Reimagining Landscape: Q&A with Photographer Vanessa Marsh

Vanessa Marsh's "Mountain 4"
Vanessa Marsh’s “Mountain 4” from her series “Falling”

Bay Area artist and photographer Vanessa Marsh’s photographs, currently on display at San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery till February 28, are dream-like in their blending of reality and fiction. The enigmatic quality of Marsh’s work is due in large part to her unique processes. Experimenting with several mediums, she is able to transcend realism through subtle manipulations of proportion, lighting, and perspective, without resorting to abstraction. In some photographs (several of which were featured in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 98), she uses models to create miniature scenes. In Man Chopping Wood (2011), for example, a stiff little figure on a lumpy hillside raises an axe above his head pre-chop. The figure’s slightly erroneous proportions and the ghostly backlighting undermine and warp the simplicity of such a quotidian scene.

The majority of the Dolby Chadwick show is devoted to Marsh’s Landscape photographs from the series “Everywhere All at Once.” When you think of landscapes, perhaps you think of Ansel Adams’ black and white photographs of classic American terrain, complete with its sweeping canyons and looming boulders towering toward the camera lens. This is nothing like the world Marsh depicts. Unrecognizable, the landscape in her work has been reassembled. While describing this project, Marsh compared her technique to the shifting of tectonic plates. Our perception of a landscape can be broken down into an accumulation of several two-dimensional planes that adjust and shuffle as we change our relationship to them.

Perspective is essential to the tone of this series. Insidious yet mesmerizing, her landscapes hover above the viewer. The effect echoes childhood, when one’s relationship to the night sky was of reverence and mysticism, as the world transformed into a distorted version of itself. Marsh’s photographs capture this nighttime alienation of the familiar. Natural and man-made objects take on the homogenized texture of obscured silhouettes. Phone lines are abstracted as they cut geometric shapes into the sky above. The only objects completely exposed are the stars, the source of the photographs’ emanating silvery glow. We talked to Vanessa Marsh via email about these photographs and other aspects of her work.

ZYZZYVA: Your Landscape photographs appear to take place at night when parts of the landscape are shrouded in darkness and backlit by starlight. What made you choose this kind of lighting? How does seeing a landscape at night affect our understanding of it?

Vanessa Marsh: I am imagining a landscape where the only light is the starlight, where all other sources are either gone or turned off. In a way the lighting in the images points forward to a possibly apocalyptic future but also has a bit of nostalgia for a time when there was not so much manufactured light.

Z: How have the landscapes that you’ve known affected your photography?

"Landscape #9" (archival pigment print from photogram negative)
“Landscape #9” (archival pigment print from photogram negative)

VM: Generally, inspiration for my drawings is taken from either digital photographs I have taken as reference shots or from specific image searches online. I might be inspired by something I see in my daily life and want to incorporate a particular aspect of a landscape into a drawing (the drawings are used to create a photogram negative, which I then scan and invert digitally to a positive image). Usually I am drawn to infrastructure and trees. Or, I might have a memory of a place and want to re-create the place or the feeling of that place. For example, I had a memory of riding a Ferris wheel as a child at the amusement park Fun Forest in Seattle. I remembered being more scared on the Ferris wheel than on the roller coaster. The operator, seeing I was scared, slowed down the wheel, not realizing that somehow it was the very slowness that was frightening me. That Ferris wheel is featured in Landscape #9, and, since the park was closed, I used various photographs found online as references for my drawing. I try to always be aware of the landscape around me, and even in the most urban of settings, look for beauty in the lines of infrastructure or the silhouette of a factory.

Z: Many of your photographs are created using experimental techniques and other artistic mediums; you layer negatives and even build model landscapes and figures. Do you feel limited by the photographic medium?

VM: Not so far! My education is in many different forms of art. I’ve made sculptures in the past and taken painting, printmaking, and pottery classes and investigated how installation and sound might be incorporated into my work. I am still totally open to any of those mediums entering into the work, but somehow the end product seems to fall to photography most of the time. I am fascinated by the workings of light. So I think no matter how much I might be interested in other ways of working, that fascination and obsession with (excuse the cliché) the magic of photography–the way light hits paper, and the translation that happens when I lay a drawing down and then expose the paper to light through the drawing–is very exciting for me. In my newest body of work, “Falling,” I’ve had the opportunity to push that even further, creating color photograms from paintings done in the negative on Mylar. I have had to experiment with the way light and photo paper will react to colors and densities of color that I have laid down—also, how to use the paint, how to make a painting that will translate well into a photogram.

Z: What inspired you to begin making models and photographing them? What did you hope to capture by working on such a minute scale?

"Landscape #21" (archival pigment print from photogram negative)
“Landscape #21” (archival pigment print from photogram negative)

VM: I first started using models, just as a sort of desperate experiment. I was a couple months into grad school and having trouble finding my path. I was in the film video department at California College of the Arts and was making a sort of sketchbook with a roll of Super 8 film, just going around and shooting a few seconds here and there of whatever I found interesting. At the time I was into collecting random stuff and had a small package of miniatures that I ended up gluing to a piece of Plexi glass and filming for a couple of seconds. I was really excited by the results, and that way of making images eventually led to my thesis project, “False Horizons,” as well as the body of work “Always Close but Never Touching.”

Most of my breakthrough moments happen like that: when I am letting myself just mess around, trying a bunch of things, and, eventually, landing on one solution. The work at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery began when I decided to take some miniatures into the dark room and experiment with photogram techniques. I had low expectations, but, again, was excited by the results, and that one day of casual experimentation led to the work in “Constellation,” which led to “Everywhere All at Once” (which uses no models) and then to “Falling.”

Working with the miniatures (or the drawings and paintings) allows me to work in a totally fictional environment. My imagination makes the relationships and mood, and I think that is important in creating a space where the viewer can relate his or her own memories and dreams. To create a space that has elements of realness but where that reality is blurred.

Z: What are you currently working on? What can we expect from you in the future?

VM: I am currently working on two bodies of work: “Everywhere All at Once” and “Falling.” Images from “Falling” will be included in the summer group show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, “The Night Beings the Day.” I am also working on new images for “Everywhere All at Once” for a solo show at the SFO Airport Museum this coming November.

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