For the past few years, Russian-born and U.S. based artist Anastasia Samoylova has been creating imagery that breaks boundries of conventional photographic genres. Her project, Landscape Sublime, presents hybridized scenes of tabletop collages, and forms a distinct and multi-layered interrogation of photographic aesthetics, online media, and our image saturated culture.
Gregory Eddi Jones: To begin Ana, can you talk about your background as an artist, and some of the early influences that have helped to shape your perspective on the photographic medium?
Anastasia Samoylova: I received my first formal education in visual arts in Moscow, at a university where the influence of Bauhaus and Russian Avant-Garde was prevalent. I studied interior design, which involved making physical models of buildings out of paper and then documenting the mock-ups through photographs. The process of transformation of 3D into 2D space via photography was fascinating. I think this is where my approach comes from.
GJ: From the little I know of the Russian Avant-Garde you mention, there seemed to have been a strong interest towards the invention of visual space, an interest that I view as having carried over into your own work. For those of us not keenly in tune with the frameworks of those East European movements, can you talk more about the impact that the figures or philosophies of those movements have had in the development of your own aesthetic?
AS: One of the most profound breakthroughs of Avant-Garde art was its renouncement of figurative depiction to the point of complete withdrawal from reality. At the same time, Constructivists would implement their abstract sketches to shape actual material objects, like architecture, or textile. I like the idea that the work can be simultaneously liberated from realistic depiction, yet grounded in the material world. [Kazimir] Malevich went through multiple stages in his artistic evolution, from Realism to Suprematism, with its purely geometric compositions, and back to Realism towards the end of his life. I pursued photography because like no other medium it points to a concrete reality, with its time and space. But, I came into it with the understanding that reality is a construct, and that I can “bend” time and space in one image. What attracted me to photography is that you can make up a world and produce a truthful record of it.
GJ: It makes sense to me when I hear about your background in architecture, because often when I view your work I often think of terminology that relates to architecture: structure, engineering, fabrication, construction, etc. And it’s interesting to me that your practice grew from creating 3-D models as a means to realizing physical built environments, to creating 3-D models with materials depicting physical natural environments for the purpose of re-flattening them for a 2-D presentation. Can you talk about the processes that go into your images?
AS: Many feel that this is exclusive to darkroom photography: a magical moment when the image materializes on a piece of paper. It is exciting to be able to hold a photograph in your hands. I see images on a screen as negatives, and an inkjet printer as my darkroom; the process is less laborious than chemical printing, but for me just as rewarding. Both printing methods transform an ephemeral image into a concrete object. As objects these images are capable of existence in a material world. The reading of an image will depend on such existence, on a context. As we can see with stock photos, an image of the same person might materialize in ads of various products; become part of a bus, or a shopping bag. The images that I use for my compositions are in public domain; their creators share them so they can be used by anyone, which I find generous and refreshingly uncommercial. By printing out and sculpting such images into abstract forms, I am in some way monumentalizing them. I give them materiality and then record their existence in the real world (of my studio) by photographing them in the environments that were set up specifically for them, with consideration of their content and form.
GJ: Your Landscape Sublime work finds itself at several different intersections of process, genre, and style. You install table top arrangements of landscape images printed from the web, and photograph these arrangements as still life. There’s a fascinating synthesis of ideas happening in your process. How did you get started working in this way?
AS: My Landscape Sublime project is as much about the genre of landscape in photography and the process of photographing an environment, as it is about the actual landscapes. I remember as a child being mesmerized by the looping nature-themed screensavers on the family computer. I liked the ability to print out the images, which I could pin up in my room, and rotate once I get tired of them; something I could never do with a reproduction from a precious art book or original darkroom print. I grew up in a big city, so looking at beautiful vistas and imagining being in those environments was a means of escape. Plus, it was not hard to find images of landscapes, as it is one of the most popular genres in visual art.
Often landscape images are used in advertisements and on labels of products, like bottled water or soap. In my photographs I want to draw attention to the frame of a photograph, its finiteness; hence the emphasis on the geometry of the prints within my tableaus. The process of constructing a still life is also a metaphor for what happens when memory blends pictures of different elements of a scene (i.e. green grass, blue sky, fluffy clouds) into one amalgam of an environment (“summer meadow”). I have yet to see glaciers in real life, but my memory can already make up an image based on the photographs I have seen online and in advertisements. In a way, images of anything are just raw material for the kaleidoscopic pictures that are comprised by the mind, which is what I am aiming to recreate with my photographs.
GJ: I think among the remarkable traits of photography is its ability to allow its viewers to do just what you mentioned, have an understanding about a place, or an object, without experiencing that thing first hand. Really, that’s the nature of all media, especially now with the internet, which is where your images are sourced from. This all leads me towards further decoding your work by considering it on one hand as a study in how photographic tropes such as landscapes and nature scenes shape our understanding of the world, and on the other hand how the photograph itself is merely a construction, or selection, of tone and form. Am I reading you correctly?
AS: Yes, you are right, these two fundamental characteristics of photography are of primary concern to me and are central to my work. On the one hand, photography documents reality, regardless of how constructed that reality is. On the other, a photograph is essentially a combination of shapes and tones within a clearly defined frame, usually a rectangle. I find it remarkable that these rectangles have the ability to affect our view of the world. By printing out the images in traditional rectangular format and then modifying them to accentuate the geometry of the prints, I am emphasizing that a photograph is not defined solely by the content embedded within it, but also by its own shape and form, as well as the context in which it is presented.
GJ: Something else I noticed in your work is that there are very few shadows that are present in your constructions. The light seems to come from everyplace at once, and the illuminations even seem to come from the objects themselves. Another form of photograph that this trait often occurs in is advertising photography, where often the objective is to depict objects with a sense of promise and idealism that the potential buyer would want to identify with. In an artistic sense, I feel that artists often hope their audiences consume their work in a similar way: to absorb the ideas depicted within the work into their own ethos and world-view, to assimilate it into their own lives.
AS: I am definitely borrowing lighting scenarios from advertising photography. The landscape-objects are meant to be glittering, theatrical, like in a store window at holidays. The internal illumination effect might be the result of backlighting. Most of my still lifes have a backlit background plane that gives the objects a halo. Just like in commercial photography, I often use small spotlights to bring out the details. So yes, the light actually comes from several directions in my tableaus, flattening out some areas and bringing out the three-dimensionality in others. The goal is to turn the mundane, replaceable landscape prints into dazzling, desirable objects, at the same time suggesting the inherent irony of such collections. This cannot be achieved with a matter-of-fact lighting; the lighting has to be special, since it is a part of the language I am both referencing and using.
GJ: There is a certain tradition of depicting the landscape in artistic form that stretches back for centuries. When looking through the history of landscape painting, drawing and photographs, you can see the history of civilization itself being revealed in visual form. Where do you see yourself and your work positioned in relation to tradition, and how do you feel your work reflects the conditions of the current age?
AS: Landscape occupied a fairly low position on the hierarchy of genres in Western art up until the 19th century. Pure landscapes, as opposed to landscapes as backgrounds for portraits, only came into being around the end of 15th century. On a side note, in the 16th century Italian landscapes became so marketable that some Northern European painters who didn’t actually go to Italy would nonetheless paint “Italian” scenes from imagination, borrowing from existing paintings of Italian landscapes by Italian (and other) masters. Despite the lack of first-hand experience of the place, these painters had an understanding of how an Italian landscape should look like based on a number of artworks already available. Similar to that, having seen the existing images of popular destinations in postcards and on the screen, you can imagine how those locations look like. Previously seen images come to mind and form a unified picture, like Photosynth, but in your memory. The final picture will be shaped out of the most memorable images.
I haven’t seen an actual iceberg, but if I were to think of one, I would imagine a sparkly, bright blue mass of ice, with glistening white snow on top, against crystal clear blue sky. This image is of course formed from the pictures I associate with icebergs. There are probably plenty of days when icebergs do not look like this, but the images of drab looking icebergs against overcast skies do not end up in mass circulation. To return to your question, I am interested not in the landscape itself, but in a perception of landscape, the personal and collective idea of an environment, shaped by the existing images of it.
GJ: Your work also is situated within what I see as a wave of photographic artists working at intersections of photography, sculpture and digital media. There are investigations that have been taking place over the past several years that are trying to uncover insights into the materiality of photographs in relation to the relatively new dis-materialization of digital media. For you, what are the core questions that surround these issues, and what might be your predictions on new questions that will occur within photography in the coming years?
AS: As my awe about the overwhelming number of images being produced has passed, I am now more interested in the types of pictures that manage to surface on the web, and how they affect my understanding of the world. I can compare my method of working to immersing a hand into a forest stream (I hike a lot) and then little debris stick to it, leaves, and pine needles. It is like that with images too; I look at so many of them, purposely and sometimes unintentionally, then put my hand out and collect some samples. User-shared images of nature, usually produced by hobbyist photographers, play a really small role in the larger scheme of things in photography. There are more important and more dominant applications of photography. Even selfies, due to their prevalence in social media, are more illustrative of the current culture than rather generic, seemingly timeless landscapes. Of course, there is a difference in the reasons for sharing a selfie versus a landscape with the world.
The majority of images I see I access either via computer or phone. On the one hand, they are immaterial, but on the other, I can make a screencap of it and print it. With the accessibility of printing, and the ability to store information on our devices, it is more obvious now that digital images are not as ephemeral as we once thought. The images won’t disappear if you don’t want them to. I am curious to see what reality is being formed by those images, what is being shared, and what is saved and re-shared. I can’t really speculate on the future topics in photography, but I am excited to see what comes up next, considering that a refreshing new blurring of categories within the discipline itself (art-photography, documentary photography, commercial, scientific, private archive) has started to happen in the recent years. My area of interest right now is user-shared content, the world it creates, and the reality it signifies.
GJ: Finally, what’s coming for you over the next year, photographically or otherwise?
AS: I am looking forward to spending more time in the studio this year. Besides that, this fall I moved from Chicago area to the Southern Berkshires to start a full-time teaching position at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. This is an early college, and some of my students are as young as 16. When I first started teaching, I was 24 and my students were 20. Now I am in a different situation, which presents new questions. How do I communicate abstract ideas about art making to students who are from a different generation than I am? How do I engage these brilliant young people, many of whom are picking up photography because they had camera-equipped phones since they remember themselves?
These students don’t necessarily see photography as means for self-expression, but rather as a mechanism for communication that is integral to their growing up. I find inspiration in John Baldessari’s reflections on his extensive experience teaching young students. Having moved to Western Massachusetts, I now have easy access to New York, which is exciting. Since I’m only two hours away from Boston or NYC, I can venture out to attend a show opening or do a studio visit. This year I intend to soak up all the experiences coming out of this new opportunity. This spring I am curating a show for the Hillman Jackson Gallery at Simon’s Rock, and giving a presentation about Landscape Sublime at the Society for Photographic Education national conference. Later in the spring I will be in an exhibition at Vanderbilt University.
Anastasia Samoylova is an artist and educator based in upstate New York. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and included in the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and ArtSlant Prize collection in Paris. She serves as assistant professor of photography at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, MA.
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Interview by Gregory Eddi Jones
All Images © Anastasia Samoylova