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A Brief Interview with Ward Long

SM: Who are you?
WL: I’m Ward Long, born and raised in sunny Los Angeles. I got my degree at the Hartford Photo MFA program, and I went to Davidson College before that.

SM: What are you?
WL: I’m a photographer who likes to make books. I’ve also been a studio manager, a census taker, a wilderness guide, a magazine writer, a research assistant for a graphic novelist, a vintage furniture dealer, and somehow in men’s fashion.

SM: Where are you?
WL: Now I’m settled in Oakland, California. There’s a hundred-year-old ice cream parlor up the street, and a hillside graveyard just beyond that with grand views of the freeways and the cranes and the great big tech towers across the water.

SM: When are you?
WL: I think we’re all in the midst of cruel and disheartening times.

SM: Why are you?
WL: The big question, huh? Because the world rewards close attention, and because it keeps me alive.

SM: Your project Swimmers is very concentrated on subject matter, place, and edit—only eight photographs make up the series as it appears on your website. Some if not all of the photographs were made at the same location (as evidenced by the reoccurring rope swing) and all your subjects are photographed in relationship to water. One does not need to be presented a great deal in order to contemplate a great deal. Sharp focus places emphasis on inquiry. Share if you will your thoughts on how focused attention can create room for considerable meditation.

WL: I shot Swimmers a few summers ago when I was living in Durham, North Carolina. I was in the middle of a big writing project at the time, and so I’d spend my early and my late hours alone in front of the keyboard. In the afternoons, I’d get out of the house and head to the sun and the water. The quarry was about a mile long hike down from the trail head, with tall red dirt cliffs and cool still waters above a bottomless hole. The river was less secluded, with ample neighborhood parking by the dinosaur museum and a well-used rope swing.

WL: Both places are tremendously beautiful. I started paying special attention to the people taking leaps from the cliffs and the ropes. I loved the cast of characters: awkward kids too scared to trust their limbs and make the leap, athletes flying through the air with teenage grace, friends who helped each other along, young adults retracing their younger days, everyone sweating in the same heat and breathing the same air.

WL: The jumps are a shared summer pastime and a coming-of-age ritual, but they’re also a rich theater of vulnerability, tenderness, and private contemplation. Making the leap was such a physical and social experience, but also an intensely interior and private one; your friends teased you until you did it, but then you’re all alone in that eternity between flight and splash. When I started editing the pictures I wanted to stay with that tender feeling as long as possible and let everything else come from there. Cutting the number of pictures down gave each image more room to breathe and emphasized the stillness in each moment. Repetition is such a big part of cliff diving, and so I wanted to find a way to preserve that in Swimmers. I love how short poems invite repeat readings, and how I can see and feel new things each time through.