In a classical sense, the word ‘landscape’ evokes images of picturesque views, rural scenery, and extensive vistas. Photographer Wayne Gudmundson sees beyond this simplistic definition and employs landscape photography to explore his personal and geographical history. He has spent decades visually investigating how landscapes can represent both past, present and future generations. Following a retrospective show in 2007 and a television documentary in 2009, Gudmundson discusses a variety of photographic aspects, from literary influences to planning an exhibit.
How and why did you first begin photographing?
“I know how to use the camera, but what do I point it at? What exactly do I point it at?”
I was in the navy, stationed on Guam, with very little to do. We could get good deals on cameras and audio equipment. I didn’t have the money at the time, so I bought a 35mm range finder called a Petri. I had a friend who was shooting with a Nikon 35 mm and he showed me how to use it.
I remember it was Easter morning and I was staying at some friend’s who worked as security guards at a hospital annex on Asan beach. I put some color film into the camera, went out onto the beach, and I distinctly remember being struck by this profound thought, which was: I know how to use the camera, but what do I point it at? What exactly do I point it at? And that has remained the question ever since.
I have another very clear moment of recollection. I was sitting on a ship in my office at a clerical job, looking through a popular photography magazine and I remember seeing a story about a place called Center for the Eye, in Aspen, Colorado. There was a picture that showed 3-4 young women, young guys, sitting in casual positions having a drink, talking about photography. And here I was with 1100 other guys all dressed the same, sitting on a humid, hot island in the South Pacific. And I said: I’m going there when I get the hell out of here.
So I got an ‘early out’ to attend college, which meant I got out 90 days early to attend college. And I went to Aspen and signed up for my first photo class. I spent the winter of ‘72 in Aspen and met a guy named Peter deLory who, in 10 minutes, checked everyone’s light meter, asked if we knew how to use our camera’s and once we had, said, “Let’s talk about photography.” And I thought, up until that moment, that that was all there was: how to use cameras and light meters. In ten minutes he had gone through what I thought the next two months were going to be about and then we got into the fine art of photography. He was a mentor for me and turned my head around.
How would you define the difference between just taking a photo and making art?
It’s something I used to think about more and was much more militant about how I explained it. Now I’m less interested in championing that difference. But briefly, taking a photograph is a much more passive, casual act. But to make a photograph suggests much more of an active participation in what’s there and I think implicit in that is an understanding of what you’re looking at. What is out there? What am I looking at? It’s a cerebral understanding of the literal subject matter, but your response is much more creative. It’s a response to an informed understanding of what you’re looking at.
Where and how do you print large format images?
“There are very good apples and very good oranges. I just happen to like a very good orange.”
I thought that with digital photography coming in, at some point I would make the jump and start to print things. But of late, I’ve realized that how much I really like making the fine art print and how much they have a different quality. It’s kind of like apples and oranges. There are very good apples and very good oranges. I just happen to like a very good orange.
I shoot with a 4 x 5 camera. I now shoot with T-MAX 100 film. I develop it so I get as fine a negative as possible. And I can do one, maybe two prints a day if I’m really rolling.
It’s really hard work, so in the last five years I’ve taken on an assistant who works with me on the big ones.
I have two darkrooms. In one, I develop all my film and can print up to 16 x 20 inches. These are all fiber based, archivally processed, selenium toned, etc., so they will last for as long as possible. And those are just the traditional silver prints.
When I first started to make larger prints, I went out and worked with a master printer in Boston. I watched how these prints were made and when I got back, I looked at the prints and thought ‘Well, they’re pretty good, but they’re not how I would print them in my darkroom.’ Then I started wondering how I could print them. So, I built a darkroom which is approximately 22 feet by 22 feet, at our lake cabin. The enlarger is mounted on the wall. I project the images onto the floor. I worked with some photographer friends to fine tune the process.
These are 30 x 42 inches, that’s the image size, and the paper comes on 100 feet x 48 inches. So I roll it out, cut it up. I made my own easel; made my own developing troughs. I don’t have room to have monster trays, so it’s a technique of rolling the paper through the chemistry, then moving it to the next, and so on. The margin for error gets less and less because anything that is slightly off will be compounded when you enlarge it to that level.
Can you speak to your transition between black and white to digital, in your own work and in teaching?
It’s hard to talk about transitions mid-way; because I really am midway. I will be teaching digital photography in the fall, for the first time. And so that is requiring a little study on my part, which isn’t bad. From an academic standpoint, the pacing of those classes will be different – there will be a different flow to them. But I will treat that technology the same way I taught the other technology.
What kind of approach do you take for teaching photography?
“Art has to be informed; it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”
What I tell students is that learning about photography and making pictures is much like being a poet and having a Macintosh computer. You have to master the technical stuff in order to write a poem. But if you can’t master the technical stuff, then you can’t output your thoughts, feeling and emotions. Poets don’t talk about the computer; they talk about the poetry. That’s what is important. The rest is just a means to get your work out there.
The other thing I tell people is that the history photography, the history of our culture, is extremely important. It is as if you were talking to a class in British Literature. The assumption would be that you would be reading the work of those people who made significant contributions to the literature. The same with photography – we are unique individuals, but we all have a history and there is a reference to these things and it’s set in the place. You pick your position and you make your statements, but you have to be aware of what has gone on before. Art has to be informed; it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
How do you explain your photographic attachment North Dakota and Iceland?
I wasn’t aware of it initially. I started photographing the landscape because I was doing a documentary project set in northwestern North Dakota. We photographed an oil boom, we produced an exhibit, and did a book and then photographed German-Russian grave-markers across North Dakota and I found that to be very interesting. I came to like the idea of making simple photographs that dealt with form and composition in certain ways. Slowly, I started to think more and more about this place as home. I started to think about what my attachment is and what my ancestors had thought about this place.
I realized it had a lot to do with those that had come before me. Wallace Stegner is a writer from Canada who wrote ‘Wolf Willow.’ He lived out on the plains and he wrote a book about his formative years. “Expose a child to a particular landscape at his susceptible time and he will perceive in shapes of it until he dies.” This means that for some people, who have been exposed to a particular landscape, there is an imprint. That landscape becomes your own and all other landscapes are compared to it. So, if there is an imprint, as I think there can be in some people, and certainly with me, there is something of us tied to that place. Maybe that imprint can be passed on, I don’t know. But nonetheless, there is a tie. In some ways, that has fueled my interest. My work in Iceland wasn’t a big jump, since I have Icelandic ancestors.
What have you been working on lately?
My most recent project is entitled “A Song for Liv.” I’ve been working on this project since 1993 and have gone through many renditions. I’m very close now to finally wrapping it up. It will be my 10th book.
Essentially, it is my diary excerpts, made while traveling, combined with some reading, research and thoughts about place, landscape and family. These excerpts are juxtaposed to a photograph of mine taken at that place.
South of Mount Herdubreid
I’ve kind of gone full cycle during that time. I’ve made regular trips to Iceland, up to Canada, to the Faroe Islands, to Ireland, England, and Scotland. A couple summers ago my final trip on this project was to Norway. I’ve traced my ancestors back to 825 AD, to man named Grimmur Kamban, who was the first settler of the Faroe Islands. He is 28 generations my senior. I haven’t documented each and every ancestor, but I’ve picked places where I could glean some information.
Here, my interest in landscapes comes from a book by Bruce Chatwin called “Song Lines.” He wrote about the aboriginal people of Australia who are nomadic and travel around. In order to keep track of their wanderings, they make up a song. The song relates to the topography of the land, the physicality of the landscape. So they were walking three days before they get to a river, and they cross the river, and they approach a mountain; it’s like a road-map.
What makes it interesting is that built into this objective description of the land are personal notes, like so-and-so breaks a leg, or a child is born, or someone dies. It’s a map of their sense of that place. The kicker is that they felt the landscape would die if this song wasn’t sung. The implication of that, of course, is that it is incumbent of us to sing our song. Our song has to do with our history, our map, and then passing it along to someone – and I to my daughter.
What does it mean for you to be both a photographer and a writer on this project?
For me to be a writer is a new experience and I found that very challenging.
I had worked on two books with a poet by the name of Mark Vinz, which was pairing my photographs with his poems. And I’ve always liked poems because I think poetry and photography, at least the kind I’m interested in, work the same way. They have a limited period of time to sketch a picture and then you have subtleties within that. They are both ways of making these singular but layered images. When I was doing these books with Mark, I had read all his poems and I would have all my photographs and I would make the pairings.
I became very interested with not using photography just to illustrate something, but having it be on the same sort of level. How do you pair a photograph and a poem? You don’t want a picture of an apple and then the poem to say, “Here is an apple.” You want the poem and photograph to have some distance between them, but to have some level of resonance so they play off one another; so there is a synergistic effect; so it becomes bigger than you intended originally. So maybe there is a dissonance there, maybe a harmony, or maybe they are going in a parallel direction. Sometimes they seem very bleak and distant but there is always some kind of connection: it can be playful or run the gambit of emotion. It’s not an obvious connection all of the time.
How do you select photographs for an exhibit?
You take one photograph and it may have some meaning and it can be a single image. But then you take another photograph and place it next to the first. You can’t not make a connection between the two. You put two pictures side by side, as humans, we have to make some connection. So then you have the connection from one to the next. So, we have photograph 1 and photograph 2, then let’s say the letter A is the relationship of 1 to 2; so you have three images up on the wall, when you actually only have two.
Then you put the third photograph up and you have the relationship of 1 to 2, which we call A, and 2 to 3, which we’ll call B. But we also have the relationship of A to B. So the possibilities get pretty interesting.
If you have a mini-exhibit, you run these photos across, in our culture it’s left to right, and it can become like a musical score. The music can get louder and softer and come to some kind of climax; patterns can reappear. And that’s a photographic exhibit.
Campsite in Drekagil Askja
Does this selection process change in order to make a book?
When you do a book, it’s a different beast. Instead of looking at the wall, you’re holding it in your lap. It’s much more intimate. You have an image on the left and an image on the right. These two have some relationship to another, but you can page through it, much like an exhibit, and it has a continuation. However, when you turn the page, you always notice the photograph on the right first, not the one on the left. So it’s not exactly 1 2 3 4, it’s more 1 2 4 3…so it’s a different thing.
To do a book and an exhibit based on the same body of work became very interesting because you have all these fun little problems to address and play with. So I think creatively, that has really held my interest. I still respect and love the fine art exhibit, but I’m also really interested in the book as art. The book, just the like photograph, has its own properties; you have the tactility of the paper, the quality of the printing, the quality of the scans, the typography and all these other issues. It’s much more intricate and complicated.
East of Abercrombie
You live in the small town of Moorhead, Minnesota. As an artist, when you live in such places, how do you find photographic community?
Initially, my wife and I worked at a community arts studio and we met other young artists. We were in our late 20s, early 30s. There was about 8-10 young photographers; we would all throw in a couple hundred bucks and decide which other photographers we wanted to bring in, such as Peter deLory, Frank Gohlke, Wes Disney, Gary Halman, Charles Harbit, Chris Cardoza.
We would take some time away from work, immerse ourselves, and spend time with this one, noted, much more experienced photographer. It was great because I was primarily the one who organized it, so these photographers would stay at our house. I was lucky enough to get to know these people much better.
One of these people, Peter deLowry, was my early mentor from Aspen, Colorado. So he came back and it was great to catch up, to share my work with him. Frank Gohlke was a reference from Peter. He first came for a workshop in ’79 or ’78. Frank has since become a mentor and now a close friend who I see on a regular basis. That was a way of building a community in a small town where it just didn’t exist.
Praire Public Televison is in the process of making a documentary about your work. How did this come to happen…?
I did a retrospective where I worked with the Plains Art Museum for five years. Working with the curator there, Rusty Freeman, really gave me the chance to come to terms with what made my photography tick; looking over 35 years of making pictures, seeing what my photographs are really about. He asked the tough questions over and over again and I had to explain to him what was there.
In the process, I ended up dividing my work into six different categories. The early work, which was very much influence by Edward Weston, Minor White, and Paul Capenegro. I think it had to do with a formalist consideration of space, with a little mysticism thrown in. The second body of work had to do with something Frank Gohlke said to me, in one of these workshops, which was: “You’re a funny person but I see very little of that in your work.” And that comment really made me think.
If our photography really is in fact a reflection of who we are, then mine wasn’t really reflecting who I was. It was that afternoon that I went out and photographed a dog peeing on my Volvo. The license plate says EEZE and this old black lab had one leg lifted and these steely eyes staring at me. And I thought this is a very funny photograph. The license plate was referring to how he felt, rather than how I felt about this process.
So then I took a body of work that had to deal with curiosities. I wouldn’t say humor because that’s in the eye of the beholder, but they are curious events nonetheless.
Dog and Volvo
Then, when I picked up a view camera in 1981, I started photographing primarily the North Dakota landscape. I went project to project, because I needed a deadline. I came to realize that it was that landscape that I really liked so I did a book called ‘A Long Way to See.’ Then I did one on Finnish log structures in northeastern Minnesota, a couple books combing my work with poetry…and I worked with an Icelandic photographer, but this retrospective was a way to pulling it all together.
I had an opportunity one day to explain the work to the Director of the North Dakota Arts Council. She was interested in the fact that I was born in North Dakota and photographed almost exclusively in North Dakota. She was interested in my work as a North Dakota artist, which I don’t think of myself as, but I guess I am.
So then, she helped with underwriting this exhibit and this publication. The exhibit will go to Reykjavik in about a year’s time. It will also go to the capital of North Dakota, Bismark.
While this was going on, I got a call from Public Television asking if I would be interested in having my work be the subject of their first documentary of a North Dakota artist. They said, “We want to follow you around and make video of you doing what you do and recap your photographic life.” I was flattered and a little humbled, but I said it would be great, but explained to them that I’ve been photographing a lot in Iceland. And he said, “Well, let’s go to Iceland.” And the deal was on. It was a trip to Iceland on their dime, which was one of my favorite places in the world.
Liv, my daughter, was working in Reykjavik that summer. She took some time off and she joined us. Then, we needed an all-terrain vehicle and hiring one was hellishly expensive. I said that my good friend Gudmundur had such a thing, maybe he could take some time off from his commercial work and join us as a guide. So, it became a family trip.
Solstice on the Arctic Ocean
We travelled around Iceland, to the places I wanted to go to. My daughter was there and I’ve been working on this ancestral landscape project, so in some way that was a subtext to this trip. Then I wanted to see a good friend of mine, Bill Holm, with whom I’ve done a couple different projects. So we went up to Hofsos, to interview Bill. He had just done a book called “Windows of Brimness” and Brimness is the name of his house in Hofsos. As far as I know, it is the only interview Bill has done in this cabin.
It was just a great trip. We had beautiful weather and made a lot of images. We got back and this last winter has been challenging. A lot of things have happened with my personal health and my mother’s death. And then the day we buried my mom, I got a call that Bill Holm had died.
A couple weeks later, the television crew called and said they had great footage of Bill talking about his poetry in Iceland. They asked “Would you be willing to narrate the piece on Bill?” And I said I’d be happy to. So that will be a half hour special.
In the meantime, they got some good footage of me and my daughter, digging into family places and ancestral landscapes. So, now there are three programs that I’m working on. It’s been fun. It has given me the chance to indirectly wrap up a project that Bill and I were working on, but never finished. It’s all a wonderful layering and inter-layering. None of this is anything I’ve really cooked up. One thing has just lead to another, which is very satisfying.
Interview by LG & RD