As Seen From the Street: Tom Wik

If you’re a fan of the vernacular landscape viewpoints of Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander, you’ll no doubt experience a similar attraction to the work of Tom Wik. Focusing on his own American, and especially Minnesotan, neighborhoods, Wik picks up on the architecturally and visually quircky scenes that surround him. Inspired by well-known photographers, his work as a building contractor, and his collaboration with other artists, Wik shares with us his very down-to-earth approach to photography.

What is your background in photography?

The spark was my discovery of Robert Frank’s The Americans. I still find that book moving. It revealed to me the power of straight-ahead observation. It opened things up for the work of Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, photographers who’ve shown me it’s possible to have your own distinctive way of looking at the world without imposing on the world.

Minneapolis, MN 2011

Does your work as a building contractor somehow guide your eye as a photographer?

It does. Some of the things I see are amusing only because of what I do—you develop an eye for things that are “off.” Trained to see things architecturally under control, there is a sort of delight in seeing irregularities, the oblivious unconcern for the ordinary conventions of composition, materials and the grooming of buildings.

West Palm Beach, FL 2007

Your series “Minnesota” is composed of images based in the vernacular landscape, with a nuance of humor. When grouped together, what does this collection of Americana evoke for you? How do you hope viewers will read these images?

The same way I view them, with puzzled and slightly perplexed affection. The American dream is to have a house and a yard of your own. My photos show the strange and off-kilter ways that the dream comes to life. It’s a tough thing to verbalize. If I could hang out with someone for a few days, walk around and look at stuff, they would get it.

Minneapolis, MN 2011

The humor element is even more striking with the juxtapositions of drawings and photos in your project “domestic dysphoria.” Here we see some familiar images, but in an entirely different context. Why employ United States patents as counter points to your images?

The patent drawings, produced to conform to strict bureaucratic procedures and pictorial guidelines, are funny in and of themselves. The language used on the applications to explain the intent of the inventions is unintentionally hilarious. There is an underlying lunacy to the inventions. They play to the country’s paranoia. As if these devices and contraptions will keep us safe from the fear, uncertainty, and doubt,(FUD) the background music of anxiety, marketed to Americans around the clock.

Your photos of the vernacular reappear and merge with other visual subjects in the project “A Song of Hiawatha.” What was the impetus for this collaboration with John Johnston?

I like to photograph close to home. John and I are old friends; we have been photographing the Longfellow neighborhood for over ten years. Last February we completed the first phase of a documentary project on Longfellow, my neighborhood in Minneapolis. We recently produced an exhibition from this work, along with a book with a selection of images and an annotated history of the dubious relationship between Longfellow the poet and Longfellow the neighborhood. The book, Longfellow Minneapolis, A Song of Hiawatha is currently in the exhibit, “DIY: Photographers and Books” at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Minneapolis, MN 2011

Tell us about “Yapster,” an image-less kind of tool on your website that is, nonetheless, all about images.

Yapster is a photo-speak generator, a cousin to artspeak. Netted from artists’ statements in the ether, it is nearing close to a million instances of willful obfuscation. I built it to defend myself from the meaningless, pretentious, preposterously overblown language that people use to discuss photography online—writing that muddies the waters.

Minneapolis, MN 2010

What photo projects are you currently working on?

At present, I am collaborating on another long-term project with John, and a mutual friend Chris Smiar, under the collective of rammingspeed. Our current project, entitled greenline, is a historical/documentary survey of University Avenue—the major thoroughfare that parallels the light rail line now being constructed to connect Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Like the Mississippi, the original line of transit between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, we view University Avenue, as a leashed river—its surface veneer and culture both in constant flux. Our day-to-day work on greenline can be found at:

Palm Beach, FL 2010

For more information about Tom Wik: