Over the past 20 years, Vancouver, BC, photographer Danny Singer has explored the American and Canadian prairie from Alberta and Saskatchewan south to the plains of Texas, photographing the kinds of towns most travelers overlook in their rush to get from one place to the next. While the main streets he pictures are defined by their agricultural pasts and the often diametric beauty and severity of the environments they inhabit, Singer’s views contradict notions of abandonment by revealing subtle, living landscapes of characteristic buildings and ordinary people going about their business.
To coincide with Standing Still: Photographs by Danny Singer, I spoke with the artist about his subject matter and his working methods—and about how his decision to print at a massive scale affects how we read his work.
Micah Messenheimer: To start, can you talk a bit about what initially drew you to photograph on the prairie?
Danny Singer: I was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta but moved first to the West Coast, and then to Montreal. I always looked forward to visiting home because it gave me a chance to get out and under the sky. I think the vastness of the prairie sky, and the subtle nature of the topography, have been the draw.
MM: At first glance, there’s a feeling of solitude—even abandonment—in the blank storefronts, boarded windows, and faded signage seen in many of the towns you photograph. Yet, as one looks, reminders that these are living communities appear: whether it’s a business with a lighted open sign, a child bicycling down the street, or tire tracks in the snow.
While your work is ostensibly about the main streets you picture, it becomes clear that the human presence in the photographs is just as important as the line of structures along the street. How does finding these glimpses of activity influence your decisions on which towns to photograph?
DS: I am trying not to photograph ghost towns or towns with too much gentrification: antique stores and candle shops don’t interest me. Usually a coat of fresh paint on a building, a car or truck parked on the street, a light on in a window, or someone disappearing through a doorway provide ample clues as to the viability of these places. It’s important to note that what we see in these images does not represent the state of whole town so much as a snapshot of what has occurred to the mercantile heart of these places. What we are seeing is evidence of change but not necessarily disappearance.
MM: The importance of these small details becomes magnified at the mammoth scale at which you print: some of the photographs are up to ten feet long. How does the size of the prints change the way a viewer looks at your work?
DS: Because there is so much detail (a result of the improvement in camera sensor technology and the fact that I am using only a slice of the center of each frame), the viewer is able to stand back and see the entire street and then, just as in real life, move in closer and walk along the length of the print examining objects in peoples’ yards or the price of vegetables in store windows. Window shopping. People tend to spend a great deal of time in front of these images because there is so much to look at!
MM: As you mention, we tend to interact with the image in way we wouldn’t necessarily with a smaller photograph: rather than standing still to look, one walks along the photograph as if they were walking down the un-pictured side of Main Street. As viewers, our activity becomes a part of understanding of the picture.
Despite these being still images, the fact that we must move to take in an entire work implies a relationship to cinema. This is amplified by the sense—in the finite beginnings and ends of the rows of facades and the quiet nature of the photos— that these could be movie stage sets. You’ve done some video work in the towns in conjunction with your photographs. Can you talk about your relationship with the two media?
DS: Motion has been a reoccurring theme in all of my work and, like most films, these images all have a beginning, middle, and an end, starting with the roads into or out of town that situate the street in the context of the land. The middle of the picture tells the story of what people in these small places do (or did) to earn a living; even the gaps between the buildings allude to what was there in better times.
The short films pertaining to this project came about as a result of people constantly asking me “what happens in these places” I felt that a static video camera recording the seemingly mundane goings on in a small town would be a way of showing how time works in these places.
MM: In his essay in your book Main Street, Grant Arnold describes your working method as having parallels with the surveyors that platted the Plains into the rigid grid that contributes to the linear character of these towns. Your photographs are not made with a single exposure and to construct them requires enormous precision and attention to detail. I normally avoid asking photographers about their process, but in the case of your work, I think it’s extremely important. What goes into making one of your photographs?
DS: It’s always the simplest things that require the most work! Very little research goes into the selection of the towns I shoot; it’s mostly a case of getting into the car and driving. When I come to a town that meets most of my criteria—something unique architecturally, or the direction of the light or the weather, or the number of cars parked in front of the buildings, or cobblestone streets, or a thousand other things that will affect the outcome— I set up.
The first thing I do is draw a chalk line down the street (or tire tracks in mud or snow) parallel to the buildings and far enough back to include the highest object in the frame. The camera is a 36 megapixel Nikon with either a wide angle or perspective control lens mounted vertically on a sturdy tripod. In order to have enough coverage when I begin to assemble the image I make an exposure every 2 to 3 feet. I move along my chalk line fairly quickly in order not to have any variation in the light. It’s important to be set up directly in front of every object that is perpendicular to the buildings, every railing, doorway, sign, the edge of every building every awning etc. It is not unusual to expose 200 sequential frames.
The images are downloaded onto two hard drives before we pack it up and continue the search. On a really good day I can photograph three or four towns, conversely I can strike out for days on end depending on the weather. When I get back to the studio the real work begins. The RAW files are processed and a long template is created in Photoshop. The individual frames are imported sequentially into the template and each frame is given a mask. At this point the assembly and blending of the images into one long photograph begins.
MM: Implicit in your prints being made from a number of exposures and over a period of time is the fact that, unlike a traditional camera view, your photographs are neither depicting a single perspective nor capturing only a single instant in time. While the photographs might appear to be straight documents of prairie towns, you stress that they are creations that could never be visible with the human eye. Yet, as viewers we’re inclined to trust the camera. This paradox must open many creative possibilities for you.
DS: While it’s true that I strive to be as accurate in depicting the streets as possible it’s important to remember that they are assemblages. For example if a person is walking down the street it is up to me to decide which of the multiple frames the person appears in gets used. I can place the person wherever I wish; I can create little tableaus or choose not to include the person at all.
People often refer to these images as “panoramas,” which technically, they aren’t. A panorama is a wide image with a single point perspective, whereas my images are more technically described as “orthographic projections." The lack of a single point perspective is perhaps the most unique aspect of these pictures. When people look at the work they know that something is not quite right but it often takes time for the viewer to accept that what they are seeing is my interpretation of what’s there. I have often thought that when looking at one of my photographs people quickly suspend their “visual literacy” and accept what they are seeing as actual, factual representations.
MM: With the amount of time you’re spending in a town while photographing and the gear you’re carrying, I assume you must receive a number of questions about your work. What kinds of interactions do you have with community members while photographing the places they live? Has anyone from a town you’ve photographed seen one of your prints? I’d be curious to hear their reaction.
DS: People are remarkably gracious when they see me working my way down the street. The folks in these hamlets seem honored that anyone would care about their little town. Several times the local mayor (who is usually the only paid employee) has presented me with a commemorative pin or a ballpoint pen with the name of the town. Sometimes because of the tripod they think I am a surveyor and that they ask if they are getting “blacktop” or a traffic light.
In Stalwart, a one building hamlet with a post office and nothing else, a man came running out to greet me yelling “you’re the one—you’re that guy.” The fellow had seen my exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and was thrilled that I was about to shoot his town. I was invited in for tea, introduced to the wife and kids. I was told what a valuable thing I was doing documenting what to them was a cherished way of life and offered a bed for the night should I need one. I carry samples of my work in the form of gallery invitations which I hand out to the curious!
MM: The landscape of the prairie is seldom demonstrative, but its weather often is. In your more recent photographs, you’ve included a broad swath of sky above the streetscapes that defined your earlier work. While the towns seem frozen in time, the skies express the ever-changing nature of the prairie environment: sometimes crystalline blue, other times with storm clouds building, or the flat, white sky of winter. Rather than structure, the focus is on space; on field instead of line. These varied depictions recall the competing aesthetic concerns of the picturesque and the sublime that are often at play in depicting the landscape. How do these distinctions affect one’s experience with the places you photograph?
DS: Even people with no connection to small towns are fascinated by the “big sky” pieces. Placing a “Main Street” under the huge sky is a way to tell another part of the story. The first pieces I did in this manner were the winter pieces. Some of my most enduring memories growing up in Edmonton were the days it snowed; the white skies seemed to simplify everything, heightening my awareness of the world around me. The term “stark relief” comes to mind! The big skies in the summer pieces serve to contextualize the towns; they also allow me to use longer streetscapes as I am limited to ten feet of length by mounting and framing considerations.
The Canadian writer Lorna Crozier wrote a novel titled Small Beneath the Sky. The book chronicled her growing up on the prairie. The phrase “Small Beneath the Sky” seemed to describe perfectly the feeling I have when working on this project. I borrowed the title for a recent exhibition.
Standing Still: Photographs by Danny Singer is on view through May 15, 2016 in the Gates Gallery on level 2 of the Hamilton Building.