Molly and I run past each other just about every time I set foot at The Goat Farm Arts Center, each smiling, hugging and scurrying to our respective studio spaces. In our sweet, albeit brief collisions I couldn't help but think "Damnit, I need to get her story, this lady RULES!" As a point of necessity and because I truly wanted to know more about her, I asked her to come up with a way to write about her process of collaborating.
She came back with this transcript of a conversation she had with Dustin Chambers. I have a feeling there was a lot of laughing involved.
Check out Dustin's work: Dumpster Obscura on view October 17-23rd as a part of ELEVATE.
A Conversation with Dustin Chambers
by Molly Rose Freeman
Dustin Chambers is an Atlanta-based artist and documentary photographer. Former assistant Photo Editor for Creative Loafing, he has shot for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME Magazine, Newsweek, NPR, National Geographic Traveler, Juxtapoz, FADER, and many more. In the last year, he has made a foray into large-scale installations that fuse photography and social interaction to create dynamic four-dimensional environments.
I collaborated with Dustin this Spring on Hourglass, a performance installation at Beep Beep Gallery in which I live-painted a phosphorescent mural inside the gallery as Dustin photographed people watching through the windows. We the invited the public into the space to see the final work, which included his wall of eighty glowing portraits featuring those onlookers.
Dustin was also a featured artist in Dashboard Co-op's exhibition, “COSMS.” He created a pitch-black labyrinth lined with tiny, back-lit photographs of men and women living with Alzheimer's, each accompanied by an audio recording of its subject.
I met Dustin in his Goat Farm studio recently to talk about optics, technology, and his latest project for Elevate Atlanta.
MRF: Will you describe your upcoming project?
DC: Sure. It's called Dumpster Obscura.
MRF: Is that the working title?
DC: This interview is fucking over (laughs). Yeah, it's called Dumpster Obscura.
MRF: Ok, it's cute. Campy.
DC: Yeah, a little campy. We have fun. This project is for Elevate and it's curated by the Goat Farm. Each of the selected artists gets a construction dumpster to use for a public installation. I'm making mine into a camera obscura. Basically, I am making a small hole on one end of the dumpster and installing a lens in it. The light passing through it will project whatever is outside—people walking by, cars passing, clouds moving—onto the interior wall of the dumpster. I'm inviting people to come in to watch, in real time, what is happening on the street outside.
People are obsessed with cameras and photography and technology, and it is all born out of this really simple concept of light passing through a hole. I am really interested in building something completely raw. It doesn't need any technology. It could have been built, and was built, a long time ago. And I'm using a very common every day object to explore the phenomenon. I consider this project an experiment. All of my installations are, I guess.
You don't like that name?
MRF: Dumpster Obscura? Hilarious.
DC: What am I gonna name it? Some fancy name? It's made out of a trash can.
MRF: I'm especially interested in your work that is based in photography but takes it to a more experiential level, or is more of an interactive installation instead of a static photograph. What is your interest in that, and what has your exploration been like so far? We can get real abstract.
DC: I'm doing an optic-based installation for Elevate. My experience is multi-sensory, it's everything, and I want to reflect that. I want the installations to be more than just visual, so I am taking the phenomena of the photographic process and applying them to things that aren't 2-D. I'm interested in having control of more senses than just the eyes.
MRF: It makes me think of what photography is as a medium. On one hand you're dealing with light, which is amorphous, temporal. On the other hand, you have the thing which is capturing the light, either film or digital. But the way that you are using photography is different. Instead of capturing it in a fixed medium, it's fluid and interactive and large scale. Do you feel like maybe light is actually the medium?
DC: I think it goes back to the conversation everyone was having five, ten years ago, between film and digital. Like what is it about film that makes it superior? Is it the mistakes or the process, or that it's slower or more primitive? I think a lot of that is just the natural and mechanical elements that happen during the reaction process. Even without film, even without the technology of the silver gelatin, the first discovery was that pinhole: that light could pass through that small hole and project an image.
Light is all around us. It's fascinating to me because in some ways it's the closest thing we can get to magic. Some of the most beautiful things are sunsets and sunrises. People are always amazed by these things that are really just light. I want to strip it down to that basic level, without any technology, and have someone experience it elementally. Just being in the light and seeing how that works naturally, as a part of the way our cosmos works, is a lot more special in some ways than revealing beauty in nature and the natural world—whether it be our social world or our physical world.
We as photographers try to show beauty in what is mundane. The classic idea of street photography is to focus on things that you see every day. When you're shown a really beautiful photograph of those things, you start to pay attention to them. For me, instead of thinking about subject matter—of what beautiful thing in the world I want to capture to show people—it's the actual light. Being able to see and experience how light works on a very basic, elemental level can become a building block for how you see the world. You begin to understand that nature is magic. Which is actually the name of my new brand of butter (laughs).
MRF: With the dumpster project, you're using the most basic technology—just a lens and light passing through it—to simulate something that would seem more like modern technology.
DC: This piece is literally just a box with a hole in it. But it's projecting reality into a space where the reality is not there. You're witnessing real life as you see the imagery. It becomes completely experiential in the sense that it doesn't exist without the people who are looking at it.
In photography, and especially because I come from a documentary background, there is the idea that the art of it is the people and their interactions with it. The same theme runs through my installations.
MRF: I want to dig into the idea of Dumpster Obscura projecting reality into a place where that reality doesn't exist. If you were to look at a crowd of people you would see a crowd of people, but seeing a recording of a crowd of people is somehow different than that. Through your experience and your exploration, where does that attraction come from? Observing the documentation of something versus observing something firsthand?
DC: It's creating a memory, in the same way a photograph would.
MRF: How so?
DC: You are there seeing the moment happen. You're inside the camera. You can take a picture of what you're seeing, but you can also be a part of it and see your friends projected on a screen. I think that when you can experience something from the inside, it can be much more powerful in terms of learning or understanding. With all things photographic, it's limitless in terms of how we can explore the idea of optics. Like with Dumpster Obscura: sometimes you don't realize something is beautiful until you see a picture of it.
For many years, I was considering the idea of beauty, and how most people's ideas of beauty are what they're told is beautiful. A sunset is beautiful and a beautiful woman is beautiful and a snowy scene is beautiful, but it relates a lot to media and what is proposed as being beautiful. A lot of that is synthesized. I think pulling images directly from reality can make them more powerful. When you see Woodruff Park and those familiar buildings and your friends projected into this box, you look at them in a totally different way.
MRF: There is a certain continuity in your work with—I don't know if voyeurism is the right word, but sort of this study of people watching, or people watching people. Why do you think you are drawn to that?
DC: I'm driven by curiosity of the physical world, but also of humans. Every single person has something interesting about them. We're all the same. We all have hurt and joy and secrets. I'm not probing people for those things, but the way that people are can be very representative of what they're experiencing. I want to say it's ok to stop, to watch people. Hourglass showed people themselves. It made people look back at themselves.
I don't know what it is, there's just this honesty. I think that I am really interested in people being honest and truthful and not putting on any facade. So when you have the opportunity to watch people in these really—you can call it vulnerable, but really just these honest moments—it is pretty powerful. It can be a real honor to be with people when they let their guard down.
MRF: I see a certain parallel there in your attraction to light. The way that you were talking about photography stripped down to its most basic elements is similar, I think, to the way you view humans, or the way you think humans are the most interesting: stripped down, as opposed to the contrived or curated version of themselves. Maybe that's the theme.
MRF: Raw. Or just sort of elemental.
DC: Yeah. I always thought, “Photography's easy.” I mean I don't do anything. I take a picture. I press a button, and I'm in the right place at the right time and all this stuff, but I don't know how to make anything beautiful. But fortunately, I can find a lot of beautiful things. So it's limitless, just like painting is. But I like to not be a part of the equation as much. I like to find things.
MRF: So for you, the goal is less to be a synthesizer and more to be an open channel that things can pass through?
DC: Like gathering. I used to trip myself out about this even before I was thinking about moment in terms of photography. I remember I would think that every single moment that went by was completely unique—you could not create it again. Down to the leaves being the way they were in that very moment, and that person doing that thing around the world at that time. And then watching my body and where my atoms were in relation to everything else that was moving. It would never happen again. Nothing would ever ever look the same again as it did at that time. And that scared me a lot. It was scary because it was a powerful thought. I don't know what it was about this idea of nothing every being the same.
MRF: Yeah, the fact that things are continuously moving forward.
MRF: I've noticed that there seems to be this growing interest in, or awareness of, the broad fabric of the universe, and how we can operate within that. And how, like with light or with time, we can be very specific in this one moment, but also part of and representative of something that is infinite. Do you feel like that's a growing theme?
DC: Like, in terms of the zeitgeist becoming more conscious of the bigger picture?
DC: I think that we're changing socially so fast right now. We're figuring shit out. It seems like there is this big push to look at the universe and all the elements involved. It's probably a pushback from technology, the longing to understand, to simplify.
MRF: I've been thinking about much knowledge we have now. For a long time the focus was learning, and now we have more pieces of information than we know what to do with. Instead of trying to learn the answer to one thing, it's becoming more important to be able to see the patterns in the larger body of knowledge. It seems like the lens has been pulled back.
DC: A lot of that is us looking at ourselves after this huge boom in technology. We're able to get all this data together really quickly, and information is traveling so fast that we're able to see the patterns more clearly. So now that the fabric has become more apparent, I think people are readjusting.
I think that people are starting to understand how all this new technology is affecting them. I mean, it's like we just got the printing press again. We're learning how we can continue to be good, real humans and allow this technology to be a tool—really to be a tool—and not to own us. People are feeling that it is beginning to own us, and I'm seeing a big reassessment. It's really exciting.
MRF: Let's talk about my favorite subject: the future. Do you feel like you are in a transitional phase, going from doing more traditional photography to doing more experimental—installation-based or interactive—photography?
DC: No. I'm doing a lot of both and allowing them to communicate with and inform each other. I really like being with and meeting people who are completely genuine, and I think it's really important not just to take photos of them but to spend time with them, and to make sure they feel like they're understood and respected. That's not something you can do with this kind of art. But I think they both fund and fuel each other.
MRF: Can we talk about collaboration?
DC: Collaboration is always something I've believed in. Partly because I didn't believe in myself (laughs). I needed someone else. I know that I'm good at a few things, and the idea of collaboration is logical to me in all ways of life. I just love bringing people's skills together and seeing what happens within the same drive and the same project. I really like trusting people and uplifting them while they uplift me. When you can have a safe collaboration where there's that trust, it can be one of the best things in life.
MRF: How do you gauge the success of a project?
DC: That it happens (laughs). That it doesn't all go to hell. I'm empowered to carry out these visions, and do it in a controlled manner, as opposed to walking down the street and finding a good picture. Trusting myself and making sure I do everything I can to make it what I want it to be. I don't know what good reactions are or bad reactions, so far they seem fine.The best I can do is just make sure it gets done.
MRF: If I can make an analogy here, you would be perhaps like the ship builder. You build your ship to the best of your knowledge and abilities and all that—
DC: Sometimes you get an iceberg. You just gotta hope your passengers are down to ride. Ride or die.
You can see Dumpster Obscura at the corner of Fairlie and Poplar beginning October 17th. Check out more of his work on his website: www.dustinthomaschambers.com.