Rudy VanderLans is best known with Zuzana Licko, as editor of Emigre magazine and co-founder of Emigre Fonts. But just as Licko has turned her talents to making ceramics, VanderLans has long practiced photography. He has already published with Ginko Press two books Still Lifes, California and Still Lifes, USA, and for more than a year has been sending limited-edition books of photographs titled Archive to friends as a work in progress. I have been happy to be on the mailing list yet have been asked not to write about them until now. VanderLans agreed to tell me more about these new, curiously private offerings.
Your ARCHIVE, small booklets of photographs sent to family and friends—of which I am honored to be one—speaks to your overall fascination with natural and man-made still life. Where does this interest in “stillness” come from?
Perhaps the stillness in my pictures is partly the result of omitting people from my images. I have a difficult time photographing people. I’m shy around them, plus I can’t control them when they move around in my picture frame. In general, I do approach my picture making like I do composing a page. Structure, composition and color are very important to me. I try to get every element to sit perfectly in place. That kind of attention to what exactly should fit in the frame creates a certain stillness, and it suits my approach, which is probably heavily influenced by my work as a graphic designer.
Some of your photographs are captures of the ravages of time, space and weather. Of course, the still life is a literal description, but is there some other, let’s say, emotion at play?
There’s definitely all kinds of emotions at play as I’m photographing, and I’m trying to sort it all out as I’m doing this. I like making these contemplative images where you can imagine yourself in the scene. That’s another reason I leave out people. Humans are wired to focus on faces and people, so when there’s people in the picture, they tend to occupy the space and draw all the attention and everything becomes very literal. Pictures that are empty of people have a kind of mystery to them, which allows for all kinds of interpretations.
But while I omit people, I am very interested in what people do, and what they do to the environment. However, I’m not a photographer who is trying to make a political point about how we’re raping the environment, and I’m also not trying to show the beauty in garbage, because both those genres have been covered pretty well by others. I’m interested in human enterprise of all kinds. Sometimes there’s a certain sadness about the things that attract me. The unrelenting yet often impossible efforts of humans to try and develop the desert, for instance, is a recurring theme. Other times it’s the ingenuity or incongruity of what I come across that attracts me, and next it’s just the plain emotional beauty of color that strikes me about a scene that makes me point my camera and make a picture.
As far as I can tell, the majority of your pictures are west of the Rockies. What is this fascination?
Yes, and in particular California. I’ve traveled elsewhere to make pictures, but I do keep coming back to shooting pictures in California. It’s my adoptive home and it’s my backyard, so to speak. Growing up in Holland, I was always fascinated with California. It seemed like all the cool music, movies, television series, art and books came from California. So when I moved there, and I still have that feeling, I felt a nostalgia for places I’d never been to but that somehow seemed like I knew intimately. And I’m an avid reader of novels and history relating to California, so I often know what I’m looking at beyond what’s in front of me when I’m out and around photographing.
I mentioned this in my introduction to Archive, but I imagine that over time I hope to create a comprehensive visual record of all of California as a kind of homage to a place that welcomed me as an immigrant and made me feel at home. A comprehensive record of California is pretty much impossible to do, but it helps me stay focused. And in the end what may set my work apart most will be the sheer number of miles I’ve traveled and towns and cities I’ve visited within California.
You are known for type—and for pioneering digital type. How, if any way, does ARCHIVE, which I understand is a prelude to your next book, Still Life, California 2, fit into your type and design life?
Let’s just say, Emigre Fonts is my National Endowment for the Arts, or my Fullbright. In other words, Emigre Fonts sponsors my travels and the time I spent shooting and putting together my photo books. Otherwise there’s not much of a relationship. Although I do get to use some nice typefaces in my photo books.
Are there other landscapes that you have your eyes on?
The book I’m just now finishing is Still Lifes, Tokyo and was made after I spent three full weeks hiking all over Shibuya and Shinjuku in central Tokyo. I imagined I was following in the footsteps of people like Daido Moriyama and Nobuyoshi Araki, whose work I love. And there’s a flood of younger photographers doing beautiful work such as Tamaya Koyuki. I was never much aware of any of this, as I’m still catching up with the history of photography, but the Japanese have a long and rich tradition of using the book as the primary vehicle to show photography, with gallery exhibits given secondary consideration. I met with a few of these small specialty photo book publishers and it was exhilarating. I think in general the photo book is becoming ever more prominent within photography which gives me hope because it’s right up my alley. It combines the two things I like doing most: graphic design and photography.
The deadline for the Regional Design Awards has been extended, but only until April 30.
Your judges: Sagi Haviv, Rebeca Méndez, Nancy Skolos, Alexander Isley, Chad Michael, Gail Anderson and Justin Peters.