An interview with Byron Wolfe

On Tuesday March 8, in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Performing Arts Art Gallery, the photography exhibit, A Field Guide to Nowhere, will open, scheduled to run until April 9. The exhibit will feature selected works by four national and international artists: Canada’s Susan Dobson, Finland’s Marja Pirila, and the United State’s Byron Wolfe and Mary Ellen Bartley. The aim of the exhibit is to explore photography’s ability to transport the viewer beyond their physical location through the unique perspective of the four artists featured.

Featured photographer Byron Wolfe is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Photography at the Tyler School of Art, at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The acclaimed photographer boasts four book publications — one solo, three collaborative — and has designed and published interactive media and e-books as well. Wolfe has also put out many long-time collaborative works with fellow photographer Mark Klett.

Wolfe’s work has been featured in numerous exhibitions and many of his pieces have been selected to be held in a number of permanent collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, The Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Wolfe is a recipient of both the Santa Fe Prize for Photography and a Guggenheim Fellow.

Tell us about the pieces you provided for the show.
“The work presented in the show is from a long term project to catalog and re-photograph every known Latin American picture from the well-known 19th century photographer, Eadweard Muybridge. The project began in 2005 and will culminate next fall with a book publication titled: Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground: Landscape, Culture, and Re-photography in Eadweard Muybridge’s Illustrations of Central America. It’s been a collaboration with a cultural geographer. I’ve largely investigated the original photographs which are complex combination prints (photographic prints made from multiple negatives) and made visual responses to the originals based on my investigations at the actual sites in Panama and Guatemala. Scott Brady, my colleague and collaborator, investigates and responds to cultural changes in the landscape since the original photographs made in 1875-76.”

Outside of the exhibit, what was the inspiration for the creative projects that will be featured?
“I have a long record of investigating historic documents (photographs, usually) and responding to them in some way. This investigation often includes re-photography whereby I find the exact point in space where a previous photographer made an image. This project is a continuation of that investigation.”

The exhibit you are being featured in, A Field Guide to Nowhere, explores photography’s ability to transport viewers across time and space, away from their physical locale. How does your work echo this sentiment, and what steps do you take (if any) to break down physical space in your artwork?
“One way to think about photographs is as layers of space and time; they can function as stratigraphic layers that one can peel away or combine. If they’re photographs made from the same location, then they can effectively function as portals that one might sift and move through. Although re-photography is commonly understood as a then and now approach (a conceptual framework I rather dislike), considering photographs as layers can yield a visual language that can sometimes produce an unusual viewer experience in which time can both compress and expand. We tend to think in human generations, but photographs (and rephotographs) can span generations in ways that challenge our perception of time.”

How do you bring new meaning to the images you photograph/create?
“I’m interested in using my personal experience and voice in a way that creates some kind of context for how to experience the work. For me, this often includes informative titles or the use of handwritten captions. Most photographs aren’t neutral documents of record and I try to understand how a picture is meant to influence and persuade and then somehow acknowledge their intentions. In the specific case of the photographs in the show, part of my strategy is to show the different versions and interpretations of Muybridge’s original pictures. “A single journey with multiple outcomes,” for example, simply puts three of Muybridge’s prints together in one frame for comparative analysis. The “landscape” (in this case a coastal scene) is identical with the exact same boat poised in the distance with the sky being rendered in three different ways (the films of the time were very sensitive to blue light, so skies were rendered as blank white. Separate photographic negatives of clouds were made and then combined to create the final image). For me, this visual disjunction prompts all kinds of questions: Why did Muybridge use different clouds for each version? How did he choose? How did he categorize and think about his cloud negatives? Do viewers respond differently to different versions? The list goes on. The project is also a consideration of the interpretive nature of photography, and what we expect from the medium both in the past and in the present.”

In her statement for the exhibit, Amy Friend says that your photographs undertake fieldwork and investigation. How do you achieve this?
“It always starts with an artifact of some kind that is interesting in some capacity. In the course of asking questions about the artifact, that inevitably involves investigation and fieldwork, and there’s always some kind of discovery made along the way.”

Do you have a favourite piece that you’ve submitted?
“I’m rather fond of “Atmospheric Locomotion” because of how it references Eadweard Muybridge’s better known “Animal Locomotion” work in which he made photographs that formed the earliest forms of cinema and animation. It’s a dead-pan conceptual twist that makes my brain smile.

Why is having an open forum for both artistic creation and discussion in a university setting so important?
“Wow, that’s a whopper of a question. Well, I’m a firm believer that one of the main functions of a university is to generate new knowledge. By definition, the only way to do that is to explore unfamiliar territory (or in my case, to use historic territory for new lines of inquiry), whether it’s creative, scientific, or otherwise. If those investigations don’t take place within an open forum, they simply won’t take place. Modern universities are essential — especially to the arts — as a way to reflect upon and critique our individual, social, cultural, and political endeavors.”

“A Field Guide to Nowhere presents a selection of photographs that destabilize meaning through processes that include: analogue investigations, archival inclusions, as well as hand-made and digital manipulations. The exhibit seeks to illuminate expectations of the photographic medium and reveals the constant re-looking the photographer assumes, both externally and historically, to fold new meaning into the fixed surfaces before us. Wolfe’s lengthy knowledge and interest in ideas about place, history, time, perception, representation, and personal experience which he notes on his website will fit well within the frameworks of “A Field Guide to Nowhere” and open up viewers ideas about the medium of photography and its relation to time and space.”

You can see more examples of Wolfe’s work on his web site byronwolfe.com and his collaborations with photographer Mark Klett at klettandwolfe.com

Laura Sebben
Assistant Arts & Culture Editor

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