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Interview: Daniel Shea on Blisner, Il

Interview Daniel Shea on Blisner, Il Lucas Foglia talks to fellow photographer and friend Daniel Shea about making pictures and Shea's recent publication Blisner, Il.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Shea.
fourteen-nineteen, 2014.
Turning the pages of Daniel Shea’s Blisner, Il,  I think about the way a curve in a road is calculated so we can turn the wheel once and stay on course, the way every building is engineered to support itself. I think about how I take these things for granted.

Blisner, Il is a subtly dramatic book set in Illinois. Shea uses photographs from small towns to story a fictional small town that uses its history as a lifeline, creating a myth of itself and the industry that once made it. The photographs, often juxtaposed or narratively sequenced, portray the kind of mundane details that we ignore in the places we live, and then look back on with nostalgia: statues, objects, insects, birds, and buildings; people pictured in murals, or occasionally living, pausing and looking off somewhere.

If one person believes in a god that no one else believes in, they are usually crazy. If a hundred people believe in that god, they are a cult. If a million people believe in that god, they have a religion. Whether or not the this small town is real, whether or not it is holy, I think this is a book worth believing in.

Below is a recent conversation between Shea and I that I recorded and transcribed, part of an ongoing dialogue that we started in 2010.—Lucas Foglia

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.

Lucas Foglia:     I met you as a photographer with a cause.

Daniel Shea:     As a photographer with a what?

LF:     With a cause. What's the effect of moving to a place like NYC and now traveling around the world to photograph on assignment?

DS:     I want to make more work and to maybe, at some point, have a family. That's all I really care about. I don't think about it too much anymore. I used to think about it all the time and used to let it worry me, but at this point I just want to show my work and as long as it's not being used for evil things I kind of let it be.

LF:     Let's talk about intimacy. When I met you, you were like me, travelling to make photographs.

DS:     Mm-hmm.

LF:     Becoming, if not a part of, at least a familiar visitor to places that you were photographing.

DS:     Yeah.

LF:     You were a collaborator with those places to make a story about the place, whether they were employees at a coal mine or activists who lived nearby.

DS:     Yeah.

LF:     Now, when I look at your work, I see you finding images from different places and applying them onto a concept and then constructing a story. I'm curious about that change.

DS:     It's funny because I feel more intimately connected with this place than I've ever felt about a place before.

LF:     Which place?

DS:     Southern Illinois as a region. Part of the work, again, is toying with this idea of something being anonymous and very specific simultaneously. That’s how mythology is generated.

What I've become intimate with is a kind of people-less landscape on some level. The work has a strong social component but it's not the same... it's not interested socially in what I was interested in before.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.

LF:     Give me the basics first. Where were you before? Where did you go?

DS:     I went to Appalachia, West Virginia, southeast Ohio mostly and I worked on a long term project about coal and how it effected people's relationships to industry, landscape and history.

Now I think a lot about labor as kind of a social phenomenon... the equation has switched. I find the social components through a certain subject and landscape.

LF:     Who were you closest to when you were working on the coal photographs?

DS:     The Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia… mostly a group of activists who were working with the citizen advocacy group in the region. Then, in southeast Ohio it became much more personal and less political. I was connected with this woman who had an herbal farm in the middle of four power plants. I needed a place to stay and I had no money at all then. She had a bedroom and we always worked something out. I became close with her. Her name was Cindy Parker. She's in my photos. You always want to talk about the coal work.

LF:     No no. I'm getting to your new book. I think your background is relevant. I've heard you talk multiple times about having people lose you in the transition between your projects.

DS:     It's true.

In the coal work I cared about people and I cared about struggle. I will always be on the side of the underdog and people fighting something larger than themselves. Also, at the time I was much more invested in the environmental issues. I cared a lot about that.

LF:     Do you still?

DS:     Yeah, totally but not in the same way. It's weird I think… I live in fucking cities. There's a coal-fired power plant two blocks from my studio now and I never think about it.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.

LF:     What changed?

DS:     Well, the world has grown. It's become apparent to me how deeply complex the world is... I'm becoming much more shy about thinking about things in a specific way. There's too much to grapple with. But, at this point, this new project engages in a certain type of criticality but not one that necessarily wholly demonizes industry. I'm a benefactor of the coal industry. I don't support its methods but I'm thinking a lot about its alternatives and what they might look like.

LF:     I see in the new book, more concept and, literally, more proximity. I am looking at things closer up.

DS: That's an optical device used for pure affect.

LF:     In the coal work, the most intimate portraits were of activists. Then, there were workers from behind sometimes. Because the coal industry was demonized, the employees were small and relatively insignificant.

DS:     Yeah I know.

LF:     In the new book, the focus is more on the detriment to a town as the industry changes. Whether or not the subject was found or fabricated you are implicitly showing a loss to a community as jobs were lost. What is left in a small town is its history.

DS:     Right.

LF:     Inherently I see in the work more about honoring people who worked for these companies.

DS:     When I say that... I don't mean to suggest that my politics have been lost. I feel deeply passionate. What I'm really interested in is what happened and how did it happen. People using their hands to make things. That energy is still there on some level but it's just kind of hovering in the air.

That's why there are surrogate subjects in the work. The murals and the statues are meant to, on some level, contain that energy/labor. You have a statue that is meant to memorialize the work in a town that, in a very deliberate way, lost its manufacturing.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.

LF:     How deliberate?

DS:     A lot of times it was a question of [a company] moving operations somewhere else because it was cheaper. There has always been an option on some level for sustainable development but we've just never gone that course.

Maybe we'll look back from a more global phenomena and we'll really see how poorly we mismanaged, or how blindly we moved forward.

LF:     Is the system too big and too complicated to change? What about activism?

DS:     I don't really know. I think critique without advocacy is kind of dangerous. I don't identify as an activist at all anymore. The critical tool [of a photograph is] in a very subtle kind of context shifting. To take one thing and place it in a totally different context and make you consider, mostly in this kind of ontological way, what it means.

I think art does great things. In the end I don't know if my project will have any type of impact, but some things leak through and influence culture.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.
LF:     What is the subject of the new book?

DS:     A fictional town. I think using the word fiction feels kind of immature at this point. I've been working on this project for four or five years and I think I need to move away from...

LF:     So because you photograph a fictional town for long enough it becomes fact?

DS:     Yeah. The truthfulness or the fiction. People always ask me about that in interviews or when I'm talking about the work.

LF:     Give me the story that you'd want to be repeated about your work.

DS:     My first book attempted to establish a chronology of events around a loss of jobs in this one town in southern Illinois. This new project looks at how downtown areas of mid-sized post industrial cities in Illinois attempt to memorialize or maintain the veneer of a formerly prosperous moment.

There's what the work is physically, how it exists in the world as an art object, and then there's its content. It's very simply what it is. You open it up, it's a book of plates. There's an essay. It feels relatively cohesive.

LF:     You are trying to complicate how an industrial town preserves, and uses, it’s history?

DS:     Yes. You won't find ruin porn pictures in this book. You won't necessarily find weeds through the cracks of concreted or symbolic shit like that. It's more about the presentation of a suspended moment of time.

That moment is suspended because there has been no catch up with the modern world and, essentially, as far as it seems right now, it has been a struggle to keep up.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.

LF:     No new jobs?

DS:     Some. Tourism is huge.

LF:     In Illinois. In fact or fiction?

DS:     It's not huge. It's what they're trying to do. People want to come and see what it looked like in 1960 or even earlier.

So much attention is paid to maintaining Main Street. It looks really good. If you stand on a hill outside of town and you have a postcard from fifty years ago, it looks exactly the same. It's when you get up close that the seams reveal themselves.

LF:     In terms of getting up close... and seeing the seams. The way you are picturing a place changed. A longer lens. Flatter space. More graphic, even symbolic. Why?

DS:     In Blisner, Ill., I was attempting to make different types of pictures but I was still rooted in a landscape tradition. Now, I'm photographing with only a telephoto lens and 35mm film, which compresses space in a very specific and often claustrophobic way. It allows me to stand from a distance and compress, so you have a lot of foregrounding effect and you have a lot smashed together in the landscape.

Distortion and the mirror or the window, becomes really important in this book as a way to not only obfuscate but also suggest an in-front-of or behind, much more a kind of metaphor.

LF:     I see, in some ways, photographs about details, with less details in the photographs.

DS:     Definitely. You rarely see a landscape. I basically put one proper landscape in this book. A lot of strangeness reveals itself when you look at it for a few seconds. It's early on in the book. This landscape is of the prairie. Then you notice this metal grey within the foreground. It's kind of textural like the grass and then there’s a small little triangle dotting the horizon. A house. It's like the narrative of the early settlers. The kind of hope that that land held.

The other landscape is on a mural. The mural is real or you have to believe me when I tell you the mural is there. That's basically it. The rest is just extremely claustrophobic. Examining the kind of details and surfaces.

LF:     In a sense, by really living in a place or by looking at a place for long enough, you know it in terms of smaller images that you can then map together into a larger portrait.

DS:     Yeah, definitely. This work feels deeply intimate. [At first] I wasn't thinking that it would feel really personal. I assumed it would have a German level stoicism.

LF:     You’re not German.

DS:     I know. All the people I'm closest with find this book to be drowning in emotional content. But I wanted it to be, on some level, about isolation.

I don't want to make it seem like I'm an expert on the region, because it's still not my home home.

Blisner, Il. By Daniel Sheafourteen-nineteen, 2014.

LF:     Have you ever slept with your subject?

DS:     Like literally?

LF:     Yeah.

DS:     I've photographed people I've slept with I should say. I would never take somebody with me, while I'm travelling on a project. That's it. I purposefully lose myself in my own head when I'm travelling. I like how I dissolve, go crazy, and that I get so lonely.

LF:     Do you think that comes across in the book?

DS:     There's only one flash used in the entire book and it's to illuminate the same window in a different way. You can see the flash. What I was interested in is the interiors being lit but really it's like the one place I can really wink, that I'm there.

Like in the last book there's a loose chronology. I wanted it to feel more wholesome in the beginning and I wanted it to kind of dissolve at a certain point. There're these reoccurring motifs like the blinds on the windows, plants in the windows, the windows themselves, a certain type of character in the landscape

LF:     Yeah.

DS:     When you met me, the economy wasn't yet something I thought about on a personal level. I didn't know how hard making work is, year after year and how financially exhausting it gets.

I was still young enough that I didn't quite feel that burden. But I feel it now, having spent every year with all my money and resources going into projects that take on larger and larger scopes.

Now, I like the idea of having some savings or the money to make a film. That's what I really want to do next. I want to make a film. I have to do something like that.

LF:     The book is beautifully made. And worth a read.

DS:     Thanks.

LF:     This recording is with DS. What's the date?

DS:     September 2nd, I believe, 2014.


Purchase Signed Copy of Blisner, Il

Read Daniel Shea's interview with Lucas Foglia on Foglia's book Frontcountry