Ditta Baron Hoeber’s photographic sequences emphasize the primacy of process, encourage a way of looking that challenges the narrative impulse, and demand and reward sustained, intense observation. Her solo exhibition Proximity is on view at The Galleries through August 31. The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Ditta Baron Hoeber and curator Kaytie Johnson.
KJ: You used your mobile phone camera to capture the images in this body of work, all while traveling on trains. Was the decision to use your cell phone camera intentional? Or, did it come about serendipitously?
DBH: I had been continuing to use a film camera, scanning the negatives and doing the color correction and printing digitally. I had tried a small digital camera but it wasn’t quite right. Then a friend lent me another which seemed better and I got one of those. At almost the same time I got a new cell phone that had a camera. I had the phone with me when I took the train and I guess I thought I’d play with it. But suddenly I was seeing all sorts of wonderful stuff to photograph on the train. And it was so nice that I had my privacy because no one could tell I wasn’t reading email or texting. I use it all the time. I never got around to using the digital camera.
Recently I took the digital camera with when I was going to be shooting all day. I figured I’d have to use it when the cell phone was recharging. I was totally out of sync with it. Or it was out of sync with me. My eye and mind seem to have adjusted to the cell phone, to the lag time between touching the “shutter button” and the image being captured. A normal digital camera is too fast and too uniformly crisp for me now. I don’t really think of the images I make with the cell phone as photographs in the sense of realistic renderings. I’m more interested in the place where abstraction and realism bump into each other and create mystery. My cell phone camera seems a more direct route to that place.
KJ: The way you arrange each image in your photographic sequences often makes them look like film stills. Is this a conscious reference?
DBH: The sequencing and the photographs both reference the film still. When I first began making photographs, before I was thinking much beyond the single image, a friend pointed out to me that my photographs looked like film stills. The reason, he said, was that my pictures were always pictures of a space with people in the space. I understood that he was right but didn’t, still don’t, know how or why I do that. It must simply be the way I see things. That isn’t conscious.
As to arranging images into sequence, a still film camera and a movie camera work the same way to the extent that each records movement in the order that it happens. My work is about the observation of movement, of small shifts of gesture and expression. A sequence from this series, 8 Minutes 52 Seconds, observes not gesture but the shift of light over the time span named in its title. The work is always about movement, shift, change. But it’s also always about stopping, about deconstructing movement. I think it is an integral rather than a conscious reference.
KJ: How are you thinking about negative space in your work?
DBH: I just described my photographs as pictures of space with some people. That sounds as if the space were the subject and the people secondary. That’s an exaggeration but what you call negative space is very central in my pictures. In the sequences I’ve made with groups of actors, the space between the actors carries the connections and the tensions that flow between them. Everything that happens travels through that space.
Often the actors appear only at the lower edge of the frame. I think of these pictures as having a lot of sky. In the Proximity pictures there is no ceiling and almost no negative space. Sometimes sections of floor and passages between and under the train seats appear. I think those few spaces are where the mystery resides. But are the objects the positive and space between them the negative? Not so much.
KJ: Many of the subjects for your photographs are creative people (artists, actors, curators) at work in interior spaces. Why are you interested in photographing them?
DBH: When people are very focused on their work they become graceful. When people are deeply engaged I think they are most themselves. That’s what I want to look at and photograph. Why artists, actors, curators? Because most people in the arts love their work and love makes an intense focus a lot more likely. Because my photographs, like any art, are a kind of self-portraiture, I guess it means that this is something I want to say about myself.
KJ: In addition to being a photographer, you are also a poet. What similarities and differences do you see between these artistic processes? Are the two forms related?
DBH: As I do with my photographs, I join poems into sequences. I’ve written two book manuscripts, each of which is a series of connected sequences. Or maybe each is just one long sequence like one of my long photographic sequences.
My written sequences are built of poems strung together in a non-linear fashion. Poems that appear to interrupt the flow are also there to inform the flow and to create complexity. Those “interruptions” sometimes happen in my photographic sequences as well but I think I tend more towards a visual harmony to pull the eye along through a visual sequence.
Two things that I use in both are repetition and the white page. Repetition underscores an image and in a poem the repetition itself can make music. The way I space words in a line and use space between lines and stanzas involves leaving a lot of white page. I do this to create air and stillness.
Similarly my visual images are surrounded by wide expanses of white page. Particularly in the sequences that are made as books, I use the white spaces to choreograph the flow of images. Here too, the white page is meant to surround the image with stillness.
A poetry reading by Ditta Baron Hoeber
Thursday, June 10, 6 pm
Goldie Paley Gallery
“I have never put my words and pictures together because I never wanted my images to seem to merely illustrate my words, nor have I wanted my words to be understood to say what you should see in my pictures. But I have always wanted to find a way to put them together so they might coexist and not each be servant to the other.“