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Interview with photographer Christine DiThomas

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

Yvette Meltzer: Christine, tell us please how you first become involved in photography

Christine DiThomas: I became involved with photography as a child just by being aware and looking intensely at the world. Growing up during the heyday of news magazines and Time-Life publications, I saw a flood of images from the turbulent 1960s and 70s. I was more transfixed by the unforgettable images than by any idea of making them. It’s hard to remember now that we had to wait to see the pictures.

YM: So true, Christine – that was before our culture had developed an expectation of immediate gratification. So you were a visual person even then because while it may be true that many families had these publications in their homes, I’m not so certain that the average child took as keen an interest in them as you did.

CDT: There were so many shocking events, occurring one after another, that really shaped me. Aside from that, many in my family were interested in photography. I snapped a few pictures, but nothing remarkable. Then, as an undergrad, I took a photojournalism course, but was completely flummoxed by the camera—a Canon AE-1P. I was trying to make “decisive moment” pictures, but not succeeding.

In 1990 I started taking photography classes at the City Colleges of Chicago. I bought a manual Nikon FG and a copy of Henry Horenstein’s Basic Black & White Photography. That book is what finally helped me understand the machine.

YM: When you say “machine” you are referring to the camera? What influences you to use that term as a synonym?

CDT: Well, a camera is a mechanical device. I had to approach it as a machine and not some kind of magical box (which it also is). Although I have an M.F.A. in photography from Columbia College Chicago, I still enroll in classes at the City Colleges, which allows me to use their darkroom and digital facilities and to work and learn among enthusiastic students, teachers, and staff.

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

YM: It seems to me that you were/are an enthusiastic student photographer yourself, Christine. And your interest in learning more about photography has been persistent, staying with you from childhood through college and beyond your college graduation to the present. What led to you working in this medium as an artist?

CDT: I started working as an assistant editor at the World Book Encyclopedia, also in 1990. I met many artists there, some who had art jobs and others who had unrelated jobs. They were influential in my decision, later on, to go to grad school, especially the photo editor Julie Laffin, who is a performance artist. I began documenting her work out of curiosity and entered into the world of conceptual art. Though I still work as an editor, I also work at my art practice. I’ve been lucky to combine the two fields as the editor of a number of photography and art monographs, including the 6 x 6 Series of photography books that Bob Thall and Tammy Mercure launched at Columbia.

YM: I’d like to talk about your photography. Can you tell us about your ongoing project Somewhere in America? The “On the Road” issue of F-Stop includes 4 images from that series.

CDT: Over the course of 4 years I visited my friend Jacek Lupina, who was working in Colorado. This gave me a home base for short trips to Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as the Midwestern states along the way there. That helped me to experience the area more fully than as a tourist. As a kid, I desperately wanted to see places like the Petrified Forest, which I imagined as gigantic standing trees made of stone. Of course, it looks nothing like that. But I made it a point to stop at those types of sites.

In the end, I found myself more interested in the way the country looks today in these towns that once survived on tourism, back when people routinely piled their families into their car for a summer vacation. I’m interested in the traces left behind. I chose the name for the series because I feel that these places, and the condition they are in, are almost interchangeable with large segments of the U.S. I used to think only the Rust Belt area had such economic stagnation. Not so. But that’s not all that I am choosing to depict; the editing is still in process.

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

YM: Can you discuss your creative process for making these images?

CDT: The road trip work is essentially a visual diary of my travels, combined with a somewhat systematic documentation of certain places and things that I always wanted to see. Aside from hitting major historical sites and parks, like Mount Rushmore, not much was planned. I was led by whatever signs I saw along the way. It is more often a way to occupy my mind and my eye, and it’s a nice way to experience these places. I always thought of Rushmore as a kind of kitschy tourist center. But being there as an American, for me, was profound as well disturbing. That place is not without controversy to say nothing of the Crazy Horse monument, nearby and still under construction.

YM: Would you say this is your usual process for making images?

CDT: Not usual, but I have been traveling back to my family home in Pennsylvania for 30 years, so there is something similar about it. I often stop at local tourism spots of significance, like birthplaces of notable Americans. I am still keeping most of that work to myself. Making work in the Southwest helped me view the work I made on my trips back East in a different light. Alternately, I do have another more abstract approach to making work. I will get an idea and spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to transform it into imagery or vice versa. The idea for the visuals of my recent series Erasure: 2013 (recently shown in a group show in Chicago) hung over my head for many years until I figured out a good purpose for it.

courtesy of Mayumi Lake

Installation view of Erasure:2013

YM: So it sounds as if you are both spontaneous and reflective in creating your work. Do you have a favorite image in this road trip series?

CDT: I always feel like my favorite images are the ones that I missed. Like the time I came upon a burning field during a very foggy night on a dangerous stretch of road in Nebraska. I have to laugh at how those elements came together. I just won’t stop if there’s not a safe place to pull over. I worry excessively that I will cause someone else to crash into my car. I think someone has already made that picture, anyway, but I would’ve liked to have my own version, because I stumbled upon it.

YM: So are you saying that some of your favorites are the photos not taken. You know there is a book by that title. (The Photographs Not Taken edited by A Will Steacy is a collection of essays by photographers.)

CDT: I’ll have to get that book immediately. So many books, so little time.

YM: Indeed! You too?
What do you hope people see or feel or perhaps learn when they look at your photographs?

CDT: I don’t have any firm expectations in that regard. Although I have my own intentions with the work, I know that people will view and understand it through their own experience. I learn a lot from people who tell me their thoughts about my work.

YM: What is your most recent work?

CDT: I participated in a recent group exhibition with the Stella collective at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago. It’s the new work I mentioned earlier, Erasure: 2013, which included a 3-D printed sculpture, digital prints, and reversal images printed through digital positives onto expired C-print paper, a sort of alternative process. This work was spurred by the unexpected demolition of my family’s former home, which we sold after my father died. So the idea I had been thinking about—photographing a large number of desiccated flowers that I’d collected from home for over 2 decades—came into being through the shock of that event. I went back almost immediately to photograph what was left. There was just a small claw tractor and the smoothed over earth. It all looked so small, whereas, in reality, a very large, old foursquare house once stood there among many wonderful flowering trees and shrubs. In the end, I made the work I needed to make with just the images of the flowers.

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

untitled from the Somewhere in America series

YM: Who are your influences? What photographers or other artists inspire you?

CDT: It’s impossible to answer that question. There are so many phenomenal people throughout history and working today. At Columbia College I worked alongside and studied under so many amazing and generous photographers. Also, the Stella collective is a group of insightful, prolific, and inspiring women. We meet monthly, mainly for critique sessions. I’m lucky to be included in that group.

YM: You mentioned that you learn a lot from people who tell you their thoughts about your work – participating in the STELLA collective must feed you in that way.

If you could own one photograph whose would it be and which image?

CDT: That’s also hard to answer. I do collect a bit of photography, from vernacular snapshots to 19th century portraiture to works by emerging artists. I was thrilled recently to buy an Arthur Tress from The Dream Collector (1972) series. It’s the one of a boy in the road with the grim reaper behind him. It’s creepy, but it also makes me laugh. It fits my sensibility of morbid obsession and interest in postmortem/mourning art.

Another photo I’d like to have is one of the last images taken by Robert Capa. It is from a series of color photographs of soldiers walking in a field of tall, golden grass in Viet Nam. There’s no real action in the photograph; it’s ominous and oddly peaceful. But it also stands on its own as a memorial. Capa was killed when he stepped on a land mine shortly after taking those pictures. I truly get the sense that I am literally seeing through his eyes. It’s the same feeling I get with his D-Day photos. There’s something inexplicable about certain photographs, besides the obvious content. That’s what drew me to photography as a child.

YM: Wow, Christine, we’ve come full circle. You spoke of your interest in documentary photography as a child and that is still the type of photograph you would like to own today.

YM: In conclusion, can you share what you regard as the best career advice you have ever received?

CDT: Dawoud Bey, one of my professors/mentors at Columbia, in relating his own experiences, said that we shouldn’t be discouraged by people who try to dismiss us. I’m still here, he said, so don’t be discouraged—keep on working. And I’d add, get involved, become part of a community, including people from outside of photography. And remember the people who helped you along the way. So, thank you, Yvette, Christy, and F-Stop, for showing my work and for this interview, as well as for showing my landscape series called American Gothic a few years ago.

YM: It’s been a pleasure speaking with you Christine. You really are a thoughtful person who obviously takes pride in your work and in your words as well. You carefully thought through and selected the words you wanted to use to communicate your thoughts and ideas with our readers just as you do with your photographs. Thank you.

For more of Christine DiThomas’ work: christinedithomas.wordpress.com

About Yvette Meltzer

Yvette Meltzer applies creative responses to her photography and her work as a family mediator and workshop facilitator. She is interested in sharing life stories through words and images. Website: www.yvettemeltzer.com

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