We tend to analyze photographs in specific contexts—often when they are hung on exhibition walls or presented in a documentary spread for a photojournalistic story. It’s easy to forget that photography plays an expansive and endless role outside of these situations, especially in passive moments on social media feeds, billboards or in shop windows.
For as long as she can remember, artist Anastasia Samoylova has been interested in how we process and internalize images. In her acclaimed work Landscape Sublime, she uses fragments of familiar photographs to construct abstract sculptures. These compositions, filled with imagery of stunning natural environments, shed light on the lineage of sublime subjects that are treated more like generic stock photos rather than original perspectives. When did these patterns in photography start, and how do we develop those photographic habits ourselves?
Samoylova is now extending her image investigation into her project FloodZone, an exploratory analysis of image culture and our rising water levels. Catalyzed by her fascination with Miami’s image culture – full of pastel pinks, art deco and palm trees – Samoylova looks at the impact of these default images, questioning how photography obscures the real environment. For this interview, Samoylova and I spoke about how she uses photography to commentate on our relationship to the medium, the origins of her interest in sublime environments, and why it’s important to develop artistic projects about issues without defaulting to standard documentary stylings.
LensCulture: You have a very interesting professional trajectory, and weren’t initially interested in photography as a career choice. Can you tell me a bit about when you began thinking about the medium as more of a specialization than a periphery practice?
Anastasia Samoylova: That’s a great leading question, and it’s actually related to what I’m doing with my work right now. I went to a Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, and I initially went into it for architecture and interior design. I was interested in a sort of environmental design, with three-dimensional interiors and an environmental focus.
Then, in my junior and sophomore years, we started making models of buildings, constructing the architectural environments out of paper as prototypes for outdoor and indoor spaces. Part of one assignment in particular was to photograph the structures and submit it for a portfolio critique. This is when I started thinking about what photography does to a three-dimensional space, and how it can flatten out certain areas and expand others, creating this perfect illusion.
In the end, I liked my photographs better than I liked my buildings, but you can see this influence in my current work as well – the paper models and constructing environments have always been with me.
LC: And this “environmental architecture” seems to have an influence on the conceptual themes you are addressing in your current photographic work. When did you start thinking about natural states and the environment in relation to photography?
AS: When the camera is not pointed at a person or an object, it instead tries to communicate the sublime – something outside of those tangible things. You can’t possess a landscape, and you can’t possess a place. I quickly became interested in the documentation of non-tangible things like “environments,” and in a way, this unobstructed, untainted landscape was a means to escape. I grew up in Moscow surrounded by concrete, tall buildings – this social realist, brutalist architecture – that was my reality. But getting away into nature, even just finding a patch of green somewhere, was always a special treat. I started thinking about those moments as a means of escapism. Another way I did this was by looking at images of those places online. I was an early user of Flickr, and I remember nature images always taking up a prominent spot in the popular stream on the site. They were always the ones that made it through all the filters, surfacing to the top of the feed, and I started to think about why that might be the case.
LC: It’s interesting because those images now seem so synthetic. I remember being impressed with them when I was first using the Internet, but now it’s like we’re oversaturated with visuals of pristine environments, and we sense there might be something they aren’t showing us, like they’re surrounded by tourists or some other hideous, manmade structure.
AS: Exactly. Before I moved to America, I had never visited it. My main visuals of the country came from the representatives of American photography – especially photographers from the West Coast, like Ansel Adams. The first destination I wanted to see in America was Yosemite, and in my first semester I moved to the Midwest. Going to Yosemite from there was a shock because I had imagined all these grand, high-contrast, black and white mountains, but what you see is more like Stephen Shore or Roger Minick photo. It was overpopulated with tourists, and I could only stay on the designated path.
This idea of some sort of imagined geography is always based on images we see en masse. There is always this contrast between what you imagine a place to be and then what you actually see, and people are always trying to capture that imagined part. It wasn’t like I was disappointed when I got to Yosemite, but there was definitely the acknowledgement of an illusion there. All photographs of places like that start to repeat each other’s composition, which solidifies an idea of the place in your mind, even if it doesn’t actually look that way in person.
LC: So when you prepare your own sculptures for Landscape Sublime, what does your research process look like? Because you’re compiling images from all sorts of sources, but there’s also this theoretical component that implies something is happening beyond the images.
AS: There’s always a toggle back and forth between research and making. I often pick up a new book, and that informs the continuation of a work and how it ends up being shaped. When I started the project, I was also reading Kant and Schopenhauer’s theories about the sublime, picturesque and beautiful. There are certain examples that are brought up, and a hierarchy of those experiences are mapped out. So for example, flowers are universally beautiful across cultures, and as someone who predominantly speaks a language that is foreign to them, I’m always interested in these phenomena that transcend language. Things like grand waterfalls and desert skies at night are considered sublime – those experiences that are so overwhelming that they can shock an individual.
I also make the tableaus to commentate on how our memory operates. It’s a gestural metaphor for the non-linear, jumbled snippets of imagery that make up a memory of a place, and reflects on the fallibility of photography to transcribe a “full” experience of a place. I was just in Provence last month for the first time, and it was overwhelmingly beautiful. It was impossible to separate myself from the pleasure of experiencing it – to distance myself enough to produce a clever rendering of it. So I ended up with a bunch of postcard-like pictures of lavender fields that simply fall short of transcribing the dizzying aroma of the humble little flowers, the buzzing of bees, or the fading amber sun. And of course there are thousands of images of lavender fields attempting to depict that feeling that are easily available online.
LC: And for Landscape Sublime, you use images of landscapes to essentially build a new landscape that’s constructed through your own experience. The subjects are sculptural, but you always present the work as a final, flat print. Tell me a bit about this decision. Why is it important for you to have this final representation of the work?
AS: I do this to emphasize the illusion that photography creates – this illusion of perfection. It addresses how we primarily experience photographs in small, intimate sizes. They are always little JPEGs that are reduced in quality as well, so you don’t necessarily get to see the imperfections. Then, when you see my prints at full scale, you start seeing the little paper cuts and dust on the sculptures. I barely touch up my prints so that you see all these signifiers of construction and artifice.
LC: Let’s talk about how this sentiment transitions into FloodZone, because you carry this inquiry about imperfection through to this series, which is a bit more specific than your previous work. What inspired it?
AS: Just like with Landscape Sublime, this project directly came out of my response to the environment that I was in. When I started Landscape Sublime. I was living in a small town called Peoria in Illinois, which is predominantly made up of corn and soy fields. I wasn’t motivated to go outside too much, so I made all the work in my basement. It was my means to escape a bit and travel via these image searches.
And then when I moved to Miami, where I currently live, it all happened very quickly. I found myself in this constructed landscape sublime tableau, because this whole place is so dependent on its own image and presentation. There are so many issues that are concealed by utopian imagery. The incessant promotion of travel and the city as a desirable destination mixed with the images used to promote real estate sales are the two driving forces behind Miami’s economy. You see all these billboards covering up rusting facades, and when you peek through them you see the dug out foundations filled with water.
There are issues in Miami that are pressing, but they are constantly being concealed by images. I was always interested in how images shape our understanding of an environment, which in a way has to do with capitalism and how it operates, and the tools of propaganda. So now I’ve been doing this project for about two or three years, and I started it as a way to understand this new place because I never lived in an environment like it. I never lived in a tourist town.
LC: And you incorporate all types of images – some are composites akin to your collaged pieces in Landscape Sublime, but there are also static shots and varying color schemes. Why was it important for you to bring all these styles together under one project?
AS: I’m not being very purist with my styles for this series. I feel like if color contributes nothing to the image, then I just strip it away because it’s more about the tone , or a color could be distracting from what I want to say. I’m definitely not didactic with it. It’s a digital camera, so I can get away with many styles, and this is definitely a formal decision. It’s about what I want each image to communicate.LC: So when did you first become interested in the relationship between propaganda and photography, specifically? I guess you can also look at the stock images of landscapes as some form of propaganda as well…
AS: Definitely. The role that images play in a larger economy has always been interesting to me. Even my thesis project prior to Landscape Sublime addressed early propaganda posters for industrial farming and factory families. I looked at how the colors used in the posters had psychological effects; those yellows and primaries and reds and blues were used to promote industrial agriculture starting in the 1940s.
Now here in Miami, colors are also a trademark feature of the place – all those Miami pinks and candy-colored facades of art deco buildings. The newer buildings are also being absorbed by billboards and advertisements and brochures with those standard images. It’s definitely weird, but it’s also a gold mine for my interests, in a way.
LC: How are those interests being flexed for you now? Do you find yourself returning to old themes or are you creating something completely new?
AS: FloodZone has become a more expansive project. It started in Miami, but then as I began researching and understanding more and more about the rising sea level, I realized there was almost no visibility and awareness about the issue at all. I myself was never aware of the severity of the sea level while I was living in the Chicago area, let alone Moscow – it’s just not something that is widely discussed, and it certainly doesn’t get much visual support.
Now I live on the ocean and I’ve been through two hurricanes, including Irma, so once you’ve directly experienced the repercussions, it’s a whole different level of urgency. That made me want to investigate further. I’m taking road trips and received two grants this year to continue the project and expand it to the Southern United States, where the issue is most prescient. Then I’ll be going up the East Coast, and then I’m hoping to continue the project worldwide. I want to look at how the media covers these issues in terms of how much is discussed or concealed, and how images play a role in that. For example, in Miami Beach, you can’t really recommend mass migration because you’ll lose the city, you know?
LC: Absolutely, and it’s important to emphasize that your work is your own as an artist, and your aesthetic is identifiable throughout it, but your intent is to also bring light to a very real issue that affects everyone. How are you using these images to inform your audience in a way that transcends a more traditional, straight documentary style?
AS: I want to immerse the viewer within the daily happenings of the environment I am depicting. It might not always be flooded, but you see the indicators of fragility and vulnerability. You see how close the water is without it necessarily splashing over you in the form of a grand wave. It’s less of a journalistic project, and more of a lyrical documentary, and I think that’s more effective in a lot of ways. It’s important that people learn to read and interpret all types of images for themselves, rather than relying on a National Geographic report.