Stephen Milner is an artist working in photography, sculpture, video, and installation. He is currently a Graduate Teaching Fellow at the University of Oregon and will be receiving his MFA in Studio Art in May 2018. Stephens work revolves around the representation of masculinity, identity and community through images, fictional narratives and the human-altered landscape. I have known Stephen for almost a decade and have had the privilege to watch him grow as a photographer. Stephen and I sat down for an interview a couple of months ago that was originally published by the University of Oregon. I have added that interview to this web feature below.
CS -So I was able to go through undergrad with you at SCAD. I was always really into your documentary work. When you left for Oregon, I expected to see more of that style. How would you describe the transition of your work from undergrad to what it is today?
SM- I still work within similar tropes of documentary photography from my past projects, however, I just started to hone in on more of my intentions or interior desires of who and what I am photographing. I moved to Oregon because it was an unfamiliar territory with lots of diversity in the landscape. A visually interesting place is always a good starting point for me with photography, but when I find people who challenge my perception of the surrounding areas or community, especially my own outsider preconceived notions, then I become really interested. My work still revolves around community and masculinity, I’m just inserting and questioning my own interactions with my subject matter on a more personal level than just simply documenting a community I’m not one of. I’m no longer interested in a linear narrative with images. I’m more comfortable with the experience of place in images, a psychological encounter which comes from wandering and creating my own fictional place. My previous work was focused on environmental and social concerns of specific communities, this was great and all, but I felt like I was contradicting my own personal vision with having to provide some sort of truth and ending with a project. I felt obligated to try to provide clarity and a positive ending with a photographic project to benefit a community that I wasn’t ever really a part of or could truly understand like someone whose family lived there for generations. It was rewarding for sure, but it was limiting my own understanding of how images function.
CS- Do you think your physical location plays an important role in the work you are making?
SM- I have always had to start projects in locations where I’d have to drive at least an hour away. People often ask me why I don’t find something closer to work on, I’m not sure how to answer that. I think part of it is that I’m an introvert, so I enjoy driving and mentally preparing myself to interact with strangers for a few days. I also think it allows me to romanticize more about the place I’m traveling to. Then there are the times where I’ll come back from a few day trip feeling lost and pictureless, which makes me really question my practice. I started making sculpture and working with installations probably because I was envious of my fellow MFA grads who could spend the weekend in their studios, not having to interact with anyone or having to travel anywhere and sleep in their car.
CS- I’m still so curious about your transition into sculptures. Was there a specific professor or fellow classmate that helped motivate this? I know that I have no natural talent for working in this medium. Did you and do you find it challenging?
SM- The MFA program at the University of Oregon is multidisciplinary, so my MFA will actually be in Studio Art. During my first year, I was the only photography based grad. I kept hearing alumni joking about how by the end I’d be making sculptures, I totally did not believe them….and now look at me! Being in constant critique and conversation with my fellow grads who are fluid in multiple mediums made me investigate different modes of creating. I found a different language and sensibility with sculpture and installation that I couldn’t get from just photography alone.
CS- So I remember living in Hong Kong with you back in 2011 when you were coming out. Over the years I have seen you become more comfortable with your sexuality and start to incorporate that into your work. How does sexual identity relate to your thesis work?
SM- Living in Hong Kong for that one year was really important for my own personal growth. I was really struggling with my sexual identity and how to go about coming out. I remember when we’d all be out at the clubs on the weekends and I would sneak out around midnight and go to the gay disco alone. I totally thought no one knew, but I’m pretty sure everyone knew exactly what I was doing! After enough time I eventually worked up the courage and started finally telling people. The undercover mentality I dealt with being closeted for so long, all the years of fantasizing about intimacy and connection with men was so frustrating. This is definitely something I’m tracing back to with my thesis and current art practice, those memories and experiences have been psychological undertones in my work since undergrad and I had no idea. The first month of my last year of graduate school, my ex-boyfriend and I broke up our 5-year relationship. Being thrown back out into the life as a single gay man has totally affected my work now. My desires to see and represent the world around me just kinda exploded, now I am engaging and collaborating with men again, both within the mediums of photography and sculpture.
CS -It’s very cool to hear you speak about these moments and memories. Do you think you are accurately representing the world around you? How are these men you are interacting with motivating you to make this work? Have you had any negative experiences with this method?
SM- I think I’m doing my best to use art to convey who I am, I hope that comes off. I try to be grateful and empathetic to my subject matter. With the photographs of gay men on nude beaches and how they interpret the landscape, I find it really challenging to make portraits. Naked people hate cameras. I also play the part too, I am naked and investigating the landscape and the men I encounter. I participate in the male on male gaze, I am a part of the hunt. I always seem to have the best luck with random encounters when photographing, I love surprises and having to think and react quickly. However, approaching someone slowly and getting to know them first is usually the way I like to work. The last negative thing that happened to me on the beach was getting shit on by a seagull, I made a text painting based on that experience…..I was told growing up that it was good luck for that to happen, though I am not so sure.
To view more of Stephen’s work, visit his website.