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Interview with Artist Tim Remick

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What was your first interest in the camera or photography in general?

It started with my dad, who was in advertising back in the ‘60s through the ‘80s. He was the photo retouching guy, back in the day. He had his art director, clients and whole entourage of other participants in the process, and he would do the airbrushing for final prints. I remember sitting with him in his office with the giant tanks of compressed air and him coming up with the right color gamut to meet the client and art director’s needs.

I have a sort of reference my childhood. My folks had a place on Chesapeake Bay that certainly had a molding effect on me. I was not somebody who watched TV or played video games, even in the 1970s. Growing up, I was outside all the time and the camera was with me. So, my exposure was early on, running around photographing the natural world. I certainly wasn’t a portrait photographer when I was a kid; it was more about frogs and friends doing silly things.

How did photography become more to you than just a hobby? (You wrote that you shifted your full attention to photographic pursuits after Sept. 11, 2001. Was there a connection between the events of 9/11 and your decision to pursue photography full-time?)

I was teaching biology and general science at the Anchorage School District and I had just finished a Master’s in Education with a focus in curriculum development. I also worked at the Seward Sea Life Center and I enjoyed my time working with students in that environment, but I always had photography on the back burner as more of a hobby. I had some success with shows and competitions but I really wanted to take it to the next level. So, 9/11 happened and I had a chance to reevaluate what was important to me. Oddly enough, on 9/11 I was in the Wrangells photographing wild places. I have a series of a sunrise on 9/11 that to me is haunting. I must have taken 50 frames of this sunrise hitting Mount Sanford — unbeknownst to me, all this horror was taking place back east. It really struck a chord in me on the whole drive back to Anchorage. I was also newly engaged to my wife and it seemed like a good time to make a change.

At the time, it made sense to me to make a clean cut. I thought that was the only way I was going to make photography work was if I didn’t have another source of income. I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on making a business work, and made a good go of it. I cut my teeth locally with KSKA, an Anchorage public radio and TV station. They gave me a bunch of volunteer assignments, which allowed me to work in sort of a business contract environment in exchange for air time to promote myself as a photographer.

What is your background as an outdoor adventurer and climber, and how does it relate to your work?

I’ve long been interested in climbing and skiing. I’ve also seen photos from the early adventure photographers and have tried to emulate their work. I had a pipe dream for trying to be a magazine photographer. I was sort of wandering around with the camera having friends doing silly stuff. The camera was with me on my exploits and then I slowly started to understand about composition and what made for a good photograph, trying to emulate what I’d see in magazines and books.

What artists would you consider influential to your work?

I definitely had influences, but I can’t say that I had one photographer that I emulated. When I was starting out, photography was something I was into but didn’t quite understand. In high school I had no idea about photography besides Ansel Adams, of course, but there are other masters out there that are as accomplished in different ways. At the time, landscape was my focus so Adams was the one that I tried to emulate and was very much into the literal interpretation of the landscape and trying to replicate what I was seeing.

Now, having been doing the MFA program and having a chance to study photography more in-depth, I studied wonderful portraitists like Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon and August Sander. It took going back to school in a photographic environment with other professionals in the field to really understand the medium.

Going to art school and understanding about Alfred Stieglitz and the movement from pictorialism to realism was fascinating to me. I’ve taken a whole new understanding of and perspective on photography. I would encourage anyone to take a history of photography course.

What are your thoughts on the dramatic recent changes in photography?

I’ve seen a tremendous change in the medium, and I’m not that old. The average person can take very little knowledge of the photographic process to make some very compelling photographs with very little effort. Cameras are getting easier and easier to operate with built-in defaults that allow for selective focus and depth of field, with the push of a button. You don’t have to know a lot about shutter speed or depth of field anymore. Then in post-production, you use your software to manipulate the photograph to fit what your vision is or was at the time. As a professor of photography, I strive to make sure my students understand the photographic process from a manual standpoint. A lot of students don’t need that anymore and it’s more an understanding of software. I’ve heard it said from a number of sources that society is drowning in a sea of imagery, but what’s really missing are deep conceptual images, things that on its surface may appear to be one thing but upon further exploration or through the series of certain imagery there is a story being told, something addressed from a cultural or societal perspective. And that’s where I really try to push the students, to go a little deeper to just making beautiful photographs, to add another layer or two, where the viewer is going to make a little more out of it.

Describe your process in creating the work in the “AFTER” from concept to completion, and any surprises you encountered or changes that may have taken place along the way.

It all spun off of my thesis project at the Savannah College of Art and Design. I had been on Denali in 2001 and watched this metamorphosis occur where people on the mountain were slowly changing, aging, reflecting their experience on a very extreme scale but at the same time it was very short lived, maybe two to three weeks for the average folks up there. When I was faced with having to come up with a thesis, I really revisited this notion of exhaustion. Through my course work at SCAD we were shown photographers who had addressed this notion of the after, and their different ways of capturing the human experience. I have also been captivated by this notion of aging and this dynamic process of the human condition. We’re always in flux, morphing to life experiences and stimuli in the environment.

I started out thinking I’d photograph people who had had a long day at work: A grocery checkout clerk, maybe a lawyer friend or doctor on call all night. While they looked tired, it didn’t reflect the type of exhaustion that I really wanted to capture. I wanted to show the essence of true exhaustion and address the notion of the human condition and how we change and metamorphose over time.

I had a friend doing ultra marathons, 100+ mile runs. They imbibe everything I wanted to capture in a photograph, just beyond exhaustion, the 1,000-mile stare, completely and totally beyond themselves. That was the brainchild, so I started photographing ultra runners for my thesis in 2008. I asked permission before the race and I got some really amazing responses. People were excited. I have so many portraits from those couple of races that have still not seen the light of day. There’s this elation that’s occurred. They’ve just completed this amazing feat. They have been running for 24 hours or longer, and there’s no denying that they endured something quite difficult.

This idea would bode well for capturing climbers on Denali, I thought. We came up to visit friends and on a whim went up to Denali base camp and took some test shots. I wanted to make sure what I was seeing was on par. So in the summer of 2010, I went up and set up shop for 2 ½ weeks and tried to capture as many climbers at base camp as I could. And again, I wasn’t asking for anything from them other than just to look directly at the lens. By doing that, I’m engaging the viewer in the final print. Some were smiling or giving a slight gesture of a smile. How could you not smile after completing this thing? It’s hard to keep that emotion of success bottled up, so as you see in the show there is a broad array of expressions. Some are truly exhausted and you can tell they didn’t want to be in front of the camera but they liked the idea enough to be.

Describe the different layers in the work in “AFTER.”

There’s the one that’s most obvious, the exhaustion, the climbers and this great feat that they’ve completed. The subtext is looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing how we change with life experiences. A professor pointed out I am addressing my own mortality and I think he’s right. There’s certainly a sense of my own changing with my life, birth of my son, marriage to my wife and the aging of my own parents. If someone were taking photographs of me once a year, there would be these changes reflective of my life experiences.

Describe your interaction with the climbers whose portraits you shot.

I have to reveal that one of the ways I was able to entice folks to sit with me was I had brought up a keg of beer for the Moose’s Tooth as a thank you, so after they sat for me I would fill up their Nalgene with beer.

Did you dress your subjects or in any way influence their appearance?

Some of my favorite contemporary photographers glam up their subjects. I wanted the crusty lips, the snot, the frostbite, the leftover food and layers of sunscreen that are all a part of this experience. You really don’t get a chance to clean up on that mountain, especially above 14,000 feet. To get folks to participate, I explained the project and for the most part everyone was really excited about it. I’ve gotten some great feedback from the climbers who had participated.

What kind of camera equipment did you bring and how was your film processed?

I had yet to see this type of photography at base camp, up close and personal and using a large-format camera. It’s a process, too, that I very much wanted to be a part of this project. I could have easily set up my digital SLR, but I wouldn’t have been able to get the size of print I did. So, I shot with a 4x5 camera, drum scanned the film at a high resolution and then digitally corrected color with some enhancement to accentuate the cracks, crinkles and facial aspects. Prints were made on a large Epson printer. I have married film and digital. I don’t know if I would be able to achieve the same product if it were to be done in film all the way through to the print. The new paradigm of digital is wonderful. We have so many opportunities to mix wet film with the capacity and capabilities of digital processing.

As much as I may not use the full process of film, I still teach it and love it. I’ve found myself going back to alternative processes like platinum printing and cyanotype.

It’s such a competitive environment to make it as a photographer today. I look at those who have separated themselves from the masses in one way shape or form, and in my own personal work I’m trying to step away from what’s done on a regular basis out in the photo world. I’ll see what the trends are and try to go another direction.

Have you ever summited or attempted to summit Denali?

I attempted in 2001 and was weathered out at 16,000 feet. We waited quite a bit of time and the weather kept getting worse and worse with more issues coming up weather-wise.

How does teaching photography inform your work as an artist?

I can’t think of a better environment to stay challenged, current and experimental. You’ve got students that are coming up with a variety of backgrounds that inform their perspective and visions of things. The photographer who is a lone operator is not being exposed to new things. You won’t last beyond the next craze. Students are constantly challenging ways of doing things and looking at things. That’s what photography is all about, taking the ordinary and looking at it with a fresh set of eyes. I love engaging the students and I love sharing what I know. It’s absolutely an integral part of the creative process.

What are your future photographic plans?

The Anchorage Museum of History and Art has granted me a solo show for this same body of work that will be either next year or the following year. I also plan on being present at the Yukon Quest to photograph mushers much in this same style. The Denali experience really prepped me for what to expect weather-wise, so I can set up my portable studio in environments that aren’t friendly to cameras and lights. People ask me why I don’t do a before and an after shot. With the Quest, it might be easier to do so I may explore that as an option.

Do you have any afterthoughts after “AFTER”?

It was a lot of fun to put together. When the first print came out of the printer a number of years ago at that large size, I was blown away. I didn’t know I had that capacity. I’d also never seen my work shown to that degree of professionalism. When I first walked upstairs in the museum after installation, I lost my breath. That’s how I always envisioned that work being shown, and there is was. It was a career high for sure.

This experience with in working with Paul Gardinier at the Alaska State Museum and having this opportunity to show the work has been a growing experience. I’ve done small shows, but this is the first that has really taken it up tenfold as far as the exposure and requirements expected. It has been a major growing experience. I can’t thank the museum enough for the experience.