Interview by Jana Hoops. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (August 20)
Kosciusko native Jack Spencer’s new book, This Land: An American Portrait (University of Texas Press) is a sweeping portraiture of the nation’s landscape, created over 13 years and 80,000 unforgettable car miles.
An artist at heart, Spencer set out in 2003 on a quest to capture a post-9/11 America–to grasp a glimpse of a country of contrasts, fears, and hopes. The resulting book, he says, is “not a documentary or dogmatic statement, but rather an expression of the perception of the ideal.” The images are rendered in what he calls a “stream-of-consciousness perspective,” not “perfect pictures.”
A self-taught photographer known for his fine art work and his penchant to modify his images through artistic techniques, Spencer’s rich talent has been on display in major collections around the country, including Houston, Santa Barbara, New Orleans, Nashville, and, in Jackson, at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
Spencer’s first book, Native Soil, reveals his gift for artistry in the faces and places of his native South, and his work has been published in a wide variety of print media. Today, he lives and works in Nashville.
How did you develop your interest in photography?
As a child, I was always fascinated by boxes and boxes of old family photographs and tinytypes and would spend hours and hours going through them. I majored in art in college and played around with photography during that time and thereafter, though not seriously. I began to get deep into it in the mid-1980s and then began the work that was to become Native Soil.
Your new book, This Land: An American Portrait, was begun in 2003. It became a 13-year project and took you on a 80,000-mile road trip through the “lower 48” states, to find “sketches” of a country still sorting through 9/11. Tell me about your motivation to take on this massive project.
I was against the war in Iraq and thought that the United States was premature in their conclusion that there were weapons of mass destruction and not allowing Hans Blix to finish his inspections. The fervor that had been created was overwhelming. I decided to make a portrait of America. Not the people, but the land where we live.
You describe yourself as “a pictorialist at heart.” Please explain how that is interpreted throughout This Land, and describe some of the techniques used to accomplish that in these images.
As an artist, I do not care for the purely literal and have little patience with purists of any ilk. I think there is an underlying truth in interpretation. That is the basis of artistic expression. One must get outside of oneself to–ironically–express oneself. Otherwise, I would have been a photojournalist.
I have been something of a mad scientist both in the darkroom and on the computer, trying things that are quite unorthodox and perhaps a bit insane, just to see what happens. In turn, some of my techniques have been born of those experiments.
The photos are, for the most part, devoid of people. Explain why that was a priority for this work.
This Land was about the place we inhabit. This is the view that few ever see and, for the most part, do not appreciate and take for granted. A book about the people would have been an entirely different project and one that I have little interest in, as that would have been far too literal for me and I am quite fond of ambiguity in my works.
You note in your introduction that America is a land of contradictions. Tell me about the state of “irony” in which you find this country to be.
Literally every adjective and its antonym can describe this country: ugly/beautiful, loved/hated, sublime/obnoxious, rich/poor, wise/ignorant, new/crumbling, crowded/desolate, and so and so forth. At some point, one is simply left with an abstract notion of America.
You state that images of animals and “decrepit, once proud structures” become “symbols and metaphors of the country’s past” in this book. Explain how that is so.
With the idea in mind that “past is prologue,” I think it is a good idea to review the past in order to have a clear idea of where we are heading and how far we have come. This country likes to leave behind anything and anyone that has lost its usefulness. Little is preserved, let alone revered. The buffalo were slaughtered by the millions so that Sherman could end the Indian Wars. Buildings are left to rot or are torn down to make way for subdivisions or shopping malls and condo units.
You make the case that Americans have not been good stewards of this incredible land. Explain–and how can we do better?
Ask someone in Montana, Colorado, or other Western states about the acid runoff from mining that has turned streams and rivers into, essentially battery acid. Or people in Appalachia about coal runoff that kills water supplies. Or fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico why there are enormous dead zones where nothing lives. Or take a trip to Detroit.
As for a solution, well, it is not because no one knows about all this. It sis just that big money talks big and politicians like big talk.
Ultimately, what did you learn from this journey you referred to as both a “pilgrimage” and an “odyssey”?
I suppose that my overall takeaway from this odyssey, is that this is a fascinating land–astounding, really. It is vast and almost incomprehensible in its scope. Mostly, I loved the out-of-the-way, unseen, quiet spaces that few ever see, rather than the dramatic, obvious places. America is mostly made up of these places out on tiny little backroads and hidden from view.
In Jon Meacham’s foreword to This Land, he point sout that impages in this book capture a country he says many of us would believe has disappeared–scenes like “the fading churches, the roaming bison, the running horses”–a world he says is real, and is now, and is ours. Did it surprise you to realize that images like these are still part of America?
Yes, it did. People do not see this land when they are flying over it or taking the interstates.
What about this whole incredible journey has given your the most satisfaction?
I would have to say that the most satisfaction I got was the realization that it started as one thing and ended as another. I had no real idea what I was up against 14 years ago when I started out, and really had no clear idea bout what I was undertaking. I am a fan of Homer’s The Odyssey and Odysseus’s 10-year journey home to Ithaca. Like him, I was thrown off course many times, yet somehow was able to right myself onward.
I am privately quite proud of the fact that it was accomplished. No one except me knows what I went through to finish the task. And, it is right that only I should know.