With his new book, The Mirror Pond, fresh from the printers, we caught up with photographer Elliot Ross to talk photography, book-making, and more.
1. How did you get interested in documentary photography?
First off, I should clarify that I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer, per se. For me, documentary photography is rooted in a very concrete time and place, while I’m trying to talk more about a larger social condition and a larger identity. I guess I would describe myself simply as a photographer. Of course, when I’m photographing people, ideas, and places I definitely stick to the ethics of documentary photography. I follow the guidelines of what it means to be a documentarian, but I would want to put some distance between what I do and what a photojournalist does. They are very different approaches. Documentary photography is more reactionary whereas my approach is more of a construction.
But as to how I got interested in photography, really it goes back to when I was 4. My grandmother gave me a camera. I had just moved to the US from Taipei, Taiwan. My family in the US were farmers and ranchers so I went from the bustle of Tai Pei to living on a very rural ranch in Eastern Colorado, where the grocery store is an hour away. It was a very isolating experience and as a result, I was incredibly shy as a child, a characteristic that lasted all the way into high school.
A camera was a way for me to process the world around me, to be present, but also to have something physical to hide behind. From an early start, the camera was always a useful tool for me and it really grew out of that. I never really considered photography as a career until high school though, when I had a couple of teachers and a mentor tell me that it could be a future for me. They saw something in what I had to offer and gave me the confidence to pursue that. And they shared their tools with me whether that be sharing the photo history they knew, technique, or even cameras to borrow. That was instrumental, without them I wouldn’t be working as a photographer in the capacity I am today.
2. What other genres of visual art or writing have influenced your image-making?
Definitely painting. In painting, there’s a lot of the same constructive sensibilities that I approach my photography with. Even non-abstract painters, who depict the direct world around them are still constructing. They’re constructing a scene that is rooted in reality and trying to reveal some sort of truth. That’s the same approach I try to take with photography, although it does vary from project to project. A piece like American Backyard, for example, needs no element of fabrication. It should reflect the whole, unaltered truth. A project like The Mirror Pond, on the other hand, is much more pictorial. It doesn’t necessarily need to be grounded in a time or place. I can take more liberties in terms of the elements that I add or remove. Not in post-production, but during the creation of the photographs, as well as how I direct the people in each image in order to construct a narrative that conveys a truth that can’t necessarily be perceived in one moment. There are certain situations and peripheral ideas that need to be built. So again, that’s how I’m different from a documentarian, it would be unethical for a documentarian to build their own narrative like that, and call it fact.
3. How do you decide which photo projects to turn into books?
I think it’s just a feeling really. For me, there’s an evolution of the work that needs to take place. I always expect for the early work in a project to never be used because that phase is more of a tool for me to figure out what the idea is in the first place. I’m always making work and then pulling on the threads that reveal themselves. I’m always photographing, but then some things kind of distill out of that – the vast majority though never sees the light of day.
It also varies with each project. In the case of American Backyard, we always suspected it would lend itself well to being a book and there are a couple of reasons why. One, the structure was very linear, literally following a line through the sand, and that inherently lent itself to turning pages in a book – just as the landscape unfolds. Secondly, there is so much nuance to the politics and identities around border issues, and the book explores some of these narratives which are overlooked by national media. In order to cover the detail that we wanted to go into and to provide a platform for those voices to speak through, it needed to be in written form. The book was the cornerstone component of that mission because it’s easy to share and distribute and lots of people can access it.
The process of making a book is one of distillation because you really have to consider the idea of the work from every angle. Whether or not a piece of work becomes a book, I almost always lay out the project in that sort of traditional format, because it forces me to carefully consider what the essential elements really are. You have to work within a very reductive process where you’re stripping everything but the essentials. What’s really cool about a platform like Blurb is that it offers a way for me to play with different concepts in a physical, tangible realm at a cost that I can afford and within a realistic timeline. I have printed layouts out in xerox before, but it’s different when you’re locked into a bound material that will determine what the final output is. It’s particularly useful in terms of sequencing and editing. I can show a work in progress to my peers, collaborators, and critics in a format that they understand because books are such a universal way of disseminating information and ideas. They create a common entry point to a piece of work. I can also watch people; how they interact with the page and the image. It’s so useful to see which images are glanced over, which ones are missed, how the page layouts and sequencing can really pull people in or miss the point entirely. It helps me to be more reactive and produce multiple iterations with new learnings applied each time.
So, whether something will definitely be a book or not, I like going through the process of assuming it will live in a printed, sequenced narrative
4. In your photo book, The Mirror Pond, the opening text reads “For a mirror pond to be a mirror pond, it has to be nearly still.” How did you arrive at this image, and when did you know you wanted to use it as the title concept?
The title concept came before any images were made. The metaphor was actually penned in one night when the idea came to me. Then I set out to create images that visually articulated that idea and that metaphor. I always start with an idea before making images, although sometimes an image can spark a new direction that can turn into a new series or at least an investigation.
5. Have you always been drawn to photograph “the quiet moments that reveal” rather than bustling street scenes? Or does your approach vary depending on the subject matter?
Yes, I’ve always been drawn to those quiet spaces. I think it goes back to my relationship with photography and it being a quiet place of introspection. I’m a quiet person in general and so that’s inherently how I approach picture-making as well. I do think that the world is so loud today and that maybe there’s more space for a conversation to be had in a quiet space. I guess I equate loud with a fixed narrative, whereas I would like my photography to be more ambiguous and the viewer to arrive at their own conclusion. Quiet things in quiet places and a quiet approach seem to do well at allowing that. As long as it’s loud enough to bring them into the page in the first place!
6. You say the work in The Mirror Pond is autobiographical on some level. What is your relationship to natural spaces and rural communities like these?
I identify with quiet spaces and natural places the most just because of how intrinsically tied the outdoors is to my origins, When you grow up on a farm you’re constantly outside, whether that’s for work or for play, so it’s an integral part of my personality and shapes what I’m attracted to today. It’s also how I recentre. Whether I’m making work or on a bike ride, being outdoors in those spaces is how I think. I’ve never been able to make work in a city, and I think it’s because I just can’t think in such frenetic places. Maybe one day I’ll find the knack of creating quiet pictures in a noisy place – that’s the ultimate challenge.
7. American Backyard is a photo book you created in collaboration with Genevieve Allison. What did you learn about creative collaboration, and how did it affect your process as a photographer?
It’s really nice having someone to share ideas with and ultimately be empowered to change your ideas. Photography is inherently such a solo pursuit that it can be refreshing to have a dialogue and thought process that exists outside of your own head. I’m definitely drawn to subtlety and nuance so it’s refreshing to be able to see the other side of the same coin and how the same experiences can be interpreted so differently. It’s great working with a writer because they have a way of distilling experience in an inherently different way to a photographer. That can help me to visualize photos that I hadn’t thought of because they’re coming at it from a different paradigm.
8. Telling a story through images takes practice. What are the most common mistakes you see new photographers make in curating images or designing their books?
In my experience, photographers often make photos that they think other people want to see rather than making photos based on their own vision and what they have to say. I think that’s the biggest pitfall that any creative faces, in any medium; wanting to be relevant, have social currency and to make work that matches that which they’re seeing is successful. And there is commercial value to that. But it can be hindering in terms of having something new to say and making original work.
Secondly, I would always want to be sure I’m the right person to tell a story and be aware of the issues of othering and sensationalizing. I’m always careful to ensure that I’m not becoming a ‘visual colonizer’ or constructing a narrative in a place I don’t belong in or have any history with. I try to keep that at the front of every creative decision I’m making.
9. What advice do you have for a photographer embarking on a photography project?
Firstly, I keep a journal and every day I write down what’s working and not working. That’s helpful because if I’m stuck and feeling uninspired it’s something I can go back to and see if there are lessons I’ve missed. That’s something that carries over beyond specific projects, and can help you get out of the dead ends that any artist can find themselves in. Having a place for reflection is important and it’s also a way to slow yourself down and appreciate what it is you’re doing.
I also really like making contact prints as the work is developing. I share them with others or push them around a table, just to see them all at once and to see if there are any narrative holes. That tactile experience can really help keep a project focused and on track.
10. When you’re not behind the camera or editing images, what other activities or routines are essential to your creative life?
Exercise and getting outside, whether I’m hiking, cycling, or just breathing fresh air and enjoying time in a quiet place. Being with friends and loved ones, cooking, reading, movies, and listening to music all help too, but moving my body outside is the most crucial escape for me.
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