Reinventing the past:
an interview with digital art photographer Lou Oates.
by Simon Maxwell.
From my limited but enjoyable exchanges with featured
Lou Oates, I have discovered that photography is truly
experiencing a renaissance. Lou is proof of that. I
would consider myself lucky to go on approaching my
photography with the same degree of passion and involvement
that he clearly enjoys, having apparently retired five
years ago! Lou has wholeheartedly embraced the new digital
technology available to photographers and is now applying
it in exciting, thought-provoking ways.
LOU: I got back into photography after I sold my last business about six years ago. I attended a local camera club meeting hoping to find some used darkroom equipment. I had my own darkroom until 1972, the last time I was active in shooting. The guys (many around my age) in the club looked at me like I was crazy. They had all gone digital years previously after taking Photoshop courses at the local college. Since I was fairly computer literate I ended up taking the same track. And no more hypo smell!
A year later when I began to spend a lot of time in Arizona, I took some landscape photography courses at ASU with Mark Klett plus some digital imaging courses there with Stephen Marc. All this time I was shooting every day and spending many hours at the computer.
In the last six years my work has changed dramatically,
from your basic scenery shots where location was the
driving force (all the "tripod holes", cliche
AZ locations) to making due with ideas that come from
everyday situations. Much of this change was due to
seeing many more good photographers and their work.
Seeing how they approached various topics helped me
a lot. I saw that some otherwise mundane subjects came
alive with the right ideas. Those scenic destinations
had much less allure to me and I began to really look
at things much closer to home. Even at shot-to-death
locations I liked to think I saw something different.
LOU: Definitely driven. Almost like needing a fix. If
a day goes by without a decent image to work with I
can't stand it. I'll go back and rework an old image
in a new way. Or simply jump in my car and go somewhere,
anywhere where an image may be lurking.
LOU: For the first few years I shot only film, with 35mm, then Pentax 6x7 medium format, scanned for Photoshop. In 2001 I decided that the Minolta Dimage with its 6mb format could serve me better and reduce the frustration of scanning film that had consistently been butchered by the film processing services. I finally got fed up with the dust and scratches with the attendant hours of touchup time in Photoshop and sold all my film cameras and lenses on Ebay. Now it's the Canon D1s, raw format, all the way!
That was also a huge turning point in the quantity and
quality of my work. Besides the much "cleaner" work
flow, I found that shooting digital allowed me to experiment
much more. For the first time I "knew" that
I could accomplish capturing the image that the situation
presented. I joked about film being something on one's
teeth but I honestly can't come up with a reason to
LOU: I sometimes pre-ordain one way or the other. When
I started working with the Copper
Basin RR for example,
it was always with the black and white idea, as it was
in some of the shots in my "favorite
black and white" pages on my web site, especially the motel
room ones. On the composite shots I often find that
the black and white also work really well but that color
in this case is the real payoff. Several other digital
artists use black and white composites and they are
fantastic, but for me the color composites have always
been what I eventually present. In many cases I might
visualize in color but later change to black and white
when I start working with the image. It just feels better
in black and white. I love the freedom of digital to
bounce back and forth from color to black and white
and to less or more saturation/balance of color. To
me it's a much more arty feeling to be able to change
the image as the mood dictates.
LOU: I love taking images way out there in my imagination. So much is gained in storytelling like this. An example is the "Cousin Sadie Tried To Enlist" composite. All it was at the beginning was a girl around the middle/late 1800’s, posing with a prayer book for a First Communion or Confirmation portrait. After I colorized the girl I put in, among other things, the Confederate Battle Flag, the musket and those cute designer hand grenades (some kind of designer fragrance bottle I found on the web) and the Confederate States of America CSA belt emblem. The prayer book became "War for Ladies". I'm sure some gal like this existed somewhere in my family tree.
All fantasy to be sure. But great fun.
SIMON: What brought this about this shift in direction towards the composites?
LOU: The whole composite images thing started with Stephen Marc in his digital imaging class at ASU. I thought, what a great way to salvage those lousy images hogging space on my hard drive! Hard drive farming I call it. Sometimes a tomato sometimes a rotten squash. Later I realized that here was a whole other universe in images - a world where reality can be bent to suit my whims. Lately I'm trying for more subtle results that require a bit more study. “Bobby Asked About Darwin” hits you between the eyes. Sadie seduces you with realism at first before the "Oh, I get it". I like that.
LOU: I like your description about leaving viewers to "fill
in the blanks". My clues are in the titles. Let
the viewer take it from there. Sadie is my favorite
composite so far. I've had all kinds of response from
people when they see these composites. Much more so
than the more "straight" images. I guess I
really like the feedback and the involvement folks have
in the images. I also like to think that these long
gone folks would enjoy seeing themselves in the little
stories. A touch of immortality perhaps?
SIMON: It seems that much of your work is about turning our preconceptions of reality upside down; wittily but deliberately subversive juxtapositions of human and animal imagery and other amusing devices that remind me of the playful (but nevertheless serious) strategy of the Surrealists. Are you playing with our minds too? And, if so, to what purpose?
LOU: No, I'm not trying to play with anyone's mind other than having them discover some playful meanings inherent with each composite. What this series will end up being is maybe 24 images along the lines of "Our Family Album, Black Sheep Edition". I hope that folks will relate to their own family's quirks. As an example, the composite "Aunt Adele Collected Sheriffs", prompted one buyer to request the hand written caption to read "Suzy Followed The Law". It seems her sister had dated only police officers and she wanted the picture for a gift. Of course I made the change for her. Money is money.
SIMON: On a more formal level, I particularly like the way you frame your images into tableaux; at first sight they seem to be historic hand tinted photographs or daguerreotypes which came in their own ornate mounts. It's as though your images are marrying up the formal poses and structured compositions of turn of the century studio portraiture with the creative montage possibilities of digital; how much homage are you actually paying to the past in your work? Are there any sources of early photographic imagery that appeal to you?
LOU: The old paper frames I find in antique malls or on
the web. I usually throw the pictures away and edit
out the studio name. I will probably keep this frame
idea for a while.
LOU: I love Maggie Taylor and her use of bits of old photos. I had the pleasure of meeting her at a digital workshop in Santa Fe NM last May and hear her motivations and methods. Her work is truly surreal. And fun! Mine nibbles around those same edges. I dislike the "oh so serious" tone of featured photographers in many of the current photography magazines. So much is simply ugly for ugly sake.
SIMON: As you describe your work, I do pick up the feeling that you are indeed having fun - and why not! There is an underlying wit going on in many of the images. Even pictures like "Uncle Joe Took Up With The Wrong Woman" contain a darkly humorous edge. Would you consider yourself a comic artist, and do you think that comedy can actually be a quite a powerful tool because it is deceptively light but makes a serious point in a roundabout way?
LOU: I don't consider myself a comic artist because that
would imply that the comedy is the end point. It also
sounds crass. It is more like your description of using
it as a tool to reinforce some other point. Try to analyze
a joke. I can't. Sometimes funny is just funny. Uncle
Joe is simply illustrating that family member everyone
has that chose a mate unwisely. Just carried to a ridiculous
length. To me that's humorous. So maybe I am a comic
artist after all. Have I come full circle? My brain
is freezing up. I just hope that the humor I inject
doesn't just come off as odd. Maybe that's the test.
SIMON: It also feels very much that you are presiding, magus-like, over a puppet theatre, pulling the strings as it were of the characters in your tableaux. Would it be fair to say that the advent of digital has made such photomontage work a real possibility now?
LOU: There certainly is a feeling of power over those
people I choose. I hope it's a benevolent dictatorship
as I'm not that controlling in real life. In my work
flow I first study the person's portrait. The person
then seems to suggest an approach. Maybe it's their
resemblance to others I have known. Maybe it's the props.
Maybe it's the background. Maybe it's the booze. Just
kidding - I don't drink. In any event, ideas pop out
of the portrait, like strings in your puppet analogy
and I gather them up.
SIMON: Yes, digital does seem to present hundreds more possible options for a shot; I imagine you regard that as an exciting rather than an overwhelming prospect.
LOU: Because of the quick turnaround between image capture and final print I find that I can accomplish much much more. Those fleeting bursts of intuition we all have while in the field can be instantly indulged in a finished product. I'd guess that I shoot five to ten times more than with film. That's not just more of the same; bracketing and "insurance" shots. I'm talking about shooting the same scene dozens of ways. I'm amazed at how many times those last few "what the hell" shots are the keepers.
The quick turnaround also keeps me fresh. Did I get it? Yes or no. I know now. Then I move on.
I recently had a lively discussion with an excellent photographer who disdains digital because of the fast turnaround. He argued that he needed the time between shooting and printing to fully digest the image. I believe that this reinforces the digital advantage because it is so much simpler to revisit and rework the image.
SIMON: Given the growing potential of digital, should we perhaps be considering a new definition of photography, as more a way of constructing surreality rather than simply recording reality. Is photography being challenged to become a more imaginative art form?"
LOU: I do think that photography is challenged to become a more imaginative art form. Or more specifically, the galleries and other sales venues are the challenged ones. So many are afraid to venture into the digital based non-traditional realm. High school and college photography teachers are possibly the worst obstacles. Instead of embracing the "vision" of photography right in Photography 101, they drag students back into the Dark Ages in the school's darkroom. How much better to teach the creative vision first?
One wonders whether in years to come there will be imitators of Lou’s style of imagery, who seek out historic images of you and I to reassemble into new and unlikely forms; will we enjoy the immortality he speaks of and find ourselves cast in strange new scenarios? It’s a weird thought, but, like Lou’s characters, I imagine I would enjoy seeing my image being incorporated into such a creation! Lou’s art is important because it sheds light on the experiences of life, at times by metaphorical means, at others via satire. One is aware though that there is a genuine warmth to the way he records these little stories or slices of life with which we can all perhaps identify. He may well enjoy the power that comes with the director’s chair, but you get the feeling that he also loves his actors.