David Emitt Adams
Sometimes when it comes to choosing people to interview here, it’s really quite the no-brainer. I love to highlight people that myself and others can both learn from, and also get a little push in the inspiration department. These people are more often than not, very busy and difficult to nail down for the time to conduct the interview. It’s always worth the effort, because their work and their words genuinely come through every time. This time around it was the simple choice to reach out to David Emitt Adams, as he not only produces some incredible works, but as an educator, he can provide much needed insight into practices of the photographic industry we love so dearly.
To be honest, back when I first connected with David’s work, it was through his Conversations with History collection, and had nothing to do with education at all, other than the fact that the historical aspect of the work was so evident. He had also created some new work, called Power, that I’ll be highlighting a little more here. Fast forward a few years later, and we are in Portland, attending the Photolucida portfolio reviews together. For any number of reasons we don’t connect at all until we were literally leaving for the airport at the same time. We lamented about not having had any time to share what’s been going on with each other and our work, before heading home. Of course, that simply made me want to learn what I could by going to David’s website and looking at all he had to offer there. Between that and social media, I learned how much David was into the educational aspects of what we do as photographers, and was clearly doing just that.
This leads me to where I was completely blown away by David. As an educator, he is spending time teaching the wet plate collodion process to young minds, among other things. It’s his forte, and the process used to create the aforementioned bodies of work that first got my attention. Now, I’m going to edit myself and remove an entire section where I gush over his amazing body of work, 36 Exposures, that he accomplished with a class of former students. You’ll get the picture in the interview, and you don’t need me trying to describe it to you. It’s just that this is what I see as the ultimate culmination of taking your practice and turning around to your students, and not just instructing them, but making them a key part of the process of their own education. This type of project leads me to why I want to interview those whom I find creative, intelligent, and inspirational. We need people like this in our lives, as they provide that extra step, that push, and that idea with which we can further our own practice. David Emitt Adams has thought this all through, and he has some information that you are going to want to pay attention to.
I’m all in, brother.
David Emitt Adams is a photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He obtained his Bachelor of Fine Art from Bowling Green State University and a Master of Fine Art from Arizona State University. David’s photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally including museum exhibitions at Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Phoenix Art Museum, Wichita Art Museum, Roswell Museum and Art Center, Southern Utah Museum of Art, Tucson Museum Art, the Chrysler Museum of Art, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and most recently at Museum of Fine Arts Boston. He is a recipient of the Clarence John Laughlin Award, the Puffin Foundation Grant and the Arizona Commission on the Arts Research and Development Grant. His work is in the permanent collection of The Center for Creative Photography, The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, The George Eastman Museum, and The Worcester Art Museum as well as numerous private collections. David’s work is represented by the Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona and PhotoEye Gallery in Santa Fe, NM.
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions and your work and process, David, I appreciate this time to get to know more. Can you start off with some background on how and why you were driven towards the photographic arts?
David Emitt Adams: Thanks Michael, I am grateful for this opportunity. The circumstance that drove me to photography was the way I was raised. My parents worked in the foreign service and I moved every three years of my life up until I went to college. I was born in Arizona and lived in Ohio, California, New York, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Jakarta, Indonesia all before my eighteenth birthday. This continual relocation and exploration sparked my interest in photography as a way to capture transitions and life experiences.
MK: What is your primary objective in photography?
DEA: Photography has the power to inspire, create dialogue, and provoke change. If my work can do any one of those things, I would be grateful.
MK: Is there anything from your past that you feel has had a dramatic influence on how you create images today?
DEA: Without a doubt my two undergraduate photography professors Lynn Whitney and Lou Krueger at Bowling Green State University. I had very little training in the arts before my undergraduate studies so I was a sponge to their teachings. Between them, one is completely traditional and the other experimental to the bone with their photographic practices and teaching styles. Learning from them as a young artist had a great impact on me. I learned to respect traditional darkroom practices and the importance of photography’s origins while not being afraid to question it and turn it on its head. Even today, these two philosophies are engrained in my arts practice.
MK: Your work using the wet plate collodion process to create unique tintypes is most known. How did you get into this process, and what were some of the biggest hurdles you had to overcome?
DEA: This process always intrigued me, but it wasn’t until around 2008 that I learned there were photographers still actively using it. I saw an issue of National Geographic magazine featuring Robb Kendrick’s tintypes and I decided to reach out to him to see if he needed an assistant. Robb was living in Mexico and did not have any wet plate projects planned at the time, so he suggested I learn from the person who taught him, John Coffer. I could not afford to take one of John’s workshops, so I suggested a barter: I would work for him as a farm hand for a week in trade for learning the wet plate process with him. He agreed to this and for the most part I have used wet plate in my art practice ever since.
MK: I wanted to highlight a smaller project (though big in concept) that you had done some years ago. The 36 Exposures work is something that you created of your students at the time - carefully photographing them onto tintypes from the metal of the 35mm film canisters that they had used themselves. This work impresses me by all measure, as it shows not just a commitment to craft, but one to your teaching. There is a respect and admiration for your very own students that is quite clear. I have to ask, what does teaching mean to you and how are these efforts reflected in the work that you create yourself?
DEA: That is a very thoughtful observation - thank you very much for saying that! I have had a handful of wonderful teachers and mentors throughout my life and these experiences have motivated me to share my knowledge. Teaching can be extremely rewarding. It is wonderful to see students learn to make great photographs and speak about them intelligently. The students I photographed in 36 Exposures were all new to photography, most had never used a film camera before. It is a very exciting prospect and humbling experience to be the person who could spark an interest in someone that could last a lifetime.
36 Exposures ~
MK: In line with the above question of your teaching. You also spend a fair amount of time conducting workshops both domestically and internationally. What would one expect to encounter at your workshops, and have there been any instances where you felt that you’d received as much from the workshop as your participants?
DEA: Absolutely! Every couple of years my wife, fellow artist Claire A. Warden and I teach a workshop in Benabbio, Italy. The structure is completely different than the structure of the workshops I teach in the U.S., not to mention it is located in a beautiful hillside town in Tuscany. We focus not only on technique but personal and concept development – it truly feels like enriching the soul. The participants in this workshop always inspire me and we become very close within a relatively short amount of time. The U.S. workshops are three-day to one-week technique driven intensives usually put on by universities for their students or art centers for the public. Depending on the workshop length, we can hone in on each student’s technique in hopes that they can continue the process on their own in the future. I just finished a two-week camera building and wet plate workshop at Penland School of Craft and I hope to do that again as soon as possible.
MK: What do you feel is the best way for you to grow as an artist? Are there any fears behind treading new waters?
DEA: The only way to grow as an artist is to work through ideas. I have zero fears in treading new water. My only concerns are being able to afford the financial costs of the ideas I have already started. POWER, the photographs on the 55-gallon oil drum lids, is a very expensive undertaking and because of that it could take a very long time to complete.
MK: In the Conversations with History body of work, you mention your love for the desert of the Southwestern U.S. What draws you to the desert to capture it in such a unique and beautiful way?
DEA: The work has a duality of life’s beauty and harsh reality. The Sonoran Desert is such a captivating landscape that demands respect. So why is it I can pick up trash that someone has carelessly dropped in the desert yesterday? There seems to be a tradition of dumping trash in the desert, as if no one saw you do it, it did not happen. The objects I choose to pick up and make photographs on are the oldest ruminants of trash from modern society that I can find. They are markers of time much like a photograph itself. The photographs that I make on the objects show the environment where the objects were found. I am drawn to the challenge of this landscape, which is ironic as I have come up with one the most challenging ways of photographing it. Every now and then I ask myself why I have turned making photographs into such a difficult practice, but I am reminded of the answer by the reward of the outcome.
MK: Aligning the images and context of your work in POWER with such an apropos way of creating the unique and finished objects is striking. How did this work come about, will it continue to grow, and do you see it as an extension of Conversations with History in any way? Is the former informed by the latter?
DEA: It was definitely a transitional process, in that 36 Exposures led to Conversations with History and Conversations with History to POWER. 36 Exposures opened my mind to what a photograph could be. While working on that project I realized I could now make photographs on objects that speak to the nature of what I am photographing.
MK: From a logistical and technical standpoint, how did you come up with the idea of applying your images with the collodion process directly onto objects from your environment the way you do? Is there a hidden formula or technique that you keep guarded, or is it something you feel able to share?
DEA: (Laughing) There are no secrets. Or are there… I think the idea that there are secrets comes from no other photographer using collodion in such a way before. I do like that there is some technical mystery behind the work because at minimum the viewer will question what they are looking at and how it is done.
MK: Do you have any other creative pursuits, or has photography become the one obsession that always takes precedence?
DEA: Photography has become the one obsession that takes precedence. If I am doing anything other than art making, it’s art-related.
MK: Do you study what others are doing, and do you find their influence in your own image making?
DEA: Like everyone now I am constantly absorbing what artists are making because of social media. I’m not influenced by what other artists are doing but I am inspired by artists that have something that is uniquely theirs. As a young photographer I can remember vividly the first time I saw the work of Abelardo Morell and Mark Klett. It was as much the ideas behind the work as it was the images themselves that were influential. They both work from a deep love for the history of the medium and history of place – something that has had my photographic interest from day one. Another notable influential experience was walking into Imaging a Shattering Earth Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto during their 2005 Contact Festival. This exhibition, curated by Claude Baillargeon, included Edward Burtynsky, John Ganis, Peter Goin, Emmet Gowin, David T. Hanson, Jonathan Long, David Maisel, David McMillan, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, John Pfahl, and Mark Ruwedel.
MK: Moving back to the subject of your teaching - is there a motto or sentiment that you often impart to your students when it comes to developing an aesthetic of vision of their own?
DEA: There is a turning point for most students when they stop mimicking other artists’ ideas and start to focus on their own journey and how photography works for them. Sometimes I get the joy of watching this transition and other times it comes later. But the only way they are going to get there is through hard work and constant creating.
MK: What is on the horizon for you? Are there any new projects or new work coming to existing bodies of work we should be on the lookout for? Or maybe there is another workshop or exhibition you wish to highlight?
DEA: I am really excited about my upcoming exhibition at Candela Books + Gallery in Richmond, VA September 6 – October 29, 2019. It is my first solo show of the POWER series at a commercial gallery. I also have a weekend workshop coming up November 16-17 at Art Intersection in Gilbert, Arizona. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if any of your readers want more information about the workshops I have coming up. The best way to follow my practice and what I’m working on is through Instagram. Thanks again for this opportunity Michael!
You can find more of David's work at his website here.