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Finding the Whole Inside Wang's Immersive Photos

by John Schacht

Finding the Whole Inside Wang's Immersive Photos

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Picture by Sam Wang

May 22, 2016

Photos: (top) Deep River Gorge, Spain; (middle) Pylons with skirts, China; ZP Venus; Qi-Yun-Shan Pagoda; (bottom) Some of Sam Wang's home-made round-image cameras, including an early 5x7 camera, a more recent  model that uses 120 roll film, and a 4x5 format camera.

The Tao Te Ching reminds us that when we "shape clay into a vessel, it is the space within that makes it useful." That's a useful instruction, too, for viewing the photographs of Sam Wang, whose Total Immersion exhibit runs May 26-July1 at The Light Factory (opening reception Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8:30 p.m.). Known for the circular format most of his photographs employ, it's tempting but reductive to get hung up on Wang's style and forget that form serves a crucial function in his work. The circular format invites viewers to step in and immerse themselves—hence the title of this exhibit—in the subject matter in ways that square or rectangular prints cannot.

One observer, commenting on his 2010 monograph, Sam Wang – Four Decades of Photographic Explorations, praised his photos for making "unremarkable scenes" remarkable as the form integrates figure and ground "in both quiet and assertive ways, (hinting at) the possibility of living harmoniously with nature."

Born in Beijing, Wang grew up in Hong Kong but left for the U.S. at the age of 20. After earning his MFA in photography at the University of Iowa, he joined the architecture faculty of Clemson University in the 1960s, hired to build a photography program. As he turned to more wide-angle lens use in the 1970s, Wang saw that the circular format captured his subject more completely. To maximize that signature shape, Wang began designing and building his own cameras (see below). His landscape studies in particular provided a kind of visual poetry, which is why Wang's works can be found residing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The High Museum in Atlanta, The Lishui Museum of Photography in China, and The Center for Creative Photography in Arizona. In 2012, he received the prestigious 2012 Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award, given by The Arts Commission and the Governor of South Carolina.

At 77 and retired from teaching since 2006, Wang continues taking photographs at a rate belying his age; he recently returned from his third trip to Spain in as many years, where he's photographed rural scenes in and around the Pyrenees. In fact, with just a couple of exceptions, the 35 prints in Total Immersion were all made within the last three years. Wang took time to discuss with Viewpoint how his signature format came about, what he's discovered about himself over the years through his art form, and how photography continues to inspire him.

The title of the exhibit—Total Immersion—what does that mean to you?

What it means is that the photograph, instead of being just a small window through which you look at the world, you actually can step into it. The way I work is, instead of editorializing what I see, I simply enjoy looking at the world as if I'm including everything in front of me. This comes from having lived in this part of the country for such a long time—with the trees and so forth, we can't get very far from things, so I had to shoot everything with a wide-angle lens. And with a wide-angle lens, I needed to get close to things before they had sufficient size. So when I'm close to them, the size-relationship changes, and I get a sort of intimacy with the subject—whether it's a rock or a pile of dirt, it becomes a more subjective point of view. That's also how the shape of the pictures came about. In order to show everything in front of me, I wanted to explore what the extent of the lens was, what the extent was of the image that the lens could give me. I started building my own cameras in order to capture the part of the light that usually has been cropped off with the frame inside the camera, with the intent of getting as wide-angle as possible.

I always felt a little funny that when we go out with a rectangular camera, we see the world in rectangles. We go out with a square camera, we see the world in squares. As a photographer, we ought to observe first, instead of presume what we're going to talk about, what we're going to see, what we're going to find. So if I included everything in front of me, I could go back and then cut out the section that I wanted to show. But once I started getting the whole thing in and I started making proofs, then the whole thing becomes so important, so interesting, that I decided not to crop any of it, and that became the circular format. So I really was not after the circular format. In a way, I kind of regret that because of the format there's so much attention on that shape instead of the content, instead of the attitude within the content. So the 'Total Immersion' is the best term we could come up with that shows an invitation for the viewer to step in and be immersed in the images instead of looking at it from a distance and talking about it within a particular frame.

Was the psychology behind the circular format something that you explored afterward?

It was a whole series of little steps. Of course I also discovered afterward that the circle, the round shape, is probably the most ideal form many religions use as a representation for the perfect state. So you can read that into it if you wanted to. And how much of that was in my subconscious when I did my work, I can't tell you. All I know is I still use all kinds of different cameras, but when I wasn't using the camera I put together in order to get the whole thing in, I felt a little funny that I was cropping part of the world out.

We live in such a rectangular world today, when you think about TV and computer screens and phones....

Actually, the very early version of the Kodak camera, the one that established the name Kodak, came with a roll of paper, and you'd take 100 pictures and then send the whole box back to the factory and they made the prints for you. And that very first one's shape, it was a round image, it was not rectangular. But very quickly it turned into a rectangle. I think—this is my guess—that it was for convenience, because for manufacturing, for cutting and so forth, round is much more awkward. So they just cropped and cut it into a rectangular shape.

Some of your more recent series focus on Spain—what draws you to it? Is there something about the light that attracts you, or certain areas like the Pyrenees? Or is it that you just enjoy going to Spain?

(Chuckles) It's the latter, I do enjoy going to Spain. But also for convenience. I have a good friend of mine whose PhD was in Spanish, and he lived in Spain when he was an undergrad student and so he is very familiar with Spain, he's written books on Spain and Spanish photography and so forth. And he and I went to China a number of times—I invited him to go with me, so he invited me to go with him to Spain on his Spain trips. That was three years ago, and for the following two years we've invited a few more photographers to go with us, and we meant mainly to do landscape photography. And the contact we have in Spain lives in the northwest corner of the country, and he's a photographer, and he loves to photograph the rocky landscape, or the Stonehenge kind of standing rocks and so forth, and that's just exactly what we're interested in. So I went there more as a convenience, I didn't know a word of Spanish, but tagging along was great—I don't have to worry about how to communicate and so forth. But because of that I saw the Spain that was almost completely different from my previous thoughts. I didn't know what to expect beyond the pop culture references—the flamenco, the bullfights, Spanish-style houses. But none of those were there. Those were all from the South—the Northern culture, the way people behave and everything else, is perhaps a little more like France.

That sounds like the difference between photojournalism, or Cartier-Bresson capturing the "decisive moment," and art photography, too, no?

Everyone has his own way of doing things, and I have very, very high regard for photojournalism. But that's a completely different thing—subject matter is extremely important, objectivity is extremely important—even though I don't think perfect objectivity is possible, you want as much objectivity as possible. But what I'm after is completely subjective. I know it sounds trite, but my kind of work really deals with things that I need to do, not what I need to bring back and show people. I do photography more to help myself see in a new way.

Henry David Thoreau said that it's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. That is, subject matter to me is not that important. For a lot of photographers, it is extremely important because that's the reason for the photograph. Whereas I feel seeing is more important no matter what's in front of me—how do you interpret what you see? How do you see it in a new way that's meaningful? And how do you use that experience to promote your own creativity? That is a lot more important than, say, to come out with a product to wow other people.

Do ever shoot in color or is that why you choose black and white as the main medium?

I was very, very interested in color way back when, but at that time color material was not readily available and not very permanent, so I did photo silkscreen using the print-making process to get some color, and that is completely artificial color. And later on I tried to make my own color prints and so forth, but it became very unsatisfying. You have a red apple, so you take a picture of it, the only thing you can talk about it, 'yeah, you got a red apple.' You can't say something else. Whereas image-making is more like poetry, perhaps, that is it works better if it's a suggestion rather than spelling out exactly what's in front. So I did mostly black and white, but I sometimes really long for using color, so I introduce color when I do gum prints, and more recently I've been doing, you know, 'alternative processes' work—in this show, these are mainly platinum with cyanotype, and I do that mainly to get a little hint of color. Instead of hitting you over the head and making it as bright as possible, or even trying to get it close to the real color, I like to suggest that there is a color change, and do it in a very, very, very light, very subtle and soft-spoken way so that imagination is more important than what you actually see with your eyes.

Did you miss the darkroom component of the equation?

The reason the darkroom is so very interesting is the fact that, one, it's a skill-oriented process, but these days we have less and less to do there so it's more about inventing and staring at the computer screen. Hands-on is less and less, and the dark room as a kind of quiet, meditative place for you to discover something—you have a piece of white paper and you expose it a little bit and you put it in the tray and it starts coming up—it's a very inspirational kind of act. So those are important elements that the digital landscape has sort of killed. And that's the reason some of us are doing so-called alternative processes, because that allows us to go back to the darkroom and invent.

When you add an individual to your landscapes they're integrated very holistically; how did you come to that technique?

The human form I was interested to use from Day One, from when I was an art student. We used the human figure in drawing, in painting and later on in photography as well. It's a real good way to kind of to say, 'okay, here we are—this is the way we were born, this is the way we are.' It's  a very honest kind of thing. For the longest time, I used the human figure in my photographs as a stand-in for the presence of me for everybody, and also as a way to introduce someone into the picture. I'm sure you're familiar with some of those grandiose, 19th century landscape paintings, with a huge waterfall and a couple of tiny guys pointing at the waterfall in front. Well, I always thought that was corny, but that was until one day when I hid those figures and I found that the whole thing falls apart because you don't have any sense of scale, and then there's not much more interest in looking at this—the sense that the spectator, looking at this marvelous, huge big thing, is lost when you don't have a person in there. I needed to make the scene something important and intriguing to the viewer, and a lot of times without a figure in there it just doesn't work well enough—the size, scale and so forth.

I remember this very clearly, it was very early in my career, I was out photographing on a beach, and I saw that there was some plywood on the sand, and somebody had flipped it over so that the whole thing, in a graphic sense, was pretty interesting. But something was lacking. I was by myself, so after I set up the camera I crept under the tripod and put my whole legs in the picture, and that completed the picture. If you looked at the picture and saw those legs, you could imagine very easily, because of the position, that those are your legs and that you are both stepping into the picture and you are looking at the picture at the same time. And that's the feeling I want to have for most of my figures in landscape pictures. Now, some of them, increasingly, have become a little more portraiture—in earlier days, it was pretty anonymous, I just needed a human figure. But more recently, I guess because of cultural differences, the models are less skittish about showing their identity today, so I include a little more sense of identity. Some of them are even quite close. But still, that sense of the universal, instead of a particular person, is still quite important.

You grew up in Hong Kong, one of the most iconic urban landscapes, but you rarely shoot urban landscapes. Was photography a way to escape that?

That, I have to leave up to my psychiatrist (laughs). I don't know. When I left Hong Kong it was already very crowded, and at that time it was already 3 million people. Now it's 6 million, and every time I visit China these days I find it very hard to breathe because of the wall-to-wall people. I don't intentionally not use cities, but I think the more quiet and serene landscape is more comfortable for me to be in and to work in.



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Tags: photography, Sam Wang, Total Immersion, The Light Factory, Spain, wide-angle lens, landscape, portraiture

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