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A 2020 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Artist Grantee, photographer Lois Conner is widely known for her platinum print landscapes made with a 7" x 17" format banquet camera. Her approach to landscape photography and its relationship to both history and history in the making ranges from work made in China since 1984 and photographs of the American West–in particular, images made at the Canyon de Chelly Navajo reservation – to a series of work on New York City as we approach the 2020 election, including the landscape in relationship to protests for social change and its transformation as a result of COVID-19. In addition to several photobooks, Conner has also had an extensive career as a photo educator at colleges and universities.
Beijing, China 2010 © Lois Conner
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Although you are perhaps most known for your work with a 7" x 17" format banquet camera, you regularly work with a variety of other formats—5x7 and 8x10 view cameras, Nikon and Hasselblad digital cameras, and even an iPhone. What are the advantages of having this type of technological dexterity?
LOIS: I like to think of my cameras as tools. You need to learn how to use them, so they become useful intuitively. I think each one of my cameras, with their different forms and their ease of use, does something very specific. A few years after graduate school, I switched from the more classical 8x10 view camera to the elongated rectangle of the 7x17. It could contain a larger narrative and the horizon stretched out like the curvature of the earth. My interest in the panorama led me to travel to China, where the elongated hanging and hand scrolls originated.
I always have a hand-held camera with me. Although I originally thought I’d be a street photographer in the great tradition of Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt or Lee Friedlander, I’m more of a contemplative photographer. Although sometimes I need the small camera to draw quickly what is fleeting, ephemeral.
Pennsylvania 2020 © Lois Conner
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Form and shape in relation to how a photograph is framed is something that is central to your practice. Can you tell us about your recent explorations of oval and circle shaped framing as a response to the pandemic?
LOIS: Recently, during the pandemic, I started making circular pictures. Suspended in space is how I feel, and the circle takes me there, with its telescope-like view and the lack of a hard edge. For me, this is a new way of looking, and similar to learning a new language. You don’t give up the other. It just makes your visual life richer and more complex. The intensity of this time and this format have made me work as if it is critical to my existence.
Napoli Observatory, Italy 2011 © Lois Conner
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Your stunning black and white photographs of China, a body of work initiated in 1984, have become iconic. However, you also work in color. When and why do you use color?
LOIS: For many years I tried to incorporate color into my practice, and the pictures I made, no matter the format, seemed to be in color, rather than the color being essential to the image. In 2010, during a residency in Italy, surrounded by Sol Lewitt’s fresco paintings, I began to layer several photographs on one piece of film. These doubles seemed to describe the world with a different clarity than a single exposure and called for transparency, a layering that both separates and unites. Particular details—such as clouds, stones, branches, roads and architecture—became part of an organizing system imposed on the landscape to create or exaggerate meaning, teasing out a different order and structure in the land and a sense of transposed time and history. It gave me the freedom to find my way in color.
Clover Trading, New York 2020 © Lois Conner
DUGGAL ART SCENE: As a landscape photographer, you approach the landscape as culture. Considering your recent work photographing New York City as we approach the 2020 election, what is the landscape revealing?
LOIS: Landscape as it embraces history is my subject. What I am trying to reveal through my photographs in a deliberate, yet subtle way, is a sense of time passing. This is a volatile time, the landscape of the city has changed considerably over these past four years, and since March, the changes have been unexpected and often dramatic. With the empty, then boarded-up streets, I began to see the city differently, my response and that of the people that live here has changed. Throughout the city there have been young voices using these blank walls to tell their stories, and I’ve found it very moving, not the senseless markings, but the paintings, silk screens, poetry, and prose that urgently add another layer to our history, make us pause and reconsider our direction.
Voice the Unheard 2020 © Lois Conner
All original photographs used in this article are copyright of Lois Conner © 1951-2020.