Pierogi: You seem to have a range of different subject matter as content in your work, and I’d like to start with talking about your “Drowned” series, which are in the flat files here. Your artist statement says you steer clear of PhotoShop. Could you shed some light on the process of making these images?
Bobby Neel Adams: I’d prefer not to talk about technique if that’s okay. It takes away from mystery of the work.
P: That makes perfect sense. What drew you to the subject matter of these works?
BNA: I think of these as Vanitas-style photographs. Vanitas are 16th century Flemish still-life paintings that usually have a skull and rotting fruit in them. The paintings talked about the transience of life, how you’re pretty much here for a short time and then you’re gone. That’s where these photographs are coming from. They have nothing to do with humans per se, but living creatures that are leaving, or gone.
P: And they’re stuck in this transitory space in the image.
P: So there’s a reference to art history then?
BNA: Well in my mind there is, but I think of them as more ethereal, eerie still-lifes. I’ve never done still-life work before, so this is brand new to me.
P: So with these, you’re creating the environment and taking the photograph, whereas in your Age Map and Family Tree series, you’re finding and/or capturing existing situations and then altering them physically, by tearing the paper.
BNA: Yeah. The Family Tree photos have a conceptual component since they’re reflecting on aging and DNA – genetic information that’s passed from father to daughter, mother to son, etc. In some ways, thematically, they’re talking about mortality like the photographs in the Drowned series. What surprised me was discovering that the adult subjects in the Family Tree portraits laughed at the results, while the kids didn’t like looking at them. It was like they found a mirror that reflected their image 30 years into the future. And it scared them.
P: Where did the interest in genetics and changing of the human body come from?
BNA: Well, the first age photo I made was of myself. I had a portrait of myself when I was six, and I thought I still looked and felt like that kid, so I made the combined photograph, and soon after realized that there was something very provocative about it. Later when I began using other people as subjects, I started to believe that most people’s persona is set at a very young age, at around six years old. Once I read some of the child development scientists I realized that this so called phenomena was a widely acknowledged view. If the child looks very introspective, that’s usually how they end up later on in life.
P: And the “Close to the Ground” photographs of airplanes descending towards the runway, how do you feel they relate?
BNA: I think there’s a sort of tension in them, which I think comes from living in New York during 9/11. If you’ve ever been really close to where the planes intersect with the landscape, it’s really scary and thrilling at the same time. It’s also fun stalking an airplane. It’s weird in an urban landscape seeing something that huge piercing the cityscape. I started doing these photographs in San Diego where the planes drop right over the mountain and into the downtown. It just felt wrong to me. How could something weighing over 200 tons move so slow and still be airborne? And worse, what happens if it fails? Hopefully the viewer experiences this tension seeing a giant aircraft frozen in mid-air over an otherwise uneventful urban or suburban landscape.
P: Maybe the planes are also being captured in this transitory space in a way, like the creatures in the Drowned series, but in this case, between the air and the ground.
BNA: That could be.
P: Do you remember how you first became interested in film photography?
BNA: Well I grew up in a really boring town in Colorado and went to public school. Someone gave me a camera, and I just started taking pictures, and towards the end of high school, the Denver Post had a photo contest, and I entered and it won the state contest, and then the national contest, and I was hitch-hiking through the Northwest with no money, and when I called my mother she told me that I won all this money from the contest. I was uneducated about the history of photography or how to use the camera, but then I went to college and they taught me about all of that. I also love a lot of the seminal collage artists, so I think about that too in regard to my torn portrait pieces.
P: Well you’re collaging in the Drowned series too, by combining the subject matter in your own way, it’s just before you take the photograph, instead of after.
BNA: I actually hadn’t thought of it that way.
P: What are you working on now? Do you have any shows coming up?
BNA: I’ve continued to work on the Drowned series, and in my mid-fifties I started writing, and surprised myself by getting published, so I’ve been devoting more time to writing non-fiction lately. But sadly no exhibitions of my visual work are coming up at the moment.
Pierogi’s flat files contain several works from Adams’ Close to the Ground and Drowned series here.