Friday, September 26, 2008

Interview: Shelley Lake

Shelley Lake was interviewed at her studio in western Massachusetts on a lovely sunny summer day in June 2006. Her website can be found at

MAGNAchrom: As an artist are you known as DOCTOR Shelley Lake?

Shelley Lake: Some people refer to me that way jokingly, but for the most part they call me Shelley.

MC You’ve been in the arts most of your life. As a child were you artistically-driven?

SL I started when I was three and have thought of myself as an artist all my life. Even when I was practicing chiropractic, I thought of it as a tactile art.

MC And as a three year old child, how do you know you are an artist at that point?

SL Well, I got a lot of support and affirmation early on doing crayon drawings — particularly drawing very early and I still draw quite a bit and enjoy using my hands to create art even though I interface with technology I still maintain hand skills as much as possible.

MC So if you have a tactile need for art, and it’s clearly coming out in chiropractic as in art, how does photography satisfy you?

SL Well, that’s a good question...

MC Is it all the gear? I mean, (laughing) there is a LOT of stuff to touch and move and so on — is there a technical aspect to it?

SL I think I was looking for a creative partner, which has been a theme in my adult life as I move away from the more direct ways of making art to more technically-oriented art making. I found that working with the camera enabled me to capture places instantaneously that would otherwise never be envisioned.

MC Is it more of a personal thing? You seem driven to capture pictures that have a sense of “being there” and clearly you need to capture that somehow for yourself. Thus, in terms of commercial work, are people coming along for the ride? Are they following your work like a person would follow a movie, a cinema?

SL The camera enables me to revisit places that I can only experience briefly. Some of these places are so expansive that even though you are standing there, you can’t witness them except by revisiting them through the camera. I’ve often said that the camera is just an excuse to go to beautiful places. For a while I went to these places and never thought of bringing a camera because I felt that they couldn’t be captured. And it is only recently that I decided that I would try anyway.

MC And it seems that you have done it. That you have captured “something”...

SL it is an approximation of the place and it’s not as good as being there, but it is the best I can do.

MC But you’re also capturing the “feel” — I mean, looking around here in your studio there is a drama here in all of these pieces. Are you a dramatic person?

SL No. But I’m drawn to (laughs) dramatic people! (pauses) And I’m drawn to dramatic places with a tremendous sense of scale. I’m often at the edge of some precipice in order to do these captures. Sometimes it is frightening to just stand there with my camera ‘cause I’m often cliff-side. That’s pretty dramatic.

MC You don’t have any phobias about heights or anything?

SL No I don’t. But there are many times when I’m literally on the edge and am concerned for my life.

MC A wind might take you away...

SL Or the ground might give way, ‘cause some of the erosion is really bad and I know that a lot of people have stood where I’m standing. I see all the tripod marks. There are definitely moments when I’m concerned about my safety.

MC Well, speaking of moments, can you tell us the worst thing that has ever happened to you while you were taking pictures?

SL (laughs) Well, I accidentally lost a rig at Horseshoe Bend and ended up losing a 4x5 camera and the BetterLight panorama option over a cliff. But fortunately the digital back (the insert) was tethered to my backpack so at least I didn’t lose the back. And the back actually wacked against the cliff-side and I was able to fish that out. The back still works perfectly.

MC So it didn’t need to be repaired?

SL No.

MC What about the camera?

SL I ended up hiring a river guide and going back into the canyon at Horseshoe Bend to retrieve the remains. And I still have bits and pieces of the camera. I thought that the insurance would honor my policy if I had the remains, but that really didn’t end up being that important. It was more that I really wanted to see what happened to it.

MC I see. And the lens of course, was gone, gone, gone...

SL Yeah, but I actually recovered half of the lens! And I also recovered the panorama option and sent it back to BetterLight.

MC So if that was the worse experience — just an equipment thing — then what was the best experience?

SL The best thing, hmmm... You wonder what makes something the best. There have been moments in the field that were extraordinary with the camera. Sometimes it involved waiting, sometimes it was sheer luck. And luck seems to be a big part of the process — as someone who is totally out of control (laughs). Part of moving into photography was control. It affords a tremendous amount of control. Maybe not as much as simulation-based graphics, but close to it. Yet you are at the mercy of the elements and the weather and the wind.

MC Is there a hint of gambling in there? Or is that just more of a spiritual thing? Because you must be unlucky sometimes too...

SL Oh yes, Most shots are absolute failures and I have plenty of those... I find with the BetterLight back I almost always have one or two opportunities in a capture. It’s not like I can bang out a dozen shots at a site. So it’s usually a singular experience with the camera.

MC Perhaps no different than using an 8x10? I mean, it’s the same situation: with getting only one or two shots in.

SL Yeah that’s right.

MC Does that make the luck sweeter then? Because of the limitations?

SL Yeah I think the limitations are great, but because of the resolution and color fidelity of the back, the odds are really good that the capture will go well. And then it becomes a matter of composition and timing.

MC For such panoramic shots, you must have to do quite a bit of “pre-visualization” because you really don’t have the time to run through the whole scan, look at it, modify your composition, and then go back.

SL That’s exactly right.

MC You gotta just look at the scene and say “I think this is going to look good”...

SL Yes absolutely, that’s true. With panorama I use the laptop to visualize the composition, instead of the groundglass. I typically overshoot the scene spatially so that I have some wiggle room.

MC Mostly in the horizontal direction?

SL And some top and bottom. Often but not much. I’ve had a lot of success stitching shots together even though I have the panorama option. The focus is totally unforgiving. So that is a critical part of the equation

MC And you use the software to do that?

SL No, I typically use a loupe on the groundglass. In the field I don’t use the auto-focus feature of the back. To me it’s too risky. And I often don’t have time to pursue that.

MC Right. It slows you down — one more step.

SL That’s something I would use in the studio religiously but not in the field

MC You also shoot with a Fuji 617. Can you compare the WAY you approach your subject with that camera versus the bigger BetterLight equipment?

SL I think of the Fuji medium format camera as a “point and shoot” camera even though it’s unwieldy in some circles compared to the 4x5 platform. It’s extremely convenient and spontaneous. So it affords the spontaneity that I otherwise can’t enjoy with the 4x5 platform. Using it compositionally is much more straightforward because the rangefinder approximates the shot instantly whereas the panorama option is much more mysterious as to what the outcome will be. It’s funny with the medium format: I tend to “bulls eye” my shots more than with the panorama option. Not sure why that is.

MC What do you mean by “bulls eye”?

SL Where the focal point is in the center of the shot.

MC So more “formal” then?

SL Yeah, I tend to be more sprawling with the panorama option.

MC It’s interesting. I see that now, with the exception of that piece that they have an asymmetry to them which is very appealing.

SL I think so too. I’m less likely to bulls eye with that panorama option. In the medium format, I’m also able to do verticals which I’ve begun to explore. That’s a refreshing change from the horizontal format.

MC I haven’t seen your verticals!

SL I don’t do them often, but I’m beginning to explore them more.

MC If you were traveling today with the BetterLight, would you be bringing your Fuji with you as a companion camera?

SL Yes, and I have done that. When I’m on photo safari in my RV I bring everything. Even the Canon 1Ds digital.

MC So you basically have a complete toolkit. Is that a problem? You suddenly have all these choices!

SL No. I like having choices. And I’m not intimidated by choice. The more familiar I am with each platform, the easier it is for me to make the choice. That was true even in massage modalities ‘cause I would learn shiatsu and chiropractic and Swedish and a multitude of things and the more familiar I became with each modality, the easier it was to make a choice.

MC Back to that tactile thing: it’s becoming one with your equipment so that you can become one with your image, is that right?

SL Yes.

MC Is that why you have to be the best in a platform, get to really learn it, and then you won’t get rid of it? It’s almost like being married for a while.

SL That’s true. For the first year I only used one lens with the scanning back — I used the Schneider 90mm XL. And it was a good exercise. Having only one lens and no other choice. And I became very intimate with that lens and wasn’t distracted. I think sometimes it’s good to constrain the situation just to master something well enough to move on to the next experiment.

MC Do you think those photographs where you limited yourself are more intimate than your later work?

SL It’s more like an evolution as I introduced new elements into the toolkit, I’m able to optimize each element for each situation. And it’s often an optimization experience where one combination is going to yield the most beautiful result. And the same thing is true in Photoshop — you have levels, curves, color balance, selective color, and a gazillion choices. Knowing that hue/saturation is the appropriate tool for this problem set versus selective color. Those nuances make a huge difference. And you can only realize those skills by mastering one tool at a time.

MC Did you have formal darkroom training?

SL Yes. I started when I was 13 in the darkroom in the closet making prints with an enlarger and chemicals.

MC Personally, I find that wet background the perfect analog to Photoshop as a darkroom. And yet there are things you can clearly do in Photoshop that would have taken you bloody forever to ever try to attempt in the darkroom! For example, something simple like wanting to warm up the shadows — and nothing else. It’s trivial to do in Photoshop yet painful to do in a wet darkroom.

SL Right. Photoshop is the state of the art in software engineering. Everything pales in comparison.

MC When did you first start using Photoshop?

SL I guess I started with Macintosh in the mid 80s.

MC Did you use MacPaint, MacDraw?

SL Yes, I have an early example of that on my website. I did a capture of the early Mac user interface and created a billboard-sized print as art.

MC You were at MIT at the time?

SL I was at MIT from 1977 through 1979. That’s why it’s such a blur for some of the dates ‘cause I had exposure to Photoshop-like environments a decade before they became commercially available.

MC So tell me about MIT. In particular how this MIT experience has lent itself to your ability as an artist today.

SL The most important thing I learned at MIT -- and it’s still important today -- is: does it feel good? That was the foundation from which everything grew. And that was Nicholas Negroponte’s vision for the computer interface. So it was a lot about feelings.

MC This was the “Visible Language Workshop”?

SL He called it the Architecture Machine Group back then. And now it’s the Media Lab. He let go of his involvement/control recently at the Media Lab.

MC He was one business man.

SL It always was a business. And it was supported by DARPA. All this technology was born of the military with the toolkits being staged on the field for military maneuvers.

MC I remember seeing in the early 80s an interactive 3-D map of Aspen.

SL Yes it started with Aspen. They took a car and put four cameras on top of it looking north/south/east/west and captured every meter of town and all the menus and was able to gather enough data about Aspen so that you could visit Aspen vicariously through the computer.

MC Hah! Woefully out of date today! You wouldn’t recognize the place! (laughs)

SL Yeah isn’t that funny? There was a project that pre-dated Aspen that I was personally involved in which was the first art-slide videodisk. We digitized every slide in the Roche library (MIT) so that you could go to that library online, interactively.So it was the first project of its kind and it pioneered the interactive video disk.

MC That issue of the underlying military connection — you had no problem with that because that was just where the money was coming from?

SL I guess if the military is going to invest money in a pursuit, I can’t think of a better way to spend it. It was peacetime more or less and it was an inspiring and peaceful experience to be in the laboratories. Even though the technologies could be used or repurposed for anything. And that is the nature of technology — it has the potential for good or evil. But it is the people behind it that ultimately determine its fate.

MC That’s true of art as well. The technology has nothing to do with whether a photograph is digital or analog. Do you get into the debate about film vs. digital? Or do you try to stay away from that?

SL Ironically I just bought a film camera on the heels of this digital revolution and find that film as a platform is still solid, and has some timeless qualities about it, particularly for large format printing. And the two coexist side by side each having different strengths and weaknesses. I hope to see film... well to be honest with you, on some levels I wouldn’t mind if film went the way of the dinosaurs, because it is so counter-intuitive working with it often.

MC Isn’t that part of the joy of luck? That counter-intuitive, unknown, throw your dice and hope it comes back, and when it does it’s joyful?

SL (laughs)

MC Digital gets rid of some of that luck, don’t you think?

SL Oh no. The only advantage digital has is instantaneous gratification, instant feedback

MC Is that a good thing? Or bad thing?

SL It can be deceiving. Sometimes the small digital display when explored at a larger scale, may fall apart, or you may think you “got it” but you didn’t.

MC Is it because it encourages you to be lazy? As opposed to film, which bites you if you get lazy! You can get away with more stuff with digital...

SL (laughs) I’d say the scanning back is anything but lazy!

MC Of course! I meant more like your Canon 1Ds

SL The 1Ds MkII, in certain circumstances, does begin to rival the medium format platform for resolution and color fidelity. And its just a matter of time when things reach the 20-something megapixel range where we’ll see a turning point. But I think its so much more spontaneous. Particularly for the human form and portraits, where medium and large format really gets in the way of the human that’s doing portraiture.

MC Sure. Yet people still love shooting 4x5 portraiture, ‘cause there is certain look to it. And then there are others who go out and buy LensBabies on their teeny digicams to make it look like it was taken with a big format camera! For me it’s wacky to see these reactions more than anything.

SL Yes. As a teenager I loved photographing people. Now I’m a reluctant portrait artist. So I prefer photographing sculpture at this point (points to a framed photo of a detail of David)

MC I assume that is Florence at night?

SL Yes. That is David at the Palazzo Vecchio. The replica.

MC Taken with the 1Ds?

SL Yes

MC Yeah, you probably wouldn’t want to haul all your gear around at night and half an hour later you’d get your shot of David.

SL Actually, I’m ready to bring my 4x5 to Florence. I’d love to do that! I was scouting locations primarily so that I could later go back with the BetterLight.

MC That’s interesting. I think you and I have come to a similar conclusion, which is the use of digital cameras as a scouting tool. A digital Polaroid if you’d like. The pictures are good in their own right, But this allows me to come back later with a laser focus to get the ONE picture.

SL Absolutely. But I have to add that the Canon does a pretty good job. But I know that the BetterLight scanning back would blow it away.

MC So if today you had a Hasselblad H2 with a 39 megapixel digital back, would that change your camera makeup? Might you use one camera for everything?

SL Perhaps. I have not had that experience that you are describing to know how I feel about it.

MC Well, let’s go on to the future. You’ve had a varied artistic past, which includes everything from digital art to hands on art to analog photography art now traditional photography. Where do you see yourself as an artist in 5 to 10 years? Are you still going to be doing photography? 3-dimensional? Film? Where might you take those?

SL Well I’d like to return to simulation-based graphics. And I think in about 5 years that will be a lot easier to facilitate. I like the motion picture arts and sound and may explore some audio/visual multi-media projects.

MC More of an installation kind of thing?

SL Perhaps. As these LCD and plasma displays get cheaper... Last time I went to Chelsea I must have seen half a dozen installations that were motion picture based arts. And some of them were audio visual. It’d be great to have an electronic display instead of something on paper that’s more kinetic.

MC What will that do to photography when you can buy an electronic display — that size hanging on your wall — and subscribe to “Shelley Lake du Jour”? Is this going to be a business model? Is it going to make photography more ephemeral than it already is?

SL The idea of static furniture, although it is appealing to some people, something more idiosyncratic and kinetic would be interesting. You would always have the option if you’d like something to remain unchanged.

MC Perhaps it’s not that you’d hang electronic paintings on the wall, but rather that the walls would be electronic?

SL Absolutely, I’d expect to see that more or less as screens become more affordable and larger — floor to ceiling wall displays. The irony is that this is exactly what was going on back at MIT in 1977. I witnessed that early on knowing it was just a matter of economics and time before...

MC So we can wake up to the Grand Canyon if we want?

SL Absolutely with a live webcam for that matter.

MC So that means that popular photography will become more like cinematography? More experiential?

SL These portable HDTV cameras are becoming ubiquitous. Actually they’re probably on every street corner surveilling us. All you need do is go to the Google satellite to practically see yourself on camera.

MC Does this experiential future perhaps marginalize traditional print photography?

SL Well when a Van Gogh commands $20 million dollars I don’t think that printmaking is going to disappear anytime soon.

MC So the two will co-exist like digital and analog photography?

SL It’s more like rare real-estate.

MC How so?

SL Once the artist is deceased there are no more made.

MC But do I care who shoots the picture of the Grand Canyon so I can wake up to it hanging on my living room wall?

SL Well I think there is some ongoing fascination with celebrity and the people behind the camera, their life and what meaning they bring to the image. In fact, there is more obsession with celebrity today than ever before. And maybe it is a diversion from politics and sad situation — I don’t know why, but the people behind the image are even more important than the image itself.

MC Can a photographer who doesn’t follow the path of celebrity get recognized in today’s society? In other words, does work stand on its own, or is that no longer true?

SL I don’t think work ever stood on its own. I think it has always been about celebrity and probably will always be the case. That’s why I feel inadequate as an artist. The idea of being celebrated on some level is offensive, as if there is some kind of hierarchy...

MC ...of marketing, sales, PR. A machine in other words?

SL Yes

MC Is it true then that all the famous photographers today are successful celebrities?

SL Well Cindy Sherman comes to mind. Where she has celebrated herself in the image. So she’s a literal example of this phenomenon. And the fact that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie could command 4 million dollars for the photographs of their newborn baby.

MC Does that feed our cultural narcissism?

SL I think it is a diversionary tactic on the part of the media to take its eyes off of what is really important.

MC So it would be similar to what Marx said about religion being an opiate of the people?

SL Yes. Absolutely

MC Is there room then for a true artist?

SL There is plenty of room. It just doesn’t make the headlines because it would not be cost-effective for corporations.

MC So it is the quiet determined artist doing his or her thing for themselves and there is enough ability if you are good to make a modest living but not get worldwide or even national recognition that would come only with promoting oneself.

SL I think the Internet has changed the marketplace. I grew up with ABC, NBC and CBS and now there are thousands of channels and media has decentralized and become more personalized such that one can be celebrated in microcosm.

MC Everybody can be famous for 15 minutes! But it may be that only a small bunch of people know who you are...

SL The population is so huge that a microcosm today was a macrocosm not so long ago. “Oh, you are only seen by 200,000 people” is a bad Nielsen rating.

MC Which galleries carry your work?

SL I’m carried by The Watkins Gallery locally. That’s currently my only dealer.

MC What is your relationship with your gallery? Is it a love/hate thing? Is it a totally good experience?

SL It is a great experience. I show not only in that gallery but in other places and being able to display the large format prints is critical as the internet, at six or seven inches, doesn’t really begin to tell the story like experiencing work in person. Particularly with these wide format prints, you can’t really appreciate the detail and color unless you can see them face to face. So the gallery enables one to experience what I can envision the art looking like

MC What is the biggest print you currently make?

SL 44” x 78”

MC I assume you don’t make too many of those! That is awfully big to handle!

SL No. But I have a fairly good market for my large format prints. Through my internet sales. The internet is my primary dealer/gallery. And I take out full-page ads in Art News and Art in America and that drives people to my website and those clients are willing to invest in these prints sight unseen. Which is amazing.

MC Well you have the CV to allow one to pull that off.

SL It doesn’t hurt.

You can see more of Shelley's work at

MAGNAchrom: End of Article

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