Work and words by Ward Long
Interview via emails, September 2018
Where were you in your life when you began photographing? Do you recall something specific that inspired it?
I didn’t start photographing until after college. Sometime senior year, I started to drift. I’d spent my whole life chasing after scores and awards. I majored in political science, got a summer internship, and met the well-read architects of various dumb wars. When I realized that I had been preparing for a life that wouldn’t make me happy, I sank. I stopped going to class and I started hanging around the library. I was looking for answers.
I eventually worked my way over to the photography section, full of waxy library re-bindings with the titles stamped on the spine. There were big mysteries inside. Walker Evans and Ed Ruscha really stumped me. The picture was there, a record, as much of a thing as the thing itself. It was a billboard, a road sign, a word, an old building, a plain face. But it was also a joke, a short story, a torn-up love letter.
I feel in love with these deadpan pictures, which at first seemed too dumb to breathe, and then seemed like a whole hurricane of facts and feelings. I tried to take my own pictures, and I slowly learned about patience. Photography was a license to see and notice, and a way to document and share that seeing. It became a way to spend time with myself when I hadn’t really taken the time to do that before.
Do your photo projects reflect different chapters of your life? And, are those projects usually imaged in advance or do they present themselves to you as you go?
Many of my projects are shot in the first-person, so to speak. My presence and perspective are implied in the pictures, and that creates a narrator character that helps guide the work.
I don’t storyboard things in advance; I just don’t have that kind of emotional or intellectual clarity in the moment. With this kind of personal work, I let things unfold, shoot intuitively, write a lot, read, and try to put it all together later.
Has the idea of home played a role in your journey with photography?
If I’m honest, my work is mostly about longing. Photography can be a way to see into the distance and hold it close. Home hasn’t always been central to my practice, but after a couple of unsteady years of traveling, it was a huge part of two recent bodies of work. With Stranger Come Home, I was trying to imagine an idealized domesticity in the aftermath of a breakup, a place where all the pieces fit back together again. In Summer Sublet, I found what I was looking for, wilder and in richer colors than I could have imagined.
Ward’s Artist Statement:
Summer Sublet is about living with women, the romance of friendship, and the strength of private spaces.
I used to live alone in a shack with tall grass and trucks in the yard. I told myself that I was cultivating a heroic, manly loneliness. When I lost my lease, Ara said there might be a room in the house on Montgomery Street, and so I moved in with Alice, Hannah, Sarah, Bianca, and Kate. At first I hid in my room and tried not to be noticed; I was so conspicuously male, and so out of proportion with the cats, curtains, and blankets. I never had sisters.
Everything overwhelmed. I was enchanted with every move, fascinated with every gesture. They cooked together, mixed teas and tinctures, dyed fabrics in the backyard, designed costumes for children’s plays, wrote songs and poems, gave each other late-night tattoos, smithed jewelry, and stitched leather. They read tarot, talked aura, charted horoscopes, and parked their dirt bikes in the basement. They smoked on the porch in their underwear and wore whatever the fuck they wanted. The everyday physical, emotional, and spiritual closeness completely flooded me.
I breathed in the infectious mix of strength and grace, and I couldn’t stop watching everything. The place and the people and the pictures all started to bleed into on another. The paintings on the wall became our own poses, the drawings on your body drip back into the books on the wall. I never wanted to move out.
How do you think the development of your personal photography projects have helped you grow as a person?
Hmmm. This is a trickier one. Have you seen the movie Sherman’s March? Ross McElewe is trying to make a documentary about the Civil War and Sherman’s march to the sea, but he keeps falling in love with Southern women, and then somehow these failed romances become the subject of the movie, and then he’s got to keep falling in love so he can keep filming. The film finally ends when he’s out of options and sort of ruined his life.
I think this is true for lots of people, but when I'm trying to make something worthwhile in any medium, I eventually run into my own limits as a person. My insecurities, assumptions, and denials get in the way of making the thing, and I've got to push past them to finish the work. That process of doubt, hard work, and perseverance has definitely helped me grow.
But making work about your life is tricky. If you spend too much time with the past, you can come down with a bad case of nostalgia poisoning. You can confuse the way the people look in pictures with the way they are in life, and spend your days pining away for something that never was. It gets blurry out there.
Who is someone that inspires you?
My all-time answer for this question is Sister Corita Kent. In addition to being a phenomenal visual artist in the sixties, she was a Catholic nun and an art teacher at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles. Her work just overflows with life and joy, and makes me feel like I just drank two Cokes in a row.
Last fall I helped Alec Soth with his exhibition/project/performance playspace at FrankelLab. I’ve long admired his pictures, books, and writing, but it was even more inspiring to watch him fearlessly dismantle his practice, try new things, return to beginner brain, and to do it all in public.