In Conversation: Amanda Marchand

Amanda Marchand is a Canadian, New York-based photographer. Her work explores the human condition through the poetics of landscape. Amanda has been an artist in residence/ fellow at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, the MacDowell Colony, the Headlands Center for the Arts, MASS MoCA, The Bakery Photo Collective, Hewnoaks, and Arteles Creative Center. Her work is permanently installed at the MUHC, Glen Hospital, in Montreal. Books include: “The World is Astonishing with You in it” (2019), “The Book of Hours” (2018), “Because the Sky” (2017), “Night Garden” (Datz Press, 2015), “415/514” (Edition One Studios, 2009). She is also the author of a book of fiction, “without cease the earth faintly trembles.” (DC Books, 2003). Amanda holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and is represented by Traywick Contemporary.

After a short but dreamy weekend together at the 2017 Review Santa Fe, I have had the pleasure of continuing a friendship with artist Amanda Marchand, witnessing the progression of her “Lumen Notebook” and her continual evolution as a creative. At Centre Santa Fe, I was exposed to Amanda’s captivating photographs, her calm aura, and her astonishingly poetic way of observing the natural world. As she and I began to talk about her work, I exhilarated in her ability to merge syntax and poetics, technique and content, personal and impersonal. As a fellow artist, I am utterly intrigued by the way Amanda has consistently imbued herself into her art practice. And so – with great enthusiasm – we sat down, once again, to collaborate on this interview featuring Amanda’s recent project “True North” with a discussion of her artistic process.

“Once and Twice”, from the series True North.

Kyra Schmidt: Amanda, I’m delighted to be ‘sitting’ down with you again. Since you’ve forewarned me that I won’t be able to exposé your Lumen Notebook just yet, I’d like to discuss your art practice and philosophy with regards to a recent project and artist book, True North, and how this might have lead you to your current exploration of the lumen print.

Amanda Marchand: Thank you, so much, Kyra. I’m thrilled to chat with you, and delighted to be asked!

KS: In contemplating your work, I am consistently seduced by the way in which text and image marry within it. As a photographer and a writer, how do you view and deal with the relationship between text and image? Did one sphere lead you to the other?

AM: I’ve always worked like a braid, on several projects or ideas at once. I studied literature for undergrad, and back then I was writing, but I also had a key to the university darkroom. It wasn’t supervised – you could spend as much time as you wished developing and printing. The walls of my dorm were wallpapered with black & white photos.

After university I wrote a novel, “without cease the earth faintly trembles,” that was published by DC Books in Montreal. It was purely text, experimenting with the sound of a name, the name “June” and fleshing out that character from the inside out, but it was also driven by imagery. It’s very impressionistic and visual, and opens with a quote from “Art Through the Ages” about “the line.” The way I was experimenting with genre and language in that novel was a kind of blueprint for the way I play with the photographic process now. I would also be a different artist if I hadn’t discovered the writer, Kathy Acker, at university, and then gone on to study with her at the San Francisco Art Institute. There was the literary canon, and then there was Kathy Acker. Her writing really broke open the whole world of art (and literature) for me.

With that stated, I must say, it’s hard to marry text and image. They live in different parts of the brain. I work separately on writing and on photography, but then if I’m true to each, they tend to marry seamlessly at one point. Not so seamlessly if I’m not writing enough. I have a new book I’m working on, that will be published this year. It’s a book of photographs, but it also has text woven though. Right now, I’m trying to decide whether I leave the text in or take it out completely, leaving traces of it only as titles. Even if the text is removed, the writing will still be there at some level, I feel.

“Untitled (blue)”, from the series True North.

KS: One aspect of your work that penetrates my being at an intimate level is your consciousness of the human psyche. For me, this theme emanates through your writing, photographic work, and even your titles and captioning. How do you deal with the relationship between text and image, and the creation of meaning within our information-driven world?

AM: I think a way for me “to know” is to get quiet. That’s where I sense that something is mine to flesh out, or maybe belongs to someone else… I have to really listen, at a deep level, and I have to get out of the way of myself in order to make work that has any depth. I try not to let my “thinking self” have control when I’m initially working on something. Instead, I follow my innate curiosity and intuition. My working space has always been more timeless or ephemeral than overtly political.

“Near to the Wild”, from the series True North.

“Untitled (brown)”, from the series True North.

KS: This contemplation you refer to certainly rings through in your recent series True North. Though you refer to your project True North as an “anti-text message”, it resonates emphatically as an antidote for the distraction that (many might argue) defines our present cultural state.

AM: Yes. “True North,” as the title suggests, is about re-directing to one’s own center. It was made very much with the awareness of deep-space time, set against the barrage of information, advertising, texting, email, deadlines, rushing and exhaustion that defines most of today. In Finland, where the work was photographed, I had one solid month at a residency, Arteles Creative Center, in which to slow down, meditate, luxuriate in that space and silence of darkest winter, with its monotone palette and the somnambulistic blue of dawn and dusk. 

While in Finland, I went for 4-hour walks with my camera each day in the sub zero temperatures. I also used my studio window, as a frame, to mark time with my camera. I would sit and track the light for an hour or an entire day (which became my artist book, “The Book of Hours.”) What I realized, that we all intuit, but that I did not know for a fact until then, is that being really in the world, tangibly, physically, comes with abundant joy. Being fully present is also work of a kind, but it has a huge pay-off. Things became so quiet and still that everything, once too subtle to perceive, appeared brash and astounding and miraculous, like a tiny hurricane – birds appearing from nowhere, a crack in a dark sky, a shoveller, the shifting whiteness of the snow. It doesn’t sound important but it is universally what we have and share. I think I also felt that, the way the world is going, someone has to bear witness to it, before this is all gone, someone needs to just actively observe, love and appreciate this.

“True North” ultimately contemplates the nature of time, the intangibles of existence. In the stillness there, during the darkest month of the year, my walks with my camera became a way of tuning into the natural world and its many subtle shifts and surprises. The overcast sky became a kind of photographic scrim. The series was photographed in January with sun closest to the horizon. Like the practice of meditation, these photographs ask the simple question, “What happens when you pay attention?”

KS: Stated beautifully! For me, your work embodies the ineffable sensations that pass by. Would you agree with this? I’m interested in hearing about any specific writers, philosophers, artist, etc. that have influenced your ideology as a creator?

AM: Yes. Time, presence, the inexpressible. Everything begins, for me, with emotion.

In terms of outside influences, Kathy Acker was the moment everything shifted. She was so subversive – what she was doing with collage and pastiche and the re-appropriation of texts, literary play, I just hadn’t seen before. Early on I was also influenced by the French feminists, especially Helene Cixous. And also the Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, I devoured her… Linda Connor has been a lifelong mentor and friend. Today I read widely from books on meditation, to astrophysics, to nature, to the art world. “The Surrender Experiment,” by Michael Singer, where he lets life curate his path forward, has me thinking, and I love Tara Brach’s branch of wisdom and podcasts. Recently, Knausgaard’s epic work, “My Struggle” really spoke to me – I recognized so much parity there in the things I chose to focus on – writing about his private life, the mundane, slowing down time by diving into the moment… There is a scene where he cleans his grandmother’s house for about 75 pages that is absolutely remarkable. And I just read, “The Summer Book,” by the Swedish writer, Tove Jansson. It’s lovely. You really feel the duration of a summer pass.

I do a lot of artist residencies so I am continually meeting and inspired by the artists, musicians, writers of today and their work, devotion and talent, plus the blanket of artist-friends who lead by their example and passions and who are mutually supportive. I’m currently in Florida at a residency, and was just blown away by the flutist, Claire Chase and composer, Phyllis Chen who are here and performed for us in their studio the other night. Phyllis had composed a piece that will be played in a month at “the Kitchen” in NYC, that incorporates Claire’s live heart-beat into the music – it is incredible – plus Claire as a performer (and person) is a charm-bomb.

KS: You have a deep affection for the natural world that rings throughout your artistic work and language. I’d like to talk a little bit about how this influenced your very recent artist book, the world is astonishing with you in it: a 21st century field guide to the birds, ferns and wildflowers. How do form (aesthetics) and content (philosophy) relate to each other in this work? – I’m completely captivated by the title.

AM: Ha. It’s kind of a bad title – so clunky – but that’s what I like about it. This book is a placeholder for a larger one. With this little book, I had been working with lumen printing for two years. I first started by making large, lumen, meditation circles when Trump was elected, with 40 or so people sitting on photographic paper, marking time together. Then I fell in love with the paper and process. The colors in the different black & white photo papers were so much the same color palette that I had been working with in “True North” that this work has just felt like an extension of all that stripping bare and revelation.

I went to Finland asking the question, “Is it possible to photograph nothing?” and so, this new work comes out of that line of investigation. I had been working with the lumens for at least a year and a half, trying to learn the different papers and their color ranges like an alphabet.

Last summer I started using these three “Field Guide” books, (ferns, birds and wildflowers of Canada) all old, all identical in size, with green cloth covers. They were my mother’s. She used to consult them with my boys while they watched the birds at the bird-feeders. I set parameters to create my own “Field Guide.” I had one rule, and the rule was to make one line of light (one mark) with the Field Guide book on the page. The final image would be 4 panels (so 4 marks), like a window pane, (though sometimes 2 panels). And so, of course it’s not scientific, though it’s a science of love maybe. Because really, when it comes down to it, the birds and ferns and wildflowers are truly ASTONISHING. It seems impossible that they even exist. And the ferns are special because there is basically a mammoth valley of ferns at the foot of my Canadian studio, where I spend the summer. But also, one could say, the birds, ferns and flowers are my family, my husband and children and sister etc. my arts community, and dearest old friends.

KS: I love hearing about your process of creation for this book! Would you consider yourself a crusader toward photography’s shift back to the hand-made image? Of course, I have your lumen project in mind. What makes this process so important for you?

AM: I love the hand-made! I’m very process oriented, but I’m really just engaged with the medium of photography today and interested in all the ways that it mutates. I’ve used the medium in all these different ways, from sewn pieces, to projections on milk, to plastic flowers that fade on the gallery walls (“Still Life”), polaroid collage (“Field Study”), digital negatives (“Because the Sky), and even working “blind” as a night photographer up in the Canadian woods (“Night Garden”). Now I’m using black & white paper to produce color. As an idea alone, that’s fascinating. For me, this lumen process lends itself to the discussion of time, which is what drives my work. I love exploiting this latent, invisible potential hidden in the paper. It’s such an exciting and magical process. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it, since you’re using it in your work too. Your lumens also speak to the passage of time, but have so much to do with the geology of the earth – and are so tactile.

KS: The process of lumen printing is purely magical! It feels raw and completely open. For me, these polysemous images evoke something undefinable but also tangible and earth-bound, the most related to the elements in which we move and breathe. On certain days, they hold all of the answers to being-in-the-world, while others days they simply ask more questions.

AM: I love that. The paper sometimes feels alive. There is a way that the paper responds to the atmosphere. Yesterday, when making lumen prints, the Florida air was so hot and humid, and the humidity was completely changing the color of the prints, shifting them into the reds. And the heat of my hands was marking them up.

KS: You mentioned how the lumen process lends itself to a discussion of time. This meditation on time is reflected again in the repetitive horizon we see in True North forcing our minds inward rather than outward. To you, what would be the character of that discussion: Is the passage of time distressing or comforting?

AM: Well, time is what we have. So that’s something to celebrate! I do think a fair amount about death, about that last second before it ends, like the Butoh dancers who have a whole art form about that last moment. It’s not distressing, so much as coming to terms with it. And all the measurements of time we have – during my mother’s last summer, for example, when I was making “Night Garden,” time felt palpable. Everything spoke of time fleeting, not only my finger pressing the shutter during long night-exposures, but the mosquito biting that finger, the phases of the moon, the farmer’s almanac in the kitchen, the few minutes I could steal away from children to email, the arrival dawn… I’ve always been fascinated by time – there’s even a study that suggests our future selves can influence test results in the present – it was debunked, but I like imagining that time flows both forwards and backwards, a channel, rather than a river or a spiral. My favorite book as a child was, “A Wrinkle in Time” the main character, time travels with “tessering.”

 1st Lumen Circle, San Francisco

KS: What else is in store for you this year?

AM: I have a residency in South Korea this July with Datz Press. We will be working on another book. Datz Press makes the most exquisite photo books. They are an ALL WOMAN team, which I love and appreciate, and they are simply amazing. Sangyon Joo, who runs the press and the museum, is an incredible force of nature, with such vision and dedication and heart. She’s also a gifted photographer. So I’m so excited for what will be an incredible learning experience. Also, I have a solo show with my gallery, Traywick Contemporary, in California, at the beginning of next year, so I will also be working towards that.

Lumen Circle Meditation, Florida, The Hermiate Artist Retreat

KS: Amanda, you’ve developed such a captivating portfolio of work over the years. And what I find astonishing is how I can feel you as an artist within each and every project. To finish off with one final question, I am wondering if you have a few words of advice for new and emerging artist? The few of us trying to navigate, find ourselves, and stay afloat within the over-saturation that is our contemporaneous moment.

AM: Kyra, thank you so much! Next time we’ll turn the tables and I’ll interview you!  Being an artist can be, at times, lonely and unrewarding. And being at the beginning of this path, especially so. No one really cares if you are making work and if you produce anything at all. Creatives are one of the hardest working groups on the planet. We work often without funds, without time, without space, against the mainstream. We work while nursing children, without a map, through the weekend, juggling other jobs. We’re even at work in our nightly dreams.

It’s important to create a life that supports this. Because, if you can find a way to make it work, being an artist is such a privilege! So, surround yourself with mentors, like-minded souls, a regular critique group or two, share your work with friends, family, or strangers. Find the people you most admire and, as Kathy Acker told us, park yourself on their doorstep (as she did with William Burroughs.) Being in communication with other voices is what it’s all about. Also find your tribe, those among you right now. These are the people who are artists, but also the curators, writers, gallery or museum directors, and patrons of tomorrow.

A few more things:

Do not get caught up in self-evaluation. Leave that to the critics, later, and then ignore it to the best of your ability. I’ll also contradict myself, and say that with criticism comes important information. Listen to the useful parts.

Continue to follow what you are really most curious about, even if it’s not in fashion, even if the art world hates that kind of thing, even if it’s “not art” or too simple, or too hard, or impossible. Especially if it’s impossible.

Don’t be afraid to ask for things. Dare.

Invite rejection in all possible forms and think of each rejection letter as getting closer to what you need and are asking for. I’m serious. Don’t be a baby about this.

Be smart about your art practice. Do your homework. Be constantly reading a book about the business of being an artist so that those practices embed themselves into your psyche and art practice.

Also, I’m a big believer in artist residencies. They have saved my life over and over. They feed me, and they nudge me in the right direction, and give me momentum, and you meet the best people.

I think it’s so much more about the life you are living and that thing that happens only when you’re in the deep flow of work – this is where I would put emphasis, not on the saturation of the art market or cynicism about the art world because it’s too easy to go there. (Or if that’s really what you are thinking about – make work about that!) Each generation reinvents and redefines what came before for itself. Be clear with yourself how you define success, chart that, articulate it carefully, because things set down in writing all can be put into motion in a fairly straightforward way. If you want fame and fortune, prepare to be disappointed, (though perhaps surprised).

As the poet, Mary Oliver, wrote, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”

KS: Amanda, thank you, it is always inspiring to talk with you. I look forward to seeing this year’s publication with Datz Press, and where the magic of lumen printing will take you next.

To view more of Amanda Marchand’s work please visit her website.