Your first book is The Mormons, a collection of documentary photographs of Mormons from all over the globe. Why photograph Mormons?
That’s a really good question. I made The Mormons because I really wanted the book to exist. I love photography books and I really wished a book like The Mormons existed. The problem was nobody was making it, so I had to.
It was a lot of work and a very difficult project because of the subject matter. If I had done a book entitled The Scottish People or The Jews, my life would have been a lot easier. But in a way I don’t believe the artist can pick their subject matter. They have to do what they are drawn to and what they care enough about not to quit. That’s really the question when you talk about a large body of work. It’s not why you start a project, it’s why you finish it. I finished The Mormons because I really wanted to make a book that would portray Mormons as people in an academically credible way, a way an educated person who wasn’t Mormon would respect.
You mentioned in an interview on the radio program Thinking Aloud that when someone begins a documentary photography project, they typically go with something in mind they want to say. Was this true of The Mormons?
That is true. I have to say, though, that there is so much misunderstanding about Mormons in the world that the limit of what I wanted to say was to show Mormons and let them talk without pushing a huge agenda one way or another, without the agenda of conversion to Mormonism or the agenda of showing Mormons like they are stupid, naive people who are plotting to take over the world, which is an odd contradiction of negative stereotypes, but it’s the one that is advanced by much of the artistic world.
You spent five years working on The Mormons. You shot pictures in Cambodia, Africa, Sweden, and France, among other countries. You have an entire section entitled “Proclaiming the Gospel” that includes photographs of missionaries. How did you get subjects for your photos? What were their responses? How did you get permission to photograph missionaries?
When I was in the country, I simply asked the missionaries I would meet if I could photograph them. It was a very natural thing. They were always happy to have me along. Of course, there is a lot of guardedness about the missionary program by the Church. I can completely understand this position, because the poor kids are only eighteen or nineteen or so.
An insight I got on the missionary program was that we often talk about the missionary experience as if it were the same for everyone. But it’s not. There is a huge difference in your mission in where you serve and what rules your missionary president decides to make up. Things that are hard in Sweden are not hard in Mexico. Things that are hard in Mexico are not hard in Sweden. There are extremely difficult things about going on a mission in the United States as well.
What were some key experiences you had while photographing for the book?
The book is full of so many experiences I could write another book about making the book. That’s why I got into photography—the experiences.
I started out by writing a weekly column for The Daily Herald. I moved more and more toward photography because I wanted to get out into the world. It’s such an exciting place. I met many of my best friends of my life while traveling. The best people in the world travel. It’s like when you buy a plane ticket and join that community, you are enrolling yourself in the most elite amazing university in the world and it only takes an $800 plane ticket to Paris.
But as far as a key experience goes, getting my camera stolen in Rome was a big setback. I lost so many excellent photographs and over a month of work. Insurance replaced the equipment, but losing the work stinks. I now back up all my work while I’m photographing. I keep a hard drive at the hotel and a hard drive with me. That way if one gets stolen I have a copy and it’s very unlikely both will get stolen at the same time.
The photograph of the plan of salvation drawn in chalk outside a New York City subway stop was an amazing gift. I was walking to The Cloisters museum when I saw it. I said to myself, “This is amazing. I need to photograph this.” I walked back to my apartment and got my camera. It’s funny because I worked very hard in logistics to be in the position to photograph things for The Mormons, but this image—which is one of my favorites in the book—just happened on a morning stroll to a museum.
You did your MFA in Glasgow, Scotland, and you currently work with Getty Images on international assignments. You’ve taken photographs all over the world of many different groups of people. What is different or of interest about photographing Mormons?
Mormons are very subtle. Visually there isn’t much to set them apart from other religions. We don’t have religious robes or burn incense.
Also, Mormonism is unique in that it’s a religion without a strong national or racial identity. To be Polish is to be Catholic. You can be Jewish without having any belief in God. Because Mormonism doesn’t have things like that, I would photograph the subtleties of Mormons and Mormonism. I feel it is a good fit for my work, which is very subtle. I like to keep things simple and subtle in my imagery. My art is much like the way I cook. I like to make dishes with five ingredients or less and really work on perfecting those elements and the way they are prepared and served. Honestly, if you show me a recipe with ten ingredients, I don’t want to do it. It overwhelms me. It is impossible to apply the sort of attention I like to apply to things to that many elements.
Honestly, I feel I was able to see the subtlety of Mormons because I spent so much time traveling and living abroad. It allowed me to see Mormons and Mormonism as if they were a foreign people. Which they are … but if you’re a Mormon you might not realize it.
One of the paradoxes of Mormon culture, as described by Mormon scholar Terryl Givens in People of Paradox, is the “collapse of sacred distance” (p. 43). He says there are “culturally pervasive indications of Mormonism’s tendency to thoroughly infuse sacred space with seemingly pedestrian elements, or to conflate heaven and earth” (p. 46). The Mormons seems to strikingly illustrate that “collapse of sacred distance” within Mormon culture. In the foreword to your book, Robert Millet says that for Mormons, “There is not a minute of any given day that could rightly be said to be outside the pale of the religious reach. Life is religion, and religion is life. Mormons wouldn’t have it any other way.” What are your thoughts on that, and was this a conscious theme?
In Mormonism we embrace the physical world. In fact you could almost say we believe heaven is a place on earth. We chose to be here. We aren’t trying to escape to a nirvana or anything like that.
I think that informs a lot of things about our art. Expressions like “art should take us to a higher place” make less sense with Mormonism. I believe in keeping things simple, and the greatest insights are the ones that are the most obvious once they are revealed. Those are elements so deep in my work I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
I’ve been pressured to make things dramatic and more grandiose, trying to do it otherworldly. I’ve even tried to do it in an attempt to make them happy. It always feels fake even when I’m successful. My motto is always be yourself and if you are going to be rejected, be rejected for who you are rather then someone you are trying to pretend to be.
In your editor’s note, you said you were “influenced by medieval art and early Mormon folk painting.” Can you expand on that? Which artists? Which pieces? What specifically did you draw from them artistically?
My interest in medieval art grew quite organically. I just notice that whenever I was in the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art after I went to whatever photographic exhibit they had up, I would find myself in the medieval art collection. I find it fascinating, the subtle stylization and the grace of the gesture in the art. I would stand in front of the paintings and tapestries and try to stand and gesture in the same way as the figures. The use of color and mode of display, I think it’s quite amazing.
As far as particular pieces, I like the Unicorn Tapestries and Lectionary of Henry II. Both are pretty amazing for a lot of reasons.
As far as Mormon art, the original Angel Moroni from the Nauvoo Temple and C. A. A. Christensen’s Handcart Pioneer’s First View of Salt Lake Valley are wonderful.
I draw a lot of the gesture and reserved tone of the book from these and other works. The photograph of Marie, the primary president in Brooklyn, New York; the prayer before baptism in Cape Coast, Ghana; and the cover image of the man vacuuming the church in Gunlock, Utah, are all good examples of the influence in gesture and in composition. The book is full of these styles. I couldn’t list all the influences or examples.
What responses have you had to The Mormons?
The response to The Mormons has been wonderful. Ironically, it has been best received by those outside the Church. They have really liked it.
Inside the Church I’ve gotten letters from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid saying, “You should be proud of your work … I know I am.” I believe it’s because of The Mormons he agreed to write an essay to my book Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange’s Three Mormon Towns. I’ve gotten letters of commendation from the entire Quorum of the Twelve and a number of other general authorities, the president of BYU among others.
The only problem I’ve had with the book has been with Mormons in the arts with comments like, “It’s too positive.” Another response I’ve gotten is, “Why would I want to have a book about Mormons? I know about them.”
A friend of mine told me that she was walking with another student past my book Three Mormon Towns in the BYU Bookstore. She pointed out the book and said, “I know the guy who made that book.” The other Mormon BYU art student exclaimed in disgust, “I hate books about Mormons!” That kind of artistic self-loathing has been a real problem for these two bodies of work. The people who should like them the most, actually don’t.
Your second book is Three Mormon Towns. It includes over sixty photos from the original photo documentary series that Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange shot in 1953 and published in Life magazine. It also includes photographs you took when you revisited those towns recently. You mentioned in a radio interview that you found out about this project while you were in the middle of working on The Mormons. Why did you decide to revisit those three Mormon towns?
It was actually during the very end of laying out The Mormons. It was such a shock. I had been working in photography for over ten years, had attended a Mormon university, had been working on a project on Mormons for five years, and I’m just finding out that Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, two of the biggest names in the arts, did a project on the same subject matter. I couldn’t believe it.
After I learned about it, I just woke up the next morning and drove to those three towns. I knew I had to photograph there. It was a blast and I got a lot of excellent photographs. As I studied more, the story of these two major artists working together was really just as fascinating as the photographs. Two major artists rarely collaborate, and the fact this Three Mormon Towns happened is amazing.
What did you find?
I found that the three towns—Gunlock, St. George, and Tocqueville—are still largely Mormon, and the primary difference is that they are all much more prosperous than they were in the ’50s.
The idea of photographing Mormon towns for the original series seemed to have grown out of an idea Dorothea Lange had for photographing three “utopian” communities. Why did Dorothea Lange include Mormons among her utopian communities?
The first Guggenheim Fellowship given to a woman in any medium was given to Dorothea Lange to photograph her Three Utopian Communities project. She couldn’t do it because of World War II, and Three Mormon Towns in a way was a fulfillment of that Guggenheim proposal.
Mormonism really is very utopian. Even the Mormon ward is a messy attempt at creating a utopian community. I think Dorothea Lange, who lived in southern Utah for long periods of time with her famous painter husband Maynard Dixon, developed strong social attachment to the Mormons in southern Utah. She even boarded her son Daniel Dixon, who would later be the writer for the Life magazine story on Three Mormon Towns, to a family in Tocqueville.
In Three Mormon Towns, you’ve got a foreword by renowned documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark; an essay by U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid; and another essay by professor/historian David Jacobs. How did that all come together?
This is an amazing story. The real joy of this book was being able to work with so many people who are smart, hard-working, and wonderfully good at what they do. Working with Mary Ellen Mark was a dream come true. I still can’t believe that she would know who I am, let alone that we worked together. I simply wrote her an email describing the project and attached some PDFs, and she wrote me back and said she would do it. I was so surprised; I viewed it as a real long shot. She would later tell me that she googled my name and researched me a bit and I guess she liked what she saw. She really mentored me through the project. She would look at layouts as we put together the book. Mary Ellen even invited me to present about the project at the Reykjavik School of Art in Iceland where she was guest teaching. All of this was a great honor. I told her this and she said it was an honor to work with me. That’s really not the case. But I’m very, very flattered she would say that.
Working with Senator Harry Reid was also an amazing experience. He had sent me a letter saying he liked my first book The Mormons, so I thought there might be a chance he would want to be involved in Three Mormon Towns. I sent him a letter asking him if he would like to participate, thinking, “Well, I’m sure he is busy. I’ll hear from him in a few months.” I got a call from his office within the week. He really was perfect, being from a small town—Searchlight, Nevada—not too far from the three Mormon towns.
I knew from my research that David Jacobs, a professor at the University of Houston, had written a journal article on Three Mormon Towns. I called him up and asked him if he could cut it down to a few thousand words for the book. At first he said no. He had a book contract and was busy with that, but I sent him the PDF of the book and he agreed. It worked out perfectly. It’s a wonderful essay: it tells the story well in three thousand words. It’s not too difficult to see why he has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts and a National Endowment for the Humanities for his writing on photography.
In your editor’s note, you make the point that the Mormon ward is itself much like a small town community. What do you mean?
The Mormon ward is a very unique. When I talk to people who aren’t Mormon, I tend to describe it as a congregation or a parish. But because the ward is completely volunteer-run and the people in the ward spend a good deal of time working with one another, it really is more like a small town. Small towns work together and see each other throughout the week. It’s not as if we just sit down next to each other for an hour every Sunday. Also, because a ward’s attendance is determined by geography and because Mormons don’t drive across town just because they like certain congregations best means Mormon wards are diverse.
An exhibit of your photos is currently on display in St. George through January 14, 2014 and your book is available for purchase. What has been the response to the show and book, particularly the local response?
The response to Three Mormon Towns has been extremely positive, particularly in academic circles. I recently was selected to be in the final three for a full-time teaching position at the Savannah College of Art and Design, one of the best schools in the country. I even was invited to apply for the position. This was in large part because of Three Mormon Towns and my work in film.
The show in St. George is being well received. The museum really went all out of it and the community loves it. People in southern Utah are very proud of being from that part of the state. They should be. They should be proud two artists like Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange thought them interesting enough to do a body of work about them. That’s a high honor.
What do you feel would be useful for building a community of Mormon artists?
Mormons need to be better educated about art. I’m not meaning the guy-on-the-street Mormon, but Mormons who have art either as their job or as a serious hobby. We need to go to museums like the San Francisco Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art. Subscribe to Art Forum. Read the New York Times arts coverage. Listen to BBC’s The Arts Hour. Watch PBS’s Art:21. Be aware of what is going on in the art world. Mormons did this early on with artists going to Paris to study before returning to make the Salt Lake Temple, but for some reason Mormons just quit trying to learn about art. This is a real problem.
What advice do you have for aspiring Mormon artists?
Art is a team sport. Surround yourself with as many wonderful, smart, hard-working people as you can. Let me say that again. Art is a team sport. I am very proud of the team I was able to put together on Three Mormon Towns.
First off, don’t major in art at BYU. It won’t help you make it in the art world or get a job. Don’t get me wrong. I love BYU. It’s a wonderful school and the people and other students I met there are some of my favorite memories, and the tuition is super cheap. If you are going to attend BYU, I would recommend majoring in English or philosophy or some other humanity, and every summer get an internship in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, or London, with a major artist, gallery, graphic designer, or photographer. In addition to it being lots of fun, you will make a lot of valuable connections, learn a lot, and be part of a vibrant art ecosystem. There isn’t a better way to learn. I would spend a lot of time in the art section of the BYU library and in the art periodicals. For technical questions like “How do I use the Photoshop healing brush?” I would watch Lynda.com instructional videos. If you are worried about the costs of the internships, just think of all the money you are saving by attending BYU. You learn art by looking at art and by making it. There is no other way.
If you’re really serious about studying art and your parents can afford it, I would try going to a big-name art school, preferably in New York or Los Angeles. I don’t think it’s worth getting into $100,000 of debt for an art degree. That kind of debt early in your life can stifle you. But going to a school like Rhode Island School of Art and Design, Columbia, NYU, Cal Arts, or UCLA will give you a lot of valuable connections and make you part of a vibrant art ecosystem as soon as you start your first classes.
Art education is a weird thing. You never really know when you’re going to learn your most valuable stuff. Going to Glasgow School of Art was incredibly valuable. Being at the best art school in the U.K., I instantly became part of a vibrant art culture. All of our shows were in the papers and thousands of people would attend them. But most of my education happened with my girlfriend, who was an amazing world-class sculptor. I didn’t know it at the time, because both she and I were just students and we just hung out, went to shows, and discussed art. But she taught me a lot. Her BFA final project generated a lot of buzz and a series of photographs she did while we were dating got her a lot of attention as well. It grew from there until she has been featured on the BBC and in the national press multiple times. So as you can see, you never know where you’re going to learn or who is going to influence you. The important thing is to surround yourself with wonderful people so opportunities can arise.
What projects do you have coming up that you’re excited about?
I was awarded the Utah Arts Council Fellowship for two bodies of work I did on people’s relationship with nature, Cliff Jumpers and They Dwelt in a Tent. I’m excited to do more work like that this winter. I think people’s relationship with nature is just amazing and a subject I think I can spend a lot of time on. All of my work, with the exception of Three Mormon Towns and The Mormons, is in color. I find color tremendously satisfying. There are so many possibilities.
I’m also planning on doing more work in film. My movie Sundance Skippy has been well received and I love the audiences you get with film. Because film uses words, you can explore complicated ideas in more detail. Also, I love the people I get to work with in the film world. They are a blast.
How does your faith influence your work?
My art is belief. There is no separation. This is of course apparent in The Mormons or Three Mormon Towns. Those two projects simply would not have happened without Mormonism being a part of my life. Art is a reflection on your own life. You can’t fake good art. Art that is forced, that isn’t coming from the true core of someone’s soul, always seems forced and contrite … or worse, vapid. I have to say, I view my photography not as an end in itself or my life. Photography and my art is an extension of my life. I do things, read, think, live, and stuff then gets made. It gets made because I want to have that part of my life out in the world to help others. ❧