Philosopher and Photographer Scott Walden interviewed by Alex King
Scott Walden’s research focuses on the intersection between the philosophies of art, mind and language, with an emphasis on photography. These philosophical interests inform his photographic practice, which has been recognized by multiple grants and the 2007 Duke and Duchess of York Prize in Photography from the Canada Council for the Arts. As Associate Professor at Nassau Community College he is a 2016 recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. Walden divides his time between New York and Newfoundland.
You defend the view that photographs do have a special connection to reality, unlike paintings or drawings. Do you see your photography as an extension or expression of this view?
I’ve argued that photographs typically enable viewers to form highly warranted beliefs about the visible surface features of the persons or objects that they depict. That, I think, is one aspect of the special connection to which you refer. But there’s a large gap between these visible surface features, on the one hand, and the internal lives of the people and invisible stories of places that lie behind these surface features, on the other. I doubt that any beliefs viewers of photographs might form about these latter matters come with any special warrant. But it’s often these latter matters in which we’re most interested. So where does that leave photography?
One place is where Diane Arbus left it. She seemed to revel in the tantalizing mysteries that this epistemic gap engenders, pointing out that “[a] photograph is a secret about a secret…[t]he more it tells you the less you know.” Another place is where Susan Sontag left it. While she likewise despaired of the possibility of “photographic knowledge,” concluding that “while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge” (her term for the internal lives and invisible stories), she went on to emphasize that language can be used to furnish the latter sort of knowledge.
In my own work I sometimes reflect upon the gap and sometimes explore ways to overcome it. The installation New Industries (2005) is of the former sort. In the 1950s the Newfoundland government tried to diversify their economy by subsidizing the creation of 16 factories manufacturing everything from chocolate bars to rubber boots. For industrial expertise, they turned to eastern Europeans fleeing the Soviets, mostly Germans and Latvians. What they ended up with was a wonderful mixture of Europeans and Newfoundlanders, many of the latter from impoverished rural backgrounds. Most of the factories failed, but not before introducing a generation of Newfoundlanders to wage labor, a way of life quite at odds with the subsistence-barter existence of previous generations. Especially for women, this was emancipating.
How could I deal with subject matter as complex and abstract as this with my camera alone? The short answer is that I couldn’t. Sontag is right that you need language for that. So I decided on an image-text installation, the images depicting the exteriors of what’s left of the factories and the texts consisting of transcriptions of the memories relayed to me by people who had worked in them. I arranged the texts and photographs in two grids and installed in a corner of the gallery, the texts revealing the secrets hidden behind the corresponding photographs. This arrangement emphasizes the gap, and thus invites viewers to consider it.
Interestingly, this gap is also reflected in our mental architecture, which is likewise bifurcated into the comprehending propositional and uncomprehending phenomenal components. So New Industries is about that too, along, of course, the remarkable historical story.
Another way of dealing with the gap is to try to overcome it. Unsettled (1997 – 2000) takes as its subject matter population-relocation programs also implemented in Newfoundland during the post-war period. The idea was to close hundreds of small coastal communities and move their residents to larger centers where better education and healthcare would be available, along with employment in the factories. Much was lost when communities—many several centuries old—were suddenly abandoned. In sociology they distinguish between space and place, the former consisting of the objective terrain and infrastructure amongst which people live, and the latter consisting of the subjective significance these have in the minds of those who do the living. When the communities were abandoned, the space remained intact but the place was drained away. Place, of course, has value, and I wanted to draw attention to its loss. Here again, however, I faced the limits of photography. But what struck me most about the abandoned communities was how much the decaying wooden structures looked like they were dissolving into the ground, like sugar cubes with hot water poured over them. So I photographed these, and used them a metaphors for the invisible loss of place. That’s one way of getting across the gap: use images as visual metaphors for the subject matter in which you’re ultimately interested.
Do you use any photographic techniques or approaches to accentuate photography’s special status? Or do you think photography as such is so closely linked with perception and objectivity that there are no techniques that could accentuate this to a greater or lesser degree?
I like to keep things simple. When I was working in analog black-and-white I’d occasionally use some filtration on the lens to bring out contrasts, and in my 4×5″ work I’d sometimes rotate and crop images, but beyond these it was pretty much straight-up photography. In my color work I spend time getting the color balance right in Photoshop and do some rotating and cropping there as well, but that’s pretty much it. I suppose that by keeping things simple in these ways viewers have greater warrant for the beliefs they form about the visible features.
Your photographic work deals with memory. There are special epistemological issues that come up with memory, though – the way we remember things often shifts over time, we confabulate memories, and so on. Do you think that photographs are subject to the same biases, shifts, and confabulations?
Well, for the sorts of reasons just discussed, I think that photographs are better at triggering memories in the minds of their viewers than they are at conveying those memories themselves, and so the unreliability of memory can’t really be pinned on the photographs.
Proust—that master of memory—loved photography and invoked it both directly and metaphorically many times in his seven volumes. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, he didn’t use photographs as triggers for memories, at least not the way he did tea-soaked Madeleines, uneven paving stones and starched napkins. Maybe the technology was too new in his day. But photographs can certainly trigger memories. During the Unsettled exhibition Newfoundlanders saw images of their decaying childhood homes and it was quite moving to watch their reactions as their memories were triggered. It was surprising for me too, as I’d not realized the power of those images while I was developing and printing them; I had not realized what was locked within them, as Proust would say.
Instead, Proust was interested in the way that photographs, by removing the contributions of the other four sense modalities, cause viewers to see their subjects in different, more objective ways. The passage in which he likens his first glimpse of his grandmother after his sudden return home from Doncières to seeing her in a photograph illustrates this attitude. He saw her as she really was, a failing elderly lady, rather than as the vital and enduring grandmother that has been so much a part of his life (this is beautifully foreshadowed in his earlier telephone conversation with her, telephones being a technology that likewise removes input from the complementing sense modalities). I like to think that the series All the Clubs from Holyrood to Brigus series (2005 – 2007) operates more in this way. The subject matter here are a dozen or so social clubs along a 16-miles stretch of highway in rural Newfoundland. Each club has a rich history within its respective community, especially now that the church is less of a force in that culture. They function not only as places of drinking and dance, but as well for baby showers, darts, cards, pool, karaoke, anniversary celebrations and pretty much any other social function that brings the community together. Seen from the road, these are not establishments that invite passing tourists—none of the usual corporate visual cues are present that signal to outsiders that these are places to stop and have a drink or a bite to eat. Instead, everything is handmade and constructed as needs be. If the original structure became too small to handle the crowds, another room was added on, and then another. The signs on the road are carved out of wood, hand-painted or even cut out of plate steel using a blowtorch (lots of steelworkers live in the region). But there’s a tremendous beauty in these often ramshackle antidotes to corporate franchise. To see it you have to isolate the myriad colorful details from the noisy, musty, boisterous flux, which is precisely what Proust noted still photography can do. But this takes us far from subjective memory.
While we are on the topic of memory, the curator of Unsettled (2001) quotes Susan Sontag alongside your work: “Photography is an elegiac art.” Do you think that this is true? Do you see all photography as a kind of memento mori?
There’s a marvelous scene in Terrence Malick’s Badlands in which Holly’s self-emergence is triggered by looking at people in 19th-century photographs. The language in her voiceover suddenly shifts from merely parroting that of the dimestore romances she’s been reading to that of her own voice: “It hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter and who had only just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine.” To me, this is just exactly right in terms of the phenomenology of viewing such images. You see those people, typically in the prime of their lives, and you can read from the details in their facial expressions and postures that they had their hopes and fears that were just as real and important as yours and mine are now. But they are now dust, and we will be too. This never fails to pull me out of myself.
Drawings and paintings don’t function likewise, in my experience. I’ve argued that we often appreciate photographs in a “two factor” way, the first being the sense of contact with their subjects that they engender and the second being the warrant I mentioned above. I suspect that these two factors are operative in enabling photographs to function in this way. I suspect as well that Malick senses this, which would perhaps also explain why he opened Days of Heaven with a montage of old black-and-white photographs. He seems to be asking, who were those people whose lives were just as real and rich as yours or mine? And the remainder of the film is one possible answer to this question.
There might be a kind of tradeoff in memorializing something. On the one hand, it keeps the thing in our memories; on the other, it may make something painful more difficult or impossible to move past. Do you see this as a tradeoff? If so, how do you weigh these considerations against each other?
This is a good question, but one to which I have no answer. And add to it considerations such as Robert Smithson’s, whose non-sites and monuments point, not a painful past, but to spatially remote contemporaneous regions, or to the future, both of which can be at least as problematic as the past. Inadvertently, some of the images in Meadowlands (1996) ended up functioning in this way. I was making landscapes in the infamous New Jersey meadowlands and the World Trade Center was always visible on the horizon. I photographed it many times, often in dramatic light with dramatic cloudscapes, ignorant of just how much it was a monument to future entropy. You’re tempted to want not to know about any such things, perhaps living like the central character in Christopher Nolan’s Memento. But even that character, at the end of the film, seems to decide that it’s better to drive with your eyes open, as painful as the resultant knowledge might be.
You’ve suggested in places that unfamiliarity with one’s subject matter can be a photographic advantage. It makes the photographer “blind” in the same way that the camera is – blind to the internal lives and invisible stories of places and people. But this is morally and politically problematic territory. How do you navigate these tricky issues in your work?
When you first meet someone or first visit somewhere your attention is drawn to the visible features differently than it is once you get to know that person or place (it’s analogous to thinking about a work of visual art in purely formal terms, without attention to its content). As a result, you photograph differently. You compose in ways that cross-cut the ways you would compose were you aware of what’s on the other side of the gap we were talking about above. This is the sort of thing that helped with the Holyrood-Brigus series. I confess that I don’t see much that’s morally or politically problematic in this sort of ignorance. But ethical issues do loom, more, I think, in terms of obtaining informed consent when photographing people.
Arthur Danto published a fine paper on the ethics of photographic portraiture, one infused with a broadly Kantian spirit. The central thesis might be summed up thus: if a physician ought not to meddle with a person’s body absent their informed consent, perhaps a photographer ought not to meddle with a person’s image absent their informed consent as well. In either case, regardless of how valuable the goals might be (the good health of the patient; an artistically important portrait), the categorical imperative applies. When I photograph persons I don’t, like Walker Evans in the New York subway, try to conceal my camera, and so my subjects do consent to being photographed. But I wonder whether they always do so in an adequately informed way. When I take their pictures I have little idea of what the results will be—will a curator feel the images are worthy of space on a gallery wall?—and if even I don’t know what will happen with the images, certainly the subjects can’t know.
In an attempt to acknowledge Danto’s concerns, I don’t permit commercial use of the images—I’d never add them to an image bank, for example—and instead keep things confined to the artworld context. As well, I don’t exhibit images that aren’t flattering to their subjects. Admittedly, this latter goal is tricky insofar as the subject’s idea of what’s flattering and my idea might diverge. But at least I make every effort to temper my artistic goals with a recognition of the humanity of the persons depicted.
Some of your series are in black and white, others are in full color. What dictates this choice?
Growing up I’d always envied those who could draw, not only because of their obvious talents, but as well because they used such beautiful materials, especially rag paper and pigments of every hue. As a photographer, I was pretty much stuck with greyscales on air-dried glossy paper, a material that, for me, always came with a feeling of industrial production. Then came color inkjet technology. I love the look of pigmented inks on rag paper. Finally I could work with beautiful materials too! I jumped over to color, and am still, delightedly, exploring the possibilities doing so has opened up. Part of me—the philosopher part—wishes I could say that there’s some deep philosophical reason for the switch, but the reality is that it’s the embodied aspect of my life that’s operative here, especially the visual and tactile, and even the olfactory—I find the scent of rag paper inspiring.
Thanks! Last question: Please fill in the blanks as you see fit: “Aesthetics is for the artist as ________ is for the ______.”
Stereo is to music—you don’t absolutely need it but, with it, the breadth and depth astonishes.
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