Tim Carpenter • Photographer, U.S.A.

Local Places and Particular Objects

Landscape Stories: What poetry or artist influenced the most your beginnings? Could you talk about the influence of Walker Evans or any other artists that influenced your work? Which photographer has inspired you most? Where can the roots of your work be found?
Tim Carpenter: My fascination with poetry is only a few years old, so there’s not much of that to be found in my beginnings. The first thing that I knew to be speaking directly to me was music, but I’ll hold off on that until your later question on that topic.

It was seeing the pictures of Robert Adams that brought about my interest in serious photography. I worked at the Portland Museum of Art (Oregon, USA) and showed some of my early (and very bad) prints in 1998 to the photography curator Terry Toedtemeier. He was exceptionally kind in reviewing them, and suggested that I look at the work of Adams in the museum’s collection, along with prints by Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld. I responded strongly to all three, but it was Adams that held my attention most acutely, from then until now.

I recall getting to Walker Evans (whom I admire deeply, but whose influence on me is probably more indirect) and also Eugene Atget by researching backwards from Adams, and to Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, William Eggleston, Garry Winogrand, and the like from looking at contemporaries. Early on for me, Friedlander seemed the greatest example of how a person – or really an intelligence, rather – could organize the world using a camera; his pictures continue to astound and educate me.

But the single greatest influence on me – on what I wanted to do and want to do still – was seeing John Gossage’s The Pond a bit later on. I had certainly seen cohesive photobooks before (like American Photographs and The Americans, most obviously), but nothing had ever seemed so fiercely coherent to me, much more like a piece of literature than a grouping of photographs. It suggested something both beyond and different from its ostensible subject matter.

The Pond galvanized me, both in my thinking of how pictures could be made, and how books could be constructed. Finally, the evolution in how I actually do both was furthered by studying the work of two other great makers of pictures and books: Michael Schmidt and Raymond Meeks.

© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017

Landscape Stories: How did you initially get into photography?
Tim Carpenter: My father is a lifelong photographer (he’s made thousands of pictures of trains, and many hundreds of our family), and so I never lacked for a point-and-shoot as a kid. I don’t recall him ever saying no when I asked for film or processing, but he must have had a limit at some point. I owe him (and my mother) everything, but I’m most grateful for my dad sharing the love of the camera.

I bought an SLR when I was 25 or so, and shot regularly, but it wasn’t until the time I described before, under Toedtemeier’s guidance, that I had any inkling that it could be anything more than a hobby for me.

© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017

Landscape Stories: You are both a photographer and a writer. How has each influenced the other side?
Tim Carpenter: This is a really interesting question, and it’s something I’m still figuring out. When I was in grad school, we were told (correctly) that the required writing would help us think more clearly about our own photographs. But naturally, in that environment, there’s no real emphasis on the writing having any specific effect on making pictures.

But now, with about three years’ worth of essays under my belt, I know that consistent writing has had an impact on the way that I make pictures. One example: when I write, I have found that at first I must do so freely with little or no editing, producing much more material than will ever be in any essay. There are many wrong turns in the first drafts, but perhaps one fruitful avenue of thought that only opened up because of the act of writing. This may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me before: you (or at least I) can’t just sit around and think and create a persuasive argument; it must be written down and thus subjected to the pressure test of coherence. And in that writerly act of creating structure and flow and transitions, new (and often better) things come to mind, which then become part of the writing. It’s a sort of feedback loop.

This learning has given me license to be extremely generous with myself in the use of film. I make a lot of negatives. A whole lot. When “essay” is used as a verb, it means to try or attempt; or to put to the test, or to make trial of. I essay as much with a camera as I do when I write.

A more specific example: the response to my writing on the TIS books website has broadened my thinking about what folks in our world are thirsting for. We published an essay called “I remember” back at the end of 2015, and I wondered if a photography audience would think I was crazy for talking about Pink Floyd and skating rinks and the lyrics to “The Rose” and losing a childhood friend. I wanted to put my heart on my sleeve, and I did, and the positive response was a little overwhelming.

So when it came time to contribute to TIS02 (the TIS books four-part publication that includes my friends J Carrier, Nelson Chan, and Carl Wooley) I made the decision to offer a thing I’d made called The king of the birds; the book consists entirely of pictures of my nephew, lost in imagination, and made over the course of ten minutes or so. I had at one point thought the work to be perhaps romantic. But with the confidence gained from writing (and from generous readers), I decided to risk sentimentality to say what I really wanted to say. The book is not for everyone (just as my essays are not, of course), but I’m very happy with it and its place among the books I’ve made.

© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – The king of the birds, TIS books, 2017

Landscape Stories: How much Poetry and Prose is present in your photographic work? Is there any sort of connection between literature and the way you’ve described America?
Tim Carpenter: It’s gotten to the point where it’s no longer photography that’s my paramount interest, but literature. And I consider literature to be expressed in not only novels and poems, but in pictures and music as well.

But of course my primary working activity is making pictures, and I think constantly about both poetry (specifically lyric poetry, I should probably say) and prose in relation to that activity. Not as anything like source material or as something to be used alongside pictures. Rather, I think about how each is generated and operates and how they overlap and what that could possibly mean for working with a camera (and then perhaps eventually making a book).

It’s an imperfect but I think useful distinction to say that prose is descriptive of an experience while poetry embodies an experience. Yeats said: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” So maybe one can also see a crude division between a first-person and a third-person approach. In either of these distinctions, of course, there is a profound and meaningful intersection.

With Local Objects, my approach was entirely first-person. In fact, it was an important moment in the evolution of those pictures when I began to understand that some of them were more rhetorical and thus should be removed from the project. Here I should note that I think it’s unfortunate that “prosaic” and “rhetorical” have somewhat pejorative connotations. I read prose voraciously, and it has an important place in thinking constructively about pictures. That said, it’s poetry that for the past few years has most heavily informed my thinking about pictures, and it’s specifically the work of Wallace Stevens that has had the greatest impact.

I love Stevens most for his doggedness in pursuing his lifelong project to navigate the space between the mind and the world. He’s often seen as a “capital-R” Romantic poet because he believed in the vital importance of art to actual lived lives. But, in crucial distinction to the Romantics, he knew that there was never to be any transcendent joining of the self and the not-self, through art or by any other means. He was content instead to dwell in the real, and to constantly gauge his intelligence and imagination against the obstinate facts of this world, and to plot the results along a continuum between the self and all that’s not the self.

What this calibration meant in practice was that sometimes the imagination was expansive, pushing out against reality and transforming it through metaphor (or, less frequently in his case, symbolism). His early work is known on balance for its ornateness of language and metaphor. In (admittedly oversimplified) contrast, his late work describes a world pressing back firmly against the imagination, almost overwhelming it; a much plainer world being “decreated” in the word he borrowed from Simone Weil.

I say all of this to explain what I’ve taken from Stevens and how it informs both the way I make pictures and the way I write. Which is: sometimes, our imaginations permeate experience. In other words, we project (the ultimate expression of which is solipsism). I think projection is basically our default mode, and it’s the reason it’s so easy to be self-involved and to think of one’s self as the center of the universe.

But also: sometimes, the world can push back. Or rather we can actively work to allow it to do so. Iris Murdoch calls this “unselfing.” In his great late poem “The Rock,” Stevens writes: “It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves. / We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground / Or a cure of ourselves, that is equal to a cure / Of the ground.” Ultimately, you can’t just pretty up the rocks with imaginary leaves; you must let the world just be itself; and that requires work on your self.

But that’s just one poem. In other places, he might contradict himself. But that’s OK, because there are no necessarily right or wrong answers in plumbing the chasm between mind and world (although of course there are questions of right or wrong in our considerations of the resultant aesthetic objects). The goal is to actively recognize that we project, and also that we can resist projecting, and to do our best to work with that knowledge – and that activity is poetry. And it can be photography, as well.

So now I realize that this answer is pretty lengthy and it’s getting to be like one of my essays. But I’m grateful that I’m writing in response to a question, because I may not otherwise have laid it out like this. And still! I haven’t even gotten to the second part of your question, the connection between literature and the way I’ve described America.

First off, I’m not so sure that I’m describing America per se. What I can more confidently say is that I respond to the world in a way that’s rooted in my reading of two quintessentially American writers: Marilynne Robinson and William Maxwell. Though I consider neither to be a regional author, it’s no coincidence that she writes often of Iowa and he of Illinois. In both, descriptions of the world are generally straightforward and clear-eyed in a Midwestern way, with few flowery adjectives or extended metaphors (her first novel Housekeeping notably excepted). Characters in Robinson and Maxwell (very often the first-person self) gain substantial life through interactions with an intractable world that remains forever separate. The great and transient beauty they find is thus of a sort advocated by Stevens.

So let me bring this back around to Local Objects. (I described this a bit in my previous shorter interview with Landscape Stories). I wanted to find a way to express in pictures my feeling of transience that had been rather sharply honed by books like Gilead and So Long, See You Tomorrow. As I’ve mentioned, in the time before the project had any real name, I thought of it as “the Housekeeping pictures,” owing to the theme of impermanence in Robinson’s book. I struck upon a method of using vertical compositions – often with inactive foreground space – to suggest the distance between self and world, and to vary that distance over the course of the book to emphasize the ceaseless activity of calibration of that distance.

© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017

Landscape Stories: In a better world, what part might art play? Why art is important for you?
Tim Carpenter: I almost see this working backwards: a better world might be the result of art playing just the role it does now, except that its effect must be far more widespread. Which role is the reason that art important to me.

It’s said that readers of novels are better at imagining the interior lives of others, and thus tend to be more empathetic. I think that engagement with other forms of art can as well effect an “unselfing” that is antithetical to political ideologies and allows us to more easily see the basic humanity in every other person (the very same that resides in each of us). When that’s the case, it’s clearer that we’re not in some zero-sum game in which others must lose so that we can win.

I dislike the current US President very much but I cannot bring myself to hate all of the people who voted for him. If my experience with art – whether reading, listening, viewing, or making – has taught me anything it’s that people are far too complex to be reduced to understanding them just as one decision made on one day. (Which is not to say that the decision itself was not a terrible one.)

Perhaps it’s fanciful to think that we’d all make better political and other choices just because of exposure to more art. But it sure as hell can’t hurt.

© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017

Landscape Stories: Photography can be documentation, description, allegory… In your opinion how important it is for a photography to hide evidence, to be allusive or to reinforce a strong element of intuition?
Tim Carpenter: Wow. There’s a lot packed in just a couple lines. I guess I would always begin with something akin to that element of intuition, although I may not use exactly those words. Maybe instead I’d say it’s an idiosyncratic vision that is the most important to me in assessing a photograph or photobook. This is not at all meant to require that pictures be strange or quirky. Rather, I mean that a picture should evidence a unique intelligence, which is the possession of each and every one of us. (And I wonder if that’s not much of the reason that I am drawn to the photobook form. With so many competent individual photographs being made all the time, we often need to see a few or a bunch of pictures to start to get a real sense of a distinctive maker and what her designs on us might be.)

If that idiosyncrasy is established (a big if, of course), then I suppose the success of the picture hinges less on whether the photographer is hiding or revealing or anything like that. My personal preference, however is in line with John Szarkowski’s: “The photographer’s vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand.” Which is why I think that full-on allegory is a tall order for a photograph; I know of only a few photographers who can pull that off.

© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017

Landscape Stories: Among many of your urban landscape and architectural photographs, you’re able to personify the environment around you. It stands to reason that you have a close relationship to the things you photograph. How can photography contribute to “reinventing” the viewing experience?
Tim Carpenter: I appreciate that thought about my pictures personifying the environment. I’m particularly intrigued by this question because rather than having a close relationship to the things I photograph, I actually feel acutely alienated from them. This is true not only for landscape and architecture, but even for my nephew in the pictures I made that became The king of the birds. Which is not at all to say that I’m actually estranged from him; I love him dearly and am fortunate to spend a great deal of time with him. What I mean is that I’m trying to use a camera to figure out and make manifest the estrangement I feel from the world.

This all goes back to that calibration I mentioned before in Wallace Stevens, that gauging of the unbridgeable gap between the self and the not-self. For me, a good picture is like a spark or a synapse, a fleeting connection between the mind of the maker and the befuddling world. Or actually the picture is the furtive monument to that connection, the afterglow of the spark. The best pictures seem to be becoming and un-becoming themselves all at the same time.

Well, I’ve gotten a bit off track off the point about the close relationship to subject matter. What I can say is that the relationship is more with the space between me and the subject matter – and that includes both physical and metaphorical distance. My strongest conviction is that there are experiences of mind and world that are best articulated as photographs. (Others as poems or songs or plays.)

Related to your question about reinventing the viewing experience, I wrote an essay on this not long ago. The answer is absolutely yes: the experience is more than just reinvented; the picture must be understood as a new thing in the world. Not only is it not its subject matter – or even the direct experience thereof – the picture necessarily fails if it cannot suggest something greater and different from its subject matter. There’s a thought from the poetry critic Elizabeth Drew that I’ve found to be of the highest value: “A sense of itself is what the poem sponsors, and not a sense of the world. It invents itself: its own necessity or urgency, its tone, its mixture of meaning and sound are in the poet’s voice. It is in such isolation that it engenders its own authority.”

I would say the same of every picture that I admire: it engenders its own authority.

© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – Local Objects, The Ice Plant, 2017

Landscape Stories: In your opinion in which way the Landscape could be considered physical, mental or psychologic?
Tim Carpenter: I think Robert Adams nailed it when he said that landscape pictures offer three truths: geography, autobiography, and metaphor. “Taken together,” he wrote, “the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.”

With respect to your question, we might with success correlate geography with the physical, autobiography with the mental, and metaphor with psychologic. And really this just reinforces some themes I’ve already been talking about: that the picture is a meeting of a mind (an autobiography if ever there was one) and the physical world. The aesthetic success of the picture relies on metaphor (or perhaps symbolism) suggestive of something beyond the mere geography.

© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017

Landscape Stories: When I Look at your work of the American Midwest my imaginary soundtrack is rich of echoes of Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Blind Willie McTell. Or some of my favorite songwriter like Will Oldham and Bill Callahan. What is your favourite music? What about contemporary music?
Tim Carpenter: I like your imaginary soundtrack very much, as well as your favorite songwriters. Music is hugely important to me. After a childhood of listening primarily to classic rock and pop (which I still love) on the radio, I heard “Radio Free Europe” when I was 16 or so and everything changed. Murmur was serious and enigmatic and propulsive and for the first time I felt like I was listening to the future – my future, I hoped – rather than to the past. Over the course of many great records, R.E.M. provided a sort of roadmap for being an intelligent, informed adult who could find ways to resist both conformity and nihilism. I hope that shows through in everything I say or do.

In much the same way, Wilco’s music has helped me to face middle age, and to see life as a promise and as a challenge to be productive and useful. Seeing the band play is still the most direct way for me to unself.

I miss acutely the presence of Vic Chesnutt, whose lyrics I hold in the very highest regard. I am grateful that he was so prolific in recording; I know that I will listen to him until the day I die and not come close to uncovering all the layers of desire and longing in his songs. But I’m going to try.

As I mentioned before, I see these musicians and many others as creators of a literature that has infused how I think about life and thus how I make pictures. Because I can’t resist opportunities like this, here are a few more reasons why I listen: Lucinda Williams’s catalog contains just about all you need to know about people in American places; Astral Weeks is the single greatest recorded testament to the expansiveness of the human imagination; there is no more glorious genius inhabiting this planet than Erykah Badu; Sufjan Stevens can look into the darkest saddest places and come back with songs that somehow make it all better; seeing PJ Harvey play makes you want to be a better artist; seeing Patti Smith play makes you want to be a better person; seeing Rickie Lee Jones play makes you think that there may be a benevolent deity; Hedwig and the Angry Inch taught me how to use the ache of incompleteness and make something of it; Lyle Lovett smiles when he sings, and why not when you can write like that?; Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon stands favorably alongside any great American novel; Victoria Williams is a photographer who uses a guitar instead of a camera; Fleetwood Mac and Rumours still sound like fresh miracles; listening to Sleater-Kinney will lift you from the most dour mood; Elliott Smith could put you back there, but it feels right and true; Dylan can never be overrated; Willie Nelson is better than the rest of them combined; and Dolly Parton is even better than that.

And that’s just the rock and country and pop. I can’t get enough hard bop (Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Art Blakey in all his incarnations) and Ornette Coleman’s inventiveness seems endlessly strange and incomprehensible. The string quartets of Beethoven (especially the late ones) and Shostakovich are constant companions, as are the compositions of Morton Feldman. In fact, Feldman’s music, of all that I’ve noted, had the most practical and direct impact on how I made Local Objects, in terms of its quietness, pace, and repetitions.

© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017

Landscape Stories: "Township/Bement grain" (TIS/dumbsaint, 2017) is a book made in collaboration with Raymond Meeks, Brad Zellar, and Adrianna Ault. Could you tell us something more about this partnership started?
Tim Carpenter: I’ve been friends with Ray for several years now, and we’ve showed each other our pictures, and talked about art and life, countless times. He decided to “reboot” Orchard Journal – his three-part collaboration with other artists: Mark Steinmetz, Deborah Luster, and Wes Mills – and asked me to be the first participant. I was thrilled; as I mentioned before, Ray is a hero and inspiration for making pictures and books.

I had an idea that it should be a winter book, and I made a bunch of pictures in December and January with a mind towards the project. Ray liked them and responded with images that he had made with his partner Adrianna, also in the winter. We liked the way the pictures worked together, but we also had a lot of them and only a couple inchoate ideas for the structuring of the two bodies of work. Ray suggested bringing in a guest editor, and we both knew that Brad was the ideal person. He came back with an edit and sequence that felt just right, and he said that, coincidentally, he had recently written a short piece of fiction that fit well with the pictures. We loved the story and included it in the final project as a stand-alone booklet.

© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017

Landscape Stories: What pictures would you have in your ideal museum? From the past and contemporary...
Tim Carpenter: This question got me to daydreaming about having a museum and an unlimited budget, which would lead to an endless answer. Instead of that, I’ll tell you that I’ve been thinking about a curatorial basis for an exhibition that would be called “What will suffice.” (I’m already exploring this idea by jurying an open call for Oranbeg Press.)

I mentioned Weil’s concept of “decreation” earlier; Wallace Stevens gladly borrowed the word for a notion he’d had all along, and Anne Carson wrote a whole book (or rather a bunch of different exquisite things all contained within the covers of a book) on the theme. Here’s Weil: “Decreation: to make something created pass into the uncreated. Destruction: to make something created pass into nothingness.”

My take: when we’re measuring that chasm between mind and world, we “create” by actively projecting received (and sometimes, one might hope, new) ideas onto the things of the world. By the same token, we say that things are “created” because imbued with received meanings.

We “decreate” through a concentrated effort of projecting as little as possible and allowing the world to just be itself. (This, of course, is ultimately impossible, but that doesn’t undermine the value of the effort.) A “decreated” thing is one that has been liberated from our projections. (Again, not 100% achievable, but go with it.)

My thought would be to collect and think about those photographers and pictures and books that are distinguished by a high level of decreation. Which is probably (I’m still figuring this out) another way of saying that the photographer is in these cases more concerned with formal issues of communicability rather than any ostensible subject matter.

Given all that, it won’t be a surprise that The Pond would be my central text. Another non-surprise: Gossage considers Atget to be the ultimate teacher. I agree, and I’ll stock up on the Frenchman. I could use Evans and Frank as examples of the negative. I value their work – and I’m guessing most folks agree – because of the symbolisms they derive from subject matter like automobiles, advertising, religion, and the like. All of which serve to create rather than decreate.

It’d be fun to pick out the appropriate Friedlanders; his pictures can at first seem so actively “made,” but it turns out they rely very little on received ideas. Not all of Robert Adams would be in the show: Listening to the River is a slam dunk, and so is Notes for an Overcast Day. The relevant strengths of Los Angeles Spring and California are, I think, in that they resist projections about that city and state in favor of the actual world. In contrast, Turning Back, attuned as it is to the issue of environmental degradation, would be outside this exhibition’s call. Similarly, I’d need Schmidt’s 89/90 and Natur, but not Waffenruhe.

This is fun because this question has taken me much further than I’ve ever been before in specifying the contours of my curatorial theme. So don’t hold me to it; but also sort of do. And don’t knock my lack of knowledge, which is vast and deep – I’m sure I’m not addressing important figures. So write me and light a candle rather than curse my darkness.

© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017

Landscape Stories: What book about photography would you recommend?
Tim Carpenter: All of the Robert Adams books are essential. Other constant companions: Wright Morris’s Time Pieces; John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and introduction to The Work of Atget; Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs; Tod Papageorge’s Core Curriculum; Gerry Badger’s The Pleasures of Good Photographs.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men isn’t about photography per se (and there’s as much bullshit in it as there is beauty) but it’s a must.

I often recommend James Wood’s How Fiction Works to photographers, and they always thank me. His discussion of specific things like free indirect style, time signature, and detail are surprisingly applicable to making pictures, as is his overall argument for how structure and style actually function to make fiction communicable and beautiful. A few more books of essays by non-photographers: Flannery O’Connor’s Mysteries and Manners; Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child I Read Books and The Givenness of Things; and Christian Wiman’s Ambition and Survival (don’t let that heavy title dissuade you).

© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017
© Tim Carpenter – township, TIS/dumbsaint, 2017

Landscape Stories: What are you currently working on in your photography? What’s in store for you in 2018, photographically or otherwise?
Tim Carpenter: At the risk of sounding new-agey, I’m mostly working on myself – reading and listening as much as I can. As I mentioned before, I make pictures constantly, and I’m becoming more able to see the changes in my thinking (not necessarily advancements, just changes) reflected in the pictures that I make. That feels good.

I have a number of projects more or less near completion, but I’ll probably be sitting on those for a little while. There’s much to do to support an ambitious TIS books publishing schedule this year, and I’m excited to be working on a collaborative zine with Nathan Pearce, a friend and great photographer who lives in southern Illinois. Owing to the reception of my book, I’ll also be exhibiting, doing talks, and guest-critiquing, all on a small scale. All of that is a real thrill; I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this community of people who like making and looking at photographs.

Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena