Lia Newman: Let's start by discussing the three portfolios we selected for this exhibition: Waterbowls, Stacks, and Spills. The Waterbowls series began in 1997, but you worked simultaneously on all three series at some point. Can you talk about each series individually and the overlap you see with these works – including the repetition of certain elements from one series to another, such as the use of vessels and water.
James Henkel: I have spent a lot of time in the Penland Community and have always been interested in the functional beauty of the "vessel". I have worked on several projects including the spills in this show which explore the ideas of the container and the contained. I knew about the photographic fact that when you focus on a reflection (like a mirror) that you are actually not focusing on the surface of the mirror but the distance to the object being reflected. In the case of the Water Bowl photographs that is almost always infinity. This throws the bowl mostly out of focus. I am delighted that the most concrete thing in the image is a reflection in water. The hardest part of these pictures was waiting patiently for the wind to stop blowing ripples over the surface.
LN: That brings up a good point that I think many people overlook: many rolls of film are behind every great photograph. Approximately how many images comprise this final series? Is this something you are still working on or do you view this series as complete?
JH: I have a notebook full of unused negatives on this project. There are about 12-15 images from this series that I show and yes I am tempted to return to it and see if there is a place for color in this work.
LN: Around 2004 you began a series referred to as Stacks. The series includes two bodies of works: book stacks and stacks of glass vessels with flowers. Can you talk about the evolution of these works, beginning with the book series?
JH: I had been working with books since I moved to Minnesota in 1976. I lived above a used bookstore and the owner of the shop was my landlord. He would generously let me borrow books to use in photographs and of course I did not want to harm them. There was also a general respect for the book which is something that is imbued into us from an early age. I have returned to the book as subject matter many times, the cut and stacked books are the latest effort with them. I have another group of photographs titled Vases that has grown alongside the glass stacks, both bodies of work share an interest in the optical distortion of objects under water.
LN: You once mentioned a struggle with books as a child?
JH: I remember having some difficulty with reading as a child, and as a student in high school and even after, I have always tended to read quite slowly. Working with the books has seemed to be a way to personalize the book and make it a more visual experience. The photographs in the Stacks series sometimes address the form and authority which we associate with books, while others explore purely imaginative ideas for "new books".
LN: How did the series change? When did you begin physically altering the books and why did this become important to the series?
JH: Most of my earlier work with books were made by placing objects on them which would change the context of the meaning. These could then easily be removed. At some point I had submerged a book in water and I was freed from the confines of the preciousness of the book. I imagined being able to cut them into pieces and rearrange them.
LN: That must have been difficult – the first time you cut a book up on a bandsaw?
JH: Yes absolutely, but once I cut the first few it was quite easy. The books I bought for this project were in many cases old text books which is a little amusing given my struggles with school.
LN: Although I think we can definitely make a case for books as vessels, can you talk about the other pieces in the Stacks series that make use of vessels, in this case, glass bowls and vases? Similarly to the earlier Waterbowl series, these works again make use of both water and plant matter.
JH: Stacking anything, is a really basic gesture which creates a new form or idea from several existing forms. Since much of my work centers around the table as a site I began to think about table centerpieces or table decorations for an eccentric dinner party; that is why there are so many floral references in the work.
LN: The glass stacks elucidate something central to all of the works in this exhibition – a singular focus to each work, on an object, or an object constructed of several elements – that takes up the center focus of the picture plane. Can you discuss this in more detail? Even the Grove series, not represented in this exhibition, at first glance appear to be landscapes in a sense, but there is a focal point (in the form of a piece of fruit) in the center of each picture plane.
JH: When I work in the studio by building and arranging things I am not concerned with creating interesting formal compositions. I want the work to seem more like a document of a "possible" structure or arrangement, one that may be temporary. This also accommodates my tendency to reduce the image, a minimalist tendency that I have. The Grove series is actually best seen in groups or a book, where you would slowly become aware of the differences and similarities in each picture.
LN: It seems as though they might be true of many of the works. Although they certainly stand on their own, the works are certainly informed by each other – and by the evolution of the series often over a period of several years. In regard to the Spills series, these works draw on the idea of the vessel again, but this time the vessel is unable to contain the contents, whether it is milk or salt. Can you discuss the idea behind these works – and also the choice of those two materials?
JH: That's exactly it…there's the interest in the vessel being inappropriate for the job, but the resulting spill is an opportunity to see something new, either the beauty of the movement of the spilling as it is recorded by the camera or using it as an opportunity to draw with and extend that moment. The materials of salt and milk are two of many I have used including sugar, sand, flour, etc. Besides the fact that they photograph well, I like the idea of the reference to the domestic.
LN: Can you talk about the transition from darkroom photography to digital work? Do you use the digital process to manipulate the images or are you still working the same way, with most of the work really happening when you first take the photographs?
JH: Actually I have slowly moved away from the darkroom. I used so many poorly ventilated darkrooms early on while doing experimental processes that I have become sensitized to the chemistry. I began the transition by scanning negatives for digital printing when the work moved into color, as at this point the options for working in color any other way are disappearing. This past year I have begun shooting digitally as well. There is some potential for me to still work in the darkroom but not right now. That said I pretty much do all the work before I make the photograph and use the same digital tools that I would use in the dark-room to manage the image, only they are more precise.
LN: What can we expect next from you?
JH: I am currently working on a couple things including some landscape work. I know better however to say too much about the future, new work can be pretty fragile. I have learned that in my studio work; that seemingly new bodies of work usually fit fairly well into the arc of past work.
Interview with Lia Newman, Artspace Director of Programs and Exhibitions in conjunction with the exhibition Stacks + Spills, Artspace, Raleigh, North Carolina. April 2 – May 8, 2010.