Brian Merriam | "Alaska"
As a photographer, your images tend to document the forgotten corners, empty roads, and nowhere places of America and beyond. In turn the theme of discovery, is a continuous thread throughout your work.
At the time you set out to shoot the Alaska series, you unexpectedly were in the process of grieving a deeply personal loss. Did you feel it affected the work either aesthetically or conceptually?
So just to be honest, I had started my trip originally in Oregon and the plan was to drive up to Seattle before flying to Anchorage. Two days into the trip I got a call that my dad had taken his own life, really unexpectedly. I'm an only child and I had lost my mom to cancer when I was a teenager, so the loss was particularly heavy. I headed back to upstate New York for the funeral, and was on a plane to Alaska less than 48 hours afterward. Staying occupied seemed like the best thing to do. So, to get back to the question, yes it definitely changed things conceptually for sure, especially going forward. My world changed and in turn, so did my focus. Aesthetically it didn't change things immediately. I didn't have time to let it sink in that quickly. But with the change of focus a change of aesthetic is slowly following.
On that note, looking at your photography, a lot of the time it seems like you’re influenced by your sense of place, but these images lack a sense of being about a particular place, would you say that is accurate?
I feel like it’s more a sense of a mental place. I remember [the particular place] exactly, when I look at the photos. I remember where my head was and where my emotions were at the time because everything was really fresh and raw. I feel like the actual shooting of the photos was second nature. I was just trying to keep my mind focused on an activity, and I just so happen to be in this extreme environment, this grand environment that I don’t know, which is this very other worldly place.
Being a landscape photographer you are of course very interested in the environment and its properties. Can you talk at all how time, especially geologic time, figures into your work in general, and this specific trip to Alaska?
Looking back at the time in Alaska, I had things I was naturally drawn, to but more so than anywhere I have ever been it’s so vast and it’s so untouched. it’s hard to put into words the sense of scale you feel when you see these glaciers that are thousands of feet thick and several miles across-- sometimes 20 to 30 miles long. You’re overcome with the sense of everything being so much bigger than you, and older than you, and it puts our human time scale into perspective, which is something I’ve never felt it before in person.
It must have felt especially relevant at that time, when you were sort of re-evaluating yourself and place in the world, right?
Yeah, it was therapeutic in a way to feel that insignificant, standing on a glacier that’s basically a river of ice that’s operating on a completely different time scale than human life. It’s flowing, like a river, it has all the same characteristics of a river, but in a factor of time that you can’t even wrap your head around. When I’m in that situation, in my head I just scale out “That glacier is, compared to me, a part of time, a memorial that’s even a fraction of time, of the planet, of the solar system and the universe”, and so on and so forth. To be dwarfed by something so massive and powerful on a completely different scale than yourself, at a time like that in particular, it puts in perspective your experience and resets it.
Perspective is interesting, especially in your photography because the play between a sense of and absence of place often it feels you can’t necessarily understand the perspective being looked at. How would you describe the role of perspective within your practice?
I think for me that’s kind of what you’re doing in general, all people who are making art, you’re attempting to figure yourself and the world around you better. I think a lot of what I try to do with the perspective is disorienting in a way, but it’s un-purposed to create this disorientation. It’s sort of an outward manifestation of an inward feeling-- an attempt to see in a landscape what you feel in yourself.
Everyone is familiar with what a mountain looks like and what a tree looks like, etc. The iconography that we closely identify with say a tree, is dissolved in your images. As a landscape photographer, it seems like you less seek to delineate these icons, but rather explore more about form and colour.
I feel like nature makes really great abstract expressionist art on its own, and I guess a lot of what I try to do is work within that framework. It’s like trying to paint with nature.
Yes, absolutely. Your photographs are painterly both in the manner of which you shoot as well as the way that they are printed. Have you ever experimented with that medium?
Yes, I have [painted] and I would like to some more. New York has been really tough for that from a lack of space perspective. Definitely painting and drawing were a bigger part of my life in high school and college, but photography has really suited my lifestyle a lot more lately. I guess I been working pretty much exclusively in photography, but I don’t necessarily…
Identify yourself as a photographer?
Artist is better, artist working in photography!
Anything else you want to share about this series or what is up next for you?
Heading towards the future, a lot of the work from Alaska is going to end up being a part of a much bigger series I’m working on. It’s a very extensive project, definitely the most ambitious thing I have ever attempted. Stay tuned…