Allen Morris: Photos for a Burgeoning Century
As the answers to this highly interesting and informative interview bear out, Allen Morris, based in Milwaukee, is making marvelous new photographs that both reference the historical American accomplishments in the field and offer a new perspective. This is not to say that the artist is a frustrated modernist; he is much better than that. There is something improvisational in a contemporary fashion about his work, the black-and-white landscape images especially, while the more abstract, colorful works come across nearly as paintings. As a writer based in New York, I have regularly met up with the chauvinism of my limited geography, so it is a wonderful experience to find so gifted a photographer as Morris, working in the outskirts of the mainstream art world. This is not only praise for an excellent artist, it is also an introduction to the way the art world is changing. With the many MFA programs existent all over the States, work is being made outside of the major urban centers (the considerable art activity in upstate New York is a reminder, close by, of the many artists who are fleeing the economic difficulties of New York City). The beautiful work of Morris makes it clear that the future of art in America is no longer necessarily in its traditional art centers; instead, outstanding individuals pop up out of geographies that are either in so-called “provincial” cities and towns, or in rural areas. Morris is an example of the artist working out of locations that we don’t conventionally associate with good new art, but his existence and output prove that the place doesn’t matter so much as the person making the image.
1. You grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but now live in Milwaukee. What brought about the change of place? Did the Northwest influence you in your landscape photography, which is so very strong? You also talk about the Great Plains. Does that landscape make a difference to you?
I grew up in a small, rural town in Eastern Oregon and lived there until I went to undergrad at Oregon State University. I’ve moved around a bit over the past few years, primarily to continue my studies (I moved to Lincoln, Nebraska to pursue my M.F.A. at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln) and when I graduated I was offered a teaching position here at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. The Northwest had a very, VERY strong influence on my landscape photograph and what I thought a landscape “should be.” In my mind the land consisted of tall snow-capped mountains and enormous pine forests. Of course, I knew it wasn’t like that everywhere, but for me – that was always the sum total of landscape. This was furthered by the influence of the photographers of the American West that were so prevalent in photo history – Ansel Adams, Timothy O’Sullivan, etc. That expectation of what a landscape is was expanded a LOT during my time in grad school on the Great Plains. Again, I knew not everywhere had the mountains and forests that I had grown up with; but there was something vastly different about the Great Plains that I encountered versus the Great Plains that I had expected before I moved to Nebraska. The land is much flatter, of course, but it felt much more occupied than I had expected. Ranches and farms were more pervasive than I had expected. So my relationship with that landscape, that served as the impetus of my grad thesis “On Nine Mile,” had to evolve fairly quickly when I moved to Nebraska. And I think, even today with my current location – that relationship with the Pacific Northwest, and even the Great Plains, has helped me develop a deeper relationship with my Wisconsin home in a much faster way.
2. You are active as a teacher in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee school of art. How do you feel about teaching? Does it help or hinder you in terms of your photography?
I really do enjoy teaching! It was one of the main reasons, in addition to finding a better understanding of my studio practice and research motivations as an artist, that I attended Graduate School. I count myself as extremely fortunate that I was offered a full-time teaching position right out of graduate school and have been able to maintain that position for the past few years. The interaction with students, burgeoning artists, on a nearly daily basis really helps me understand my own work – I’ve really had to practice what I preach as it were. As I’m teaching, it’s fairly common for a conversation to erupt between myself and a student, or a cohort of students in a class, that will resonate with me and my own research. It seems that there is a particular interest these days, at least at UWM, in the ideas of Place, Home, and Identity – all of which play a role in my work in some capacity, so my students end up providing me with a lot more inspiration than I think they understand. And I’ve always fancied myself a teacher, even when I was in high school, I developed a knack for helping other students understand course material; but, at that time I was more interested in music performance and journalism than anything in the visual arts.
3. You have several bodies of work--primarily color abstraction and black-and-white landscape and urban images. How do you relate the two to each other?
For me, my work is less about the subject matter being depicted in the images, and more concerned with their symbolic or metaphorical meaning. As I began to really consider my interests as an artist, especially during my time in Graduate School, I became aware that while my subject matter had always been the land – it wasn’t so much due to a specific love of botany, or biology, or the physical sciences that are at play in the spaces that I photograph; but rather, it was that the landscape offers me a massive amount of space that I can use photographically like an actor uses a stage – I can direct space with my camera to accomplish certain compositional, aesthetic, or conceptual goals in a much more direct fashion than I could by photographing any other subject matter.
4. Your black-and-white nature photography is outstanding, often sharply contrasting areas of white (the sky) with the darker trees and foliage and bushes you shoot. Can you comment on this practice?
First, thank you for your kind words!! The black and white photographs in question were really created to cause the viewer to consider their stability and permanence within a particular space. I had begun the work in the waning months of my graduate school career when I myself was trying to figure out what was coming next in my life, so I was really tied to the work on many levels. My approach was to find a location that resonated with me for any reason at all, I revisited the space that I had captured during the creation of my thesis work, I created images based on the landscape around a residency location that I was awarded, I even made a few attempts at revisiting the landscape around my hometown – those never really worked. In each location I would capture a series of static images – stable depictions of the land that I would then composite together with motion blurred images in which I would swing the camera around in various ways to elicit the feeling of searching, or at least instability. Since the underlying idea was a bit dramatic, I felt that a strong tonal palette with strong contrast would be the best way to depict that drama. I wanted to show the space devoid of much sky – just a stark horizon line denoting the end of a place, or perhaps an end to time in a place.
5. Is there a particularly unusual technical approach, including materials, in your photography? Please describe and explain.
Primarily my work is pretty straight forward in terms of technical approach (with the exception of the motion blur photographs in the “ISO” body of work) and its materiality. But it was because of that standard approach that I began to examine my relationship with the photograph and its material in my latest body of work “The Same Dirt.” I’ve always found myself to be a bit of a process magpie – I like to collect them all and hoard them in my studio – so I took that predilection and began to explore what a photograph “could be” rather than what it was “expected to be.” To that end, I’ve been using antiquated and alternative photographic processes to create lumen print line drawings on photosensitive paper. The lines are drawn through soil samples, collected from around the United States, to leave their residue and the evidence of the hand of man behind on the image. I gave a talk at the University of Maine - Farmington in 2019 and an attendee accused me of being more of a frustrated painter rather than a photographer – maybe she was right?! The process of making images in this way is transient and temperamental in terms of color; so, in order to combat that decaying process, I scan the images digitally for printed output. I like the combination of historic and contemporary – becoming more about the photographic object, rather than the photographic image.
6. Do you see your efforts as participating in a continuum with modernism? It certainly seems so. Please indicate your thoughts about the past of photography and your relation to it.
I haven’t really considered my work in comparison to the modern art canon; but I think it’s a very astute connection. I “grew up” artistically believing that a photograph could only be one thing, SHOULD only be the one thing that those practitioners of the mid-twentieth century told us they should be. We were told that they should be well exposed, perfectly contrasted, well focused, refined photographic prints – which are all beautiful and relevant and important and what I want from my intro to photography students; but, as I’ve begun to embrace a more multi-disciplinary approach to my own work, I find myself working against those historical, conservative expectations of what a photograph is. It’s a very modernist approach. I believe that a photograph can be anything the artist wants it to be, so there is room at the light table for all of us from documentary photographers, to studio portrait artists, to photo process-based image makers – a photograph does not have to be one simple thing. I imagine at some point I will revisit those techniques and images that fit the historic expectations – but for now, I’m having fun playing in the dirt and light.
7. In your comments on your website, you emphasize the idea of home. What does the notion of home mean to you in your work?
Gosh, that’s such a heavy question for me right now. I mean, Home has always been “where the heart is” and “where you hang your hat,” but for me it has always been more than those adages. For me Home is the place that you can truly feel comfortable existing, and this is not something to be taken lightly particularly in the current political climate. It’s one thing to be “from” some place, as though a person sprang forth from the ground of a specific geography; but it’s another to feel “at home” somewhere, to feel the lightness of heart that allows for someone to feel safe, secure, stable, loved. In my work that has always been one of the underlying themes, from trying to understand my current home in comparison to the one I left (with “On Nine Mile”) to trying to grapple with the feeling of being in a temporary home (depicted in “ISO”) or to examining the borders that surround us and delineate our home versus someone else’s home with my new body of work “The Same Dirt,” I think the idea of home is always present in the art.
8. Please comment on your abstract work--how do you see it functioning in your general esthetic? You emphasize line and color, and have a strong group of efforts that are nonobjective in nature. Is the abstraction deliberate, or is it a chance consequence of your process?
I had really honestly never considered working in an abstract manner before I began working on “ISO” which became totally centered on abstraction. That body of work began with an accidental exposure on a Nebraska prairie, so in that respect it was truly the product of chance – perhaps more serendipitous than that. Despite the fact that I had not had much experience with that aesthetic, I found that it helped me understand the places that I was photographing on a more metaphysical level. In making my abstract work I have been able to see the places for what they are and what they mean in the grander schemes of life and humanity. To become aware of the lines in the landscape is to become aware of the narratives that have taken place on its surface – the wagon ruts, the tire treads, the footprints of animals and the like. Similarly, to examine the colors of the plants, of the soil of the sky (when not being obliterated in the final image) is to understand the natural processes at play in a given location – so in a way focusing my attention on those basic elements of design has helped me learn not only about the place itself, but also how I can manipulate the space photographically to achieve the results I’m looking for in my work.
9. Are the black-and-white landscape photographs tied to a particular place? Or are they poetic generalizations about the beauty of nature?
I get that question a lot – and I love that question. I think that sometimes viewers really want to attribute landscape photographs to specific areas or locations so that they can suss out a deeper meaning about the place itself; but that’s not really the goal of the black and white work. Heck, that drive to understand art extends into the physicality and process of the work itself as well – I have had many interesting conversations about the “charcoal drawing’esque” look of “ISO” in which viewers simply don’t believe that the work is created photographically…but I digress. In both bodies of Black and White work in my portfolio, images were created in a variety of locations and combined to create worlds and places that don’t exist as singular places. I wanted these images to be more relatable to those viewers who didn’t live in the specific geographies being depicted because the underlying themes are relevant to anyone regardless of where they are from. They’re more about the psychological or emotional places being discussed in the images, rather than the geographical one being depicted.
10. You live in Milwaukee, not a major city in America’s art world. Is this an advantage or disadvantage? How closely tied are you to the current art world? Do you have art contacts in Chicago, the closest major city to you with a developed artworld? Does it matter to be in contact with the established artworld?
Milwaukee is so vastly underrated; I almost feel guilty about saying that as if I might be letting the cat out of the bag. I feel that working here is an absolute advantage, the art circle here is pretty small but nourishing. I think that there is a certain openness in a majority of the venues here that one might be hard pressed to find in larger cities. Its proximity to Chicago also makes it that much more appealing since one can just hop a train and be in the Loop in just about 2 hours and at the Art Institute of Chicago Museum in just a few minutes more. I personally don’t have too many contacts with the Chicago art world; however, I am always looking for opportunities to expand my network around the nation so Chicago would be a great place to start. I think that it does matter, on some level that artists be in contact with the established artworld, but I’m also beginning to consider the ways that those areas of the planet that would historically be considered non-established are providing opportunities for artists not only in their own backyard, but in the global art world at large. I think I place that blame squarely on the shoulders of growing up in a smaller community.
11. Who are some of your photographer heroes? Why are they heroes to you?
Oh wow, there are too many to name, but I’ll try. I would be remiss by not stating from the start that the landscape photographers from the past are definitely influential; the Adams, the Westons, Annie Brigman, Margaret Bourke White, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, the artists who made it possible for us to do what we do in photography today by establishing the medium as an artform in and of itself. But I think that I’m also in awe of the contemporary photographers, and those from the recent past, who have really put themselves out there in terms of their lives and their struggles in their work – those who are trying to help shape the future of not only the medium, but society at large. I look at the work of Jess Dugan, whose amazing portrait work is helping to give voice to facets of the LGBTQ population in the United States that have perennially been underserved. I look to the work of Lara Shipley whose work about local lore and mythology are visually stunning and subjectively interesting. I also look to the work of my fellow UNL Alum Zora Murff and his photographs that also examine the ideas of Place and Home through the practice of redlining in the United States. These are the photographers who are making society better through their work – and I am forever in awe of their creativity and strength. The list goes on and on!
12. Do you have an optimistic outlook, generally speaking, for the future of American photography? Do you think it will be occurring in major urban areas, in conjunction with established galleries or museums, or will it be best expressed on the periphery?
I do have an optimistic outlook for the future of American Photography, but I am also particularly excited about the future of photographers from around the globe. Historically speaking it seems that American photographers have always been at the center of the medium; that their work, indeed our work, tends to be more readily seen in galleries and museums – and I think that the current political climate, social changes that are on the rise, and a general (hopefully) understanding of our place in the art world may inspire us to make more room at the table for photographers of different backgrounds. And I think, along those same lines, we should continue to examine the impact that centralizing our craft has on the overall availability of our work. While there is no doubt that New York, London, Los Angeles, and the like will continue to be major players in the art world, I think it is a great time to really assess the possibilities that exist in the smaller cities and towns across the country and around the globe. At the end of the day, I think our work gains power when it can be viewed, considered, and enjoyed by those in the largest cities and the smallest towns – and you never know what opportunities are available outside of the spheres of larger cities – plus, there’s a lot more land to photograph out there too.