"It takes time for the world to reveal itself to us." - Barbara Bosworth
Barbara Bosworth’s photography explores nature and memory through calm reflection upon places that hold deep personal and social meaning. Using a large format 8x10 camera, she makes exquisite prints that immerse the viewer in the scene and imbue details—fleeting effects of light and subtle traces of human or natural activity—with arresting presence. I spoke with Barbara Bosworth to uncover a bit of insight into her photography and artistic practice with the opening of her Denver Art Museum exhibition Barbara Bosworth: Quiet Wonder and her Month of Photography Lecture on March 13.
Micah Messenheimer: Your photography is informed by extensive time spent in many of the locations we see in your work—whether through repeated visits to somewhere like Montana, or in the instance of Novelty, Ohio, where you spent your childhood. Could you talk about your process of photographing a place?
Barbara Bosworth: I like to feel connected to a place. This takes time. I was fortunate enough to live my childhood in one location and I spent a lot of time exploring the stream and woods around our house. This, I am sure formed the basis of my desire to know a place. I can’t make a good photograph of a place on my first visit there.
Also, photography allows me a long look. An 8x10 camera is well suited for my slow working process.
I am teaching a landscape course this semester about place. Each student is to spend the entire semester photographing one place: their back yard, the city block where they live, a river, or a patch of forest. The goal is for them to begin to really see beyond the surface by returning over and over to the same spot. To begin to know their place. To learn something of the place’s history, botany, geology, or the way the light leans differently at sunrise than at sunset.
MM: Much of your work draws on personal or family experience. How do you address memory in your photography, while still making pictures that are relevant to an outside audience?
BB: I first hope the image is interesting to look at. If it is, then there is the possibility someone will spend time with it.
Then, no matter how personal, it might also ring significant to others.
For example, the photograph titled My mother’s grave is specifically the spot where we buried my mother, yet I don’t think it is only about my mother’s death. I don’t expect viewers to care that is the grave of my mother specifically, but it might cause them to reflect about time passing, our connection to the earth, or their own lost loved ones.
I think it is ok to put something of the personal into a photograph. I am very interested in photographing specific moments that occur in my life. I photograph things I care about; things I am interested in; things I like to look at.
We should not try to separate the artist from the art. Personal experiences become part of my photographs. If all goes well, others might come away with something new they may not have thought about before.
MM: In the exhibition text we describe your manner of observation as that of a naturalist discovering the mysteries of the world around them. Your photography encourages close looking. The subject matter of your photographs is often hidden, or at least not immediately apparent, and occasionally relies on your titles as a clue: I’m thinking here of Spot where an elk slept or Honeysuckle and a snake. In many ways, this suggestion to simply stop and look at the most ephemeral of things seems at odds with the constant distractions of daily living. What are your thoughts on art and contemplation? What role does photography, as a medium, play in making the fleeting visible?
BB: I love looking at something for a long time. I learned that from my father, who could spend hours watching something as ephemeral as the light moving across the landscape. It is during these long looks that hidden things become noticed. It takes time for the world to reveal itself to us.
Again, I think it relates to holding onto a moment. Photography allows us to grab the fleeting, the ineffable, the ethereal and hold onto it. I want to share the thing with other people I care about—to share the wonder. The morning of the honeysuckle image, I was out for a slow walk. I was drawn into the smell of the honeysuckle and the warm spring sun on my back to stop at the edge of the field, at the hedgerow. I was content to stand there for a long time. Just staring. Long enough to eventually notice the snake amongst the flowers. It was such a wonderful surprise I felt compelled to make a photograph to share that moment of wonder.
Of course, standing in front of a photograph on a wall is not the same experience as being mesmerized by the smell of the honeysuckle and the warm sun. Indoors one may not be compelled to stand long enough to see the snake. This underscores the usefulness of titles.
I often use titles to refer to the past. One of my images is of leaves being held in someone’s hands. You can’t see who it is, as only their hand and the leaves are included in the frame. By titling it My brother holding leaves from an oak tree planted by my grandfather, the viewer learns it’s about generations on a place and family connections. Regardless of how personal an image is, I want it to point toward more general experiences.
MM: The term “nature photography” is one that is often loaded in contemporary criticism: how do you reconcile making photographs that are both of nature, yet decidedly contemporary in their presentation?
BB: Robert Adams has said three elements are needed for a good landscape photograph: geography, autobiography, and metaphor. By adding in touches of these, a photograph can become more than a record of the thing photographed. By adding in the personal and a bit of metaphor and having them be of a place, my hope is the images transcend the thing itself and become something else.
MM: You’ve been a professor at Massachusetts College of Art for over 30 years. Can you talk about the role of being an educator in your career as an artist?
BB: I can’t think of any way I would have rather spent the last 30 years. I believe in the mission, the “product” of education: education for education’s sake. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s specifically about photography. My hope for my time with students is for us (me included) to learn to see, to open our eyes and minds, to work together to learn to see the world in a new way. It is their constant seeking and striving to find their artistic way forward that keeps me going in my own work. I am constantly learning from my students.
Image credit: Barbara Bosworth, Black bear, Lochsa River Valley, 1992 © Barbara Bosworth