The Reservoir

Conversations on Photography


a quarterly webzine with conversations
about the politics of image-making.

Issue Two — May 1, 2018

You are reading the opening line of The Reservoir’s inaugural Opening Lines, a recurring introductory paragraph to start each issue. As with our first, our second issue features seven meaningful conversations and one essay on the politics of image-making. In this issue, Ilona Szwarc tells Ashley McNelis about moving to the States as a Polish teenager and how her experience as the “other” has shaped her approach to creating work about the construction of female identity. Caiti Borruso and Michael J. Dalton II talk about their shared native state, New Jersey. Stanley Woluka-Wanambwa revisits Ruinous Silences, his essay for Jason Koxvold’s book Knives. Jason talks to Shane Rocheleau about photographing angry, disempowered American men. Ben Huff and Karolina Karlic search for truths between myth and reality within their work that depicts foreign places, like Alaska, which Patrice Helmar happens to call home—the complex subject of her conversation with Widline Cadet. Lissa Rivera speaks with her gender-queer muse and partner, BJ Lillis, in 2016 and then again in 2018 about how their ongoing work together has transformed the ways in which they view gender and their own identities. Lastly, Richard Anderson talks to Romke Hoogwaerts about photographing modernity.

After we released Issue One, we were excited by the large response we got from those in the photography community. It was reassuring to hear that others had been feeling a need for a space where we all could come together to discuss our work in relation to what is happening in our world. This isn’t a platform where people are talking about what happened with you-know-who’s latest tweet, although the conversations are largely informed by the concerns that are raised while existing in the current American society. In the meantime, we’ve begun conversations with editors around the world who will help us find compelling international voices which we’ll share in upcoming issues. We want to thank everyone who provided feedback and contributions. If you want to get in touch and tell us your thoughts or ideas, our inbox is waiting for you.

Issue Two was edited by Lindley Warren and Romke Hoogwaerts, designed by Romke Hoogwaerts, editorially assisted by Caroline Goessling and proofread by Julia Anderson.


The Reservoir is a group of independent writers, photographers and publishers from around the world that got together to talk about photography within the context of the current sociopolitical moment. New conversations are published every season. Contributions are welcomed.

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Launched in 2018 by the creators of
The Heavy Collective, The Ones We Love & Mossless

with gracious Kickstarter support from
Ali Bosworth, Kristian Thacker, Lana Adams, Maria, Chaffey 7D, Jake Mein, Tommy, Shane Rocheleau, Matthew Genitempo, Lorenzo Fanton, Tara Wray, Tyler Roste, Jonah Rosenberg, Sean Lemoine, Brenda Biondo, Melissa Kreider, Christine Lorenz, Jeff Rich, nvaughn, Gnomic Book, Andrea Birnbaum, Shane Lavalette, Garrett Grove, Gerardo Guerrero, Estefany Molina, Ray Woo, Teo Choong Ching


Ilona Szwarc, Untitled #21, I am a woman and I cast no shadow, 2015

Ilona Szwarc's photographic practice is consistent. Very consistent. This cohesiveness is notable for many reasons. For one, she focuses on the mutable themes of identity and how it is conditioned by culture. It is also significant in that she works with the slippery medium of photography. In part, the strength of her practice is due to the basis of her work on being a woman and an immigrant. There are many layers to unpack in each of her images, sequences, and projects connected by these through-lines. Read more about her cleverly complex practice below.    Ashley McNelis 

Ashley McNelis     Hello from freezing Pittsburgh! How is LA?  

Ilona Szwarc    February is the month of blooming magnolias in LA! Its own version of spring in the land of everyday sunshine.

Ashley    Before LA, you were in New York, New Haven, and Warsaw, right?

Ilona    I was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland. I had been coming to the US since I was a child, but I lived here for the first time during high school as a foreign exchange student in Texas. In 2008, I moved to New York to pursue my undergraduate degree at School of Visual Arts, and then moved on to graduate school at Yale. After two years in New Haven, I decided to move to Los Angeles.

Ashley    Tell me about your year in Texas. Did your American Girls and Rodeo Girls series come out of this experience?

Ilona    I moved from the largest, most dynamic, and most quickly changing city in Poland to a rural town of 1,200 people in the Texas panhandle. In Warsaw, I could be independent and urbane, but I was steeped in teenage lethargy. In Texas, my life became one of suburban confinement and mindless driving through the endless flatlands, but I really wanted that experience. I wanted life to happen to me and take me away from what I knew.

This transition shook my world and that of Canadian, Texas. I was the alien, a displaced kid with an accent with a different taste in fashion and music, different body language, and a different educational background. I became aware of my appearance in a very new way and started picking up clues about what was cool in this world. For me and for my peers, it was a lesson in otherness.

(from left) Ilona Szwarc, Lariat, Gruver, Texas, 2012; Lexi, Lindenhurst, New York, 2012

For Rodeo Girls, I intentionally went back to Canadian to make a body of work about the place that was so charged for me. When I went to the rodeo on a Thursday night as usual, I stumbled upon a group of young girls who were participating in the rodeo competitions. It was just around the time when I was finishing working on American Girls, a series of portraits of girls across the US who owned customizable, mini-me dolls, and it seemed like a perfect second chapter. Both bodies of work feel related to the awareness I developed as a Polish teen in Texas of how culture conditioned my childhood. In some ways, this is an obvious observation, but it’s impossible to see clearly the effect of culture on oneself. Through those bodies of work, then, I could examine the ways in which American children are specifically American and the ways in which their coming of age resembled mine as an outsider.

Both projects deal with the construction of female identity and look at two different cultures of growing up as a girl in the United States. American Girls is about the perpetuation of traditional female roles and the importance of grooming and self-fashioning, while the subjects in Rodeo
Girls expressed their femininity in a male arena and transferred it onto pampered animals. American Girls is all about the interior of an American domestic space and the staging of childrens’ rooms, while Rodeo Girls is about the beauty of the terrain of the idealized American frontier.

Ashley    Your work regularly deals with your being both a woman and an immigrant. It’s telling that that distinction started so early and has continued on so strongly in your practice.

Ilona    I base everything on my own life experiences as a woman and as an immigrant. I start from there, and then I look for characters—real or imagined—and details and spaces, vessels to communicate those ideas, conflicts, and stories. Having lived through several identity crises, occasioned by immigration, displacement, and the dissolution of my marriage, I am tirelessly consciously and subconsciously readjusting and composing myself. I am always switching between different expressions and personalities depending on what language I am speaking, never arriving at a fixed identity. Neither here nor there. Can I go home? Where is home?
While formally my newer work looks different from my previous work, the core of my interests remains the same. It is also about the process of becoming and about what it takes to shape a self.

Ashley    Would you be able to speak to the concept of constructed identity in relation to your series, You are now entering the human heart?

Ilona    You are now entering the human heart is a series of collaborative portraits of transgender women from Poland who, in recent years, have been actively seeking a public platform. This has become more urgent and visible in Poland since the national parliament welcomed its first openly trans delegate, Anna Grodzka, in 2011.

This body of work builds on my previous projects about socialization and typologies of women as defined by culture and identity. I also approached this project as an outsider looking in, not from the standpoint of a participant. Although my experience of gender is different from theirs, this project was an effort to seek and depict points of connection and relatability between women.

Ilona Szwarc, Zara, Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia, 2014

The body of work includes portraits and collages that examine how trans women construct their femininity in the context of Polish culture and how they filter and define ideas about what it means to be a woman. The portraits reflect their experiments with makeup and nail polish, trying on high heeled shoes, and their searches for “errors” and inconsistencies in their images. Of course, these are common experiences for many women, regardless of the sex with which they were born, although the specifics—how, when, and with what degree of deliberation this happens—are different in many ways for these women than they were for me.

Through the act of photographing themselves and the desire to be photographed by others, transgender women willfully reduce their body to an image that can be looked at, judged, and reflected upon. This particular reduction of oneself to an image is a form of externalizing, authenticating, and validating an individual appearance. This is in part a result of functioning in patriarchal capitalism and the circulation of images in this system; however, it is also a genuine pursuit of a cohesive identity. Perhaps this cohesiveness in appearance can be only reached in a fixed photograph.

Ashley    Interesting. There was a collaborative aspect to the project, right?

Ilona    I invited everyone to respond to the portrait I took of them by constructing a self-portrait in the form of a collage. They could choose to pull images from political journals, feminist magazines, news, cooking magazines, tabloids, and even porn. From these sources, participants cut and pasted figures and body parts that they believed best represent their self-image, their aspirations, and their desires. In the medium of collage, the body becomes the form, which can be fragmented, transformed, and manipulated.

Ashley    Could you speak about your desire to become imperceptible and the connection between one’s appearance and their identity?

Ilona    Becoming imperceptible is one’s desire to fuse the self with her habitat. To mimic an accent, body language, or fashion just enough to belong, to survive. In essence, I mean passing. I can pass as an American woman until someone notices my accent. I have led myself through a series of transformations—both internal and external, conscious and unconscious—to shed my cultural belonging.

Mimicry constantly produces slippages, excess, and difference. Cis and trans women learn about gender roles and appearance through mimicry, immigrants learn new languages and customs through mimicry. There is a difference between being American and Americanized. Naturalized. Almost the same but not quite. These are figures of doubling. The translation of identity into a site of continuous negotiation of the subject in process is very important to me. My characters never fully become. They are always in a state of unfinishedness.

(from top) Ilona Szwarc, Untitled #12, I am a woman and I feast on memory; Untitled #9, I am a woman and I feast on memory; Untitled #21, I am a woman and I feast on memory; Untitled #4, I am a woman and I cast no shadow; Untitled #12, I am a woman and I cast no shadow;Untitled #17, I am a woman and I cast no shadow, (all) 2015

Ashley    Now might be a good time to transition into talking about your self-published book in three parts: I am a woman and I feast on memory, I am a woman and I play the horror of my flesh, and I am a woman and I cast no shadow. For each series of photographic portraits, you transformed the appearance of American women who strongly resemble you. This performance created a mirroring effect and raises questions about selfhood, assimilation, and becoming. Could you speak about the process?

Ilona    This body of work began with the idea to organize a casting call for my doppelgängers. In this series, I wanted to turn inwards and create my own typology. My identity is both Polish and American, so I decided to look for American women who look like me to bring out the familiar and the foreign simultaneously. I wanted to treat myself as an object and a subject at the same time. It was important that all the transformative gestures were performed on someone visually similar on whom I could easily project my consciousness. I tried to push toward the outer limits of portraiture and self-portraiture. I wanted to have the viewer constantly questioning if they are looking at a portrait or a self-portrait.
Through cinematic close-ups of the marks I made painting and drawing on the model’s face, I first created an uncanny portrait of an aged woman. Then, through abstract and colorful mark-making, I transformed her into a large woman. The series culminates with an androgynous, grotesque, saintly mask, a contemporary Vera Icon of my own doppelgänger. I am putting my body through an abstract experiment in reproduction by producing a mask, another face of my own and of my own kind. The series concludes with a Janus figure in which I am looking at myself— at my future and my past at the same time.

The photographs are carefully staged so that every detail is coded with meaning. The narrative thread is just as important to the project as the performative aspect. The three series are intertwined by the use of the same props and through the transference of emotion and identity between the characters that I establish. For example, in the first series, I am a woman and I feast on memory, as the face of the model ages—through the close-up of a hand—we notice that the body of the makeup artist ages too. I am trying to create relationships that question whether we are witnessing two characters and/or an internal dialogue.

Ilona Szwarc, I am a woman and I play the horror of my flesh, 2015

Ashley    There are slippages in the layered photographs that reveal your Polish identity, too. Could you discuss the model’s metamorphosis in relation to your own identity and experience?

Ilona    Everything that happens is consistent with the narrative of an actress becoming the character she will embody on stage. The first photograph is a “before” shot where we see her wearing her own clothing backstage. As the tutorial culminates, I am consciously using some props that suggest a Polish (or at least an Eastern European) culture and aesthetic. This ties very much to my personal history. However, putting a traditional, folk Polish scarf on an American model is a reversed projection of my cultural assimilation where my experiences are played out onto her.

Ashley    You have done live performances of this process, including one in Amsterdam during UNSEEN as a part of FOAM Talent 2016. Do you feel vulnerable during the staging or performance process?

Ilona    I feel much more vulnerable in moments like these, talking about the work, analyzing it. Also, I feel vulnerable when I am with the work on my own: printing, editing, and writing about it. During the shoots or a performance, my mind is focused on the production. The intimacy is removed somehow, as I am in essence reenacting scenarios I storyboarded ahead of time.
I like to use reference images as jumping off points for my models and assistants. I often ask my models to read some of the quotes I've put together about the character or about ideas that I am working through. Sometimes we read makeover testimonials outloud, or passages from books for women with advice on makeup and what not to wear. I love engaging with actors and fictionalizing the characters of the model and the makeup artist. As I am often in front of the camera along with my protagonists, the shoots become acts of orchestrating different people, props, makeup, and lighting. I usually work with an all-female crew which creates a space of camaraderie and friendship.

Ashley    The performative aspect was a very natural next step for the work which is, in part, a performance of and a play on gender. In moving between portraiture and self-portraiture, you are exploring and staging the concept of the ideal self. Your new works are similarly staged but now less project-oriented. Can you tell me about a few of them?

Ilona    I’ve moved away from the convention of the photographic series, for now. Since the work is concept driven, sometimes it is just one photograph that fully carries out the idea, while sometimes it’s a sequence.

(from top) Ilona Szwarc, She would consider herself defiled, 2018

Ashley    The new tutorial series She would consider herself defiled is particularly successful at showing different stages of becoming and transformation. It’s so layered!

Ilona Szwarc, Her eyes retain a devastating memory, 2017

Ilona    She would consider herself defiled is a series of instructional photographs, a tutorial of “extreme old age” stage makeup. I collect books on stage and film makeup techniques. This series is based on a so-called “construction” makeup technique, where a layer of tissue or cotton is applied along with spirit gum and liquid latex to create a textured skin effect. I push it into the realm of the grotesque and introduce a witch as a character. I see the witch as a signifier of women’s cultural un/belonging, a woman on the margins of culture, an intertwined space of gender, transgression, and fantasy. There is also a suspension between fantasy and memory, between auto/biography and fiction, between authenticity and fraud.

Ashley    You’ve started to introduce found elements in your work, too. For example, Some women can take their eyes out uses a page from a vintage book on photography. How do you relate found objects to the staged photographs?

Ilona    Let me answer with an example. Some women can take their eyes out is a photograph of an eye surgery from a book I found in Portland, Oregon. Earlier in 2017, I completed a sequence of close-up photographs of eyes—Her eyes retain a devastating memory—in which I watch my identity disintegrate in the eyes of my double. As her eye tears up, my portrait becomes more and more distorted, and completely blurred in the final image of her bloodshot eye. The found photograph of the dissected eye echoes my intervention in my model’s eye. It’s as if someone else has forcefully taken my character out of her eye. The scale between those works shifts dramatically, but both the viewing experiences enable the viewer to intimately discover the detailed progression of the portraits in the works.

Ashley    There are definitely a lot of connections between makeup tutorials and the many uses of photography. Could you talk about your use of moulds?

Ilona    I first started working with silicone moulds in I am a woman and I cast no shadow. I am curious about the optic phenomenon which happens when you place the mould in front of a lens and experiment with lighting. There is a moment of optical illusion in which the mould, although protruding away from the camera, registers in a photograph as if it were facing the lens. I also enjoy working with these sculptural elements—the by-products of both traditional sculpture techniques and special effects makeup—and exploring their potential through a lens-based medium.

Ilona Szwarc (clockwise from top), She is herself a cave full of echoes, 2017; She lives without a future, 2018; She was born without a mouth, 2016; She existed characterless, with no memory at all, 2018

Ashley    How has moving to LA affected your practice?

Ilona    Los Angeles is a city of splendid white teeth, long eyelashes, activewear, pet cloning, and self-care regimens. It is also the land of the ghosts of Hollywood, special effects makeup, and prop houses. A whole universe of materials opened up for me here. Lately I’ve been making more work in the studio, focusing on one material with an intentional stripping down of the aesthetic.

For example, She has never seen her own blood before is a series of instructional photographs showing how to make fake blood. I am fascinated by blood recipes from different special effects makeup artists, and how intricate the different techniques are. As with all the titles in this new work, the title for this piece comes from Angela Carter, and it obviously points back to the female experience of menstruation.

Ilona Szwarc, She has never seen her own blood before, 2018

Ashley    I love how you use red “blood” against a blue background in that work. It reminds me of how, in tampon commercials, the “blood” is never red, but blue. The commercials feed into the idea that menstruation is impure and taboo. Also, I appreciate that there is a progression from a sterile, clinical test within a glass to a slightly messy scene that has moved onto the table and the model’s hand. It’s as if this series also subtly conveys that menstruation is not a big deal.

Ilona    I love that comparison. To make this work in Los Angeles is also to dissect the everyday work of makeup artists working on film sets. It’s to slow down and really look at every step of the processes that so many women and actresses go through daily, quickly, fully normalizing the experience.

Los Angeles has also been sneaking up as a backdrop in my work. I love the eclectic Los Angeles architecture, the Art Deco traces, the mid-century modern obsession, the lavishness of 80’s interiors. I’ve been also making work in a Bel Air mansion. Part of that property once supposedly belonged to Clark Gable. It is also just around the corner from both Elizabeth Taylor’s and Alfred Hitchcock's former residences. In She existed characterless, with no memory at all, I am bringing in the decor and the space of Los Angeles into the designated zone of skincare and beauty regimens.

Ilona Szwarc, An American in America, 2014

Ashley    Finally, let’s talk about your commission An American in America which parallels those processes but to different ends.

Ilona    An American in America was a commission for S Magazine in Germany. It was an opportunity for me to explore many themes in my work but from a directorial approach. Between high school and college, I briefly worked on film sets and gained experience working with a crew of people in staging and production.

In this project, the characters are fictitious and the theatricality is evident. They feel most animated and alive through their fantasies but they come back to feelings of introspection and alienation in the real world. I was obsessed with the challenge of portraying a collapsed lifetime in a single picture. I cast two women, a younger character and an older character, and I imagined that they are one person seen at distinct moments of her life. 

The series was shot on different locations in New York, which included a funeral home, a psychic’s shop, a commercial photo studio, a flower shop, and botanical gardens.
At the time, I was very concerned with the question of aesthetics as signifiers of culture. How do you communicate cultural specificity? Can a photograph be American? Polish? I was trying to confuse those spaces and move in and out of the typically American sites, like a Burger King in Queens, to the Bronx, which looks a lot like where I grew up. The work became about staging cultural narratives and tropes.

The series concludes with a double portrait of the two women, however disconnected, and poses a Borgesian question: would it be possible to meet yourself at a different age? At 70? At 13? Could you have a conversation with that different version of yourself? The very last photograph— a dark, Eastern European clown—is a harbinger of my next series exploring makeup techniques.


Ilona Szwarc    received an MFA in Photography from Yale University and a BFA from School of Visual Arts. She has been awarded the Richard Benson Prize for Excellence in Photography, the Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture, the World Press Photo and was recently chosen as FOAM Talent. Her photographs have been featured in numerous publications worldwide and have been exhibited in the US and internationally, with recent exhibitions at Shulamit Nazarian and Regen Projects in Los Angeles, Danziger Gallery in New York and at Unseen Photography Festival in Amsterdam.
Ashley McNelis     is a writer, curator, and art historian specializing in photography and contemporary art. She is the Curatorial Assistant for the upcoming Carnegie International, 57th Edition, 2018 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. She holds a master's degree in the History of Art, Theory & Criticism from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.

up next

 ...sometimes, by leaving the place you're photographing, you end up learning more about what you expect from it, or need from it, or want from it.

part two: Caiti Borruso in conversation with Michael J. Dalton II about New Jersey


Caiti Borruso, Glass Picture, 2015

Michael J. Dalton II, Broken Glass, 2012

Caiti Borruso    I meet Michael at an opening in LIC on the first of September. He is from New Jersey, which makes my ears prick up, and he has a copy of his book, The Great Falls. We huddle under a single streetlight somewhere on a side street looking through it, and I am staring at the map of Paterson thinking about my own maps. When he tells me about his upbringing, I realize he might be the only person who could understand my relationship to Jersey in its entirety. I leave with questions. A month later I visit Paterson for the first time.

Michael J Dalton    There is something about making photos in New Jersey that sort of makes me feel melancholic, nostalgic, and curious. It probably comes from the complicated relationship that I have with the place, as we all have with the places we come from... I was transplanted from Maine into the state at the age of 11 after my mother was sent to prison for repeated drug offenses. So my introduction to living in NJ was a little bumpy in the beginning. But I love NJ and think of my experiences there fondly. I still love driving around Passaic, Union, Essex, Hudson, and Middlesex counties to find pictures and just explore. I mean, I also check out other counties, but I keep going back to that area frequently. Counties are funny in NJ. They sort of seem like mini-States.

Where did you grow up in NJ? What are your favorite places to make photos and why? Do you go back these days?

Michael J. Dalton II, Family Hanging out at a 7-11, 2014

Caiti     Making pictures in Jersey has been difficult over the past year. My mother sold my childhood home last year, and we were out of it by March 31st. I grew up in the remnants of a shore town; the homes were built to be modest summer homes. I lived in the attic of a Cape Cod, essentially, from age 5 to 23. The neighborhood was cobbled together, the backyards touch at strange intersections, and there's a lake called Treasure Lake, shaped like an X, a small seawall, and beyond that, the bay. But I was born in Red Bank, and I spent the first three years of my life in Point Pleasant, which is a proper shore town, with fireworks at the beach every Wednesday night. My parents divorced when I was three, and my mom moved us north to Cliffwood Beach and bought a house.

Now that the house has sold, my practice has changed. I drive down there now to do something specific, or always stop if I'm making a trip for a different reason. I treat it differently; there is a little more respect, a little more curiosity, a new way of feeling. I am an outsider. I notice the changes more because I see them less, the way you register changes more quickly in people you see twice a year. I used to be able to dictate my moods by the bay's water.

I'll stop for now with two images: one of my childhood bed, and one of Aberdeen-Matawan, which after all these years is no longer my stop on the NJ Coast line, and a question: can you tell me more about the map you made of Paterson?

Caiti Borruso, Childhood Bed, 2015; Aberdeen Matawan, 2015

Michael J. Dalton II, Stamped Map Print, 2017

Michael    That's such an interesting area. I never had a chance to spend much time in that region of Monmouth county. I Google Mapped Cliffwood Beach and Treasure Lake with its X shape and close proximity to the ocean. There was an interesting photo that popped up online—seemed like a huge flood had occurred over a road—maybe from that hurricane you spoke of? I'm so curious… I'm looking forward to checking out that area. I used to visit Sandy Hook a lot when I was younger. We'd take Route 18 to Route 36 up the coast. When my sister and I were in our last years of high school, we skipped a few Friday classes and took that old drive to the shore, even though Asbury Park was a more common beach for us at that time. Back then we had to use maps and our memories. We didn't have cell phones, let alone iPhones with GPS. It became sort of a tradition for me to hit the road and get lost with some friends and find new ways to get home. I often didn't carry a camera back then, as I had little money for film. But I used to love running around like that.

I guess that’s where the map comes in.

When I started working on The Great Falls in 2011, I only had a vague idea about the geography, history, the people and the concept that would become the foundation for my book. There is a big connection to William Carlos Williams’ poem Paterson (Book Four) when he writes, "...Just because there ain't no water fit to drink in that spot (or/ you ain't found none) don't mean there ain't no fresh water to be/ had NOWHERE." I actually started the project by obsessively reading the epic poem, and eventually I realized I had to continually visit Paterson. I walked everywhere around Paterson. I love that city. I would take the Jitney Bus from New York Penn Station to Downtown Paterson at least once or twice a week. I went through every neighborhood on foot, multiple times, finding new people and places to photograph with my Pentax 67, 8x10 in a backpack and a tripod slung on my shoulder.

Even though I really loved the city and the people I met, I wasn't really interested in making a project specifically about a place. That in itself is just the first layer of the project. I found ways to make the project more about an atmosphere or a feeling by finding similar experiences when going to other cities such as Lowell, Massachusetts, Newark, Passaic, Clifton, Brooklyn and even Berlin. After coming back to Patterson over the years to make photographs, I was able to identify themes of resilience, escape, and reclamation (regarding both the people of Paterson and the natural elements of the park). I began to seek these themes in my picture making in other cities as well. This gave me the freedom to conceptually work outside the the confines of focusing on a specific geographic location. I was able to be a bit more playful with the utilization of the suspension of one’s disbelief in a reality of what could be perceived as a documentation of a place. It’s strange because with the attempt to make the location disorienting, I ended up making photographs of other places that look like Paterson. In that sense, I was able to make a view of my own version of Paterson. So with that in mind, I wanted to use a map that had similarities to the actual map of the area of the Great Falls, but again was not exactly the same. I drew the original map from memory. After I completed it, I added numbers to the map that correlate to the original sequence of one of the maquettes I created. I also added directions in the map that lead you on a path I took the day I figured out how to complete the project.

In the limited edition version of The Great Falls, I made a second map. I used two maps—the final hand drawn map with numbers, and a zoomed in section of The Great Falls from a 1913 map. This was the year of the Silk Strike in Paterson during a time when workers were fighting for basic rights, such as 8 hour work days and safe working conditions.

Michael J. Dalton II, (clockwise from top right) Sunday Afternoon, 2013; Guard Rail and the River, 2012; Dead Ducks, 2015; A Young Couple, 2013; A View of Downtown Paterson From Above the Valley of the Rocks (Winter), 2013

My experience living in NJ however was not like the strength and resilience I depict in the people I photograph or the natural environment taking back the landscape. Rather, it was a typical angsty teenage experience, hanging out at convenience store parking lots, malls, skateboarding, partying, trying to stay away from my family as much as possible. But though there was drama and some hard times, I really enjoyed my youth looking back at it. It was aimless and beautiful.

Your projects Whale Creek Is Flooding, Shady Acres, and the New Work are hard to place, geographically, and remind me in ways of the American South or Midwest. I'm fascinated by this, as I tend to be drawn to more industrial or urban landscapes. Do you want your pictures to display a specificity of place or do you seek a sense of geographic ambiguity?

I also like the sense of intimacy in your photos—the picture you shared of your childhood bed, but also the fact that you seem very close to your subjects—there is a comfort and closeness displayed that seems familial. Can you speak a bit on that? 

Caiti    I actually went to Paterson back in October, about a month after meeting you at Eva [O’Leary]'s opening—I was feeling restless and had been thinking about it and wondering why I hadn't gone. I found these pictures of my grandparents in an album, pictures they had taken of Paterson in the 80s, and wondered why I hadn't gone. So I went, by myself. It was anticlimactic, and I got wet, and I sat alone looking over the falls feeling mildly forlorn. It was hotter than it should have been for October.

I spent time working in Asbury Park and I loved the shit out of it, but Cliffwood is a little different, not for tourists. There used to be a big pirate ship on the side of the road in CWB, off Route 35. I haven't found out that much about it but it's on my list.

Caiti Borruso, Untitled, 2016, from Shady Acres

It's funny that you mention the poem—when I finally resigned myself to making work about New Jersey (after continually hearing throughout college that I shouldn't be doing that), I started reading Paterson. It felt like research I needed to do; the day I realized that's what I was doing, I bought a copy and started writing in it. I really love the map you made of Paterson, and the retracing of steps, and the frenetic feeling of your map. And I think sometimes by leaving the place you're photographing, you end up learning more about what you expect from it, or need from it, or want from it. I had a similar experience going back to Cliffwood to make Whale Creek is Flooding, what with taking the train back and pacing. So much pacing on foot trying to align myself with something new, trying to belong again.

Whale Creek is one of the boundaries of Cliffwood Beach and of Monmouth County itself, and along the creek two different boys I knew died, one in the parking lot and one further down, where the creek meets the bay. So it isn't work made in the south or the midwest but right outside my back door, in the same spot where I grew up, skinned my knees, did the messy shit. Metaphorical messy shit. It's funny, because it doesn't look like anything to me except what it is. All of the pictures but a handful are made within a one mile radius. (The shadow picture was made in Sayreville, outside of my mother's old warehouse; the red house is just down 35 in a neighborhood my mother's cousin owned homes in, the dogs I found at the Englishtown flea market where my mother used to work.)

Caiti Borruso (clockwise from top left), Treasure Lake, 2016; The Pit, 2015, Lawrence Harbor, 2015; Mom’s Chair, 2015 (all from Whale Creek)

The Shady Acres work is also a place I'm strongly connected to. My aunt owned a campground in Pennsylvania, and I spent most of my summers there, until I turned fourteen. When I was twenty and living alone, I bought a bus ticket out there and saw most of my family for the first time in six years. The place was exactly the same; it felt like it had held its breath, waiting for me, had gently paused everything but my cousins and their aging. I was welcomed back with open arms but still felt like I didn't belong, and thus the camera: it made everything easier. I photographed there intermittently over three summers, until the campground sold in 2016. It was a project I had wanted to continue forever.

In terms of the new work: I've been going back to Cliffwood and photographing and taking field samples—audio, rubbings. I don't feel like my work is done with the neighborhood. I haven't figured it out yet.

This picture is of my brother at our back door.

(clockwise from top) Caiti Borruso, Pat at the back door, 2016; last self portrait (Dana), 2017; last haircut, 2017

My mom cut my hair at the head of our kitchen table my entire life. This was my last day at the house.

And the third image, from the new work, was made in my bedroom in New York in August when I was in the middle of breaking up with my partner at the time. I am surprised, and honored, that he let me act on that impulse.

I have been trying to make more portraits, especially of the people that I love, or have stopped loving. I realized recently that, after a few long years of pacing an empty beach, and mostly photographing the ground and myself, I wanted to be with other people, and talk to them, and make their pictures. Tapping into other people feels like a hurdle I am trying to clear, one I have been eyeing nervously for years.

Since we are on the topic—what are you working on? How do you approach portraits? I love everything that's happening in the portrait of the trio—the car, the smoke, the girl pursing her lips like she might be blowing out smoke.

Michael J. Dalton II, Self portrait, 2010

Michael    That’s great you’re trying to work outside your comfort zone. Portraits can be challenging. There is a lot involved and, in the immediate sense, more at stake. Not that landscapes or still lives can't be challenging or risky. But in portraiture, we are forced to deal with what we want an image to be about. Your memories of the person, the conversation, everything that happened between you and your subject fogs up what's actually happening in the picture.

With portraits, the more I do it, the less awkward I feel. If I haven't done it in a while, I kind of lose the energy and vision. It's funny though, once I make one portrait during a day, I feel completely ready for the next one. Like I just had to break out of my regularly scheduled program and gain a bit of courage. Once I do that one picture, I'm set for the day. I'll go up to anyone and ask them to do whatever it is I feel like having them do in front of the lens.

Sometimes I feel like I should do more self-portraiture just out of convenience because part of this whole process is time, and time is a challenging problem for me. I mean this literally. I work 40-80 hours a week. More recently, my new projects involve welding and sculpture. I'm also training to become a pipe fitting welder I train for about 2-5 hours each night after work. I'm trying to get my welds perfect. And the time... it's taking forever. But it would be a pay increase so I can afford to continue my artistic practice and pay both my BFA and MFA loans. I actually like the high strung, fast paced experience I’ve made for myself. I think it actually is something that keeps me going. The work ends up being like a freight train, hard to stop.

Caiti    I’m just heading back from visiting family in Florida and hardly made any portraits, although I want to, desperately. It is a muscle memory, making portraits, one I have started trying to flex again. It’s the same with anything related to pictures though - it’s like breaking the metaphorical seal. I find making portraits anxiety-inducing at first, but then I settle into a space where I hum, bounce, relax into myself around others in a way that doesn’t happen often. It’s nice, then, that the camera lets me do that. It lets me tap into people I haven’t seen, or wouldn’t have taken the time to see, either.

A portrait I have been meaning to make for months now: Damien is the first of the "next generation" of my neighborhood. He is the spitting image of his father and his uncles. I haven't spent a lot of time around babies of people I've known, and it's wild to look at someone's face and realize it came from someone else. I want to photograph the rest of the boys (now men) that I grew up with; I was one of two girls in the neighborhood, and Janel aligned herself with the boys, while I did not.

It’s funny that you say self-portraits out of convenience. Is that one photograph a photo of you (a self-portrait)? I find myself more emotionally drained after making a self-portrait than I do making images of others; I often feel like I am facing myself, my body, challenging myself. I make self-portraits to mark important dates, mostly, or to try and coax myself back into my skin when I feel like I am about to burst out of it.

Time is a really difficult part of making work—I’ve just switched work schedules, and I work on weekends now. It’s giving me time to adapt to having a studio, and developing a practice, but it means my shooting time is when most of the people I’d like to photograph are working.

Caiti Borruso, Lindsay and Damien, 2018

Michael    Speaking of time, one of the ways I try to make sure I am making as much work as I can is by working on multiple projects at the same time. I can’t stand being unable to make an image because of reasons like weather or accessibility. So, when the time comes, I’ll fluctuate between projects on any given day.

Right now I'm working on a project that I'm temporarily calling Labor. This project has to do with my experience doing manual labor and existing in the blue collar world, which seems to be the complete opposite of what I experience when I drive back to my apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I work with a lot of conservative, racist, misogynistic baby boomer men from the suburbs of Long Island, Upstate NY, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in environments that are in such contrast from my existence in a racially diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn. In the project, I hope to convey my feelings about this blue-collar culture, and my issues with some of their problematic behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes. At the same time, I want to show my respect for the hard work and dedication that's required to get a check at the end of the week.

In Labor, I am also reflecting on my status as a privileged, educated white male, working in a conservative universe, and my alternate life in a liberal progressive bubble. It’s a work in progress, so the concepts, edit, sequence, and form may change. I’m also bringing in some backup as this project is quite expansive; I’ll be collaborating this time with Aaron Bianco while designing and editing the book. I really dig his style and insight and am excited to complete Labor with him.

Michael J. Dalton II, (clockwise from top left) Image Title, 20xx; Photograph From an Old Glass Negative Bought on eBay. I Accidentally Shattered It Shortly After Scanning, 2014; Trenton Makes the World Takes, 2014

Michael J. Dalton II, Bird Photograph #1, 2017

Another photographic project I'm working on is much more intimate, subtle, and quiet. I started going on walks in Prospect Park with my girlfriend Stephanie, who is a poet and is into birding. As we would go on our long walks, she would point out new species of birds to me and sometimes recite poetry she'd memorized (something that has always impressed me). I often brought my camera on these walks and eventually we both had the idea that it would be interesting to make pictures of the birds that Steph would spot and maybe pair them with her writing. The photographs are majoritively landscape images, and in some moments, the bird that I was trying to make a photograph of has already left. This series is so new that it’s both conceptually and photographically incomplete, but it’s sort of is taking a form similar to Friedlander's photographs of vines and leaves—densely patterned flora that covers the entire frame.

I’m also doing a project about one of my siblings, Nik. I’ve been making photographs of Nik since 2011. Maybe even earlier. It’s an ongoing project that I plan to keep working on. It’s really interesting to see someone grow up through photographs as I don’t get to see Nik all the time. I plan on making these pictures for a while.

Michael J. Dalton II, (from left) The Gift, 2010; First Communion, 2011

Caiti     You remind me of my brother, which is funny. He works as a trucker at a large rigging company in central Jersey. Three weeks ago he rigged some Richard Serra sculptures over on the west side of Manhattan. (Up until January I worked at an art handling/trucking company. After all this time, and my college degree and his lack thereof, we ended up doing mighty similar things, which makes me happy.) He works insane work weeks, like you. I’ve been gently photographing him when I can, but it’s hard to see him, and now our work schedules are misaligned. It’s strange being from Jersey and one of the only people I know from the neighborhood who left Jersey, went to college, no longer lives in the area, etc, etc. I feel responsible for myself, and the way I move throughout the place where I’m from. I felt much more comfortable, in a way, working at an (albeit art centric) trucking company, in a warehouse full of men, than I do now, working at a bookstore in Manhattan. I felt like my mother and brother in the warehouse. I feel much more out of place now, fish out of water. I bought a pair of heels. It’s very strange.

Michael    I've always loved the part of NJ that inspires the stupid jokes people will tell you about the place, like, "oh, what exit are you from?" That’s a line that used to make my otherwise very calm grandmother into the serious business, no-funny-stuff-nurse-from-World-War-II grandmother who took no shit from anyone.

I think about the places where you can get a gnarly porkroll, egg, and cheese sandwich at a Krauser’s, or those random delis that also second as bars at night. Route 27 or Route 1. Jersey barriers with weeds growing out of the cracks. All the bridges crossing the Passaic River. The abandoned gas station and strip mall off Route 18. It’s strange how I love the landscape, the detritus, even the suburbs that I swore I’d never live in while I was growing up. Maybe I'd hate it like I did when I was in high school if I moved back.

I tried to do the professional photographer thing, the assistant thing, and attempted to work at an art institution. But by that time I was insanely broke from making art and paying Brooklyn rents. I had to get a steady paying job to afford my bills and art supplies so I went back to construction work. I stopped for a few years while I went to grad school, but now I’m back at it. I’ve been doing it for so long now, I know what you mean when you say it’s strange to put on heels.


Michael Dalton    (b. 1985, Marshfield, MA) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York as an artist and construction worker. He received his BFA from The School of Visual Arts and his MFA from The University of Hartford. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and in Berlin. His new monograph, The Great Falls was published by Peperoni Books (Germany, August 2017), complemented by a solo exbhibit at FKK Gallery (Berlin, May 2018).

Caiti Borruso    (b. 1993, Red Bank, NJ) lives and works in three different basements in Brooklyn, NY. On Thursdays she drives to New Jersey and pisses on the side of the road.