Something more felt than known: a conversation with Curran Hatleberg

Something more felt than known: a conversation with Curran Hatleberg

Curran Hatleberg’s photographs in his two completed projects, The Crowded Edge and Dogwood, depict a certain variegated togetherness across a community of working class Americans separated by geography, but nevertheless bound by the common difficulty of everyday life in a country riven by economic and social decay. His images do not shy away from the nuanced complexities of the violence that has been visited on the ordinary American community or individual, nor do they seek to avoid an honest engagement with the reality of that violence which fellow Americans have visited on each other. While his work can be described as brimming with the electric charge of some imminent conflagration, his photographs insist also upon the necessity of confronting the intense emotional and psychological cost of a decades-long erosion of the principle bases for opportunity, and for common purpose that has been the inheritance of neoliberal economic and social policy’s interventions at the very heart of the working class American community.

A certain rough, improvised texture runs through the bulk of his images, suggesting a continual struggle to manage the unstinting procession of time, and find some negotiated pause amidst the frenzied demands of daily life. Things have everywhere piled up into corners, and repairs have been of a temporary nature. Even the time necessary for remembrance seems to have been compressed under the influence of some other unseen pressure.

Often his subjects are depicted in the complex throes of an effort to make sense of their togetherness, and appear at odds to some degree with the environment that surrounds them – disconnected, albeit momentarily, from the ground on which they stand. This disjuncture is counterpointed by alarming and deeply compelling moments of sincerity and intimacy that serve not only to reassert the insufficiency of a model of victimhood as a means by which to make sense of hardship, but that also evince an unbending faith in the essentially humane basis of hope.

All of this is expressed in a vivid palette of striking contrast, and colour imbued with deep-running fertility. So often in these images colour is the analogue of a pivotal emotional tone, but what is perhaps most compelling about its use is the way in which it so often subverts the conventional expectation of the moment or environment in which it is employed. A certain warmth and gratitude underpin the tears of a middle-aged woman stood on a street corner, her gaze welcoming the touch of a man who whose face we cannot see, but whose finger gently brushes a tear from her face; another young woman with a black eye is crowned by the deep gold shimmer of small lights in the distance, her pallid complexion seeming at odds with the warmth that surrounds her. Life as seen in these images is both vivid and monochromatic – as complex as the contradictory circumstances that each photograph seeks so sympathetically to depict. In the end, the images deliver a truth more felt than known.

A Conversation with Curran Hatleberg

Your two projects, The Crowded Edge and Dogwood, seem to share an overlapping concern with the character of stoic resilience shown by Americans enduring acute hardship and inequality. However your images don’t simply identify the visible traces of the erosion of the American inner-city, for instance, but also refrain from making arbitrary moral judgements about its inhabitants. So I suppose I’d like to start by asking you how you understand your work within the broader context of documentary photographic practice at this particular historical moment? What do you take it to serve, and how did your developing views about it influence the progression of this work?

Both projects are partially anchored by concern with the current state of the U.S., although I don’t think my photography is dependent on our economic situation. That being said, it’s difficult to ignore the strange panic we’re in. America is synonymous with the American dream, but the reality of the American social landscape is not so simple. If you follow the news it’s easy to track the disintegration and loss. I simply tried to get out in it, to see what I could understand about the country’s pulse.

What I found (unsurprisingly) is that the realities of the issues facing the country are infinitely more complicated and out of control than what any picture can represent. I would never assert that my pictures offer any solution to the problems of such significant scope facing many Americans, nor am I interested in a visual illustration of the problems. The photographs I make, either found or invented, are my own fictionalized version of America and its inhabitants. My work strives to mediate and reimagine the American experience, in hopes of communicating a personal understanding of our shared time and place.

I should stress that I don’t see my work as philanthropic, fighting for social justice or bent on advancing progressive change. All the same, I am intrigued by the juxtaposition that arises when contrasting American ideals to the reality on the ground. Ultimately photographing for me is about unearthing something unexpected and learning something from it that was previously unimagined. It is about discovering something through immersion in an experience, prolonging fascination with a moment. In the end, of course, the photographs we make are never the real thing represented but are what we wish to see, the thing we want to believe exists.

Just following that thread, could you maybe talk a little about the kinds of encounters that you have while out photographing? How do you negotiate the privilege of photographing unknown subjects in unfamiliar places, and what governs the choices you make about where you go with the camera?

When I am out and about looking for pictures and meet someone new, I always say yes to their questions and requests. For me, submitting to chance and releasing control over a situation typically yields the most impactful pictures. No matter what you might anticipate, there is no accounting for the way giving in to risk can shake you and spin your senses. Too much control removes the magic and the critical components of urgency and surprise, and often results in a canned photograph or worse, the appearance of being overtly staged.

The types of encounters I have vary case to case, but almost everyone is a stranger, at least initially. Most meetings occur in the public sphere, while I’m waiting for an opportunity to arise: a casually offered cigarette or a half-hearted comment regarding the weather can permit a point of entry. When this doesn’t happen organically, I force myself to approach whomever I find interesting – which has never gotten easier. It took me a long time to make the picture while it’s there in plain view, and to stop making excuses. Circling the block to summon courage or deciding to return to the scene in improved lighting conditions always results in the vanishing of the subject. Some meetings expire in under five minutes without any attachment beyond the passing experience; some last days and more complex, problematic relationships develop.

While it’s certainly true that photographing unknown subjects is a privilege, I don’t claim deep intimacy or insight into the lives of those I photograph. That being said, I am committed to treating my subjects seriously. My interest is in understanding people as individuals, not the fallout of a social problem. I approach people because I’m simply curious about them. I hope the pictures of people convey some semblance of dignity, because they are precisely the type of individuals who are often wrongly perceived of as disadvantaged or outsiders. For me the picture making process has always served to prompt contact, and remove some of the indifference we have for each other — it supplies a reason for human exchange when I wouldn’t have one otherwise.

I’m very interested in how you’ve described many of your subjects, as being ‘precisely the type of individuals who are often wrongly perceived of as disadvantaged or outsiders’. I think that in the main, a particular kind of narrative is spun about contemporary America, one that seems to dismiss or marginalise a broad swathe of citizens. How do you grapple with the politics of representation when making images of people who are typically perceived as ‘disadvantaged or outsiders’?

The point I was trying to get at is that it’s pretty much impossible to separate observation from preconception, to see who someone is instead of seeing what you expect — we are all guilty of that. Most of our hunches are inaccurate speculation or confused interpretation. For better or worse, I don’t consider the politics involved. I approach everyone I photograph with the same curiosity, hoping to inject that feeling into the picture.

In formal terms, your work could be described as street photography, and while I’d be very keen perhaps a little later to talk about how certain particular images were made, I’m interested in how wide-ranging the locations for your images are, and how you try to make all of that geographic diversity meaningful within the framework of your particular themes? I guess I’m asking which America are you interested in, if that’s a fair way of stating it?

The America I am interested in is not geographic but psychological; the spaces, interactions and people that take part in the daily balancing act of contradictions: beauty and sadness, hope and despair, possibility and actuality. When I walk out into U.S. cities, they feel both familiar and unfamiliar. There is a beauty and mystery to our degraded landscape. The same things go on all over the country: urban decay, factories in disuse, rural communities shrinking. These symptoms are ubiquitous, equally evident from Florida to Oklahoma, Arkansas to Idaho. Kerouac described America as, “the same vast backyard.” I always liked that catch-all sentiment. America breathes to the same tired beat.

The wide scope of locations in which I photograph is due to my process. The pictures are the product of long, unhurried intervals of travel by car. Initially it was hard to restrict myself regionally because I was usually guided by intuition or the simple thrill of the unknown. I would rush back and forth across the country on the slightest pretext; a couch to sleep on, a girlfriend along the way, a location from a book I’d romanticized. When I didn’t find fertile ground I would just keep moving. I am still exhilarated by remaining expectant for a picture without knowing in the least what it will be. The car facilitates this process perfectly. The limitless road system links every tiny town to the largest metropolis — it’s all available by car, and its potential still feels inexhaustible.

After crossing the country a number of times, I looked at the pictures and I started to imagine the U.S. in terms of a broad concept, a complicated social landscape that contained the constant prospect of drama in the everyday. The stage I looked for was the generic anywhere, everywhere: a landscape distinctly American, yet hard to place within a specific region or city. The same fast food, parking lots, gas stations, and housing complexes blanket every state. In every city people rove the streets and alleys without destination or purpose. I enjoyed the idea that a picture in Ohio could be mistaken for Georgia or Texas or Connecticut.

It’s hard to answer this I know, but how do you think that that process structures or defines the place and themes that you find? I think of the broad distance that separates the classic Robert Frank way of photographing America by zig-zagging all over by road in a car, from that of Judith Joy Ross, working broadly in one place with an 8×10 view camera… And yet I think there’s a common ground between those very different works having to do with discovering something provisional, difficult, fragile, indifferent, and yet strangely beautiful and full of possibility…

Perhaps the common ground you mention between those photographers is a trust that daily life holds an endless supply of revealing and relevant dramatic possibility, while also communicating most directly who we are collectively. Exploring that notion is always important, pertinent and contemporary. It’s a method in which understanding arrives through photographing, taking it as it comes and putting it together as it passes.

Photographing with this approach certainly structures what I find. Much like the paths of travel I take, the trajectory of the project is always straying and changing. The heap of images constantly grows and the meanings shift with the quantity. Photographing this way is open-ended and shapeless until the editing process aids in whittling down the mess to a manageable concept and form.

Working this way provides endless freedom of choice, but also yields a lot of false starts. Many trips result in striking out, losing time and energy, not to mention money. A dependence on unknown subjects means that sometimes weeks go by waiting for a picture or inspiration to materialize. Being in unfamiliar areas often ensures overlooking things and failing to see chances. When bad weather settles in it can keep potential subjects sealed off in their homes, away from approach. It’s a constant struggle and often a maddening process. That being said, when the moment arrives unannounced, baffling and radiant, all the hang-ups and dead ends melt away. I remember Robert Adams saying that, “each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator.” The miraculous quality being that you knew it was there for you, hidden and waiting, all along, and you had to fumble, err and wait it out until it could be uncovered.

I travel light. I wear the same thing for a week at a time and sleep in the car. I favor working in the summer when days are long and people live their lives outdoors. Simplicity is my setup. For better or worse, I almost never employ a tripod, and rarely use a flash. The rangefinder I use has few controls to worry over, and despite its bulk has an athletic agility. Handheld, it allows a fluid, nimble responsiveness. Its shutter is as quiet as a kiss. I’ve worked with it long enough now that technical operation is instinctive, and I can focus in on the rhythm and primacy of the moment as it’s happening.

This is undoubtedly well-worn territory to enter, but thinking about the fluidity and the specificity you’re able to generate when working with the handheld medium-format camera, I have to ask about a couple of specific images: The Meeting, (from The Crowded Edge) and Denver, Tear, (from Dogwood). Were these impromptu events that you were able to intrude upon, did you ask your subjects to reconstruct them having seen something happen a first time, and perhaps even more importantly how did these moments and the images you made of them speak to you about your overall project? They’re both incredibly compelling, so I can’t help but to be curious…

Both of these moments were stumbled upon while walking around. In the “Meeting” picture I took only a frame or two without lingering, never extending a handshake or asking permission. I felt if I did it might break the trance. As I passed by they seemed catatonic, locked in some bizarre exercise of restraint. No one spoke a word to one another, at least not in my presence. The circumstances of that scene were never revealed to me, but I think I prefer it that way.

The picture from Denver was different, as far as investment. I spent a cloudy afternoon with the small group. As we walked the woman explained that she had travelled with the last of her savings from Ohio to Colorado in search of her estranged mother. When her journey ended on the doorstep of her mother’s home she was refused entry, and in the process her mother renounced her. Afterward, she walked the streets of Denver until she found consolation in the company of strangers. That’s when I came across them. Coincidentally, the crying man in the background was dealing with the death of his mother, who had passed that very same morning.

That’s an incredible set of coincidences…

There are a number of different emotions expressed in your work, so I wonder following in the vein of Denver, Tear, whether you could talk about how you allow the sorts of emotions expressed in your images to order your sense of what to include and what to exclude?

I like the complication of colliding emotions within a picture that can serve to present the world as strange and familiar at the same time. I think we all have experienced a pressure of ecstasy that is so closely related to grief. That emotional overlap is what struck me looking at the picture on the contact sheet and is what I try to seek out while editing.

What is it that you are so drawn to about the public life of American streets?

Public life in the street is uncontrolled and random. This goes for all cities. Within that chaos exists profound mystery and beauty. It’s something you can depend on. The flood of details and of activity envelops you. It is vivid, voluble and generous. There is no shortage of inexplicable arrangements that defy casual explanation, and the amazing thing is they are happening all the time! The reason I am so committed to the public arena is because the supply of human interaction and dramatic possibility is without exhaustion or repetition.

Given that wealth of material, what guides you in beginning to elaborate a story from all these moving parts? Do you think of it in literary terms? Cinematic? What sorts of things help you to begin to chip away at the contact sheets and construct something from them?

Again, it’s an intuitive process that directs the trajectory. To do something without exact clarity or control, to step outside responsibility and give way completely to a curiosity, for me, is the ultimate way to engage any level of the artistic process. You try your luck. You make mistakes and awful attempts. You talk it out with your friends. You do and redo and undo and get nowhere, and then you do it all over again until hopefully that leads to something you can build on. The process is incremental and slow moving.

The pictures initially selected in an edit are simply the ones that stand out — for whatever reason: composition, the quality of light or color, the presence of ambiguity or a strange gesture etc., whatever catches the eye and makes you continue looking or questioning. Usually it’s a matter of something more felt than known. Then in cobbling those selections together, adding and subtracting, the edit starts to form from the desire to tell a story.

I have always thought my pictures functioned best in a group rather than as a single image. Written fiction and film are undoubtedly my favorite mediums, and certainly inform the process. In my mind there are no two richer structures for narrative power. I like work that involves duration and the rise and fall of climax. I enjoy the developing arc of a story that grows from investment, spending time with and fleshing out a particular theme, character or set of concerns. This type of work feels so much more alive, complex and open to varied interpretation to me than an autonomous work of art.

Can you talk a little about work that has been inspirational to your development in photography? If we were to leave Robert Frank’s The Americans to one side for a moment, what else has been instructive and in what ways?

The list is always expanding and changing. I remember reading a quote from Tod Papageorge saying that “All of the failed pictures you’ve ever made, all of the other photographs you’ve ever loved, even songs and lines from poems walk with you too, insinuating themselves into your decisions about what you’ll make your photographs of, and how you’ll shape them as pictures.” This statement seems so perfect because it’s never simply a few choice works that inspire and instruct anyone, it’s much more vast and less defined than that.

I do try to read as much as I can, though it’s almost exclusively fiction, and when I don’t I feel slowed down. Friends are always recommending worthwhile things. Most recently I have been invested in Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe trilogy. In film, things that have been captivating in recent memory include Tarkovsky and Kaurismäki, but again there are too many to name. Lately I look forward to Breaking Bad with sharp anticipation.

Photographically speaking, the usual suspects are still my favorites. Certainly Eggleston. Definitely Evans. Everyone from New Documents is invaluable. In the contemporary realm Paul Graham, Boris Mikhailov and Mark Steinmetz immediately spring to mind for their unwavering commitment to reinvigorating documentary approach, pulling from tradition without being bound to it. I also genuinely believe many of my peers from grad school are making the most interesting contemporary work, and I feel very fortunate for that proximity to such great talent.

Recently you’ve had a show of the work in New York, and I wonder how you’ve found that the work has evolved and changed as you’ve spent more time with it, and been able to show it publicly? Has it led to new ideas or intentions?

If anything, having a show always cements the fact that you could have worked harder, risked more and been clearer with your intentions. A show is never a perfect expression — maybe in part because it is so impermanent? However, seeing your pictures from a different perspective is very instructive. It’s scary and humbling to see what you’ve done in that context and see reactions unspool.

I feel like I am getting used to those pictures still. So much of the work that was exhibited for that particular show was either barely made or it was the first time I had seen it printed, so in essence it felt brand new, still alien. I always have to break my pictures in first before I can start a relationship. I guess I am still attempting to figure out what they mean. One thing for sure is that living with the work post-show perfectly reminds you that you have to make more, that what you’ve attempted simply isn’t enough, and that you have to make it better.

In addition, for that show I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to hang alongside two very talented photographers. Both Justin Thomas Leonard and J.W. Fisher have unquestionable talent and devotion to pushing the medium forward, whether in their collaborative work or as individuals. The dialogue we have maintained before and after the show is a constant source of motivation and inspiration. Undeniably these are the critical relationships that foster hard work, concentrated focus and propel artistic practice into new areas of growth and success.

Even though my thoughts on the current projects are tangled, I am still committed to working in the way I have. I’m not ready to forgo the scope and working method just yet. For now I’m going to keep moving, following the imaginary line I draw as I go, in hopes of setting loose the chain reaction all over again. There are still meaningful pictures to be made this way.

With many thanks to Irina Rozovsky.
Artist(s): Medium: curran.hatleberg[at] Site:

One Response to Something more felt than known: a conversation with Curran Hatleberg

  1. The way Curran Hatleberg is explaining his photography is a real relief and revelation to me.
    I’m sure he must be an inspiring teacher as well. I intend to use elements of this interview in my own lessons. Photographs analyzed by a photographer is much more convincing than reading words of an art critic.

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