Interview with ChicagoPhotobloggers.org

This interview originally appeared at the now-defunct ChicagoPhotobloggers.org in two parts on December 15th & 17, 2010. The interview was conducted via email by W. Vallen Graham. The photoblog the interview makes reference to, called rubbishgoeshere, is currently inactive.

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Tell me a little about yourself? Who are you? What do you do for work, fun?
I grew up in East Peoria, IL and moved to Chicago in 1989 to study painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After that I worked several odd jobs—the oddest one was Air Sampling Technician at asbestos abatement sites. Much of this work took place at vacant schools and abandoned industrial sites, which might explain the choice of subject matter in my photos. After that I started working for a library maintenance service, and I still do that today. When I’m not working or shooting, I’m usually on long meandering bike rides, making the occasional drawing or painting, or helping my girlfriend feed (and sometimes rescue) stray cats.

 

How did you first get into photography?
When I graduated from art school I was making paintings of urban landscapes, working either from direct observation or from drawings made in the field. This became more difficult when I started working day jobs, so I started to experiment with using photos for source material. I soon learned that I hated working from photographs, but that I sort enjoyed taking photos, so I just went with that.

 

What was your first camera ever? What camera did you use when you started your photoblog?
The first camera that I remember using was a plastic Holga-like camera when I was a kid. This was back when you could get black and white medium format film processed at a photo booth in the grocery store parking lot. My first “real” camera, given to me in the early 90’s, was a Canon AE-1 that I barely knew how to operate, and which I rarely used until around 2004. From that I graduated to several manual rangefinders. The first photos I posted online were shot with a Canon digital P+S. By the time I started the photoblog, I was working with a Canon 30D.

 

What equipment do you use now?
My current camera is a Canon 5dII, usually with a 17-40 zoom or 24mm tilt-shift lens affixed to the front.

 

What is on your wish list?
This isn’t exactly a wish list item, but I’d love to play around with large-format photography. But I’m afraid that I’d really like it, which would lead to more expenses and equipment purchases, so…maybe not.

 

Do you have any formal training in photography? If not, how did you learn and how far do you think you’ve come? Has the photoblog helped you grow and learn in your photography?
As I mentioned earlier, I studied painting in art school, and at the time I had no interest in photography—like a lot of painters, I was actually a bit anti-photography. Whatever I know about making photos I’ve picked up from talking to other photographers, reading books on photography, and trial and error (mostly error.) I’ve been shooting semi-seriously for 4 years now, and while I think my work has improved, I still feel like a beginner.

I have gotten a lot of feedback from posting my work online, and that is always encouraging. Just knowing that there are people following what I do has motivated me to keep at it.

 

How would you describe your photographic style?
I’m mostly interested in just making documents of the places that I shoot, so I try to avoid getting too “artsy” or abstract, and I keep the post-processing to a minimum. I don’t want to use the same devices that a lot of other “urban ruins” photos use like overly dramatic lighting, weird angles, and Photoshop abuse. I want to keep it simple and straightforward.

 

What aspect of your photography would you like to improve upon?
I’m sure there are a lot of little technical things I could improve on, but I’m much more concerned with content issues. Right now I think my photo subjects are kind of random, and I’d like to concentrate on more specific, long term photo projects. And I want more people in my photos. In the past I always worked to exclude figures in my street photography work, but lately I’ve been allowing the occasional passerby to wander through the frame. When they do, good things happen.

 

Why did you start the photoblog? How long has it been going? How often do you post?
My first attempts at photoblogging started in 2007 at a blogspot.com site that I set up one a whim one night. Before that I was just posting photos on flickr, which is great, but I wanted a place for photos (and text) that was my own, without the constraints of the flickr template. I liked the idea of just one photo per page and that’s it, no distractions. The current version of rubbishgoeshere.com has only been online since March 2009. There was an earlier version that ran from 2008-2009, but I somehow managed to crash it one day. Instead of fixing it, I just scrapped the whole thing and started over. Right now I have a little over 200 images posted, which seems like a lot to me until I look at other sites that have over 1000 images in their archive. I jumped on the photoblogging wagon a bit later than most.

 

Right now, my posting schedule seems to be “whenever the mood strikes me”—sometimes once a week, sometimes every day for several weeks in a row. I’m kind of picky about what I post, so the schedule is very dependant on how feel my photo work is going.

 

Where do you see your photoblog in the next year? Two years? Five years?
I have no idea. The only agenda I had when I started the blog was to amuse myself and to teach myself the basics of website construction. Several years later I still see rubbishgoeshere.com as a place for playing around—I don’t take it very seriously. Recently I set up a portfolio website (http://noahvaughn.com), and I sometimes think that I should merge the photoblog into the new site. But I like having a place where I can experiment with ideas and not worry too much about the results, so rubbishgoeshere will be around for a while, though I’m not sure that in a year it’ll be the same thing it is now. I have 4 years worth of film negatives that I need to scan, and sometimes I think I should just use the site to post those images. We’ll see.

 

Many of your photos on your photoblog are from urbanex adventures. How did you get into urbanex and why?
I’ve been interested in vacant buildings and derelict sites for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was fascinated by the industrial structures along the Illinois River where I grew up, and that never left me. When I moved to Chicago to attend art school, I lived in an area on the near south side that was surrounded by vacant buildings and crumbling infrastructure, and much of that imagery found it’s way into my paintings. I’m especially interested in building demolition sites. I may not like the fact that a great building is coming down, but I love watching the changes it goes through as walls come down and spaces open up.

It wasn’t until 2002 or so that I learned that there was a whole subculture devoted to exploring and documenting abandoned sites. Eventually I met up with a few other “explorers”, and soon we were going out every weekend, looking for places to poke around in. Some of these people were photographers, and seeing their work motivated me to start taking my own pictures.

 

How do you justify the danger, both safety and criminal record, of urbanex to capture your photos?
It’s ironic that much of my photo work involves entering structurally unsound buildings without permission because in real life I’m probably the most risk-adverse, law-abiding person that I know. There are quite a few “urbex” photographers who seem to get off on the thrill seeking, authority-defying aspect of exploring, but I am not one of them.

Getting into a lot of the sites I shoot at does involve minor trespassing, but these places have almost always been abandoned and are in the process of being destroyed, either by demolition or vandals. There is little or no security presence, and usually I can just walk in without resorting to any sneaky ninja tricks (which I’m not very good at anyways.) In these cases, calling what I’m doing illegal seems a technicality at best, like jaywalking across an empty street. If I think dealing with security or the police will be an issue, or I think I will be invading an active private property, I will not go in.

I am very aware of safety issues, especially since I usually work alone and a lot of my subjects are half-demolished buildings, often located in not-so-safe neighborhoods. It might not be obvious from some of my photos, but I’m actually quite conservative when exploring these places. Respect for my surroundings and a healthy dose of common sense have kept me safe.

I can understand why some people would not approve of the light trespassing involved with making some of my pictures, but I can’t help but think that getting the chance to document some of these remarkable spaces is more important than abiding by unenforced rules of access.

 

What’s your favorite photograph from your archives? What makes that shot special?
I don’t think I can really name one “favorite”; I have certain shots that I sometimes like more than others. One that stands out for me is of a red and white watertower in Stickney, shot one winter morning last year. It’s a very quiet and formal image, but also kind of oddball, this grey semi-industrial landscape with what looks like a lollypop sticking out of it. There is a sort of odd humor to the image, and that’s something I want more of in my work.

It’s really hard to talk about why one really likes certain photos. You can rationalize it some, but in the end it’s often just a matter of “This picture really works for me,” and that’s that. You just like it.

 

Who are some photographers/photobloggers/flickrers you follow?
There are a lot of really talented people in the local photoblog and flickr community. I’m not very active in the sense of attending meetups or online discussions, but I do try to follow what everyone is up to and I’m often inspired by the work I see. Naming who I look at would take up several pages, and even then I’m sure I’d forget a few people. I would like to single out Charlie Didrickson (http://63images.com/blog/), who does really strong street photography work that more people should be looking at. Outside the photoblog/flickr community (but still local), I’ve been looking a lot at the work of Daniel Shea (http://dsheaphoto.net/) lately—he’s making some great stuff.

The first two photographers I remember being aware of are Richard Nickel and Camilo José Vergara—I encountered their work in back art school, long before I even considered taking photos seriously. Nickel’s formal, straightforward approach to depicting architectural subjects (especially half-demolished buildings) and Vergara’s use of architecture and the built environment to comment on urban social issues formed my taste in photography, and most of the photographers I look at now use some combination of those two approaches.

 

Do you have any future projects planned? A book, a calendar? Do you plan to make photography your profession someday?
Right now my only project is sorting through and organizing my photo archive in an attempt to wrestle it into something that resembles a coherent body of work. This is not an easy task! I have given some thought to making a photo book of some sort— it seems like an ideal way to present work, almost better than a gallery exhibit. But I may be getting ahead of myself—as of now, I have not made any serious effort to exhibit my work in public. I haven’t even started making prints of my work until recently. So I should probably work on those things first.

I cannot imagine that photography would ever be my profession, and I’m not even sure that I would want that. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: I’m probably past the point where photography is just a weekend hobby, but when I look at other photographers I admire and who are really serious about their work, I can see that I’m nowhere near that. So, yea…I really don’t know.