Tony Fouhse has been creating personal projects since 1974, and his shifting methods, stories and subject matter all trace the evolution of his personal development; from candid shots to posed, meditative portraiture, and from analogue to digital mediums. For Fouhse, the art of photography exists in the final edit of a series, when his work transforms from a sea of photographs into a layered narrative structure—visual chapters and multiple stories rather than the search for a standalone, striking image.
In his latest work, a photobook titled After the Fact, Fouhse guides his viewers through a journey across time and space that feels simultaneously dystopic and nostalgic, otherworldly and familiar. While he created the work in between 2016 to 2018 as a commentary on the future and passage of time, in the dark and barren months of COVID-19, it is as though the project ended up predicting what was to come after all.
In this interview for LensCulture, Fouhse speaks to Cat Lachowskyj about how his love for photography began, his work on societal structures in Ottawa, and how he pieced together the multiple layers of inquiry of After the Fact.
Cat Lachowskyj: How did you first encounter photography as something you could be creative with?
Tony Fouhse: I’m 66 years old now, but when I was 15, one of my best friends had an older brother who we all thought was really cool. In 1969, we were in his room listening to Muddy Waters, and he had a tripod in the corner with a Mamiya Sekor 35mm single-lens reflex on it, which back then was very exotic. It was aimed out the window, and I remember going over to it and looking through the viewfinder, focusing it and moving it around and thinking: Oh, you can frame the world? Ever since that moment, I’ve been interested in photography.
CL: It’s interesting that you think of photography as “framing the world,” because when I look through your images and different projects, your earlier work feels like it was shaped by you walking around and figuring things out. How would you say that exploration felt for you then, versus how you make photos now? Your recent work feels much more measured and paced.
TF: It’s like being a songwriter or being in a band. I think the first few albums you put out, you’re young and vital and figuring stuff out—there’s a lot of energy. But songwriters always say that the songs they wrote 20 years ago couldn’t be replicated now, when you’re a different person. I really base my own practice on that continuum. When I started getting serious about photography, in around 1974, it was difficult to find serious photographers doing work that existed outside of advertising or family portraiture. You saw people like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand, and that’s the work that initially influenced me.
I became very interested in photographing my life, probably because my life was way more exciting back then—I was young and didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. As you go through my work, there are these sort of blocks or chapters. I spend about ten years interested in one approach to photography, and then once the flavor is gone from it, I draw a line and start asking different questions. I typically work on a project for 2 to 4 years, and I’ve always been very interested in sequencing photographs rather than creating standalone images.
CL: What was one of the most significant turning points in how you approach your work?
TF: I used to photograph a lot in the States, but in 2007 I had kidney failure and almost died. I had tubes coming out of my body for about 4 or 5 months and I couldn’t go anywhere, so I was kind of forced to photograph my surroundings in Ottawa. I tried out a few projects that didn’t quite work, and then I thought about this corner on Cumberland and Murray, where drug addicts were known to hang out. At first they thought I was a narc and no one wanted to speak to me, but then as I was putting the gear back in the car, a man named Archie walked by, saw me and said: “Are you looking for a subject? You can take my picture.”
People gradually understood what I was doing, and I ended up spending 4 years on that corner photographing. I wasn’t publishing the photographs, but I would always return with a large stack of prints and put them on the corner under a rock for people to route through and take the ones they wanted, and we would have conversations about why I chose to print certain pictures over others. Eventually, the New York Times Lens blog ran an article on it, and I received hate mail from all over the world.
CL: What was the context of the hate mail?
TF: That I was being exploitative, glamorizing, and that I had no business being there. The standard stuff. People think drug addicts are stupid, but they are actually the shrewdest people I have ever met in my life. They understand systems and ploys, and they understand that they hustle. They get it. I’m not a paragon of virtue. I didn’t set out to change anyone’s life, but I did it with as much respect as I could, and myself and the people I photographed got a lot out of that exchange.
CL: How did you move on from that particular project?
TF: That project got a ton of attention. So I thought, what’s the opposite of this street corner? And then I realized that in Ottawa, it’s the federal infrastructure, so I decided to find a way to photograph how it permeates our city in ways that we aren’t aware of. I worked on Official Ottawa for 3 or 4 years. I then had these two ends of a spectrum: powerless people without much agency outside of their own world, and then an intense power that filters down into everything. I started wondering: what’s in the middle? And that’s when I photographed the suburbs. I call those three projects my ‘Ottawa trilogy’.
CL: I assume those influenced your most recent work, After the Fact. How did you move into this more conceptual space?
TF: After the Fact definitely stemmed from that Ottawa trilogy, but it is ultimately a work of fiction—they are slices of time and space that I recontextualize into fiction. I became incredibly interested in the veracity of photographs, and how you can mould one thing into another thing. I also became interested in photographing the future, which is essentially an impossible task. I was fascinated with the William Gibson phrase: “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” There are these pockets that show us what things look like in nostalgic ways, and then there are pockets that show us what things might look like in a year or two. I’m very interested in that fictional aspect of photography.
CL: How did you approach making pictures for this new project after working in this more straight, storytelling space for so long?
TF: It was meant to start as a portrait project, and then it morphed into being a project about the future. I live in the Centretown neighborhood of Ottawa, and funnily enough, 75% of the pictures I took were made within a half kilometre of my house. Once you start looking for it, you can see what the future might look like. I photographed that work from 2016 to 2018, and recently I realized, except for the crowded scenes, that a lot of stuff in that work evokes some of the feelings that we’ve all gone through over the last two months.
CL: Some of the images feel like they are part of a lucid dream, and then others feel more precise, focused and intentional. Walk me through your editing process—as you mentioned, it’s an important part of your process.
TF: I shot on a digital camera with the ISO turned up to the very end, because I wanted the images to be noisy and degraded, and sort of look like Xeroxes. I also noticed that it really shifted the palette, especially because a lot of the images were shot at night. I took about 5000 pictures which, for me, is a stupid amount. I then edited it down and made about 350 prints, and then I started trying to edit them. I went through a few different permutations, and was able to eliminate about 200 more pictures, because there were aspects of them that weren’t relevant to my thesis.
I had lists of themes: failed infrastructure, crime scenes, aimlessness, etc. I put together about 20 to 25 shots in a PDF dummy and sent it to 4 or 5 people whom I really trust, asking them to have a look and tell me what they felt was and wasn’t working. Everyone I sent it to would point to the same picture and ask: why is this in there? This happens with every sequence I do; there is always something I shoe-horned in there because it meant something to me, but nothing to the greater picture. And then there are others who point to a certain image and say that it feels out of place, while others point to it and say that it’s the key to the entire work. Once there is no longer unanimous feedback, I have to make the decision on my own.
CL: Once you have that tighter edit down, how do you start sequencing them into a story?
TF: After those final eliminations, I realized that I wanted the work to not only be about the future, but about time, so I started working with repetitions. There are many pictures of birds, and then there is the same landscape photographed from different angles, taken at different times. The book starts in the winter, goes through the other seasons and ends in the winter. The portraits begin with an old person, and as you go through the book, the people get younger and younger. The title appears on the fourth to last page, and you can read the book forwards or backwards—in fact, it might make sense if you read it from back to front. It was the trickiest edit I’ve ever done, because there were so many moving parts.
CL: You also include quotes and text throughout this work, which hasn’t been a feature of your previous work. Why did you decide to include words?
TF: For the longest time, the working title of the project was The Future, and I knew it was way too prescriptive. I wanted to intimate how people should look at the work, but not tell them directly. I had a whole list of quotes that I came across while working on the series, but the Bertolt Brecht one really hit the nail on the head, because he isn’t so specific: “In the dark times/Will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing/About the dark times.” I loved it because he isn’t talking about the past—he’s talking about the future. In the colophon, at the very bottom I included a quote by Joe Strummer that reads, “The future is unwritten.” That was my idea of humor, after presenting an entire book that predicts the future. Including things that undermine my own work is very important to me—I think that should happen more often.
CL: In most of the portraits you included, your subjects are looking away from the camera. Why was this an important way for you to represent the human characters?
TF: I didn’t want the author of the work to be recognized. If a person is looking directly at you, it’s also a reflection of the author. I wanted to be removed. I wanted it to almost look like an alien had come down and was studying us, and this was the report that they send back to the mothership. I wanted the viewer to be outside of it all
CL: Why did you want to present this work as a book?
TF: I’m very against photographs being fetishized. I used to have a gallery, but I left it because I didn’t like the idea of people fetishizing my images as objects—I’m more interested in communication. For Official Ottawa, I created a Kickstarter and printed 2000 90-page newsprint copies of the work, and I sent boxes of 50 to people across Canada, asking them to leave little stacks at Tim Hortons, gas stations and cafes. I’m interested in the idea of non-white cube or non-academy ways of distributing information, and a book is a really great way to do that. Plus, I knew the strength of this work would be in the arc of the story, rather than individual images, so I envisaged After the Fact as a book from the get go.
CL: Since it’s made for others to interact with and to communicate your ideas, what do you want people to discern from that encounter?
TF: I think you can lead any given person to a general understanding, but I’m not interested in holding anyone’s hand and explaining things to them or being super specific. I like leading them to a field, and the field might have an X painted somewhere in it, but I’m not guiding them to that X. I’m taking them to the entrance and I’m telling them to wander around and see what they are drawn to. When Robert Frank applied for his Guggenheim Fellowship, he explained in his application that he wanted to create a body of work that nullified the need for explanation—I love that idea. The beauty of photographs is that they are non-specific, but they can also re-evoke certain feelings, and I think if you can do it properly, you can arrange a body of work in a way that evokes or leads people to a specific mode of thinking about what you are doing.