American artist Peter Leighton’s images transform the mundane scenes of Ecuadorian street life into mystical meditations on the indigenous- both cultural and photographic. The composite imagery of his series, We Are Only Shadows, juxtaposes banal picture to banal picture; and against the foil of innocuous environs, small and disquieting gestures of rapture and intrigue carry his scenes into an uncertain translation of the everyday.
Sarah Jamison: First off, what initially drew you to photography, especially digital manipulation from your early experiences in the 80’s and 90’s, and whom do you count among your influences?
Peter Leighton: I was raised in a small Texas town steeped in traditional conservative values where creative pursuits were looked upon with suspicion. By the time I was a teenager, my parents with little input from me had already plotted the course of my future, and that route didn’t at all take into account the idea that I might one day become an artist.
My first career move, then, became their worst nightmare. After graduating from university, I found work as a caretaker at a de-sanctified nunnery in downtown San Antonio. It was a complex of some historic note, being converted into an art school by a local conservation society. My intention was to write fiction in between sweeping floors and rousting transients from the premises. Early on, I crossed paths with a photographer who was also living at the school. He was a National Endowment grant recipient and responsible for building the photography department there. The first time I watched him pull a print from a developing tray, I was hooked and I spent the next three years as his assistant.
Jumping ahead: in 1985, I purchased my first Macintosh. I’m probably preaching to the choir when I mention how totally this machine changed my life. It was as if Jobs and Wozniak had invented the Mac just for me. From the digital imaging perspective, I immediately saw where the technology was headed, even though the only digital imaging capabilities available to the masses back then were a tiny black and white screen, a mouse, dot matrix printer and SuperPaint.
As far as influences go: My first mentor, Tom Wright at the Southwest School of Art, who completely demystified photography for me. Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, among many others, photographers with a genius for making compelling images, as Diane Arbus would say, in the “gap between intention and effect”.
Finally, in the realm of critical ideas, Dave Hickey is a must read and a suitable antidote to most of the drivel written about the art world today. An art critic who dares write, “Bad taste is real taste. Good taste is the residue of someone else’s privilege.” is someone whose ideas every artist should have to reckon with at one point or another during their career.
SJ: You are currently living and working in Ecuador. What compelled you to move and create images there? Please explain how the social, political, economical, and cultural influences inform your work.
PL: Ecuador is a small country but contains a fairly sizable international (and creative) expat community. In the Andean highlands where I live, the weather is always temperate and the sun shines every day. The quality of life in most respects is as good as in the U.S. and in some respects better. And, the bottom line is that I can afford to do my work here without financial stresses encumbering me whereas I couldn’t the United States.
How all of this plays into the work I’m doing now is hard to say. I don’t tend to think about what I do that way. I didn’t come to Ecuador, for example, thinking I would do documentary work or shoot landscapes or whatever. I came in hopes of extending the reach of my craft, of taking a risk and trying something different. And I had no idea starting out what that “something different” might be.
When I first took up digital imaging, I committed to a single goal: I was determined to create a body of work over time using a set of creative tools that had no real historical precedent. I didn’t factor economics or the business of art, or the cultural scene into my thinking. I simply wanted to hang out as much as I could in a playground that only a very few others were playing in.
In that sense, the tools I’ve used have certainly played as great a role in my development as any other factors. My first scanner was a cheap hand held affair and I used clip art a lot because it was easy to scan. Later on, I graduated to crafting really elaborate montages that had a painterly, traditional print quality to them, mainly because neither my scanner, monitor, nor printer would resolve pixels at a detail high enough to produce a sharper image.
I bought my first digital camera in 2005, a point and shoot with a half second lag time between activating the shutter and the shutter engaging. Several images in my series, Out of the Ordinary are efforts to explore this particular idiosyncrasy. In Ecuador, I’ve used a higher end, very responsive camera with an excellent lens, and my printer prints in large format and in 8-colors. My most recent work, consequently, is shaped by more recent advances in these technologies.
SJ: Your current body of work We Are Only Shadows, stitches different images together of subjects and landscapes. Visually, I find your images to be very flat, with the landscape and subject existing on almost the same plane. At first glance, your images are not noticeably manipulated, but I got a sense that there was something “not-quite-right”. Your subjects in each image are carefully placed in the middle of the frame, amplifying the awkward feeling as I go through them. Please explain your decision process of choosing which images to stitch together. What factors are you are putting on the image aesthetically and conceptually?
PL: When we arrived in Ecuador, my experience of the country wasn’t necessarily what I was expecting. North Americans tend to think of the inhabitants of the southern hemisphere as “the other”, as somehow less than their northern counterparts. I quickly learned that most South Americans are not so different from anyone else in the modern world either in their aspirations or in the paths they take through life. Globalization has softened edges everywhere. What does remain for the newcomer to contend with, stepping out of one cultural milieu into another, is a sense that there is something, as you put it, “not-quite-right” about it. So much seems similar and familiar but at the same time isn’t.
In “Shadows”, I wanted the scenes I was depicting to reflect this feeling, to be off kilter just enough to give the viewer pause. To unsettle, but not enough to immediately provoke questions as to how the image had been created.
To add to the feeling of “not-quite-rightness”, I compressed the fore and backgrounds in many of the images, encouraging the viewer to confront all of the available visual information in the frame all at once, to slow the eye when it first scanned the print, if only for a split second.
In addition, color profiles are subtly tweaked and there is a kind of symmetry invoked (or implied) in many of the images which further contributes to the sense of oddness. At some level, the viewer understands that most candid photographs are rarely so perfectly framed and/or formally constructed.
Finally, the subject matter gives one pause. Who are these people and how should one feel about them, given the “not-quite-rightness” of the situations in which they’re embedded?
All that being said, I’m not very tidy at or thoughtful about parsing the conceptual underpinnings of my work. More often than not I don’t have a very good grip on what it means or why it evolves the way it does, and, if anything, I’m usually surprised to find out what other people see in it.
SJ: By stitching these images together, you are creating a new reality for the subject and landscape to exist in; in your own words, “mind maps rendered at points of origin by the photographers sensibilities and experiences”. How do you think our experience of reality is changed by images?
PL: George Saunders refers to this aspect of the creative experience as a kind of black box. The artist puts whatever he or she has created in the box, and the viewer enters it in one state of mind and exits in another. “What’s important,” he says, “is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens between entry and exit.” The implication being that the nature of that transformation is not only profound but also private and in certain respects unknowable.
On the flip side, all of the indiscriminately proliferating vernacular and commercial imagery in our environment shapes us no less powerfully. This isn’t a simple subject, but consider a simple example: the self portrait. Two hundred years ago there were, perhaps, only a few hundred artists worldwide who possessed the requisite training to draw a reasonable likeness of themselves, who knew in great detail what they actually looked like. Today, on Flickr alone, there are over a million and a half photographs tagged as self portraits. Two centuries ago owning a mirror would have been considered a luxury available only to a few. Today, almost anyone can document what they look like from an infinite number of angles with a cell phone. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a young person anywhere in the world today, embarking on the process of self discovery, without some kind of imaging device close at hand.
SJ: In your artist statement, you write “’We Are Only Shadows’ … is composed of images of people and places in transition…at the middle of the world”. By creating a “New Ecuador” in your images, how are they informing the viewer of Ecuador in transition, besides adding to their already preconceived notions of third world countries? What do you hope the audience, as outsiders, gain from these images? What do you, personally, gain from making them?
PL: This is what I’ve learned from making art: How much I tend to incorrectly assume and how little I actually know about almost everything. At which point in conversations like these I pretty much start making up things on the fly.
I would love to be one of those people who has an idea, is able to articulate it, and, once it’s executed, be able to tout how successfully everything turned out and what it all means. But I’m not. If, as Robert Rauschenberg says, “Screwing things up is a virtue,” then I’m currently on target to one day become a saint. Consequently, I don’t think much about what an audience might think about or gain from my work. At most, I hope that in the end someone finds the result interesting enough to spend some time with it.
As an aside, I’m not sure I know who the “audience” is in our day and time. The bell curve of people drawn to art has dramatically shifted demographically and become infinitely more convoluted and three dimensional. The Internet culturati don’t speak with one voice. Instead of one art establishment, there are a multitude now with divergent offerings and points of view, serving a multitude of audiences. The degree to which photography and digital imaging alone have been sliced and diced and served up on the web is mind boggling.
In the 1930s, Beaumont Newhall described four photographic categories: Pictorialist, Social, Journalistic, and Modernist. Today, a Google search on the terms “photography categories” turns up 271,000,000 associated links. One of these links, picked at random, lists 50 categories.
In addition, there are now scores of online photo competitions, themselves competing for our dollars and attention. Dog Photographer of the Year (thekennelclub.org.uk). Check. The World’s Best Private Aviation Photographer (privatefly.com). Check. Seize a unique opportunity “to capture the diversity and beauty that is the fabulous mining industry – and win $10,000!” (snowdengroup.com). Check.
In other words, the art world, and, in particular, the world of photography and digital imaging, has become flatter, more populous, less concentrated and correspondingly less hierarchical. The medium has inevitably evolved into a global, democratic art form; the most democratic in history. And, like every good democracy, the landscape it occupies is chaotic and unruly. The playground I started playing in over 20 years ago is now very, very crowded.
The point I’m trying to make here (I think) is that, nonetheless, I still come to the playground everyday and for the very same reasons as before. I don’t bring an agenda or a set of expectations with me. If someone is impacted by the content I leave behind, I’m all the happier for it, but that isn’t the goal. If one half of the process is to screw things up, the other half, of necessity, should be to have as much fun as one can while doing it.
SJ: On your website, you are constantly addressing the mass amount of images available today. Your ‘About’ page states that “A Google search on the terms: photographer+portfolio, turns up 26,400,000 links either directly related to individual photographers’ sites or to sites devoted to their construction and/or to increasing traffic to them.” And your Blog post titled “Photography, whither thou goest?” is devoted to the question of what creating images today really means. Yet, millions of people still feel the need to make, create, and add to the mass. How do you feel your images contribute to the infinite mass of today, especially with the volume of images you produce?
PL: In the latter half of the 21st century, a whole host of careers, never having existed before, will be devoted to sorting through the curatorial mess we’re currently in the process of making today. Worst case scenario: Our images will be remembered, if for no other reason, for the role they will play in the stimulation of future job creation and growth.
The sheer numbers of arts-related projects being funneled onto the web every day, in spite of the fact that, relative to the whole, only a handful of viewers at best will ever see or seriously consider any of them, fascinates me. Why does our species produce and then display objects that in and of themselves have no intrinsic economic value or apparent functional use? In black box terms, I would say this is a question without an answer, a mystery without a solution, a Heisenberg Paradox with an infinite number of outcomes. We enter the box because we desire to be transformed in some way and we create the art simply because it is the closest we will ever come to making magic.
SJ: As a whole, your work reflects your interest of the human experience. Over the course of your photographic career, what about the human experience keeps you intrigued, and what has been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face as a photographer. What did you learn from that experience and how does it inform your process today?
PL: It’s the irony of the human condition that really intrigues me, humanity’s navigation of the gap between our expectations for the future as opposed to what actually happens. This is where the existential action, the comedy and the tragedy, is, and where, I think, photography and digital imaging are at their best.
Balancing one’s creative life with the requirements of day to day existence demands a kind of patience and maturity that I didn’t possess starting out. As for almost anyone working as a creative, my biggest challenges have been financial. The rules I established for myself way back when included the idea that my work be self contained and, first and foremost, realized on paper, not just on the web. Meaning, for example, that I wouldn’t rely on 3rd party services to do my printing or scanning. This meant in some cases that I had to wait for technology costs to go down before I could invest in nice-to-have equipment or, in other cases, that I had to bite the budgetary bullet in order to purchase some things I couldn’t do my work without.
Not to mention the continuing costs associated with archival inks and fine art papers. The old maxim, “A work of art is never finished. It is merely abandoned,” is harder to apply when working digitally. Digitally the work is always in progress and available to be tweaked, revised and extended – and printed ad nauseam. In my studio, I have shelving that serves as a graveyard for nothing but several thousand rejected prints accumulated over the years. Some day, I’ve promised my wife, I’ll find a use for them.
SJ: Last but not least, what are you looking forward to in the next year, photographically or otherwise?
PL: I’m returning to the states in September for a month or so. Last year when I visited, I began a U.S. specific series, titled “Not at Home”. I’m looking forward to photographing there after a year’s absence. Plus, I get to see my children, grown now, but still great sources of purpose and inspiration.
Also, I’ll spend time in Ecuador working on a series in progress: “Maniqui, Basura, y Flores de Cementerio”, (“Mannequins, Trash, and Cemetery Flowers”).
Then scratch the surface of a book project maybe. We’ll see. Speculating about the future has never won me any prizes.
Speaking of the future, the Chinese evolved the IChing, one of our very first algorithms, several thousand years ago to address the sticky issue of prognostication, lending credence to Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “The most human thing about us is our technology”. Today one can “throw the coins” online at any number of sites. I just visited one and asked: “What does the coming year hold in store for me?”.
Development. The maiden
Is given in marriage.
Peter Leighton is a digital print-maker since 2010 living and working in Tumbaco, Ecuador. Prior to which he was a Corporate e-Strategist with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers and operated a fine arts digital imprint, Penny Prints Press, in Austin, Texas.
Peter is a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He has been around the block a few times, and more recently has stopped to smell the roses.
Interview by Sarah Jamison
Intro by Gregory Eddi Jones
Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published on our previous platform, In the In-Between: Journal of Digital Imaging Artists.
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