Interview: Martin Hyers and William Mebane

EMPIRE, installation view 1

Martin Hyers and William Mebane began their collaborative work in 2004. Their work has been included in numerous exhibitions, featured in The New York Times Magazine, and included in the book Various Photographs, published by Tim Barber’s imprint, TV Books. This summer they will be exhibiting EMPIRE at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.

Based in New York and Brooklyn, they work collaboratively and individually as photographers on a wide range of fine art, editorial, and commercial assignments. William Mebane is currently a Visiting Lecturer at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.

Photographer Kevin Thrasher has interviewed Hyers and Mebane for fototazo.

EMPIRE, installation view 2

Kevin Thrasher: How did you arrive at the decision to collaborate with Martin Hyers?

William Mebane: Marty and I have been friends for 15 years. We’re fans of similar work. Having a compatriot has been exciting and energizing for both of us. Our partnership works because we feed off of each other’s energy, and because we’re both convinced that our shared vision works for both of us and belongs to both of us.

EMPIRE, installation view 3

KT: Empire looks like it was made by one person. I think its remarkable to have worked out a system to achieve this end result.  Can you tell me about the parameters you and Martin agreed on for making the photographs?

WM: We agreed to light everything with on-camera strobe and to shoot together with two cameras. We chose to shoot everything at a distance of about one meter, which was easy because we were working with rangefinder cameras. We appreciated the forensic quality that the strobe created. We were both huge fans of a series of photos from Luc Sante’s book, Evidence, where the photographer had placed the camera underneath the tripod and shot straight down on crime scenes.

EMPIRE, installation view 4

KT: How did you edit 9000 negatives into a project?

WM: The photographs were all taken between 2004 and 2007, but we spent about two additional years working with and living with the photographs. We began by sorting the photographs into piles of similars. We then worked to tease out the photographs that we felt were most successful and representative of the range of places we had visited and of the variety of objects we had stumbled upon.

EMPIRE, installation view 5

KT: How much do you owe the work inside homes and businesses to the kindness of strangers, were people happy to give you access?

WM: We owe so much to the kindness of strangers. We approached people on the streets, in stores, at their businesses. When we asked for their help, most people were curious and happy to participate.

EMPIRE, full installation view

KT: I personally admire photographers who lurk around at night with flash bulbs, were there any interesting situations either of you got in while photographing cars and homes?

WM: Photographing at night with a huge studio strobe attached to the roof of our car makes us fairly conspicuous. The process is a bit intrusive and somewhat surprising. Often people would come out of their homes or call the police.

© Martin Hyers and William Mebane

KT: The Bentley automobile stands out to me as one of the few contemporary objects in the work. Why were you and Martin drawn to objects and interiors of a certain time period in American culture?

WM: All of the photographs were made during a relatively brief and discrete time period. We were very interested in showing the range of objects from old to new that people have in their homes and businesses and that are found out in public space. Many people’s homes and businesses are not filled with new objects, and most people don’t drive new cars. At the time that we were making these photographs (during the housing boom), there was a real sense that everything was o.k. I think that it is pretty apparent to us all now, that many, if not most Americans, do their best just to get by.

© Martin Hyers and William Mebane

KT: Your collaboration is offering a very specific view of America. What does the sum of these surfaces, structures, objects and symbols say about us?

WM: Great question. We’d hope that the process of looking at the pictures in EMPIRE would give a viewer time to pause and think about this.

© Martin Hyers and William Mebane

Kevin Thrasher lives in Richmond, VA. He received his MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. His work has been exhibited in the Northeastern and Southern U.S.