Jesse Taylor Koechling is a visual artist originally from Wheaton, Illinois. Born into a family of artists and photographers, some of his earliest memories are of images magically forming under the red glow of his father’s darkroom. Jesse was raised on a small island in Maine, later returning to the suburbs of Chicago. Pulling inspiration from delicate wandering within the magic and gesture of nature, connection and solitude, memory and time; Jesse’s work embodies photographic darkroom processes, collage, and drawing. He graduated with a BFA from Pratt Institute and presently resides and works – slowly and deliberately – in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse’s work is currently on view in the exhibition “The Arc | Illumination, Ritual, Reflection” at Redux Art Center in Charleston, South Carolina, and will be in the upcoming Fotofilmic18 exhibit traveling to Vancouver, San Francisco, and Seoul.
I recently had the pleasure to connect with Jesse Taylor Koechling over his compelling photographic body of work noncorpa. Jesse’s artistic work embraces the fluidity and spirituality of time, memory, and nature to trace the invisible webs that connect us. He offers up beautifully poetic yet disparate narratives that speak toward care and responsibility, to remind us that “we all breathe together as one”. In this interview, I speak with Jesse on aesthetics, process, and individual perspective with regards to his ongoing work noncorpa and how it came to be.
As I return to a mountaintop there’s an electric stillness about me and inside me. I trace the edge of a mountain path much like the torn edges of paper. The valley below records the thickness of the air, the moments of dimming light and expanding space. Distances of times past and the physical space ahead become relative. I pick up a larvae woven twig… I reach and grasp a distant mountain; I feel those past pilgrims who walked alongside me. The path of life draws me to a divine reflection upon such landscapes.
The works from noncorpa are moments woven through one another and filled with a spiritual glow. Currently composed of three verses, they are a disembodied wandering within a sea of connections. At first searching for origins, then journeying out into the landscape, and later a remapping that leads to a common story. The process of recording, printing, tearing, marking, and wearing-down is my walk into this unknown and the embrace of what is to be found there. These details instill a sense of the history in cherished objects and portray the delicate nature of creating a relic. A nothing sort of souvenir, but something that hopes to unite across disparate entities to tell us that we all breathe together as one.
Kyra Schmidt: Jesse, I want to thank you for taking the time to ‘sit’ with me. Your photographic body of work “noncorpa” seems to lie somewhere between found and constructed imagery. Can you talk a little bit about this series, and the path that lead you to its fruition?
Jesse Taylor Koechling: Thanks so much for speaking with me, Kyra.
When I first conceived of noncorpa I hadn’t realized the scope of it. I tend not to shoot with particular projects in mind but early on saw these disparate images that seemed to be reaching out towards one another forging connections. Around that time, I’d been reading the novel Ghostwritten by David Mitchell and was so drawn to the way he weaves different narratives throughout his writing. There’s a chapter focusing on a sort of detached consciousness that flows from person to person around the world– a noncorpum as they’re called (noncorpa being plural). I began to identify with that sort of narrative in the work. I could feel this web of connection that covers everyone and everything across the earth, and imagined the ways in which the smallest moments can have a profound effect that may then be passed on and on and on. So noncorpa I became more of a birth and an inward looking journey to connect across scattered imagery. In this way I did want a sort of found look to them even if there are just a few actual found images in the works.
Noncorpa III came about as I realized I had images related to the previous series but felt as if they were a new verse. These new images were more outward looking and focused on the natural environment. I was photographing and thinking more about how distance can appear relative in both space and time. Continuing the journey, but perhaps not trusting perception.
Constructed imagery really took hold with this inkling of thought. It arose naturally as part of the process. For ages I’ve carried prints around with me… some mine, some found. I’d be in a landscape and would pull out one of these mementos in order to see how it combined with a new space. And because I’d already been working with the original noncorpa images I would often have some of those prints with me, and they would find their way into new work. This would happen in the darkroom too. I love the act of printing as it very directly connects me to the moment of making the shot. I feel an anxious/tense sort of excitement with both. I began to see new combinations of test strips and experiments in the wash and would snap photos with my phone. That transitioned into doing the same via large format film. It was about the image as an object and a record, and portraying it that way. Out of this is where noncorpa IV was birthed. Well more of a rebirth, peeling layers back to find something new. Recontextualizing.
And I am planning on a couple interstitial verses as well as a culminating one. But we will see where the work takes me. It is still living and growing, contracting and shifting.
KS: I am interested in your process of creation; the way in which you are working with existing photographs, both yours and found, to give them new meanings. This reminds me of an essay by Geoffrey Batchen where he talks about the medium of photography as being cyclical in nature – never becoming obsolete but turning in on itself again and again. Our contemporary photographers are constantly making new discoveries with traditional techniques – I feel as if your photographs are doing this, too. Your aesthetics feel very fluid to me, as if you treasure every slight imperfection as an inherent part of the process. May I ask about your methodology in the darkroom? How do you decide on the final aesthetic or the separate way to treat each image?
I’ve been fortunate to have a small darkroom at home for awhile now. Sadly there were some years I had left it dormant, and when I started printing again all my old paper was fogged. It was a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to play around with printing without worrying about “wasting” expensive paper. This quickly led me to seeking out expired paper and realizing that even some very old paper can still produce an excellent image while lending some individual quirks depending on how it lived its life up until an ebay seller sent it to me. My dad who is a fantastic photographer also has given me much of his old paper as he now shoots primarily digitally. The life of all this vintage paper is a factor in the work, but I don’t want to make it about the paper as much as how the paper contributes to the end result. I have a decent range of sizes and surfaces and levels of fog across it, and when I print I usually have an idea of what I want to stress or portray in the image then can target what size and paper I want to use.
Choosing an image to print tends to result from where my thoughts are that day. And as my process is also very of the moment, it builds upon itself as I play around further. I often use various tissue papers and transparent materials to partially expose the image (honestly the best I have found is Marcal brand toilet paper). This helps shift focus to certain elements in the image as well as creating a sort of veil which helps to define the space. It also diffuses the edges. Hard edges of prints have always been the bane of my darkroom printing. For me it creates this aggressive enclosure of a view, distracting from actually looking at what I want to show. This is often why I play around with processing in the chemistry as well; especially for the more fogged paper as it allows the image to blend in and out of the borders and aids in obscuring that hard rectangular edge. Some of the really old paper has inherent splotches in the emulsion that also achieves this. That’s something out of my control but a welcome surprise when it happens in a fortuitous way. So much of my enjoyment comes from these types of imperfections and mistakes that lead me down new paths. This is why even with a vision in mind it can take me hours to print an image I’m excited about and also why it can make it very difficult or literally impossible to create an edition of certain darkroom prints. I’ve taken to not throwing out any print, even the tests, as I will often look at them the following morning when dry and realize one of the outliers is a favorite. Or maybe there’s an interesting combination of two tests I hadn’t considered.
The aesthetic variation at first bothered me because I felt they didn’t fit together, but as the prints grew I found that this made more sense than having everything printed uniformly. Their diversity actually brings them together. They are disparate but all very of their own moment, and I would like to think they all seem to come from the same hand.
KS: This series offers up beautifully poetic motif that, for me, communicates a warning of loss, or a disconnect between us (human kind) and the natural world. I read this in the repetition of tears and boundaries between images – something broken but maybe not loss. Can you speak to this aesthetic decision and the role it plays within this series?
JTK: “Broken” to me can be subjective of course. I have more recently been playing with the idea of kintsugi. A japanese practice in pottery that uses precious metals to mend broken items, highlighting their wear and tear as an important characteristic in the history of an object. I intend to use this a bit more in noncorpa, viewing the tears in a similar way. While not repaired, I wanted to show a human presence… a mark or blemish or footprint even. And although a disconnect is shown with a tear or border or boundary, the inherent connection still manifests however delicate. As a way of imbuing this sense of history into a print I’ve also taken to carrying around some in my pockets as well as using them as bookmarks… giving them their own little journeys much like the ones I’ve carried in my travels. I tend to not be a glass half full or glass half empty sort of person. I’m more curious as to how the water got there and what’s been done with it. Who left a glass of water on the counter and why… and where did they go?
Though I will admit that you really have had me rethinking this quite a bit… while I do have a sense of hope, I hadn’t fully considered how dire this could look. Like scattered leftovers of a world without humans. I’m not really opposed to that interpretation either.
KS: Kintsugi is an exquisite process! This notion of embracing the past, finding worth in flaws instead of masking them seems fitting. I see a correlation with some recurring symbolism in your work, the tear, yes, but also a very poignant branch that resurfaces in noncorpa I, III, and IV. I’m curious, is this purposeful? Or is it merely a result of your working practice?
JTK: I’m very glad you brought up that branch specifically. This is a good example of a strange web of chance encounters. I was originally struck by the alluring gesture of the branch and the way it seemed to mimic the half dome in Yosemite it stares out at each day. A year and a half later, and a five hour hike up the mountain, I found that this same dead branch had weathered several seasons, hundreds of storms, and yet persisted. I happened to have a print of the original photo with me at the time and shot some more. Days after this second visit I was in a thrift shop here in Brooklyn, sifting through a bin of old photos and telling myself, “Okay, one more good photo find and then you need to leave.” Almost immediately, I found an old postcard clearly taken from the same area in Yosemite but dozens of years before me.
I leafed through my photographic archives for clues and comparison, trying to figure out exactly where it was taken at. I was absolutely shocked to find a matching cleft of rock that showed the photo I found was shot in almost the precise location as my branch photograph… only about 100 years prior and a couple steps to the left. I’ve been back a third time and as of last November that branch still survives. I also confirmed that indeed the photo I found was taken about two steps to the left of my own.
To respond to your question directly, this repetition is strongly purposeful now, but I feel it stems (pun intended!) from my fluid approach. I had gone back and forth on whether to turn all photos relating to the branch into its own series, but realized it was its own microcosm of the larger scope of noncorpa. And the branch felt like such a good symbol of the ways in which stories branch out even if still part of a larger narrative. With this one I had a more specific and direct story to tell (which I actually did on it’s own here). There are some other recurring elements within the work, though I would like to include a few more as obvious as the branch.
Jesse working in the field, under the tree of the recurring branch, looking out towards it.
KS: To quote you directly: this work invites chance, mistakes, imperfection, and most importantly, openness. These parts make up the whole. What lead you to adopt this way of working? I am interested in hearing about any philosophy, ideology or artists that inspire your work.
JTK: So much of it is the enjoyment of the process. I gravitate towards naturalists (big surprise!) because their writings tend to have a visual component I can relate to alongside the philosophical content. In high school I was inspired to be an architect by Frank Lloyd Wright and his philosophy of incorporating nature into the home, making it flow in and out. James Turrell was an early influence in looking at the larger picture of the experience of art and how it should be experienced, as well as his ability to reach for a larger holistic approach. Lately I am influenced by John Muir (clearly inspired after my Yosemite visits) and Annie Dillard (who quotes Muir plenty in For the Time Being). They’ve flooded me with ideas of connection and oneness of the world amongst its beauty and peculiarities; reminding us that we are not separate from the natural world but immersed in it each day, no matter where we are. Many of my images when home in the city are shot in my overgrown backyard. There’s a whole world back there with boisterous sparrows, stray cat squabbles, bees and other fliers bouncing around the flowers, my meager window garden, and one time an older man who crept back midday to hide under the bushes and smoke something illicit. And come summer there will be far too many Asian tiger mosquitoes.
KS: Your backyard sounds like a true adventure! You seem to have a deep affinity toward nature and the natural world. Though this work feels dire, the underlying message (I think) is rooted in a relationship of care and responsibility. I’m sure I can hear you saying to us “just look and listen”. Where, for you, does this work find its footing in our distracted and information-driven world?
JTK: Just as I was mentioning Dillard, you saying “just look and listen” really seems to be in her voice. So a big yes to that and am thrilled that it comes across. Just this last week I suddenly remembered the “overview effect” where astronauts describe this deeply profound shift in mindset once they are far enough away from earth to look back and see just how beautiful and fragile it looks in a sea of emptiness. They describe the overwhelming sense of oneness and protection and a literal cosmic perspective of how little our pettiness matters.
In some way, I see the work as an ideal with its shell peeling up a bit to reveal imperfections. I certainly am a part of this distracted and info-driven world but desire to shed bits at a time. In reality as I was writing this and mulling it over, I went back and worked on editing some other work all while keeping these thoughts in mind. So perhaps there is the crossover and fluidity we spoke of and how it pops up? Muir in his journals writes about the desire to just walk out into the mountains to live if only he had an endless supply of bread. There’s always the “bread” and the reality of our society however imperfect. Still, like I mentioned early on, I have hope even if the current state feels dire. I hope we can find a sense of wonder and awareness and thoughtfulness of their surroundings. Perhaps a reframing of what is out there and how we engage.
I was thinking of paraphrasing Carl Sagan’s famous quote here, but he communicated it so well:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
It gets me every time.
KS: Jesse, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning of your process. Your contemplative way of working is beautiful, and your statement about of a web a consciousness that connects us has stuck with me. To wrap things up, can you tell us what is in store? For you, this series, or your art practice?
JTK: Thanks so much Kyra! This has been a great pleasure conversing with you, and it has helped to contextualize this work in new ways and see it through fresh eyes. Your perspective has been truly insightful and given me new ideas going forward.
Through May 18th I have a couple of the noncorpa works on view as a part of a show Jen Ervin curated at Redux Art Center in Charleston, South Carolina. Going forward with the series, I have two interstitial and more meditative ideas in mind, as well as an idea for a culminating portrait related chapter in order to bring the “self” back into it. In the meantime, I figure a way forward in juggling the dozens of ideas I have at any given moment is to create smaller and quicker series of works that don’t try and take on as grand a scope. This has lead me towards working on zines and other small publications as well as collections of prints (The Fire, is one I most recently finished). They involve similar themes of connection, perception, cyclical time, and memory.
Yet I know I’ll always be thinking more macroscopically and hopefully returning to that same branch in Yosemite… as long as it’s there and as long as I can reach it. If it falls or I do, well then we had a good run of it. I’m reminded of a Muir quote I think I first saw on a magnet I bought in the gift shop section of the Yosemite general store. The magnet is an illustrated view from Glacier Point and reads, “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men.” I looked into the context and it’s far more profound than what could fit on the small magnet. He had climbed up a tree on a mountain during a wind storm to have a new experience and see what he could learn. He said,
“We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings–many of them not so much.”
I’ll continue on with my tree-wavings.
To view more of Jesse Taylor Koechling’s work please visit his website.