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Interview: James Pitts


photo-eye Gallery Interview: James Pitts photo-eye Gallery is delighted to have five of James Pitts stunning platinum palladium prints included in our current exhibition LOCAL EIGHT, and Gallery Associate Savannah Sakry asked James to elaborate on his personal seeds as an artist and his thoughts in the studio.

Dried Clematis Blossom, 1995 © James Pitts | Platinum/Palladium Print, 10x8", Ed. of 25, $750

photo-eye Gallery is delighted to have five of James Pitts stunning platinum palladium prints included in our current exhibition LOCAL EIGHT. The work is not to be missed if you are in Santa Fe and have yet to see these remarkably elegant still lifes in person. "Flowers" is an ongoing series of which Pitts collects various flora and backdrops to set the stage for his large formant view camera.  His results are classic, timeless photographic works of art, beautifully frozen in platinum. Gallery Associate Savannah Sakry asked James to elaborate on his personal seeds as an artist and his thoughts in the studio.

Savannah Sakry: Where did your appreciation of art begin, how did you come to photography?

James Pitts: I grew up in a small town in Alabama, it was actually a very cosmopolitan place because all the German scientists from the missile program came there. My best friend's father was a friend of Von Braun's and worked for Von Braun. There were a lot of those guys in Huntsville and they brought an element of sophistication which probably wasn't in any other city, especially that size. My grandmother didn't go to college, or high school. Well, she graduated high school, but she got married when she was 16. She had some kind of innate knowledge about direction and culture that she wanted to give to me, and I guess I was more receptive than my sister and my brother to it, so that's where the camera came from, probably a Christmas present. I took art classes from the museum because of her and she gave me music lessons, piano lessons. My grandmother was extremely loving and so my whole aesthetic I think was formed really early by living at my grandmother's house which is antebellum, a beautiful, large home. She liked nice things so there were antiques everywhere and wool oriental-type rugs and it was just, you know, very nice. So my love of art started with her.

SS: When did you discover Platinum printing? 

JP: The summer of '80. One of the last classes that I had at art school, a guy named Kevin Wrigley came and he did a workshop on platinum printing. And I fell in love with it. I only saw half the workshop so I missed out on a bunch of stuff, technical stuff but I was just in love with that process. I had saved up and decided I was either going to buy an enlarger or a large format camera. I decided to get the large format camera, which was fortuitous. We moved to New Mexico and then I started trying to find out how to make platinum prints and it wasn't easy. There was really no information out there and I didn't know anybody, other than seeing this workshop. But after a period of time, I found web sources that had the materials and started to be able to do that. I worked in a camera store for a year and bought an 8 x 10 camera.

Bottle With Sharon's Seeds, 1998 © James Pitts | Platinum/Palladium Print, 9.5x7.5", Ed. of 25, $750

SS: How did you arrive at photographing flowers? 

JP: I met John Stevenson, I showed him my work, he liked it. He was real interested in platinum stuff and he was having a show on flowers. That's why I started photographing flowers because of that show and then I just kind of enjoyed it. It was kind of an excuse to make pictures and a theme without having to search for it. Everything is there. It's not really about the flowers so much for me, it's about the composition, all the formal elements of art.

SS: Interesting, I had in my head you must have this remarkable relationship with flowers. But it's not so much the flowers themselves as it is composing the piece?

JP: I love taking pictures. I never get tired of doing that. I don't have enough time to do it. So it's a structured way of doing it. It's not that I'm not in love with the flower or the object of nature, it's just a structured way of working.

SS: They're a perfect model for you, right? I mean, especially if you studied painting and drawing, you can really craft the composition, set the stage in a very attainable way.

JP: Well, it is a stage. I mean that's kind of what I think about it is being, this stage. It's problematic, it has its challenges. Flowers don't stay still. Light doesn't stay still. Finding different backgrounds to not keep repeating myself, that's hard.

SS: Tell me a little about your backgrounds. Are you always searching for them? 

JP: Yeah, I'm always looking for something that might be interesting and might be not obvious. There's one background I've used a lot, which is this old cigar box covered with tin on the inside that used to sit in my grandmother's kitchen. It has a kind of rusted metal interior and as you move it, it has all kinds of different ways of looking. I wish I could find something else that is equally good but I haven't. That has a chameleon kind of quality so it doesn't always look exactly the same unless you know what you're looking for I guess. Objects that I think have nice shapes. I mean, a bottom line to me, it has to be to my aesthetic, appealing. It has to be something that's interesting to look at for me.

Clover Flower, 1994 © James Pitts | Platinum Palladium Print, 10x8", Ed. of 50, $750 
SS: I think you're driving home this previous quote "The photographs are largely about order and control. For example, the utilization of formal, classical, compositional tools to structure an ideal representation of reality. This is how I want the world to be, rather than the way it is." 

JP: Yeah, I'll still hold to that.

SS: That doesn't surprise me. In your work there's certainly a minimalistic quality but also this quiet and sense of control. I mean, everything is very directed. Nothing is by accident. Doesn't sound like you leave any room for that. I love your use of light. Who have been your influences, either painters or photographers? 

JP: Well, Matisse, Diebenkorn, Cy Twombly, those are three painters I really like a lot. Paul Klee earlier ...  I mean, I've been through a lot of phases of people's work I like but those three, Diebenkorn, Paul Klee, and...

SS: Matisse. 

JP: Yeah, Matisse, I never get tired of looking at.

SS: Yeah, me neither. 

JP: And Cy Twombly, I just, I love his work. As far as photographers, August Sander, Diane Arbus, I think, early on I was really influenced by Harry Callahan to some degree and Aaron Siskind.

SS: I can see the impact those artists have had for you, would you say there is also an Asian influence in your work?

JP: I think I have this affinity with simplicity, which is kind of Zen.

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Two Garlic Flowers in Japanese Vase, 1999 ©James Pitts | Platinum/Palladium Print, 10x8", Ed. of 50, $750 


James Pitts' platinum/palladium works are on view at photo-eye Gallery through April 22nd, 2017. Please inquire with Gallery Staff regarding Pitts' extraordinary handmade artist books. For more information or to purchase prints, please call 505.988.5152 x202.


About LOCAL EIGHT:

Northern New Mexico and Santa Fe is home to a vast, varied and thriving artist community. Local Eight is a group show focused on the diversity of style represented by eight area photographers exhibiting wide-ranging conceptual and material practices.

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