During a torrential downpour two Saturdays ago, I spoke with Atlanta photographer Russell Cambron about his debut solo exhibition, Boy, Owl and Raven, in Whitespec at Whitespace.
—Whitespace intern Nathan Blansett
Nathan Blansett: Your new show in Whitespec seems to show an interest in the conjunction between childhood and nature. What about your work specifically is portraying these ideas differently?
Russell Cambron: Some of my influences are Sally Mann and Wynn Bullock, who definitely show childhood in nature. In my own take on the matters—the work is semi-autobiographical. It’s about my coming of age but it’s also about my coming out as a gay man, a queer man. In the artist statement, I talk about the child being “different,” and so that can be taken any number of ways. You know, Sally Mann, Wynn Bullock, they’re heterosexual families, white families. This is kind of showing a different perspective on that.
NB: Absolutely. The Sally Mann influence is so striking. I think a lot of people are really influenced by her—the intimacy of her photographs, which I think comes across in your work with this child that sometimes isn’t clothed, that is out in the wilderness. It’s interesting to me that you talk about the work’s relation to sexual difference. I think a lot of times when we’re thinking about queer art it’s cosmopolitan, urbane…I wanted to know if you feel there’s a connection between queerness and nature, or if your work is creating a connection between them, and why?
RC: I definitely hope it’s creating a connection—because it’s my own story. I grew up as a queer child in the South, in the rural north Georgia mountains about an hour from Atlanta. Definitely a lot of queer art is cosmopolitan—some fabulous work—from Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tom Bianchi, people like that—and I love their work, but there was always the sense in which I didn’t quite connect with it, though I connect with work like Sally Mann, Wynn Bullock, or people like Keith Carter, for example, whose work is in nature, Sally Mann and Keith Carter specifically in the South. I connect more with their work. So this project was in part an attempt for me to come up with my own story and bridging those gaps that I saw there.
NB: I was wondering if or how mysticism or magical realism function in the work? There’s a photograph where the boy’s touching the mirror, and there’s a blurring between his hand and the glass.
RC: My undergraduate work was in religious studies, and I did graduate work in that as well, and I also completed an M.A. in psychology. So that’s really coming more so from that theoretical background than a purely artistic background. Of course those approaches influenced my approach to art.
NB: And I like that, that art can be based not just in personal experience or something that’s emotional, but it can also conceptualize the intellectual. In what particular tradition do you see your work operating within? It’s photography, so there’s the photographic tradition, and it’s queer art, and there’s the tradition of queerness and visual art…but formally and conceptually, how do you see this work operating in those traditions?
RC: I feel like my influences are all over the map. I would hope to see it in the tradition of queer art, but maybe in the tradition of queering queer art in a way, because it’s not something we traditionally see. I hope there are a lot of people out there with similar stories. Part of the benefit of focusing on childhood is that it doesn’t have to be just about sexual identity. It could be any difference; it could be racial identity, gender. It could simply be being an artist. Growing up in the South, even being an artist, was a big thing as well. So I hope it would end up in that tradition.
NB: I’m curious about certain formal choices you made when pursuing the project and also putting the show together, that arrangement. What were some of those formal questions?
RC: One of the first decisions I made was to shoot in a 4×5 aspect ratio. I guess you can’t say 4×5 format, because it’s digital photography, but it’s a 4×5 aspect ratio. I started off with a kind of beta version of this, shooting with a 4×5 camera and also an 8×10 camera. At that point I was referencing things that were more specifically film. But when I moved to this project I was no longer trying to be specifically film. But I liked that format. It maintained that photographic feel while allowing for some of the flexibility of digital photography, which was especially important working with the kid, with all the energy he had. There would have been shots I would have missed had I been working with film. So I had the best of both worlds in that case. Coming across Whitespec as the location for the installation was perfect… because of its existence as the cellar or basement in a house. I think the second image in the series is the boy going down into the basement. And that comes from this theorist Gaston Bachelard, who wrote a book called The Poetics of Space. One of the things he talks about in that book is the descent into the basement—the house, the psychology of the house, and even the mythology and the poetics of the house—and going down into the basement is the symbol of going down inside oneself, the psyche, one’s history. Having that image and that poetic figure mirrored in the actual space itself—it’s just wonderful.
NB: Where does this work fall within your artistic life?
RC: Helping me find my own voice. I was struggling to find my own voice, artistically and then also as a gay male. I had this feeling of wanting to tell my story, and that story being about my coming out, but also more broad—about being an artist, even being liberal or leftist or queer. Just being simply liberal in the small town South was a big deal. Even that was a coming out process for me. A lot of gay art or queer art was cosmopolitan, it can be in-your-face—and I think that’s good, and I think we need that—but it didn’t match my own personal style. I started to realize some of the queerness inherent in my own inspirations, from Sally Mann to Wynn Bullock to Keith Carter. I read a book one time called Queer Phenomenology, by a theorist named Sarah Ahmed, and she talks about being queer and being in the world as not just about sexual identity, but about fitting in “slant-wise”—she goes into the roots of the word queer, and she talks about her gender identity, her racial identity, her ethnic identity. That stuck with me. And I was listening to an interview with Keith Carter, who’s a heterosexual male artist, but he talked about how when he takes a picture he slants the horizon just slightly. So I connected with the idea of “Oh, he’s fitting into the world ‘slant-wise.’” This was his own kind of queerness, if you will. So I was able to move from this idea of, If I’m a queer artist or a gay male artist, and I want to do queer art, that I have to do something that specifically is about sexual identity.
Russell Cambron’s Boy, Owl and Raven is in Whitespec at Whitespace until February 11.