The Reservoir

Conversations on Photography


The great gulf between these hopes and their realization seems to illustrate the Underground Man's point: it can be a creative adventure for modern men to build a palace, and yet a nightmare to have to live in it.      

Richard Anderson (from top), Image Title, 20xx; Image Title, 20xx; Image Title, 20xx;  Image Title, 20xx

Romke Hoogwaerts    You shoot a lot of cities, looking at monolithic structures, their attitude, rigidity, dysfunction... in all, it seems like it's really about contemplating the consciousness of modernity, at least in the realm of architecture and sociology.

Richard Paul Anderson    I was living in Milwaukee in 2008, and I felt uniquely drawn to the outmoded factory infrastructure of the rust belt when I was developing an idea of what kind of pictures I wanted to make. Walking through hollowed out and crumbling spaces alone really helped define my visual interests early on. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, my first interaction with the concept of modern architecture (at least from a sociological perspective) came from an understanding of public housing failures like Cabrini Green and the Robert Taylor homes. Living in Chicago, my day to day environment has a visual heft that undoubtedly defines the way I photograph certain environments as well. The city stands over you, everything has structured weight. It feels, it looks, strong and well weathered. For a time I wanted whatever I was photographing to brood at the viewer in a similar fashion, to feel tactile and acutely weighted. I’m trying to get out of the shadows a little more every time I go out. I’m much more drawn to color lately.

In Robert Sommer’s Tight Spaces, the author states “The dream of a society in which people who share a common goal, will trust and respect one another, is being suffocated in a torrent of concrete, steel, and sophisticated security equipment.” Sommers’ passage compliments Berman’s in that it considers the failure of its creator, as ourselves, an increasingly paranoid society. Berman’s passage is referring to the grandiose vision of the modern architect and ultimately their inevitable lack of consideration for a societal need and human imprint on a given space. An element of control by means of surveillance (a supposed good of any safe public or private space) can be detrimental to its inhabitants in that it does not always equate to safety. In an increasingly paranoid society, the intended solutions imposed on ourselves have caused us to grow even more fearful of each other.

Romke    How does your work about architecture relate to your work about car culture? Those photographs seem to embody a kind of clinical investigation of the machismo behind it all.

Richard      I’ve been excited by the shape and sound of cars my whole life, but living in the city makes the experience of driving feel pretty hollow. There’s a certain excitement that comes with photographing spectator racing or car shows and I think from spectator sport to hobby, to the open road; car culture is something to be celebrated invariably.

I started making pictures in dead space: old factories and hollowed out buildings which to me was a no brainer in its relation to photography. The end of time in all things is something I feel invested in as a subject so a good portion of the images in Blown Transmission were mostly shot in scrap yards or pick a part lots. 

Sitting in the back of a junked out conversion van you’d witness these little artifacts suspended in time like a scratched Lil Flip CD resting on the back seat, eight black ice air fresheners bundled to the rear view, clothes and books for long car trips. But with the driver and passenger airbags deployed, the windshield caved in, the stench of smoke, it becomes something else: a tomb. I’m interested in that transformation from a road bound, functioning family van to a violently impacted and haunting space. I was looking at Anthony Hernandez’s Landscapes for the Homeless back then, so similarly I liked seeing what people would leave behind from their life whether it was a violent accident or they were putting an old car out to pasture.

To your point, I do enjoy picking apart and poking fun a bit at some of the more over exaggerated aspects of it all, a certain posturing has been defined throughout the history of architecture and the automobile. Another element of the book follows mass production and marketing of vehicles so to capture that correctly I spent time collecting and scanning through old sales catalogues and photographing auto shows.

Richard Anderson, Treasure Island, 2017

Romke    So in this photo, Treasure Island, we're looking through the Bay Bridge, right?

Richard    We’re looking at SF through the Bay Bridge from a high point on Yerba Buena, adjacent to Treasure Island. I was staying out there a few days, and I found it astonishing that there was this radioactive anomaly just sitting in the bay. I saw crews wrecking out huge blocks of former military barracks and office buildings as part of an ongoing redevelopment project.  If everything wasn’t gone by the time I came back it would be something else entirely, so I tried to take in what I could. My good friend Antonyo, who lives on the island, took me up to this vantage point my first night in. It felt like a picture I didn’t want to make, but the clarity of light in the bay was something I’d never witnessed, and you seldom have the opportunity to marvel at a large-scale bridge in the Midwest.

Romke    The format of Life Blood is brilliant, very narrow and claustrophobic, a little pamphlet-like, very slick design. How did that come together?

Richard    Life Blood came out of an idea my mate Kevin McCaughey and I had to put together a book about the U.S. trucking industry. Our old studio space was next to a large rail yard so it felt natural to set up a chair and photograph trucks going by the studio every day. I had also been collecting a few old magazines dubbed “the voice of the American trucker” called Overdrive that we used a bunch of clippings from.

Richard Anderson, Image Title, 20xx, published by x

Romke    How did you meet Andrés and how did your exhibit in Guatemala come about?

Richard    I met Andrés back in January 2016 In LA. I’d been keeping up with his work for a while and really admired his approach to photography.  I’d picked up his book Ideas De Progreso, and shortly after I’d gotten home we were in talks about working on a long-term project together. The concept came together pretty organically, a little over a year ago. We settled on shooting our respective centers, the center of the U.S. and the center of the Americas. Three days after we’d discussed a concept, I drove ten hours out to a small town in Kansas called Lebanon to make the work. Shortly after, Andrés drove out to Cuilapa, about an hour and a half north of Guatemala City. Andrés was busy finding us a space for a while and we ended up finding a home for the work at La Erre in Guatemala City. The space was a lot larger than we’d originally anticipated, which really challenged the both of us and I think made for an interesting show. It’s an ongoing project, so there are a few things we have planned for the upcoming year.

Romke    Can you tell me what the thesis of the show was?

Richard    In the case of Lebanon, geographically it doesn’t account for Alaska or Hawaii, so the center is a precarious and relatively intangible thing. Pure curiosity got me there just as much as the minuscule importance of this town center only bearing a flagpole designation on top of a hill surrounded by cattle ranches and wheat fields. The town boasts its presence as the center of the U.S. only in bumper sticker souvenirs or in the header of its local newspaper. The subject of rural America after a polarizing election was something I needed to pursue for myself, not to make a pointed argument for or against anything but really just to get in touch with a different set of photographic situations for a brief moment.  

With the wall text we were really lucky to have Paula Kupfer writing for us. I think she really understood how we individually approached the project and brought our concepts together.

Richard Anderson and Andrés Vargas, Image Title, 20xx (install photos)

Paula Kupfer

Where is the center? Why do we seek it? How do you handle a search when there is more than one center? Working as a team and at a distance, photographers Andrés Vargas and Richard Anderson set out to find and represent two nuclei: that of America and that of America, in other words, that of the whole continent as it is known by Latin Americans and Spanish speakers, and that of the United States of America, whose citizens use the abbreviation America to refer to their country. The simultaneous search of two centers that bear almost the same name but describe unequal geographical areas indicates both a semantic incoherence and the carefree attitude reflected in the voracious appetite of a country that has sought to conquer more than just the name given by colonial powers prior to the continent full.

With this exhibition, the first instance of this long-term project, Vargas and Anderson reveal their joint view in portraying both real and metaphorical sites. Thanks to the cartographers and geographers who established the mathematical hearts of both lands - America and America - the search took Guatemalan Andrés Vargas to Cuilapa, capital of the Santa Rosa state of Guatemala, and American Richard Anderson to the town of Lebanon, Kansas. In Cuilapa, Vargas found in the central park an old sculpture of a map that previously, with a bow and a pendulum, marked its median position. Anderson drove for long hours to reach Lebanon, Kansas, a town marked with a road sign - "Geographic Center of the USA" - its position as the focus of the forty-eight contiguous US states.

Once the "centers" were reached, the photographers endeavored to capture the essence of both places, discovering through their landscapes, architecture and vegetation details that suggested or not a self-awareness of their central position. But how to portray a space and capture in its worldly details transcendental keys of the kind of truths that are expected to find in a place called center?

Despite suggesting an absolute definition, the "center"—as a place as a concept—is somewhat ambiguous, with multiple definitions that place it throughout semantics, geography, geometry, and philosophy. What is defined as "the place where information, decisions and decisions converge" is also the "place where a given activity is most intensively developed". But a focus of power, as this project points unambiguously, does not have to remain in the middle. Perhaps the idea of a "main end or object to which one aspires or is attracted to" is the one best suited to describe the project of Vargas and Anderson, whose search was undoubtedly guided by an intense physical and metaphysical curiosity to see the mere center of two territories whose centers might have important implications for our histories - Latin American, American, and relations between both territories.

Beyond potential geopolitical readings, the photographers undertook this search also on a personal and aesthetic level, looking for marks in both places that could reveal some fundamental aspect of the territories with which we identify ourselves. Without forcing ideological interpretations, the artists captured evocative and ambiguous details of the sites they portrayed, discovering in the process some aspect of what it means to get to the heart of a myth: a fundamental myth without narrative that we all carry in some way or another. It is here where the photographs reach their maximum power, by capturing the ambiguity of the simultaneous sensations of discovery and deception, conveying this complexity beyond words.

Richard Anderson (from top), Image Title, 20xx; Image Title, 20xx; Image Title, 20xx; Image Title, 20xx; Image Title, 20xx, (all) from City of the Century

Romke    Where else have you lately exhibited? Do you have anything else in the works?

Richard    I had a show at a new space in Milwaukee (Gallery Kenilworth) for some of my newest work—“SEE RED” in August last year, Andres and I are continuing our work on El Centro De America, and Kevin and I are working on another issue of Life Blood. I have 3 things on the burner that I can’t speak on yet but I’m ecstatic about debuting every one of them :)

Richard Anderson interviewed by Romke Hoogwaerts

Richard Paul Anderson    (b. 1992) is an artist living and working in Chicago. He received his BA from Columbia College Chicago in 2015 and has released 2 publications since: City of the Century: 2016, and Blown Transmission: 2018. Last summer, Anderson debuted a new body of work in Guatemala City, produced in collaboration with Andrés Vargas: El Centro De América—The Center of America