The Locusts: A Conversation With Jesse Lenz
When photographer and publisher Jesse Lenz first settled down on a farm in rural Ohio with his family he was forced to reimagine long-held beliefs about process, practice, art, and life. After several years of living and traveling North American in an airstream, he discovered a different sort of movement and change. While his children's imaginations ran wild in the fields, finding and creating worlds amongst and alongside plants, insects, and animals, Lenz's own eyes opened to a whole new way of seeing the world around him. Remaining in one place in no way necessitates being static (something many of us has been forced to reconcile with this year), and in fact can reveal to us what we've long forgotten. With his first major monograph, The Locusts, Lenz finds that the magic of childhood is the perfect vehicle with which to understand change, whether it's seasonal cycles of birth and death or the natural imperfections of simply being alive in this world.
Alex Nicholson: The uncertainty and turbulence in the world right now can often feel pretty oppressive. We’ve talked before about how that can affect the motivation to create art. How have you dealt with it in your practice? What role does photography play in being able to roll with the ups and downs of life?
Jesse Lenz: Art is how I understand the world and people around me. I often talk with people who seem to think that the only time you can or should create art is when you're being paid or are in a good mood and inspired. To me, making art is no different than breathing or taking a shit. It's something that I have to do every day regardless of motivation, the mood I am in, or what's going on in the world. If I don't, I will explode. I feel that is what separates an artist from everyone else.
This year, almost everyone, no matter where they live, has had to deal with spending lots of time in one place. How has the repetition and routine of exploring the same place over and over again influenced your work?
Familiarity with a place or a person allows for a deeper level of intuition and love. There is more opportunity to appreciate and love subtly and move past more obvious representations. Subtlety is very important, especially now in a world that is polarized and extreme. You also have the opportunity to observe something multiple times before you decide to photograph it. This is very important for my work. It allows me to experience something magical without feeling the need to run and grab a camera because I know it will most likely happen again. I can be patient, wait for interesting weather, and then go hunt for the photograph. I often photograph the same subject over and over and then finally get a good photo where everything came together and magic happened. There are Great blue herons that come to my backyard and I photograph them almost every time I see them (3-5 times a week). In two years of doing that I only have two images that are successful. That is the math for all pictures. Having that repetition and routine in a consistent place allows for that awareness and patience.
You mentioned that as this book came together you found you were taking more and more pictures that fit as the years progressed. What do you attribute that to? Increased clarity of vision? Practice?
It was a combination of both. When I began on this work it was also the beginning of finding and establishing my own voice in photography. For years I had been working on my 10,000 hours and making work with The Collective Quarterly and Coyote Journal, but it didn't feel like a unified voice. I didn't really know what I was looking for aesthetically or subject matter wise. I was trying on many hats to see which felt right. At a certain point, I knew the way I wanted my work to feel and it was the first brick in the wall. It was like having a tuning fork. I could look at images and know which ones were in tune together. I got a sense of what was making them connect and was able to keep that in mind when I was shooting and editing. It is a gut feeling more than a conceptual idea or narrative. I was still VERY far from understanding what they were and how to put them together in a body of work, but at least I wasn’t shooting in the dark anymore.
Can you talk a little bit about that jump from having a collection of pictures to seeing where you had to take it in order for it to become a book?
I had always taken pictures of my children but never thought of it as a "body of work." I’ve never been drawn to work about family. I liked gritty work about extreme subjects. All art is biographical and my artistic decisions are a reflection of an internal landscape that I am trying to navigate. When I moved to Ohio it began an entire deconstruction process that impacted my thoughts, process, practice, and beliefs about art and life. I wanted to learn to love the place I was and I knew it was going to require my full artistic focus to find the magic. I can remember the first photo I took that really stopped me in my tracks. It seemed like it was from a different world, a parallel universe. I knew I wanted to make more like that. They were images that felt like scenes from IT by Steven King or something directed by Terrence Malick or Andrei Tarkovsky. At that point, I realized I could make the surreal, dark, gritty, and emotive work I wanted to make in my own backyard if I could find a way to see that parallel universe by looking through my viewfinder.
How do you make the distinction between your children being the subjects of your photos vs. actors in your images?
When I think of my children as actors it's more to say that I am not trying to make work about their childhood, their lives, or any sort of documentary work. I came to photography through photojournalism. In my mind, to tell a gritty story, you had to find the perfect subject and story and help the person tell it. What I realized with my own work is that I wanted to share the internal landscape that I was traversing with photography, which is difficult because you have to find subject matter to put into the frame. Often, I feel this is where "art photographers" go off the rails and do self-portraiture in their studios and photograph empty landscapes to portray their own loss and emptiness, blah blah blah. However, I did realize that people were having an emotional response to photographs I took of my children. Not because they loved my children, or that they were cute or funny, but because they were archetypes of childhood. The images stirred up the magic and terrors associated with growing up. A process that is always at work and never finished in our lives. A collector recently emailed me saying, "When I flip through its pages It gives me a ghostly feeling, as though the sands of your own life have fallen through another's fingers." When I am watching and photographing my children, I am looking less at who they are and what they are doing and more at how they are doing it and why. I am looking for wormholes to fall into.
Can you share a few of the insights and words of wisdom you've taken the most to heart over the years from the artists and publishers you work with at Charcoal? Are there ones that had a particular impact on The Locusts?
Fall in love with something in the world around you. Become obsessed with experiencing it before you try to make anything. Photography is at its best when it is a way to access and process the world around us. Too many people are making art whose only obsession is art. That becomes incestuous and boring. Stephen King said, "Art is a support system for life, not the other way around.” My goal has never been to make art, I've just always made art because I am an artist. My desire has been to experience magic. This is really the mindset and desire of our imprint, Charcoal Press. To publish books that examine our connection and estrangement to the natural world. Books from artists who are actively searching for magic in their own lives, who are making photography as a result of that journey. There are many folks who have helped this book along the way, Jonathan Levitt and Igor Posner being the two main photographic voices. Brad Zellar was also a big help in understanding how to articulate the work in words.
What have been the benefits of self-publishing and what was the hardest part throughout the process of creating the book?
Certainly retaining creative control from start to finish. Being able to keep a cohesive vision through the entire process: from edit, sequence, production, and material selection allows for a much more personal and meaningful end product. However, that is not always a good thing for every book or artist. I would suggest that unless you have 10,000 hours of editing photo essays, books, or publishing that you should consider working with someone that does. The hardest part of self-publishing a book is learning how to trust your gut and know when to listen to critique and when to ignore. At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut and a small group of people that understand the work and what you are trying to do. You need to let them into the work after you have wrestled with it and get it to a place that you are pretty happy. You need to have your walls and roof built and your floor plan designed before you ask anyone to walk through and tell you what they think because everyone has opinions. Too many people in photography get distracted by the bells and whistles of books and forget that it is ultimately about the photographs. Great photo books are full of great photographs. The best advice I have for anyone wanting to make books is to read Stephen King's On Writing. It is the best book about photo books that isn't about photo books.