Ian van Coller
Sometimes photographs and those that create them come from seemingly unlikely places. I am pretty sure that the first time I saw Ian van Coller’s name and work….was on Instagram. Sure, not unlikely in that there’s where you are going to find photographs, but often your expectations tend to be, well, lower. So when one does find amazing work on the ‘ol IG, you tend to sit up and take notice. I remember seeing images from Montana - clear, blue skies, and green grass and rolling hills. Then I see a guy in Iceland, with his whole family mind you, visiting incredible landscapes and updating everyone on how gorgeous it is there, and how he is obviously working on what will likely be some project of stature. “Cool”, I thought…completely underestimating what he was doing.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I get to meet the guy whom I’ve been voyeuristically keeping an eye on through social media. A little creepy? You bet, but I was intrigued. It’s 2015, and we are both participating in the Photolucida portfolio reviews in Portland, Oregon. I was literally taken aback - not by Ian - but by the incredible books he had hand made in the most stunning way. An attention to detail in enormous form was on display, and presented proudly by the man himself. He was serious…and knowledgeable…and clearly very dedicated to what he was working on. I love seeing that in a photographer, especially one whose work has merit and purpose in the overall scheme of our planet. Is it any wonder that he has recently received high honors, not to mention an achievement of a career well served? I'm just going to leave it at that, because I want you all to hear it from him.
Also, for the record, I would never, EVER, roll my eyes at anything Ian were to express in any way. Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.
2018 Guggenheim Fellow
Professor, Montana State University 2006-2018
Ian van Coller was born in 1970, in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in the country during a time of great political turmoil. These formative years became integral to the subject matter van Coller has pursued throughout his artistic career. His work has addressed complex cultural issues of both the apartheid and post-apartheid eras, especially with regards to cultural identity in the face of globalization, and the economic realities of every-day life.
Van Coller received a National Diploma in Photography from Technikon Natal in Durban, and in 1992 he moved to the United States to pursue his studies where he received a BFA from Arizona State University, and an MFA from The University of New Mexico. He currently lives in Bozeman, Montana with his wife, children, and three dogs.
His work has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally and is held in many significant museum collections, including The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Getty Research Institute, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Library of Congress, and The South African National Gallery. Van Coller's first monograph, Interior Relations, was published by Charles Lane Press (New York) in 2011. He is a member of the Piece of Cake collective.
Van Coller's most recent work focuses on environmental issues related to climate change and deep time. These projects have centered on the production of large scale artist books, as well as direct collaborations with paleo-climatologists. Van Coller's Guggenheim Fellowship will be (motivated) by collaborations with scientists in Norway, Svalbard, Baffin Island, Greenland, Brazil, Chile, Antarctica, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana.
Michael Kirchoff: How about some background on how you got your start with photography?
Ian van Coller: My first camera was a Minolta SRTMCII when I was 12 years old. I grew up in suburban Johannesburg where my mother was an obsessive gardener. I spent my time wandering her large garden trying to photograph birds. In high school my family traveled a lot in Southern Africa during vacations. We would pack up the 4x4 and head to far flung places in Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. I really loved those trips—the landscapes, the mammals and the birds. In high school I was pretty sure I was going to be a wildlife photographer. Then I went to photo school and things changed.
MK: Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, through the 70’s and 80’s, it would seem logical that this would have a specific effect on how you view the world and create within a photographic narrative. How has this environment impacted your work?
IvC: Yes, certainly, growing up in South Africa during the last days of apartheid has defined who I am as a person and as an artist. It would probably take a book to unpack the impacts of that time. Primarily it has made me keenly aware of my white male privilege, and that lives of privilege are lived largely at the expense of others and the environment. So in a nutshell, I would say that my history growing up has made me care about social and environmental justice.
MK: What is it that you get out of creating photographs? Is there an overriding theme in your work that you feel best represents you as an artist?
IvC: Making photographs helps me be present in the world. In general I am not a very present person, and photography helps me to focus and carefully contemplate a scene. It is a need that I don’t think I can articulate very well, but it is a very satisfying expressive outlet.
MK: I’ve always seen you as someone capable of not just taking on a lot, but making significant accomplishments in your endeavors both personal and professional. How do you prioritize and manage this?
IvC: This is surprising to me as I consider myself to be a terrible time manager. It may help that I have a short attention span. I will focus on my work for a bit, then I get bored and need to focus on University work. Then I need a break from that and need to spend time with the family or with my dogs in the mountains. I am consistent in that I just keep plugging away at things. I am completely anti-social, so that gives me a lot of extra time.
MK: What is your primary objective in photography?
IvC: That has shifted over time. Now it is primarily to help people care about the environment. Climate change is the defining issue of this century. Things are going to get very bad. I believe that artists and photographers can change minds. And the need is urgent. My intent with my books is also to make eulogies to the things that we are losing due to climate change. As glaciers melt and we lose more forests, hopefully some record will at least exist in books.
MK: Has technology changed your process in any way, or do you stick to an “old school” way of working? Film, digital, who cares?
IvC: Digital has dramatically changed how I work. While I still photograph with a view camera (both 4x5 and 8x10), I now use that process only for specific projects. There is nothing that looks like a sheet of film from an 8x10. The obvious but important answer is that digital allows me to work faster. I have a lot of ideas, and there are many artist books that I want to make. I probably have 5 or 6 such projects in my head at this moment. Life is busy with kids and a full time teaching job, and film would slow me down too much. I love the process of photographing with a view camera, how intentional it is, and I try to remember that process when I am photographing digitally. Putting a camera on a tripod does that to some extent. It lends itself towards giving me the formal qualities that I am drawn to in photography.
MK: What mental preparations do you make to execute a particular shoot or project that you are excited about? Do you ever look back and find that nothing you had planned is what was done, yet you feel completely satisfied with the outcome?
IvC: Previsualization is an essential part of my process. With a family, my travel time is often limited, usually to a maximum of two weeks away. I contemplate obsessively before an expedition about what I want to photograph and achieve, usually for as much as a year in advance. I always look at online images of a place I’m going to visit. The idea for a new book will evolve in my head over that time. I think that helps result in being able to produce a book I am happy with from each trip, even though I may only have 2 weeks to photograph. Occasionally expectations don’t meet what I had hoped for. For example, in 2015 I went to Quelccaya glacier in Peru with a group of ice and climate scientists. I have realized since, that I need more time to get that project to somewhere I will make a book from it. So I will probably head back there at some point.
MK: Do you have any other creative pursuits, and if so, do they inform your work as a photographer in any way?
IvC: I guess I would call gardening a creative endeavor, so yes, I love to garden. It connects you to the earth. We don’t have enough of being connected to the earth these days. I have several other hobbies too⎯birdwatching, hiking, fly-fishing, and I think that is important in helping keep me passionate about the larger world.
MK: A person can learn a lot about oneself while traveling, and you have made many international journeys in the pursuit of your photography. Are there any epiphanies regarding your process, or otherwise, that have occurred while out in the field with your camera?
IvC: Not sure I have any profound insights. While I consider myself a home body, I also really love to travel. It takes me out of my comfort zone and gives me a fresh perspective on the world. It is important to me to meet people that live and see the world differently. It helps bring perspective to one’s own life.
MK: I love a good travel story. Care to share an interesting or harrowing experience from photographing for one of your projects?
IvC: I love to be in the mountains with my camera, so have ended up in some fairly sketchy spots. Probably the most frightening was almost being blown off a very high and steep moraine on the side of a glacier in Glacier National Park. A violent storm blew in faster than we could get to a safe spot. My feet literally started to lift off the ground from the force of the wind and I was inches from going over the edge. That was the closest I have come to thinking I was going to die for my photography.
MK: Much of your work is intended to be released as a limited edition book. I remember witnessing the immense and stunning books you created for Lundi and Fissure during the Photolucida portfolio reviews, in 2015, and their magnificence remains with me to this day. Is there a particular process you take while designing your book projects, or are they all distinctly different in their execution?
IvC: There are many similarities in the books I make, but each one is also different. Since 2011, my books have been bound in the drum-leaf form. For me, it is the ideal artist book form for photographers who are making books by hand. It allows you to print single spreads that are then folded into folios, that are then simply stacked and bound. I also like to print on a particular Japanese washi paper. Those two things help keep a similar feel through all the books. The major differences are in content, layout, and fabrics chosen for binding. I definitely have a sequencing and layout style, so I try to be conscious of not becoming too repetitive or formulaic.
I want my books to envelop the viewer in the landscape that they may never be able to visit. In a small way I want to convey the experience of that landscape in minute detail. And so I really like to make books that are very large.
MK: What is it you love about making books, and is that always the intention now?
IvC: My art background is in printmaking as well as photography. Printmaking taught me to love ink on paper. I have been making artist books since I was an undergraduate at Arizona State University, and I love the ability to make very specific material choices that will make the final experience of paging through a book. The handmade artist book format, has become my ideal vehicle for conceptual expression within the photographic medium. The lifespan of an exhibition is short lived, even for the most accomplished of artists, whereas a book can permanently encapsulate an entire body of work in a specific sequence that the photographer intended, and will remain that way for as long as that book is preserved. Books produced in editions can effectively broaden the viewing audiences. The books I make are created in small editions of six to fifteen. We are living in a "golden age" for the photographic books. There has been an explosion of available titles due to the advent of on-demand publishing and inkjet printers. However, the ease of photography book publishing has led to a massive proliferation of titles that are wide ranging in quality. My books are all hand made, and because I am able to choose the project-specific materials, I am able to push beyond the typical scale and aesthetics that can be achieved by traditional publishers and on-demand publishing.
On the practical side, I do not sell that many prints and have found it exceptionally expensive to mount solo exhibitions. I certainly couldn’t recoup my costs from doing a solo show, let alone make a living that way. Making artist books has become a sustainable financial model for me. The books sell for a decent amount of money, around $1,000 for a smaller book when it is first released, to $16,000 for a large scale book that is at the end of the edition, and for the last four years they have been in fairly high demand. I am able to sell almost everything I make.
MK: You’ve recently returned from photographing all new work in Colombia. Can you tell us about your travels and the working process of this project?
IvC: This in a way is a return to my roots. Over time I have realized what I care about most is the natural world. And we are destroying it at a stupefying rate. I believe that for the rest of my career I will focus on making large scale artist books that are meant to preserve (in some form) the things we are losing due to climate change or habitat destruction.
Colombia is a country I have wanted to visit for a long time, mostly because it has more species of birds than any other, more than 20% of all bird species on earth. I remember as a kid seeing photos of Andean Cock-of-the-Rock’s at a lek in a National Geographic, Since then Colombia has been high on my list. Due to difficulties within the country, travel has been next to impossible until the last decade or so. One of the positive things about the conflict in Colombia is that it has left large swaths of primary forest and jungle in pristine condition. So I finally managed to put a trip together with my son who is 16, and in the months before, I thought carefully about what it was I wanted to photograph and what book I might produce. I was so inspired by Colombia’s gorgeous and verdant landscape that I started printing for the book within hours of returning home. The book which will be 30”x40” (almost the exact size of Audobon’s mammoth books) is now in process (and will take about 6 months to produce the artist proof) will include landscape and bird photographs, hand written annotations, and bird paintings by a Colombian artist. I really enjoy the collaborative process and am trying to do that more and more in all my projects—bring in different voices.
MK: I’ve mentioned some instances of the hard work and determination you’ve shown throughout your career, and now there is significant recognition you’ve been granted as a Guggenheim Fellow for 2018. My most sincere congratulations to you, Ian! Can you give us a little insight into the process of this achievement, and what it takes to make this happen?
IvC: Thank you, I really appreciate that. Receiving the fellowship is really huge for me and makes me feel validated and that the work is at least somewhat worthwhile. When I am teaching, I tell my students at the beginning of every semester that I value hard work, and if they do that and continue to improve, they will do well in the class. In this overcrowded market where there are so many incredibly talented photographers, I believe hard work to be the number one quality one needs for success. Just keep being passionate about what you do and plugging away at your artistic endeavor.
2017 was not the first time I had applied for the award. In fact, when I was at the Guggenheim award evening in NYC in May, I was able to meet ten of the other photography recipients, and of all of them, only one received the award on her first try. So first piece of advice, be willing to persevere.
Then I would have to say, it has to be the right idea at the right time in your career. Don’t force it. When I wrote the 1st draft of my proposal and sent it to two previous Guggenheim winners for advice, they told me straight up that it was no good. I am used to writing academic grants that are dry and that apparently was a problem. They both told me to make it personal, and so I had to think hard about why I cared about my idea, and then tried to convey why others should care too. Ultimately, what I wrote was stream of consciousness that come out of my head in about six hours.
Also make really stellar prints, on good paper, at the largest size you are allowed. At least if that is your process. And send the prints in a nice box. I heard firsthand what terrible quality some of the portfolio boxes were that the Guggenheim Foundation receives. The committee spends a great deal of time looking at the prints, and the names they send forward to the board of directors have to be unanimous. So make it look really good and show that you care.
For the process you are allowed four letters of support. I have no real insight into that selection other than to say, pick people who love your work and can write passionately about it. I know word on the street is that you must have another Guggenheim winner write for you. Honestly I don’t know if that is important at all. I tried to choose people who could give a variety of perspectives on my work⎯a previous Guggenheim winner who has known my work for a decade, my book dealer, a climate scientist, and the Dean of my college, who is also a curator and a huge supporter of my work.
MK: Photography is not as easy as people on Instagram try to make it look. (I just rolled my eyes a bit, I admit). Do you have any advice for the aspiring photographer?
IvC: It is certainly not easy to make a living at photography these days. I really am a strong believer in education, but it concerns me that so many students go into debt to get a degree in photography. I feel very privileged to be an academic. It allows me the freedom not to worry about the next job or health insurance for my family, and just focus on my work.
So you will probably roll your eyes at my answer. I advise my students to do the same as I do, ask yourself what you care about? Lots of people can make really excellent photographs. So why should anyone care about your photographs more than anyone else’s. That is something I have tried to stick to my entire career—make projects about subjects you are 100% passionate about. If your heart is not in it, the photos might be awesome for Instagram, but where will they go beyond there?
Also learn how to make very good prints. I am grateful for my background as a printmaker. It really made me appreciate how the image and the ink sit on paper. Making good physical prints (whatever process you use) will make you a better photographer.
And be prepared to work hard and persevere.
You can find more of Ian's work at his website here.