Interview #66: Hudson Gardner
CUS: How did you get into photography?
Hudson Gardner: I was 8 years old. Someone had given me a Sony camera that wrote to floppy discs, with a tiny screen on the back. I happened to take the camera with me to Oregon and I was wandering around in the evening on my grandparent’s farm. I took a picture of an oak tree, its moss-covered branches spreading high above me. I also took a picture of strands of grass against the sunset. I think these were my first photographs. I have no idea what happened to them, but a strange thing occurred: when I have been back to see the oak tree, while everything else on the farm has shrunken in scale (as things do when one gets older and taller), the oak tree still remains massive. It will never seem small to me.
CUS: Did you study, or are you studying, photography? If not, how did you learn?
HG: I am self taught, which means I’ve learned by trial and error — which images were successful, which weren’t — and by consuming a huge amount of other’s photos, art, music, books, cooking techniques... The fact that I find almost everything in the world interesting plays a big part in my photography, and why I have continued to do it almost every day for so long. I probably think about photography hundreds of times a day, usually in the way something lines up, or glimpsing something in the landscape/cityscape around me. Because it has become more of an impulse than something I have to make myself do, I have been very lucky.
CUS: Tell us a little about where you live. How does your city/country/location have an affect on your photography?
HG: I live in a flat land that most people only drive through or fly over. The landscape here is not alluring or interesting at first glance: 98% of the land around the town I live in is used for corn, or soybeans. However there are pockets of nature that remain, and where these natural places meet the fields there is a subtle beauty. This very same beauty is what I finally discovered after moving away from here and coming back, and it’s this subtlety that my photography now focuses on. I am a strong believer now that a person may not need a new landscape as much as they need new eyes.
CUS: Tell us about your photographic process.
HG: Very recently I realized I am at my best when wandering (nearly) aimlessly. I just follow my eyes to objects of interest and then take photos of them. This is the style that has produced probably 95% of my photos. For a long time I just walked out my door and took photos of whatever I came across on the way to school or work. However, I am currently trying to narrow my scope and intention in order to work on specific projects. These projects still involve that kind of wandering attitude, and I found that I’m not much good as a “driving around” photographer. I really have to walk — at approximately 3mph, I feel most in tune with my surroundings.
CUS: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
HG: One piece of toast with butter and a pinch of sea salt.
CUS: What makes a good image?
HG: Any image that comes as a result of honest curiosity seems good to me. Then there are images which take your breath away, usually (but not always) created by masters. I don’t think such things as ultimate archetypal photographs exist without our lauding them, as beauty is subjective… when images are held in high regard and shown many times people begin to think “ah yes, this is a good image.” But psychological studies have shown that the more someone is exposed to something, the more they like it. So it makes me wonder if it is the human desire for familiarity, or true greatness in these images that makes them great.
I think an exception might be work by Cartier-Bresson, which draws, in his words, a line between the eye, the mind, and the heart. The types of images that show understanding of this interdependence are also great images to me. One can look at photographers such as Mike Brodie and Patrick Tsai and see images that manage this incredible feat.
CUS: What are five things you can’t live without?
HG: Japanese green tea, Scottish oat crackers, a small sharp knife, a camera, and access to nature.
CUS: Who, or what, is your biggest influence?
HG: Probably my uncle (Dan Price), whether I knew it or not, who drove me to question everything. For the last 20 years or so he has lived very simply, using recycled materials to build his home, and having very few possessions. He’s currently in Hawaii, chasing a craze for surfing he picked up on in the past decade. He is also an artist, and was a photojournalist years ago.
CUS: Who are the people in your photographs?
HG: People who I come across, or friends/family. I take a lot of photos of my sister (Teal) and girlfriend (Phalin). They are both beautiful but also have a unique look to them, especially Phalin. I think their look hints at the depth of their characters, which I try to bring out in photos.
CUS: Nature seems to play a major role in your work. Can you elaborate on this?
HG: I was raised on Sundays to go to the forest rather than church. My parents took me camping a lot as well, and so over the years a deep love has come into me and my photography: for the aesthetics of nature, for the needlessness of things when being in it, for the silent moments, for the scents and sounds of the ground and leaves. Nature is also frightening. Man has tried to escape or subdue nature, that’s what cities are all about: a dividing line between what we are afraid of and our comfort. Since this is the way I happen to feel about the modern world, my photography emphasizes exploring this interaction between man and nature.. and most recently, man’s effect on nature.
CUS: Tell us about your series Away.
HG: Away reflects times of wandering in my life.The photos were taken on trips to the west coast during summer, where my family is from. I’m not very proud of the series. To me it looks like lukewarm travel photography that so many others are doing. However it reflects a time in my life where I wasn’t sure about things, and my desire to get into natural, wild places at all costs. I had some skill and the interest in traveling, yet hadn’t defined quite what I was looking for.
CUS: Do you believe that with the rise of digital photography the phrase “everyone can be a photographer” is true? What are your thoughts on digital vs. film photography?
HG: Everyone can take pictures but not everyone is a photographer. In regards to Film and Digital, each have their own uses. Technology can really wig a person’s mind out, staring at a screen, getting this worked up crazy mentality of taking 1,000 pictures in an hour. Maybe some people need to do that, but I think it’s crazy. Film stops all that nonsense. You have 36, 24, 12 decisions. I think it could be essential for a photographer to try both mediums, but to start with film. It gives you a completely different sense of what it is to take pictures, and a respect for each one. Film is also naturally beautiful… digital must be made beautiful (through editing).
CUS: What are your thoughts on photography and the Internet? (For example, mass amounts of images being uploaded every day via sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…) How do you differentiate “art” photography and “non-art” photography?
HG: I think people put a lot of stock (myself included) in their accounts online: what people say about them, whether they get views or favorites. If your goal is to get views or favorites on this or that service, then by all means try for it, but it is difficult because of the sheer amount of skill out there. I think people may confuse this kind of success with a benchmark they want to achieve, when actually that success can be rather meaningless and insatiable. It’s more important, I think, to define what you want to do, and then go after that like a rabid dog.
I could probably write several pages on what is “art” and “non-art” photography, so I will only say that I believe all created things can be considered art, it just matters how you are looking at them.
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?
HG: The culture behind the way we use screens causes images that appear on them to be cheap. Click or flick, the image is gone, another appears. Scroll endlessly, more and more come. It almost mesmerizes us, puts us in a stupor of looking for more and more stimulation.
However, I still believe that images can be powerful when looked at on screens, but time must be given to them. I once sat down with a friend who went through my photos for an interview like this one. He spent nearly 2 minutes looking at each photo.. something I myself had never even done. Even though this person was not a photographer, his simple action of slowing down radically changed the way I view photography.. and other art for that matter.
When something is physically in front of you, it is more effortful to move on to the next thing, thus a person is more apt to linger longer. The tactile nature of a print is also something special. I think the closest thing to a print in the days of digital is a retina display iPad.
CUS: What are your plans for the spring?
HG: Right now I am working on Progress (http://hudsongardner.com/progress). This project questions what ‘progress’ truly is in this day and age. Is it progress when cities expand, and the glaciers and ice sheets shrink? Is it progress for the world to move faster and faster? These are the questions I am exploring through my photographs.
CUS: What is the biggest challenge you face with your work?
HG: Being somewhat of an outlier with my ideas and style, lacking a creative community due to living in a somewhat aesthetically impoverished state, and lacking people in most of my images has made it difficult to garner interest in my photos. It’s the constant rejection I have experienced that makes me question whether I am making compelling work or not.
CUS: What are some of your favorite books and movies?
HG: I have been reading everything written by John McPhee lately, but I highly recommend ‘Encounters With The Archdruid.’ Also, ‘Pan’ by Knut Hamsun.
For movies, all of Miyazaki’s works are amazing to me, but I would like to talk about a particular scene in one of his lesser known movies called Pompoko — it is about a community of raccoon-dogs (tanuki) living around the edges of ever-expanding Tokyo. As their land is being encroached upon, they are running out of places to live. In one last burst of energy they come together and revive their ancient magic to turn the countryside back to the way it was before development. From land that was reduced to bare dirt springs a rich growth of grass. Trees appear, and the farms, fields, and little houses along the roads come back. In other words, all of the “progress” that had been made was reversed… but only for an instant. It was just an illusion, and the vision faded.. back to the changed land. I watched this alone for the first time, and it resonated so deeply with my own feelings and desires that it brought tears to my eyes.
CUS: If you could photograph any person (past or present) who would you choose?
HG: Probably the Tuareg people from the Sahel region of Africa. They are a threatened culture who seem to have incredible wisdom.
CUS: What do you hope to achieve with your photography? Do you foresee photography as a career in your future?
HG: I want my photographs to effect change, rather than be simply pretty pictures. I want them to cause people to consider how they live, and what the costs of that life are, to themselves and the natural world. I would like to be paid for photographing what I want.. but as few people are lucky enough to get there, I am not sure it will happen (though not for lack of my own effort).
CUS: What advice would you give to your fellow up-and-coming photographers?
HG: Ask yourself the difficult questions: what do I believe in? What do I really want out of life? What do I need to be happy? Then do these things. Along the way, capture what you find beautiful and meaningful with your camera and imagination. Remember to keep refining your ideas until you perfect them.
CUS: Do you have any upcoming news or exhibitions?
HG: 1. I will be interviewed on the Pow Wow Podcast sometime next month
2. In late May I will be teaching a workshop at the Union for Contemporary Art in Omaha
3. In a few days I am heading north to document the maple syrup harvest in Minnesota
CUS: Our last interviewee, Rebecca Cairns, asks: What is your earliest memory?
HG: It was summer and I was playing in the gutter in front of our house in California. I heard a big stomp behind me and turned to see my dad standing there. “I just jumped over the house!” he said. “Do it again!,” I shouted, but then he just said “I can’t, I’m too tired,” and walked off. Hahaha!
CUS: Last but not least, what would you like to ask the next interviewee?
HG: Please share an experience of beauty that you have had.