The following conversation about Places I Have Been took place between Gwen Widmer and Patrick Clancy in Albuquerque, New Mexico during August 1982.
PC: Tell me about how you began the Places I Have Been series.
GW: This group of images evolved over a period of several years, reaching completed form about 1974. They are hand colored black and white photographs that I made of dioramas at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
PC: Why did you photograph dioramas instead of natural landscapes?
GW: I was interested in aspects of illusion and artifice and the way that illusion and reality intersected in the artificial landscape. Also, it was a way of quoting and playing off of the huge body of landscape work done by photographers of previous generations. And it is important to note that this series is about landscape, as well as simulation. I purposely chose dioramas without animals since an animate subject would have forced the landscape into the background of the scene. I wanted to photograph empty dioramas so that the landscape alone would be my subject and would function as a version of a landscape that would also reference the traditional ones with all of their raw, natural beauty.
PC: You do know Daguerre’s early work with photography. Did you also know that before he began that work, he constructed dioramas?
GW: The 19th century was remarkable in its attitude toward scientific observation of detail and the quantity of information that was often conveyed in a layered context. Both paintings and botanical studies from this time period were presented in a densely articulated manner. It makes sense that photography was invented at this same time. Dioramas and photographs share an attitude toward careful representation of the natural world. However, dioramas involve a kind of scientific illustration that incorporates or heightens salient aspects that help identify the subject and its context. Photography was an exacting, mechanical way of bypassing the hand of the observer and supposedly presenting a “scientific,” unbiased view of nature. The dioramas with their Romantic notion of place and highly articulated presentation of information are an allegory of nature. They’re almost Wagnerian.
Photographs and dioramas are both preserved moments. Not only the scene itself but also the time of day is frozen with specific lighting conditions. And although the diorama is of a more environmental nature, it also has a picture plane, the glass, which prevents one from physically entering into the depicted space. Both dioramas and photography use perspective to create an illusion of depth, which is a result of their origins in the camera obscura or camera lucida.
The interesting thing about all of this is that the viewer stands at the threshold between the actual space he or she occupies and the depicted space of the diorama or photograph. The viewer moves along between these spaces, taking a journey from a primeval swamp to an Illinois woodland and on to an African desert, much like looking through a photo album that is both a record and memory of one’s travels. Informative, imaginary and actual experiences mix in a kind of heightened sense of reality.
PC: Do you think the places depicted in the Field Museum are real places?
GW: Yes, I believe so. As I recall, there were small written labels that referenced a certain place – the glacier fields of the Canadian Rockies, for example. A large part of what I was interested in were the traces of the many stages of construction that each site went through. Presumably each scene was based on a series of photographs of an actual location that were composited into an ideal representation. Back at the museum, this site was reconstructed with three-dimensional objects and a painted two-dimensional backdrop in which the two modes of representation were carefully blended without a visible seam. I then photographed these installations and hand colored the images to intensify the idealized, artificial moment that was depicted. The overall experience of seeing these photographs is like reading a poem that has gone through three or four consecutive translations from one language into another and then comparing the last version to the original. The images that I made have obviously been changed and in an academic sense, perhaps undesirably modified, but for my purposes, they are transformed subtly and just enough, much in the same way that a photograph is not to be confused with the photographed.
PC: With a diorama in a museum there is the implication of a scientific observation of reality – that it is a faithful recording of reality. How do you think your modifications deal with these issues?
GW: Part of what I am doing in this series, as well as in all of my work, is questioning some of the preconceived notions of what a photograph is and what it can and cannot do. Our culture is programmed to accept the photograph point blank – “The photograph never lies.” But more than that, it is always assumed to be representational of our perceptions of what it is like to see. Over the years the camera has substantially changed and manipulated our way of seeing and how we interpret reality.
My use of color also raises these questions. The color is realistic in the sense that skies are blue and grass is green, but my spectrum is very different from true color in nature and also from Kodak’s sense of color, for example. The color in my images is idealized and intensified and definitely handled to contribute to an experience of a heightened perception. It also references the nostalgia for hand colored work from the early part of the century when color emulsions were rare and much commercial work was hand colored in this manner.
PC: I like the title of the series, Places I Have Been, in terms of the way many films, photographs, travelogues and dioramas were used in earlier days. You imply that you are reporting back from exotic and faraway places, presenting visually detailed images of locations people may have heard about but never seen.
GW: The images in Places I Have Been have been enlarged upon and enriched by a variety of my personal experiences. For many years as a child I kept a mental list of the ten most incredible landscapes I’d seen and experienced. This series is a version of that early concept which was very much based in reality. I think of these pieces as remembered places – I really did go to the ten sites and have these photographs to prove it.