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On Redwoods, Spaghetti Westerns and other American Myths

BEVIN BERING DUBROWSKI: Aaron, this interview intends to focus on your own work as a photographer rather than your curatorial and editorial projects; what are you working on now?

AARON SCHUMAN: Photographically, I’m working on a project called Redwoods, which I started about a year ago. A friend of mine in England, a tree surgeon, told me over lunch that he’d been prun­ing a number of redwoods in a nearby estate the previous day. I was surprised to discover that there were redwoods in the UK, as I’d always thought of them as a distinctly American species. But once I knew about them, I kept spotting the tops of these trees piercing the horizon, towering over the rest of the landscape. I began to do some research and discovered that during the California Gold Rush a number of British botanists and seed collectors traveled to the American Northwest in search of ‘exotic’ plants that would flourish in the British climate. They sent back sacks full of seeds, cultivated them in vast nurseries, and then sold them to the landed gentry, who planted them in their estates and gardens. The redwood was one such plant, and acted as a symbol of wealth, stature and imperial reign — in fact, the Giant Sequoia, one of the most famous indigenous plants of North America, was also dubbed Wellingtonia gigantia, in honor of the 1st Duke of Wellington, who died around the same time, in 1852. Anyway, I started to photograph them.

BBD: How have you approached this subject photographically?

AS: Since they were planted, many of the original redwood seedlings have matured into fully grown trees, but many of the estates and gardens where they were planted have changed hands, have been subsumed by urban and suburban expansion, have been turned into housing developments, retire­ment communities, public parks and so on. Nevertheless, the redwoods have managed to survive, albeit completely out of proportion with the rest of the surrounding landscape. So I’ve started by visually toying with their scale in relation to their surroundings. And I’ve developed a real affinity for them; almost a camaraderie, in the sense that I’ve now lived as an American in England for most of what I would consider my adult life — I’ve grown roots, begun a family, matured and in a sense flourished — and yet I still often feel slightly awkward or at odds with my surroundings. It may seem strange, but every time I find a redwood over here, I instinctively feel the need to walk up to it and give it a good pat on its trunk, like I’m patting the back of an old friend; it’s comforting. Then I gradually circle around it, finding different vantage points within the surrounding environment, and make photographs.

BBD: Beyond the personal and historic, are there some other topics that this series brings to the forefront for you?

AS: Yes, apart from these obliquely autobiographical or personal references, I have also found that there is fascinating allegorical potential in the photographs in terms of notions of imperialism, domi­nance, strength, power, allusions to the respective rise and fall of the British and American empires.

BBD: You have such a strong knowledge of photographic history; I’m wondering, is there a piece of this history you are working through here as well?

AS: As you said, I’m very interested in the history of photography, so when I look at photographs I initially try to read them as literally as possible — or at least as the photographer intended — but sub­sequently I can’t help but see various links and relationships between them and other photographic works, both past and present. The exhibition that I curated for the 2010 FotoFest Biennial, Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, was very much about this; it looked at how contemporary photographers depict and define America today, but also drew distinct parallels between their work and Walker Evans’ American Photographs(1937), and explored the embedded legacy of this particular photographic history within American photography’s most current practice.
Similarly, when I started to look at and edit Redwoods, I began to notice similarities — visual, strategic and conceptual — between my photographs and those shown in New Topographics,the now infamous exhibition at George Eastman House in 1975. Firstly, I realized that the mid-century British bunga­lows and housing developments that I found in England bore an uncanny resemblance to the tract houses and suburban developments of the American West, as photographed by Robert Adams and Joe Deal. Furthermore, the notion of maintaining a constant motif throughout the work, and collect­ing together a sort of ‘typology’ — in my case, redwoods; in their case, industrial structures — shared something, conceptually if not stylistically, with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. And finally, the way in which I was composing the photographs — in black and white, incorporating street furniture, telephone wires, road markings, foliage and so on, and playing with these elements in terms of their linear, geometric and formal effects within the frame — reminded me of the seemingly casual but rig­orous compositions of Frank Gohlke, Henry Wessel Jr., and again, Robert Adams, in which otherwise unassuming environments are constructed into subtly complicated, two-dimensional visual puzzles. So again, I found myself developing a sense of affinity or camaraderie, but in this case with photog­raphers of a previous generation, with each unconscious nod to their work also acting as that sort of fraternal, comforting pat on the back.
But, it’s important to stress that, firstly, these photographs came from an interest in photographing the subject matter itself in a way that felt most appropriate and natural to me, and that the histori­cal echoes only emerged in the process of making the work, rather than vice versa. I didn’t set out to make a New Topographics project; I stumbled upon something that I thought would be interesting to photograph, began to make pictures, and then realized that the photographic solutions that I was coming up with when faced with this particular subject matter shared something (but not everything) with several of my favorite photographers — which was thrilling.

BBD: Your earlier series, Once Upon A Time in the West also explores national identities. Could you tell me a little more about this project and the political aspects of it?

AS: Once Upon a Time in the West is a portfolio that I made on the eroding sets and locations of Sergio Leone’s 1960s Spaghetti Westerns, in the Almerian deserts of southern Spain. At the time, I was interested in photographing American myths and ‘ruins’ abroad, in an attempt to explore how America as an empire has colonized parts of the world — not necessarily in a physical sense, but in a cultural and ideological sense — and to understand how the rest of the world continues to see, understand, absorb, portray, reflect and occasionally propagate certain notions of America. In this case, it’s a distinctly American archetype, but the place itself — the reality — was created by an Italian in Franco’s Spain for the purposes of fiction. And again, there’s an autobiographical subtext embedded within the project as well.

BBD: How does your own role as an American who is now rooted in Europe come into play in this project?

AS: When I first moved to Europe, I was surprised by how people perceived me as an American. I grew up in a liberal part of New England and moved to New York for college, so in terms of the stereotypical portrayals of American culture as seen in mainstream media, I don’t have much experience. I’ve never been particularly religious, nationalistic, or obese; I’ve never lived in a sprawling suburb, dated a cheerleader, or held a loaded gun. But, these were all things that, when I moved abroad, instantaneously became associated with me in some strange way. So Once Upon a Time in the West was initially an attempt to explore and photograph America without actually stepping foot in America, but instead by way of representations of an America that, in reality, was entirely a fiction, and wasn’t in fact American at all. Nevertheless, for many people (including many Americans), this particular archetype — the cowboy, the Wild West — remains an important symbol in terms of defining America, the American character, American culture, and the American spirit at large.

BBD: Do you see this work as a critique or a form of investigation?

AS: To be honest, it started as an investigation, of the place itself and what it might represent. But in the editing process I began to notice certain motifs and metaphors reoccurring that implied that there was a definite critique, or at least a critical investigation, embedded within the work. The project was made in 2008-9, just at the end of the Bush administration and in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were obvious associations — cowboys patrolling (and dying in) the deserts, and so on. So ultimately, I would say that in Once Upon a Time in the West I’m actively critiquing a national identity (one that I don’t particularly identify with personally), in terms of the way it is disseminated and is subsequently perceived, imagined, and understood by others; whereas in Redwoods I’m, in some ways, quietly investigating and identifying with my sense of national identity — as both an individual and a photographer — and exploring its relationship to and within other wider physical, historical, cultural and conceptual contexts.

Aaron Schuman is an American photographer, editor, writer and curator based in the United Kingdom. He exhibits his photographic work internationally, and regularly contributes photography, articles, essays and interviews to publications such as Aperture, Foam, Photoworks, ArtReview, Modern Painters, Hotshoe International, The British Journal of Photography, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Sunday Times. Schuman was the curator of Whatever Was Splendid: New American Photographs, one of the principal exhibitions at the 2010 FotoFest Biennial; most recently, he curated Other I: Viviane Sassen, WassinkLundgren, Alec Soth for Hotshoe Gallery (London, 11 October – 27 November 2011), and he is currently curating an exhibition for the Houston Center for Photography, opening in September 2012. Schuman is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Brighton and the Arts University College at Bournemouth, and is also the founder, director and editor of the online photography journal, SeeSaw Magazine.