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Walking the desolate streets of Long Island City to reach the Columbia University School of the Arts 2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition (on view through May 20) at the Fisher Landau Center for Art, we stumbled right into former MFA student, Nat Ward. The highlight of the MFA Thesis Exhibition, Ward’s captivating photographic installation “He knew his days were numbers” provides a fascinating glimpse into American life and imagination.
A collection of 42 photographs taken throughout the country from a mother and her child in Florida to the salt flats in California, Ward groups together seemingly disparate images, using both black and white and color photography to create an engrossing and participatory experience for the viewer. For Ward, traveling throughout America is an essential part of his artistic practice, voyaging on solitary and sometimes exhaustive photographic excursions like walking from New York to Philadelphia.
After viewing “He knew his days were numbers,” we spoke to Ward over Peruvian food about the importance of solitary trips to his photography, his organizational process, and his interest in representing America.
WHITEWALL: You travel to different parts of the country to photograph, including walking from New York to Philadelphia. What prompted that decision?
Nat Ward: On the solitary trips, short or long, I want to get to a place where I don’t think too much about the photographs I’m making. I think a lot about musicians who know their instrument so well and have worked so long that they play from somewhere other than a self-conscious, mechanic, or logical place. I figure that if I want to have a similarly illogical relationship with my instrument, then I have to seek out illogical ends with my camera.
In that spirit, I woke up one morning in August last year, took a shower, and decided that while other people could walk from New York to Philly with a 35mm camera (in 2012 no less), not many people would. In fact, most people would think it was a completely ridiculous thing to do on any number of levels. The way I see it, if other folks aren’t going to do it, I can be pretty sure that I’m being illogical and should give the idea a try. I also had absolutely no idea how rough the blisters would be.
WW: What effect did the traveling and the walking have on your photography?
NW: There is a slowing and loosening that happens on the trips. The walks are completely removed from the rhythm of deadlines or a desire for control that can motivate a more meticulous kind of image production. I can pay attention to things that are dearly or otherwise discarded. I can internalize the stories of people I meet along the way. I can add to an ever-growing group of ingredients that I’ll use later in larger dramas. In a way, it’s very similar to how a novelist might live in a community for a number of years as research before writing a work of intricate fiction. They can take the stuff of that experience and make it into a new thing.
WW: Looking at the “He knew his days were numbers,” the smaller size of the photographs seems significant, making it more accessible for the viewer. What is the role of the size of the photographs?
NW: All of the photographs are standard photo sizes that you might get from your wedding photographer or suburban photo studio. The larger story of “He knew his days were numbers” is particularly domestic. I wanted every aspect of the piece to have a certain familiarity. Image size also works in tandem with arrangement to create a kind of rhythm in the piece. It’s so much about dynamics, emphasis and phrasing. I want to use the space of the wall and the variations in size to create dramatic pauses, clusters of tension, or to change the resonance of individual photographs.
WW: The manner in which you grouped the photographs on the wall is particularly evocative, allowing the viewers to make connections between the photographs. How do you organize the entire piece?
NW: I’m not really sure how the full flow or narrative of a piece will come together until I’m about half-way through it. That said, I spend a lot of time sorting though the thousands of images I’ve made, developing and determining the relationships of one photograph to another. I’ll start a piece like “He knew his days were numbers” by pinning a rough map of images to the wall of my studio. Over a period of time with the map sketched out, some photos stay, some get swapped for other images and some just get cut completely. I start loosely thinking about sizing and then mock up a scale model. From there, there’s some more re-arranging and editing to do but the over-all piece is pretty close to its final form.
WW: You use both black and white and color photography. Why do you choose to work with both?
NW: Black and white photography is this great abstraction of the world. It doesn’t look like the world as we see it with our eyes and, because of that, can operate more quickly as metaphor, allegory, or allusion to a characters memory within the larger piece. I think of how color and black and white can operate both harmoniously and in competition with one another within the same piece. The color work is more directly representational, but still a summary of sorts. Because of this, I usually treat the color photographs as the present tense of the larger story.
WW: The installation of the photographs interacts with the viewer’s body, as they study the work in detail and as a whole. How would you like to affect the viewer?
NW: I want it to be like a dance. There’s an architecture to the installation that changes the way people circulate as they move through the story. Just like a dance, I think it’s hugely important for people to lead, directing their own movement though the work. With that back and forth, the rhythm of size, negative space, intimacy, and overall scale, people can have an experience of the work in relationship to the movement and space of their own body.
WW: Your work seems to capture America, from the various landscapes to the abundance of cars in the photographs and references to American history. What inspires you about America?
NW: My first word was car and I think I said it twice at the time. I guess there are just some things that never change. But, in all seriousness, there is a particularly American current running through my work that goes beyond the visual vernacular of the images and places. Rather than seeking inspiration, I work to be a student of American experience. I try to create a space that exists somewhere between American mythology and the rolling tide of everyday life in this country. If the fictions resonate in that place, with America as a stage for visceral pleasure and human drama, then I feel like I’ve done my job.
Nat Ward (b. 1983) exhibits large-scale installations of multiple photographs that create sprawling fictional narratives. Features on Ward’s work have been published on Artinfo, Artlog, Burn Magazine and Humble Arts Foundation. He was an Artist in Residence at Andrea Zittel’s AZ West compound in the summer of 2012. Nat Ward receives his MFA from Columbia University this May. He lives and works in New York.