Dishdrainer 2006© Geoff SmithA little over a year ago I was in need of a digital assistant to help me improve my technical skills and prints. Joshua Lutz suggested I contact his friend Geoff Smith. And I'm really glad I did. Geoff whipped my work into shape, showing me how to improve my scanning and print quality in my preparation for my show at ClampArt this past fall.
Not only is Geoff a technical wiz and a patient teacher, he's a truly nice guy and a very talented photographer. His Signal Nodes series is thought provoking and smart. I asked Geoff if he would be up for a quick interview. I was very happy when he agreed.
AMY STEIN: Tell me a bit about your series Signal Nodes.
GEOFF SMITH: The photographs in this project look at the notion of home through images that suggest or evoke rather than document. The idea is that human perception will fill in the blanks when given a set of images that poke around the edges of a subject and synthesize a notion of the whole. Though each image is fully realized, to the extent that I could make it at any rate, they do have the properties of fragments for me, that sort of "half-remembered dream" thing. Hopefully they act on memory in an evocative way for others as they do for me.
I began by looking at a stack of images that I had made over the course of a year or so that had been giving me some trouble in terms of figuring out what they were about. I noticed that I had been photographing the same types of things over and over again, things like kitchen counters and backyards. I finally realized that I was responding to these types of scenes or objects because they reminded me of places that I'd lived, not the location so much as the surfaces, objects and textures. Once I realized this, I was able to give myself a "brief" of sorts to finish the project, concentrating on areas in and around where I live now, in Brooklyn.
Another thing I noticed in pursuing this project was that if I set out to exhaustively document a place, it lost this evocative feeling for me. If I kept it to making images of things that I responded to on a less conscious level then it seemed to work, to bring up these feelings of "home-ness" for me. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I think on some level I don't have an ingrained sense of home as a place, more as a feeling or these fragmentary glimpses which the pictures try to capture. The other concept or theme that the work deals with is transmission, and I mean that in a very general sense. The idea of being transmitted oneself or of one's consciousness being sent from one place to another. Again, I think this comes of having never lived anywhere longer than about 4-5 years until after I graduated from college.
Atlantic City, NJ, View North 2006© Geoff SmithAS: What defines place for you? Location, objects, or experience?
GS: It's definitely the objects and details of a scene that put me in the mind of a place rather than the precise location. Also, the "realness" of a place doesn't matter to me as much as the details. Let me explain. While I was shooting this project, my wife and I would often, and still do, visit her grandmother who lives in Wilton, Connecticut. Wilton is what I would call "arch-suburbia," in many ways it is an archetypal bedroom/commuter community. It also has the quality of being somewhat frozen in time, looking vaguely like it could be almost anytime from about 1960 through about 1985. Now, of course, I've never lived there. I grew up in Westchester and Rockland counties in New York and eastern Pennsylvania, among other places. But, to me, Wilton looks more like the places I grew up in than the actual places themselves do, especially now. Using it as a stand-in, for my purposes, turned out to be more genuine than the real thing in terms of its ability to evoke these fragmented images of home.
More than this, I found that I often didn't really respond to a scene or object until after I had photographed it. That is to say, I would be drawn, somewhat ambivalently, to photograph a scene and then afterwards have a strong reaction to the photograph itself. I think part of what I was reacting to were properties that all photographs have: flatness, perspective, the relationship of objects to one another and to the frame's edge, etc. It was the "photographic-ness" that I found evocative.
Cable Junction #1 2008© Geoff SmithAS: Your images seem to be using visual cues to lead the viewer toward an experiential Gestalt. We are enticed to form emotional wholes from the bit and parts of objects and places you photograph. Given that we are basically a confused mashup of personal and popular culture narrative, do you believe we are capable of having 'real' experiences with place or is it all transference?
GS: The motivations for making this work were about where and when I grew up as that relates to where I live now. Others who don't share my background will probably have vastly different associations in looking at the work. Hopefully the pictures are good enough in their own right -- as pictures -- to provide a worthwhile viewing experience for someone who didn't grow up in the northeast, in suburbia, in the 70s and 80s, etc. In terms of whether or not one experience or another is "real," as it relates to place, I don't think anyone can really say. It's too bound up with memory and subjectivity. Certainly some of what I'm photographing is related not to experiences that I had per se, but more to how I remember them. Since one of the supposedly useful properties of photography is as an aide-mèmoir, and since parents tend to compulsively photograph their children as they're growing up, I'm OK with the fact that what I might find evocative about my own work is related to the extent to which they reference family photographs that were made while I was growing up.
It's interesting that you used the word transference. Where I live now, in Brooklyn Heights, is widely thought of as a the first suburb in America. Traders who worked in Manhattan would pay fishermen to ferry them across the East River to and from the original Dutch town of Breuckelen (what is today Brooklyn Heights) in what could be called the first "commute." So, in some sense I've traded suburbia as it was in the 1970s and 80s for perhaps a more genuine or authentic form of suburbia, one where the "urb" in suburbia is overlaid or integrated with the way we live now. Obviously, Brooklyn today is a large city in its own right, but I think there is probably something to the idea that, when my wife and I moved here and planned to start a family, that I wanted my daughter to have this component of what I regarded as an essential characteristic of childhood (but, again, integrated with how I want to live as an adult).