Outtakes: Victoria Sambunaris

Outtakes is a series of interviews with contemporary photographers who have been asked to share alternate versions of some of their most meaningful, successful and celebrated images. By looking at these outtakes along with the final image and by hearing from the artist directly, we hope to examine the different working methods and criteria that photographers regularly employ in an effort to push past the romanticism of the singular, iconic image and learn more about the way photographs are really made.

Outtakes comes from photographer Joshua Dudley Greer and continues today with images from Victoria Sambunaris.

Victoria Sambunaris was born in 1964 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and received her MFA from Yale University in 1999. Her large-format photographs have been exhibited in solo exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, the Nevada Museum of Art and the Rubin Center at the University of Texas, El Paso. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts among many others. Her first monograph, Taxonomy of a Landscape, was published by Radius Books in 2014. She is currently represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York and James Kelly Contemporary in Santa Fe, NM.

Untitled, (Man on Horse in Rio Grande) Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2009 © Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled, (Man on Horse in Rio Grande) Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2009

Joshua Dudley Greer: When I first approached you about doing this interview, you revealed to me that a large number of your images (including this one) did not have any outtakes, that in fact you often make just one photograph of a particular scene. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach making photographs with such restraint?

Victoria Sambunaris: Shooting large-format film is an entirely different animal. It demands acute observation and patience for all circumstances to be aligned before taking a picture. It's easy to become caught up in a moment and snap away when, for example, the light is bad or the season is wrong. Too frequently, I have come home after months out on the road with a load of film and whatever was compelling did not come through in the photograph. I have learned restraint.

With this particular photograph, there was one chance - the encounter, the bright light, the white horse, the milky water and the man crossing the border. I had witnessed people crossing here before in canoes and horses, including this man. I asked him if he would wait five minutes in the middle of the river when crossing. We negotiated. I got one shot. We were going to meet again for another photograph. I waited, but he never came - it's the way things go. I returned many times and even later in the year but everything had changed, the river was deep, the light glaring, so there is just one photograph here.

Untitled (Houses) Wendover, Utah, 2007 © Victoria Sambunaris

© Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled (Houses) Wendover, Utah, 2007

JDG: With that patience and reserve in mind, and given the fact that these next two images are so similar, can you recall what encouraged you to make another negative of this particular view?

VS: Simply, the train. If you notice in the background, a train is approaching so there were two shots with the train in different positions.

JDG: Clearly trains are important to you, we find them throughout many of your photographs. In this particular image however it seems like a fairly minor shift in one of many details contained in the overall picture. I know you don't use any kind of digital manipulation in your work so you're very particular about waiting for that moment when everything aligns. But I'm wondering how you don't often make multiple versions when a similar shift occurs in other details - maybe it's the placement of a cloud or a slight breeze blowing a bush, anything really. Was it just that the train was of particular importance to you in this photograph?

VS: Trains are significant in my work and a recurring theme bridging each individual "chapter" or body of work. The trains are ubiquitous in the West and are part of the infrastructure that connect systems to each other. They connect the past to the present. They also represent trade, commerce and consumerism and are part of my overall interest in the American Dream that I have been probing for over fifteen years.
There is so much information in this photograph unaware to the viewer. It is the minute details about a particular place that will spark my interest and curiosity. The state line splits the town of Wendover with Utah laws applying to the Utah side and Nevada laws applying to the Nevada side. Interstate 80 also splits the town. In this picture, the outcrop signifies the geologic past and our future, a reminder of our fleeting time here; the housing and sprawl portend a possible future and our development; and the emblematic train appears, once again, moving our resources from one place to the next and spans the history of the American Dream. This photograph tells a conflicting story in geological, cultural, political and economic terms. To answer your question, in this instance, I was consumed by the particular details about this place but when the train came through, the timing was perfect and there was only one photograph to be made.

Untitled (Potash Mine, Distant View) Wendover, Utah, 2004 © Victoria Sambunaris

© Victoria Sambunaris

© Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled (Potash Mine, Distant View) Wendover, Utah, 2004

JDG: We see here three different views from what I assume is the same basic vantage point taken over a period of some time as the weather and light changes. Can you give us a chronology of the pictures and articulate some of the key differences in terms of what you were hoping to depict?

VS: It was over ten years ago and difficult for me to remember the particulars, but I most likely shot the overcast image first, then returned to shoot the final image when the light was different, probably within the week.

I searched long and hard for access to this shot and a local eventually led me there. I was ecstatic once I saw it, but the circumstances were not perfect - the light was wrong and I was distracted by the person that led me there and stayed with me. It's crucial that I am alone when I work in order to focus on the small details of what I am doing and seeing. Do I want more of the ponds? The highway? The small development on the right? I need to observe and make decisions about the framing, the changing light, the cars coming down the highway and when someone is standing behind you chatting, it can throw off your concentration. I obviously cannot multitask.

There were 7000 acres of solarization ponds and I wanted to capture that vast, organized quality they imposed on the landscape, but was obviously too far away. I photographed extensively at the potash mine but those images were too close, ground level and not interesting. It was not the potash mine that I was interested in specifically, it was the anomaly of the potash mine situated in this landscape. Revisiting these photographs ten years later, I lean towards the overcast shot. But at the time, I wanted the distinction of the blue ponds in this white desert landscape.

In the third image, the edge of the cliff is apparent. The shot over the cliff and the shot including the edge of the cliff establish my place. It is one of those moments that I'm overwhelmed by the experience and take the shot of where I am standing. Once I find that perfect location that incorporates all I want to see, I'll return multiple times even over the course of years to reinvestigate. What becomes most interesting is how the landscape is transformed by development over time.

JDG: It seems like many photographers are in such a hurry to develop some kind of conceit, make pictures, share them online, publish books, all in a race to some kind of imaginary finish line. It's interesting how often you speak about time and to learn about how slow the process of making and finishing a photograph is for you. In terms of content, many of your photographs deal with time on a vastly different scale - that of the physical history of the earth. By comparison, ten years is absolutely nothing and yet there must be changes that you find to be significant and meaningful.

VS: There are startling changes after revisiting a place time after time over the course of many years. I am observing the intersection of landscape and industry and any kind of economic expansion or decline becomes manifest on the landscape. There are places that I have a distinct memory embedded in my mind. But after revisiting the same place a few years later, it is unrecognizable. A boom or bust situation such as a mine opening or closing reflects in its landscape. At this moment, I am in Galveston, Texas. The current slowdown of oil extraction has resulted in a glut of petroleum ships lined up along the Gulf. And gas prices below $2 a gallon and declining is reflected in more cars on the road.

Untitled (Distant Steam Vents) Yellowstone National Park, 2008 © Victoria Sambunaris

© Victoria Sambunaris

© Victoria Sambunaris

Untitled (Distant Steam Vents) Yellowstone National Park, 2008

JDG: This is probably one of the more iconic photographs you've made in a place that has been, and continues to be, well represented in art and photography. How do you approach making your own kind of picture in a place with this kind of pictorial history?

VS: True, Yellowstone and many other places I have shot have been documented extensively. Regardless, I am curious and need to investigate something there for my own purpose. The Yellowstone/Snake River Plain project came about in 2008 after I had spent the previous year following John McPhee's book Annals of the Former World, driving Interstate 80 and looking at geological features in the landscape. The McPhee project led me to a Wyoming geologist who invited me on an expedition to Yellowstone NP and the surrounding vicinity. The experience piqued my curiosity about the geology of the Yellowstone supervolcano and the impact that geology has had on the surrounding area and the Snake River Plain across southern Idaho. I spent 2008 following that geologic path in Yellowstone, around Yellowstone and across the Snake River Plain. I was not thinking about Yellowstone as a destination or its current cultural significance but rather tracing its geological significance. Our landscape reveals fascinating stories when you go beyond what it is today.

JDG: That seems to bring up one of the primary challenges of any kind of environmental photography. You have all of these ecological forces at play (some visible, some not) and the long history and study of those forces, yet the camera can only reveal so much on the surface of things. When you're in a landscape such as this, would you say you're being driven more by research in terms of the landscape and its underlying geology or are you allowing yourself to be seduced by the aesthetics of the place?

VS: The motivation to go out on the road and photograph is concept driven. There is a specific idea that gets me to a place where I can examine it through the lens. Then my aesthetics emerge. I am certainly trying to look at things aesthetically but there are times that it is difficult to let go of the concept, to relax and take a photograph of something that is strictly aesthetically pleasing that has nothing to do with the concept. Occasionally I take those shots which you might see in my contact sheets or even outtakes. But in addition to my 5x7 camera, I carry a Mamiya 6x7 that allows me to snap everything that interests me - the towns, the people, the scenery, the shots that are not concept driven. They are quick and easy and fulfill a need I have to shoot freely. When I'm back east editing the 5x7 film, there are many occasions where the concept overtakes the photograph and I have a difficult time adhering to my aesthetic principles. The concept has gotten in the way of editing work and ultimately curating my work; I find myself arguing for a photograph because of its meaning rather than whether it's a good photograph.

JDG: So would you say that all three of these images are conceptually on the same playing field and it's an issue of aesthetics that creates the final distinction for you?

VS: It certainly comes down to aesthetics, but also how the work functions as a whole aesthetically and conceptually. It is a bit of a macro/micro process when working out in the field and later coming home to put together a body of work or mounting a show or thinking about the entirety of the work.

In regards to these three particular photographs, two of the three are similar and ordinary. In the two photographs, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, they are more of what you imagine of YNP. You have seen this photograph before. The third photograph stands out, it's ominous. It depicts more of the overall idea in regards to the entire project. I'm thinking about the Yellowstone supervolcano that erupts every 650,000 years and will change the climate of the Earth, I'm thinking about plate tectonics, I'm thinking about what the Earth was like the last time this volcano erupted, I am thinking about locals I've gotten to know who have escape routes planned. There is something haunting about this photograph that relates to some of these ideas.

Once I am back East I make a first edit. That picture stands out and it makes the first cut. I make a larger work print to examine it at a larger size from the 5x7 contact sheet. I am scrutinizing the details - the white streaked sky, the glistening water, the spewing vents - while thinking about it in the greater context of my work. It needs to stand on its own while simultaneously relating to the other photographs selected for this project to create a cohesive idea that is visually engaging.

It's the beauty of photography, of being in the moment, site-specific, and thinking about the world on a grand scale; then coming home to take all you have seen, experienced and learned and producing something very personal - bringing the conceptual and aesthetic together - in a way that offers a truth - both surprising and apparent - about the world in which we live.

Joshua Dudley Greer (b.1980 Hazleton, PA) received his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002 and his MFA, with distinction, from the University of Georgia in 2009. His photographs have been exhibited throughout the United States in venues such as the Knoxville Museum of Art, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Catherine Edelman Gallery. His photographs have been published in The Collector's Guide to New Art Photography Volume 2, Flash Forward 2010, Smithsonian Magazine and Le Monde. He has received grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, Tennessee Arts Commission and in 2012 was named one of the New Superstars of Southern Art by Oxford American. He is currently living in Johnson City, Tennessee where he is a visiting assistant professor of photography at East Tennessee State University.