Wavepool – What led to the making of Fortieth Parallel? How did the idea develop?
Rory Hamovit – I’d been thinking about making a body of work based on 19th century American exploration photography since college when I first got into photographers like Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson. To me these photographers were more innovative with the physical medium than almost anyone around this century or last, O’Sullivan just being a personal favorite. About a year and a half ago I moved to California so I had a much greater proximity to the original sites of the photographs which got me thinking and planning and sketching my new interpretations of O’Sullivan’s work. From the beginning the project was less about exact replication than just being in the location and seeing what kind of influence that place would conjure up in the present. I bought a lot of really old books full of his images, spent about six months researching exact vantage points and creating an expansive itinerary on Google Maps, reducing that itinerary to about 2 weeks worth of stops and then hitting the road this past summer.
Wavepool – It looks like some of the images were made in locations that differed from the original sites. Can you elaborate on the importances of visiting the exact vantage points, and how that experience was translated to the new photographs?
Rory Hamovit – All these images were created in the general vicinity of the original images or were taken immediately after being there. Some of the images are about being exactly there if not entirely replicant, like the one at Shoshone Falls where I was standing exactly where Timothy O’Sullivan would have been standing for one of his views of the falls, or an intentionally inverse perspective, like the one at Pyramid Lake opposite the rock formations. For example one of the photographs I was most excited to “reenact” was the one taken at Steamboat Springs, the one with figure obscured with by the geothermal steam. It was like a photographic pilgrimage for me. I had brought the colored smoke bomb along and had an idea of the shot I wanted but after driving through through the middle of nowhere for a couple of hours and hauling my camera through this more or less wasteland swamp to the place and seeing little of any remaining fissure or steam vent it was not as disheartening since this had been an expectation of the project. It immediately got be thinking about the next bleak place I was heading (Reno) and how little of a difference it would be to stage it there. But I think that’s what it can be like with desert landscape as your primary subject matter, a lot of approximation and adjustment, which I think harkens back to the original work. What was most fascinating was comparing the places that have been chosen to be preserved as parkland or natural monuments versus the ones that are just scenery on a desert highway.
Wavepool – Is preservation a part of the dialogue that you’d like to exist between O’Sullivan’s photographs and your interpretations?
Rory Hamovit – I think the idea of preservation, or the lack of, shows the fundamental difference between the objectives of O’Sullivan’s work and my own interpretations and the times they were created in. O’Sullivan wasn’t just tasked with documenting the western United States for its beauty or grandeur, he and his contemporaries were working on an invitation. These were landscapes made before there was any type of environmental movement, before the Sierra Club or National Parks. Nature was still this something that needed to be harnessed and tamed. I started thinking about modern interpretations of preservation more when driving in these national and state parks and seeing wilderness punctuated with convenient trash bins and indoor plumbing. Is anything really able to be kept in a state of nature once it’s accessible? I think my reenactments show a lassitude in the west that is as much physical as it is mental. It’s hard to maintain the facade of frontier.
Wavepool – With those critical ideas in mind, does humor factor into the project as well?
Rory Hamovit – Yes, as in almost all my work, humor is used as vehicle to better approach or quietly quell some of the more prickly topics at hand. With this project though the humor already seemed imbedded into the whole undertaking which I know seems odd considering O’Sullivan’s source material and its relative directness. But when i reconstruct the narrative of the expedition I can’t help but see these wry gestures like placing the camera box on the rock formation to relay actual size. Especially when it came to showing scale I feel like he must have had a sense of humor keeping him going.
Wavepool – I’m curious about your image of Grand Teton. What am I looking at and how does it play with the photograph it references?
Rory Hamovit – The Grand Teton photograph is based on an image by the photographer William Henry Jackson, a contemporary of O’Sullivan’s. It’s a photograph of the Mount of the Holy Cross, this remote mountain in the Colorado Rockies, that he made on another geological expedition after hearing these rumors of an enormous snowy cross that would appear on the mountainside when the snowmelt was just right. Like a lot of the landscape work that was being made at the time it had these sublime religious overtones but I’ve always liked it because it plays on the idea that often times we see what we are looking for, especially when it comes to the natural world. We see faces on the moon, creatures in clouds, etc. It’s an odd way of making things relatable. On this trip I took a lot of close shots of the mountains we went through, including the Grand Tetons in Wyoming (did not make it to the actual Holy Cross mountain, but plan to) and then when I got back I printed them all out and spent a couple days just tracing all the faces and objects I saw on their slopes. I have a whole array but I enjoy this one with this dog-like monster the best.
Wavepool – Is the duration and route of your trip key to the project, or do you plan to continue working on it?
Rory Hamovit – At first I thought the condensing of a few years hard labor into a two week road trip was pretty integral to the whole project and this attitude of progress but like I said earlier, once I got out there I was overwhelmed with the amount of subject matter. And even in the machine age that’s a lot of surface area to cover in a station wagon. As the work is presented now I enjoy the juxtapositions of the timelines and the idea of the artist as more of a speedy tourist but I’ve also really become attached to the project and don’t want to file it case closed. I want to revisit and create new images, show more the side of an obsessive fan rather than a casual listener, make some real Timothy O’Sullivan fan-fiction.
To see more, please visit Rory’s website.