For the past 40 years, Linda Connor has made photos of far-flung places that have long been associated with spiritual quests. Her iconic pictures of mosques, temples, ancient statuary and their environs wield the kind of power that arouses transcendent feelings even in those who claim to be immune to such things.
The artist’s antiquarian methods – B&W contact prints made from 8 x 10-inch negatives – play a leading role. But the real force behind Connor's pictures is light. She favors deep shadows and blinding rays, arrayed so that her subjects appear as if they've been dredged from antiquity and bathed in otherworldly auras.
Ample evidence can be found in From Two Worlds, on view at Haines Gallery through Dec. 22. The show, one of the year's strongest, comes in two parts: images taken in Asia, the South Pacific and the Middle East and pictures made at Olson House, . The exhibition captures Connor at a pivotal moment brought on by technological change: the end of "printing out paper", the media she’s used for most of her career to make contact prints. Two years ago she took up digital imaging, the results of which appear here in several formats: an accordion-shaped book, archival pigment prints, and large-format prints on silk which, on account of the rippling fabric, recall wind-blown reflections on water or relief sculptures.
An instructor at the San Francisco Art Institute since 1969 and a founder of PhotoAlliance, Connor, 68, has accumulated many honors and accolades, including three NEA grants and a Guggenheim fellowship. She’s had solo exhibitions at SFMOMA, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Art Institute of Chicago, J. Paul Getty Museum, and Victoria & Albert Museum. In 2008, Chronicle Books published Odyssey: The Photographs of Linda Connor, which surveyed the past 30 years of her career. This exhibition coincides with the publication, by Datz Press, of The Olson House.
Below, Connor speaks about her life and work with David M. Roth, editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.
What led you to take up photography?
I was always sort of attracted to art and nature as child. But I was a disaster at school because I am dyslexic. Art came easily. I started photography when I was 17 and felt like this what I was put here for. It seemed like a good match to my curiosity. I then got into RISD, instead of the academic college I applied to, and Harry Callahan was teaching Photo 1.
That had to have been a life-changing experience.
Callahan was an inspirational teacher, but he was not a particularly comfortable teacher. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be there – he was just a shy, nonverbal man. But he worked so hard. You’d see him in downtown Providence with his camera – I mean he was working harder than most of the students. He’d always shake his head at my technique. But he knew that I had this passion and deep curiosity and just really loved photography, and he nurtured that.
When I was thinking about what to do after graduation, he said go study with Aaron, so I went to Chicago, to the Institute of Design, and worked with Aaron Siskind, and he was a joy. He was a total flirt, but he loved people and was very articulate and a very quick playful mind. Although you can’t see the visual influence from his work to mine, working with somebody who was so passionate about the medium and life was a great thing. Emmet Gowin was a graduate student in my last two years at RISD and he was a tremendous filter and influence on the way my work looks or tries to look, and he was not afraid to emulate other photographers to learn how they did things. For instance, he and Jim Dow did a working pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to literally find the tripod holes of Walker Evans — just to see what he was working with, and why he picked that spot. Then we all found out about Frederick Sommer at the same time. I had a real attraction to Fred’s work early on.
What other artists influenced you?
Walker Evans was my guiding light when I was an undergrad; I just thought his work was the best and that I should be a documentary photographer. When I was a graduate student I wasn’t clear enough why it wasn’t working but it wasn’t. Then, when I moved to Chicago it was too big and too raw a place to even attempt that, and I ended up doing pictures of pictures and collage work, and some of that related to Fred Sommer and other things were coming into play. For example, I loved getting family pictures and old albums and pulling toward the past, which is still an aspect of my work. (I somehow channel the past more than I do the future.) But by the end of my graduate work it was probably the fact that I was adopted and had no idea who my family was that made me so obsessed about family pictures that ended up in these weird collages.
So there’s a lot of things at work. And that’s the problem with not putting into a bigger context your influences. Had I done what I tell students to do which is to make a constellation map of their influences — mine would have been Walker Evans, Emmet Gowin, Callahan, Julia Margaret Cameron and Frederick Sommer. What you don’t get out of that is documentary photography. What you do get out of that is iconic images. And a kind of stillness and kind of reverence for whether it’s a dead coyote or whatever it is that’s in the picture.
Iconic pictures are, of course, what you are known for: pictures of temples, statuary, and sacred places — things that have the feel of antiquity, that have a lot of history behind them. What led you down this path?
I’m not exactly sure. Part of it was shifting to the view camera and the stillness and the proportions of that format. If you’re working with 35mm camera you have a lot more counterbalancing that you have to do; you almost have to have a sense of jazz. With the view camera, I think it’s more Bach (laughs). It’s a different kind of structure: an affinity for the past, a romantic nature that is less interested in the club scene than in the ruins under the city.
What about ruins attracts you?
Their age, their honesty. That they’re made by hand and heart. The quality that they’ve been sometimes ravaged or changed by time. That they’re in our imagination and not in our immediate understanding, so that we have to reach into our own imagination to connect with them.
One of the key elements that doesn’t always come out in conversation is that I’m not religious. I have an affinity for sacred places and I’m really curious and drawn to them, but I’m also interested in their relationship to the natural environment and how they’ve been brought down, changed, overgrown, how they’re affected by the forces of entropy.
It’s easy to see it in places like Cambodia where you have jungle that’s entering the temples and these majestic trees that are tearing the temples apart. But in connection to the religious or the sacred or the cultural sacred, I can imagine when our early ancestors first had enough consciousness to realize they were going to die and that they were small in relationship to the size of where they were.
I mean, I’m sitting here with a cat and I don’t think she contemplates the moon and the stars at night and how far away they are. But when human beings began to get those notions I think they were scared shitless. How do you mitigate that awareness of death and scale? I think you do it by rhythm and arrangement and trying to burn things and have the smoke go somewhere and hope that a message is being heard, that will somehow relate to the environment or change it so that you’re released a little bit from the terror. I think that’s where religion comes from. But then you have all this other iconography and magical thinking put on top of that. But the awe at the base of it still interests me. That is the thread I want to get to: where nature is part of that.
The intersection of nature and man is easy to see. Then there’s the ineffable part. How do go about getting that into pictures?
There are structures to the sacred that are commonly used across cultures. Except for a period in Renaissance Christianity, most religions are conceived or visualized in a flat field. They’re not in time/space; they’re in some kind of majestic, intensely detailed, intensely luminous, intensely symmetrical, geometric structure that is flattened out. The mandala is a good example of that. The rose windows in Chartres Cathedral are another. If you look up in the center of a mosque, you see that there is a sort of radiant, divine order to the construction. So it’s a flat-field thing, the way your vision is organized through symmetry: how light is used in sacred precincts and how you’re directed by light and how light becomes an offering lamp. We look at the brightest thing in a picture.
There’s polarity between shadow and light in your work that is more pronounced than in any almost other photographer I can think of.
Well, it’s sort of basic to photography and maybe why I still do black and white photography. It’s not only the graphic quality of it, but also I guess the symbolic quality and the physicality of it — the light being such a generating force. It’s nice to work with a medium that comes out of the phenomena of the natural world.
Your show includes work you’ve done in Asia and the Middle East and a portfolio of pictures you made of Andrew Wyeth’s one-time residence and studio. The centerpiece of the Asia portion is the codex (accordion) book (Avalokitesvara: The Great Bodhisattva Of Compassion) that you made of a 14th century meditation cave in India. You’ve placed interior views and exterior views on opposing pages. The juxtapositions striking, but so is the graphic quality the images – the way the ink registers on the prints.
That comes from the painting. It is a remarkably subtle and detailed wall painting. I wasn’t thinking of putting the two (the interiors and landscapes) together when I came home. I was interested in the surface of the landscapes. They don’t have the traditional foreground/background. I was using details. So it’s really the skin of the earth in those rock forms. That meditation cave isn’t exactly in that landscape, but it’s in that region. I find that one is interior and the other is the power of the universe we live in.
The dialog between the two is extraordinary.
The picture of the entrance to the tomb in Jordan is another strong image, an example of, as you say, man and nature interacting. It’s also printed on silk, which gives it a flowing, liquid quality.
It’s a very powerful and wonderful image; it’s just wind erosion on that classical tomb doorway. One of the reasons I started using silk is that I was going to have a show in Bali. If you were going to frame, ship, crate seven or eight images that would be $8,000. It’s more than the cost of producing the work. I wanted to have big prints, and I learned about the silk — the humidity won’t harm it. I can throw the stuff into a suitcase and iron it and I can have hangers made over there easily. I’m not planning on making it my main medium.
I’d like to talk about Olson House, the site of Andrew Wyeth's best-known paintings. How did that project come about?
Out of the blue. I was invited by the Cincinnati Museum to go up to the Olson House a couple times to make my kind of pictures of the place, and then they would be used in an exhibition with a large collection of Wyeth’s sketches and small watercolors They didn’t explain this — and I didn’t see the show — it was as if my pictures were to place in a larger context these smaller views.
The subject matter seems quite a bit different from what you usually do.
Absolutely, and I was nervous. I spent many summers when I was a child in Maine, and I have a real affinity for that area. It wasn’t like a Californian going to the East Coast for the first time. I knew about the blueberries. I knew about the smell of the air. It was really a delight to be back. But the type of work, the type of subject mater was very unlike what I had been doing for the last 35 years. And I was scared about that. When I was flying there I thought, ‘Oh shit what am I going to do?’ And I know I’m fairly good, that when I’m in a place I can usually find something. But I thought ‘Well shit Linda, you know the history of photography — just make pictures; they don’t have to be yours exactly. And that’s where I opened myself up to honor some of these other artists [like Walker Evans, Frederick Sommer, Charles Sheeler and Wyeth]. Some of them were quite startling, like the Sheeler stuff – I really like those. There were also a number of Andrew Wyeths I ended up doing mostly not knowing that he had done pictures of almost the exact same thing. Then I even channeled some of my early work. The picture of Christina’s World with a shell on it references things I did in 1970 in San Francisco.
I thought you quoted yourself particularly well in Granite and Lichen.
That was the last image I added to the portfolio. I really loved that big granite erratic which Maine is so full of, these glacial boulders. I like the smaller inserted picture because it showed the barn, but I didn’t like the focus in the picture; it didn’t enlarge very well to the full size, so I embedded it in another version of that picture in the same place. It’s an example of coming up against a problem and something else emerging. There again, back in the ‘70s I embedded pictures, but then it was in the darkroom, but now it’s rather simple [working digitally].
What’s interesting is how these quotations have the effect of bringing an alien subject into your realm while also demonstrating the influence of artists.
Trying to photograph the side of the house in [The East Side…after Walker Evans], I recognized proportionally this is a little like what Paul Strand would do, although it came out to be a more prosaic picture. Or, in this case, the wonderful, iconic flatness of Walker Evans.
But then you added that little vignette at the top, which is what moves it from being Walker’s work to your work.
Or, a hint of Atget.
Yes, that too. Do you see this is a new direction?
The Olson House isn’t a turn in my work; it doesn’t form a new direction so much as it was a commission I really enjoyed doing that produced a group of photographs that are directed at a certain time and place, with different references, and with a lot of Andrew Wyeth lurking in the background. I produced it as a portfolio, thinking it would appeal to institutions that had an interest in Wyeth. I see it very specifically. Whereas the silks were a means of getting the pictures out there. The book [Avalokitesvara] is the one part of the show that suggests a new direction.
Speaking of directions where are you headed next?
I’m hoping to go back to Ladakh [Northern India] next summer. I had a knee replacement last summer and it’s doing very well and I’ll be able to get around. Nothing terribly rigorous, but I’m hoping to get to some new parts of the country that I haven’t visited before.
When you do go out, how long to you stay?
Usually at least a month, but not more than two. I’ve got a home and you need house sitters and all that kind of stuff and I can’t afford it. The era of getting travel grants seems to have dried up.
Do you travel heavy or light?
I do not travel light. I very seldom take an assistant with me, but once I get to a place I do have help. In Ladakh I have a wonderful family that looks out for me. They managed to get drivers and schlepers.
I read that you typically frequent tourist sites which kind of surprises me. I always imagine you operating way off the beaten track.
It sort of looks like it. They’re not so much tourist places as places of historic interest, places like Petra or Machu Picchu. It’s about waiting until they’re out of the frame or not being there on the bus with them so you have to leave after 20 minutes. What was funny, in Cambodia and Angkor Wat everybody would go to see sunrise at one location. So one of the things my driver had to do was find out which way the tour busses were going so that we were going in the opposite direction. That way you don’t have a temple with 75 people where there is no hope – unless you’re doing a detail – of getting around them. But some of the best and most beautiful ancient stuff is where people visit.
What sort of preparation do you do — mentally or in terms of research and reading?
I seldom do any reading. I might look at books that have pictures. I remember seeing the bedrock church in Ethiopia, and I just said “Oh my God that’s astounding.” Places will, through pictures, announce themselves and get on my list. I don’t do too much preparation. I listen to people. If they say ‘Linda you have to go see something,’ I’ll try to find out about it. I might have a simple guidebook. I’ll try to find somebody who is fun to be with and who speaks English well and knows the area, and if they’re smart they’ll know places I would like. Having a good local guide, as opposed to professional, who is on the standard routine, is key.
I take it you have a fairly long list of places to visit?
Italy. I’d like to go to Italy. I don’t know if I can afford to go to Italy. I would need to find the perfect person to help me there. In Turkey I know who that is. In Ladakh I know who that is. In Bali I know who that is, and in Peru I know that. So I’ve been going back to places I’ve been before.
Do you ever find yourself in difficult spots where you’re in danger?
I really try to avoid places like that. I have no ambition to put myself in danger. More apt to happen would be to fall and break a leg. I did have my camera stolen by an airline one time; that was very frustrating. But generally, knocking on wood, I’ve been very fortunate not to have anything awful happen. Mostly it’s discomfort; staying in some place you really despise and getting bedbugs. Or getting giardia and just vomiting and diarrhea and thinking you’re going to die and you’re not and it’s unpleasant but you get through it.
Speaking of things you’ve gotten though, you’ve had to change the way you work because the paper you’ve used for years – printing out paper — is no longer available.
The contact printing, the printing out paper, was a very beautiful medium, which I’m not insane enough to try to make myself. So I’m now doing my best with digital technology. But the printing out paper, I print in my garden with these nice old wooden print frames. It’s like cooking using wooden spoons. There’s something very natural and practical and homey about it. It also demanded a large negative, so that was one of the reasons I was hauling an 8 x 10 around the world. But I also like the physicality and what you can and can’t see in the ground glass. I like the struggle of it.
Now that that technique is no longer available how have you solved that problem?
I haven’t solved it. There are things about digital that I find very beguiling and sort of exciting. One is a larger scale that is easily achieved. As my eyesight gets worse it’s nice having a bigger picture. Many of the 8 x 10s hold up nicely at that scale. They’re not as precious. You can also correct scratches and other terrible things that happen. And you can print on silk. There are aspects of the digital that I like. The largest complaint is that I’m not very comfortable at working with a computer. I did not grow up with that technology and I don’t get it, and so I have to work with assistants. I don’t have the money to afford them full-time. And getting them part-time, although I’ve got some very good ones, is really hard. I feel cut off from my work.
With the printing out paper, I got it down to such a simple dumb way of working, and I could do it all. And now, depending on a team or a little workshop of elves, much as I love them, you have to wait until the day they’re coming.
When you do work with your assistants, are you satisfied with the results?
Often I am. It’s different, but it’s not as precious. It’s more papery. It’s a different kind of print. I really got excited about that handmade book. One of the other exciting things about digital is that it’s sending me back. I probably have eight to ten thousand 8 x 10 negatives that I’ve made over the last 35 years that I’ve been looking at again, going into older files, and finding things that were not well-suited for printing out paper or I didn’t find the picture very interesting at the time, and now I can rejuvenate that image and bring it back out.
When I think about the consistency of the vision that you’ve achieved across so many different bodies of work made in so many different places, I think of the old saying that goes, “If you’re looking for something chances are it’s looking for you too.” Does that resonate at all with you?
It reminds me of intuition prefers the prepared mind. Or something like that. It also made me think of when I was doing a lot of the rock art work in the American Southwest and you’re looking for some obscure place that you know you'll never find. But while you’re doing that, hopefully, you’ll have your eye open and find something entirely different than you weren’t expecting. To have a certain destination but to use the journey is the important thing.
Linda Connor: “From Two Worlds” @ Haines Gallery through December 22, 2013.