Bevin Bering Dubrowski: Hi David—it’s a pleasure to finally talk to you about your work with Spot in mind! One of the first things I want to talk about within your series is your use of the box. It provides a unifying element in most of the images and also serves as a formal container and reference to minimalist form. Could you expand upon what the box is and your decision to utilize it here?
David Wolf: It’s a cardboard box, the kind you can find at a paint store. I had purchased some house paints, and happened to have a couple of these boxes lying around. One morning I was working in the garden, doing some weeding, and I tossed some clover into one of them. In an instant, I saw the garden–and my relationship to it–differently. I thought, “Look at that, these weeds are suddenly separate from the garden, from the landscape around the box,” and it really intrigued me. I just moved on from there. The box needed to be simple, because I didn’t want to draw attention to it. I liked the fact that it was cardboard, made from natural fibers, to go along with the garden itself. That it’s a square, having straight lines, in contrast to the natural world is also important. As people, we make things with straight lines. Nature doesn’t do that very often. So, the box became the perfect construct for the project’s intent—a simple, neutral container that serves as a conceptual envelope, allowing me to explore how we shape and control nature even as we nurture it.
BBD: Did the project cause you to grow different plants? Did you start thinking of different forms and grow things because you thought they would be a good element in a photograph?
DW: Early on I decided there would be a couple of rules for how I would go about this. One was that everything I photographed had to come from the existing garden, or from neighboring trees easily within reach. Looking at the pictures, people have commented, “You must have a huge garden!” But actually it’s quite small; it just has a lot of plants! The other rule was to use only natural light. The relationship of shadow and light is essential to the project—to the idea of nurturing time within seasonal change, and to our emotional response to images from the garden.
BBD: And then there’s the performance-based nature of the images. These constructions are made to be photographed. They’re fleeting. Do you think about yourself as performer?
DW: Creating the assemblages was so much fun because this marked a real turning point for me as a photographer. Up to that point my pictures had been all about photographing what I found in the world. Once I decided on a subject, my choices were defined by the specifics of taking a photograph. Here, I’m using materials, plants and flowers, to make something–stage something–for the camera. For me, this project became the difference between taking and making a photograph, and I found that so exciting!
BBD: I think that’s a big change for a lot of photographers when they start to find a project that really takes. Many photographers start out by photographing the world around them, and then there’s something that provokes your mind or your interest and work takes on a conceptual element. I love talking to photographers about their experience when this happens because I often hear that the concept becomes an obsession. Was this true for you?
DW: Yes, this project ruled my life! I worked on it everyday for the better part of three years, just the shooting–the months of darkroom work came later. It completely enveloped me. And I think I was fortunate, because it’s my back garden—I didn’t have to go anywhere. That’s really a lot of what my work is about, being where I am. Not going to the far ends of the world to find a subject. Connecting with where I am, working with what’s around me. So, yes, the whole process of creating this work became totally absorbing. There were times when I needed to work very much in the moment, combining elements to photograph before they wilted and died. Or working with light that was available only briefly. Other times I would dry or refrigerate cuttings, altering or preserving them as need be, to pursue an idea that would be played out in the garden later, when the time was right.
BBD: Let’s look at “Roses and Redwood,” 2009.
DW: I had some gorgeous roses, and something prompted me to combine them with cuttings from our redwood tree. The light was filtered by the tree, dappling the ground, so there’s a lot of darkness, with streaks of light. I knew I would have just minutes to work with this light, and the darkness that surrounded it. Later, when I made the print, the image struck me as an intimation of death. This is one of those images in the series where the interplay of light and shadow has such importance. Thinking about this, the idea that memory and shadow are related visually came to mind, and that memory can be thought of as time’s shadow.
BBD: Looking at the “Oranges and Stones” Image, I have to think about the fact that you grew these oranges, they didn’t come from a store—they are David’s oranges. When you let an orange, or anything that you grow yourself, kind of go past its prime without using it, isn’t there a greater sense of guilt or loss?
DW: Yes something that’s past, and something that perhaps you didn’t have the chance to enjoy fully. That’s a really good point because it brings up something else about this work that I only understood when I was deep into the project. That it’s also about loss, because I’m working with plants and flowers that are from all stages of their lifetime, including when they have died. I’m taking them out of the ground, and in the process of working with them they will die. So that connects with a sense of loss, and a desire to redeem that loss, or turn loss into beauty. I’ve had a couple of family members die too young, and I think this in an urge to transform loss into something that’s powerful and beautiful.
BBD: Well David, these are certainly powerful, beautiful images.
DW: Thank you, Bevin—thank you for taking the time to speak again.
To see more of David’s work, visit www.hcponline.org and www.davidwolfphotographs.com
David Wolf is a devoted film photographer, making both color and black and white prints by hand in the traditional darkroom. His work has been exhibited internationally, and has been acquired by numerous public institutions and private collections. David’s series Nurturing Time, Life in a Backyard Garden won top honors in both the International Photography Awards and the Grand Prix de la Decouverte, International Fine Art Photography Competition. A Boston native and Brown University graduate, David now calls San Francisco home, where his work is represented by Corden|Potts Gallery.
Bevin Bering Dubrowski is the Creative Director at Houston Center for Photography and Editor-in-Chief of Spot magazine.