Tanya Marcuse’s imaginative photographs possess the magic of teetering between plausible and implausible, life and death, and she has an undeniable signature style: a mix of dreamy romanticism and clinical exactness.
On the occasion of her exhibition at Independent Art Projects, we invited Tanya to discuss the role photography plays in her life, and where she’s headed next. Her exhibition at IAP is on view until September 25, 2014.
Martina Caruso: Tanya, we are here to see and talk about your “Fallen” series; can you talk a bit about how you arrived at this subject?
Tanya Marcuse: Fallen grew out of an earlier series called Fruitless (2005 – 2007), where I photographed fruit trees in the Hudson Valley in different seasons over many years. Each photograph focused on a single tree, occasionally surrounded by the fallen fruit that captivated me more fully in the next project.
I often photograph the same tree from the same vantage point in different seasons and years. I am riveted by the stunning transformations these trees undergo through the seasons, and the portrait-like individuality of each tree. Yet, I am also photographing these orchards because they are in danger of vanishing as the landscape of the region becomes more and more developed and open spaces and agricultural land diminishes. Most of these trees stand on land that is currently for sale.
MC: When I look at the “Fallen” photographs I discover and get surprised by a new iconography and a new perception of natural elements, as well as symbolism. What concept is behind the project?
TM: Throughout the series I’m imagining the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve have been kicked out and picturing a place where there’s a mixture of tremendous wildness, beauty, fecundity and decay. In Paradise, Adam and Eve would have been keeping the place in a sort of perfect order, but then after their transgression and departure everything becomes overgrown, wild. The fruit is unpicked, uneaten; it falls to the ground, floats downstream. Plums mix with apples, flower petals mix with fruit, animals with plants, and of course life mixes with death. There’s a blending together of the order and perfection of the Edenic landscape with a kind of chaos. That’s the conceptual foundation of the series.
MC: Can you tell us a little bit of the behind-the-scenes of the series? What is your photographic process like?
TM: My process is extremely intensive, obsessive, and sometimes quite fun. I have an extensive collection of props gathered from the natural world –snakes, birds, bats, turtles—all dead and frozen (I don’t kill them, I find them), apples in different stages of decay, milkweed pods, cicada carapaces and dragonfly wings. Sometimes I save leftovers from family meals—eggshells, for example—and sometimes I grow things, like Queen of the Night tulips, to use in my work. My kids bring me things for my collection—donations of bird skulls, dead turtles—and we have gone on family expeditions to nearby orchards to go rotten apple picking. What I love about having this collection, what it enables me to do, is to construct a tableau out in a found landscape of things in the natural world that would not logically concur. And I like this because it heightens the sense of tension between the plausible and the implausible, the natural and the unnatural, the living and the dying.
I photograph with a 4 x 5” view camera, using film, then scan the film and make digital pigment prints. I do all of my own printing, unless the scale exceeds my 44” wide printer.
MC: You worked with black and white small-scale prints, and now you are mastering larger format digitally produced pigment prints. What is your relationship with other photographic techniques and new media?
TM: Basically for each project that I work on, as the project evolves and the concept becomes clearer, the decisions about the object also become clearer. I like to be open to making work in new ways depending on the underlying conceptual needs of each project. I love this sense of challenge and adventure as my work has evolved over the years. On one hand, within individual projects, I like to create fairly tight constraints to work within, and on the other hand, I always want to be willing to challenge my methods and assumptions.
So, in Undergarments and Armor, a much earlier series, I wanted to create prints that were serial, intimate, very much like a catalogue, but I also wanted the prints to be extremely tactile and immediate, so that my choice of a 19th century printing process (platinum prints) was not one of nostalgia. It really had to do with the qualities of that object and how it related to the concept of the project.
I had never worked on such a large scale or printed color pigment prints on my own in the way that I have in my series Fallen, but I felt that the project demanded it. The scale had to be large enough to reveal the intensity of the detail and to provide an immersive experience for the viewer.
That is always the absolute crux of the decision of how to make something—the scale, whether its in color or black and white, whether the paper is glossy or matte, how green the green is—every decision has to do with the relationship between what it means and what it looks like.
MC: What are you working on now? What’s next?
TM: I like to have a few projects going at the same time—some more labor-intensive and long-term and others somewhat more whimsical and playful. I’m actually continuing my work on Fallen — I’m continuing to collect things and I’m planning some very large-scale pieces for that series. It’s moving in a slightly different direction — I’m photographing uprooted trees. I’m picturing the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Good and Evil fallen to the ground after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, with the root structure and underlying earth exposed. I like seeing under the earth. I’m also working on an ongoing project called “iFallen”, almost making fun of my own work, where I photograph objects that have fallen to the ground in different cities using my iPhone. So I’m still exploring the concept of “fallen-ness,” but using a different more vernacular photographic language, creating a kind of archive of non-fiction fallen-ness in the urban streets.
Question from the audience #1: From a sculpture point of view, I have to ask you, why you don’t save the sculpture you create for the shot?
TM: Great question. It’s good you asked because I don’t really consider the things that I make for the photographs to be sculptures. The reason why I don’t is because I feel that the things that I construct are made solely for the purposes of the photograph—you step 15 feet back and they look like a pile of leaves, and then there’s some kind of coming together, an ordering that happens through the lens of the view camera. I do construct the set first and then I begin looking through the camera’s lens—somehow that’s important to me. But the set is not significant in and of itself. I do, however, dismantle them and save and reuse as many of the parts as I can.
Question for the audience #2: How you handle collaborative work?
TM: That’s also a perfectly timed question because, in the coming month, my 17 year old daughter Eve and I are going to be working very intensively on a collaborative limited-edition artist’s book (still untitled) before she leaves for college. I’m culling small photographs from the larger works of Fallen—fragments of the images that isolate different elements of the iconography. Eve is working with text extracted from our 1958 set of Encyclopedia Britannicas creating shaped poems.
However, this is a rare instance of collaboration for me. I like to work alone, and when I’m photographing I don’t use assistants (other than my kids). When I go out and work, even when I’m hauling around my view camera and other gear, my props, and travelling miles into the woods to find a particular spot where I want to photograph, I do this in a solitary way.
Question from the audience #3: Would you describe yourself as an introvert or extrovert?
TM: I’m both. That’s why I like photography and that’s why I chose it as my art form when I was 17. I was one of those teenagers with a little too much in the emotional category. I was already drawn to art but photography just clicked for me because it had a built-in mediation and because it was looking out at the world. You’re looking in and you’re looking out at the same time. That’s why the medium has shaped my life, because it allows you to do that.
Tanya Marcuse earned her MFA from Yale. She has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship among other honors, and her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the George Eastman House, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Yale Art Gallery. She is currently teaching photography at Bard College.