This is part of an intermittent series of interviews with the artists who illustrate the wonderful stories we publish. Below, art editor Ashley Inguanta chats with Carrie Wells.
Carrie Wells is an Austin-based artist working in photography. Rather than identifying herself as a photographer, though, she sees the camera more as a tool for creating compositions. Her images are largely based in the abstract and are motivated by color, texture, and light. They are sometimes studies of surfaces, other times subverting objects in a new, sculptural context. She is interested in examining spaces and things that have long been overlooked, reconsidering their integrity and purpose. Her work deals with issues of reverence, dysfunction, and loss, and the emotional exchange that takes place in the visual conversation.
How would you describe your art?
I largely work in the medium of photography, although I do not identify myself as a photographer. I once heard a colleague call herself “an artist who uses a camera as a tool to create compositions,” which is the most accurate way I could describe myself as well. I think in general when people hear the word “photographer,” they immediately think of portraiture, fashion, or black and white, and I don’t do any of those things. I am most interested in geometry, color, composition, and surface.
The imagery itself is based in the abstract, although much of it is objective. It all goes back to geometry for me. The subject in a picture is never literal. I’m seeing lines and forms come together in this moment. I have done several series where I’ve photographed spaces, but it was never with the intent of the space being representative or identifiable. It is only about what is happening within that space; what the light is doing.
My first photo instructor said that, in the end, my images were about light itself. I agree wholeheartedly.
When did you understand that you wanted to pursue photography? Tell me about this discovery.
When I was an undergrad in studio art, I immediately dove into sculpture, and I remember being totally undaunted by it. With sculpture, I felt everything open up. I always knew I had a strong inclination toward photography, sort of in the back of my mind, although I’d never really done it in a serious sense. It was a quick leap to make from sculpture, though, because I see both as being 3D mediums. I know most people would consider photography a 2D medium; a flat print. Which it is. But I can only think of it in terms of the process and how I approach it, as well as the nature of the type of images I’m inclined to make, which are all examinations of space, objects, surfaces, and texture. So, all very much 3D. I also knew I wanted to make compositions and images, but painting just didn’t hold my interest. The process of photography is well suited for someone like myself: a contemplator, an obsessor, an introvert, and an observer in the world. Not to mention someone who can be totally wrecked and slain by the visual.
It’s from that “observer” part of me that photography extends. I like to produce work in series. Every series I’ve made is ongoing, even if a space no longer exists (many of which I’ve photographed do not). That’s really just a fiber from my personality coming through, though. I never think anything in life is “done”. I’m bad with closure.
When it comes to illustrating stories here at SmokeLong, where does your art begin? Take me through your process.
I will read the story several times and sit with it a while, walking away for a day or two at a time and coming back and reading it again. Then, in a simple and quiet sense, I try to distill it down to mood. I think about what about elements of it I can personally connect with and what form that would take, visually. There may be a literal piece from the story that is conveyed, but it will not be what the image is talking about. I’ve gotten nothing but support and encouragement from SmokeLong, so I approach that work process very openly.
4. Who are some of your favorite artists?
I’m so bad at answering this question because I’ll be into someone at the moment and forget someone I’ve been following for years. Let’s see… Jenny Holzer, Gerhard Richter, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Lauren Greenfield, Lucian Freud, Lance Letscher, Tim Davis, John Divola. About Divola in particular, I love so many of his series because his process is so raw and evident. He responds to his environment. Specific images from his “Vandalism” and “Isolated Houses” series will be forever in my mind. They’re just such good ideas. I think, more than anything, that’s what grabs me in any art medium: what a good idea something was. And it can just be a sketch of an idea. It doesn’t even have to be fully resolved. It can just be a moment. I just love that the artist was compelled to act on it. Like Divola spray painting in the houses, in response to the light. It’s purely gestural.
I also recently bought a book of Burk Uzzle’s work at a used bookstore in Houston that I can’t seem to put down.
Tell me about the wildest piece you’ve done.
Sometimes I throw my camera in my car, pick a direction, and drive, and end up on some back road in Texas, trespassing on someone’s property, poking around where I shouldn’t be. I have honestly feared for my life more than once, where my gut was telling me this was a really bad idea, but I kind of feel most alive in those moments, so for that reason I forge ahead. I’m pretty fearless in a pragmatic, what-are-the-odds kind of way.
One specific project I did was going through the channels of the City of Austin to get permission to photograph the old abandoned power plant. A woman came out and met me one morning and gave me a key to the place. I was alone. It’s an enormous, cavernous cement building, totally gutted, stripped, and half-dismantled in the most glorious way. It was a few stories tall, and extended a few stories underground as well. I immediately got to work, starting on the main floor and working my way around. I was busy shooting all morning, in love with this place, my face stuffed in a camera for hours. At one point, a workman stopped by and flippantly warned me to watch out for the six-foot-long corn snake that lived in the basement levels, to which I said, “ha, ha.” I spent all morning working my way through the upper levels, then moving further and further down into the basement. There was no electricity in the building (ironically), it was totally silent, and there were many rooms on those lower levels that I stood in the doorway of, staring into pitch darkness, not knowing if they were ten or a thousand feet across. I was fueled by fascination, though, so the creepiness hadn’t even really occurred to me. Then all at once, I looked around at the darkness, in the silence, and thought of how purely and utterly vulnerable I was. It was a dreadful, sinking feeling. How, if a person were lurking down there and attacked me, nobody would even know. If a snake really were to emerge; again, alone. I got a cumulative case of the shivers, and suddenly had to get the fuck out of there immediately. I ran to the nearest stairwell, which led up to a locked door. I had to go back down, camera and gear in hand, past the open rooms into black holes, and get to the other stairwell to make my way back up the three stories to the ground floor.
I’m not sure how wild the work was that came from that series, but the experience was probably the most memorable. I still want to go back and build on the series.
If you could collaborate with any photographer, who would it be and why? Tell me about the project you two would create.
I will say Tim Davis. He is a photographer who lives in New York and teaches at Bard College. I really appreciate his work because, in addition to it being beautiful, it almost feels familiar to me because I experience it in such a visceral way, like I really understand what he sees. I love his “Office”, “Hospital”, and “Retail” series.
What would we create together? God, I’d hate to think I could have a hand in his process and not compromise it in some way. I heard that the Little Debbie snack company closed down recently. Tim Davis and I would hunker down in one of their empty plants and make a series there. I bet that place could get really interesting. Sadly, grossly, bizarrely interesting.
Are you working on any new projects?
I am in a collaborative partnership with my friend Adeena Reitberger, a short fiction writer, and I recently made some work in response to pieces of her writing. It’s still in the editing phase.
On the horizon, I am hoping to embark on a project where I will be photographically recreating a car trip my grandparents made in 1938. I have three scrapbooks and an accompanying journal from their trip, which was meticulously documented. I’d like to make the same trip with the same itinerary, day for day, and photograph all of the places they went. If the places no longer exist, I will shoot whatever stands in their place now. It will be very research-heavy on the front end, I realize. In the end, I’d like to make a book of it, showcasing their old photos and scrapbook details alongside my own images, and see what kind of life it takes on; whether it becomes sort of a historical record of the changing landscape of America, or if it would be about connecting with my grandparents whom I never really got to know. I knew my grandmother when I was young, but my grandfather died before I was born.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I am grateful for the opportunities that places like SmokeLong present for the working-class creative. It’s an invaluable resource. It is so validating to be asked to contribute to SmokeLong, and I have been entirely motivated by the work of the writers with whom I’m collaborating. The creative class is alive and well.