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On Road Trips, Right Decisions, And Seeking That Really Fantastic Image

Eric Hancock: Your most recent series of work isbased on road trips that you’ve primarily taken through the south, southwest, and western regions of the United States. The images follow a tradition initiated by Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, and William Christenberry with important variations. For instance, the image Meal from your Nearly West series makes explicit reference to eating on the road. How much does travel factor into your conceptual approach?

Walker Pickering: I hadn’t thought about this before, but take that image from the fast food chain. There are places like that all across the country, but I couldn’t make an image like that in a local, or “familiar” fast food joint, as silly as it sounds. I don’t know if it’s a mental block or not. It’s just that I have to get into a certain state-of-mind, where I’m not only thinking about image-making, but also thinking about getting into the road trip activity. When I’m out shooting, I think a lot about photographers who make work on road trips. Alec Soth in particular makes lists as jumping off points for the things that he wants to shoot. I don’t know if he even necessarily sticks to those lists. They probably just serve as guides.

EH: What kinds of things are on the lists?

WP: Oh, I don’t know off the top of my head. They are kind of eclectic, like Sedans, Lent, Tall People. They seem to be based on sketches from his imagination. I don’t necessarily go in with those same preconceptions about the kind of things that I want to find. I mean, I do have a grand idea of the type of places that I’m most interested in encountering, but at the same time I don’t try to find particular places most of the time.

EH: The necessity of travel for the work reminds me of the Monet idea that one has to be blind to be able to see creatively. There’s far less emotional baggage in unfamiliar places, probably making the manipulation of the landscape’s elements into the fiction of the photograph much easier. I’m thinking about the sign motif, or utility pole motif in Stephen Shore’s series Uncommon Places. The tension in the photographs is present because the utility lines and signs that compose the photos reference the weird communication that one has with a silent alien environment. As a narration, your photos implicate your isolation less. They are comforting yet unsentimental. Do you try to cultivate a certain relationship to the audience?

WP: It’s context based. When I’m out shooting, I’m not just taking pictures with my “big camera”, as I call it with my students. I’m not just shooting with that. I’m documenting as much as I can. When I’m out on a shoot, or on a trip, I almost feel like it’s not just what’s in front of the camera that is important, it’s also how I got there, what else I saw that made me think that that particular scene in front of the lens was worth selecting, over maybe even the area surrounding it. When I’m out, I’ll also shoot video and other stills with my phone. In some ways it’s about proving to myself that I made
the right decision – as if there was only one right decision -and this extra documentation is proof.

EH: There’s a lot of ideologically charged architecture in your work. A lot of the buildings are abandoned. In the case of Mayflower, the building and its inhabitants are missing altogether.

WP: That place was in Atlanta, and it is probably the oldest image in the series. The building that the entryway was part of wasn’t that old; somewhere on the fagade I read that it was built around 1911. I think it was leveled to build condos. I guess I like that this lone structure can reference this ideaI grew up with of what the South looked like, and I caught it before they completely knocked it down. These places aren’t fictions outright, but they allude to a story that seems like a fiction. But I think they missed the point. I personally don’t care about the average of the place. I’m interested in the stylized version, the subjective version. It’s not a lie; it’s just the most interesting portion of what exists there.

A few years ago, I met Dave Anderson at Fotofest and he had recently completed this beautiful body of work called Rough Beauty. It was photographed in Vidor, Texas near where I grew up. When the book came out, some people in the area were angry because they thought he depicted the entire city as if it were still the Great Depression, and although those places existed, they didn’t represent the city of Vidor as a whole. I guess if you’re from there, you could argue how accurately (or inaccurately) he portrayed things,

EH: So your work isn’t nostalgic at all.

WP: I suppose, in some ways it isn’t nostalgic for the reality of a place. I get a lot of ideas about what I think a place is supposed to be like from snippets of movies and television. Some of the work is based on real memories. Much of my family is from Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana and we went to those places for family reunions when I was growing up. Images of things like, say, a field of kudzu will seep into my subconscious, and I end up wanting to photograph that. But I think nostalgia itself tends to be for an idealized version of our memories anyway, so I guess you could say I’m nostalgic in that way.

EH: Editing and final image selection are important to your art and take place quite a while after you’ve shot at a location. Is there any antagonism that happens at that point in the process, and how does it compare to the frustrations of shooting? How often are you disappointed by the images that you produce?

WP: I wouldn’t say that the process of shooting is all that frustrating, in and of itself. In fact, the shooting is probably my favorite part. I feel like I’m out collecting artifacts for someone else to go through later, and that means I get to get my hands dirty as part of the process. Of course, I am that ‘other person’, and eventually I have to edit. This usually takes place anywhere from a week to a few months after the shoot – the initial edit, that is.

The second most exciting part of the process is when I see the negatives. I usually view them through a loupe on a light table at my local lab in Austin, and though I can see the image and how sharp it is, the colors are unclear because of the severe orange cast. So in my mind, there’s still a chance that many of the images will be just as good as I originally thought when I shot them.

Making the contact sheets is often a letdown. That’s the point where I start to realize just how few images will ever make it through the final edit. For instance, I probably only have 10-20 images from 2010 that are any good. And of those, maybe 5 will make it to the wall. I shot around 50 rolls of film that year. But it only takes one really fantastic image to erase the frustration of my abysmal success rate.

Walker Pickering received his MFA in photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta and currently teaches at The Art Institute of Austin. Mr. Pickering has worked as a photographer for the Texas House of Representatives, as well as darkroom printer for photographer and screenwriter Bill Wittliff. His work is held in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Wittliff Collection of Southwestern & Mexican Photography, and several private collections. His studio is based in Austin, Texas.

Originally from Winter Haven, Florida, Eric Hancock splits his time as an author and visual artist between New York City and his hometown of Newnan, Georgia. He is a staff writer at Burnaway Magazine in Atlanta, and has contributed to publications such as Contemporary magazine in London and Atlanta-based Art Relish. Hancock received an MFA in painting from Savannah College of Art and Design, Atlanta, in 2008, and has exhibited his work in galleries across the country.