All images © Shane Lavalette, from the Picturing the South series.
Cheap & Plastique interviews Syracuse, New York based photographer Shane Lavalette for issue #11. See more of Shane’s work here.
C & P: You grew up in Vermont and attended college in Boston, Massachusetts at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. Do you feel that living in New England has influenced your photographic work? What sort of projects/series did you work on when you were still in school?
Shane: Yes, in many ways. When I began in photography, I gravitated to the idea of making work about place. I photographed a lot in my home state of Vermont, and around New England. The following projects I worked on, in Ireland, India, and most recently around the American South, also began as projects that deal with place.
C & P: Were you a part of Boston’s art community? Do you feel that it is still important to be part of a (physical) creative community or do you think it is more relevant nowadays to be active on the web—on blogs and online photography forums?
Shane: The art community in Boston is often centered around the various institutions, and is also very transitory with many students coming and going. I felt a part of it, but not as much of a sense of “community” as I had hoped for. I think that’s one thing that led me to work more on the web at the time, and to get involved in collaboration through publishing.
C & P: I saw your work in Brooklyn the other day at the Blog Re-blog show at the Signal Gallery in Bushwick. This show played off the format (and influence) of blogs in the photography world. What are your thoughts on the way the majority of people see photography nowadays—mainly online, on the computer screen, at a relatively small size, with only a few images representing the photographer’s work—versus someone viewing prints of one photographer in a gallery setting? Do you feel that there is something lost by seeing an image only on the computer screen? Do you think blogging is changing the way we view images? Are pristine photographic prints becoming a presentation method of the past?
Shane: Blogs played a role in speeding up the way in which we consume information and images, which has been increased even more with social media. While all of these platforms are great places for discovery, they don’t allow much room for contemplation—articles are easily replaced by the latest content, and don’t hold our attention because of the myriad of distractions that the Internet encourages. In this way the gallery can be a much better way to experience photographic work, however, even more ideal I believe is the book. A photobook allows for the time, space, and consideration that most photographic work deserves and photography reproduces very well in book form.
C & P: It seems that a lot more serious photographers are using Instagram as a tool to get their images out into public view now, whereas a few months ago they were a bit more hesitant to post their work in that forum. How do you feel about Instagram? How do you utilize the platform?
Shane: On the 4th of July I signed up for an Instagram account and posted a picture of fireworks, probably at the same instant as hundreds of thousands of others—an appropriate way to step into this stream of images, I thought. I’ve since used Instagram to sketch ideas and, in a playful way, keep my eye active on an almost daily basis. Generally I don’t photograph that way with my projects, so it has been an interesting experiment and has got me thinking about new ways of making pictures. For now, anyone reading this can follow along at @shanelavalette.
Kathy Ryan of the New York Times Magazine curated a selection of Instagram images by artists for Aperture’s upcoming benefit auction, of which she included an image of mine. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at first, as I think some of the appeal of Instagram images rests in the instant, ethereal, non-fetishized digital image—with more emphasis on the idea than the print—however, it will be interesting to see.
C & P: You currently live and work in Upstate New York. What do you like most about living in the Syracuse area? Least?
Shane: After spending seven years in Boston, I sometimes miss the perks of living in a larger city. Then I remember some of the things that are obnoxious about it. There’s a humble, friendly community in Central New York, and a lot of great resources, and things to do outdoors. Collectively, there’s a lot happening between Syracuse, Rochester, and Ithaca. And from CNY it’s easy enough to get to any of the surrounding cities, so I actually find myself in NYC more often.
C & P: I assume Syracuse is a relatively inexpensive city (at least in comparison to New York City). In your travels do you find that a lot of other creative people have “escaped” the big city and are thriving in smaller cities similar to Syracuse, smaller cities with a lower cost of living? Does a lower cost of living lead to greater creativity in your opinion? Is this why you have chosen Upstate New York as a base versus somewhere like NYC, San Francisco, or Los Angeles?
Shane: I didn’t mention it, but yes affordability is another nice thing about this area of course. It can mean there is more room for creativity for sure. You can own a house with plenty of space for the cost of renting a tiny apartment in the city, or for less. This makes for a nice place to live as an artist, and if you have the passion or entrepreneurial energy it can be a place to really make things happen. Time and space are hard to come by in bigger cities, and I really value both.
I have a few photographer friends in the area that are doing good things in the CNY community and making contributions the to the art world at large; Doug DuBois, Susannah Sayler and Ed Morris (The Canary Project), Ron Jude, Danielle Mericle, Greg Halpen, Ahndraya Parlato, just to name a few.
C & P: You are the director of Light Work, a non-profit photography organization. Are you the main curator of exhibitions held at the space? How did you get involved with Light Work?
Shane: In the summer 2011 I did a one-month a residency at Light Work, which was fantastic and very productive for my work. I really enjoyed my experience and given the opportunity to play a role the organization, I applied for a position as Associate Director. I was happy to be hired, and in many ways the experience of doing a residency prior to my hire has been really helpful in understanding the needs of artists and moving forward with our mission of support. This past spring, I moved into the role of Director and we recently hired a few excellent new staff members to fill out the team with an emphasis on more support in our digital printing area at Community Darkrooms. I am currently curating about two of our four main gallery exhibitions every year, in which an issue of Contact Sheet accompanies each exhibition. Doing curatorial and publishing work is something I enjoy a lot, after having done it independently for the years prior to my role at Light Work.
C & P: You also are the founding editor of Lavalette, an independent publisher of limited edition photography books and multiples. How do you divide your time between Light Work and Lavalette, as well as working as a photographer on your own series and commissioned work?
Shane: It’s a difficult balance to strike, and so my personal work and the publishing projects through Lavalette move at a different pace than they used to. That said, this change has been positive in many ways, forcing a greater consideration of projects and a more selective approach.
C & P: How often do you take on commissioned projects?
Shane: The Picturing the South commission for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta was the largest I’ve done in my career. I spent about two years working on the project, which led to an exhibition at the museum in 2012—and a book that I am planning to publish this year. Beyond that, I do occasional editorial/commercial projects, but only when the assignment seems well suited to my work and interests as an artist. I really enjoy when photo editors can see how an assignment is fitting and reach out with that in mind.
C & P: Can you tell us a little about the background behind the images for the Picturing the South exhibition, which was commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta? Had you ever had the desire to photograph the South before the High Museum got in touch with you about participating in their project?
Shane: My relationship to the South is one that started through music. As a native of the Northeast, that was my entry point to the region, so I was interested in exploring this musical history—that of old times, blues, gospel, etc. I wasn’t interested in making a documentary photo project about music, but instead in looking at how songs influence our understanding of place and landscape—and vice versa, how the qualities of the South inform the themes and stories that have been past down over the years through traditional music. I allowed my practice to open up a lot when working on the project, and the series of pictures is perhaps the most playful body of work I’ve done, oscillating between literal depictions of music, portraits, landscapes, still lifes, abstractions, etc. The photographs themselves are collectively rather musical. I always had an interest in making work in the South, but couldn’t have done such a project without the support of the museum.
C & P: In the essay Tongue After Tongue Tim Davis says you “scoured the landscape looking for the feeling coming from the music” in your photographs. Can you talk about this statement? What was your process of creating this body of work like?
Shane: Tim is right in that I wasn’t looking to photograph music so much as the idea of it—the feeling, as he put it. When I began the project a lot of my research was about musically significant places and people, so that was the thread that I followed for traveling but I opened up my eye and allowed myself to follow whatever might be photographically interesting. I had a list of specific subjects I was interesting in photographing, many of which are musical or photographic clichés, so I was wrestling with the idea of making interesting pictures out of these common Southern images—and in the footsteps of other Southern photographers that have explored some of the same places or subjects as their home. The awareness of this history was really important to developing the work in a way that wasn’t derivative.
C & P: What was the experience like of having a show with Martin Parr and Kael Alford, two distinctly different photographers, whose work differs greatly from each other’s, as well as yours?
Shane: The museum has done a nice job over the years by commissioning such a variety of artists to explore the region—from Sally Mann and Emmet Gowin to Richard Misrach and Alec Soth. I was in good company in the 2012 exhibition, with Martin and Kael. In the context of the show, we were all exploring very different ideas and in very different ways, yet the idea of place was enough to connect them to one another. I think this commission series will become more and more interesting over time.
C & P: You now have funding from a Kickstarter campaign to print and release the book of this work. Can you talk a bit about your experience utilizing Kickstarter to initiate this book project? How long did it take for you to raise the funds that you needed to finance the project? How many books will you be printing?
Shane: I was very fortunate to receive a positive response to the project and be able to attain funding to produce the book in just a month or so. Since then, I have been working through various ideas for the format of the book, the edit, sequence, layout, typography, materials, etc. I have gone through many versions and ideas for releasing it, but it is nearly complete now and I feel happy with the result. I’ll be printing between one and two thousand copies, a chunk of which will go to the original backers and the rest will be available for sale through Lavalette and in select bookstores and museum shops.
C & P: You say that you imagined “the ideal venue for Picturing the South would be a book.” Do you have any thoughts why there has been a rise in the popularity of the photo book? What attracts you to the photo book format as a vehicle for presenting your work?
Shane: As I mentioned earlier, I think it’s the most accessible and intimate venue for experiencing photography. In addition, it’s a relatively affordable way to own art and live with it. The artist also has a lot of control over the viewer’s experience, given the edit, sequence, design, physical qualities, etc. This project I felt was particularly well suited as the format of the book itself can be very musical—through tempo, rhythm, repetition, etc. In the layout, I have thought a lot about these ideas.
C & P: Do you shoot mostly in and around Syracuse or do you usually journey elsewhere on shoots? 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?
Shane: I used to research a bit and come up with an idea before photographing, however this idea and the emphasis on location is becoming less and less important to me.
C & P: Is there any one subject/thing that always attracts you (and your camera)? Something that you find yourself frequently returning to as subject matter?
Shane: There are certainly a lot of recurring themes throughout my work, but I think the idea of history plays a central role in all of my projects so far.
C & P: Your images look timeless to me. Do you purposefully shoot imagery so that it is not linked to a particular time and place?
Shane: This interest in history likely draws me to the idea of photographing the present in a way that references the past. I’m not sure this makes the images timeless, but certainly a bit more malleable, which I like.
C & P: Your various photographic series make me feel as if I have connected with the place you are presenting, even though most of the time I cannot identify where that place is. I think this feeling occurs within me because your work is a mix of landscape imagery and casual portraiture. Has your work always included a mixture of both kinds of imagery?
Shane: Yes, I’ve always been interested in working through landscape and portraiture, as well as other modes of image making. With each project I think my practice has opened up and become less traditional, and incorporated more varied approaches, including video and other media.
C & P: What is your photo editing process like? How do you choose which images should be in a series in a gallery or in a photo book?
Shane: There are a number of ways, but one method I use is to group images into piles of similar subjects or ideas and to edit within those piles. Then I take what is left and build a sequence. Some images end up being less necessary to tell the same story or represent an idea, so they are dropped from the edit. The hard part as an artist is divorcing yourself from the experience of making the image—sometimes making the photograph is what you are attached to more than the image itself. Time away from a body of work can really help with this, so you can return to the images with a fresh set of eyes, and see them a bit more like how others will.
C & P: What artists/photographers do you find inspirational?
Shane: That’s a hard question to answer because there are so many… I find that artists who are open and fluid in their practice inspire me most, many of which are younger artists that are embracing new ways of making images, on the edges of what even be considered photography. Looking back, I think that the artists I admire most were doing the same thing in the earlier days of photography.
C & P: What could you imagine doing, if you didn’t do what you do?
Shane: If not involved in the visual arts, I always thought I might enjoy the culinary arts. A chef or a food writer? I’m not sure. Food is one of my favorite things to consume besides art.