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Stories from the Toad

I met Bucky in 2015 on a tour of grad studios his first year at UT. I enjoyed that first studio visit and followed up with another every year.  

I always enjoy speaking with Bucky about his evolving practice. Those conversations set the foundation for our exhibition at the gallery earlier this year. 

Jonathan Hopson (JH): We have just closed out our first exhibition together, The Toad, at Jonathan Hopson in Houston. You described it as the closing act of a trilogy of exhibitions. Could you clarify, for those unfamiliar with your work, what this show meant to your practice?

Bucky Miller (BM): The Toad was such a fun time. I’m very glad for it. The three shows, which are drawn from the same body of work, are titled Canine FieldsGrackle Actions, and now The Toad. I’ve been referring to it as my “Animal Trilogy,” which is a little tongue-in-cheek but it’s a reference to Wim Wenders’ “Road Trilogy”—three films he made early in his career that started to define a lot of ideas that he’d carry over into later movies. Wenders had Rüdiger Vogler as the star of each film, as a stand-in for himself, and I have the Toad.  

I’ve dedicated all these pictures to the toad that has lived outside my apartment since I moved to Texas four years ago. I understand that the Toad is actually many different toads, as it changes in size and color, appears in quantities greater than one, has died and come back to life. But beneath the level of rational thought, I am sure that the toads are one entity—the Toad. When I come home and there’s a toad there, I think, “The Toad is back.” “Hello, Toad,” I say, “Nice to see you again.” The photographs drift past rationality in the same way. I’m not so concerned with documenting what happened. I’d rather make photographs of what could happen, even if only in one’s mind. Of course, photography has to describe, to some degree, something that actually happened. That “bothness” is the best part. 

The Toad is one of many city animals that shows up in the pictures. The way animals deal with our shared spaces is more like a photograph’s interpretation of the world than the way we go about it. It seems safe to assume that raccoons notice more in a tree than we can unaided. Yet neither raccoon nor photograph knows a tree is called a tree. Without the burden of language, space becomes feeling. 

Bucky Miller, Toad, 2017, from the series The Toad. Courtesy of the artist.

JH: I know you have previously stated that your background was in traditional landscape photography. What about this influences your more recent and non-traditional works?

BM: I think it is important to remember that photography has a pretty short history and things change very, very quickly. It is hard for me to pin down an exact definition of traditional landscape photography. But Bill Jenkins, who was my professor at Arizona State, was the curator of the New Topographics show in Rochester in 1975. Even when I was a student Bill was sick to death of talking about that show, but it still had a huge presence. I understand why; we were so close to the source. Many of us grew up in the type of endless suburbs those guys photographed, and we felt some sense of expertise with regard to their banalities. I still love a lot of that work, especially Baltz, but I understand Bill’s frustration. There just isn’t much movement. The other day I was making a comparison of how punk rock stopped mattering once so many people embraced the aesthetic. Maybe Robert Adams is the Sex Pistols. They just stopped doing the Warped Tour this year. The timelines match up perfectly! 

JH: Many viewers of The Toad commented on the limited color palette of the photographs in the exhibition. Can you speak about your limited use of color and its meaning in the work?

BM: Digital photography does funny things to the world. I don’t really mean to limit color, I just want the pictures to talk to each other. There’s some latitude in how you work up a file. 

JH: Many were surprised to learn that you deal primarily with contrast and color/light balance, choosing to limit changes to as-shot photographs. What can you say about your relationship with digital manipulation in your work?

It’s a tool like any other, to be used responsibly and when necessary. Every photograph ever made is a transformation to some degree. I try not to make technical rules for myself. I’m still amazed at how strangely the world can come together in a regular old “unmanipulated” photograph. 

JH: One of the most exciting components of The Toad was your unconventional use of the gallery space. Can you talk more about how you think about spaces and what drew you to our space at Jonathan Hopson?

BM: There’s a tricky balance. It pains me to think of an installation potentially overshadowing the actual content of the photographs, but I love to take advantage of an unusual exhibition space. Ideally the two elements work in harmony. Some of the moves are planned but a lot of it happens in the moment as a response to what’s going on in the space. The fact that you have old walls at Hopson and everything goes up with velcro encouraged me to hang stuff perpendicularly to the wall. It comes back to that point about a raccoon’s understanding of a tree. I wish I could get there. 

I like to think about exhibitions as if I’m making a big book on a wall. People are doing really exciting stuff with book design; for instance, I love the subtle unease of the way pictures move around in Fumi Ishino’s book Rowing a Tetrapod. Meanwhile, a classic book like The Americans, where each spread has the same layout, with caption on the left and uniform-sized plate on the right, carries certain connotations. It’s weighty, it’s mannered. It indicates the equal importance of every photograph. It’s like printing everything the same scale and hanging all the prints in black frames at eye level, which might be the method of installing photographs that feels the least like being in the world. I really want to do an installation like that soon. I mean, I’d also like to do a show where every picture lays flat on the floor. There are so many possibilities. 

JH: You are probably the only photographer to create a sculptural installation on the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston lawn, can you talk more about the selection and curation of those specific photographs?

BM: Bill Arning, the director of CAMH, approached me about putting art outside the museum. I sent him a handful of options for photographs I thought might work, then collaborated with him and Patricia Restrepo to come up with the final edit. They thought it should be “animal heavy,” which made sense to me considering actual animals would probably happen upon the outdoor work. I put the photographs in the lawn on wooden signs. They look like trailhead markers, but instead of guidance, you get a raccoon or a blurry goose.  

I called the show Two Raccoons, which I guess extends the Animal Trilogy into a trilogy plus one. I might never entirely escape animals. That would be fine. Not only are they pretty useful for what’s going on in the work, but I just love them. It’s worth paying attention to animals. When I taught at the University of Texas, I would get really distracted by a squirrel that sat in a tree outside the window of the photo seminar room.  

JH: I think we have to mention the sculptural goblin guys from the show. Can you give some background on them and their inclusion in our show?

BM: They show up in a photograph too! I make these figures out of an air-hardening clay that I’m pretty sure is intended for schoolchildren. They’re all around 2 or 3 inches tall. I bet I’ve made about thirty. I call them goblins, but people have called them elephants, gnomes, and gremlins too. All those labels work. I especially like gremlins in the World War II sense. 

I put one of them in the Hopson show to act as a witness and good luck charm. I wanted it to be a stand-in for me when I wasn’t around, so I picked the one that I think looks the most like me. When you’re in the show, I’m there as a goblin watching you. It’s a surprise link between our world and the world in the photographs. I like to give them as gifts to people, especially when one reminds me of someone specific. But I never mean to model them after anyone. 

Bucky Miller, Goblins, 2017, from the series The Toad. Courtesy of the artist.

JH: And in the vein of self-portraits, can you explain the story behind “Self-portrait” (the name of bread piece)?

BM: Titles for individual photographs are strange and difficult. They can kill the picture if not handled well. I don’t like them. Sometimes I change the name of a photograph depending on what other pictures surround it. Photographs of known dogs are easy because they get to be called the name of the dog. In those cases I’m never worried about letting people go behind the curtain, because I’ve known several dogs named Emma and none of them are anything alike. With “Self-portrait,” I got really close to giving too much away. But I ate that bread, and that is my car. I was in a really bad mood that day. 

JH: In photography, there seems to be a lot of references to an artist’s “eye behind a lens.” What do you think of this concept and how do you feel the lens alters or does not alter your reality?

BM: Photography is so many things. It’s probably something different for everybody, which is great. I want photographs that tell me something I don’t already know—something that I can’t learn just by going to the place where the photograph was taken, or meeting the person in the photograph, or whatever. It’s the filter I use when I’m looking through my own work to decide whether a picture is successful, but it’s also a good indicator of how much I’ll be able to sink into any photograph. A lot of the artwork I really love looks nothing like mine, but invariably it reveals those unknowns. Reality is going to keep on chugging along no matter how many photographs are excised from it, but at its best, photography can open up huge worlds for us. Worlds beyond language!  

I’d like to come back to “bothness,” which I mentioned earlier. It’s not a word, which for talking about pictures seems ideal. Bothness is one of the reasons I love photography so much. Whenever I start picking apart what photography is, in any context, I always end up thinking, “Well, it’s both!” Photographs are documents, but they are also transformations. They are spatial, but flat. They are both intimately tethered to the personal experience of the photographer and, once released into the world, independent of that person’s thoughts. Fact and fiction. A part and a whole. Passive and aggressive. Both both. It’s kind of an old idea, but I think reminders are sometimes necessary. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that photographs are completely of our reality, but also something entirely separate. 

JH: Who are your top three favorite non-living photographers and your top three that are?

BM: Dead people? I remembered Florence Henri recently. She is one of my favorites at the moment. Lars Tunbjörk’s Office matters a lot to me. Third is Eugene Atget, who is perfect. 

My favorite living photographers, the ones I find most motivating, are my friends. Our conversations are the foundation for everything I do, and I’m sad that so few of us live in the same places these days. I can’t name just three, and I’m bound to forget someone, but they include Cory Fitzgerald, Anika Steppe, Lily Brooks, Michael Lundgren, Mike Williams, Nidaa Aboulhosn, Christian Filardo, and Anne Clare Rogers, who is a sculptor, but who sneaks enough photographs into her work for me to count her here. 

JH: If you woke up tomorrow and the whole concept of the camera vanished – there was just nothing related – what kind of art do you think you would create?

BM: Easy. I would build, write, and perform in a traveling puppet theater.