An Interview with Gunnar Plake

by Maria Porges

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Maria Porges: The most unique aspect of your photographs is the first thing we notice: they portray a state of motion. How did you develop your distinctive technique?

Gunnar Plake: It started in the darkroom. At 25 I taught myself how to develop and print pictures and was fascinated by the portions of inadvertent blur. My curiosity led to experimentation, photographing objects in motion. Eventually my style evolved to what you see today — the stroke of my camera on still subjects — which maximizes creative control of the image.

About ten years ago, I made another discovery: my obsession with movement was intimately linked to a lifetime of restlessness. When I first heard the word “hyperactive” — in connection with ADHD — something struck a chord. Looking back now, I realize I was the classic case, long before they even had a name for it. I have lived with a mind and body constantly “in motion.”

MP: You’ve mentioned one of the consequences of your hyperactive state has been a feeling that you never have enough time. Could you talk about the relationship of time to your work as a photographer?

GP: I have spent my life obsessed with the passage of time. As a child I felt I had to concentrate and work that much harder just to keep up so time was always at a premium. Moving the camera during exposure allows me to include more information, more time, in the image than can be captured when the camera is still. Most photography emphasizes a moment frozen in time, which is not my experience of seeing. I capture time itself.

MP: Could you talk about your technique for moving the camera when shooting?

GP: Over the years, the question for me has been “How do I move the camera to add more information to the image rather than movement just for movement’s sake. My camera “strokes” have evolved over the years into complex curves. Interestingly, my shutter speeds are not that slow–ranging from a quarter of a second up to a sixtieth. My images rely less on the length of time the shutter is open, and more on how my stroke relates to the landscape’s flow — “with or against the grain”. My camera strokes enable me to not only stretch color but to stretch time.

MP: Do you think of this action as abstracting the image, or are you trying to make it more real?

GP: Actually, I think of it in terms of deconstruction. The challenge is to walk that fine line between representation and abstraction. If the viewer cannot relate to or understand the image, then I’ve lost them.

MP: You’ve applied your deconstruction motion technique to series ranging from trees to seascapes. Can you talk about why you chose those subjects and what drew you to your current project, the Grand Canyon?

GP: The two subjects that have been of the greatest interest to me are the ocean, as I was an avid sailor, and the open space of the West. Three years ago, I moved full-time to Santa Fe, to live in the incredible southwestern landscape, and within a day’s drive of the most iconic of them all, the Grand Canyon. Ironically, it is there in the presence of such vastness that I feel most at peace and still.

MP: You’ve also talked about the special quality of high desert light.

GP: It’s the purest light I’ve ever seen. It’s one of the reasons that the Colorado Plateau has drawn so many artists over the years. But, the thin air also means incredibly harsh light which easily overpowers an image. You are limited to shooting during first or last light, and usually have less than a 15 minute window to capture the sun’s low angled rewards. For this reason, shooting in high desert becomes in itself a race against time. I’m working in a narrow window with this incredible vastness of space, of scale. The indescribable distances translate for me into a timelessness, because they eliminate all visual restriction. The vastness in scale also delivers a concentration of color rarely available in other locations.

MP: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the new kind of work you have been making.

GP: For the last several years I’ve been shooting simultaneously with two cameras –one film and one digital. Working digitally is seductive because experimentation is unlimited, and feedback is immediate! I started out using digital capture as a way of informing my film capture, but I’ve ended up shooting equally with both mediums. Recently I am sequencing these images into a video software program, and then matching them to music. Connecting multiple images of one motif provides a rendering of time similar to that portrayed in my large-sale prints.

MP: So you see the two bodies of work as complementing each other?

GP: Yes, I have just incorporated a group of digital images of the Grand Canyon into a five minute video, which is intended to place the exhibition prints in a broader context. The video will be a companion piece for the launch of my first Grand Canyon print series–The Space Between. Like the Grand Canyon, the digital medium is a new frontier for me, nudging the boundaries of time and opening my work to new possibilities.

Interview with Gunnar Plake was conducted by Bay Area art writer Maria Porges in August 2008.

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