Crown, Paula — Conversation: Exchanges between Paula Crown and Walter Niedermayr 2012
How would you describe your work?
Essentially, my works have evolved in serial form since 1987; this involves a different method of working than the realization of single images. In this way I direct attention away from a fixed image and toward a sequence of images, and this in turn introduces different questions and ways of viewing than might otherwise arise with a single image.
A central aspect of my work consists in exploring variations of the boundaries of what can be depicted. Images and the notions of space are movable details and therefore constitute imperfect framework criteria. By representing the image as a sequence and allowing duplications, overlaps, and other fractures, one introduces the temporal aspect and other qualifying criteria. It is my intention to disregard the cult of the single image and to photograph the same motif in different time phases and under different conditions, thus revealing even barely visible changes. Moreover, image sequences and image fractures accentuate the actual or presumed ruptures in the topography, similar to what happens with perception. The strategy of repetition in the form of minimal differences and overlapping and opposing points of view can cause unsettling or confusing effects that repeatedly undermine the short circuit between reality and image. In addition, the serial method of operation stimulates the image narrative.
I imagine creating an image space in which the observer is able to define their own point of view. Ambiguity in respect to content, ambiguity in respect to form, and ambiguity in respect to the possibility of a closer examination. There are several potential approaches such as social or landscape-specific processes or aesthetic questions in respect to landscape, spatial consciousness, and environmental/ecological awareness, as well as questions regarding perception—reality of the image, spatial reality, and limits of representation. The work is not, at first glance, obvious, though it might seem so. There is an initial level that might be misleading, but there are other ways of accessing the work. The viewer is not expected to take any definitive perspective but can create his own references within the multiperspectivity. I think it will challenge the viewer’s perception.
There are jarring elements between the pictures, repetitions, overlapping layers, different perspectives, and temporal shifts. The work oscillates between the beautiful appearance of a so-called reality and the reality of the image; it is aimed at revealing the media mechanisms as well as at challenging and honing perception. Furthermore, the works address social processes; in this way they show instable systems in open and closed space and make reference to social and political conditions.
You and I have spoken about human intervention in the landscape. Do you consider this to be the universal theme of your work?
I am looking for a neutral position for myself, one that will speak to people in different ways. I seek to create ambiguity, but that is not to say that I want to act as an environmental or above all political artist. My aim is to generate a degree of distance that will allow me to take a neutral stance to events, by no means to point an incriminating finger at anything.
Seeing and observing what we call “reality” is always embedded in perception patterns, but this is something we tend to overlook. Routine observation, for example, takes place in perception structures appropriate perhaps for an object, but not for living things, not for all that is complex, interrelated, possible. Seeing habits are often simply passed on without the viewer’s conscious realization. Which view do we take when we look? What are the seeing habits in which we dwell?
Reality is constructed through our senses, thus the so-called truth about our existence is only an apparent one.
There is no right way of viewing, nor are there formally definitive solutions that can rise above all that is momentary. At the same time, my compositions cannot be perceived as individual works due to their common motif. Though the viewer immediately recognizes or is able to interpret the motifs, they tend toward abstraction. The images—nearly abstract yet bound by reality, neither uniform nor disparate in their views, lacking a uniform, formal contingency and yet determinedly composed—defy classification and steer toward a different kind of photographic handling of visual reality and toward the making visible of spatial contexts. A further intention would ultimately be to apply the technical means of photography to contradict the medium’s alleged claims to reality and to point to the openness and limitlessness that can lie before and behind the images.
How did your interest in photography begin?
When I was about ten years old, my grandfather took a photograph of me and my siblings. He used a folding camera on a tripod. This impressed me, and I still remember it vividly. Later, my interest in photography, architecture, and film in general grew and has since developed into an ongoing autodidactic preoccupation with the subject.
Why did the mountainscape become the central motif of your work? What was the process involved?
I began dealing with the Alpine landscape because it was the environment I had known since childhood. When I was a boy, this landscape wasn’t as crowded as it is now; there were less people and less tourism. Twenty years later it already looked remarkably different. What I had experienced there in younger days had felt somehow closer, more intimate. Back then you did not meet as many people and, if you did, you were more likely to actually talk to them. This implies a different kind of interaction with the landscape, which in turn resulted in the fact that less crowded conditions allowed for something different, and opened up other possibilities. By contrast, when I encounter throngs of people in an Alpine setting, I feel like I am in an urban pedestrian zone, and this leads to other human constellations and relations. I perceived this increased population and the resulting restructuring of the landscape as a possible photographic approach. It gave me a direct field of experience to work with.
Can you talk a little about how the Aspen Series developed over the past year?
There was certain amount of risk on both of our parts, but I felt that we shared similar visions and values. The Robert Miller Gallery in New York sent me an e-mail in late 2008 informing me that the Crowns from Chicago wanted to invite me to see if I could develop a project in the mountains there. At the end of January, just before the opening of the exhibition in New York, my wife Cristina and I met with Chris Byrne, who told us what you and Jim had in mind. The invitation sounded interesting, we were curious about a region that was completely different than the usual European one. With Chris Byrne accompanying us we set out for Aspen a few days later equipped with my photography gear. Once we got there, everything proceeded systematically, we met for the first time, then there was the meeting with Jim and the Aspen Skiing Company team, the people from Little Nell, and Heidi Zuckermann of the Aspen Art Museum. All that helped give us an overview of the situation, and I was able to start work immediately the following day. Our collaboration was one based on trust. Of course we also thought signing a contract was important, but Chris’s persuasiveness was what reassured us that the whole project would develop in the right direction. Chris’s role as curator and mediator was fundamental for the smooth operation of the project in Aspen because the first time we were there for just under a week, and we wanted to see and try as much as possible. That wouldn’t have been possible without the unconditional support and active assistance of the Aspen Skiing Company team, Michael Kaplan, Lea Tucker, Jeanne Mackowski, and especially Jeff, who took me to explore the most remote places. My work procedure in Aspen was similar to that of most of my projects in the alpine space. Of course, by now I am able to draw on a certain amount of experience in exploring similar topographies, allowing me to proceed more systematically. The new or surprising aspect within a landscape sometimes evokes new image variations, developing my work further. I believe one can learn something from every place, as long as one actually gets involved in that place. And sometimes this only happens subconsciously. In the end every place we have been to leaves traces in us. Maybe my photographs are somehow like these traces (impressions), in a way rendering the context of Aspen visible through images. To do this I usually used a certain work procedure, which might be described as follows: From a distance events seem different and take on a different meaning than from the direct situation. That implies that the distance between oneself and a given situation determines and has the power to change the view and its perception. A logical course of events in respect to their immediacy is thus made abstract and could trigger an impulse to call the given situation into question.
What interested you specifically about Aspen? How did Little Nell’s history play a role?
Another important aspect involved in understanding this landscape was the history and development of the view of landscape and the resulting shift in view over time, from the native inhabitants, the Ute people with their respectful use of the landscape, to the miners and their utilitarian notion of the landscape, to Aspen’s redevelopment following the decline of mining around 1936 and its growth into one of the most modern and posh ski resorts in the world, a transformation that coincided with the rise of winter sports tourism. Yes, Little Nell’s history begins in the mining days in and around Aspen. Of course this sparked my interest, and I soon found something in common because back home in the eighties I had spent several years photographing a then recently abandoned silver mine that had been in operation for 400 years. What remains in Aspen from this bygone age would probably be easier to recognize and discover later in the year when the snow melts, I’m interested in pursuing this. I assume that much of the essential elements that make Aspen what it is today were established in the days of the mining boom, for instance the expansion of the city from its oldest core on the mountainside, the main streets, and the emerging weath.
Other than Chris crashing the Suburban, what was the most unexpected event during the project?
What I find surprising are usually the unexpected situations, and I encountered many in Aspen. First there was the landscape, which is in its structure topographically so fundamentally different from that of the Alps, then the pleasant arid climate and the resulting powder snow, and I also experienced the atmosphere on the slopes as much more relaxed than back home. The city in itself was also different from what I was expecting, the development that was made possible through the unique blend of tourism, economy, and culture. I was also amazed to find a Bauhaus settlement in Aspen, I never would have imagined that, nor did I realize that Austrian and German immigrants pioneered Aspen’s cultural and touristic development. “Art in Unexpected Places,” is an important project in this context. This collaboration between the Aspen Skiing Company and the Aspen Art Museum demonstrates how fructifying it can be to work with artists over an extended period of time because it produces surprisingly inspiring works. For me it was interesting to participate in the Aspen Ticket Project, which arose from a dialogue between the Aspen Skiing Company and the Aspen Art Museum. It is a work in progress that can be seen in public space and will be expanded in the future. I find important the idea that art should enrich our everyday lives and also that this idea should be lived out. The whole time I worked on the Aspen project was highly motivating because I felt your openness and the matter-of-factness with which you accepted my proposal to install my work at various sites—from the Aspen Mountain Restaurant to the Tree House in Snowmass to the ticket offices—thus exposing them to a wide audience. In the beginning I never would have expected this project to take the course it took, and I am pleased that after three years we are still working on it. Not to forgot, Chris is a very important, indispensable link between the many participants. And last but not least, I would like to mention the surprise performance by the electronic band Ratatat from New York on the evening before our departure.
The morning you photographed the Highland Bowl was beautiful—do you have a favorite image from the series?
The Highland Bowl is a unique, breathtakingly beautiful place. I have several works of the Highland Bowl that I think are good. Singling out one work ultimately means that it must meet one’s own demands thus making it an essential part of the project.
Aspen is the first landscape that you’ve photographed outside of Europe; what differences did you find?
I’ve taken photographs in the mountains in Japan, New Zealand, and North America, specifically in Nevada, California, and Oregon. There is no comparing my experience in Aspen to any of these places because to some extent the topographical conditions (elevation, vegetation, and climate) differ greatly. The vegetation and climate are unlike those in Europe: the tree line extends to 3,400 meters above sea level, and the mountains have an arid climate, powder snow, and the freedom to move about is virtually undisturbed.
Are there similarities between the Colorado landscape and the Italian Alps?
I only know this landscape in Colorado as a winter landscape. The two areas are quite different, although they can both be characterized as alpine areas. One difference is the tree line: on the Italian Alps the tree line ends at roughly 1,800 meters above sea level, which produces a completely different impression: a bleak, treeless high Alpine topography. The snow quality also differs due to higher humidity, and the winter sports industry is much more pronounced. In Colorado, the tree line extends to around 3,400 meters, there are far fewer skiers, and you have much greater freedom of movement. The arid climate produces a light powder snow, a dream for every skier. I was surprised how high Aspen is. The highest resorts in Europe are located at 2,500 meters; that’s an elevation difference of 1,000 meters. Nevertheless, the exploitation of the high alpine regions for tourism in both places is unmistakable. In both places one senses a kind of spatial acceleration; nowhere do things change as quickly as in places populated by tourists with their fads and fashions, their newfangled sports, and the infrastructures required by these.
What is your relationship to the alpine landscape?
I don’t have any special relationship to the mountains, apart from the fact that they make up my immediate surroundings most of the time. It was natural for me to work with something I knew relatively well. With a landscape or a place that is new to me I look at it and explore it up close, so that I can step back later and put some distance between us. Knowing about the nature of something that is directly visible gives me the distance I need to take a neutral stance, which in the extreme case should be as if the photographer behind the camera had vanished.
Your work’s approach to light is unique and very identifiable; can you tell us how this came about?
Brightness is a crucial factor in my images, whereas the subject differs according to the project. In my architectural photographs the horizontal usually dominates in the interior spaces, while open landscapes allow both the vertical and the horizontal. Color, light, and space are always connecting criteria. As I said, the essential element is brightness because brightness makes something else visible. This can be also explained as follows: darkness makes things disappear and brightness makes them emerge, although it generates a reductive effect, as shadows and contours disappear in the picture. In this way, new pictorial values emerge and images often appear twodimensional—as a condition that corresponds to the picture reality. Landscapes are threedimensional, amid which people seem vulnerable, almost like marionettes. Brightness also has to do with the non-color white, which is generated when all colors of the spectrum are mixed with the same energy intensity; but white as such does not exist; rather what does exist is a sensibility for perceiving white. All this also has to do with a reexamination of perception and social circumstances through photographic images. I don’t strive for documentary reproduction in the traditional sense; instead I seek to contradict the medium’s purported claims to reality using the technical means of photography and to make reference to the openness and boundlessness that can lie before and behind the images.
Each of your compositions is made up of two or more photographic panels; what aspect of the landscape does this format address?
The exploration of viewpoints and standpoints arising from the movement process is well suited to my serial working method because according to the observer’s perception the images are constantly shifting, relocating, and repeating themselves. In the end each photograph is a fragment of a much more complex structure. Through their ambiguity, the images break open the typical homogeneity of place and time—in the form of a snapshot—and literally expand the horizon of perception. The serial structure derives from a rejection of the iconographic image and the fact that what we see on our retina is never a single image but many points of view. This experience transforms our peripheral vision into foveal vision, and vice versa. Since the only stable point of view has been called into question, we are no longer able to reconstruct an image or a narrative; rather, what we are confronted with is a setting in motion of things and ourselves, yet in the process we do not gain control of the visible.
Is your work concerned with specific events within a landscape?
Generally speaking, I am not interested in events. I look for places where people are doing something in the landscape, where they are occupying and restructuring it. I find places that are largely devoid of people far less interesting. One might conclude that the only landscapes we have left are cultural landscapes, that natural landscapes in a pure or so-called pure state have virtually ceased to exist because man has already been practically everywhere.
What role does travel play in your work? Are there specific images that address this?
I like traveling because I am curious about everything that is foreign to me. I wonder if given a different place and different surroundings I would pursue what I do differently. Sometimes the topography of a foreign landscape suggests employing the medium of photography in a different way. But that doesn’t happen very often. I have, however, experienced that cultural and sociopolitical contexts in foreign places have opened up new work approaches and possibilities. It is also interesting to get to know a culture and its various forms through language, tradition, and architecture, with everything that contributes to making culture; and this varies from place to place, from culture to culture. I would say that there are shared commonalities, but they are superficial commonalities. On the other hand there are things that have evolved culturally, and these are different from the superficial commonalities, which are of a purely structural nature: there are many similarly built elevators, streets, et cetera in Japan and the United States. Sometimes they have even been built by the same multinational companies. These are the uniformities that are created, the systems of coordinates. Everything looks the same, moves in the same way, but they are not the things that evolved culturally, which are what set us apart from Japanese or American culture. The question is to what extent these superficial commonalites—these processes of making uniform— are changing our cultural, deeper-seated possibilities.
Photography and landscape share a long tradition; does your work make specific allusions or references to this history?
I am less intrigued by the historical references of the panel painting than by space in modern architecture and the distinction between natural and artificial space. In a further step, what is seen is condensed into an expression in which the visible is named and transformed at the same time. Thus my work should serve as a metaphor for addressing perception as a theme, a cross between appropriation and withdrawal, between naming and unspeakability. What we see also makes reference to all that we cannot or can no longer see. Conversely, one might also say that wherever something is visible there must also be something else that is non-visible.
Published in the monograph: The Aspen Series