INTERVIEW: DELANY ALLEN - OUT OF (T)HIS WORLD
OUT OF (T)HIS WORLD
Blending landscapes, still lives and self-portraits, American photographer Delaney Allen forces the viewer on a journey through his personal universe, in which things are not necessarily what they may seem. Getting lost is a prerequisite for finding home.
Delaney, where are you originally from and where do you live and work today?
I was in born in Fort Worth and grew up in a small town outside of the Dallas - Fort Worth Metroplex in Texas. In my later 20s I moved, living for some time in Providence, Rhode Island and Austin, Texas before settling in Portland, Oregon. Currently, I still call Portland home while working primarily within the western United States.
What was your first ever camera and when did you get it?
I believe it was either my 18th or 19th birthday that my father gave me a Canon SLR camera.
When did you first set out to photograph?
I did not use it much, but when I did I would walk around downtown Fort Worth shooting various self-portraits in storefront windows akin to Lee Friedlander. It took me years though to discover I was working in a similar style. Other than that, my friends and I were skateboarding all the time and I’d try to (unsuccessfully) mimic those photographs I would see in magazines in the late 1990’s/early 2000’s. As I began to understand photography a bit more, I experimented with self-portraiture more, as well as documenting the group of friends I had in my 20s until I put down the camera for years.
How did fine art photography become a career?
I moved to Portland in 2008 to attend graduate school. Prior to this, I was bouncing around knowing I would like a career in the arts but unsure of what that was to be. At the beginning of my program’s second year I challenged myself to take my first landscape photographs. Before that, I was working on videos and simple portraits in the style of Bruce Nauman and early William Wegman. This new revelation changed the way I approached the medium and helped mold the foundation in which I work today.
Upon graduation in the spring of 2010, I gave myself one year to attempt to establish myself in the photographic community. Within that time frame, I was able to land my first solo show and eventually build momentum off of that. During this time my self-published first book Between Here And There was also recognized as one of the best books in 2010 by Photo-eye Magazine. These opportunities helped open the door allowing myself chances to carve out a niche within the medium and have led me to where I currently am.
As an avid traveler myself, I was delighted to read the text that is part of your series Getting Lost about the two meanings of “lost”. How losing things is about the familiar falling away and how getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. How important is traveling for you and your work?
The escape to the unknown typically lays the groundwork for each series. Prior to the exploration, I will be working with a few series ideas and heavily researching where those may lead my travels. Eventually I set forth with a broad idea of what I’m looking for on the road.
As I’m out, that time in-between photographing allows for most growth of the work. When you are alone on the road for hours upon end you generally cannot escape your own thoughts. With this, I am able to continue focusing on what is at hand and how the series can play out before I eventually get back into the studio for editing.
Is the juxtaposing of landscapes and self-portraits a reflection of the inner and outer experience of traveling, of getting lost?
I feel that it could be viewed in that sense with my practice and more specifically with the 2014 series Getting Lost. Although only one formal self-portrait appears in that work, that particular image was built with this idea in mind. In Dennis 1940 / Delaney 2014, I attempt to blend myself into the found image of my grandfather after his passing.
On the surface, the image reflects on the lineage of family and heritage. But with that series, the idea of “lost” was the consistent building block for imagery, whether that’s on the road or in the studio, and upon first glance the image appears to be a repetition of an individual. With further examination, the shift in the sitters becomes more apparent as the image hints to the perplexity in which the edit eventually settled into.
You do not make life easy for the viewer. In a way you force the viewer to be a traveler in unknown territory. You offer some hints and a sense of direction, but the viewer is out there on his own. He (or she) will have to use his wits, and trust his intuition, to make sense of it all. Does that ring a bell?
No, I think this is completely true! As I became more familiar with contemporary photographic works (post 2010 specifically) I continued to see the trend brought on by Alec Soth. With Alec’s work, I can see a correlation with those he has stated as influencing him dating back to Robert Frank’s The Americans. Alec took those ideas and shifted them, or personalized them. But, after Alec’s rise in popularity, the formula was out there for mimicking.
You set forth this parameter in which you explore and weave yourself in and out of the fringe society. You see the photographs of the empty landscapes, the roads, portraits of the homeless and poor and possibly an encountered still life while living life on the road, in a diner or motel room. I saw these, and although some of the work is very compelling, I found it to be too formulaic for my own liking. I wanted an approach that could be read as my own personalized visual language and began to carve out my niche over time.
What you mentioned before - the sense of direction for the viewer - is key to my editing. With series past, I laid the groundwork for fairly universal issues to which the viewer can relate. But, as said viewers enter the work, I attempt to guide them in a way slightly different from what we may see on a more regular basis. Symbolic imagery may sit side by side with the more abstracted landscape. A self-portrait could be built in as a means to take away the identity. The still life might get lost within the studio. These are deliberate strategies experimenting with the medium’s editing, while also attempting to draw the viewer in. My hope is that after a few views, a rhythm can be established as the work is decoded.
You once said you were inspired by French cinema. In what sense?
While attending undergraduate school, my focus of study was cinema. Eventually I believed I wanted to work within cinematography. In one film theory class, I was introduced to this idea of the auteur and that changed my whole way of thinking. I remember already finding the ideas surrounding cinema to be an issue, as I believed authorship within a group setting to be a problem. When so many are involved who ultimately is fully responsible?
During this same time, I had begun taking some photography classes as well. Looking at the ideas behind the photographer and the sitter in portrait photography, I felt this was resonating with what I was studying with auteur theory. So, I shifted my focus to photography and more specific self-portraiture. I wanted an end-product that I felt to be the truest form of art. Cinema would not allow for this with its collaborative process, while portrait photography, for me, still gave too much power to the sitter.
Eventually, these ideas have morphed into what I feel is my vision within the photographic medium. For the most part, I continue to shoot self-portraits. Although landscape photography is open for all, I approach it in a means stripping the familiar context clues. And within a studio setting, I truly believe that to be a pathway to building personal, exclusive still-life images as I have complete control of the environment. Fuse these elements into personal storytelling and I feel as if I’ve stayed true to the auteur theories I first read in Cahiers du Cinema.
What photographers/ artists in particular are an inspiration?
Early on, as I was developing my style, I looked a lot at Sophie Calle. I felt my work was very heavily driven by text and the images almost acted as illustrations for the stories I was attempting to tell. I would look at photos of her exhibitions and try to mimic that in the pages of my series. Over time I’ve almost kept photography at an arms distance trying to focus on my own style and advancement. I believe an understanding of the history of the field you work is critical, but I also appreciate time needed away from it all to try to develop your own voice.
More recently, I have been inspired by the edits that Roe Ethridge is attempting in his series. I can find the work confusing and infuriating at times, but I’m also always drawn back to it. And I look to him as I have begun shooting more commercial work. I have always been a fan of his work for Dazed and Confused.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am in the process of releasing a book in fall with the UK imprint Jane & Jeremy. With this series, I am investigating the American road trip book and more specifically California. Loosely inspired by the fictitious ideas around Hollywood, I have been photographing the state in an unfamiliar sense accounting for my own travels on and off the road. Ultimately, I look for this work to showcase the American West in a unique, singular perspective.
What commercial work do you do on the side?
I have recently signed representation to the Redeye Reps roster, based out of Los Angeles, for working in the editorial and commercial world. Until 2015 I worked part time as a graphic designer, while continuing to photograph personal projects. Around that time I began receiving interest in more commercial jobs and now work strictly as an artist/photographer. I still feel relatively new to the field, so it is a tough go at times not knowing when the next assignment or sale will come in.
Any last words?
Carve out a singular voice and attempt to stay true to it.
INTERVIEWED BY PETER SPEETJENS