Monday, October 26, 2015

Garrett Hansen

Garrett Hansen graduated from Grinnell College, where he studied economics and political science. He completed his MFA in photography at Indiana University and has taught at several universities in the United States and in Asia; he is now an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Kentucky. Garrett’s work deals primarily with issues of place and how we grow to know and understand the world around us. Garrett has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Europe, Indonesia, and Japan.

Artist Statement: Hail

Roughly 40% of the population in the US owns a gun and there are enough guns - approximately 300 million - to arm nearly every man, woman, and child in the country.

At the core of the series is a desire to consider these facts and to create a set of images that speaks to their implications. Each of the images is created from individual bullet holes. While shooting is fundamentally a destructive act, by bringing these holes into the darkroom, enlarging them and then processing and printing the results, I am able to balance this destruction with creation. The viewer is presented with something that speaks to the sublime – they are both attractive and terrifying at the same time. In many ways this reflects our own opinions of guns in America, a country where the debate between rights and controls continues to rage.

Interview conducted by: Adam Neese 

Adam Neese: Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you began the Hail project?

Garrett Hansen: I had been thinking about doing a project that focused on guns in America for a number of years, but when I moved to Lexington to take a job at the University of Kentucky in the fall of 2013, I decided that I really wanted to focus on finding a way to think and talk about the issue. Part of it was that I had just returned from living abroad and that always helps me think more critically about our culture. Another part of it was that I was having a lot of conversations about guns with gun owners and I found that we largely agreed on issues of gun control. This put in stark relief how much the conversation has been dominated by a small but incredibly powerful segment of the population. I wanted to enter into that dialogue, or maybe more accurately, try to create a space for dialogue. That’s really at the heart of this work – an effort to create images that allow people on all sides of the debate to think about, rather than simply react to, this incredibly important problem that we have.

AN: In considering your images in the series Hail I am struck by the beauty created by abstracting the scale of the actual bullet holes. How did you arrive at the final form of the images? Can you tell us a little bit about that process as it relates to the rest of your working methodology?

GH: From the beginning I knew that I didn’t want to approach this issue through straight photography, but I didn’t necessarily have an idea of what the images should be. I knew I wanted to start with something that everyone could agree on and I thought that maybe the simple idea, and it sounds silly saying it, but I thought, “Bullets put holes in things. I’ll use that as a starting point.” I ran a few experiments in the darkroom by just punching holes in paper and there seemed to be promise in the approach. I then went to a local gun range and started to shoot some different materials to see what might work best. There were a lot of failed experiments – I was committed to the concept, but without a clear idea of what they should look like, I just had to keep trying different approaches. I wouldn’t say that each experiment contributed to the final result, but some aspects of the early failures definitely make their way into the final images. When I saw the first images that I made by solarizing orthographic film, I knew I was getting close. For me they go beyond the simple document or record; they reference the celestial and, in turn, the sublime. That was the goal – to create an experience for the viewer, not just provide them with a fact. I’m still developing the technique. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it, but at this point I’m really just refining it.

I suppose this is a variation on the way I typically work. Though most of my work is pretty straight, there is always a period of time at the beginning of a project where I am trying to figure out what the series should look like and what the best materials to use might be. I’m not one of those photographers who applies a single way of working to the world; I try to let the world influence me, which in turn directs me towards aesthetic and material choices.

AN: Most of the work on your website is representational and looks at the world “out there”. How did you arrive at this project where you are starting from nothing- a blank piece of paper- to make the work?

GH: What actually makes this project unique for me is that, in fact, I’m not starting with a blank slate. I have these shot-up pieces of paper and cardboard. I don’t know how I’m going to transform them, but I have the limitation of the materials themselves. That’s been a huge part of this – thinking about issues of transformation. How do you create something out of destruction? How closely are those two things linked in the first place? This might seem like an aside, but spending time in Indonesia, particularly Jakarta, helped me better understand how those things are linked. You’re in this huge sprawling city that is constantly being torn apart by nature. Shiva starts making a lot more sense.

AN: Who are some of your influences? Are there people looking at gun culture and the larger social/political issues around firearms with their art that you find inspirational?

GH: No, I’m not really looking for inspiration from other artists who are making work about guns and gun culture. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great artists who are working on this issue – including some photographers who I would be honored to show with. The photographers who really inspire me are old school folks - Lee Friedlander, Harry Callahan, and Yutaka Takanashi are people I return to constantly. They all seem like intensely curious people; each has proven to be highly experimental over their extremely long careers. They seem restless in terms of subject matter and approach – when I look at decades worth of images, I see them learning about the world and challenging themselves to find ways to use photography to share what they’ve found - that guides me as a photographer, and more importantly, as a person.

AN: It looks like you have been busy with 2 solo exhibitions in summer of 2015. How do you juggle all of the responsibilities that come with being a contemporary artist? Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and photographers?

GH: The one thing I would say is you have to make art for yourself above all else. I was lucky in many ways that I couldn’t study photography in college - we simply didn’t have any classes in it - but we had a student-run darkroom. I spent a huge amount of time there. I had fallen in love with photography completely at 18, but no one cared whether I did it or not. I had to find my own projects and educate myself on the history of photography. I made a lot of terrible pictures and I stuck with photographers who were easy to understand – Arbus and Friedlander made no sense to me when I was 20 – but I was slowly learning. I think a lot of students I see, at both the MFA and undergrad level, want someone to provide the education for them - read this, turn this project in on this date, make ‘x’ number of prints, etc. The students who I see who I know are going to be successful in whatever they choose to do with their photography are the ones who see the projects I give as challenges, not just assignments that need to get done. That’s the difference - they want to be there, there is nothing else they really want to be doing. I didn’t always live up to that ideal when I was getting my MFA, but I think it’s something to remember and strive for.

The other thing is that making art is hard. I’m not happy when I’m photographing - I’m focused. Sometimes I’m elated by the results, more often I’m deeply disappointed and frustrated, but I enjoy that period of focus. When the work finally comes together and I can stand back and look at it, I find I learn something new about the world. Your art should teach you, too. Oh, and don’t try to ‘brand’ yourself. That’s nonsense; you’re a human being.

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