On the High Wall: Dan HawkinsThe Water Project
Photo processing demonstration
Dan Hawkins and Britta Johnson Discuss The Water Project
B: Hi Dan, thanks for being willing to chat with me about the work you’re showing on the High Wall. I have three general areas of questioning that I want to ask you: about photographic process, about your feelings about place and what it is you’re trying to do and about the photography you’ve done previously in the Inscape building. And then also, my goal for this space is to host artists who are either immigrants or whose parents were immigrants, and so I’m curious if there’s any part of your experience in that department that relates to what we’re talking about, that you’d like to talk about.
D: Ok, so the easiest one to answer is that my mother was Mexican, my father was from the Middle East, but I was raised in the United States, and that circumstance ends up being kind of the root of many divides. Some people can bridge that stuff, and I̓’m not really one of those people. That really kind of set the course for many different things; for most of my life up until probably my late twenties, my interior life is really all that there was – I didn’t look at the outside world very much – and for that reason, I also didn’t do very well in the outside world. I’ve had a very blessed life, no question, but also a really very lonely kind of experience being an immigrant in the United States, also not being accepted by my native culture. And I’ve raised a family, and have had a successful career, but those are very different things.
B: Do you mean different, like that part of your life is a really different part of your life than the art part of your life?
D: Well that, and also, one doesn’t help with the other. No matter how successful you are with your family, or your career, the apartness part of it really doesn’t make any difference. Actually, the only thing that’s helped me is art, and the reason art has helped me, is art is where I finally stumbled into other people who felt like I felt.
B: Right. Can I ask you about place? Your pieces seem to be about tracking what happened in a place before, and how places change, and I’m wondering what draws you to that.
D: I started to do buildings because I lived in a neighborhood, and someone asked me what was on the corner of such and such, and it was a gravel lot at the time they asked, but I had lived there when there was a building there and I actually just couldn’t remember what it was. And I thought, boy that’s really crazy, to not be able to remember a building I lived next to? Not even remotely? And it actually bothered me so much that I researched my own neighborhood to figure out what the building I lived next door to was. And that made me start looking at buildings that were about to get torn down; then I started photographing them.
I realized I was asleep. I realized that I wasn’t even seeing the city that I lived in. And actually what I realized was that my life was just a little tube through that city I was never deviating from, and that tube went from home to school to work to home. And also, I realized not only was that true, that the routine created that tunnel, but also that the tunnel was built by all kinds of restrictions from outside. It wasn’t until later that I really discovered this, but just even really simple rules, like you have to use the front door, you can’t walk on the roof, you can’t go underground, you can’t go behind places, all of those were already embedded so deeply that I never even thought about them. And so in the beginning, I started photographing buildings from the sidewalk.
I was somewhat confused about my motives, but the buildings were aesthetically interesting and I was also making these recordings of what was there because I knew they’d be gone; and then when the new building would come I’d remember, and then I went through this period where I was really kind of distraught because I’d drive through the town, and there’d be a gravel lot, and I’d be like, ‘fuck! there must have been a fucking building there and I missed it! I don’t even remember what was there!’ And then I had to realize, well actually sometimes it was just a gravel lot before then. And then I started getting really good at of figuring out what was really going on with all the lots, and buildings, and tracking the permitting activity in all of King County, and then I started researching other buildings, and that’s when I started flying around all over the place to see buildings in other cities. And, through that activity, what happened is I ended up meeting a bunch of other people for whom that was their total obsession.
That was kind of the juncture where I realized there’s a huge urban explorer community, they’re global, and around this time was the advent of digital photography AND internet forums, and those two things collided together, not just in urban exploring, but obviously in everything. And because of that, it was quite amazing, you could do things so quickly, at such an accelerated pace, it was shocking. So, what would happen is I’d research something online, then I’d find out there was an amazing building in Prague that was totally empty, and I would write somebody in Prague, like ‘I totally want to come see this, and I would be happy to show you buildings in Seattle, and in the United States,’ and then they would reply like ‘that sounds really cool; and I would buy a plane ticket on Saturday and go there. And photograph.
D: And then, as culture got saturated with this stuff, there was really no reason for me to look at it. So I started looking at mercury. I don’t remember where, but I’d read something about mercury, and how it was in fluorescent bulbs, and how fluorescent bulbs were made in China. So I read all about mercury, and how it’s cultivated, and then I even found there were some mercury-containing minerals here in the United States, and sometimes little mines here. And as I was researching that, I came across all kinds of interesting things about minerals, and mining, and extraction, and all those things, and I stumbled across an article about uranium. And uranium seemed interesting, because uranium’s so good, there’s no way to turn away from it; uranium holds the potential for both this kind of possibility of mass destruction, of super powerful weaponry, but the other side of it is it actually has the potential and promise of infinite power.
So I began researching it in great depth, and I traveled all over to see different aspects of the uranium pipeline – extraction and usage and consequence. I subscribed to all these industry newsletters; I also subscribed to all these environmental activism sites. Whenever there was an event, I would get both press releases, which was really interesting. And then I found an article about the kodak company and they had a uranium toner that they used to sell, and I thought wow, this is really interesting; it was a toner used on black and white prints, so I found a recipe for it, and bought some uranium, and made the kodak toner, and then I printed some black and white prints of these subjects that I had been photographing, and it turns out that uranium toner, which is a really crazy yellow color, turns black and white prints brick red.
B: Oh wow; that sounds striking.
And so I flew around and visited a bunch of uranium mines all over the United States, and in the Czech Republic, and toned those prints in that toner, and then I went to France and photographed nuclear reactors, and toned those prints as well.
B: So about the photographs you’re showing, one of the things that I find interesting is that the way that chemistry is physical in photography, the effects of the chemistry end up feeling very ghostly; it feels fluid, and gassy, and to me they seem haunted, but they also don’t seem haunted by people – they feel empty or lonely, but it doesn’t feel like a positive loneliness. Some landscapes are like empty and beautiful because there aren’t people, but these feel like there aren’t people and it feels really sad or scary. I’m also trying to figure out where they live in time, because they feel apocalyptic, but it’s hard to know.
D: They are apocalptic.
B: They are apocalyptic, but are they about now? are they about the past? do they long for something? I have a sense that since you started out taking pictures of things because they go away, that there’s some sense of loss…
D: Well the thing about the landscapes, is again, just trying to make the invisible visible. You know, you can go there, you can jump in your kayak, and you can flap around, but are you thinking about colonialism? Are you thinking about environmentalism? Are you thinking about the future? Are you thinking about the end of mankind? Are you thinking about the demise of the sun? Are you thinking about geological time?
B: And you get to sit on all of those wavering points at the same time.
D: Right, but you can also live in a tube and not notice any of those things. So the photographs are meant to help you-
B & D: giggles
D: And yeah, they do feel a bit lonely sometimes; or a bit forlorn, or apocalyptic, or depressive, but that’s what happens when you look at geological scale. I mean I suppose some people might feel that’s very exciting or exhilarating, but as an individual ego, it’s pretty chilling, I think, and of course, we have the ability to transcend that, for greater or shorter durations, but it’s a challenge. So the idea there is that if you take photographs in a way where you get input from the landscape, that’s what the landscape has to say. It’s not really a very personal document in that way.
B: It is more about the place than the people
D: That’s why I don’t photograph people. I work really hard to make sure there’s no people in my photographs because once you go that direction, then it’s really easy to build another narrative – a people-based narrative around that stuff, and I’m really not interested in that.
The world is full of a people-based narrative, and a ton of other people do that work better than I am going to, so I don’t need to enter that side of things. That’s kind of the litmus test for all the work, is I ask myself, ‘is someone else gonna make this?’ And if the answer’s yes, then I know I’m fucking up. When I made the uranium prints, it was really apparent that if I didn’t make those prints, they would not get made. And it’s the same with the landscape pictures too, where it’s like, if I don’t go to this place and make this picture, then this picture won’t exist in the world. Which, you know, that’s ok too, but I know I’m on the right track.
B: About the photos you took in the INS building, could you talk a little bit about those?
D: So, the reason I photographed the INS building is because it’s historically rich. Also, I think it’s really interesting to look at what people throw away – it’s way more revealing than what they keep, and the INS building is beautiful architecturally, it’s built in a different time, and with a different philosophy, and the fact that the building sat empty for so long is very telling. Not just because of its original purpose, but also because even if it had been a factory or whatever, the fact that it suddenly becomes of no use, and it takes this herculean effort of a bunch of creative individuals to try and reuse it, I think is especially revealing, and then it also is interesting because when buildings are left empty, they literally disappear. You can walk right up to somebody and say, ‘do you know where the INS building is?’ or ‘do you know where this historic building is I’m looking for?’ and they literally have no idea what you’re talking about.
The other thing I’ve found is that once that begins to shift, if something happens – either through imagery or journalism or the need for space – something happens to bring that building back into consciousness, it’ll either be remodeled or torn down in very short order. There’s a real discomfort once an abandoned building’s been noticed; if there’re the resources to do it, it’ll be destroyed – it’ll happen right away. I’ve played different roles in that stage play at different times, but that has been super consistent all across the world. And there’re actually known actions you can take to make a building visible again. And if you take them, it’ll either get remodeled or it’ll get torn down. I think it’s because it tells a narrative about us that we don’t like. So we can’t take it; it has to change. INS was in that space, and it was there for years, and I went and photographed it because it was in that societal space. And you know, the building’s beautiful, and also kind of haunting, but I’ve gotten less interested in that stuff because more and more people are looking, so it’s not really needed from me anymore.
B: Can I ask you about process? You’ve said that you are a process nerd, and I’ve heard you describe teaching DIY photography, the sort of ur part of photography, the very most basic parts of it. We’ve also covered some of the physical, tangible aspects, and your interest in uranium and other chemicals…
D: Trying to find the right tubes that roll on the ground, and trying to decide how long your development time should be at 40 degrees; or, how you can get chemicals over the border, well the thing is, minds like puzzles. And I like detail. And really the more mechanisms and detail, the better; the more complicated it becomes, the better. And if things don’t have enough moving parts, they really can’t hold my interest for very long, so it has to be really engaging and difficult. Photography is very big, and that part of it definitely has an attraction too. You can go as deeply into the processes as you want to, and the result is not theoretical, it is evident in the process output. It’s a very powerful feedback loop. ‘Oh, I do this?’ and then this happens to the print. ‘Or I do this?’ And this is what happens to the data. Or these scientific teams have come up with this? And now we’re able to interact with light in a new way. Well that’s very interesting, and endless. And the amount of energy that is poured into photography is also really interesting to me, too. Basically, I just get to have the most amazing free ride on consumer spending, ever. As long as people are snapping pictures, as long as people are posting pictures and printing pictures, even the detritus of that industry is enough to keep me occupied forever.
B: Thanks so much for sharing your work, Dan! Best of luck with all of your projects!
D: Thanks, Britta, you too.