"Roadside Ghosts"

March 1, 2009

By Laura Brauer

In a photographic career characterized by a meteoric trajectory to critical acclaim and popular embrace, Dave Anderson is a newcomer to watch. With images unsentimental but thoughtful, he uses portraiture and landscape to weave a rich visual tapestry that invites viewers into a muted world of days past.

Born in Michigan in 1970, Anderson nurtured a lifelong passion for still imagery. It was only in his 30s, however, that he began to seriously pursue photography. He first worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and then in the White House Press Office. Later, he was employed by MTV, touring the country registering young voters for the program “Choose or Lose.” Working on Al Gore’s presidential campaign came next, as well as involvement with a startup film production company in New York City. After brief studies at the International Center for Photography, he left behind his career in media and politics to pursue photography full time.

In 2003 Anderson set out with his camera, intent on documenting the obscure parts of America that had eluded him while traveling cross-country for MTV. “Roadside Ghosts” captures moments from a journey through more than 20 states, governed by one overriding rule: No driving on any roads with more than two lanes. An empty bench seen across an expansive field, a battered buffalo statue against a backdrop of ragged cirrus clouds, a leaning flight of stairs that lead the eye over the edge of the world—these and others are the sensitive and atmospheric prints he produced on his journey looking at the familiar and the unusual in the American landscape. In his exploration of the twin themes of hope and loss, he imbues the everyday and the offbeat with a pensive sense of longing. Like pieces of a broken dream, the people and moments we have known and lost shimmer at the margins of images that hint at stories the depth and breadth of which elude the lens and the viewer.

Called “one of the shooting stars of the American photo scene” by Germany’s fotoMAGAZIN, Anderson was named the winner of the 2005 Santa Fe Center for Photography’s Project Competition, for “Rough Beauty,” an unblinking body of work that carries the viewer into a small southern town mired in poverty. His work can be found in collections exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, LA; the Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA; the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, Beaumont, Texas; the University of Louisville Photographic Archive, Louisville, KY; and the Margulies Collection, Miami, FL.

Judith Turner-Yamamoto: When did you begin work on “Roadside Ghosts,” your current series?
Dave Anderson: “Roadside Ghosts” actually developed simultaneously with “Rough Beauty.” Early on, this series was about weird objects and off-kilter things that I found a strange beauty in. I had experienced the loss of my mother six months before. There’s definitely an exploration in this work of that loss, even though I was unconscious about that in the beginning. I was a mama’s boy; I was very close to her. It’s unsettling how often I mention her to this day.

JTY: Are there specific feelings about that loss you’re aware of now that you can see in the work?
DA: At that time, I got a lot of well meaning people saying stuff like, “She’s up there watching you,” or, “It will get easier every day.” The messages simply didn’t resonate. I didn’t have the sense she was sitting somewhere on a cloud looking down at me, always there with me. Instead, I wondered if she was just plain gone and all that remained were my memories, that this was all I would have to access her. The loss continued to be jarring. I was especially dealing with this in the early part of the series. This work is all about loss in a way, about the particular absence death creates in our lives.

I’ve always been drawn to this kind of imagery. I wasn’t always a photographer, but I was always fascinated with images. I did a lot of collage work even in high school. I subscribed to a number of graphic books just so I could harvest them as clip art material for this work I was doing. Photo industry sourcebooks were a favorite. The magazine Paper, when it first launched, was all interesting black-and-white imagery printed on heavy unvarnished paper. I remember making a collage for a girlfriend who was in the middle of dumping me. The image I used showed some stairs disappearing into soft focus. Needless to say, the relationship was over before I finished the collage.

JTY: You’re shooting film and you focus on black and white. What is it about the medium that keeps your creative focus there?
DA: Yes, I shoot with a Hasselblad, and develop the film and print it myself.

But I’m not a purist; I do work digitally on commercial work. Black and white has appealed to me since I was a kid. I was your basic goth teenager; I know how to deal with black and white. I understand it and I know how to play with it visually. A silver print is a thing of real beauty and I find the darkroom to be a magical place. The imperfection of it all is really seductive.

JTY: Imperfection—what do you mean, exactly? That you’re not really in control, that there’s an element of surprise when you go into the darkroom?
DA: Yes, I can be a little sloppy in developing the negatives. Sometimes I play off my mistakes, and find myself in a new place. The imperfections are interesting.

JTY: What about shooting with the Hasselblad format?
DA: I really love shooting in the square, and there is no square format with digital. It’s all rectangular. Hasselblad initially developed an early digital camera but it’s much too difficult to work with.
I love the shape. Composition is one of my big hang-ups. I compose everything very carefully. Sometimes in portraiture, you’re operating so quickly you can’t cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s and still get the moment you want. You’re dealing with space, geometry, objects balancing one another, like shapes, like forms. I like to add balancing elements to create a Zen-like graphic quality. The square is easier for me to work with than a rectangle in terms of the essence of balance and space.
I didn’t come to the square in any kind of intellectual way. I was shooting a lot of rectangular work very early on when I began studying photography. A filmmaker friend, who had also studied photography, told me I needed to be shooting square. I rented a Hasselblad to try it out and I was totally in love.

JTY: What do you think he was seeing in your work that made him say you should go to that format?
DA: I have no idea. Maybe he picked up on the resonance I was creating between shapes and objects. With the rectangle, I really wasn’t putting the sides, the edge of the image to use. Not that everything was centered, but all the tension and graphic elements were happening in the center.
JTY: You started out in a totally different field. What did you study initially?

DA: I studied history and politics, with a minor in film at Oberlin College.
JTY: And then you found yourself in politics and media?
DA: I worked on the Clinton campaign in early ‘92 and was hired onto the White House Press Office after the election. For three years I was one of those people managing the press. I was an in-house TV producer, recording video messages for groups the president couldn’t make it to—town meetings and such, or filming satellite teleconferences to big events, or satellite interviews for news programs. I was also a liaison to television stations. I coordinated TV filming of the president and made sure it all came off without a hitch.

JTY: What was next?
DA: MTV called and offered me a job. I was with them for two years registering kids to vote. In retrospect, it’s probably not surprising I have a preference for the square. I was producing TV all those years. While the TV screen is not a perfect square, it’s pretty close
to one.

JTY: So when did photography become the overriding approach for you?
DA: I had bought my first photograph—a Michael Kenna image I found at a gallery in Santa Fe, while working on the ‘96 campaign. After MTV, I worked briefly for Al Gore and then went to work at a movie company. I was a media person and a creative director, work that got me more involved with still imagery.

In 2002, after mom died, I got a mailing from the International Center of Photography (ICP). There was a Michael Kenna workshop offered, and I thought, that’s interesting, why don’t I take some time off and do that? The workshop was scheduled for July 2003. I didn’t have a decent camera so I decided to take a bunch of photo workshops to prepare for this. I took Photo One at ICP and I was immediately hooked. That image in “Roadside Ghosts” of the bridge was taken before the Kenna workshop.  

I decided right away I wanted to quit my job and pursue the lucrative world of fine art photography. I started to show my work to professional photographers, to collectors. Everyone was very encouraging. I quit my job; I had savings that would carry me while I perfected the work. I did a workshop with Lynn Radeka who has been photographing the American West since 1969. Lynn has photographed five full color books including Ghost Towns of the Old West and is the author of the Darkroom Masking Kit. He also supervised the printing of the photographs for the book Master Of Light: Ansel Adams and His Influences. Posters of his work can be found in several national parks throughout the American West. (For information on the Darkroom Masking Kit, original prints and posters please visit www.radekaphotography.com and www.maskingkits.com.)

I decided to try to study with other photographers I admired. I workshopped my way down to east Texas where I studied with Keith Carter.

JTY: Tell me about working with Carter. How long did you study with him?
DA: I’d looked at taking workshops with him. They were always really expensive and sold out immediately. But I discovered I could just enroll at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where he was on the faculty, sign up for all his fall and spring classes, and it would be much cheaper and give me more access.

JTY: “Rough Beauty” began when you started studying with him?
DA: Yes, actually, it grew out of my first assignment in his 101 class. Everyone wrote down a secret they’d never told anyone, stuck it in a hat. Carter shook the paper slips up, passed the hat around the room. You drew someone else’s secret and the directive was to go photographically interpret it. The paper I drew, written in a girl’s handwriting read, “I’m more scared than I look.”  

I had heard about Vidor, Texas, a poor rural town with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, from this odd character I’d met on the side of the road in Tennessee. That phrase resonated with his story. This was my excuse to go check out this town. “Rough Beauty” was the only assignment I ever completed for Carter. I sat in on all his lectures but I just kept photographing in Vidor, and the work turned into the book.

JTY: What was it about his work that made you want to study with Carter in the first place?
DA: I happened upon one of his images when I was first taking classes at ICP. I’m an obsessive personality when it comes to personal interests. I was going to every gallery, looking at every book I could. There is a Carter portrait of a Mexican-American girl wrapped in an American flag. The image was respectful; there was an air of history, and a feeling of soul. The image possessed meaning and it resonated with me.

JTY: How large is “Roadside Ghosts” at this point?
DA: There are 35 images to date in “Roadside Ghosts.”

JTY: And the work continues?
DA: Yeah, sometimes it’s a question of sequencing. “Roadside Ghosts” is not there yet. I’m not sure why. When a body of work is finished, all parts of the palette feel sated, like after a good meal. That’s when I know it’s done.

Judith Turner-Yamamoto’s articles have appeared in Elle, The Boston Globe, Finnair, the Los Angeles Times, Travel & Leisure and Southern Accents, among others.