By Felix Chrome
Our interview hasn’t technically started yet, but Hannah Swanson has already pulled out her phone and asks if I want to see the new stuff she’s working on. She opens Instagram and scrolls through pictures of glass sculptural pieces against mirrors and black velvet, chatting about technique and photographic theory with a casual excitement that had me asking questions before I’ve had time to put away my potato chips and start recording.
Swanson is a student at Evergreen, studying photography and art theory. Recently, she has focused on abstraction in photography, both in her own work and from an art history perspective. While a very serious art student with challenging work, she brings a certain playfulness to it as well. When we are done talking Swanson looks at the cover art again then laughs telling me, “I really fucked that one up” and explaining she only created the object seen in these photographs after accidentally dropping a large duct tape grid, making it tangle and stick to itself.
Can you tell me about the series these photographs are from? Last spring I was starting to dabble in abstraction, and I was using that quarter to study where that came from, what lead up to it, and what caused abstraction. Which originated as a kind of refusal of the real, which is an interesting contradiction in photography being that it is a seductively realistic medium. So I was interested in photographing things I was making and by using light I wanted to get as far away from that actual object as possible and make it unrecognizable through my series of steps. So it was taking duct tape, sculpting it, photographing it in black and white, and then taking those black and white negatives into the color dark room and putting them all into a monochrome tone, it was a series of repeated steps. I was interested in the multiple and what it can do when the viewer is looking at that because it creates a simultaneous opening up but also closing in when you are looking at multiple images of the same thing. My intention with that presentation of it when I showed my work at the end of the quarter was to put the pieces at different parts of the gallery so you would have to track them and then at the back of the gallery there was all of the images in a big grid. It became a game between the viewer and my work. You had to find each piece and they all played off of each other and they all lead into each other so it was like a continuous flow through the space.
The multiple images also seems to illustrate an aspect of your process of doing the same steps but subtly altered. Yeah, absolutely! Especially the piece that is inside, was one of the first things that I did and it was a study of the multiple, but also changing it so those images are the same image but it starts from one second and goes to like forty seconds, and it shows that degradation. That piece specifically is also referencing how the camera works and how like changing the aperture or changing the shutter speed drastically alters what you’re photographing.
All of your work seems very aware of the camera as a presence in your art, but there is also a sculptural aspect of these pieces since you made the objects that you were photographing, so I was curious if you have worked with other mediums at all? I have done some installation work. But I have only dabbled in other things in programs I have been in. But I have done a lot of art history stuff and a lot of my work references the research that I have done. Also a lot of abstraction in photography uses sculptural objects. Specifically, Len Lye and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy both were using sculptural things they were making and then photographing them, so I am really interested in that.
It’s also like another step of removal that you are putting in between the object and the image. Yeah, it is, exactly. Abstraction was, like I said before, the refusal of the real but also denying representation which is a thing I have a problem with in abstraction, but is still interesting.
Why do you have a problem with that? Because you can’t… because there is no possible way to deny representation when you are physically taking a camera that is rendering something that exists in our reality, and you can work within that or work against it but it’s there and it always will be there. There’s an indexicality; the image is always going to reference something. It’s inescapable.
But doesn’t it change that when you’ve manipulated images in such a way that because the viewer can’t tell what they are representative of they do begin to deny representation in some way? Yeah, yeah absolutely. When I was working that way it was kind of this sneaky attitude that I had like ‘oh people aren’t going to know what I’m photographing’ so it becomes this sneaky game. And looking back on that it really shows the power dynamic, that I have a camera and I can take a picture of these things and manipulate it so people cannot understand what it is. I think of the camera as an extended eye, but it can render things our eyes cannot see and I was using that to its utmost power.
What drew you to photography? I started doing photography when I was a baby, like 13, and I don’t know what drew me in at that time. But for the last two and half years, I’ve spent a pretty big amount of my time doing theory and research and reading, reading, reading, and writing about it, so I haven’t done a whole lot of work. There is a lot of problematic things with the camera, and I like addressing those things, and doing work that’s important for myself. It helps me figure out things, and understand things, and work through things.
Why are you interested in art that operates on such an intellectual level? I use photography as a tool to help me understand something. I like my work, when viewed, to be challenging to look at, and bring up questions. I think it is very easy to get an emotional response with a camera, not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s something I want to push against because its so easily achieved by using a body or using things that are very representational. Which is why I think I make things and photograph them in this way, because it is not the norm of what a photograph is meant to do. Photographs are meant to present information, I like thinking that, and when I work I ask what I am presenting to my viewer, what information am I trying to convey, and is that important? It makes my brain work harder.
What are you working on now or planning to do next? I am really stoked because I continued my studies of abstraction last quarter, and was just doing theory and research and writing, so I am really ready to do work this quarter. I am in Amjad Faur’s class and we are specifically doing work in the photography studio and looking at still life painting. And there is a really interesting thing when you are looking at the same things on a table and these object are presented in different perspectives but they are all in one space. I am really interested in recreating that. Basically putting objects in different perspectives and how they take up space within an image, and to alter the perspective of each object to throw the viewer off. I’m using a lot of mirrors and photographing into mirrors. So it is again making objects and photographing them but in a really formal way that is absolutely referencing Renaissance painting and the still life. Using painting as a reference point is really exciting! And I think it is really important, because everything in photography references some type of painting.