From January 21 to April 8th, the UO art faculty members will be showing their work in The Long Now, an exhibition at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Artfrom January 20 to April 8 in Eugene. Selected works by six art faculty members will be shown at the White Box in Portland from January 24 to March 24. To highlight the artists behind the art, I’m having conversations with several of the faculty in the show to hear more about their practice.
This interview is with Dan Powell, a photographer who received his BA degree in 1972, an MA degree in 1976 from Central Washington University, and his MFA degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 1980. Powell taught photography in the Art Department at the University of Northern Iowa from 1980-1987 before beginning his current position teaching photography at the University of Oregon in 1988.
Powell has received numerous grants and fellowships including University of Oregon research awards, Polaroid Corporation purchase awards, a Maine Photographic Workshops grant, and in 1981 he received an Emerging Artists Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work appears in collections at the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, WA; Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; Lightwork, Syracuse, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; and Art Institute of Chicago. Powell’s work has been reviewed in prestigious publications including Art Week, New Art Examiner, Art News, Afterimage, and the New York Times. A comprehensive archive of Powell’s work is being collected by Special Collections, Knight Library at The University of Oregon.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Dave Amos, A&AA writer: What drew you to the medium of photography?
Dan Powell: That was a long time ago. In 1972 I took a basic photography course and really enjoyed it for the same reason it’s so seductive for so many people. You feel your creativity oozing out of your pores and that’s a wonderful thing. And it led to a study in photography.
DA: I looked through your portfolio and there seems to be a division between your landscape work and your constructed work. Why both?
DP: The manipulated work I did as a product of where I went to undergraduate school, which really encouraged a conceptual or constructed approach. Rather than taking straightforward pictures out there in the world, images were constructed and highly manipulated, treated as much as a surface for marking as an image. That work was continuous from when I went to school to get a masters degree in the mid 70s all the way through the early 90s. It evolved over a period of years and was in keeping with how photography was critically recognized during that time. That was the kind of work that constituted my practice as an artist; that was what I exhibited. The work in the landscape and images shot on European travels were really more side ventures at the time. I never really showed that work much at all. In my later years as an artist that work has become more interesting to me than all the constructed work because it is tied to place and time and personal history.
DA: Did you go to Europe to take those photos, or were you traveling and decide to take photos?
DP: What came first was the western landscape work. I am from the west and after living in the Midwest for 9 years I acted upon my affection for the land here photographically. Then came photographing during travels overseas, in the 90s mostly. I loved to travel and my wife and I traveled a great deal in the Mediterranean region. I would always take a camera and then I applied for a few grants to travel. Within a very short time photography and travel became a part of the same activity, impossible to separate. It was a wonderful union to make and I miss that a great deal.
I didn’t have any preconceptions about what I was going to shoot. We used to drift a lot when traveling. We had a general route, of course, but specifics were left open and we came and went according to our desires at the time. Photographing was much the same way, just what presented itself to me.
DA: What catches your eye? Is it light, or composition, or what?
DP: The whole idea of drifting pertains to the camera too. It is making visual sense out of what you see, or better put, seeing something that makes visual sense to you. The idea of seeing and finding something that lies outside the ordinary. Sometimes that’s very formal. Photographing itself is to create some kind of formal construct around what you see, to organize a space. It was the idiosyncratic in many cases, but not all. In my portfolio, many images may be very painterly in form; others might be more idiosyncratic, as in ‘how could that be?’ Images depend on different sets of considerations, and I always like that eclecticism in my work.
DA: There is a section of your portfolio where you juxtaposed two images. I kept thinking about what the pairs were trying to say. Is that what you were aiming for?
DP: Definitely. That work came from the early trips traveling in Europe in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Croatia and going to these fine museums where you could photograph. There was natural light and it was beautiful to photograph these antiquities. So I took it upon myself to create my own collection from that collection. To collect the collected, in a sense; to photograph books in a library or something like that. That’s why I often combine those images of antiquities with book images. They are both a text, an evolution of human consciousness through time, in statuesque form and written form. What this work was about, “The Keeping of Record” (below) was photographing an archive; this vast archive of western consciousness, a western origin myth. So I’d photograph these objects and there they were but you can’t see through them into the time itself. We can’t go there from the constraints of the time we live in. We can’t escape our present cultural skin. I took it upon myself as an artist, instead, to put another image up against it, to correlate something with it. To provide my response to the image with another image. To play with it, in a sense, in contemporary terms. To make sense out of this past archive according to the present time that I live in. This work was a culmination of the European travel photographs that I made.
DA: How has your work evolved through your career?
DP: Both activities [constructed images and travel/western land images] went on simultaneously, and one played off of the other. For instance, “The Keeping of Record” series, those dualities that were created there, are from individual images from which I had no plans to make that work. They were just other images that I shot in Europe and then later when I came home the idea occurred to me to juxtapose those images. That spawned the creation of that constructed work. One really rose out of the other, and that is true all the way through my work. Even the other constructed images, they all came from actual images, either made in the studio or out in the world. One sort of derived from the other. And many times the images from out there in the world just remained distinct. They were born whole.
DA: Besides travel, do you have other influences?
DP: In the last 15 years or so, I’ve been interested in language and cultural theory. Certainly language theory has played very heavily into my work. Word as a sign, language as a sign. It’s not just what it says but what it represents in the form of connotation. All the way through my work, even in the constructed work, a clashing of signs and symbols, words and images were important. I used to do a lot of dumpster diving when I was in graduate school. It was the beginning of the sprocket driven computer age, so you’d find these reams of computer read-outs that said phrases that made no sense. It’s language gone astray, gone awry, but you can still read it and create meaning, as in “The Flow Chart” series.
One of my foremost interests in photography is its use as a language. Of all the art media it’s probably most akin to the spoken word because of its relationship between representation and reality. A word is a replacement for the actual thing. The thing is not here to show you so I used the word to describe that thing. A photograph is the same thing. They both stand in; they’re surrogates. I’ve always enjoyed mixing those signs and symbols in my constructed work and that certainly carries over into my travel photographs and even the landscapes. Even the single images, oftentimes are complex in terms of a mix of things.
DA: Do you feel like a Northwest artist, whatever that may mean?
DP: Not at all. But I was born in the Northwest, and other than a nine-year stint in the Midwest and a year in New York, I’ve lived here. I love the West. It’s a fine place to live and a person is fortunate to live here for many, many reasons. When I came back here, I was delighted to come back from the Midwest largely because I was interested in photographing the land here. At that particular time in my career I was really involved in that, really interested in that. That was ‘86 through ‘90; they were really big years for me for photographing in the land and photographing the Northwest. Then I started traveling overseas more.
As far as being a quintessential Northwest artist, no, I don’t feel that affinity anymore since my days photographing in the land here.
DA: The Knight Library at the UO is collecting your work and creating an archive. Could you tell me more about that? It must be an honor.
DP: The Knight Library, starting four or five years ago, started collecting my work, my archive, in a sense. Over that course of time, I have donated work and they purchased others that are representative of all the series I’ve done and all the phases of work I’ve done. They’ve collected probably 1600 pieces at this point and more to come. I feel fortunate and honored. I think it fits my work more than others because of the quality of document that much of it holds; particularly there is a lot of work in Oregon and of the west. That’s mostly what they’re interested in, but in collecting me they’ve also collected all of my other work. I feel fortunate to be able to leave my work with them.
DA: Should work stand for itself, or is something gained hearing from the artist?
DP: Both things are true. I think the work should be able to operate on its own merit. That doesn’t mean it might not be combined with language, with words, as a part of imagery or in the process art making. A lot of conceptual art uses words. The work that I have in this show is heavily dependent on the title. In fact, you wouldn’t understand it completely without the titles. The titles explain the work, and I want the titles to explain the work. They’re a part of the piece.
On another token, reading about someone’s involvement in their art and why they make it and how they view it, can really inform you a lot and help you understand the work in different ways than you might otherwise. If you go into a museum and you see work and it hits you and you like it, you think certain things about it. If you go read the words, the work expands, and you probably will think different things about it and have a richer sense of the experience.
So, yes and no. I think different kinds of art work in different ways that way too, and that’s very important. One piece may need to stand on its own, and another piece must absolutely need words with it. If you see a great film and then read all about the director and the process of making it, their intention in making it, it maybe doesn’t make it a better or worse film, but it informs you and gives you more information to feed into the work.