Climate change is hard to wrap one’s head around as an individual, since it affects both our future and our present day. How might we use the arts to cope?
In the Main Gallery this month, Mary Lang’s show Farandnear presents a potent combination of grief and love. It’s both a stunning method of coping with the growing losses of climate change and a testament to how much beauty still surrounds us. Lang sees the “far and near” threat of climate catastrophe illustrated in physical places. It’s in her natural surroundings, both domesticated and wild.
As the Emerging Arts Writer, I sat down for an interview with Lang and one of her Kingston peers, Vaughn Sills. Sills is a photographer whose work pairs well with Lang’s. Both artists explore how we are influenced by the land and how we influence it.
In the interview that follows, Sills and Lang explore everything from their personal philosophies of photography, to the nuts and bolts of how they frame a shot.
Claire Ogden: How do you decide what’s in the frame and what’s out of the frame? And how would you define your photographic eye?
Mary Lang: I think when you’ve been taking pictures for as long as I have, you kind of know what a picture looks like. You recognize something, and then it’s just a matter of putting a frame around it.
And then I would say, with this recent body of work, the things I’m looking at or the way I’m looking at them, are a little bit different than the way I was looking at things before. Before, there was much more space and a kind of loneliness or groundlessness or emptiness.
These pictures are much more crowded and textured and complex, which I actually think is just the result of getting better at describing that kind of thing. Because I’ve occasionally taken pictures like that, over the years, but they never felt good enough. Even the work-in-progress that I showed Vaughn a year ago, I got better at seeing what I was looking at since then.
Vaughn Sills: I was thinking about how you frame a picture, Mary, and that to me, that’s one of the key things that a photographer does: the choices that they make. And this set of images feels very casual in the framing, right? it’s like, oh, you included this amount of the dahlias or this amount of the little blue clover, and the houses.
When I frame a picture I think I’m actually sometimes too orderly and too tidy in my framing. So when I look at your pictures, that is one of the things I notice and like about it.
I mean the other thing we do, besides [moving the camera right and left] is we…step forward, or we step backwards or we zoom, if you use a zoom lens. But how much to include seems to me a major decision.
ML: That’s so interesting, because I so seldom step forward, and I seldom step backwards. You know, I just have had the 35 millimeter lens since I was 23. And that’s what I see.
VS: That’s where you are so that’s what you see.
ML: Right. So I don’t usually step forward or step backwards.
VS: I tend to see a scene, and walk into the field to get a lot closer to the thing. Because there’ll be too much around it, and I love what’s around it, but I decided there’s too much of it. So to figure out what to include, what not.
ML: Yeah. I mean you’re so good at figuring out where the edges [are, and] with creating this space that is so resonant and has the right amount of detail and the right amount of space, so I just assumed that that’s what you saw.
VS: Thanks. I had a teacher once who said something that made a huge impression on me, which is: What a photographer does, it’s so different from what a painter does. We edit the world, we select and we edit. We (mostly) don’t decide, ‘oh I’ll put in a chair and a vase of flowers and have so and so sit there to do their portrait.’
Especially the kind of photography you’re doing, it’s about seeing the world and editing and selecting and choosing what to put in that picture.
ML: I would say that particularly with this body of work, the framing––because so much of what it is, is just kind of random––you know that the framing makes you say “Okay, she wanted me to notice something here.” So then, you just notice.
CO: How did you decide to pair these photographs with each other? What sort of decision making process went into that for you?
ML: Well, all along I was pretty sure that the one of the storm approaching, with the prayer flags flapping, I knew that one was going on that wall all by itself, because it just needed a wall all by itself.
VS: I liked that each piece had enough space around it. And I found myself walking back and forth across the room to look at one, and then another and then another.
I thought it was really beautifully installed in that way, and I love the size of the images which I think is a factor in that space. The pictures felt bigger to me. Maybe it’s because they’re more close-up, and they are sort of exploding out of the frame.
You know, you feel those flowers moving, going on beyond the frame, you feel the trees in front of the house going on beyond the edges of the picture, so maybe it’s something like that. I don’t know, but it’s very interesting.
CO: Can you say a little bit more about your new way of seeing things for this show? And where it might take you for your next body of work?
ML: You know when you have a show it’s like having a child, and you need to wait before you have another one. [laughs]
But I have been thinking a lot about this body of work, which is more complex. And this idea of looking through a veil or something close and something far is not the way I have organized space in my photographs in the past.
Being interested in that way of seeing things and then taking more pictures like that actually sharpens your vision. I mean you know, for every picture that’s on the wall there’s probably 25 that aren’t.
And then I think that I was really interested in this idea of things being veiled. It wasn’t until I showed work to another friend who is a gallery person who came up with the idea of farandnear. She said. “that’s the title”.
CO: What were some of those ways that the “farandnear” title informed what went in and what stayed out from this body of work?
ML: Well, there was something about wanting things to not just be beautiful.
As an example, farandnear was one of the first Trustees properties we went to right around this time last year. And then we went back in December or January right before there was snow on the ground.
And I took a bunch of really beautiful fall-color pictures of that beaver swamp, and then I took the one that’s in the Center Gallery of the tangle of tree branches.
And the beautiful fall monochrome swamp just did not make the cut.
My daughter is a journalist and there’s a saying in journalism that you have to kill your darlings. Like there’s things that you love, but they just don’t make it into the body of work.
VS: Can you tell me more about grief and love and how you see that in the images?
ML: I love the world, you know? As you do. It’s so beautiful. And at the same time, particularly things that are subject to climate change, I mean, the whole earth, we’re losing it. And I’ll be dead before the worst of it, but my children and my grandson will not be. And there’s so much grief in that.
I think that being able to feel that and not turn away from it.
Even if you don’t wallow in it, it’s not there every time you sit down at the dinner table and make a little toast to grief, but you know it’s there. It’s there in the background, and I think it makes us more awake and aware and sensitive, so that when we’re wandering the earth we just feel more.
And, it makes us take better pictures.
VS: So that may help answer my other question about how Buddhism influences you. And it seems to me that part of Buddhism is about being in the moment, right now, being really able to be in the present… but I’m wondering about your grief about the earth. What’s happening to the earth, and what will happen is more about the future in a sense, right?
ML: Not all in the future. That’s what I say [in my artist statement]…I’ve lived in the same house for 38 1/2 years. I’ve never lived anywhere that long.
Thirty years ago, the Charles River near my house reliably froze-–we have a little cove––it froze on December 20 and stayed frozen until February vacation, and you could go with the kids and skate there. Now, it is frozen for maybe four days of winter. So that’s right now.
You can’t grow lupins in Massachusetts anymore, the winters aren’t cold enough, and they don’t come back. And so I see it in plants in the garden, too.
It’s happening right now. It’s not happening in the future.
VS: And in your photographs, you feel it, you see it.
ML: And photographs, they are about now. I mean photography is always about this moment, this 1/60th of a second of a moment. But it feels like the background is the grief, that it will not be this way.
VS: Yes, and I think a photograph as well as it’s a moment of now, it’s also about the past right? Because the moment after you take it, it’s gone.
CO: And in that way, I guess, they could potentially serve as an archive. Have you thought about your work as an archive?
ML: Well, not really, no. I mean, I always think of archive stuff to be more dispassionate and scientific. But I don’t think of them as documents as much as descriptions.
VS: I don’t think they’re just descriptions. I think they’re more like a poem about a place.
And I also want to say that, even though I know this far and near comes from a place and I know from your statement that it’s because it was far from where the person lived but also near enough, that they could get there. But I kept seeing far and near in the pictures.
You had both far and near in the pictures and you brought these together into one perception.
And one of the things about photography is we have something frozen in time, and so we see this one thing. But also within that frame, we can create juxtapositions so that people can see more than one thing at a time. And so you’re juxtaposing the far and the near and I just love that you made it into one word.
You made that thing a place that is both far and near in our experience.
ML: I feel very fortunate that the name came to stand for so many things in this body of work.
CO: It sounds like that name came sort of late in the process. How did you conceptualize and shape the concept for this body of work?
ML: I had the visual organization [all along]. And I also had the idea that I wanted these beautiful, pristine landscapes from the Trustees (and there were many others that didn’t make the cut). So these were sort of beautiful landscapes that most people think ‘Oh, the landscape photographer.’
And then there were those woods in Waltham and the sort of little nothing places around the Charles River, and an abandoned nursery with the Queen Anne’s Lace.
And then my garden, I just sort of gave myself permission to put in some beautiful pictures of my garden.
Because I love my garden, although I am in mortal combat with a woodchuck right now, which happens just about every year. [laughs]
VS: I wondered if there are other photographers, any artists whose work you see as connected to what you’re doing now, this far and near concept.
ML: I see other artists whose work is about close observation of the landscape. Barbara Bosworth posts on Instagram every morning what the sky looks like, or a sunrise and then occasionally other little somewhat random, disorganized landscapes.
A completely different scale is someone like Laura McPhee who just looks at the land and landscape, and looks at it long enough to understand…not exactly what it’s trying to say, but what is important.
VS: I was thinking how different this work is than, say, Ansel Adams or the classic landscape, which is more at a distance and sort of formal and elegant and not as close.
And the people you just named are all women…and it’s not totally true, but it’s one of the things in my work. But women are often gardeners. And there’s a willingness to look at the detail and the complexity and the messiness.
ML: And the intimacy.
VS: The intimacy, exactly. That’s intriguing. And it may be even more contemporary too, that willingness to see the messiness. That kind of going through the woods, not that distant aloof kind of feel.
ML: I also love Robert Adams, a black and white photographer who managed to take pictures of ordinary nothing that you can’t take your eyes off of.
CO: Just one more question for you, Mary. How do you structure your photographic practice? Because I know you have certain parameters that you’ve stuck to for a long time, like you’re using the same frames and the same camera. How do you balance newness and those parameters that you stick to?
ML: Well there’s definitely pictures I don’t take any more. You know, if I’m at the ocean and it’s a gorgeous sunset and the waves are coming in, I’ll take the picture, but I’m not going to show it. Been there, done that.
There’s a new place I’ve been wanting to photograph for about three years, which is the inside of the clover exit ramp from 128 to route nine going east. There’s just something about these wild, random yet beautiful [places].
And it may turn out to be nothing. But now I’ve talked about it out loud to more than one person, so I’m going to have to do it.
Now that I’ve got the show up, the garden is in, the woodchuck is going to come or go. [laughs] Now I can go look at that exit ramp.
Farandnear is on view now until June 26, 2022.