Interview #75: Ethan Aaro Jones
CUS: How did you get into photography?
Ethan Aaro Jones: I was always somewhat interested in photography, and then my older brother took a class while he was in high school and his influence led me in that direction too. I haven’t stopped photographing since.
CUS: Did you study, or are you studying, photography? If not, how did you learn?
EAJ: I studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, where I received my BFA in photography in 2007. I then got my MFA in photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2012.
CUS: How did studying art at a post-secondary institution have an affect on your work?
EAJ: On some level I think the affect grad school has had on my work is immeasurable because I feel like it has also informed every aspect of my life beyond photography. Having said that, I think the biggest change that I’ve noticed in my work is that I ask myself more pointed questions to help formulate and articulate a project. I also think the failures that I went through while in school have taught me how to work through any struggles that come up while starting a new project. And for me, those struggles are both inevitable and necessary.
CUS: Tell us a little about where you live. How does your city/country/location have an affect on your photography?
EAJ: I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a photographer that primarily makes work by going out and observing my surroundings the area no doubt has influenced me and my work as it appears in my photographs. With regards to my project Last Summer the region’s climate plays a significant role in formulating the ideas surrounding the project itself. In Minnesota the winter is long and harsh, and living through that weather no doubt informs how I view, anticipate, and experience summer.
CUS: Tell us about your photographic process.
EAJ: My process seems to naturally start by walking. When I don’t know what to photograph I take a walk with a camera in hand. These walks serve dual purpose in moving my work forward because I usually inevitably take a few pictures that point to a new project, and the act of walking usually clears my head and allows me to think and come up with new ideas regardless of what I may photograph on the walk. From early somewhat random walks, I begin to focus on specific places and people to photograph that relate to an idea I’m trying to make work about.
CUS: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
EAJ: I had a pancake, over easy egg, and a side of bacon at Ideal Diner. There is a sign above the counter that reads “The Ideal Diner, where regular people feel special, and special people feel regular.”
CUS: Who are the individuals in your photographs?
EAJ: They are strangers, friends, family, and whoever else I come across that I’m interested in photographing.
CUS: What makes a good image?
EAJ: I have no idea. I think a good image can’t be defined by any single articulable concept.
CUS: Where do you draw inspiration from? What is the motivation behind your image-making?
EAJ: At their root, I see inspiration and motivation as two different things. I can be inspired or influenced by anything. Strong influences or sources of inspiration include looking at art, reading, conversations, traveling, any sort of fresh experience out in the world. I think of inspiration as something often found beyond myself that adds depth, directions, understanding, and other things to what I’m already trying to do. When it comes to my motivation for making images, it is more of an internal desire to communicate ideas, feelings, commentary, and things of that nature.
CUS: Tell us about the locations in your photographs.
EAJ: Many locations are around Minnesota because that is where I live, and I’ve made frequent trips around the state to photograph. I’ve also taken a few extended trips to photograph in Wyoming and Massachusetts. For my project Last Summer I seek locations that are frequented by people on summer vacations as well as areas for more general recreation like nearby parks and lakes.
CUS: What can you tell us about your project "Last summer"?
EAJ: The project is really a way for me to explore my interests in making photographs that operate on a more psychological level. I think of summer as something beyond the warmest season—it’s the time of year when culturally we expect to have free time and travel. One of the main harbingers of summer is the ability to enjoy free time and relax outside. Such leisurely kinds of summer experiences are interesting to me because they are sought and desired by a majority of people, yet they are not always easily attainable in their ideal form. This work looks at the cultural desire for free time, recreation, and vacation as an essential, yet often overly idealized, component of formulating our psyche. I am interested in how various kinds of non-activity make summer an emotionally charged entity where the psychological effects of sun, warmth, vacation, solitude, and camaraderie all play a significant role.
CUS: Do you believe that with the rise of digital photography the phrase “everyone can be a photographer” is true?
EAJ: Yes, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows what they are doing, or is doing it well. Also, just because photography is accessible to everyone doesn’t mean that everyone chooses to access and use it. There are also numerous way to use photography; I use it as an artist, and that’s fairly rare among all of the photographers out there. You could also argue that with the rise of Kodak’s Brownie photography became accessible to everyone about a century ago.
CUS: What are your thoughts on digital vs. film photography; photography and the Internet? (For example, mass amounts of images being uploaded every day via sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…)
EAJ: I see this as two very different thoughts and conversations. Digital vs. film photography is simply choosing a kind of light sensitive material to record what is in front of the camera. To me any argument about film vs. digital is almost entirely irrelevant. In my work I often prefer the way film cameras are made and how they work. There are far more styles of cameras available that use film, and these kinda of options can be useful. I also prefer the color palate of film.
The idea of photography on the internet exists, to me, outside of how the image was captured. Instead photography on the internet seems to be a conversation about how the work is accessed, displayed, and experienced. Obviously the internet makes photography more accessible. An important part of the history of photography was inventing the ability to reproduce a single image many times over. The internet does this better than anything else heretofore invented. The problem with seeing photography online is that you have a very different experience looking at photographs that are printed. When that happens they become their own object that take up space outside of a screen and you then relate to this object in a totally different way. Without a doubt the kind of information a printed photograph conveys is very different than what an online photograph does. Viewing photography online also presents a unique challenge in that there is such an enormous quantity of images that any one singular image standing out is made more difficult. With printed photographs, there is value in having smaller numbers.
CUS: How do you differentiate “art” photography and “non-art” photography?
EAJ: I think the difference lies in the photographer’s intentions. I suppose that there are instances where a image maker’s intention isn’t immediately discernible, but most of the time I think it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is using photography to make art. If it isn’t easy to tell intentionality from the photographs themselves, then usually there is some insightful bit of context when viewing the work that gives a clue.
CUS: Do you think that the Internet (as opposed to a gallery or any other art institution) is a legitimate place to showcase photographic work or do photographs have to be seen in “the flesh” to be fully appreciated and experienced?
EAJ: Of course the Internet is legitimate for showing photographs! But, I say that with the caveat that having a spacial relationship to a photograph that is an object installed in a gallery creates a very different experience, but not necessarily a fuller experience. So given these various kinds of experiences, the viewer would learn different information in each setting. The third most common way art photographs are absorbed is through books, and that too is a unique experience. I don’t think it’s necessary to favor one setting over the other, but it is important to recognize and understand that each prioritizes and creates a different visual hierarchy, which conveys information differently. Basically I think it’s important to know that viewers will pick up on different things seeing photographs prints and hung on walls versus bound in a book and seen on a phone.
CUS: What are your plans for the summer?
EAJ: I plan on being outside. It’s such a refreshing experience to be able to walk outside and not feel the weather assault your body. This makes eating, reading, walking, and photographing outside all much more enjoyable. I have a few trips planned or in the works. Some of them are for leisure others are more for making work, but that work/play line gets blurred pretty easily when I travel.
CUS: Your favorite photographer?
EAJ: I try to make it a point of not selecting one favorite photographer. With that in mind, here is a list: Rineke Dijkstra, Paul Graham, Katy Grannan, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Martin Kollar, Christian Patterson, Roni Horn, and Collier Schorr.
CUS: If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?
EAJ: I’m not sure I’d make a very good collaborative artist, but if I were to collaborate I’d want to do it with a friend that I have a particularly good rapport with. I’m much more comfortable, creative, and expressive when I’m in known company. I think this is important for making art. If I were to work with an artistic hero of mine, I’d likely be too shy or nervous to make anything interesting happen.
CUS: Your dream equipment?
EAJ: I don’t know. The right equipment for a project, I suppose.
CUS: Your dream location to shoot?
EAJ: The next new place I go. If I look too far ahead I might miss something nearby that’s equally compelling.
CUS: What is the biggest challenge you face with your work
EAJ: Conceptualizing the work. I’m much more confident in my ability to go make pictures, but I always struggle with forming the photographs into a coherent body of work that I can succinctly articulate. I often wonder what I’m doing.
CUS: What was the last thing you dreamt about?
EAJ: I don’t really have dreams. At least not the ones that happen while you sleep. Occasionally I have the sensation that I was dreaming, but I don’t remember any facts or details. Sometimes, on a warm sunny day I’ll pause and daydream, but even then I couldn’t tell you the contents of them or my train of thought. Not recalling dreams might make me a particularly literal or realistic person. I think I really enjoy living in the present moment.
CUS: What are some of your favorite books and films?
EAJ: Books: Ironweed, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, The Most Human Human, Catcher in the Rye, In the Heart of the Sea, Burning with Desire. Films: Cool Hand Luke, There Will Be Blood, Boyhood, Lost in Translation.
CUS: If you could photograph any person (past or present) who would you choose and why?
EAJ: I’m not interested in photographing celebrities or anyone that seems to spend too much time crafting their image. I’m more interested in the seemingly anonymous.
CUS: What advice would you give to your fellow photographers?
EAJ: It’s pretty common advice to tell people to keep photographing, and it’s generally good advice too, but I’d like to add that extensive shooting is meaningless if you can’t edit and focus on an idea that is communicated well through your photography. I’d also recommend that you enlist a friend to help you edit and focus your ideas.
CUS: Our last interviewee, Thomas Bouquin, asks: What color socks are you wearing?
EAJ: Multicolored with black, red, teal, white, and various browns. These colors form to make an image of Dennis Rodman when he played for the Chicago Bulls in the late 90’s. The image is much more recognizable when I don’t have the socks on, wearing them tends to stretch out the image.
CUS: Last but not least, what would you like to ask the next interviewee?
EAJ: What is your favorite way to procrastinate?