” For 12 Hz I intentionally avoided references to place, not wanting to tether the individual images to mappable ‘locations,’ for the reasons stated above”
Carl Fuldner: There’s a curious sense of time and place reflected in these works that seems to operate beyond a human framework. It brings to mind ‘deep time,’ a concept attributed to the 18th-century Scottish geologist James Hutton to describe a timescale reflected in sedimentary rock formations that lies beyond human apprehension. Likewise, the end matter mentions that you made these works over the last four years in four U.S. states (Oregon, California, New Mexico, Hawaii) and Iceland, but those place markers are notably omitted from the inventory of works. The implication seems to be that such geographic designations cease to hold their significance deep within a lava tube or on the edge of a cataract. How have place and time factored into your thinking about this work?
Ron Jude: Your take on the omission of named territories is on target with what I had in mind with the index. I thought it would be useful for the reader to be able to reference the various phenomena depicted in the photographs, but counterproductive to the spirit of the piece to locate the images within the framework of mapping, which carries with it the tangled nature of the human endeavor and our impulse to lay claim to things.
The role of ‘place’ and the narrative baggage it brings to photographs has been something I’ve explored routinely in my work. In Alpine Star, Emmett, and Lick Creek Line, place figures as an essential element of the narratives we construct around lived experience. In work like Executive Model and Other Nature, on the other hand, place is used in an intentionally overstated way. In these works place assumes an implicit authority that collapses under its own weight and can’t be fulfilled. This ultimately undermines the meaning and value of place within the work, calling into question the usefulness of some of the basic documentary-grounded assumptions we have about notions such as ‘place.’ For 12 Hz I intentionally avoided references to place, not wanting to tether the individual images to mappable ‘locations,’ for the reasons stated above.
Time is also something I’ve thought about frequently in my work, typically as it relates to the fallible, slippery nature of human memory and cognition. When I set out to make work that considered forces that fall outside of human experience, however, it made sense to dig into the idea of ‘deep time’ and contemplate a scale that lies beyond our perception. The end result, I hope, is a look at the raw materials of the planet in a way that considers time on a completely different scale and leads to a rediscovery of a sense of awe. So yes, diminishing the prevailing sense of self-importance we share as a species through suggestions of deep time was definitely one of the aspirations I had in mind for the photographs.
CF: Your mention of awe as a possible response to these works calls to mind the Romantic sublime, which emerged from the same cultural context as Hutton’s deep-time concept. I’ve been struggling to conjure descriptive language to capture my response to these works. They elicit an affective response, but also a deeply visceral one. The mix of awe and terror that form the Romantic sublime under Burke’s definition gets close, but it doesn’t feel quite there. There’s a slight feeling of estrangement, which I relate to the deep-time element, but it doesn’t manifest as full dissociation or alienation—and in fact, the response comes closer to a feeling of empathy. In works like Cooled Lava Flow #1, for example, I find it irresistible to project organic, human qualities into the inorganic rock formations.
Or, say, in an image like Lava Formation, there’s a jarring, uncanny feeling that arises from modulating between a flat central void and the alien landscape that surrounds it, but to your interesting point about geography, my vision also instantly succumbs to reading the void area as a map in order to make sense of it. In both cases, these responses arise as involuntary, semi-conscious associations—what the aesthetic philosopher Richard Wollheim called “seeing-in.” In the same token, I feel myself trying to pull back and quiet those types of projections, such that I wind up going back-and-forth between feeling as though I’m failing the work in some fundamental way by reinjecting these human constructs back into it in spite of myself, and thinking that maybe the self-critical process of acknowledging those knee-jerk responses is, if not the point, at least a step in the process.
RJ: Although I was indeed thinking about the remarkably organic visual qualities of many of the inorganic subjects, I was actively trying to avoid specifically anthropomorphic projections. I had a long conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa when he visited my studio a couple of years ago, and we talked about how it might be useful to rein in the anthropomorphic visual impulse as a basic working premise for these photographs, allowing the subjects, as much as possible, to remain grounded in the literalness of what they are, knowing that they would naturally and inevitably drift away from a literal center. In trying to emphasize the imperceptible qualities of force and movement in some of the subjects, it’s often difficult to steer completely away from images that transform and morph through some of the visual devices that were employed to suggest these hidden kinetics. But to your point about the difficulty in pinpointing a response to these images, I’m going to see that as a good thing. The Romantic sublime was certainly something I was aware of in terms of precedent, but I wasn’t actively trying to connect to that tradition. But your perhaps counterintuitive reaction of a combination of empathy and estrangement really hits the mark for me as far as a desirable goal for the work.
“The Romantic sublime was certainly something I was aware of in terms of precedent, but I wasn’t actively trying to connect to that tradition”
CF: And that’s where I end up ultimately, after taking some time to settle in. It’s not easy to elicit that sort of nuanced response, much less to sustain it through an entire series. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Since we’re here: I wonder about the book’s title, 12 Hz. As I understand it, it alludes to the lower threshold of human aural perception. In one way, I interpret this as an invitation of sorts—to listen, to look, to train our attention on something subtle yet immanent in these forms. But it also seems to mark a hard limit, one defined explicitly in terms of human physiology. This is maybe another way of asking the same question again: is the end goal here transcendence, or is the dialectical response that these works provoke an end in itself?
RJ: My thinking when I originally applied “12 Hz” as a working title to the project was suggesting the latter—the hard limit. The idea that I could visually represent things that lie beyond our perception is a bit of a paradox of course, but by suggesting this through a reference to hearing rather than sight, it seemed to activate the idea in a digestible and realizable way. Along the way, however, there was time for me to consider what more that title might offer to the work, and although I still think the hard limit of perception is a useful way to think about the photographs, I’m also open to other ways of thinking about it, including what Tina Campt describes as “felt sound” in her terrific book Listening to Images. (Duke University Press, 2017. p. 6.)
In terms of the end goal, I recognize that my intentions are to some degree irrelevant once the work has a life of its own. That being said, I also recognize that it’s my job to nudge things along as much as possible, without creating a one-dimensional polemic. Your earlier point about the push-pull between an anthropomorphic read and one that privileges the subject’s independence from human projection points to the sort of complex, even sometimes contradictory response that I’m not averse to. In that sense, the dialectical response is productive in its own right, perhaps even the desired goal. But clearly there’s a visual grammar at work in many of these photographs that’s meant to activate and allow for a response that moves beyond blunt description. In that sense, I can’t argue that transcendence wasn’t a considered possibility for the photographs.
CF: The notion of ‘visual grammar’ here offers a really useful framework, I think. Your anxiety about polemics offers a nice segue, though: let’s step back from metaphysics and turn toward the social aspect of the work.
As I sit at my desk contemplating a state of near silence, I’m being serenaded by the familiar fall soundtrack of gas-powered leaf blowers. Picking up with our discussion ‘deep time’ as a concept that migrated from academic geology to art and culture, it occurs to me that there’s a contemporary parallel in the way that the “Anthropocene” currently operates. As it moved into the cultural sphere, attitudes toward the term have varied a great deal, with some prominent critics arguing that it reinforces the very anthropocentric worldview that gave rise to our current predicament, or that by clumping together humans as a single, undifferentiated group, it fails to identity the subset of actors who bear primary responsibility. Still, it seems to have stuck, and it provides a useful shorthand for a particular set of political and ethical problems.
In photography, the term has typically been used in connection with work that depicts the impacts of industrial capitalism on the non-human world in more or less literal ways. While that dynamic is decidedly absent from 12 Hz, there does seem to be an environmental undercurrent, signalled most strongly by the appearance of a short verse by Paul Kingsnorth at the end. You’ve cited Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain Project as reference for this series. Were there specific texts that were on your mind, by Kingsnorth or others, as you worked on this project?
RJ: I don’t have a particular take on the use of the word ‘Anthropocene,’ as I’ve always just thought of it as a practical way to describe our far-reaching impact on the planet. It’s definitely a word that I’ve come across frequently over the course of doing this work, but I hadn’t considered the implications of self-importance of using it to describe our current epoch. It seems understandable that it could be seen as counterproductive, but that particular controversy didn’t pop up on my radar.
Honestly, the way I usually engage a subject typically starts from a point of naivete and basic curiosity, and as I dig into something I slowly and organically build some academic knowledge around the subject, but never in a way that drives the direction of the work or favors theory over the messiness of allowing for unanswered questions. As much as I feel that intellectual engagement during the process of making the work is paramount to giving things shape and depth, I’m also not a “footnote artist” who considers the bibliography to be a requirement for fully engaging the work after it’s made.
“I don’t have a particular take on the use of the word ‘Anthropocene,’ as I’ve always just thought of it as a practical way to describe our far-reaching impact on the planet. It’s definitely a word that I’ve come across frequently over the course of doing this work, but I hadn’t considered the implications of self-importance of using it to describe our current epoch”
That being said, there were a number of things I read and conversations I had over the past few years that became important touchstones for the work. A friend of mine gave me a copy of Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays when I was about a year into the work, and much of what he had to say resonated with me. Included in this collection was the Uncivilsation manifesto, which I saw as an interesting call to artists and writers to attempt to remove the human experience from the center of the creative endeavor. I’m not really one to sign on to manifestos, but there seemed to be some earnest possibility at the heart of what it was suggesting. I liked Paul’s writing a great deal and invited him to write a short text for the book, something that could help position the work without attempting to explain it.
I also read a couple of Robert McFarlane’s books, including Underland, which was a great thing to be reading in the evenings after clomping around on glaciers in crampons in Iceland. This book, along with Mountains of the Mind, was useful in the way he deftly explores the darker corners of what an imposing landscape brings to ideas around existence and dread.
I didn’t start reading Barry Lopez until near the end of the cycle of doing this work, but as he’s a renowned environmental writer who lives just 30-miles from me, it seemed like writing that I needed to be familiar with. I’m now enthralled by Barry’s writing and humbled by the depth and sensibility of his approach. Through sheer coincidence, I’m now working on something with the newly founded Barry Lopez Foundation, and I had the privilege of having Barry in my studio a couple of months ago to look at the work. It was a great conversation.
The environmental undercurrent in the work is of course undeniable, but consistent with my past work, I went to great pains to make it clear that I’m not interested in making a simple argument in favor of or against something. I think any reasonable person already understands the dire situation we’ve created with our over consumption and general disregard for the planet. Circling back to your question about the Anthropocene and bringing ideas around that term into the work, this is where I find myself aligned with the Dark Mountain Project. The questions I was asking myself were: is it possible to look at the landscape in a way that doesn’t editorialize without simply sentimentalizing it? Is it possible to establish weight and substance in a photograph of the natural world without relying on irony or other obvious devices? Is there something concerning the planet that’s worthwhile to look at and think about that doesn’t lean on the human narrative for its gravitas?
CF: This line of questioning feels really productive. Part of the issue with adapting the Anthropocene framework to art, perhaps then, is not so much that it’s faulty, but more that it tends to tell us something we already know. As you point out, that renders it uninteresting, but more to the point, if the end goal of environmental art is on some level persuasion, it’s also potentially weak from a rhetorical standpoint. To that end, I was so utterly taken by Underland—it was the rare book where I found myself reading reviews afterwards just to prolong the experience. I vividly remember reading one review, though, that framed it entirely in terms of the Anthropocene, with Macfarlane serving as our tour guide to the various types of devastation we’ve wrought even deep underground. I remember thinking, well yes, sure, but the book is so much more about re-enchantment—about the profound feelings of wonder, or claustrophobia, or loneliness, or disembodiment—and about the metaphorics of life, and death, and history, and time that are brimming in these subterranean places.
These are the same sorts of feelings that I get from looking at many of the works in 12 Hz, which helps me make further sense of your initial suggestion of awe as a possible response.
I’m going to resist the urge to ask about cramponing in Iceland and bring us back around briefly to Uncivilisation. If we think about Kingnorth’s writing as a response to a certain disillusionment with environmentalism as it’s currently constituted, I wonder if it might be helpful to resituate the call for radically decentering human experience within the more pragmatic framework that I was outlining above, approaching it primarily as a question of rhetoric. I’m also curious, from your point of view as a visual artist, what you think about the special role that it assigns to artists in society for imagining new narratives, which Uncivilisation defines as alternatives to the monolithic “myth of progress.”
RJ: You’ve clearly articulated what I found to be potent and intriguing about Underland. Your use of the word “re-enchantment” rings true for me, and what I found to be at the heart of Macfarlane’s writing about these places, and I would happily align my intentions with your response to his book. I’ve also used the word “disembodiment” in conversations I’ve had about this work, so that makes sense to me as well. There’s a great passage in the book where Macfarlane is ruminating on the visceral response he had to the “withdrawnness” of black ice where he references a passage by Camus. Macfarlane writes, “Camus called this property of matter its ‘denseness’. Confronted by matter in its raw forms, he wrote, ‘strangeness creeps in’: perceiving that the world is ‘dense’, sensing to what degree a stone is foreign and irreducible to us, with what intensity nature or a landscape can negate us. At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman… the primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia… that denseness and that strangeness of the world is the absurd.” (Underland, 381) These are the moments in Underland that really dovetail with what I hoped to accomplish in 12 Hz. It’s a phenomenal book.
To a large degree I think the Uncivilisation directives were aimed at writers, but they do cast a wide net and include visual artists in the call for changing the narrative about the “myth of progress.” As a visual artist at this particular moment, that idea holds some interesting potential as a working premise, but my inner skeptic also wonders how the potency of one’s work might be diminished by too closely following a prescriptive set of concerns set forth by any group of like-minded people.
“You’ve clearly articulated what I found to be potent and intriguing about Underland. Your use of the word “re-enchantment” rings true for me, and what I found to be at the heart of Macfarlane’s writing about these places, and I would happily align my intentions with your response to his book. I’ve also used the word “disembodiment” in conversations I’ve had about this work…”
CF: I can definitely appreciate your reluctance to be identified with a movement. For my part, though, I didn’t find the general viewpoints expressed in Uncivilisation to be entirely novel, to the extent that they seems to align fairly closely with deep ecology, which has been with us as a strain of environmental thought since at least the early 1970s. What did feel novel though was the specific appeal to artists (with, as you point out, an incidental emphasis on writers). With that in mind, I found one of the more interesting aspects to be the move to claim the poet Robinson Jeffers and his radical philosophy of “inhumanism” as a philosophical touchstone (and the reference to the ‘inhuman’ in the Camus passage also feels relevant here).
I was interested to learn that Jeffers was part of a California modernist milieu during the 1920s and ‘30s that included Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, both of whom photographed Jeffers and claimed his poetry as an influence on their work. For his part, Adams went on to play a key role in stewarding Jeffers’s legacy by establishing a foundation to preserve Tor House, Jeffers’s hand-built cottage in Carmel.
I want to be cautious not to impose any sort of direct comparison, since I don’t think it’s particularly productive, but I do find this genealogy interesting and suggestive—perhaps less as a lens onto your work and more for how it might move us to recover certain radical elements in Weston and Adams, both of whom have become so domesticated through time. I’m reminded of a quip attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson, which is surely a bit of creative paraphrasing, who is said to have remarked in an interview, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” As you’ve said, your intentions at some point become irrelevant to the work. You extend your audience a tremendous amount of respect in that regard, to the extent that there’s very little handholding in this book. I guess what I’m wondering is…where do you find the nerve?
RJ: There’s a lot to untangle there, but I’ll start with the Jeffers/Weston/Adams lineage. I’ve never felt an affinity to either Adams or Weston, but I also don’t reject them out of hand as many people do. As a young person studying photography in the western United States in the 1980s, the prevailing attitude was to stay as far away from Ansel Adams and the lot as possible, for fear of making work that lacked a critical edge. While I found that to be generally sage advice during the height of the postmodern interrogation of our medium, I also share your view that there are aspects of Adams’s work in particular that are often overlooked in the rush to dismiss his contributions to photography as mere calendar art. I wasn’t aware of his friendship with Jeffers (and honestly I don’t know much about Jeffers either), but it makes complete sense in terms of Adams’s role in the environmental movement through the Sierra Club. He also photographed Manzanar, the WWII Japanese internment camp, as an act of protest. In both instances, it could be argued that his polished treatment of these subjects undermined any potency or critical potential they may have had, and that’s probably where I land in terms of a general feeling about his photographs. But I fully recognize that there’s more complexity to Adams than many people acknowledge. I’ve never seen that Cartier-Bresson quote—that’s so good. (I wonder what equally snide things were said about him by the “rock photographers”?)
You raise an interesting point about the lack of handholding in the book. This is a tact that I’ve taken fairly consistently in my work over the years, and it’s definitely left some people feeling a bit frustrated and locked out, while others enjoy the stubbornness. It’s never been my intention to be difficult to the point of alienating people, and I try to build various access points into my work, but ultimately we’re all making esoteric things for fairly specialized audiences. It’s really just a matter of how specialized you want to get. Twenty years ago, I tended to make work for myself and about four of my friends, but at a certain point connecting with a larger audience seemed like a worthwhile prospect. While it’s always hard to gauge how the work is being received (other than formal reviews), this particular body of work seems to have connected with people. The large-scale exhibition pieces have been appearing here and there for a couple of years now and I think it’s safe to say that they’re doing the job I hoped they would. The book’s only been out for a short while, so it’s a bit early to tell if that version is resonating. The book, of course, is a completely different beast than the physical prints, but hopefully we’ve made a successful translation and have exploited what the book form has to offer, particularly the syntax of sequencing.
CF: I’m remarking on your shift to a collective pronoun. Making a book, especially at this level, is by necessity a collaborative endeavor. There’s so much care and love of the craft reflected here. The choice to switch to a lighter weight paper for the tangled forest images at the end, to call out just one detail, is really brilliant for how it signals an epilogue but also complements the more organic, terrestrial imagery. It almost emulates the feeling of emerging from a cave. How do those sort of ideas come about? You’re a fairly prolific book maker: by my count 12 Hz is your fifteenth photobook, and your fourth under MACK. Do you have trusted collaborators at this point for various stages in the process?
RJ: I’ve worked with a number of publishers at this point, each of whom bring a distinct skill set and collaborative expectations to the table. I’ve had a good working relationship with Michael Mack because we trust each other in terms of the working process. From the first book I made with MACK, which was Lick Creek Line, he has really allowed me to make the books I want to make. This of course assumes that I know what kind of books I want to make, but I think the expectation is that we wouldn’t be working together unless I did. Each time we collaborate, there’s a lot of back and forth on everything from the basic edit, to the sequencing, to design fundamentals such as trim-size and book cloth. Every once in a while, there are disagreements about things, but not very often. With this book, for instance, there was a difference in opinion on which image to use on the cover. Morgan and Michael won that battle, and I now see that they were absolutely right. I can’t imagine the book without the Kettle Hole image on the cover. It suggests so much more that the image I was advocating.
I had a subset of images of coastal forests that I knew I wanted to incorporate somehow, and I eventually landed on making a booklet that would be a part of yet separate from the main body of the book. MACK’s production lead, Morgan Crowcroft-Brown, and Michael offered up a number of possible solutions for the booklet before we settled on binding it into the book after the end page. To a large degree this was a practical solution in the spirit of avoiding the often-clumsy nature of including physically disconnected elements within books, but it also allowed these images to operate within the book in a slightly different way. As something that reads as an epilogue, the images in the sewn-in booklet suggest a frenetic, almost hostile encounter with organic life. I don’t think the impact would have been the same had these photographs been untethered from the rest of the book.
CF: And what about the process of making the photographs themselves? Were there collaborative aspects there or do they reflect a series of solo hikes? I’d imagine that even if you’re mostly on your own out in the field, there must be a bit of coordination that goes into research and planning?
RJ: In general, my shooting process is pretty streamlined in terms of equipment and coordination with other people. For the first two years of developing this work I simply traveled to various locations within about a two- to three-hour drive from my home in Eugene, usually on Fridays when I wasn’t teaching. Occasionally I would stay the night somewhere, and there are a number of images that were made while out with my family, but typically it was just persistent solo day trips. I really find it necessary to be alone in order to be completely present and really find my way into whatever it is I’m looking at. When I was spending time in lava tubes here in Oregon, I would always let Danielle (my partner) know exactly which caves I was going to, just in case I wasn’t home in a reasonable amount of time. There’s something about being in those spaces alone that requires a certain amount of swallowing my fear (along with letting my pupils dilate) before I can set the camera up and make photographs. Somehow this became an important part of the process for me.
The lone exception for this was the time I spent up on the glaciers in Iceland. I had a terrific local guide named Stephan Mantler, with whom I spent about a week exploring various glaciers coming off the Vatnajökull ice cap. He was an excellent guide who (literally) kept me from falling into moulins and crevices. As much as I prefer solitude, I wasn’t quite ready to entomb myself in ice for the sake of making these pictures. I was really lucky to find Stephan, who is not only knowledgeable about the ice, but also has a background in photography and was able to help me improvise a few lighting scrims. Most importantly, he knew when to drift away and let me focus on what I was doing.
Otherwise, other than the essential research that goes into finding shooting locations in places where I only had a finite amount of time to get things done, the Ouija board method is what usually works for me. I just wander, and at the end of the process it appears as if there was a plan.
” I really find it necessary to be alone in order to be completely present and really find my way into whatever it is I’m looking at”
CF: I was hoping that question would bring us back around to glaciering! What you say about solitude almost being a precondition for making this kind of work makes perfect sense, though I can imagine having someone with Stephan’s special knowledge of an unfamiliar place being invaluable. Thanks, Ron, it’s been a rare pleasure.
RJ: Likewise! Thanks so much for the conversation, Carl.