Redefining the Borderlands
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena for CALAMITA/À
Rob Stephenson’s work has been exhibited at numerous galleries and museums including The Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Jen Bekman Gallery, and The Museum of the City of New York. He has been awarded the Design Trust for Public Space Photo Urbanism fellowship and a 2013 NYFA Artist Fellowship and has been a darkroom resident at the Camera Club of New York. His first book, From Roof to Table, documenting the urban agriculture movement in New York City, was published in 2012. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
CALAMITA/À: Are there any photographers or movements that have influenced or inspired you? Where can the roots of your work be found?
Rob Stephenson: I’m constantly inspired by my surroundings, what I see, what I read, what I listen to. Sometimes its a struggle to tune everything out. From a purely photographic standpoint, my initial inspiration came from the photographers in what it is sometimes referred to as the New Color movement. Photographers like Joel Sternfeld, Joel Meyerowitz, and Richard Misrach. Their work, the subtle use of color and the depth and richness of their images, continues to inspire.
A/À: You have worked with Joel Meyerowitz. How much his personal and artistic influence has been important for your artistic career?
RS: Getting the opportunity to work with Joel has had a huge impact on my development as an artist. Pouring over his prints and negatives and, more importantly, listening to him articulate how and why he made certain images was an education in itself.
A/À: Is there any contemporary photographer that influenced you? Other authors that interest you now?
RS: Again, I think there is an overabundance of good work out there so I can’t help but be inspired by everything around me. Off the top of my head; Jonathan Smith, Bas Princen, Alec Soth, An MyLe.
As far as authors, I’m just finishing book three of Karl Ove Knaussgaard’s “My Struggle” epic, so I have been pretty immersed in his world this year. I’m also currently working on a project loosely based on the short stories of JG Ballard.
A/À: What attracted you towards landscape, urban spaces and architecture? In which way your work concern with the borderlands?
RS: I am very interested in the relationship between people and their environment, particularly in urban centers, architecture being the most overt example of civilizations at work. Buildings, by sheer dint of the amount of space they occupy, demand our attention. Even the humblest structure is dense with information, with its own personality and story. In relationship with other buildings, the possibilities multiply.
The borderlands, the edges of cities, are the clearest instances of the tension between wilderness and civilization and I’m invariably drawn to photograph there. I am as interested in the persistence of wilderness in spite of “civilization” as I am in man’s effect on the wilderness.
A/À: Referring to your book ‘From Roof to Table’. How can we find a link between New York, the local area where the work was done, and its meaning? Are you commenting on society, contemporary culture, or consumer culture?
RS: From Roof to Table, documenting urban farming efforts in New York City, is a visual index of different approaches to self sustainable agriculture in an urban environment. The project resulted from a fellowship from the Design Trust for Public Space, a non profit organization studying and working to improve public space in NYC. They tasked me with photographing the urban agriculture movement in the city and I spent a year visiting local farms and gardens involved with food production. What the project most clearly illustrates, in my view, is adaptability. It looks at the incredible ability people have to adapt to and shape their environment. One of the things I find most interesting about urban agriculture is the way it reinserts nature into the city, subverting the paradigm that agriculture is solely a rural practice and cities are incapable of sustaining themselves.
A/À: The territorial morphology, the infrastructure, the new hierarchical relationship between the city and the countryside, the ecology of cities, the climate changes, the pollution have contributed to change our perception of the world and of course the representation of contemporary landscape photography. To what extent does your work represent and reflect the present? How much importance do you attach to the social, economic, or political aspects of what you exhibit?
RS: Invariably my work is a reflection of the present, both in what I photograph and what motivates me to take a picture. By that same token I’m not intentionally using my photography to make a critique or commentary on a particular issue. I’m reluctant to attach any sort of social or political importance to my work. My principal motivation is my own curiosity with the goal of making interesting pictures and projects.
A/À: The memory scraps, the trails and the accumulation and sedimentation of layers of contemporary city onto the historical one. I think this is very much related to your lecture of urban views and the representation of the city and of its cultural landscape. Please explain.
RS: Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas and in 30 years that percentage will be closer to 70%. Cities are adapting to this exponential growth by expanding upward and outward, redefining themselves in the process. Superfund sites become luxury housing. Former mansions are abandoned and left to decay. Warehouse rooftops are converted into food production. Its a constant and necessary process of reinvention. It is this rapid evolution that I am interested in, looking at the accrued evidence of human progress, the vestiges of the former city barely visible under the surface of the new.
A/À: “People can inhabit anything. And they can be miserable in anything and ecstatic in anything. More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it. Of course, that’s both liberating and alarming. But the generic city, the general urban condition, is happening everywhere, and just the fact that it occurs in such enormous quantities must mean that it’s habitable. Architecture can’t do anything that the culture doesn’t. We all complain that we are confronted by urban environments that are completely similar. We say we want to create beauty, identity, quality, singularity. And yet, maybe in truth these cities that we have are desired. Maybe their very characterlessness provides the best context for living.”
Rem Koolhaas — interview in Wired, July 1996
Are you involved and interested in contemporary architecture? Who are the architects that most excite you today?
RS: I’m not particularly knowledgeable about contemporary architecture and architects. That said, I think Shigeru Ban and Todd Saunders are both doing interesting things.
When I am photographing a new place I am primarily drawn to its vernacular architecture. The idiosyncrasies of buildings that arise from local tradition and needs are much more revealing about the true identity of a place. I find contemporary buildings most interesting in juxtaposition with the surrounding architecture.
A/À: Colour is part of your expressive language. Why did you make this choice? How did the collective perception on colour and its significance change?
RS: Before the 60’s color was for the most part solely the domain of commercial and hobbyist photographers. Historically, William Eggleston’s show at MOMA in 1976 is cited as the tipping point for when color work came to be regarded as seriously as black and white as a viable medium for fine art photography. Of course, plenty of art photographers were working with color film before that. Joel Meyerowitz has a body of work he shot in Europe in the late 60’s using 2 cameras, one loaded with black and white and one with color and he shot the same scenes using both. He made the switch to color after that trip saying in comparison to black and white, “ it was much more elegant in the way it described things”.
All the photographers I admired when I started were shooting color so it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be doing the same. Of course, with the price of color film these days, shooting black and white is sounding more appealing and in fact I have recently started taking some pictures of satellites with Fuji Acros which has been a nice change.
A/À: What is your current project about? What’s your plans for the near future?
RS: I’m currently working on a project based loosely on the closing of the Space Shuttle program and the impact of that closure on the communities surrounding Kennedy Space Center.