On RADAR and Red Clay
Bill Boling is curating a visual geography of the South
"It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity." J. B. Jackson
Years ago, the RISD Museum asked me to curate an exhibition of contemporary landscape photography. That was exciting because the landscape had always been an interest of mine. I’m an avid hiker and backpacker, and these days an enthusiastic walker, and being out in wild places always makes me happier than just about anywhere else. Around the time of the landscape show, I met photographer Gregory Conniff, who, it turned out, lived just down the block from me on Rutledge Street, the original FlakPhoto HQ. I told Greg about the show I was curating and asked if he could teach me what he knew about landscape photography.
That’s a funny thing to think about in retrospect — and an obvious indicator of my naivete at the time — because it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can download to a hungry young photo geek on a morning coffee date. But Greg was a good sport, and he sent me home with a stack of photography books and some recommended reading. One of the books he suggested I pick up was John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time (Yale University Press, 1994). Years later, the photography curator George Slade gave me his copy of the book when he was thinning his library — I assume to make room for new photography books.
Jackson’s ideas greatly impacted me because they made me realize that landscape was much more than the natural environment. Place is cultural. It was a short leap to a new understanding of landscape photography focused less on depicting the natural world and more on the practice of picturing place. Photographers have been photographing mountains and rivers for a long time. Landscapes are one thing, but cultural geography is something else entirely. Seeing new things in the pictures I was discovering was a revelation. These are big ideas but easy things to grasp, and back then, it opened my eyes to a new way of exploring the world in pictures.
Since then, I have been deeply interested in the history of places and how we humans inhabit them. And I realized long ago that any place is photographic if you learn to see it that way. So when projects focusing on place-based photography come across my desk, it grabs my attention. That’s why my curiosity was piqued when Bill Boling called to tell me about his new publishing project, a photo/poetry collection series he was launching. I knew many of you would be interested partly because so many of you love landscape as I do and because most of you share my passion for photography books. Bill has been running a small press operation down in Georgia for the past decade, and he and his team have developed Fall Line Press into one of the more interesting indie operators in the photography book space.
Bill has become a friend, and I love what he does. This new series is particularly intriguing, so I invited him to contribute to the newsletter with some background on RADAR — Vol.1: Red Clay and what inspired its creation. He and his team gave me a sneak peek and some stellar pictures are in the bunch. I’m grateful for the opportunity to show some of them here and hope you enjoy what you see. Spend some time with Bill’s story and jump over to the Kickstarter page to watch a short video about the project. I think you’ll like it.
Take it away, Bill…
“What has art ever done for me?” That’s a fair question. It has opened vistas of seeing into my life and the world in ways I could not have experienced by other means. It is a kind of can-opener for life.
My personal art practice and interests eventually gravitated to printed matter and book arts, especially photobooks. I made them and collected them assiduously until finally, in 2011, I founded Fall Line Press to publish the work of many artists in books, zines, newsprint, and other forms of printed matter. Now a dozen years later, more than 100 artists, writers, photographers, designers, and creators have shared their work in print through Fall Line thanks to our faithful band of makers, patrons, and supporters.
I want to speak here about the genesis of RADAR and Red Clay and its importance inside the context of Fall Line’s first dozen years. First, what is it? Red Clay is a collection of five photo books and a book of poems presented in a slipcase with original prints laid in. Red Clay is the first in a series of such collections, called RADAR, that examines ideas of place. There were many points of inspiration for RADAR. The spark of an idea that grows into an undertaking is rarely clearly seen at first – if ever. It’s like the source of a watershed that, little by little, becomes a stream and eventually a river. Here’s how the concept called RADAR fell into place and what it might mean if we are successful in its publication.
I love when an archive of photographs stands together, edited, and sequenced for coherence. A successful edit becomes, if not a narrative or meaningful journey, at least a tone poem or a direction for contemplation. There’s a kind of robust reassurance in the selected photographs’ numerosity and stickiness, which is one of the most satisfying experiences in visual arts. Thoughtfully assembled in a well-considered codex form and vessel, there exists the possibility of a deep, meaningful engagement – frequently made richer with multiple readings and discoveries. I can hold this book in my hand, and I can return to it again and again. The insights I take away may change as I change over time. And when the image edit is accompanied by compelling writing and a design integrated with the photographic project, the results seem to lift off the ground and travel to places that the photographs alone, in a gallery setting, social media site, or on a webpage might not attain.
That is what a proper photobook experience aspires to be.
Some years ago, I thought that perhaps one could edit and “sequence” a group of photobooks into a collection and pursue a similar and expanded vision. With Red Clay’s five photography books and a sixth book of poetry, I could scratch another itch I’ve had to examine territory and the psychological and physical terrain of places that have a particular resonance. Places where as I spoke their name, I felt a pull. One place of long-standing fascination for me and many others is my own backyard of what was once called the “Deep South.” We all have an idea, if not an opinion or two, about the southeastern United States. With Red Clay, our editors, Clay Jordan and Maury Gortemiller, and I took up the challenge of our southern homelands as a framework for a visual story about this place in the 21st century.
The Red Clay collection is part of the larger idea of RADAR to sound out serially notions of various places through the work of several photographers. By bringing out their books bound together, we can get at what’s there in the round. Each collection will allow us, over time and sequentially, to visit the territories that intrigue us. We named the series “RADAR” for obvious reasons I’ve written about on our Kickstarter page and elsewhere. We have already set into motion conversations and work with artists in the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles who are actively developing ideas and projects that will be the basis for the second and third volumes of RADAR next year – “NW” & “LA” are the working titles. Still, we’ll have to see what emerges as the collections find their shape.
Finally, we wanted to broaden and expand the number and kinds of voices and visions we could publish. We felt a series of collections needed a lead curator from the region explored, with insights beyond me and our internal team of editors. We were happy that our friend, the accomplished Georgia-based photographer Maury Gortemiller, for Red Clay, agreed to contribute his project, Make Believe. That book became the keystone for recruiting other work to the collection. Over four years, we brought Nydia Blas, Tim Davis, Laura Noel, and Anderson Scott into the collaboration. And with Maury taking the lead, we selected, edited, and sequenced each project so that the ultimate collection had a synchronicity and range of vision that made for a great reading experience and a genuine ‘toes buried deep in the red clay’ feeling—wings and roots in a single slipcase.
We were fortunate to attract to Red Clay the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Forrest Gander who has a great affinity and touch for photography and the South, to contribute his poems to the work. And as with many rivers that begin small at the headwaters and grow into powerful, rolling streams out to the sea, we found along our way an award-winning designer, Margaux Fraisse, and a brilliant young artist, Dyanne Horgan. Together they created drawings for the book, case covers, and an overall design we love.
The great reward of seeing RADAR and Red Clay come to life is the certainty that with the publication of this collection of works by these outstanding photographic artists, some new openings, understandings, and possibilities will be introduced into the mainstream of our cultural lives. We hope you enjoy RADAR and look forward to putting it into your hands.
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One more thing…
In 2012, Greg Conniff staged a 30-year retrospective exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery here in Madison, Wisconsin. If you like his work, you’ll appreciate this conversation with Greg and curator Martha Glowacki. Enjoy!