Chris Mottalini

Land of Smiles

An Interview with Chris Mottalini by Michael Adno

I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Chris Mottalini through his photography. When I moved to New York, mutual friends directed me towards his work photographing the vestiges of Paul Rudolph in Sarasota, Florida (my hometown) among other places. For his first monograph, After You Left/They Took It Apart, 2013, Mottalini photographed a home in Sarasota that I grew up across the street from. Later, we connected on a story that I wrote about Vladimir Ossipoff’s family retreat, a story that he brought to me. And as you’ll shortly learn, Mottalini possesses a certain tenacity for his subjects, never teetering toward half-assed and always running himself ragged to make a few nice photographs; something I admire dearly about him. Recently, we worked on another long-form story for Curbed magazine together, about Robert Moses’ Jones Beach. And as always, it’s been such a pleasure to work with a straight-shooter like Mottalini. Just before his recent monograph, Land of Smiles, came out, we sat down to talk about how it reached the press ultimately.

Michael Adno: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to work on this book, your relationship to Thailand, and what the first inklings of the project considered?

Chris Mottalini: I first started photographing what eventually became Land of Smiles in 2013. The project took shape organically and eventually grew into an obsessive and immersive three-part photographic journey through the built and natural landscapes of my favorite country on earth, Thailand. I ended up shooting the project over a three-year span (basically one part each year).  Then came about a year’s worth of editing, scanning, sequencing, printing, re-editing, re-sequencing, etc.

I sort of lucked into Thailand as a photographic subject, basically by meeting my wife. She’s originally from Thailand, and we go back at least once a year to visit her parents and relatives. Her family has a little beach cottage a few hours south of Bangkok, down a dark, narrow lane, right on the Gulf of Thailand.  That area happens to have a bunch of fluorescent streetlights positioned in particularly fascinating and sculptural poses. I started noticing them one night and from then on I just saw them everywhere. My photographic style/process is pretty obsessive, so once I noticed those streetlights, of course, I had to find and photograph as many as humanly possible. The streetlight photo on the cover of the book was actually the first fluorescent streetlight I ever noticed, perched right outside of the family cottage.  I took its picture and five years later Land of Smiles is the result.

MA: There’s a set of texts at the beginning of the book, and I wondered if you could tell our readers what context those texts held for you personally and how you came to choose them?

CM: Those text pieces are taken from Traibhumikatha, The Buddhist Cosmology, which is basically the Buddhist story of the three planes of existence (heaven, earth, and hell), written by King Lithai in 1345. I did a ton of research on all types and eras of Thai writing, trying to find three text pieces that would loosely complement and enhance the three photographic sections of Land of Smiles. I held up the production process by a month or so, but I thought it was crucial to find the perfect text. Initially, I toyed with the idea of having a more traditional essay written for the book, but in the end, I decided it was better to leave things open to the viewer’s personal interpretation; no need to spell it out.

Here’s one of the text pieces, short and sweet, but it gives you something to think about:

If with the force of one’s determination and perseverance, the mind could be made to disappear, what would happen? As long as the mind is still present, it cannot be said there is nothing. Without the body, one cannot harm others and others cannot harm one. It is thus desirable that the body be willed to disappear and the mind remain.

 And here is what it looks like in Thai:

อันว่าจิตวิริยานื้ให้ใจตนหายไปดั่งนั้น จะเป็นกลเป็นการอันใด แม้นว่าใจยังอยู่ก็ดี หลอนว่าดั่งนี้หาบ่มิได้ ครั้นว่าตัวแลตนนั้นหาบ่มิได้ไสร้ ตนจักกระทําร้ายแก่บ่มิได้ แลท่านจักกระท๋าร้ายแก่ตนก็หาบ่มิได้ ควรปรารถนาให้ตนนี้หายไป แลยังแต่จิตเขา

This piece is paired with the images in the second part of the book, which are first person views of the countless “sois” (narrow streets and alleys) that make up the sprawling megacity that is Bangkok. These images allow the viewer to feel like they are actually standing in those streets, albeit in a bit of a dream state due to the slightly fuzzy quality of the images (for this section, I made scans of 5×7 prints of 35mm negatives in order to achieve a lo-fi quality).

Another passage describes a time when people existed without needs and flew through the air:

In former times, even though we did not eat food, we felt full and satisfied. We could travel through the air….Our bodies gave off rays that shined brightly throughout the entire universe.

 This passage can be connected to my images of fluorescent streetlights or not. It’s all up to the viewer. I chose these text pieces, because, even though they are separated by 671 years from my photographs, they felt so strongly connected to my work and they imparted a very Thai sensibility to the world depicted in my book.

MA: The book has this unmistakable quality of wandering through a city as if you, yourself are wandering, and I noticed you mentioned wandering in the back-pages. What was the physical process of getting to these images, these places, and how did you decide to divide the book into three distinct sections: one with dusky, ebbing light of the makeshift fluorescent street lights, one with larger plates of landscapes drenched in sunlight, and the final in complete darkness with images of flora basked in flash?

CM: The physical process involved lots and lots of walking and wandering. And creeping around in jungles and gardens in complete darkness, save for a small flashlight. Most of the images for parts one and three were made out in the countryside, while part two was photographed entirely in Bangkok, during the hottest part of the day. That was kind of brutal, but I just had to photograph then to get the harshest light and deepest shadows. Also, very few people would be out and about in that heat. I would pick a different neighborhood each day and just wander (sometimes returning two or three times). As a result, I still have such distinct memories and impressions of some of some pretty random parts of Bangkok.

Photographing for the third part of the book (plant life at night) got a little creepy at times. My favorite Thai creature is the monitor lizard, a.k.a. “Mr. Silver, Mr. Gold”. Considered to be bad luck by Thais, they’re like smaller versions of Komodo Dragons and they’ll definitely bite you. Anyway, lizards and snakes rustling around in the darkness, sweat dripping everywhere, dogs following me. That was the general vibe for much of the book.

As for dividing the book into three parts, initially it wasn’t my plan, but then the project just started to take on a shape of its own and I didn’t like the idea of mixing dark and light images. Maybe it’s the way my mind likes to organize and categorize things, but dark bookending light just felt right to me. It also felt nice to give the viewer a sort of break or breather between parts, especially for the final part of the book. Then when I was researching the text pieces, I realized that the three parts could very loosely correspond to the three planes of existence, as described in the Buddhist Cosmology.

MA: What are some of your formal influences for this book? The photographs and subjects are a bit of a departure from your previous personal work, editorial, and books you’ve published before.

CM: Really, I don’t think I had any conscious photographic influences for this project. Maybe Saul Leiter when it comes to trying to capture that special quality of light. Half the book is basically street photography without any people. If anything, the main influence on Land of Smiles was musical. I was listening to Movement, the first New Order album a lot while photographing the fluorescent streetlights and it made the whole experience feel very strange and cinematic. I photograph lots of architecture and, at the time, I was about to release my first book, which was about demolished Modernist architecture. When I started Land of Smiles, I was tired of monumental architecture and homes and wanted to let myself go a bit and just make a really subtle, slow-burn type of project that requires a bit of immersion to appreciate (in my opinion). The book still features lots of images of built things, just of the everyday variety. One of my favorite books, Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, was also in the back of my mind for the three years I was working on Land of Smiles.

Some people say the fluorescent images make them think of the work of Dan Flavin, which I certainly get, though honestly, the connection didn’t even cross my mind until after I got back to NYC and took a tour of Donald Judd’s building on Spring Street (there are Flavin installations on several floors). If anything, the New Order songs Dreams Never End and The Him are what helped to define the project’s aesthetic feel. There is actually a bit of a Flavin connection, though, in that the book’s designer does a lot of work for the Judd Foundation. So, there’s that.

MA: There’s this soft, warm, tone to some of the earlier images. The skies are a deep blue with hints of pink and purple, which reminds me of Fall when the afternoon light takes on a blue cast. Then the daylight images are hard and sharp, the colors bright. And finally, the two molt together in the last section in an almost unsettling way. There’s a sense of composition throughout the book that’s impressive, akin to Eggleston etc. And I wanted to ask what time of year were these images made?

CM: So, I actually photographed the entire project during the exact same month: Every August for three years. August is in the middle of the rainy season, which was partly responsible for those tones and colors in the night shots. Many of those pictures were made before, during or after some sort of rainfall, usually a torrential downpour, which lasts for 15 minutes or so and then just stops. I spent a good amount of time in between pictures hiding under a tree with my camera in a plastic bag, just getting drenched.

Dusk during the rainy season is my favorite time of day. It cools off a bit, though it’s always very humid in Thailand, and then the skies just open up. After the rain stops is when the sky takes on all of these beautiful tones and hues.

MA: What was going on in your life when you were making the images?

CM: When I started Land of Smiles, I was dealing with this brutal chronic throat pain, basically for two years straight. I have a pretty high tolerance for pain and I’d say it was a level 7 pain, every single day. I went to a bunch of doctors, had all these tests and procedures, but no one could figure out what was wrong with me, so I just suffered and tried to fight my way through it. Finally, this amazing acupuncturist treated me and, over the course of a year, basically cured me. So, though I tried to ignore it and live my life as best as I could, I made this project through the filter of some pretty intense pain.

My wife’s whole family lives in and around Bangkok. They’ve been very supportive of the project. Her parents live in a suburb, north of the city, close to an amazing duck restaurant where we all did karaoke once for her mother’s birthday a few years ago. I thought Springsteen’s Glory Days would be a good way to set things off, but The Boss never really made it big over there. Too much mumbling, my wife said. No one was into it. Now, you can never go wrong with Elvis or Sinatra in Southeast Asia, unless you screw up your rendition of My Way and then you might be in for some trouble (see “My Way Murders”).

Anyway, it was always in the back of my mind that this book needed to show respect to my Thai relatives and their way of life and their country. Thailand seen through the “Western gaze” is embarrassing to me. When I was working on Land of Smiles, I envisioned the project as a subtle rebuke to all of the stereotypical portrayals of Thailand. I thought the best way to do that was to photograph boring subjects…essentially, streetlights, alleys, and plants.  I tried to take those everyday subjects that nobody cares about or notices and make them interesting and, hopefully, beautiful.

MA: Finally, you self-published this book, and it’s a highly composed object, could you tell us about why you decided to self-publish and how you went about the physical design of the book, lack of titles with the plates, and so forth?

CM: So, I mentioned my first book, After You Left / They Took It Apart, earlier. That project was pretty important as far as my evolution as a photographer goes and it’s a big reason for a lot of my successes. I’m still proud of the project, but the book itself left a lot to be desired. The printing wasn’t great, materials weren’t great, the design wasn’t great, it just wasn’t a great book. It actually sold well and got a lot of press, but I was kind of embarrassed to show it to people.

When I decided that Land of Smiles would be my second book, I knew I had to atone for the mistakes of the first book. I shopped it around to a few publishers with high hopes, but it was the same deal…not great production, printing or design values, and this time around, I’d have to cough up $35,000 or whatever, which I definitely didn’t have. I’m not comfortable doing the whole crowd-funding thing either.

So, I basically said fuck this, and I teamed up with my friend Mike Dyer (Remake Design), who is a brilliant designer. He hooked me up with the fantastic printing outfit Die Keure in Belgium and they did a great job for a totally reasonable price.

My favorite aspect of the book design is the Japanese fold pages.  We wanted to give the book a different tactile feel and also a bit of heft while keeping the individual pages quite light.  I think it makes for a really nice, unusual feel as you flip through and the book is also thicker as a result. The rougher texture of the cover feels nice in the hand and the Japanese fold pages make you sort of stop and think about how the paper actually feels. It’s impossible not to notice. Mike’s design is spare, calm, beautiful and considered…

As for the lack of titles, none of those photographs really needs a title. Land of Smiles is intended to be a dreamlike experience, a collection of blurred memories, a wandering, distracted meditation. I’ve come to view each part of the book as one big photograph comprised of many smaller images.


To view more of Chris’ work, please visit his website!

And to read more about Mike Adno, check him out here!