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Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road — An Interview with Tim Carpenter


Book Store Interview Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road Photographs by Tim Carpenter Interview by Carlo Brady Carlo Brady sits down with Tim Carpenter to discuss his upcoming book, Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. Here Carpenter takes the viewer on a two-hour walk from point A to point B. Nothing much happens along this brief narrative arc, yet Carpenter explores the stillness of this outdoor space with a palpable, almost erotic anticipation, revealing intimate subtleties as the journey unfolds.
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Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=ZH871
Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road
Photographs by Tim Carpenter

The Ice Plant, USA, 2019. Unpaged, 9½x11¾x½".

In Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road, his second book with The Ice Plant, Brooklyn-based photographer Tim Carpenter revisits the Central Illinois topography of his first monograph, Local Objects, with a sequence of 56 black-and-white medium-format photographs, all made on a single winter morning.

In Local Objects he meandered this semi-rural Midwestern landscape through changing seasons in an abstract sequence, but here Carpenter follows a straightforward path, literally taking the viewer on a two-hour walk from point A to point B. Nothing much happens along this brief narrative arc—there are fallow fields, standing water, dormant trees, the occasional tire track on worn pavement—yet Carpenter explores the stillness of this outdoor space with a palpable, almost erotic anticipation, revealing intimate subtleties as the journey unfolds.

The following interview took place during a phone conversation between Tim Carpenter and Carlo Brady. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.



Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.

Carlo Brady
Hi Tim, I wanted to start with the text written by Mike Slack, that functions as something as a description for the work, though that is more to do with you’re approach to photography.

“…the photographs in Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road are less about the confines of this specific time and place than about a poetic strategy for narrowing the distance between human desire and the factual content of the everyday world.”

Tim Carpenter
Yeah, specific time and place is much less important to me than how, as a maker, you place yourself in relation to the world. There’s a constant flux occurring inside each and every person. This flux varies moment to moment: over time our moods change, we gain and lose things and people, we learn, and we forget. Coupled with how the world is also constantly changing around us, and you’ve got these two forces that you’re just trying to wrangle together for moments of understanding or meaning.

One of the great gifts of the camera is that it equips us with lots of different tools for that placement. An obvious one is our feet: we place ourselves physically within relation to the subject matter. Lenses are another. Some bring us in and out, they flatten or deepen the subject, the characteristics of the lens, and how they are used determine how things get shown, or, how they flatten. Through these tools, relationships are created that have never existed before. That’s what I’m really fascinated by, the way a maker says, “Here is how I feel in relation to this world. Am I happy? Am I sad? Do I love this? Do I hate it?” For me, subject matter is somewhat secondary, although it can reinforce and support the work.

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.

CB
I’m hesitant to ask, but I wonder, how much does the pursuit of a feeling come into play? How do you approach the generation of meaning from that place? Both while photographing, as well as while editing?

TC
It’s funny that you say you’re hesitate to ask that… I wouldn’t hesitate. When I talk to students, I tell them to hone in on what’s in your head. I think that the best pictures are about getting at that ineffable thing, the incredibly strange, idiosyncratic thing going on inside each of us. All of the pictures from the 6 or 7 months I was shooting this book were made in a specific mood that was not necessarily good, but I found it useful. Rather than wallow in it I wanted to see what I could do with it.

However, I’m less interested in a reading of the work in a factual or biographic way. I want a consistent and coherent feeling in a book that gives me something to go on. Of course you’re under the sway of certain emotions whenever you’re making pictures. Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road is particular, since was all made in one day. It became hyper specific about where I was.

As to the second part of your question, distinguishing between the moment of making and then editing and sequencing… Ideally, one’s shaping intelligence picks up where the inspiration leaves off. When it comes to sequencing this is the sustained effort in photography. You can make something in a mood, but in the sequencing, the work is drawn out from the initial inspiration. Flannery O’Connor describes it by saying: “The work must be both canny and uncanny.”

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.

CB
Could you speak about the strategies you have for determining the parameters of a project, or a book, in this case?

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.
TC
My strategy is different from most people I know. I’ve always both admired and been perplexed by people who do research about a place they’ve never been to, or about a profession, or something like that. They say, “I want to learn about that and go shoot it.” I say good on you, because I could never do that. I wouldn’t even know how to start.

I live in Brooklyn, but my parents live in Central Illinois, and that’s where I’m from. I do freelance work here to keep my schedule flexible, and go to Illinois 5 or 6 times a year for a minimum of two weeks. When I go I’m just making pictures. Then I come back and go through all the negatives while I’m also working to make money. Another two months goes by, and I go again.

Things just start to come out after a while. Obviously with this book, for example, I didn’t get up that morning thinking I’d go out and make a book. That just happened. I’m glad for it, but it was just a fortuitous sort of event. Usually it’s over a matter of months or years, where I’ve made a lot of stuff before I see where the strains come about.

I’m also really interested in the idea that the forms of the environment or the picture teach you. Marylyn Robinson says “beauty disciplines,” which I think is another way of saying ‘form disciplines’. She talks about how once she understands a character, limitations arise. Those limitations, however, grant a fuller expression of the chosen subject. In that way, identification of the form and understanding it is not limiting, but rather freeing.

CB
Right, there's a need to meet things as they are, somehow.

TC
Yeah, once you get under the hood, you see what this is. Maybe you see it's almost done, or, maybe that you need a couple more years, or your shooting handheld and you realize you need the movement afforded by a 4x5. You find a way to attend to what you're interested in.

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.

CB
So, I've read the book a few times, and I'm quite taken by the movement of the images. There's not a whole lot of friction. Enough to keep it interesting, but it hardly draws attention to itself. In the latest reading I got the feeling that I'm walking backwards.

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.
TC
The book is basically laid out as shot. Occasionally I moved a picture forward or back, mostly in the double page spreads just to make them read properly. So that part of the sequencing was easy, it is what it is. The past couple years I've been reading a lot of poetry theory, and I’m really interested in photographs trying to get further away from the description of an experience and closer to evoking the experience itself. To do that is basically what I think what a true poem is. It short circuits the language, so it's not telling you about something but is making the thing happen within you. The picture is the thing. It's not the description of the thing. The poem is the thing.

We make connections, we break them, we look for things, we say there's hope in that, and we second guess. We third guess. This is something I also get from David Foster Wallace's writing, seeing how that guy's brain worked. How he would write it all out. Here's an idea, here's a sub-note to the idea, here's a footnote to that, but wait, let's go back.

I love the idea of walking backwards. That’s why I structured it in this way. Where there's motifs that appear for two, three, or four pictures before disappearing, only to come back again. If there's a protagonist in this book, its a very unsure protagonist. They’re always looking for something to hold on to and continually rejecting those decisions; looking over his or her shoulder and saying no, trying to make meaning of the very barest things.

Before publishing, I showed the pdf of the book to a notable photographic bookmaker. I don't want to put them on the hook, but they said “I don’t like pictures on the left hand with a blank on the right. Cause I feel like you're looking backwards.” I didn't tell him at the time, but I was really glad because that's what I wanted.

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.

CB
You've mentioned a number of authors and reading, what other sort of work to do you do as a mean of cultivating... should I say presence, or voice, relating to your image making?

TC
It's something that I'm very interested in, and I like that you used the word cultivating. Mark Steinmetz says that a lot. When I talk with students or younger people, and tell them to to hone in on that strange, idiosyncratic thing that is you, that is cultivation.

There’s a little restaurant in my dad's hometown that has the most sensational cheeseburger with bacon and onions that I've ever had. I draw as much inspiration from that place and that burger as anything. Every piece of music you listen to, every novel, as well as the things you don’t like, the things you reject. I try and really bring all that in.

So, this is very topical. I was talking with a friend the other day, and I was being a little hyperbolic, but was saying Ric Ocasic probably meant as much to me as Robert Frank. He got me as a teenager with a handful of songs that I love unabashedly. In some ways they're more a part of me than when I grew up a little and got a copy of The Americans. That's not to down play Frank, but even a band like The Cars, that's definitely not the most important band of all time, can become a part of you. Just grab all those little bits that you love.

I think a lot about music. Van Morrison's song structures, for example, can be very long. He repeats phrases and teases things out. He makes that song a moment, rather than an artifact of a different moment. His 10 and 11 minute long songs underlay this book, in particular.

Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road. By Tim Carpenter.

CB
One of the things that I find really heartening looking at your images is the attention I see paid to an internal state, which doesn't feel at all indulgent, but finds recourse in the landscape and invites meaning into it.

TC
Sometimes people ask, “When are you going to go to somewhere else?” Now it has been eight or 10 years that I've been shooting only there. The cameras and film are only there. I don't do anything else anywhere else. These few counties are inexhaustible so far as I can tell.

More importantly, when I was telling you about the flux inside and outside, I feel like there is at least one way for me to control one variable. In that I'm still changing, but at least it's the same place. The seasons change, the light changes, but I'm not going to the mountains or the ocean, London or Chicago. Returning to the same place helps me really see the differences. It may sound semantic, but it lets me see how I'm seeing them. There's a tree up against a house that I put in Local Objects four times and once in Township, the book I did with Ray Meeks. Since then, its owner has cut it down, and I was just like, sad. It was a shitty tree and it didn't matter to anything, but I just really love noticing these things and being really in tune with them. I can't imagine going anywhere else because I'm still so in love with this place.

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Tim Carpenter is a photographer and writer who works in Brooklyn and central Illinois. He is the author of Christmas Day, Bucks Pond Road, Local objects, and Township, among other books, as well as a co-founder of TIS books.

Carlo Brady works at photo-eye Bookstore as a photobook specialist. He holds a BA in photography and studio arts from Hampshire College. You can reach him at carlo.m.brady@gmail.com

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