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Interview: Jon Naiman on Familiar Territory

Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman
Published by Editions Patrick Frey
Published by Edition Patrick Frey, Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman is a beautifully designed large-scale monograph of unusual portraits. For this series, Naiman photographed families with the farm animals they keep, but instead of making the portraits outside or in the barn, the creatures were invited into the family home. Donkeys, goats, horses, geese and cows pose in the wood paneled Swiss interiors, the family gathered around, at times with a book on their lap, but always in dialogue with the camera. There's an element of humor, but more than anything we are invited to stare and the people, and often the animals too, stare right back. The calmly surreal scenes disturb our assumptions about the human/animal relationship and the idea of what belongs inside or out: "American photographer Jon Naiman invokes the traditions of portrait and documentary photography as a way to investigate culture, habitat, domesticity, family and gender roles, as well as our relationship with animals. Although the photographs are orchestrated and carefully composed, Naiman has managed to capture moments of intimacy." - Edition Patrick Frey

photo-eye has been proud to have a portfolio from Naiman's Familiar Territory series on the Photographer's Showcase for several years and were happy to have the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the project and the new book.

from Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman

Sarah Bradley:     Familiar Territory brings what are typically perceived as farm animals into the domestic setting for portraits with the families who care for them. It’s an unusual idea and I’m curious about the origins of the series. How did it come to you?

Jon Naiman:     I had been visiting Switzerland a number of times and had encountered a culture there in which farm animals seemed to be omnipresent. It seemed to have a lot to do with the history and landscape. For me, this contrast with Brooklyn, where I was living, was quite a shock. I wanted to do something exploring this, though a typical portrait of farm life wouldn't have been interesting to me. I wanted to find a way to shift the ground just enough to not only look at the subjects (the people and farm animals) but also change the dynamic. The fact that the animals often live only a short distance away from their owners' homes made me wonder if I might collapse this boundary. The distance is short, but the thin boundaries separating the human spaces from animal spaces are buttressed by strong taboos, such as those separating the civilized and the wild, the clean and the unclean, etc. There are blurry areas, such as with cats and dogs, which often are kept in the house, as house pets. In earlier times, farm animals also were sometimes kept in the living space of people for warmth and for protection. In fact, with one of the portraits in Familiar Territory, the pig actually did live in the house with the woman. Anyhow, challenging this cultural divide between those that belong inside and those that belong outside was intriguing for me. I also was interested in how the personal spaces of these living rooms, each uniquely decorated, became, through the photographing, a public stage, the reverse of its normal status as the retreat away from the out of doors and the public realm.

from Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman

SB:     I imagine that there was a lot of potential for chaos when shooting this series, yet you managed to capture tranquil domestic scenes. What was your process? Did you have to alter your set up to contend with the difficulties of animal wrangling?

JN:     Each of these shoots was a gamble. Most of them, I arrived at without any scouting, and didn't know what I'd find. I had to be prepared for anything. One couldn't predict how the animal might react on being brought inside into the tighter confines of a living room with furnishings, people, camera and lights. I was lucky these families were willing to go along with me on this. When it came down to it, though, it rarely got out of control. Farm animals are to some extent obedient. I shot the project with a 4x5 camera. The process with large format shooting is cumbersome and slow for portraits and rather unwise to use for photographing animals. But I felt I wanted to capture as much detail as possible in the subjects and their spaces. I also like composing an image on the large plane of a 4x5 ground glass. I used strobes for lighting because I wanted to both stop motion and use smaller apertures for a greater depth of field. I did certainly have to consider that one or more large and powerful animals would be there. I didn't want them or the people to get hurt. Nor a house to get wrecked. On one of the shoots a donkey spontaneously turned his head to look to the side. The young girl sitting on a chair beside it was suddenly knocked to the floor and the wooden chair broke. The family were very nice about it and told me that the chair had previously been broken. On another occasion, when I was under the dark cloth composing the shot, I heard a loud crashing sound. My first thought was that one of the strobe lights had been knocked over or had blown out. But it turned out that the two male goats in the shot had gotten aggressive and were butting their heads together. They had to be separated.

from Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman
from Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman

SB:     You've mentioned the gaze as being a fixture of this body of work, and it certainly is striking. In many of the images, the subjects seem to be returning the inquisitive gaze of the viewer, really looking out of the portrait. Can you tell us more about the importance of the gaze in this photographic series? Was it difficult to capture?

JN:     With the subjects in the Familiar Territory images, it was important for me to achieve a comfort level among all those portrayed, both people and animals, to have the situation feel rather normal. Had the people predominately been eyeing the animal, with fear, anticipation, or whatever, it would distract from this relaxed atmosphere. A connecting look between the subjects and the camera/photographer/viewer does, as you suggest, provoke a direct connection with the viewer. It took a great deal of effort to get to those moments, particularly with group shots and as I often had to focus a lot on getting the animal's attention and keeping them from walking out of the frame.

from Familiar Territory by Jon Naiman

SB:     There’s a definite element of humor in your work; in this particular series, using juxtaposition to create an absurd scenario that highlights how skewed our perceptions can be. Some similar elements can be seen in your series Natural Selection where people are presented inside natural history dioramas along with the animals. Can you talk about the use of humor and juxtaposition in your photographic work?

JN:     I think the humor is there in that expectations are thwarted. When what we know from previous experience is not confirmed but instead turned on its head, it can be humorous. Confusion, shock, offense, anger, anxiety, etc. are other possible responses to a diversion from the expected. Humor can draw viewers in, but then there needs to be more to it. With both the series' that you mentioned, Familiar Territory and Natural Selection, a form of placement and scale are used to consider some of the oddities of subject. People portrayed in their homes is rather normal. However, when a farm animal is there in the same space, it highlights the oddity of decoration, furnishing, clothing, and human spaces. The animal allows a certain absurd look at these style choices because of their inconsequentiality to him. It makes me think of Gary Larson's The Far Side and the way that the animals with human habits and thoughts in those cartoons allowed us to laugh at (and reflect on) our own absurdities. Likewise, when a human is suddenly inside the space of a savannah, a jungle, or a mountain landscape in a natural history museum diorama, in amongst the animal specimens, like with the Natural Selection images, it breaks the fantasy and begins to question the institutional form.

Jon Naiman and Familiar Territory on press

SB:     The oversized book from Editions Patrick Frey is a beautiful object. How did it come together?

JN:     I first met Patrick and I hadn't known that much about the books he'd done. He was into my Familiar Territory images and said that they wanted to do the book. But their timetable was long, as they do only a small number of books per year. As months went by between meetings, I wasn't sure that it would actually get made. With further meetings and steps forward it became slowly more and more real. I'd progressively had a chance to see more of the books they'd published and got to appreciate the eclectic range and high quality. Patrick has a great eye and really got what Familiar Territory was about and what it could be as a book. We knew early on that we wanted to make a book large enough to see the detail in the images. The book designers had a very good sense for structure and giving the images and text enough space to breathe with white space and pacing. The cover was a puzzle for a long time. The type seemed to fight with the cover photograph. Finally, we came to this elegant solution of having a simple text-only front with the image on the back cover. One had to pick the book up, and turn it in ones hands to find the image on the back and vice-versa to find the title. The book-as-object that one experiences with the hands as well as with the eyes was important to us from the beginning.

Naiman shooting on location
SB:     Is there a new project that you're working on?

JN:     There is, but its in its early stages, so I don't like to say too much. Animals probably won't play a central role though. The completing of the Familiar Territory series and the birthing of the book was so absorbing in the last two years, that its taken some time to clear my head and get any headway on new work.

Purchase book

A selection of prints from Familiar Territory can be viewed in Jon Naiman's Photographer's Showcase portfolio