SS You’ve often said that Paul Strand’s work influenced your shift toward photography.
JW I encountered Strand’s “The Mexican Portfolio” in the Cal Arts library and was immediately struck by his work. Strand photographed old things and made dark, mysterious prints, which seemed, refreshingly, to contradict contemporary art’s preoccupation with the here and now. Having grown up in New England, where the past still resonates, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about the present. When I discovered that Hollis Frampton, whose work and writings I admired, was also interested in Strand, I knew I was onto something. But after graduating from Cal Arts, I was still confused about what kind of work to do. Seeing my frustration, Matt Mullican suggested I get a camera like the one Ansel Adams used—an idea so conservative it felt radical. It took me months to figure out that I needed a 4-by-5-inch view camera; in the meantime, I made a camera out of a cardboard box and began teaching myself to process sheet film.
Learning to operate with a 4-by-5 camera was a defining experience. The view camera, I discovered, was a time machine, producing pictures that could have been made anytime in the prior 135 years. By the end of 1976, I had essentially stopped making other kinds of work, except for occasional watercolors when I couldn’t afford film.
SS Just before you fully committed to photography you made a group of photograms of your hands.
JW I made “Hands” in 1975. A friend had a darkroom, and I made them on the spur of the moment. Making photograms felt almost forbidden—like something an “art photographer” might do—but I was intrigued by the results. Among other things, “Hands” seemed to reference Baldessari’s use of hands in his work to direct the viewer’s attention. In my case, the hands were more like a magician’s—casting shadows or staging photographs.
SS Some of your first images with the 4-by-5 were of Los Angeles architecture. What led you to photograph buildings at night?
JW It’s easier to see through the camera’s ground glass at night, and I liked the secrecy—you don’t draw attention to yourself. But mainly, I liked the small dark pictures of illuminated lamps and apartment buildings that resulted. I’d strap my camera to the back of my bike and ride around Santa Monica, thinking that the lit-up buildings looked like theater sets—they were almost photographs already. I kept remembering Moholy-Nagy’s notion that the city at night expresses unconscious creativity.
SS In 1977 you embarked on a quite different series, “Diary/Landscape,” which paired black-and-white contact prints of an 1840 diary with mostly landscape photographs you shot in Connecticut.
JW I’d started reading Mallarmé, who believed that everything exists to end up in a book, and I was fascinated by books and by photographs of handwriting. Then, on a trip to Connecticut, I found a travel diary that had belonged to my great-great-grandmother, dating from the year after photography’s invention. The handwriting was beautiful, and there were little objects and flowers placed inside like miniature still lifes. No one had looked at it in a hundred years.
SS Subtle correspondences exist between your Connecticut ancestor’s text and the more contemporary landscape views—an arcing of time, weather and human history.
JW When I returned to L.A., I decided to put the two sets of images together, connecting the shallow space of the handwritten past to the deeper space of the present. Of course, the landscapes aren’t explicitly contemporary—I was photographing a darker, more Gothic or emotional vision of America.
SS Yet your images don’t feel nostalgic.
JW Film directors make period movies all the time, though it’s a genre that barely exists in photography. I’m interested in things that reflect their origins. Photography itself does that, with its optical system that refers back to the Renaissance. My fascination with the 19th century is rooted in the same impulse—the 1800s were a dry run for the 20th century.
SS I remember seeing your series “aluminum Foil” at Metro Pictures in New York in 1981. How did you arrive at aluminum foil?
JW Before I left L.A. I’d tried making abstract photographs with shampoo and sand but nothing worked. Then one day in New York, I came home from my job—I was cooking in a restaurant—and noticed that some foil I’d wrapped butter in looked like a miniature armor helmet. A few days later, I folded up sheets of aluminum foil and began photographing them, and continued to do so for the next three months. It was a very exciting time.
SS They are often described as abstractions, but they’re not exactly. Though remarkably evocative, they can also look utterly like foil.
JW The first prints I made were lighter and more literal. But when I printed them darker, the foil became more associative; they reminded me of a passage from Virgil in which a silvery tree rises up out of the earth. When I was working on “Aluminum Foil,” my friend Jack Goldstein had just finished his film The Jump and Troy Brauntuch was doing drawings of spotlights, so representations of visual spectacle were not far from my mind.
SS As the foil pictures were being exhibited, you began work on the first of several series of drapery pictures—close-ups of folded cloth, some of them sprinkled with phyllo dough crumbs.
JW A lot of my work is intuitive and comes from just trying different things. With the money from the sale of my first aluminum foil photograph, I bought a wooden 8-by-10 camera and started photographing draped cloth. At the same time I was also photographing crumpled shards of dry phyllo dough. Without much premeditation, I combined the two, and sprinkled dough on the draped cloth. Against the dark fabric, the dough suggested, perhaps, torn book pages from the diary I’d photographed, or geological debris fallen from above.
SS Even in images without the phyllo dough, the folded fabric provokes multiple associations—from stage curtains to veils to a photographer’s black focusing cloth.
JW Between 1980 and 1985 I worked on four bodies of work in which the nominal subjects could be seen as stand-ins for other things in the world; in addition to foil and drapery, I photographed gelatin and plastic tiles. I enjoy operating between representation and abstraction, creating conditions where you don’t really know what you’re looking at. Like Wallace Stevens, I want my work to resist the intelligence as long as possible.
SS In 1987, you returned to documentary projects. What prompted “Railroad Photographs” [1987-94]?
JW I’d been doing abstract work since 1980, and I wanted to take photographs out in the world, away from the studio. I’d just made a group of black-and-white paintings and photographs for a show at Feature, in Chicago. Then, on my way there on the train, it suddenly dawned on me that railroads could be a subject. I’d been fascinated by trains since childhood, but I found further inspiration in a series of industrial photographs of trains that I’d seen in the mid-’70s. Several of these featured a “wedge shot,” a staged photograph in which the train appears to be approaching the camera on an angle, but is, in fact, standing still.
I began by photographing railroad vistas and rights of way, and during the next seven years photographed trains all over the East Coast. I came to think of embankments, bridges and rails as land art, a form of 19th-century sculpture that reshaped American landscapes and culture. That said, there is plenty of evidence that my pictures were made in the 20th century—there are no steam locomotives, for instance; though “Railroad Photographs” show 19th- century technology still being used.
SS Ulrich Loock [deputy director of Museu Serralves], writing about your work, compared the railroad’s industrialized appropriation of real space to photography’s industrialized appropriation of pictorial space. Were you making that connection?
JW I was certainly thinking about how the introduction of the railroad changed perceptions of time and space. But there was something more basic in my attraction to railroads: to me, they were an almost terrifying subject that looked great in black and white.
SS In the ’90s you worked on several projects in Europe. One of the first was “Usines de Dentelle/Calais Lace Factories” .
JW In 1988, I was having a show at Galerie Philip Nelson, in Lyon, where weaving is an important industry. In the late ’80s, people were beginning to use home computers, and I was excited by the idea that the computer’s antecedent was the Jacquard loom, which was controlled by punch cards. I asked Nelson to help me find a lace factory to photograph in, and eventually I was invited to factories in Calais. The production spaces, and the beautiful machinery, reminded me of the printing plants I’d visited with my father. I loved the fact that such heavy industrial equipment could make something as light and sensual as lace.