This week I interviewed photographer David Welch, whose show Material World opens at Oglethorpe Gallery Thursday, with an opening reception Friday from 6 to 9 PM.
Geronimo Projects: How did you first become interested in photography?
David Welch: I’ve had an interest in photography since high school, innocently experimenting with the medium and using it as a way to record. My interest increased and grew exponentially after purchasing my first DSLR in 2004. I was a taxi driver, and used the cash I earned to purchase a Nikon D70 and hit the road, traveling from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. It was a 9 month trip that allowed me plenty of time to learn the controls, experiment with composition, etc, you know the basics. The photos I came back with suggested something more than a casual interest, so I edited the work and put together a book of travel photos that attempted to create a sense of place in Latin America. The book was well received with family and friends so I decided to continue on and learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. After 5 years running a self-sustaining commercial studio my interests plateaued, which lead me to grad school.
GP: Tell me about your show, Material World, opening May 27th at Oglethorpe Gallery.
DW: Material World is the result of three quarters of conceptual and technical growth at SCAD. My goal for the show is to exhibit a set of photographs from the series that come across as overt objects, a presentation that will mirror the subjects. There will be an installation, too. One created from photographically-enlarged and printed copies of boxed goods I personally purchase. My goal is to mimic my shopping totem, but really drilling in that precariousness of the structure. Hopefully it all comes together. The show runs from May 26th - May 31st with an opening reception May 27th from 6PM-9PM.
GP: Within this work, you deal heavily with modern consumer culture and the excess associated with it. What initially drew you to make work about this subject matter?
DW: My undergrad degree is in Economics so I’m simply carrying those interests into the art world. Much of the work I’ve done at SCAD is a visual inquiry into such topics. My project Thomas Square, a more documentary type project finished in the fall of 2009, is an inquiry into Savannah’s gentrification issue, focusing on one neighborhood as a microcosm for Savannah as a whole. But when dealing with such subject matter you’re only scratching the surface. I needed to search deeper, looking for the source of those larger social issues. I believe consumerism to be the source of many larger social issues so I started researching and looking into the subject.
GP: What is the significance of the ‘totem’ that you are consistently constructing for your photographs? The creation of the totems is very sculptural. What drew you to photograph the totems as opposed to showcasing the actual totems as the objects they are?
DW: I’m a bit of a theory geek so the project was essentially born after reading a book called Material Culture and Mass Consumption by anthropologist Daniel Miller. This book was his dissertation work and in it he traversed a path of philosophical inquiry into the roles of objects and their importance in contemporary society. In this, he discussed Hegel’s Phenomenology and introduced such concepts like objectification. Furthering the discussion lead to Marx’s interpretation of the objectification concept, a reflection of his own industrial environment which resonated with me. For Marx, objectification is a process where man externalizes his natural world into a material form. This form then serves as a mirror for an individual to reflect upon. He learns from it then progresses. It sounded like a valid theory so I went with it. Almost serendipitously I took this theory a bit too literally and equated externalizing into material form with sculptures and used photography and the photographic print to serve as that mirror from which we reflect upon. That was the birth of my concept.
The totem was an early addition to the project as well. As a traveler, I was thinking about history’s western progression, Manifest Destiny, etc, thinking about those early brave souls, those adventures with a sole desire to discover. Captain James Cook is in that list, particularly his third voyage and attempts to discover a Northwest passage. Some of the writings mention totems and totem poles, structures that serve as narrative and social biography. The totem and consumerism are perfect for each other, serving as both narrative and social biography of our contemporary society.
I want the totems to exist only in photographs. Traditional totems of the Northwest are essentially ephemeral given they’re made of wood which decays over time. My totems are built specifically for ephemerality so they’re deconstructed after shooting. It’s like the work of Vik Muniz in the sense that it is designed for a photographic output and nothing else. I never did nor currently do consider myself a sculptor even though that association will be with me for sometime.
GP: How do you form ideas for a piece? Are there particular objects that attract you to source for your totems? What is the criteria for a successful totem?
DW: That’s a good question. After developing my concept it came to be that there are a myriad of things I can stack totemically but I want the objects to translate easily as common consumer objects. Anything can work, really, but specific shots like the shopping cart totem, TV totem and plastic bottle totem, it takes time to collect the materials (if they’re available). So long as the objects with the stack speak of excess and consumerism then it’s perfect. The backgrounds are also essential to the photographs.
GP: Who are some of your major influences?
DW: I’m into the work of photographers Vik Muniz, Andreas Gursky and Chris Jordan as well as sculptor Tom Friedman. Gursky and Jordan have worked within the topic of consumerism and have greatly influenced my work. I saw Jordan speak about his Running the Numbers book at the Bluesphere art event last fall in Charleston and got excited about the work. His work also speaks of accumulation, but it is very matter-of-factly, equating certain objects with a certain statistical significance. This is outstanding work but I thought it better to have a more identifiable structure, one that has a more whimsical presentation all the while encouraging debate about a serious subject matter. I recently linked Chris my work, to which he replied “Badass!”
GP: How has living and making work in Savannah affected your art practice?
DW: I don’t think I would have started my Thomas Square project if it weren’t for the location of my first apartment here in Savannah. I come from a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, where everything is neat, orderly, and on the surface, perfect. Savannah’s imperfections sparked a lot of interests and many questions which lead me to my current work so i’m thankful for that.
GP: What does the future hold for David Welch?
DW: Who knows. I’m planning on continuing the work, building totems similar to those represented in the prints at my show. I’d like to at least put a solid year into the project and see what comes from it. The work seems to have gathered a lot of momentum, reaching a global audience online. This is exposure is validating so i’m going to keep the ball rolling. Photographs from Material World are also part of a few upcoming group exhibitions. This is exciting for me so i’ll continue to submit the work and hope to build my exhibition record and create exposure for the project. Ultimately I’d like to teach Photography at the college level so looking for jobs is always on my mind.
GP: Who’s on your playlist? Who do you listen to for inspiration?
DW: The Stars, Fleet Foxes and Arcade Fire as well as your typical Pandora or Grooveshark indie station. These are great sources for discovering music. But, when I need something dependable, to get me through those long post production sessions, I typically fire up some Boards of Canada or my all time favorite, mum.