is too fantastic.” So I rounded the bend, got out of my car, and right there it said: The John Ridgeway School of Adventure, which was the place on my brochure.
AG Oh my God! That’s wild. And was it the picture?
SG Yes, but I don’t actually remember the exact picture, I just remember a dark, murky, compelling, landscape. Somehow you get these images of places or the desire for places, the desire for a certain experience. This story has no moral to it, simply because twenty years later I ended up in this exact same place. How did that happen? My unconscious led me there? I stayed there for about two weeks and I had the most exhilarating time that I have had for as long as I can remember. Completely by myself, photographing, going out everyday, all over the place. I had reached this primal experience. But that somehow I had known it, had gone in search of it. Somehow, I had picked this place out at age sixteen because it was going to offer that to me? That landscape reveals how it’s made. There are all these fissures and places where you can rub the grass off the earth, and there’s rock. It’s so old, and it’s so Puncultivated, so un-manmade, so raw, so wild. Barren wilderness. There are no trees, it’s like the moon, there’s nothing soft, nothing “ornamental.”
AG Do you have ideas of why you’re drawn to that psychologically? I wondered if you had anything about a primordial landscape, a particular kind of light from your childhood that had some mnemonic import for you?
SG I just remember that wild, or seemingly wild, landscape without any human evidence, was a big draw. There were woods behind the house where I grew up. My friends and I would go into the woods; it was possible to be deep in the woods. We created a world there. We playacted there.
AG And that’s where you felt self-expressive?
SG Yeah, I went there by myself a lot. And I pretended I lived in the woods, I had another house and everything. I felt like I was making my own world.
AG Right. I remember going outside in the summer on certain mornings when the air was sweet and warm, and the light was very particular on the grass. The light was still low and everything was back lit and sparkly, and feeling this absolute sense of inner joy and freedom.
SG Yes, I can connect to that feeling right now looking out the window at your yard
AG I was attached to the light. More than anything, I want light. I want to experience it, which is essential to spirituality.
SG Often I look forward to being by myself, to getting away. I go off into someplace that’s wild and I make art in it, and it is the opposite experience of my day to day interactions. Its a respite. It is a time of solace, a time of solitude, a necessary period of time to balance the other activities. And that’s the time that I always feel the most intuitively in touch with (pause), with my emotions and my vision. It’s not like continuous time. It’s really blocks of time that I stake out in which to go away. I like to make photographs in little blocks of time.
AG Do you take photographs in more mundane surroundings, or do you find it’s necessary to go further away?
SG I’ve gotten criticism from people who suggest I need to have exotic locales to take these pictures, that the locations themselves have their own inherent surreal or picturesque quality. There is a part of me that seeks something unfamiliar, journeying, the experience of going someplace totally unknown and totally alien, a different culture and a different look. It’s such a jolt to all of one’s ideas and visions, to go on an adventure to an unknown place. And then, after doing that for a number of years I went to MacDowell, an artists’ colony in Southern New Hampshire. I’m not particularly interested in New England. I wanted grandeur which it doesn’t offer. I went to MacDowell thinking I would use the time to print in the darkroom for an upcoming exhibition, but I became fascinated by the benign quality of all the fields and meadows and ponds that immediately surrounded me. I ended up doing a body of work in the same small place, at the edge of a pond. That opened up a whole new world, that intimate edge of water and rock. But grand exotic locations do draw me because they are infused with their own sense of the romantic; these typical tourist romanticized destinations: Scotland, Bali, Hawaii, the Caribbean. The challenge is to have to deal with the inherent exoticism and romance. I like to go to a place that already has associations—either make more of them or go in a different direction.
AG When I first started painting landscapes, I thought that I had to make everything up because only that would be true art. I was painting dreams. Then I went to the Southwest, and I saw what I thought I had been making up in real life. It was a profound experience to see what I thought could only be imagined. In a funny way, since then I’ve had to become more imaginative, to draw out a vision from something real.
SG I print to soften, to diffuse—get rid of detail. I want one foot in the real world and one foot somewhere else. It’s very important for me to have something real depicted believably, to take what’s familiar, what’s known, what’s specific, and make something else out of it. Sometimes I think I chose photography not only for my physical interaction with the elements but because it gives so much believable, specific detail. But it also gives me all these manipulative tendencies. I work with black and white which is already abstracted. Your work looks at the same time to be a wild landscape and a formal man-cultivated landscape. I actually go to places that have that combination. I took a photograph of a wonderfully overgrown urban tropical garden in decay—it looks like a tropical forest but then you take a little closer look. Some of your paintings are like that—like stage sets. I don’t mean contrived, they’re sets for activity.
AG Well, the activity is what you do when you’re in it. What your mental acrobatics become.
SG That, I think, is where we are alike.
AG Yes, that’s true, there are elements of theatricality in our work. Nothing’s really happening in it but once you get in it, what you do with it interpretively is a lot. You end up being the action. In your last show, there was one shot of just a cloud above the shore. It was poised there, it looked so artificial, so peculiar, like a ball in the sky. It had such a specific type of dimension. It was a little more aggressive than normal cloud-in-the-sky behavior, it came forward. That is pivotal—it makes you see the landscape completely differently, otherwise it would have just been a shoreline. But it was two things happening at once: the slow flatness of the shoreline sitting on the bottom of the paper and the mass on top made this beautiful strange combination. Once you have two totally different things functioning in tandem then you have everything. It throws consciousness and your own sense of looking in back at you.