No Unsacred Places: Peter Hiatt
Interview with Peter Hiatt and Dannie Liebergot. Originally published in Summer 2017.
D: You received both your BFA (2012) and MFA (2017) in photography. How did you become interested in the medium and who are some your influences?
P: I first discovered photography as an art form when I made and submitted work for a 4-H competition. Something about the medium, especially black and white, silver gelatin photography, which was what I first used, had a way of isolating and emphasizing the sublime elements of the world. I find it to be the most effective tool for me to express myself and my ideas to the world.
D: In your project No Unsacred Places, your images appear to be of nature but quickly draw attention to the garbage that is embedded within the landscape creating a combination of beauty and unsightly consequences of rapid consumerism. How and when did you become aware of these places?
P: In my series No Unsacred Places, I photographed the backs of strip malls. I was attracted by how these places existed as objects. They have a certain monolithic beauty when viewed from behind, where there is no signage visible, and no people or cars around them. As I photographed them, I began to think about how they existed within the social contract. These strip malls are ubiquitous in America; they are so common that people rarely think about the implications of their existence. They are places of movement, designed for people to move through. They are an example of what Marc Augé calls “Non-Places” in his book of the same name. I began to become more aware of the designation of human movement, and how that was communicated in a strip mall, and in the larger retail park. There are clear designated entry and exit points to these stores, and aisles of movement within them. Just as there are designations for the movement of people, there are designations for the movement of automobiles. There are symbols and lines that indicate paths of movement, and where to park. There are also subtler cues; things that imply directions of movement without being explicit. Behind the strip malls there were often thickly wooded ditches, in which the vegetation grew so dense that one could not see into them. These places serve to designate the edge of the retail park, creating the clear implication that this barrier is not to be breached by humans. I decided to break the social contract of the retail park, and enter into these places.
D: You refer to “intellectual invisibility” in your statement; can you elaborate on how this idea becomes central in this body of work and where it comes from?
P: Many powerful institutions use this phenomenon to preserve power. They escape scrutiny because they are thought to be an intrinsic part of the world. An example of this phenomenon, which I explored in a previous project, is golf. It is an accepted part of society, and most people either participate in the sport or know people who do. However, it quickly becomes absurd when presented as an abstract concept. It proposes that you drastically reshape the land of an area and go to enormous expense to grow and maintain non-native grasses on that land to conform to an ideal of the landscape that originated in Britain, all to play a game that simply entails hitting a tiny ball with a club. It is an absurd notion, but it is rarely questioned, because golf has existed long enough, and is ubiquitous enough to escape scrutiny. The idea of intellectual invisibility applies to the drainage ditches as well. Retail centers have become ubiquitous. Most Americans alive today have grown up with these institutions in their community. They do not consider the implications of the retail centers, or the drainage ditches that border them. The drainage ditches add another layer of camouflage, because their dense foliage literally hides them from view. The strip malls exist in plain site; what makes the drainage ditches interesting is that they can be breached, and inside them one can see the true nature of things. Inside the ditches is a messy struggle between our society’s abusive, unsustainable relationship with nature, and the capacity of nature to adapt and absorb all of our refuse into itself.
D: What does your process look like when you search for these places and how do you go about photographing them?
P: My process starts on Google Maps. I use the satellite view to find locations that look promising. I look for medium-to-large retail centers that have a creek or wooded area bordering them. Later, I will go to scout the locations that I have tagged. When I check the location, I make a note of whether or not it is worth photographing. I then go back to the good locations to photograph, one at a time. I have taken to wearing coveralls, boots, and gloves, after I suffered a severe reaction to poison ivy. Because the ditches are so dark relative to the sky, I can only photograph at dawn, dusk, or on a cloudy day. Cloudy days are extremely valuable, because they allow me the most time, and they are rare in Texas. Each photograph is a panorama made up of many separate photographs. This method has many advantages, but it means that each image takes a long time to make. I usually am only able to make one or two images per visit. I often use the panorama feature on my phone in order to get a preview of what the finished image will look like. Because I cannot look through the viewfinder at a preview of the finished piece, I have had to gain an intuitive sense of what the final image will look like. I have gotten better at this over time, but it is still a challenge.
D: Do you use film or digital photography?
P: I currently use exclusively digital photography. I have a deep love and appreciation of film photography, but practical considerations have kept me away from it since graduating from Texas Tech. I worked in film about half the time while I was there and had a lab. After I graduated and was on my own, my process shifted to entirely digital, which was much more practical without access to a wet lab. As time has gone by, I have also exploited other aspects of digital photography beyond its economical advantages. Digital photography allows me to take forty photographs and seamlessly combine them into one huge panorama. Digital printing allows me to make 42” wide images economically. I am not immune to the beauty and elegance of film, and I appreciate the more tactile process, but those benefits are outweighed by the economy and imaging potential of digital processes.
D: These are mostly large-scale prints; how do you achieve that scale?
P: When planning my exhibition, I struggled with the scale of the prints. I wanted to make huge prints on beautiful paper, with archival framing and mounting. However, this was not economically feasible. I eventually decided to make the work in two sizes: medium-sized framed prints on beautiful paper, and huge prints made on adhesive fabric that stick directly to the wall. The fact that I capture the images as panoramas made up of many photographs gave the images sufficient resolution to allow them to be enlarged to huge proportions while still being sharp. I printed on the adhesive fabric myself, and tiled several pieces to create 7.5 feet by 14 feet installations. I love the huge, immersive size, and the adhesive fabric, while not as good-looking as photo paper, yields surprisingly crisp and vibrant images.
D: Photography is quite an expensive medium for art. If you didn’t have a budget for printing and installation, would this change your presentation of this work?
P: If I did not have a budget for printing and installation, my first impulse would be to make huge, beautiful prints. I would print at least 40” on the short end, on Hahnemuhl Photo Rag Satin, then have them mounted on Dipbond and framed under museum glass. I would also be interested in making huge installations of prints adhered directly to the wall. I would find a big place to mount an exhibition, then have walls built to my specifications for each print. I would build circular rooms, with a single print adhered to the entire wall, so that it completely surrounds the viewer. I would also play with ambient sound installation to add to the experience. With unlimited resources, my main ambition would be to make truly immersive exhibitions. I love the work of James Turrell in that respect, and I think it would be amazing to emulate the immersiveness of his installations in a photography-based exhibition.
D: How has the transition out of graduate school been for you? Any art collectives or groups that you are a part of?
P: I have not been out of graduate school for long, so I do not have a good perception of the complete transition out of it. Mostly I have been concentrating on finding work and bringing about some stability to my life. I have not yet joined any artist organizations. When I have my working life a little more settled, I would like to look into joining a coop or organization. I like the idea of having more impetus for making work in a timely manner, now that the pressure from school is gone. I would also appreciate the community of peers that such a group would offer.
D: Do you have any projects that you are currently working on?
P: I am currently working on a series of photographs of skate parks. I am interested in the lengths people go to recreate natural phenomena in an urban setting. Skateboarding began as an urban simulation of surfing, and the curved structures of skate parks are recreations of waves. Other aspects of skate parks actually recreate artificial structures, like stairs and hand rails. I find the psychology behind these places fascinating, and I enjoy the process of aestheticizing them photographically.