by Julie Shafer
Julie Shafer is currently exhibiting images from her project, “Conquest of the Vertical,” the result of a two year long labor of love in the California hinterland. She has graciously made her artist’s statement available for the base line. Her work has been shown at the Kellogg Gallery at Cal Poly Pomona, the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery and Andi Campognone Projects in Pomona.
When I was visiting the Redwood National Forest, I came across a small museum and gift shop. On a dim back wall, someone had posted a copy of a letter written in the 19th Century by Duwamish Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce, answering Pierce’s question of what Duwamish land was worth.
Chief Seattle knew no matter what he said that the settlers were coming and they would take his land in Puget Sound, Washington. I was struck by his words: “Every part of this land is sacred to our people, every pine needle, every drop of water, every buffalo roaming, every whale migrating.”
There was a gentle anger in his tone but brutal frankness in what American settlement meant for the tribe. In fact, he said that you’re not just taking the land, but destroying our way of life, taking territory that is literally sacred ground, because the ancestors have fallen everywhere in this land. “Ghosts have power too.” No matter where you are, there are memories everywhere.
It made me think that every single place holds a memory of something, with the millions and billions of years the earth has been in existence. We are really myopic thinking we’re alone out there, or that our experiences are all original.
In the mid 1800’s American pioneers mined the land for gold, silver and other minerals. Ironically the subsequent surplus of silver made the fledgling field of photography more affordable and accessible and enabled more experimentation and advances in photography.
Historical photographers such as Carlton Watkins were pioneers in using the new technology and chemistry to bring the American west into view. . However, Watkins framed a Utopian version of the landscape, emphasizing notions of grandeur and beauty in an open unspoiled wilderness, always photographing crisp and sharp images.
I wondered if there could be another way of looking at these spaces that have been photographed so extensively.
I created a six foot tall, plywood pinhole camera lined with photographic paper and traveled to landscapes in four California locations where boundaries were made in the mid 1800’s by American pioneers mining the land for gold, silver and other minerals.
The photographic apparatus and process I used mirrors the process used by historical photographic figures who took not only their cameras and glass plates with them, but whole traveling darkrooms (carts) so they could photograph, develop and process the pictures they shot in the remote locations. I exposed on location, then developed the 6 ft. negatives in my U-haul darkroom.
A photographic negative has a way of implying that there’s something missing right underneath the surface that you can’t put your finger on. Maybe someone died here or a battle was fought here. You can’t access that specifically but you can access that feeling, that grimness, the unknown, the mystery. Something happened here and maybe it wasn’t good.
In all the places I photographed, people were forced out: Indians, Chinese laborers, Mexican laborers. They were forced out and kept out with those borders.
In Eureka CA, I photographed Indian Island, and other federally protected lands, where several Native American tribes were evicted from their tribal lands. In one of many instances of ambush, hundreds of elders, women and children were killed but Fort Humboldt was built to prevent the Native Americans from trying to get their land back. The miners had the legality of an executive order to take whatever lands they needed for mining.
In central California, I traveled to Owens Lake which had been dried out to create the California aqueduct and that created disastrous dust storms that made living there intolerable. They were mining silver out of Cerro Gordo, a mountain in the valley, and it directly funded the expansion of the Pueblo of los Angeles, I was met by a windstorm that lasted the whole week I was there. It had been calm the week before and it ended the day I left, as if it came up just for me. It was a week of 35 to 50mph winds, with even stronger occasional gusts.
That shoot in that environment shifted my perspective on how I would ever want to shoot a landscape, which is that in order to accurately shoot a landscape, it won’t be a static, sterile sort of thing, Full of dust and dirt and water or whatever is blowing in the air, whatever is happening in that land you shoot. Otherwise it’s just about how the land looks, not what’s going on in the land or what has gone before.
I had no choice but to work with the sand. I’d take the cover off the pin hole and I’d see sand get stuck in the hole and there was nothing I could do about it, And every time I opened the u-haul door, sand would just blow in. It was a week of holding my breath, I realized I was tense the whole time, all my muscles were tense, holding my gut, just waiting for it to stop. Constantly annoying and mildly scary was the way I would describe it and waiting for it to stop, but of course it didn’t.
Looking back, I loved it. I loved working in such extreme conditions and you just surrender to it. Okay, you think, I’m just going to be dirty, all our food is going to taste like sand, its in my hair, its in everything. I couldn’t’ prevent that, so you just surrender to it.
It’s not about design or aesthetics. But in those conditions, I really began to feel connected to the land, I felt I was present, never detached. . I was out in the middle of it and uncomfortable and it just felt raw and exposed. If there is emotion in the images, it’s because of the process I went through.
In my teaching, I say to make an image exactly the way you want it to look. But in this project, it was extremely important that I not know what I was framing. Conceptually this works well with the project; I didn’t want to exert any more control over the framing and “borders” of the land, which is what had been done so extensively in the past. With a pin-hole camera, the photographer doesn’t see what the camera sees. And there was no way to use a light meter so I had to do all these calculations in my head to figure the time needed for the exposures. It got to the point where I could look at the light and just know that that it should be 25 minutes, for example.
There were moments when this number would pop in my head, I would look out and say, it needs 25 minutes (of exposure) and then I’d start arguing with myself. That was the perfectionist going, how do we know for sure, that seems awfully long. And I was doubting myself and I’d have to keep remembering that the number popped up for a reason, go with it, you know what you’re doing. And usually it was right.
But the process was long and complicated, with my traveling darkroom in the U-haul. I was able to make two of the 6 foot tall images a day and, spending a week in the four locations, it was remarkable that I shot 60 of these and kept 22.
Any photograph you take will never be taken again, in part because of the weather, changing light. (Philosophically speaking). And if my negative images were scanned, it would flatten out the scratches laid on by the sand and dirt of the location. The images have a presence, as if they’re alive, because the dust has cut through not just the paper but the silver halide.
I’ve always wanted to have a different approach, a different way of working with the camera and the negative that wasn’t simply about documenting or recording what’s right in front of you.
I knew there was a use for pin-hole photography beyond just controlling light with a small opening in a box. And I wondered if that lack of control could also be part of the subject matter, too. I didn’t want to be exercising total control of the image because the land I was shooting were places that had been controlled so extensively.
I wanted to release all of that control and just see what would happen. I was not the one dictating the borders, the camera did that. These were not carefully controlled images like so many landscapes. They were what the land gave the camera.