I’m struck by the way that Mainers trusted you to take their photos and talk to you. This isn’t a trait most of us associate with New Englanders. How does this come about?
Well, it is a combination of things, I suppose. I know New Englanders have historically been stereotyped as being a bit taciturn, but I haven’t found that to be true. I think that if that trait was prevalent, it is part of an attitude and culture that is long gone in many respects. Either that or I am underestimating my ability to cultivate a rapport with people on the fly. Half the work of making those images is social. I’m not particularly extroverted, but I’m good at being inquisitive. I know a little about a broad range of things, which helps me connect to people. That’s what puts people at ease. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that people generally like to talk about themselves, especially if they are out in the boonies and don’t have much of an audience.
You’re asking people to pose; it’s not always easy to face the camera. What are you searching for from them?
Well, I’m trying to steal their soul, I guess, or at least catch a glance.
Is truth important to you?
I’d say, like Plato, that I’m basically interested in the good, the true and the beautiful. Truth is a slippery thing, though… Ideally, I’d like my images to elicit what I like to describe as “the sensation of objectivity.” Being wholly objective is largely impossible, so the question for me with a photograph becomes: Does it feel true?
Do you ever write down the stories you hear while on the road? Would you like to see them in print someday?
I did keep daybooks for the first three years of the project. This body of work was a full-time pursuit from 2014 to 2016 so I had a lot of downtime to reflect. I had a notion that I might put together a long-form essay, maybe for a reputable East Coast monthly of some sort.
How has the political climate over recent years affected your travels and your work? How is the pandemic affecting you now?
I try my best not to dwell on politics so much, but the last four years kind of made that unavoidable. When I was driving around in 2016, I feel like you could count the number of “Hillary” signs in Maine on one hand, which seemed ominous at the time.
Generally, the political climate hasn’t affected my work much. I do my best to stay above the fray. It’s a complicated and delicate conversation, but I don’t think politics has any place in art, really, at least in any overt way. Heavy-handed references to politics are a big turnoff to me—it comes across as a failure to appreciate the larger context of what it means to exist. There is an intellectual pettiness about it, even if the values are obviously worth fighting for.
That said, it is nearly impossible (and not necessarily desirable) to be apolitical, especially if you have something to say about the world, which most art worth its salt does.
As for the pandemic, it really put a damper on photographing people. I don’t have much material from the past year—not a single picture of people wearing masks, etc.
How did you get started as a photographer? Why photography specifically? Do you work in any other medium?
Let’s see … From a young age I was really excited about history so I think my first real appreciation of photography was an extension of that. I spent a lot of time in the art building in high school messing about with various mediums. Something about the darkroom, though, was really seductive to me, as I think it is for a lot of people. I’ve had a number of great teachers and mentors along the way who inspired me to keep at it. Photography is a simple expression of curiosity, at least how I practice it. The world is overwhelmingly strange, so what better activity than to go out, experience it and maybe bring a little piece back to ponder.
The recent exhibition Nor’East at CMCA in Rockland, Maine, just closed on September 12, 2021. How did this exhibition and its catalogue come about?
Suzette McEvoy, former executive director and chief curator, and I started talking about doing the show back in 2018 with the aim of presenting it during Maine’s bicentennial year, 2020. Of course, the pandemic shut everything down a few months before the show was to go up, so it was postponed until this summer.
Several visitors to the exhibition have asked about your process. What type of camera(s) do you use? Why did you choose rice paper to print the images on for the show?
I use two medium-format cameras, one with a 4 x 5 lens. I got into using the rice paper initially because I was putting together a variety of handmade books. This particular paper lends itself well to that because it is very lightweight. A lot of photo papers are somewhat heavy so in book form they feel kind of clunky. I also really just love the quality of the surface, and the fact that it is somewhat delicate is attractive as well. Ultimately, that’s why I ended up floating all of the images: I wanted viewers to get a feel for the paper.
Where are you from originally?
I grew up outside of Boston, a few miles from Walden Pond.
What’s coming next for you?
Next? Hmmm… I think now that I’m 34 years old I’m about ready to retire from photography. That’s about when people hang it up, right?
I’m mostly kidding, but one of the things that has really haunted me while photographing in Maine is the question of: What is the best use of my time during an era of acute social and ecological disintegration? Do I simply continue to observe, and create objects for a society that I have major bones to pick with? Not to mention one that is very clearly on the rocks? It is an emotionally fraught thing to witness and ponder continually.
Intriguing questions you’ve just posed. Care to elaborate?
Well, I’m not going to list all my grievances … but I think the fundamental thing that is problematic about our culture is the permission we are given to think of ourselves as separate from nature. It is a philosophical choice that increasingly proves itself to be quite dangerous for humanity. The momentum for catastrophe as a result of this is, unfortunately, enormous.
Back to what’s next for you …
I started planting a little orchard about four years ago as a small gesture of hope for the future. It has caused me to read a fair amount about ecologically sound agricultural practices, which has turned out to be a much-needed source of optimism for me. Through this I have also come to recognize sophisticated farming as a very high form of art.
What do you hope to give people through your photographs?
I just want people to—if only for a moment—remember the beauty and the mystery of everyday experience. I say “remember” because I think we all know this deep down, especially as children. I always joke that if people were better at doing this themselves, artists would be out of job.
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A catalogue of S.B. Walker's work is available at the CMCA shop.