Photographer and book artist: Frank Hamrick [q&a]

As time continually goes by with increasing speed it's an honor when an artist takes a moment to talk about the work they are creating. I recently had a wonderful conversation with Frank Hamrick about his work. I originally met with Frank at (the always inspiring) SPE and I contacted him to see if he would like to elaborate on his work and process.  Currently Frank Hamrick is an assistant professor and the photography area coordinator for the School of Art at Louisiana Tech University. His work mixes photography, storytelling, handmade books and found objects which addresses the private environment of a home provides intermingled with personal secretes and memories. Examples can be found on his website or copies of his books can be purchased here.   Some may say the conversation runs a little long, but the answers are truly enlightening and I am grateful to have a conversation of such depth. Please give the article a read and visit his website or stop by store.   [q&a]     [Me] Your work is deeply poetic and moving. With the body of work entitled “harvest” I am responding to the amount of time involved in both growing a garden and book making. I see many parallels between the two. Have you drawn any conclusions about the relationship between the two processes?   [Hamrick] Yes. There are similarities between growing a garden and bookmaking and/or building a photographic body of work. They are process oriented involving multiple stages and faith - believing in something you cannot see. This is something I speak to my students about, especially in my view camera class where they are developing their own film and printing their photographs in the darkroom. Knowing your medium and materials well and believing in yourself are important when taking on a task that does not supply instant gratification. There will be mistakes, which is OK as long as you learn from them. The best way to learn how to grow a garden or make a book is to grow gardens and make books. It helps to have a teacher and handouts, but the best way to learn is to take that advice and apply it by doing the actual thing. And yes, I do believe growing a garden has been positive for my bookmaking. It taught me patience and understanding that doing something well or poorly in the early stages will affect the end result.

David Clark, a writer and farmer, once wrote something like, "If you want to have beautiful flowers, you have to start with beautiful dirt."

Having good raw materials to begin with is essential to both growing and bookmaking. That includes the physical materials like paper and ink, but also having good images and text to work with.

David also wrote, "The second kick of the mule is not educational." So make sure you learn from the mistakes that will certainly be made along the way.

My website professor in grad school, John Dunn, asked the class, "What is the hardest thing about making a website?" Some of us thought the correct answer might be making the site load fast even when using a slow connection or making sure the site is user friendly. John answered his own question, "Content."

The same applies to making a book. The work inside has to be something important and something I believe will be worth sharing with others.

When you tell people you are growing a garden, they ask, "What are you growing?" When you say you are making a book, they ask, "What is it about?" They are interested in what the content is.       [Me] Do you have a predetermined sequence that relates to what you would like to see page to page, or is the physical construction of the book connected with a different process?   [Hamrick] The sequence of images in the book relates to life span. The three short stories in the book reiterate that point since they address youth, adulthood and old age or conception, maturity and death.

Then there are design aspects of the book's layout intended to be felt rather than seen, but are important to successfully guiding the viewer through the book. Not always, but I often try to put similarly oriented images together. Usually a vertical image on the left side of a page spread is balanced by a vertical image on the right. The textblock shapes mimic the shape of the photographs they are paired with. The images often point subtly towards the center of the book. It might be the direction of a flower that leads the viewer's eye from that image, across the book to the image or story on the facing page. For instance, there are two photographs of hands appearing on the right side pages within the book. In both cases the hands point into the book, not outside the book. Depending on the subject matter, an image that is straight forward and centered might appear on the book's first page where it is not coupled with any text or image. I believe these details are important in the end to making the book feel right to those who pick it up and look at it.

I worked in the gallery at New Mexico State University during grad school. My first task was working at the opening of an exhibition that was hung just before I got hired. The director at the time, Mary Anne Redding, has a husband, Roger Atkins, who is a high end carpenter. I mentioned to Roger how nice the show looked. He replied that most of the time spent in hanging the show was for things the viewer never notices so they will instead notice the things you actually want them to see and feel. I am sure Roger applies that concept everyday when making cabinets and furniture. It is also something I strive to apply in the work I make.

I probably revised the book dummy for "Harvest" five times before I had the mock up I brought to this year's national SPE convention, which is where you and other peers saw the first glimpse of the book and provided feedback. I brought those responses home and made further revisions before producing the actual book. There are thirteen or fourteen various mock ups on my table capturing the slight changes in the book, whether it was image sequence, making the fonts consistent throughout the book, page layout or how a story was conveyed. I tell my students you have to be your toughest critic. So I do not see all those revisions and book dummies as an indication of having terrible layout skills or being a bad writer. I just see that as personally setting a high standard. The last thing I want to do is make a final edition and end up hating the book because I was too lazy or rushed to fix something I already knew was flawed early on in the process. There's a carpentry saying, "Measure twice, cut once." I guess for me it's, "Revise twenty times, then print and bind."     [Me] The word “Harvest” inspires many different avenues of thought, do you ascribe more complex ideas to that word and your work?   [Hamrick] I usually have a small exhibit of my students' work at the end of each book arts course. Last summer I called the exhibition "Harvest" because I felt this was what they had to show for their work from that period of time. The word Harvest stuck in my head.

I like book titles that create strong mental images. Two years ago I made a small edition book called "The Ship Is Going Down", which featured images made using Polaroid's positive/negative film that is no longer produced. The book I'm working on now is called "Letter Never Sent". The word Harvest is a strong word for generating mental images because the word is both a noun and a verb and can be used in different settings.

The photographs in my book "Harvest" were made over a period of several years. I tend to not work on one single subject for a set period of time, print them, exhibit them and then move onto the next body of work. The "Harvest" photographs were made while also working on images that have been used in other series, such as last year's book "Scars". There are plant images in both books. Last year I looked at the photographs I had and noticed several images of people, plants and things with scars. So that is what I had been unconsciously drawn to photographing for a while, and those were the images sticking out to me when it came time to make a book. Creating a book is a way for me to look at the photographs I have and then start to bring some method and organization to the chaos of my image making that can sometimes feel aimless when I am initially shooting the photographs. Particular images stick out to me on the contact sheets and through editing, a thematic body of work emerges. Making photographs for me is often intuitive and subconscious process that is felt more than seen, whereas bookmaking for me is the opposite - a much more considered, conscious endeavor.

There are particular reoccurring words and concepts in my work, such as "found", which appears in the titles of my books "Found Objects" and "i found it when i stopped looking". "Home" is another concept that appears periodically, like in my one off books "Keep Moving" and "There's No Place Like Home". Or the line, "Old people are like houses burning down " from my one of a kind "Wallet Book".

Making my books signals the end of a series of work or at least a finished chapter in that work or the end of looking at a subject from that particular angle. I have grown a garden for the last five years and plan on having a garden and photographing it each year in the future because it is something I enjoy doing and can see at the end of the day. "I turned this soil over today." "I pulled these weeds today." Plus I can later look at the flowers and vegetables and see them as an investment paying off. The seeds planted in the early spring yield profit in the summer. But by the end of last summer I felt as though I had photographed this particular garden as much as I could for a while. And so I decided it was time to bring some of those photographs together with other images I had and make a set body of work from them.

The last photograph in "Harvest" shows a dying sunflower leaning over, whose seeds have fallen to the ground. I made that photograph around the time my grandmother was dying last August. That image is paired in the book with a story about my great-grandmother's last garden, but the sunflower image to me is my grandmother dying and the seeds that have fallen onto the ground are the future generations. It was her handing over the responsibilities. She had done her part and her time was past. Now it is up to us. Harvest is the time to gather your crops and eat them or take them to the market. It is a set point in the life of that produce. You don't want to do it too early when there's not enough ready or too late when everything is past its prime and no longer wanted. It's all part of the cycle. The grower needs to take the produce into town so they can sell it and then there's the people who want it. The farmer also needs to clear the field so the ground can rest and then be prepared for the next season of planting. The same thing can be said for these photographs. I truly felt I was harvesting this particular group of photographs. I thought it was time to put them out in the world to share with other people so they could see them all together in the context of plant imagery addressing life span. It also allows me to make room both physically in my studio and mentally in my mind to start planning the next book project.

Another piece of work that was in the back of my mind when putting this book together was Neil Young's album, "Harvest". Although I should be clear none of the photographs or stories were inspired by that album and the book is not meant to be any sort of homage or comment on Young's work. The album "Harvest" was recorded forty years ago in various places, including a proper studio in Nashville, a barn on Neil Young's ranch and a concert at UCLA. So Young was gathering these recordings and putting them together, which became the album. It went on to being the most successful record released in 1972 and featured songs like "Heart of Gold", which was a number one hit on the radio.

The album resonated with people when it first came out, but the important thing is that after all this time it still matters to people, even to younger listeners like myself who were not around when it was first released. It has songs heard on the radio today and as a whole it is an album that people still gravitate towards.

My goal was to do something in the same spirit - to bring together a small group of photographs and writing that would make an impression on viewers today, but would also remain relevant years from now to those original people and generate a strong, positive response each time a new person is exposed to the book. I did not want to make a piece that would be seen as a dated trend when people look back on the book years from now. I once heard the way to know if you wrote something good was to put it on the shelf and then read it 75 years later to see if it still was strong material. My book is a harvest of photographs and stories, but I suppose it might be seen as a seed just now being planted. We'll have to check back in several decades to see how it holds up.       [Me] The idea of impermanence and story are powerful notions when talked about in the same context. As people, I believe our stories that we share, and retell, often lack or include different details as we re-engage ideas. Books try to circumnavigate natural variations within storytelling. It appears in your artist statement you are trying to overcome this natural suggestion of “book as document” and bring forth classical storytelling - is this an aspiration of “Harvest”?   [Hamrick] It's interesting you say that. The other day I was listening to an interview on the radio about court cases and how victims will naturally tell their story slightly differently each time, such as to the police soon after the crime occurs and then later to the jury in court. The opposing attorney will place emphasis on those slight variations in the victim's story in an attempt to have that testimony seen as being flawed and therefore have the accused acquitted.

I tell my students there are two extreme ways of looking at storytelling and what pieces of work are about. One is that a piece of work can inspire the imagination of the reader/viewer because the artwork exists as a point of inspiration and is open to interpretation. The ceramics professor I work with, Mary Louise Carter, said she looks at abstract art like she listens to instrumental music. "I take what I need from the work." There is no person there telling you this song is about love or this painting is about anger. Mary Louise saw a postcard of my image "Intertwined Carrots" and responded, "Carrots in love." whereas the produce man at the grocery store might view that same image as a couple of deformed looking carrots he would never be able to sell. The other extreme of storytelling and art making is to have an end goal in mind and make sure the viewer/reader gets that exact message. I suppose that is what you mean by the "book as document" where the story is put down on paper and viewed as, "This is the story. This is how it is told. This is what it means" much in the same way as a song appears on a record and then many fans feel that is the arrangement of how the song should always be performed. Sometimes doing this is easy, sometimes it is difficult and many times it can be boring, not only for the creator, but to the listener as well.

Photographs denote something. They show. The photograph "Intertwined Carrots" shows one carrot wrapped around another carrot. Photographs can also connote. They can suggest. This photograph shows two carrots, but for many people it also carries a sensual connotation.

I am most interested in photographs that serve as metaphors to ideas beyond what is obviously seen in the image, even if it inspires ideas in viewers different from my own. I like looking at others people's photographs that leave room for me to be part of deciding what this work means, or at least what the work means to me. So I try do the same for viewers looking at my work, leave room for them to be part of the process.       [Me] Is there a gallery component to “Harvest” or to any of the other handmade books you have created? Or is the photography and accompanying printed elements primary focused in the art of the book(s)?   [Hamrick] I have done a couple of pieces that exist only as books, such as last year's "Chasing The Sun", which I view as my best example of an artist's book. Its content is a seven panel, tea stained, accordion fold out. The tea stain mimics the southwest landscape I experienced while going to graduate school at New Mexico State University. This book will be included in a group exhibition this August at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas.

Like many of the images in my other photographic artist's books, the photographs in "Harvest" have appeared as individual framed prints in various group and solo exhibitions. Although there has not yet been an exhibition of just the "Harvest" photographs, since these images only recently appeared together as this particular body of work.

"Harvest", the book, was in a book fair this July in New York City. The book will be exhibited next at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon in August and then will be included as part of a solo exhibition here at Louisiana Tech University in late October. The book may be exhibited in some additional shows this year, but the details are not confirmed at this time.

I compare the individual photographs to songs, and the book can be compared to an entire album - a cohesive body of work with liner notes and cover art. So a single photograph can stand on its own as a piece of work, just as a single song can appear on the radio. Or the book can be viewed as a larger piece of work, like an album you listen to from beginning to end. I do not see the book as a monograph, which simply reproduces the images, like a catalog from an exhibition. The book is a handmade piece delivering a cohesive idea that is not fully expressed by any single image viewed alone from the rest of the book.

The book's construction includes handmade rag paper and letterpress printing, along with more contemporary processes, such as InDesign layout and Inkjet printing. The first edition exists in a limited quantity of 25 soft cover books and 25 hardcover books I printed and bound myself.

I think of "Harvest" as an artist's book - a piece of work.