I am bringing back some of my favorite past interviews as I prepare to release issue 11 of Cheap & Plastique. C & P interviewed Pittsburgh-based photographer Ed Panar for Issue 9. Ed was featured in TIME’s Best of 2011: The Photobooks We Loved and was also picked by Alec Soth for his Top 20 Photobooks of 2011. Animals That Saw Me is available here.
C & P: You currently live and work in Pittsburgh, PA. What do you like most about living in Pittsburgh? Least? Is this where you grew up?
Ed: I just moved back to Pittsburgh earlier this year after spending the past few years in Brooklyn. The town I grew up in is about 70 miles east of Pittsburgh so I didn’t grow up here, although it shares some similar qualities with the town I’m from. It wasn’t until I lived in Pittsburgh for the first time in late 2005 that I came to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the city. It was also the first time I actually started to understand how the city is intertwined with the rugged topography of the area. I really came to appreciate this quality very much. There are a lot of things I love about Pittsburgh. I love its range of moods and atmosphere. The labyrinths of streets and neighborhoods scattered along the hills, rivers and forests. All the bridges, narrow alleys, and hidden staircases. I could easily go on. Since moving back it’s been really wonderful so I don’t have too many complaints at the moment!
C & P: Is Pittsburgh bustling with creativity since it is a relatively inexpensive city to live in? There seems to be quite a few arts spaces there, are you affiliated with any of them? Do you show your work anywhere in Pennsylvania or the US?
Ed: I don’t know too much about what is going on locally at the moment, so I can’t really speak about that. But I am interested in working on a lot of different projects while I’m here and hope to help contribute something to the local scene. A new photography bookshop and project space called Spaces Corners just recently opened in Pittsburgh and the founder Melissa Catanese and I are working together on a series of photography events and programs for the upcoming year.
C & P: I went on a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh a few years ago, to go to the Andy Warhol Museum, and ended up being pleasantly surprised by the city. I found it to be a very photogenic (I loved the nighttime fog) and friendly city, I ended up taking a ton of photographs while I was there. Do you shoot mostly in Pittsburgh or do you journey outside of the city on shoots?
Ed: I always photograph where I live, and every place has its own unique photographic possibilities. But Pittsburgh is definitely one of my favorite places to wander around and take pictures. The possibilities of taking pictures here feel endless. I already have quite a few photographs of Pittsburgh from when I lived here previously and from visiting over the past few years, but I am looking forward to adding to them and working on the next chapter.
C & P: I also ventured out of the city to Braddock and some smaller surrounding towns. I had never been to a place quite like Braddock before, where everything was just shuttered and in a state of decay, even the churches, it was eerie. Have you been to Braddock? Do these semi-abandoned, depressed, ex-steel mining areas hold any interest for you as a photographer?
Ed: These places absolutely hold my interest as a photographer. I haven’t really spent much time in Braddock, but I’m familiar with it and many other towns that share the traits you mention. I grew up in Johnstown, which is also a former steel town. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, it always seemed as if every town you were in was a former industrial town of some sort on the decline. The post-industrial landscape has always had a sort of mythological presence to me as well and I’m sure part of my attraction to these types of spaces is due to my personal relationship to them. As a kid it was easy to imagine these sites as some kind of ancient ruin for a visiting alien population, or as the backdrop for any of a number of stories. So these types of places and spaces are something special to me. But I don’t really seek out the empty areas specifically, although they aren’t hard to find. I’m also interested in the old parts of town where people still live, where life goes on just like anywhere else.
C & P: How do you scout out locations for photo series? Do you research places on the internet? Or do you randomly travel somewhere with the hope of finding something interesting to shoot? Or is the location of where you shoot unimportant to you, are you always looking for an image no matter where you are?
Ed: All or most of the above at different times. As I mentioned, I’m always shooting where I live, so most of my explorations start from there. I spend a lot of time on Google Maps scoping out future photo expeditions, learning about where things are, and what streets lead where. (My urban explorations are always on foot or bike.) I try to have at least one camera with me at all times. I try to keep a simple and open approach to shooting, which usually means not thinking too specifically about this or that project. When I’m in the places I live, chances are what I’m shooting might be considered for a project I’ve already started working on.
C & P: Is there any one subject/thing that always attracts you (and your camera)? Something that you have 100+ photographs of?
Ed: There are many recurring types of pictures in my archive. My latest book, Animals That Saw Me, is an example of a project that came from a pile of recurring pictures I had of surprise encounters with animals. There are a lot of things that I always seem to be taking pictures of no matter where I’m at: streets, paths, houses, rivers, forests, and the seasons, to name a few. Overall I’m interested in the different types and arrangements of objects you find in different places.
C & P: The scenes that you most often shoot are of subjects that most people might just walk past and not notice; an oil stain on the ground, a pipe with a soda container sticking out of it… Have you always noticed these non-places/non-subjects and found them special/photo-worthy?
Ed: Sometimes I think I’m trying to work on a type of photograph that is about the background and edges of things. I’m curious about how this can be done, or even what those terms might mean in this context. What would a photograph of our peripheral even look like? First I would have to figure out where the peripheral begins, and then decide how a photograph might make you aware of the edges between things. Someone once described my work as “ambient photography” and I really like the idea of that.
C & P: Many of your pictures are people-free (although not always animal free!) Do you prefer to photograph places that are void of humans? Have you ever shot portraits or made images where people were the main subject of the photograph? Why do you think you are drawn to one type of imagery over the other (if in fact you are).
Ed: I have always been more drawn to spaces and objects than people in my photographs. I do sometimes photograph people and there are many occasions where humans appear in the scene. But I do have to say that I’ve never really been drawn to photographing strangers. I don’t really know why, but because of this I guess it’s safe to say that I’m more interested in the non-human world. I try to challenge myself to keep making interesting photographs no matter what though, so I don’t feel like I have any hard and fast rules when it comes to what I will or won’t shoot. I try to leave room for surprises.
C & P: Do you purposefully shoot imagery so that it is not linked to a particular time and place?
Ed: No, not at all. Most of my pictures are sorted in chronological order and sorted by place at some point during the process. Some years I make work books collecting together new pictures by month. Some projects are completely place specific too and the location is a big part of the work. But I also like to play around with the sense of place and time and mix things up. On my tumblr blog, the pictures are only identified by the year they were made and nothing else is revealed. Some projects, like Same Difference, are collected from pictures from lots of different places. The titles for the pictures are of an actual place, but sometimes it is such a specific neighborhood or street that if you still might not know where it is, even though I’m telling you.
C & P: You have published two photo books with two different publishers, Gottlund Verlag and J&L Books, how did these collaborations come about? Could you talk a little bit about the process of creating these books?
Ed: I really enjoy the collaborative effort that it takes to realize a book project. In both instances, I was approached initially by the publisher with the idea to do a project. The process varies from project to project, but in general there is a several month long period of going back and forth with the pictures and thinking through all of the different aspects that will make up the final book. You want to spend enough time with the edit and sequence so that you feel like all the pieces are there and in the best place. With every publisher I’ve worked with it has been an incredibly rewarding situation so I’m very grateful for that.
C & P: You have said that creating books and having a website—with a lot of work on it—helps you to edit your images. How do you choose which images should be in a series or in a printed book? What is your editing process like? Do color palette, location, subject matter, etc… factor into the edit?
Ed: I find the most important thing that needs to happen in order for me to be able to edit better is to simply know the pictures I’m working with. It’s all about spending time looking at the pictures. Sometimes it can take a while for it to become apparent which individual qualities of the photographs matter most to you. In order to help me get to that point I try to spend a lot of time simply looking at my pictures and sorting them in different ways. Sometimes a project starts when you make a new folder and start putting things together in a new way. Editing is something that I really enjoy so I do my best to keep adding new pictures to the pile. Each project develops its own parameters that determine which pictures will be included.
C & P: I am pretty sure I recognized a few images of NYC on your website, do you like shooting in New York? Does it feel different to you to shoot here rather than in Pittsburgh? Have you photographed in any other countries? Is that experience different for you? Is there any place that you would love to photograph?
Ed: Like anywhere else, learning how to take pictures I was happy with was initially a challenge in New York. But I found myself really excited about the work I made there by the end, and I am hoping to continue shooting there over time. I found myself making pictures there that I’m still thinking a lot about these days. This is one reason I enjoy learning how to make pictures in new places. I find that through the process of learning how to shoot in new places I recognize certain patterns and tendencies that I acquired over time. It’s still too early to say what might come out of this work, but I’m excited to spend more time with this project in the upcoming months.
C & P: Did you imagine that you would be an artist/photographer in adulthood? How long have you been taking photographs? What drew you to the medium and why did you choose to pursue it seriously?
Ed: I started taking pictures when I was a kid. My best friend and I had a ‘detective agency’ and we needed photographs to aid our investigations. In high school I started taking pictures on a regular basis and I haven’t stopped since. Now I feel weird if I’m not taking pictures on a regular basis. I’m interested in other things as well, but luckily photography provides a wide window to the world. It can be about so many different things at once. It feels like a riddle you can never quite solve, and I love that.
C & P: What type of camera do you shoot with? A digital SLR or a film camera?
Ed: My primary two cameras are film: an Olympus Stylus Epic for 35mm and a old Pentax 67 for medium format. I also use my camera phone quite a lot ever since I got my first one in 2004.
C & P: Do you use the computer as a tool when creating your photographs? Do you ever use Photoshop to edit images when finalizing a body of work?
Ed: I scan every single frame I shoot, so I spend a lot of time on the computer with my images. It’s definitely an important tool in my process. I don’t normally use Photoshop to do anything other than make color corrections and things like that. But I have always enjoyed playing in Photoshop and probably have a few folders of strange collages lying around somewhere.
C & P: There is definitely an element of humor to your work, I laughed out loud a couple of times while looking through your website. Are there any artists who use humor in their work that you admire?
Ed: There’s quite a few. A lot of the time it’s not so much an artist who is ‘using humor’ as an artist that allows a bit of humor to enter the scene. That’s when I like it the most. In photography, Jason Fulford instantly comes to mind. I love the way he plays with collections of pictures and text in his work. I also have to say I really enjoy watching comedy, so shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and East Bound & Down might not be a small influence either.
C & P: What artists/photographers do you find inspirational? Contemporary? Past?
Ed: Too many to list!
C & P: What could you imagine doing, if you didn’t do what you do?
Ed: I’d probably still be working the night shift at the McDonald’s in my hometown. Maybe making ambient music on the side. Who knows? But I can’t really imagine doing anything else. I’m just trying to imagine ways of doing it better.