Wavepool – Can you tell me about the title for your book, Trying to Find the Ocean? How does it help frame the project?
Michael Ast – The title comes from a lyric in the first verse of Randy Newman’s song “Baltimore”. If you ever heard Nina Simone’s version, you’ll know it to be an unshakeable experience. She performs her rendition with such a fragile, tattered longing in her voice. It’s an immersive performance that speaks directly to the gut. Obviously, the “ocean” is a metaphor for hope, human spirit, faith, salvation – all signs you see carved into any city’s grain, faces and our own selves. The photographs in the book were all shot in Baltimore, with the exception of three images. It was only later that I thought about the lyric, but undoubtedly that same emotive longing and alluding was stirring in me when I made the photos. I was a bit interiorly starved during the time I visited Baltimore between 2010 and 2013. Creativity has always been my go-to resource for reconciling ills. The book is as much a look internally as it is externally at a city. There is a lot of black spaces and shadows in the photographs, all rendered instinctually and intentionally. To look deep is to peer into darkness, into the intangible. Photographing is a fine means for cracking the surface. Nothing is as it appears, especially in our cities.
That said, I am one of those who believe creativity and its materializations are essentially forms of self-portraiture. I knew early on in the project that I wasn’t setting out to capture and report about a specific place. Baltimore is a quintessential American city that I found enormously hospitable, despite its widely known systemic social problems. Its deep rootedness in historic urban ideals is one which I found extremely inviting. In essence, its landscape pulled me outwards at a time when I felt enclosed, anxious, and insular.
A few have told me the book is very Baltimore. It’s exciting to get that reaction.
Wavepool – Though the specific location isn’t important, why is that an exciting reaction? Do you think the project would have changed if you worked somewhere else?
Michael Ast – It’s exciting to know, after all my years photographing, that an innate understanding of place might be possible. I do feel the camera grants photographers some sort of power when you’re deeply vested in the act of looking. Did the locale matter with this body of work? Given another city, absolutely, the outcome would’ve been different, for better, or worse, I don’t know. Everything seemed to align there in Baltimore.
I should give a little background on choosing Baltimore. The project initially began with a commission to take part in an exhibition at the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs in Lleida, Catalonia (Spain). Seven international photographers were asked by photographer/curator Llorenç Rosanes to photograph lesser known, less traveled areas of a local city for the group show. I chose to visit Baltimore, a three-hour distance from my home in Pennsylvania. Having only ever briefly visited the city once before, I knew I could approach it with a virgin eye, photographing viscerally, without any preconceptions. I prefer to work instinctively. It’s something I learned early on during my studies and work as a photojournalist.
Stepping on a new turf is always exciting for me, photographically. In Baltimore, I hit the ground running. Honestly, it seemed every corner, alley, face, glint of noise, stray cat, building, struck a chord in me. That might be attributed to the lust for expressiveness that I needed at the time. However, I have to say, there is this neighborhood-like aura that is definitive to the city. It seems to spill inland right from the historic harbor. I also feel an overriding ease with the locals. There is a hostility I’ve sensed in Philadelphia, near my home. It’s a subjective notion, but it’s something I’ve admitted to. When I photograph, I try to immerse myself entirely into my surroundings. If I’m successful, I wander curiously in an almost transcendental, solitary state. Distractions are a real disturbance to me. Baltimore personally gave me none of that. I was able to return resolute, repeatedly for long weekends to photograph.
Wavepool – This is your first book. What did you enjoy about the process? Why did you want to make a book?
Michael Ast – All that black ink smells delicious. Honestly, that was part of my decision in going with offset printing. I’ve been dabbling with printmaking during the last 6 years. I like hands-on materials. Ink is unforgiving stuff. It’s tough. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s expensive. I must be crazy to self-publish for the first time using the lithographic process, but I wanted to present that density, which I sought both visually and metaphorically.
I prefer books to exhibition. Each medium has its place in regards to how an artist wants their work viewed. But again, hands-on material is crucial for me with any given experience, or immersion. Books are beautiful objects, period. Well-crafted ones are treasures. I’m an avid fan and collector of photobooks. You open one and you escape. They lead and mislead you. They provide a unique adventure. I can think of few better experiences spent in solitude than with a good book. You feel the paper, you smell that ink, you see things you’ve never been privy to, and you hear the pages turning. Those are affective elements when experiencing artwork.
Wavepool – What were you thinking about when sequencing the images?
Michael Ast – With Trying to Find the Ocean, once I knew I had amassed a large body of cohesive photographs, I began mapping the images together in a linear way, much like a day-long jaunt through the city. Of course, I didn’t want to be too literal, so there are a few bumps and diversions in the road. Books simply allow for a definitive start and finish. You start in the beginning with a feeling, or mood, and end up hopefully somewhere else when you close the back cover. That was important for the collection of images at hand. Ultimately, my aim was for the book to unfold much like a figurative poem of sorts.
Wavepool – Did you set out with an outline of how things should unfold? Were you piecing ideas together from the beginning or did that come later?
Michael Ast – I was pleased stylistically and tonally with the original images I made and edited in late 2010/early 2011 for the exhibit and corresponding catalogue. I returned to Baltimore after the opening of the show to continue shooting much in the same visceral vein. Maybe after the 3rd visit I was working quite consciously towards a narrative, for lack of a better word. I began seeing an exact correlation between urban entrapment and internal distress, and the notion of escape. As I was wrapping up shooting in early 2013, it became clear to me that the very act of photographing manifests escape. Hope, faith, salvation all work similarly through the act of believing. We all go at it ultimately alone. That concept is embedded subliminally in the book.
Wavepool – How did the photographic portion of the project come to an end? Was there a detectable concluding moment when you decided you had all of the images that you needed?
Michael Ast – It might sound silly, but I felt closure during my last visit to specifically photograph the sharks at the National Aquarium. I needed a good foreboding image, with a lot of black. I got it. I stood over an hour with my lens pressed against the tank, waiting with an off-camera flash. How “Baltimore” that no visitors or staff ever interrupted me. The image falls in the middle of the book.
I then got rather drunk at Mount Royal Tavern with an amiable stranger at the bar. He passed out on me about 4 rounds in. I fixated my camera on the tunnel of his ear. You can find that scene in the book, as well.
Sink or swim.
To see more, please visit Michael’s website.