In Conversation: Dylan Nelson

Dylan Nelson is an artist whose practice spans photography, temporary sculptures, and book making, with an underlying interest in how those things might coalesce. Bridging manufactured environments in both the digital and physical realm, Nelson builds and deconstructs things in order to understand them. This process of experimental image making creates a space for reflexive and critical observation to emerge. Following this logic, the search itself is a meaningful part of the work to be captured and laid bare to those that view it.

Born in Connecticut, he is the son of a Scottish hairdresser and a painter from southern New Jersey. His work has been presented in publications including the British Journal of Photography, Mossless, Thisispaper, and others. And he has been most recently exhibited at the Satellite Art Show, Miami Beach as well as Yeah Maybe Gallery in Minneapolis, MN. His photo book Amber Gambler is held in the collection of the Walker Art Center and Pier 24. Dylan is also co-founder of the publishing company Houseboat Press. Dylan is currently based in Minneapolis, MN.

I had the privilege of talking to Dylan at the end of a sultry Summer at a coffee house in downtown Minneapolis. This is an excerpt of a wider conversation we had discussing the state of Photography today, the purpose (and role) of Art School, and how the Art World is at a unique crossroads.

The Nature of Pencils

In the winter of 2015 I began a project called The Nature of Pencils. The project is a revisiting, reinterpretation, and homage to the historical failure of William Henry Fox Talbot’s book project, The Pencil of Nature. I am making something altogether new while using what I refer to as his “ingredients”. Some of the images re-stage works from this publication, while others are freewheeling explorations done in the same spirit he carried when urgently affixing images to a light-sensitive surface at the beginning of photography’s history.

The works from this series are not digitally altered; everything is staged and shot within the idealized space of the studio. And yet, these still life and studio experiments are often temporary structures that only stand up long enough to be photographed.

William : When I first went on your website to view your portfolio, I’ll admit, I was, and maybe this isn’t the right word, perplexed (in a good way!). Although I’m partial to photographs that show reality as perceived by the human eye, I was immediately trying to “unpack” your photographs and using various means to access them. Can you talk a little about your current photographic philosophy, process, and how you came to this mode of image making?

Dylan : Yes, I think both my website and my images can be perplexing. Oftentimes I am intentionally trying to make my images hard to access. In terms of their relationship to the viewer, I like to think of them as not giving the viewer a place to stand. Some of the images present unanswered questions from my walks or from the studio; other times there are images where things are working very differently than I had initially intended, which presents its own sort of problem. Early in my making process I – like many others – was interested in the traditional American foundation education of photography, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld. Then going back a bit further, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and the other ‘greatest hits’ of romanticized itinerant explorers wandering the American landscape. 

But over the years I’ve become more and more interested in the challenges that are unique to a studio practice, as well as an attempt to create some more accountability and structure for myself, both in work and life. The studio presents problems that are more in common with the perspectives, challenges and questions that come up for painters and sculptors. When I go into the studio I am responsible for everything that happens as opposed to wandering and finding something interesting that maybe someone has placed or left somewhere. All of a sudden, the conditions of the light, the thing in front of the camera and how it is placed and shaped are more demanding concerns, not just what happened to be there in front of my camera and finding a place to stand. I think this progression came about over time, making a specific list of things I wanted to photograph out in the real world and then finding it gradually turned in to making a list of things I want to photograph in my studio and then figuring out how to make them. I don’t think that one mode of working is more or less valid – I still find myself outside at times – I just have had a stronger response to working within these parameters recently.

Injecting accountability in to the process of creation has had the biggest impact on my work in the last couple of years. With some of the images on my website (which is a mess!) there are elements at play where things are very staged or might not even look like a representational form shown alongside pictures I made outside in the real world. Finding a way for those two modes to intertwine is something I have enjoyed working with.

William : In particular, your ongoing project The Nature Of Pencils, seemed to be the most playful yet incredibly aware of the photographic medium and its history. As you may have noticed when we met for coffee, I found myself scrolling through Google Images of Henry William Fox Talbot and his work, The Pencil of Nature. What interested you in this particular project of Talbot? How do your photographs (given the photographic atmosphere of today) relate to some of the earliest photographs ever taken?

Dylan Well, initially that idea came about in 2012 when I was in graduate school at Massachusetts College of Art. They have a complete copy of the Pencil of Nature, which I had never seen in the flesh before. The rare collections specialist at the library explained to us that each copy was bound by the owner of the book, making them all a little different. The book was released in six parts that you as a purchaser received over time, hence why some are incomplete etc. After reading a bit about Talbot I came to find out that he had actually intended for the body of work to be much larger. I believe there is even an unfinished list of images he had hoped to make. Being that the book was essentially the first ever photography book gives it great historical significance but at the time it was an incomplete flop. Its ‘failure’ is something I became fascinated by.

Photography was just coming into existence and this collection of images was his attempt to show you the uses of the medium. I appreciated the utilitarian function, the aspiration for more, and the deficiencies of the work. There was a little bit of everything! I suppose I thought to myself I could make a comical contemporary reworking of the same thing – less than 200 years later. I really did it for myself as a way of saying ‘photography is still new, and its fallibility proves there are still interesting ways to use it’. I took Talbot’s ingredients and made a new meal, at least that has been my intention. I see the Nature of Pencils as an ongoing body of work; I have a list of pictures, of itches I need to scratch. If in looking at those pictures it makes you itchy, that is not my problem. Maybe that’s what makes it successful. I also dream of making my own little publication run. Of having subscribers I would mail beautiful prints to, and give them burden of figuring out how to bind it. I think that sort of interaction, the physicality, and accountability is something we could benefit from right now. And if it fails, it only makes it more historically accurate.

William : Do you believe Photography is ‘stuck’ at this moment?

Dylan : No, I don’t believe photography is stuck. However I think it is easy to get stuck in one specific mode of working and thinking about the medium; becoming narrow minded about how it should be used, shown and discussed. I do believe photography gets stuck at a curatorial level, the delineation that curators often put between photography and everything else in a gallery space goes a long way to ensure there are distinct divisions between what a photographer does and is supposed to do and what artists working in other mediums do. I would be far more interested to see what a painting curator would do with photographs then to see how a photo curator might organize a show.

Through social media and the advent of smartphones that are extremely accessible the value of still images as a visual currency is almost zero. We are dealing with an extremely impatient audience now that is never visually satiated. This presents exciting new challenges to try to stop those viewers and have them actually digest and process singular images – or to redefine the ways we think about successful interactions with viewers. These new challenges, depending on how they are addressed, could be another sticking point for many.

Photography has not been liberated from its disciplinary constraints by conceptualism to the extent that other mediums have. This is as much to do with the way this history of photography is told and the not particularly expansive way it is often taught. More often than not, the way a photography critique might begin is with why you are using photography the wrong way and acknowledging its history, only later getting into the process and concept of the work. There seems to be an expectation that you will ascribe some sort of linear narrative arc to accompany groups of photos. I think that is a unique form of baggage. Partly that baggage comes from photography having a utilitarian component that is very present and is actually the catalyst for most of the technologies that help facilitate further creative uses for the medium, be it through camera technology or print technology. Breaking free from the utility, talking about process and theory, exhausting the study of forms and defining oneself as an artist and not a photographer would be most liberating for the medium and help move it along (I acknowledge that I am really just speaking for myself at this point). I see artists using photography in this more conceptual way more and more – definitely not stuck.

William : Do you think you’ll ever return to the world outside of the studio / virtual space(s)?

Dylan : Absolutely! I work in waves, and will always find myself outside with a want to just follow my feet around and see what there is to see. Also I do tend to create a call and response with myself – where I might make a screen shot or a photo outside and then bring that in to the studio, make a little print, and then have it function as a place holder or finished component of some sort of larger investigation that will continue in a controlled space. But in the here and now I want to have a bit more structure for myself. I think in time I will set some parameters for myself to take outside. But we will see what that will materialize as. There is far more consequence and risk out there – which is extremely important and should never be undervalued.

The world as I see it right now is a very difficult and painful place that is beginning a process of growth and realization of what is going on and has been going on. With that in mind I have frankly had a hard time allowing myself to make work that is just about some sort of visual pleasure. I think as an artist it is not enough or acceptable to just sit around and laugh at the things that you think of. I am trying to define what this change might look like and I am sure it will take some time of trial and error. Certainly there should be beauty, but I want more; I just don’t know what that looks like. Which is good! It should be unknown to me.

To view more of Dylan Nelson’s work please visit his website.