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A Brief Interview with Adam Thorman

SM: Who are you?
AT: I identify as a photographer, artist, and educator. All of those things are just different ways of using and relating to photography, though—using it in a practical way, using it to make ideas and metaphor, and teaching others to do it, read it, speak it, and think about it.

SM: What are you?
AT: I am endlessly fascinated with photography and its use as a visual language.

SM: When are you?
AT: I’d like to say that I’m of my time in that I see myself as a confluence of my influences. I am a result of everything I’ve experienced up to this point and am always a new me in a new now. That said, my wife likes to point out that as an air sign, I often live in my head, out of time. To split the difference, let’s say I’m half now and half somewhen else.

SM: Where are you?
AT: I am in Oakland, CA, the city where I was born and lived for my first 8 years. It’s a place that continues to mean a lot to me, despite the fact that it’s quickly changing in ways I’m not comfortable with. My identity is closely intertwined with the Bay Area.

SM: Why are you?
AT: I think the answer to the question why is TO why. Nothing is inherently meaningful, but we imbue everything with meaning. An object, an action, or a place without the meaning we place on it, has no inherent hierarchy. A garbage-filled empty lot is no better or worse than a grove of fruit trees, but our experience and needs give them a why, a meaning. Gold, sugar, and water are just things that exist without meaning until we give them whys, and whose value goes up or down depending on the context. Humans are meaning machines. We why away every second of our existences.

SM: In his novel Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman wrote “Imagine a world in which there is no time. Only images.” The novel is about a fictionalized Albert Einstein as he works on his theory of relativity. Each chapter is a sort of diary entry—dreams Einstein has about time. The above quote from the chapter titled15 May 1905 is followed by a list of loosely connected images that include things like “dust on a windowsill” and “two friends at a café, the lamplight illuminating one friend’s face, the other in shadow.” The duality of that image of two friends conjures a rather striking mental image. I can only realize the face of the one friend in the lamplight but know what the other friend in the shadow must look like by contrast. Much the same, in your two projects 1000 Suns and 1000 Moons time seems to be challenged by imagery. It is especially so when we are presented the positive and negative of the same image and perhaps time is made less relevant or at least understood more broadly than how we typically function in relation to the passing of days and nights, weeks, months, and years—a fairly mechanical understanding of time but one that perhaps helps us to maintain some sanity. Otherwise I imagine life a bit more bipolar marked by either good times constantly fleeting or dull times eternally dragging but nothing ever balanced and in between.

SM: Unlike us and our concern for the present and future, the camera is perhaps only concerned with the past—what we saw rather than what we see. Its product the photograph however, with every viewing brings past to present and what we see in the photograph is something that is altogether new that convolutes our notion of the two as distinct. The past is always now. In another chapter of Einstein’s Dreams Lightman writes, “Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion?” A photograph can allow us to experience in the now what was, and understand it by a different standard than how we did so initially. I certainly understand the world differently now than I did fifteen or twenty years ago and a photograph regardless of when it was made, always seems to compliment my current understanding of things. Share if you will how you believe we understand time and how photographs or images might inform that understanding. Does a photograph each time it recalls the past, disrupt what we recollect each time we look at it? Is the photograph then, more accurate than what was?

AT: I spend a lot of time thinking about time and its relationship to photography, but very little thinking about it specifically in terms of my own images. As a teacher and a viewer of photography, I think about it a lot, but in my own work, I think more about context in general than about time specifically. Time is certainly part of the context of a photograph, but it’s only one part and plays a more passive role, which is partly the cause of the timelessness of these images.

AT: I clearly delineate between an experience and photographs of that experience. In the summer of 2008 I went to Iceland to photograph and created a body of work shot almost exclusively in the soft, gorgeous late night dusk light of the midnight sun. I’ve enjoyed checking in on my memories over the years, watching them fade into the altered reality of my photographs. I’ve found I’m nostalgic for a situation I created that never actually existed in real life, but exists in my remembered experience through my own photographs. It is unclear how much my work has to do with Iceland at this point. I struggle with how closely to connect my photographs with their referents in general. The landscape of the California coast is an important part of 1000 Suns/1000 Moons, but I’m more interested in the idea of the landscape than highlighting specific, named places you can visit. Thus, I focus on making images of types of landscapes and typological features and symbols without context that capture the idea of the Pacific Coast rather than a direct recording of the coast that’s more documentary.

AT: As to your question about whether a photograph is more accurate than what was, the first thing that comes to mind is why Robert Irwin didn’t allow any of his work to be documented in the first edition of Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. To paraphrase from my own perspective: to make a direct recording of the landscape would be to record everything the experience of standing there was not about, and nothing that it was about. I have no interest in a direct, “accurate” representation of nature. I am more interested in the truth of a photograph. When I was younger, I had dreams of putting together a show with a giant landscape photograph lit on a wall in a dark room in which I’d installed grass and wind machines, asking visitors to take off their shoes and sit down to experience the piece in order to mimic the full experience of the landscape. This was back when I was still fighting against photography. I was trying to fill in its limitations, rather than embracing them. Photographs are terrible at mimicking reality. They don’t move, there is no air, and there is no time. They will always fall short of an experience if that’s what you’re after. They are less real in all these ways, but they are also hyperreal, full moments. They let you linger in a visual space without distraction. There is no air to distract. The limiting of information highlights those details that are there. It is in these limits and this timelessness that I find photography worth exploring. I’ve been trying to make images that are descriptive and speak to place while also being mysterious and hiding much of their details. Rather than being about time, they are decidedly not about time. Maybe they’re in between time. Or the opposite of time.