Woodshop Talk: Justin Hamm
Justin Hamm is a poet and photographer,
winner of the Inkslinger Award in visual arts for Issue No. 7.
Here we chat with him about his process and his art.
This is Woodshop Talk.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: The field of Midwestern literature is experiencing a popular surge, characterized by the sort of grim rural landscapes and interwoven family narratives typified by Buffalo Almanack alumni Daniel Woodrell, Robert James Russell and Amy Greene. Do you think we can we talk about a contemporary “Midwestern photoscape” in a similar way? As both a poet and visual artist, what does Midwestern art look like to you?
JUSTIN HAMM: Let me start with the second question first. To me, Midwestern art looks like those writers you mention and those stories you mention, for sure. And obviously I’m coming from a kind of a “traditional,” albeit a little less gritty, Midwestern place with a lot of my poems and photos. That’s my upbringing. I’ve discovered a pretty intense love for it over time. But I try to be aware that this is just one small part of a much larger picture. The region is highly varied, and there are so many different experiences. For instance, I was lucky enough to have a poem selected for New Poetry from the Midwest 2014, which comes out from New American Press in April. In reading the proofs I saw how diverse a group of voices could be while still being Midwestern. That really excites me. How that relates to photography I’m not sure, since I’m just beginning to feel my way out in that field. There are groups on Instagram or Flickr and Tumblrs dedicated to a certain kind of picture that equates to the literature you mention, so people are into it. And there are pros that make tremendously moving pictures in this vein. But at the same time, we did a Midwestern issue for the museum of americana and the photographers we featured took pictures of urban youth, the yards of suburban houses, and the gritty snow that accumulates in wheel wells of cars. The point is again that there is a lot of variety, so I think we can say this style represents one type of “Midwestern photoscape,” and I’m glad it’s popular right now, but it isn’t necessarily the “Midwestern photoscape.”
BA: How did you encounter these moments you chose to photograph? Most seem to be taken from the road, suggesting you’ve been out driving Missouri field and farm (an eternal Midwestern pastime). Was there any sort of scouting process or could we say you were on a “photographic safari?”
JH: As you note, these are pictures “from the road.” I spend a lot of time driving. I’m a school librarian in a widely spread out, rural district, and I travel to a different school building each day, so I really have four different commutes in a given week. I don’t have an organized scouting process, but a couple of these pictures are landscapes I’ve driven through many, many times and said, “One day I’ll stop and take the time to shoot that,” and then on a particular day, I guess, the lighting was just too good not to stop, or I had some extra time on the way home. The rest of the photos come from just trying to get lost on the backroads around Missouri. Every once in a while I’ll find a Saturday afternoon where I can take a few hours and drive around with the GPS in my phone off. The element of surprise is a big part of the process. Of course I have in mind some of what I’m looking for — I like solitary objects in big open spaces and I feel an emotional pull toward the ruins of old barns and houses and factories and small town main streets — but I like being surprised at what I find, reacting to the scenes with my first gut feeling. Come to think of it, it isn’t so different from writing poems. I’m wandering around lost most of the time, and I just try to trust that sooner or later a worthwhile image will come along, one that makes me feel something deep enough I’ll want to share it with other people, if I can.
BA: Can you describe your technical process as a photographer (equipment, framing, editing, etc.)?
JH: Sure. I use a Canon T2i with, alternately, a 75-300mm lens, a prime 50mm lens, and a Rokinon 8mm fisheye lens. I also use my iphone on occasion. I already know the images I’m making are going to be processed, so I try to keep that in mind as I’m choosing how to go about shooting a subject. For instance, I like to use texture, and I know the textures I use look good on a sky or a large area of blurred background, so I’ll try to think about how to incorporate that into the image as I’m setting up a shot. I also think about the filters I’m going to apply later. Otherwise, a lot of it is just gut. Am I emphasizing what initially drew me to the scene through the framing or composition? I don’t have any formal training in photography or photo editing. Probably I could use some. I do adjust some of the settings in camera, especially if I’m shooting in black and white, since I really like it contrasty and noir-like and I can get that in a way I haven’t been able to with a photo editor. I use the default windows photo gallery for basic tweaks in contrast, sharpness, highlights and shadows, etc. From there I use Snapspeed on my iPad. By combining textures and filters in different ways I’ve found some looks that I really like, looks that help convey the deep feeling I get from being in these rural places.
BA: In addition to your photography, you’re also the author of Lessons in Ruin, a well-received book of poetry, and the founding editor of the museum of americana, an online literary review of “the old, dying [and] forgotten.” What more can you tell us about these ventures? What stories do your poems begin that your photography might continue, and vice versa?
JH: All three ventures are tied up in an interest in region, American history, Americana, the Midwest, personal history, rusty and dusty old things, and so forth. These subjects are comprised of such rich, complicated, oftentimes contradictory and controversial matter, and I wanted to create a place to publish work that revives them, reworks them, and ultimately reconsiders their meaning. Hence the museum of americana. There’s a lot to celebrate in American cultural history, and of course just as much to be ashamed of. But all of it is worth thinking about and none of it should be forgotten. Our writers and artists try to bring that culture out, hold it up to the light, and examine it. I’m a poet/short fiction writer first, but my poetry and photography are definitely related to one another. Readers of Lessons in Ruin would recognize the landscape of my photos in a number of the poems. In fact, when I first started taking pictures of the Midwest four or five years ago, I did it as a way to spark poems, to connect to the landscape I wanted to write about. To write what I feel like are my best poems, I have to get to a certain place in my head and in my chest, and I found these solitary excursions helped me get there. I had time to meditate over different ideas while driving and setting up shots. I suppose the difference is that the poems are populated with people. Rather than the landscape itself — as my pictures depict — I’m after the relationship of people to the landscape or the location in my poems. I think I could get there with photos, too, eventually, but I’m still shy about asking strangers to take their picture, and a lot of rural Midwesterners around here are camera averse for whatever reason. Also, I think it would change the solitary appeal of going out to shoot photos for me. You mentioned in your artist’s statement that the photos of this series were inspired by various folk songs on your car radio. What songs were these and in what ways do they inform your art? Actually, I put together a playlist that includes songs with the lyrics that I titled these pictures after — old folk, blues, country, and jazz songs. Each lyric isn’t necessarily from the song that was playing when I took a given picture, but rather what came to mind as I edited them. I have a handful of playlists like this specifically for when I’m out shooting. Although it isn’t a one-to-one thing — I wasn’t out there trying to take a picture to represent a Robert Johnson lyric — ultimately what I’m listening to affects the kind of pictures I end up taking. The feeling comes out in the picture and in the processing because I’m in the mindset of the music. Other mediums have always inspired me. A great painting or a powerful novel has an energy to it, and I love filling up on that energy before trying to write. I don’t mean so I can write about the novel or the painting, and I don’t mean so I can emulate the artist’s style, either, although I try to do both of those things sometimes. I mean more just taking in the feeling or energy of a work of art and seeing where that leads you when you mix it up with your own ideas. Old music is especially important to me in that way. I talked about needing to get to a certain place in my head and my heart, and old music almost always gets me there. It can be earnest, weird, poetic, clever, dark, heartbreaking, or even just outright silly, and I love it for all those things. And of course because it makes me think of my childhood and my grandpa who first introduced me to early country and the Grand Ole Opry stuff, and the Pentecostal church where I first heard old-time spirituals. I’m constantly trying to learn more about old music. It’s a deep well. There’s a haunted aspect to that kind of music that especially grabs me. It isn’t so different from the feeling you get walking around a dying Midwestern small town.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Hank Williams
“Hellhound on my Trail,” Robert Johnson
“I Was Young When I Left Home,” Bob Dylan
“Goodnight Irene,” Lead Belly
“You Are My Sunshine,” Gene Autry
“Gloomy Sunday,” Billie Holiday
“Blowin’ Down that Old Dusty Road,” Woody Guthrie
“Death Letter,” Son House
“The House Carpenter,” Doc Watson
“Satan is Real,” The Louvin Brothers
“St. James Infirmary,” Louis Armstrong
“Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” The Carter Family
“In the Pines,” The Kossoy Sisters
“Come on in My Kitchen,” Robert Johnson
“Moonshiner,” Roscoe Holcomb
“It Wasn’t Got Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” Kitty Wells
“Farther Along,” Mississippi John Hurt
“Wildwood Flower,” The Carter Family
“In the Jailhouse Now,” Webb Pierce