“At a photographic workshop years ago, the instructor encouraged students to ‘fall through the lens.’ I’m sorry to say that I no longer recall which instructor said that but I’ve carried those words with me. Falling through the lens (or the pinhole) means allowing myself to be drawn to, or moved by, what I see, to experience its emotional and symbolic significance for me in that moment, even if that content isn’t readily accessible verbally, to become absorbed in the process of making a photograph: a silent interaction between me and the scene before me.”
Golding’s work is a blur between illustrative and transformative photography that is largely centered around the themes of landscape and the natural world. She uses a variety of cameras and techniques: whether a vintage film camera, a pinhole, a plastic Holga or Diana. She also alternates between single and multiple exposures. The results are beautiful, evocative images that convey the deeply personal and philosophical connection Golding has with the world around her.
After talking with Golding for an interview with F-Stop Magazine in early 2016, I knew we needed to revisit her images in order to adequately address her work. She was kind enough to provide some examples of more recent work and speak at length about her creative process.
Cary Benbow (CB): Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
J.M. Golding (JG): The answer lies in both the process of creating and in the images that result from that process. In terms of process, making photographs invites me into what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a flow state, that “almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness,” a state of deep absorption in the moment. Since I often photograph in natural settings, the flow state carries with it an experience of connecting with nature.
I often think of what photographer Ruth Bernhard referred to as “knowing what it feels like to be a leaf.”
Not only is the experience of photographing wonderful (in the full sense of the word) for me, but then I create photographs as well! Intellectually, I know there are solid, scientific reasons that my pictures exist—but I still experience them as a form of magic, as alchemy. They’re all the more magical because they transform reality, sometimes in ways that can be quite surprising to my conscious self. I use these alterations in reality to create and/or discover metaphors that explore and transform subjective experience. And when another person finds resonance in my work, a connection is made between my viewer and me. An amazing experience all around.
CB: Can you please explain the ideas behind some of your series more specifically?
JG: One of my projects is titled, “Before there were words.” This work addresses the preverbal experience that we retain, perhaps in our unconscious minds, long after it’s become possible, expected, and maybe typical for us to relate to the world largely through words. The photographs speak of pure actuality: that moment before verbal labels rush in to change experience. These are the moments between sleep and waking, dreams vanishing as the dreamer wake…matter coming into form…unwished wishes and unspoken memories. They are moments seeking resonance, concepts in the process of forming, hopes being nurtured and sent forth.
From the series “Before there were words”
Another series, “From destruction grows a garden of the soul,” was made in the year and a half after a 2013 fire ravaged over 3,000 acres of mountain wilderness in northern California. Initially, only bleakness and devastation remained, a landscape of loss. There were subtle signs of hope, easy to miss, and perhaps requiring more interpretation than was justified. Seemingly against all odds, the following spring brought profound renewal to the mountain. I couldn’t resist the metaphor of beauty—and, visually, joy—coming into existence after, and as a direct result of, disastrous loss.
Finally, “Where you are” explores integration of closeness and distance using double exposure. The photographs contain elements of each of two exposures, one focused close and one focused far away, fusing them to create an image that couldn’t have been anticipated by either one alone. In joining near and far, they also bring together the solid and ethereal, objective and subjective, sharp and blurred, literal and metaphorical, real and imagined.
CB: What are your photography inspirations—and why?
JG: As you can probably tell from what I said earlier, feeling a connection with nature is a basic inspiration for me. I’m fundamentally inspired by light and shadow as well. By openness to what lies beneath the surface of things. By the emotional resonance of a moment. In my experience, photography is where all of these inspirations meet.
Seeing other artists’ work, and conversation with other artists, are also important sources of inspiration for me. I’d like to mention just a few of those other artists. First, I can’t not mention the work of Ansel Adams. I was absolutely stunned from the first time I saw his work, which happened in my late childhood, around the time I took my first darkroom photography class. His books The Camera, The Negative, and The Print were an important foundation for me, both technically and aesthetically (despite the differences between my work and his). Adams wrote, “to photograph truthfully is to see beneath the surface”—something I always want to do. I strive to discover photographically the subjective truth beneath the more objective reality that appears at first sight.
I’ve also been very much influenced by Ruth Bernhard’s Gift of the Commonplace project. She said that “there is nothing unimportant in the universe”. This idea takes the emphasis away from the “subject” of the photograph, the thing in front of the lens, and focuses on the way it’s photographed: the light, the meaning, the artist’s subjective experience. Her photographs “Doorknob, 1975” and “Teapot, 1976” are probably my favorite examples of the ways in which she reveals magic in the everyday.
These are just a few examples. I’m lucky to have many sources of inspiration.
CB: There are so many ways to express oneself in a 21st-century world – What makes still photography your choice of expression? Do you create work in other mediums?
JG: It’s probably the particular combination of emotional expression, openness to experience, and ritual; the way photography combines art and science—all of that fits well with who I am. There’s something compelling about the ways photography can be used to transform “objective” reality, as compared to, say, painting or drawing or sculpture, in which the artist creates their own reality from nothingness (the blank page or canvas, the lump of clay, etc.). This difference among mediums seems more of a continuum than a set of categories, but I feel drawn to the photographic end of that continuum most strongly.
CB: Why do you shoot almost exclusively in black and white?
JG: This question brings up the distinction between using photography to record and using it to create or transform. I’m vastly more interested in creating and transforming than in recording.
Black and white photographs reproduce literal reality less well than do (realistic) color ones—and that’s a big advantage of working in black and white. For example, if I make a black and white photograph of a tree in my backyard, I’m not hoping it will look like the tree in my backyard—I’m hoping it will work as a metaphor. Photographing that tree in monochrome automatically makes the photo look less like the actual, specific tree. The photo becomes more abstract than it would have been if I’d used (most kinds of) color film. At minimum, it becomes a kind of representation of “every-tree.” If it goes really well, the image can become symbolic.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that color photos can’t be symbolic. I just experience black and white as a route to that destination.
CB: From the beginning of our conversation, I see there is significant amount of meaning you draw from your surroundings and subjects of your images. The term “transcendental” comes to mind. Do you agree with that?
JG: In terms of the ordinary English use of the word transcend, yes: I hope that my photographs will transcend the literal appearance of their subjects to become metaphors for internal experience, to be expressive of personal meaning—hopefully meaning that resonates with viewers.
—JM Golding, interviewed by Cary Benbow
Editors’ Note: More of Golding’s work can be found on her personal website.