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A Conversation with Raymond Meeks

Raymond Meeks (b. 1963) is widely known and well respected as photographer and book-maker who has published over twenty photobooks in a wide range of formats since 2009. In the Orchard Journal series (2010 – 2011) published with Silas Finch, Meeks produced three collaborative books intertwining his work with that of Wes Mills, Mark Steinmetz and Deborah Luster. However, the vast majority of Meeks’s books have been self-published in very small collectible editions, each comprising a specific and singular body of his own photographic work. In November 2014, Light Work organized a mid-career retrospective of Meeks’s photographic work and books, and this year Meeks is embarking on a new collaborative series of books under the title Dumbsaint. In the following conversation, Meeks discusses his photographic practice and its ties to book-making.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (SWW): Can you tell me if there was a particular moment when you were first drawn to book-making as something that could be integral to your photographic practice, and could you say a little about what it is that you especially love about the photobook?

Raymond Meeks (RM): I should say that what initially drew me to exploring bookmaking is not what sustains and excites my practice today. In 2009, I’d moved my family from Montana to Portland, Oregon, and I was without a darkroom. Printmaking and darkroom processes have always been integral to my practice of shaping a single image. I had to settle for scanning negatives and printing with an Epson, which is not inherently gratifying in terms of producing prints that evoke qualities similar to the silver gelatin prints I’d been making.

During the same period, I began to sense a lack of context for the pictures I was offering to galleries—I felt that the compressed moments of a single picture lacked an anchor or broader context linked to moments that preceded or directly followed it. So initially, my books were a short series of images that aspired to expand and contextualize the single image.

The quality of an object—in this case, a book or print—is an equal reflection of the level of attention focused in the making of it. Bookmaking became a channel for formal expression and filled a void left by the absence of printmaking in a chemical darkroom. There was much enthusiasm behind my early experimentation in constructing books—a sense of immediacy. I was less concerned with archival permanence than the performance of making, so I purchased materials (masking tape, spray paint, adhesives) from hardware stores as well as paper suppliers.

I really value the formative time spent making books as objects, though bookmaking—in its material processes—is less meaningful and interesting for me today. Now I’m far more interested in engaging with subject and exploring the narrative possibilities that the photobook offers: sequential and paired relationships that create expansive ideas which point beyond the contents of each individual picture. I’m interested more these days in the challenge to employ as few devices as possible in the interweaving of pictures that broaden and defy easy understanding.

SWW: That brings me to something I consider to be a crucial distinction in this context, between a photobook and an artist book. Even in relatively short-run edition sizes of say 500 copies, photobooks are typically mechanically reproducible near-identical objects with few if any unique handmade elements. Artist books plainly don’t need to follow that logic, and I’d argue most of your books are artist books in that sense. They’re raw and improvisational objects, sometimes housed in casings fashioned from foam core and strips of wood, sometimes comprising loose leaves bound together with adhesive tape, or filled with pages on which prints are made on the back of pages stripped from other books…The word I instinctually associate with your photographic work is evanescence, and your books seem to reflect that. Can you talk a bit about how your material choices intersect with the language of your photographs?

RM: That’s a wonderful observation, though I can’t claim any conscious awareness
with regard to material choices echoing the language of my pictures. In many cases, the photographs and the materials are co-dependent and inform one another. There are certain books, such as in love with drama (2014) that I wouldn’t have made
in the absence of the paper—repurposed from an oversized book of reproductions depicting “Early Russian Icons.” The sheets were heavy enough to support mounted prints and contained the right amount of pulp to allow ink to rest on the surface for inkjet printing. The book paper inspired a dual narrative. The first; a series of fertile fields from a nearby farm, were printed directly to the paper. The landscapes were made in one early afternoon, previous Spring seeding. The accompanying narrative was sequenced from an edit that represented the early stages of an intimate relationship I had begun—the joy and conflicts associated with merging our lives. These pictures were printed to transparency film and positioned beneath the landscapes.

SWW: In Pretty Girls Wander (2011) you write: “I photograph close to home as memory looses structure; its architecture, trying to make light speak from the fixed edges of rooms long vanished.” Can you talk a bit about how you go about photographing, and how your pictures work their way into books?

RM: I’ll work for a while making pictures, most often within walking distance of my backyard—observations and occurrences that make up the fabric of daily life, so that I make work where I find myself wanting to spend time with a person or a subject, oftentimes dictated by the type of experiences that I want to have in the world. I’m not a prolific photographer. I don’t always have a camera on me. I spend more time without a camera, in part because the moment I have a camera, the thing I’m interested in eludes me—I don’t see it. I have to experience it without a camera first, and then hope that there’s some semblance of it when I go back to photograph that can capture what drew me towards it the first time. I’m really slow to visually organize and make sense of things, so I have to experience the things I’m drawn to a lot—quite frequently—before I can photograph, which is why I end up photographing close to home, because it’s a subtle feature in a landscape I drive past the hundredth time that finally informs a picture.

The books I’m drawn to making combine visual narrative with object quality, where some measure of handwork and attention to material detail meet with a particular edit and sequence of pictures. It’s a process of looking at a current archive; contact sheets and digital files–and trying to understand the common thread that underlies and unites my interests. What’s the narrative that seems to exist here. Then it usually involves reading (poetry and fiction) and listening to music, and thinking about the way certain songs are sequenced and how particular notes are performed—patterns are repeated. I’m listening for a title that embodies and provides a structure that I can align my photographs to. That’s typically the evolution of the work.

I’m not so good at going somewhere unfamiliar to make pictures. I’ve heard Alec Soth talk about collaborating with John Gossage, something to the effect of getting off the plane and within the first three hours Gossage had made hundreds of photographs, and Soth had made one. That’s something I can relate to. Lately I’ve been looking at Gossage’s Berlin in the Time of the Wall (2004). It’s a book I return to—and often. I love the idea of a project that’s as expansive—I love the idea of a project like his, which evolves over many years and returns, but I don’t know that I have the patience for it with my own photographs. I tire of them too quickly. And that’s the problem with making chapter books, which is what I call them; I make the books as a pause and sharing of a small segment of the work, and ideally I’m working towards a larger monograph at some point, but by the time I finish working with it as a chapter book I’m kind of done with many of the pictures as they exist alone.

SWW: I hadn’t heard you describe your books as chapter books before, and I wonder whether you think there’s an upper page limit to the size of book that you can make working in this way? The books feel like these concise and poetic constellations of notes… Do you feel you’re pushing up against a structural limitation working at this scale and in this way, or do you think that you’ve discovered the specific nature of the way you need to work to be able to make work that you like?

RM: To be able to make work that I like, and also to be able to fund the work that I do, because—sometimes to a fault—this is what I do. I taught for a little while, but it didn’t provide a living, so I’m not teaching and I don’t have a steady job—this is what I do. The downside to that is that I often feel compromised in terms of taking risks. There is a sense of obligation to the form I’ve established as an offering to patrons and collectors. I feel like these books, like the two furlong books (2015) were created to take a pause and put together a small piece that would allow me to continue to work. But the work is still very much unresolved. So I’ve continued doing it, and I started photographing again a couple of weeks ago and I’ll continue to do so throughout the summer, I think because the work needs to go beyond some point, because right now I think the photographs and the narratives that I’ve made close down around this idea of nostalgia. But I’m still trying to understand what’s drawing me there, why I’m photographing it, and what it has to say. The pictures I’m drawn most to are the ones where it feels like those bodies in that space, and the repetition of it, feel like part of a ritual, as if keeping time or marking a transition. And that’s sort of where I’m at now, but it’s still so unresolved, and I know that the work will eventually inform me of what there is to say, or it’ll say it or solve it for me. It’s a bit of a riddle, and I’m confused because it seems like no matter how I pair individual pictures, the work feels beautiful, but a little too accessible and maybe too romantic, and I want it to go somewhere beyond these early impulses.

SWW: Maya Deren said that “a ritual is an action distinguished from all others in that it seeks realization of its purpose through the exercise of form. In this sense ritual is art; and even historically, all art derives from ritual. In ritual the form is the meaning. More specifically, the quality of movement itself is not a merely decorative factor—it is the meaning itself of the movement.” It comes to mind because I think in the furlong work what you can start to see is a sense that the freedom these young adults feel in this ritual act is soon to be compromised, or possibly even about to end. So the movement—the leap and the fall—is itself meaningful.

RM: It’s at least a forty foot drop at the minimum where those kids leap off the rocks down to the water, so I’m trying to figure out a way to make pictures where we can more palpably feel the forces of nature on those bodies—trying to work in that brief suspension of time before gravity takes hold. I just instinctually feel like it’s still worth exploring.