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A Brief Interview with Willson Cummer

SM: Who are you?
WC: I am an art photographer, curator, editor and teacher who lives near Syracuse, New York, USA. I have exhibited nationally in juried shows. I had my first solo New York City show at OK Harris. I have published the blog New Landscape Photography since 2010, showcasing international photography that explores the intersections between the built and natural environments. I organize, a group art project that documents the billion-dollar renovation of Interstate 81 in Syracuse. I also founded and moderate the 3,000-member Facebook group New Landscape Photography. I curate the group in order to focus posts and commentary on art photography. All posts to the group require approval from me or one of my three moderators. My own work explores humanity’s place in the environment, often in the suburbs.

SM: What are you?
WC: I am a person who believes in the power of art to transform lives.

SM: When are you?
WC: I began photographing in 1980, as a 12-year-old kid. I was allowed to make prints in the darkroom of a photographer friend of my parents. I wanted to major in photography in college at Yale, but was not able to get into any of the oversubscribed undergraduate classes. I worked as a journalist for six years after graduation, without picking up a camera. Then in 1996 I began to photograph in B&W again. In 1997 I moved to Syracuse, New York, and began working as a professional photographer, offering B&W portrait and wedding photography. Except for a detour of a few years into elementary school teaching, I’ve been working as a photographer ever since.

SM: Where are you?
WC: Syracuse, New York, a provincial rust-belt town about four hours from the Chelsea galleries and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two yearly destinations for me. We were recently listed as the worst-performing city on a list of growth in the 100 largest cities in the US. My wife, Michelle, and I live next to a 2,000-acre state park, and have a stream running through our suburban backyard. We have a good symphony 20 minutes away and cheap artist studio space.

SM: Why are you?
WC: Because the alternative, death, is less attractive. Because I believe that I have something to offer people. Because, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

SM: You cite Henry David Thoreau’s Walden in your statement for From My Front Door. Thoreau was a writer of the Romantic era—a period marked by authenticity and aesthetic experience. From My Front Door is certainly authentic and regards your immediate surroundings in Fayetteville, New York with an appreciation for simple beauty. However, whereas Thoreau rejected modern life for living in solitude with nature, your series embraces both modern life and nature. The images find beauty in what you share to be inspiration—snow on blacktop, telephone poles, wooden fences, and vinyl siding. Thoreau was also part of the transcendentalism movement which was in part a response to intellectualism. The images included in From My Front Door are familiar, if not slightly mundane—but not without appeal. They are in some regard, anti-intellectual as they draw attention to the everyday living condition of suburban America. In that regard, I find From My Front Door to have a lot in common with the work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and other FSA photographers who documented rural poverty in America from 1935 to 1943. FSA photography’s goal was to promote the Farm Security Administration as successful in combating poverty. Although no one would necessarily consider the work of Lange, Evans, and other FSA photographers to have artistic pursuits, their photographs make sense within social realism—an art movement that like your work, drew attention to everyday living conditions. One thing that Romantic writers, transcendentalist, and FSA photographers perhaps all had in common was that they were critical of or at least promoted criticism of social structures. Their work also informed another group of photographers (and perhaps the most obvious influence on your work), those who constituted the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered LandscapeFrom My Front Door considers beauty in the everyday while also lingering somewhere removed from artistic pursuit, and finds itself in the intersection between the natural world and the manmade. But like its predecessors Walden, FSA photography, and New Topographics is there anything that it regards with criticism?

WC: Thoreau was actually fascinated by the man-made life that surrounded him, particularly the Fitchburg railway, which passed close to Walden Pond. I take from him a sharp focus on the near-at-hand, the excitement and adventure that can be had daily in one’s own neighborhood. My work is not as overtly political as the FSA photographers’s work for the US government was, but I respect their investigations into daily life. Robert Adams suggested that we should explore the “half-wild” nature that now surrounds us, as “unspoiled nature” no longer exists. The suburb, which is often criticized as a path to destroy nature, is a rich area to explore the intersections between humans and nature. I am not interested in challenging or critiquing the idea of the suburbs. I am interested in exploring through art what actually exists in my suburb. Robert Adams wrote that “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands before our camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect–a sense of inclusion. Our subject thus redefines us, and is part of the biography by which we want to be known.”