Jessica Savitz: Your masterful photographs often confront social problems and community change—would you say that your artistic aims are perhaps very different from those of someone like Winogrand, who, in the words of John Szarkowski, “insisted that he was not a philosopher, and did not accept the obligations that are incumbent upon that role. He accepted responsibility only for the clarification, within the potentials of photography, of his own experience” (Szarkowski). What does it mean to you to be a photographer and a sociologist? How do you think an artist reconciles morality and aesthetics—for you, as a sociologist and a photographer, do you envision a wedding of the two roles?
David Schalliol: Being a sociologist and a photographer requires holding oneself to multiple standards (some in conflict with each other, most in support of each other), but I mainly see it as having an imperative to seek some kind of truth using a broad range of tools. Rather than primarily expressing my own perspective, I seek to both represent a range of perspectives as well as organize material to illuminate new understandings of the human condition – all the while paying critical attention to aesthetics. It’s a tall order that I am certainly not always able to fill, but I consistently seek to improve my work in the traditions of both disciplines. Negotiating the two is somewhat simplified by an understanding that, as social beings, we must work to consistently hold ourselves to particular principles of social action. Those principles are equally relevant to all activities.
JS: I appreciate your complex reconsiderations of particular settings and photographic tropes and symbology. In your Detroit series, you eloquently write, “Detroit is not merely ‘the failure of Fordism’ or ‘the proving ground for future society’ but a unique lived presence, and, for many, home” (http://www.davidschalliol.com/).
Walker Evans wrote, in a 1934 letter he never sent, “Detroit’s full of chances” (Meyerowitz 286).
You philosophize, “Dereliction, its correction and the steady current of life are fundamentally intertwined,” which brings to mind your striking photograph of the fire lushly blooming beyond a backyard fence.
One of my favorites of your photographs is similarly complex, showcasing people planting bushy grasses in front of an immense, vacant building. It seems to me that this photograph isn’t simply a straightforward ode to “renewal”; rather, it seems a beautiful investigation of repetition and a strange immortality—the abandoned building, expressive of a sort of “intimate immensity”, its empty windows like repeated photographic “frames”, harmonize strangely with the uniform bushy trees and the uniformed planters (which, because of their uniformity, almost gives the sense of a time-lapse photograph of one immortal man, dressed in a yellow tee-shirt, planting in the soil for all time) (Bachelard 184). Is this a picture of the eternal human project of building upon the earth?
DS: I’d say that half of the photograph is about the complexities of human manipulation of the earth in sociopolitical context, but the other half is about the flipside of that process. We are unique creatures, but it is important to remind ourselves that we are as natural as everything else. Reconceptualizing human activity as one aspect of much larger natural processes provides new ways to interpret human action as a contributor to a variety of life cycles rather than an exogenous influence on one another.
JS: Whereas some street photographers might regard a shot of a particular building as incidental or merely visually interesting, you are thoughtfully approaching relationships between buildings and people; buildings can be “harbingers of the aspirations of community change” and “bellwethers of dramatic economic development dynamics” (http://www.davidschalliol.com/) — the nearly heavenly photograph of the Farnsworth-house-pristine white food-stand from Detroit:
and "Chud's" with the gentleman and his shadow walking so intimately past it:
the chapel-like little gray building with drooped shoulders:
Gaston Bachelard writes, “Winter is the oldest of seasons. Not only does it confer age upon our memories, taking us back to a remote past but, on snowy days, the house too is old.”
Bachelard quotes Henri Bachelin: “Those were the evenings when, in old houses exposed to snow and icy winds, the great stories, the beautiful legends that men handed down to one another, take on concrete meaning…and thus it was, perhaps, that one of our ancestors, who lay dying in the year one thousand, should have come to believe in the end of the world.”
Bachelard: “And what a striking thing that a mere image of the old homestead in the snow-drifts should be able to integrate images of the year one thousand in the mind of a child” (Bachelard 41-2).
A white house with pink trim somehow seems to emit snow and light and the sense of the eternal, from your Isolated Building Studies.
What did you feel most at the time you took this photograph of the house in the snow? Why is an isolated house in the snow is so evocative?
DS: The relative size of the house, the pink trim and snow evoked an almost idyllic sense despite the obvious indications of heavy industry and neighborhood clearance, but my dominant feeling was actually contrary to the mood of the image. This is a case in which an image is unable to accurately convey the feeling of a place because it doesn’t account for smell. There was an overwhelming stench in the air that appeared just as I was taking the photograph. Despite the smell clearing within a couple of minutes, my chest ached for another hour. Here, the idyllic feeling was counteracted by disgust and a little pain. All of that said, with time, I’ve come to relate to the photograph more on visual than my initial experiential terms.
More generally, I think a snowy landscape is particularly special for visual representations of place because it softens and homogenates the landscape. It covers trash, derelict lots, and other signs of community problems and -- when freshly fallen -- substitutes a pristine softness.
From there, we fill in the blanks. Despite its urban context, the isolated building surrounded by snow has the potential to be read as even more rural, and thus more connected to our idealized agrarian past than our urban present. Rather than seeing a house in a neighborhood that has suffered forty years of decline, we reference the frontier life of farms dotting the horizon.
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A Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, David Schalliol is academically and artistically interested in issues of social stratification and meaning in the social and physical worlds.
In addition to his sociological and photographic activities, David plays an active role on several websites, including his work as Founder and Editor of metroblossom and Managing Editor of Gapers Block.
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Please visit our blog site again soon; next week, we will showcase part four of the Schalliol interview.
The staff at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. seeks to fully understand the arts in their particular cultural contexts and to analyze relationships between various artistic mediums and genres; in this way we can broaden our expertise as art appraisers. We are located just steps from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center; please do give us a ring to set up an appointment for a verbal evaluation of your most prized works of art.
Interview by Jessica Savitz
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 814-8510
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Szarkowski, John. Winogrand: Figments From the Real World. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988.