Wavepool – You have a background in areas of art such as drawing and illustration, but photography is a fairly recent addition to your practice. How does your background inform the way you approach the medium?
Corbett Toomsen – When I first began to draw, I looked at something and tried to copy it. As the drawings began to evolve, the copying became more complicated. I would take parts of several images and copy them to create my own image. I think that is a fairly common evolution for a lot of people that draw. I did that for a long time, from when I was very young until I began the undergrad program at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design when I was twenty-seven years old.
As I went through the illustration program at MIAD, I became interested in learning how to use traditional media. At first it was oil painting. I saw school as a fleeting opportunity, and in my mind I wanted to finish with the ability to make a great painting. Later, I spent a lot of time working with intaglio printmaking processes. I learned these mediums independently, but I was also curious to see how they would change my drawings and illustrations. At that time I became a mixed-media artist. As a result of incorporating these traditional mediums, my illustrations became somewhat non-traditional. They were large collages, and most often incorporated the time-consuming processes of oil painting and printmaking.
Although there are many formal aspects between drawing/illustration and photography that overlap, as two-dimensional work, how I thought about creating an image was something that was ingrained; it has never really changed regardless of media. I have always constructed images, whether drawing, painting, printmaking, digital or a combination of them all. When I became interested in photography, the only thing that changed was the tool I was using to make the image. I had no interest in approaching it in any way other than as a drawing.
Wavepool – What does the process to create an image for Trophies look like? How much time is spent on research and fabrication prior to making a photograph?
Corbett Toomsen – As my MFA thesis work, there were many types of research conducted. Of course there was a great deal of reading and writing research to develop and support the concepts embedded in the work. This began long before Trophies was an idea. I was introduced to many art concepts early in the MFA program. The first two years were spent exploring them in my studio, narrowing in on a few that interested me, and conducting independent research that eventually led to the idea for this project. I really enjoyed this time leading up to Trophies. I was making good work, but I was uncomfortable with my early concepts. It was fun to work them out. Anyway, it took a long time and a lot of research to get to Trophies. Once I got there, the project began.
To summarize the artist statement, Trophies is a series of constructed snapshots of a journey through the American West, specifically of places I have not visited. The project relies on mass media imagery, both in print and digital formats, to inform me of the way these places appear and are experienced. Therefore, there was an incredible amount of visual research conducted.
I looked at maps of the western US, maps of our federal lands, our national and state parks, forests, and historical sites, maps where certain animals live at various times of the year and so on. Based on these, I created a rough map of the journey – of where I wanted to go, and what I hoped to see, and of what I had no idea that I would see. It began where one of my actual vacations ended, in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The map was a 5,000 mile loop that took me southwest to the destination of Yosemite National Park, and north back through Montana and North Dakota before returning to Milwaukee.
Once that was established, I began researching places specifically for the project. This was a really fun part of making Trophies. I have always loved looking at images, and this project revolved around the types of images I have always enjoyed – photographs of animals, people and culture, landscapes of various geographies, the west, the old west, etc. I used every resource I could imagine, old books and magazines, Google Street View, postcards were an important contribution, the internet, other peoples snapshots, maps, documentaries on television, movies, travel advertisements, and so on. I gathered as much as I could with the specificity of each place in mind. I wanted it to feel authentic. For a few images this went quickly, taking only a couple of days of visual research. For most projects though it was exhausting, taking several days touring the back roads and dusty trails of an image-flooded world.
Although at any given point there may have been several images in various stages of construction filling my studio, I generally focused on them one at a time. After the visual research was complete for a specific image, I developed the composition for the image by building the environment. I used a cheap printer to print key components of my findings. These selected images were used either as reference to construct the environment, or cut up to be placed within it. The most involved environments were roughly carved forms of expanding foam on a styrofoam base. The foam was then covered in plaster cloth and plaster, which would be carved to the exact contours, painted and covered with artificial materials (trees, grasses, etc.). Some were small, only one square foot, while others were several feet in each direction, and the time spent on each varied quite a bit.
Once the environment was complete, I began to photograph. I worked in the dark, using long exposures with techniques such as painting with light, incorporating the use of colored gels, and placing the environment in front of a projected backdrop. This was sort of an imperfect process, which I really enjoyed. Each image took a great deal of problem-solving through the lens. Each one is unique, with it’s own challenges, and I quickly learned that the camera is not very forgiving for someone being so particular. I took hundreds of photographs of each image in the series to get it right, meticulously re-evaluating and fidgeting with the compositions. I moved things a fraction of inch here or there, and repeated the painting with light process for hours. During this, my days went by in painstaking intervals of a few seconds at a time, and I really enjoyed it.
Trophies, in all, took about two years of research to arrive at the project. Once it formally began, the thirty-two images took seven months to make, and about another two weeks to custom-build each frame. Some images happened in a couple of days and some took a couple of weeks, some took a month, some lingered and changed during the entire span of the project, while others have yet to be realized.
Wavepool – The images possess varying levels of believability. Do viewers ever believe what they are seeing in the photographs to be a real occurrence? What is the ideal reaction?
Corbett Toomsen – I have had an opportunity to observe some people reacting to this work with varying levels of ‘belief’. Of them, some have believed at least some of the images to be a photograph of an actual, or real, place. But honestly, for the most part, I really don’t know what people think when they see this work. I have been curious about what the viewer reaction might be since I began the project.
I certainly went to great lengths to try to blur the line between the image as a construction and that as a captured instance of a real occurrence. I wanted the photographs to look ‘real’, to portray a sense of authenticity, but to retain something subtly odd, or off, about them. With some images, I made the construction of the image more apparent to reinforce that it exists in the entire body of work. In others I tried to make it disappear altogether. I always thought about the believability of each image in context of the entire series. I was concerned with this because I did not want the work to seem like a trick or prank, so to speak. I was thinking about the long history and powerful ability of imagery to urge us to experience, and to form our expectations of that experience. I was thinking about the act of looking as a common cultural practice, and the relationship between looking at imagery of places and the formation of expectations of experiencing those places, and what that means to me. I suppose, ideally, it was my hope that the viewer would consider their own experiences and how their expectations of them were formed.
Wavepool – In addition to inkjet prints, you include a number of instant photographs in the project. What do they add to the work?
Corbett Toomsen – The instant photographs are very important to this project. For a long time, as the work was being made, I considered the instants (or snapshots) to be the only format I would include in the exhibition. For some time, it felt that creating the snapshot was the work. The digital photograph was simply a necessary means to arrive at the snapshot (the digital photograph, the image I created, was digitally projected and re-photographed with a 4×5 camera using instant Fuji film to create an instant photograph of the digital image). It wasn’t until late in the project that I definitively decided each image would be documented as both a digital photograph and an instant photograph. To me, it wasn’t difficult to justify the inclusion of snapshots, rather to justify the inclusion and determine the presentation of both formats.
My research had taken me through the evolution of travel photography, which has ties to the early photographs of Yosemite National Park by Carleton Watkins, among others, and other early landscape photographers such as William Henry Jackson, but is rooted in the late 19th century when George Eastman introduced the first film camera, the Kodak No. 1. Kodak’s early strategic advertising campaigns, which lasted well into the 20th century, did a great deal to forever link travel and photography. I was very interested in this evolution and felt that it was important to mimic, or at least make reference to, this intertwined aspect of photographic and cultural history.
As far as what the instants add to the work, I can’t imagine this project without them. The genre of snapshots has a very specific and identifiable context in which they’re read, which the inkjet prints cannot fully achieve. They help to frame the entire exhibit for the viewer.
Wavepool – Are there any contemporary photographers that were influential when working on the project?
Corbett Toomsen – As I mentioned, I was really interested in learning the history of photography when I began making photographs. I took an art history course called The History of Photography and became really interested in its evolution in and relationship to culture. After that, I took an art history course called Post-1970’s Art. In that course, my research focused more specifically on vernacular photography and its own evolution within the history of photography and further investigated connections between mass media imagery and culture, which eventually led to tourist snapshots. My research in both of these courses, among others, was instrumental to the development of this project. The evolution of photography, and its relationship to culture, were more influential to this project than any specific artists.
However, in studying photography I could not help but to study photographers. I looked at numerous photographers within many genres, both historical and contemporary, for various reasons. No single photographer dominated my influence. I enjoyed the work of many photographers that were doing very different things. Work ranging from Jacques Henri Lartigue to Robert Adams, for example. I studied those that were constructing photographs, although not exactly the same way I was constructing them. I was interested in the various strategies of representation and staging being done in photography by Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCoricia, and Larry Sutlan, to name a few. And I became very interested in street documentary photographers of the mid-twentieth century. I liked going back-and-forth between genres, not so much comparing them against one another as much as learning from them independently. I also deeply appreciated William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Martin Parr for many reasons, but I was particularly drawn to their use of color. As I think back, I would say I was looking at a lot of different things in photography, sort of gathering as I went.
Probably the single biggest influence, in regard to photographers, was looking at snaphsots – photos made by anyone – the Photographer Unknown, as Catherine Zuromskis put it. I scoured tumblr and blogs and google searches looking for travel photographs and family photos. I studied the conventions of snapshot photography in search of what made them interesting to me, and searched for ways to incorporate them into this project. In the end, that was one of the biggest challenges in making Trophies, to find resolution in the digital photographs that borrowed from the less-than-perfect, highly recognizable conventions of snapshot photography.
Wavepool – What’s next for you? Are you working on any new ideas?
Corbett Toomsen – I learned a great deal making Trophies, but there are still some things in photography that I’ve been thinking about that came from that project and the experience of developing it. I’m very interested in continuing to construct photographs, and I’m still in the process of exploring those interests and ideas in studio. Right now, the new ideas are in a very preliminary stage. I am not completely starting over, but I’m exploring a shift that will take some time to develop. In the mean time, I am continuing to make more studies for Trophies.
To see more, please visit Corbett’s website.