I’ve been following Lucas’ work for a long time and have continued to be fascinated by his process and subject matter. I ran the idea of doing a recorded interview with him awhile ago, so I’m glad to finally have it up and online. This interview is transcribed from a long phone interview (as a side note, I wish more people did interviews this way instead of email), some of which was edited down for length. This is the first in hopefully a series of interviews with younger artists who are doing important things (and perhaps more importantly, how they do them).
If the interview doesn’t say it clearly enough, Lucas is a solid guy. We talk about things that matter in the life of a photographer – balancing work and art, traveling, how to represent your subjects in good faith, education…Yale specifically. Originally I was going to do a series of interviews with Yale MFA candidates and recent grads in an attempt to demystify the program a bit. It’s harder to get people speaking on record about the program than I would have thought. So an extended thanks to Lucas for touching on that subject.
Lucas Foglia (b. 1983) was raised on a small family farm in Long Island and is currently based in New York and San Francisco. A graduate of Brown University and the Yale School of Art, Foglia exhibits nationally. His photographs are included in public and private collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Fine Art. His photographs have been published in Aperture Magazine, British Journal of Photography, the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post Magazine.
Lucas also just updated his website with a lot of new work, including a new project.
DS: So from talking to you earlier in the summer, it sounds like you’ve been pretty busy. What have you been up to recently?
LF: Last May I graduated from the MFA program at Yale, moved out of my apartment and studio and helped to organize our thesis shows in New Haven, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Then I packed my van and headed out to photograph on a long arch south and west. I revisited many of the subjects I have been photographing since 2006 in my Re-Wilding series. Then I drove across Nebraska and spent the rest of the summer in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. For the fall I have been between New York and San Francisco, editing and photographing.
DS: Working on this new body of work?
LF: Yes, working on Between Mines and Mountains, a series about small towns on the edge of wilderness in the West. And home now is a room in a co-op in San Francisco, a studio on my family’s farm in New York and the van that gets me out to photograph between there and here.
DS: So you’re based in San Francisco, NY, and your van (laughs).
LF: Yes. For the past 5 years I’ve felt very nomadic. I am, though, putting more energy into having a community and a space to go home to. It feels great. I like the balance of traveling to photograph, whether I am traveling a few miles from home or hundreds of miles from home, and then coming home to edit the work and be around people I really care about.
DS: What prompted the move to where you are now?
LF: Close friends, community and landscape. Some of my closest friends are here in the Bay Area and it felt like a good place to come home to. San Francisco feels like a small town in a big city and there are good photographers here. It’s also near the landscape that I’ve been photographing recently. I have a new project that I am starting to work on locally, and living in San Francisco allows me to take my van and drive in a day and a half to Wyoming.
DS: So your current living situation, you said it’s a co-op?
LF: Yes. We live between downtown and the mission in a hundred-year old apartment house. We buy all our food in bulk and from local farmers. We cook together during the week. It makes it easy and affordable to be here.
Most of my time goes to my personal projects, but I do some editorial and commercial work as well. I am also starting to teach and I partner with non-profits to help them promote themselves. The group of friends I’m living with right now, together we work on a non-profit called Project Muso in Mali, West Africa that is dealing with public health, education and community organizing. I also work with a number of local and national environmental organizations. That type of photographing involves making the form of the picture clear so that you can communicate a message.
DS: The ambiguity in your work is a narrative strategy that you use well. So the communications work you are doing with this non-profit, and the pictures you are making for them are completely non-ambiguous?
LF: I think all the best pictures have some ambiguity. But they have to be accessible.
[We trail off for a bit, but then Yale comes up...]
DS: Yale is frequently mystified and enlarged by the rest of the art/photo world and prospective MFA students. It’s a thing of its own. And the reality might be different than that. How was your experience in the program?
LF: It’s surprising that it has such a sense of mystery because it’s one of the most transparent graduate programs… I know that it is statistically hard to get into as a graduate student, but anyone can go to any critique and listen. Before I applied, I visited some critiques, so I knew what I was getting into.
Different photographers and curators are invited to the critiques but Tod Papageorge runs the show. And Tod’s photographic references are consistent: John Szarkowski, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand. Each graduate student shows work every 5 weeks. The panel of critics sit behind a table. The photographs are pinned on the wall, and the graduate student sits in a chair in the middle of the room, facing the panel, with an audience behind him. There are some classes in addition to the critiques each semester, along with the visiting artist lectures and two academic classes over the two years, but there are no real obligations besides having to produce work for the critiques.
DS: So were you traveling between the critique sessions?
LF: I was traveling a lot. During the second year we were teaching assistants, so I had to make sure that, by traveling to photograph, I wasn’t being unfair to my students. But I also had to go make photographs. So I would extend the school vacations for a week on either end. I drove or flew to photograph and then came back to make up the work and class time. It was a really intense and stressful couple of years.
DS: Are you happy you went with that program?
LF: I am. There were times when I was doubtful about it because the critiques were harsh. I was being pushed in ways I wasn’t always comfortable with. But then I realized that even when I was being told to do something very definitively, all I had to do was react and make more photographs. I didn’t always agree with the critiques but I had the time and facilities to make new work in response.
When artwork gets obliging or defensive in graduate school, it’s a slippery slope. Above all the photographs have to feel personal. All they [Yale faculty and panel artists] wanted to see was an effort towards change or experimentation. And if you responded by working your ass off and that showed in the pictures, it was commended.
DS: What’s interesting to me is that, in the context of the rigor you mentioned, practically I imagine that applied to the process of making work. And for your work, the process is so specific. And so I imagine it being tricky to rigorously take apart your process.
LF: It was tricky because my photographs are based in part on having personal relationships with my subjects.
DS: So what’s the variable that changed in that equation as you go through this process?
LF: I think what changed for me during my time at Yale was the way I looked at the role of my subjects in the process of making the photographs. In my Re-Wilding series, I met and photographed people who had left cities and suburbs to live off the grid. The photographs were collaborative and people were in the foreground of the series.
What changed at Yale was not the collaborative process of making the pictures, nor was it my personal connection with my subjects. Rather, I tried to make photographs that revealed more about my subjects than my subjects intended to show me.
DS: So that’s translated to a working methodology that you’re going to continue to use in the current work?
LF: Sure. In my Between Mines and Mountains series, the landscape is more in the foreground. I have been photographing along the edge of the mountains that run south from Yellowstone National Park. They make up the largest tract of undeveloped land in the contiguous United States. I’m intrigued by the intersection of industry and wilderness, and by the people who live in between the two.
In the current work, I am leaving room for more surprises. For instance, I went to an area south of Eden, Wyoming, where a rancher was herding his sheep across a wild landscape. The railroad company that owned the land nearby had recently sold the mineral rights to a company based in Houston for natural gas drilling and the land was about to be mined. When I arrived the rancher was counting his sheep. Thousands of sheep, one at a time. It was a long process and I felt stuck, but then I saw two of the sheep dogs away from their herd. The small dog really wanted to mate with the larger dog. He kept mounting her and she fought him off every time. The photograph that resulted from that experience is still about land use and sheep herding, but it is also about dogs fucking when they were supposed to be watching sheep. And I like that.
[We begin talking about the intersection of art and politics]
LF: I want the photographs to be connected to my values, to be relevant, but above all I’m interested in making a good picture. To quote Taryn Simon, the photograph has to be seductive.
DS: I understand.
LF: With your work it’s the same thing. You are tracing the lines of the coal. If you just take a picture of the smoke stack, who cares. But if you make it a great picture, people will care about the smoke stack.
DS: With a lot of work that is based on these very topical issues, a problem that I have is that the photographer looks at the subject with eyes that are too fresh or too eager. For example, like in Southeast Ohio, these smoke stacks have a very casual presence in the landscape and within the culture. If you grow up in the shadow of towering smoke stacks, they become just another element in the landscape, and you’re used to it, and it’s not this crazy, completely polarizing element, that we tend to think of when we read about places online before visiting them. But if you treat the subject in a way that marries both being somewhere new and understanding the reality of wherever you are, that intersection generates interesting pictures, and narratives that open up a lot more for viewers to enter into. And people become more sincerely invested in the emotional and political issues that you are working with. Instead of a very didactic image-making process that people are turned off by.
LF: I think any photograph that is didactic, that tells you what to think is paradoxically easy to forget. Again, good photographs rest on an ambiguity that makes you want to keep looking at them to figure them out. And I agree, tourists drive across a landscape, stop at a lookout point, take that picture and leave. It’s obvious, predictable, exotic and beautiful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It is just something I’m not interested in. I am interested when the landscape or the smoke stack is contextualized by everyday life.
DS: I was looking at your website the other day and was trying to figure out what made your photographs feel personal, like what made me assume that you knew the people and that you had spent actual time with them, and it was an investment. A lot of them don’t necessarily say that explicitly, but I always knew that for some reason. How important is the extended experience in these places with your subjects to how you want people to perceive your work?
LF: I do have a personal relationship with my subjects and I like making photographs in spaces I spend time in, but it is important to me that the relationship I have with my subjects doesn’t censor the type of photographs I can make. I think for some photographers, their relationships with their subjects allows them to take a more varied range of pictures, to portray a wider range of moods and emotions. For others, an intimacy with their subjects limits what they’re willing to show. I want the former and not the latter.
DS: What is your relationship to activist circles. If we talk about this work in a more ideological context, larger than art, what is your personal relationship with these movements and these people. Were you ever an activist?
LF: Yes. But I’ve never been a person to show up to a march and walk down the street with a sign. But I’ve always tried to have the work I do point the viewers towards things I believe in or topics that I think are relevant. Besides showing the photographs in galleries, I bring prints back to the communities I photograph in and, with the permission of my subjects, I give the photographs for free to local and national organizations. The images can raise funding and direct attention. It might sound general, but I have seen people and causes benefit from the use of the photographs.
DS: No, I totally get it.
[We talk for awhile about current work life, how to make ends meet through a variety of work – magazine work, teaching, partnering with non-profits, selling work, but still trying to focus on working for people and companies that you are interested in and can stand behind.]
LF: I like it when situations and the photographs that result surprise me. Someone couldn’t hire me to go to the woods in Virginia to photograph a dead bear that looks vaguely human. You have to find it. It’s a visual surprise. There has to be some kind of discovery.
DS: Is there a 5-year plan? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Teaching?
LF: I’m going to keep on making photographs and leave room for surprises. I have new projects that I am excited to start. What’s your 5-year plan?
DS: I feel ok in terms of a work-life, but I’m completely terrified about what I’m going to do next, because I have no idea. I think I want to go to grad school, and I’m not defaulting to grad school in a way to push back deciding what I want to do with my life, but I legitimately want two years to make work in an intense way. But yeah, I mean, I really don’t know.
LF: I think the best thing that graduate school can do for someone is to instill in them a culture that emphasizes making new work and a work ethic that continues after graduation. I personally enjoy teaching. Can I imagine myself being a college professor? Sure, I can imagine really enjoying that.