I am intrigued by how people get to where they are in life. The choices they make that add up to where they are today. Everyone’s life has something that is worth exploring and showing visually.
I am drawn to photographing both people and locations that are more remote or rural. Many of the images in “Absence of Sound” were taken in South Dakota, where I grew up, while others are from various places around the U.S. I try to evoke the same mood/feeling whatever my location.
We all have vastly different experiences in life, my goal is to show something that otherwise might not been seen or said, to unfold a little bit of the mystery of life.
Taken over the course of a decade, the following images and stories capture people across the country with their Christmas lights.
When I was growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., my family would pile into the car at Christmastime and travel around our town looking at houses covered in lights. Personally, I would have rather stayed home and opened presents. Every year, the local paper has a map showing where to go to see light displays. The streets have names like Candy Cane Lane, Church Lane and Penguin Lane, and all of the houses are decorated in the particular theme of that street. These are by and large modest displays compared to some of the “mega displays” out there, but that’s what I knew growing up.
One year when I was visiting my family as an adult, my sister and I were wedged in the back of my father’s car when she suggested I photograph the lights. I responded that I’d be more interested in the people who decorate their homes than the decorations. We drove on, and I didn’t think much more about it.
A couple years later, I was thinking of a project to work on when I remembered the Christmas lights. My dad and niece found a few houses for me, and in 2003, I took my first shots. I was not happy with how they how turned out, so I dropped the project. In 2005, I decided to go back to Sioux Falls and try again. This time the shots were better, and every year since, I have spent the holiday season on the road with my camera.
Each year, my project grew not only in geography (in total, I visited 12 states), but also in the way I approached the project. There is a large online community in the Christmas light world. They support each other through forums, websites, and blogs, and there are certain “stars” within this group. I photographed a man in Indiana, and when I mentioned his name to others, they were in awe since he had invented a specific kind of tree with lights that moved in a swirling motion around it.
Complete strangers from all over the country have sat patiently for me while I try to conjure up some magical photographic moment that not only captures their art but also a piece of them. I would generally spend at least an hour with everyone I photographed and was often invited into their homes to hang out and chat afterwards. It never ceased to amaze me that I was allowed into their homes to photograph them and their families when they had never met me before.
I’ve come to view the decorations as a form of American folk art that the creators are constantly evolving over time. These are regular people in their everyday lives and often don’t think of themselves as creative, yet they turn out these amazing pieces of site-specific, temporary, interactive art.
They often spend months or most of the year working on their displays, often fixing things that have broken and planning how to evolve the display the following year. I have seen a lot of creative storage solutions as well. One family I photographed moves into a trailer during the holidays because their display completely takes over the inside of their home.
Many of the decorators open their homes to strangers and have thousands of people traipsing in and out for several weeks. There are often social events held for the community on these properties. Many people have donation boxes and fundraising drives to help out their favorite charities.
This takes true passion and that’s what has kept me interested in photographing these people and taking down their stories year after year. My images and words are just a glimpse into their world, but my intention is to capture their spirit.
The son of an engineer of a steam ship on the Great Lakes, my father, John, is by many years the youngest of five children who were raised upper middle class in Cleveland, Ohio.From all accounts I have heard, his home life was loving, but stern.My grandfather believed in discipline with a belt, as I believe was more common then.He was the first in his family to go to college.
He met my mother while going to school in Iowa and decided he liked that region of the country, so that is where they settled. They were both teachers for a time before he went into the insurance business. A job he liked for the most part. He can recount people and places from his work like it was yesterday – not so much memories of his three children growing up.
He moved us often until 1984 when we moved to Brandon, SD. It is a town outside of Sioux Falls, SD.For the first time in their adult life, my parents were doing well financially. This is when my father started his car spending habit, continually buying new cars before he had paid off the one he had. This would be a life choice that stays with him to this day.
Although it seemed like our lives were going well from the outside, our personal lives were another matter.My father was now in an office working at a bank instead of being on the road all of the time. I don’t believe this home life suited him and he often lashed out violently, this had happened for as long as I can remember but now it was more everyday. He and my mother were constantly fighting as he liked to rule with an iron fist and she did not share that belief.
Finally, after both of my sisters left the house - my middle sister having been disowned by my father, an honor my other sister and I would receive later - the divorce came.My father wanted to move into Sioux Falls and my mother did not, it was the final move that they could not work out. I moved with my dad into an apartment in Sioux Falls.
Shortly after this, my father lost his job and could not support himself or me financially. He moved in with my oldest sister. That was over 20 years ago.
Since then, he has lived with two women, both of whom he gave up his mobile homes for, which resulted in him living alternately with my oldest sister or in an apartment/roommate situation.He has gone through more than one bankruptcy. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in December of 2005 and had his bladder removed in March 2006.They were able to catch it in time and he now has a colostomy bag. He has moved various times in Sioux Falls and has had many jobs. He is about to turn 73 years old. He has no savings and has to work full-time to help pay for the medications (and that expensive car) that he needs.
To portray my father’s life I traveled with him to every location he has lived and interviewed him during our trips. I don’t believe his story is one that is new and in fact it seems to be one that we are hearing far too often. We all make decisions in life that lead us to where we are in this moment.I'm always looking to see how people grow, how they learn (or don't) from their experiences and how they survive.
In this series of images, I turn the lens on myself. To understand better who I am, how I got where I am and where I’m going. These photos start with a memory and the feeling that I get when I think of it.
I used the raw and beautiful quiet of the Catskill region of New York to recreate a specific moment that I had when I was seven years old and living with my family in North Dakota. I was walking home when it was just getting dark on a windy night in October. I remember feeling slightly scared and a little chilled. I was hurrying to get home so I could shake that feeling, but I had a slight pause as I knew that my home was not a place where I would feel the safety I really needed.
Every Fall I catch this feeling going through me and I wanted to express it in a visual way. I started looking around for places where I felt this. I then set out with my 4x5 camera and a strobe light to further enhance this feeling of un-realness. With these additional elements I am adding depth and a shift in perspective so the pictures have a more dream-like quality; giving them the allusion of looking like miniatures or perhaps a child's toy.
Where do I start, Where do I begin
Starting when I was a small child, I would often have periods of time where I felt completely unconnected with the rest of my world.
Even as young as 5-years old, I would have visions while awake that I was only dreaming my life and I only had to wake up to get to my "real" life.
These images reflect that time, serving as a visual memory in a haunting and beautiful way.
I started this portrait series in 2009, shooting in a studio in Brooklyn and my apartment, and completed the project during a residency at the NY based chashama in 2010.
I work closely with each sitter to create a personal setting with props and costume, allowing each subject to tell his or her own vignette. My inspiration is drawn from circus portraits and vintage photographs, combining qualities of both to create a portrait for the 21st century.
Actors in their unique dramas include: “Fencer,” in white, with a foil propped against her shoulder; the “Baker,” caked in flour and presenting a rolling pin like a weapon; a huckster with slicked back hair and a pencil thin mustache; and a smirking, sexy “Carney” with one hand on a carnival wheel of fortune, and the other on a jutting hip.
Some subjects are whimsical, like “Drifter,” showing a boy playing a tiny guitar, with knee socks and romper as white as his tow head. Others convey mystery, such as “Postpartum”, whose subject is a new mom in bathing suit and hair curlers, gazing downwards, as a basket of baby dolls sits next to her on the floor.
We think we know these characters with one glance, that each is somehow defined by the activity they represent. We all engage in activities and pastimes to both differentiate ourselves from one another, but also to connect to a community. In the end, my stunning, soulful portraits sometimes depict humor and irony, and always, a deep longing.
Caution Slow Children
One of my favorite past times growing up was riding my bike. I had a red Schwinn BMX dirt bike. I wasn't allowed to actually get it dirty but I had free reign to go anywhere on it.
I would ride to various friend's houses, sometimes 10 miles away, for the day or weekend and have my parents pick me up or ride home. This exhilarating freedom gave me my own time and independence, I could go further and faster than on foot!
There is an interesting perspective that you gain being on a bicycle, you see things you might not normally see. This is true in Reflection 1, of the dock floating the water, and Clothes Line, with a rope strewn across a bloom of trees; both hint at a human presence in an otherwise untamed landscape. The images remind us of the familiar and intimate in quiet scenes.
To this day, I'm an avid cyclist. These images were taken along a route that I ride often, recreating the fascination of what I can discover alone on my bike; seeing things that others might not and reveling in the joy of the ride.
When I moved to South Dakota at the age of nine, it was the first time I had lived in an area that was so populous and it's when I first noticed sub-divisions. Although our house and the two next door looked alike, we started to see whole developments where the houses seems identical, or there might be 3 or 4 different types of houses in a community of 50. I often wondered if anyone walked into the wrong house.
I have photographed two of these developments, one in Sioux Falls, SD and one in Mizzoula, Montana. I was interested at looking at each house like a person, and wanted to compare their portrait with one of their neighbors to see the similariteis and differences in their features.
Throughout my exploration with photography, I have always been interested in seeking out how people create their identities -- how they present themselves to the outer world and how they define themselves in their private lives.
In 2005, I was granted studio space in chashama’s artist residency program in downtown NYC.I used my time there to make portraits that capture the subject’s individuality as they express themselves in a visually creative manner. They were asked to construct a personal statement space where they could bring props and I supplied all of the art supplies and paper.I kept the lighting simple so what really stands out is the subjects personality and creativity.
At first I tried to stay out of their space, only guiding them when they were stuck.Some people needed no guidance while with others my input was much greater.Towards the end, I was expressing my opinion much more to try and get the photo I was after.
This was the first time that I really thought about visually expressing identity, a theme that is carried out through all of my following work.