Rudy VanderLans, proprietor with Zuzana Licko of Emigre Fonts and editor of the historic Emigre magazine, has long been photographing the oddities and beauties of an oft-ignored American landscape. In 2015 he produced Still Lifes, California (Ginko Press), among other books, and his most recent sequel, Still Lifes, U.S.A., took him on yet another “3,000 miles on the road” capturing the natural and manmade monuments that might otherwise go unheralded. This stunning brick of a book appeals to me like few other photo collections. Rudy is a modern-day Walker Evans with a touch of vintage Edward Ruscha thrown in, yet totally his own. One might call these crisp color photos a kind of joyful melancholy. I had the good fortune to discuss this installment in a growing legacy of documentary art.
You are an emigre. What is it about these American manmade and natural landscapes that appeal to you so much?
That’s what I’m trying to figure out myself. I’m rarely inspired to make pictures elsewhere. When I travel to Europe I usually leave my camera at home. Perhaps it has something to do with learning to understand America better. Although it’s the traveling itself, more than the picture taking, that accomplishes that. But the picture taking makes me stop and look at things. It makes me think and reflect. I do read a lot of American history books and American novels, and they often entice me to visit certain locations. That often gets my creative juices flowing.
The photographer Robert Adams once wrote, and I paraphrase, how what we photograph redefines us, and how it becomes part of the biography by which we want to be known. I’m not entirely sure what that says about me. But since my images raise more questions than provide answers, perhaps I want to be known as someone who is still curious and in awe of his adoptive country.
In the typology that you cover, I sense a hint—if not more than a hint—of graphic design. Photography is part of that language, but do you focus on frames as you might lay out a page?
Yes, very much. And I will probably always be a graphic designer who makes photographs. To me, making a photograph is akin to laying out a page. In most of my images I take great care making sure all the elements are where I want them, and that the colors reinforce the hierarchy and composition, and that there’s a certain harmony and structure in the image that draws you in. Particularly in my two latest Still Lifes photo books, first and foremost I want the overall design of the image to appeal. The content to me is secondary. It’s not unimportant, but it no longer dictates what I end up photographing.
How does this new book, which continues your fascination with still lifes, differ or diverge from your previous work?
My previous photo books and photo projects each had a specific topic. The photographs were there to illustrate a story. They were documentational in nature. Content was key. With these last two books, on the other hand, I’ve given myself the liberty to simply wander around without any particular purpose other than to let the environment seduce me into taking pictures.
I know there is an evolutionary aspect to what you do. How would you describe this evolution? Is it a shift in visual perspective or in content?
Perhaps a little of both. I’m trying to come to terms with the idea that I’m a formalist at heart. Since I’ve come to realize that I can’t control how the reader interprets my pictures, I’ve become less concerned with meaning or how people will read them. I see my pictures primarily as formal statements. My main intention is to make the ordinary look appealing.
Odd juxtapositions, incongruity of disparate elements, and striking color schemes catch my eye, stop me in my tracks, and make me look twice at a scene. While I occasionally try to weave social or political commentary into my projects, my focus is on making aesthetically pleasing images. But I also realize that you can’t strip meaning from a photograph entirely. The locations and subjects I point my camera at have meaning and content and a history, regardless of how I capture them. And viewers read my pictures as they please based on their general knowledge and experiences.
From time to time I do mix in an image about something of particular historical interest to me, but without clueing in the viewer. For instance, I recently shot some images of what used to be the former site of Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, just north of LA. This used to be a movie set where they shot B Westerns and TV episodes of “Bonanza” and “Zorro.” That in itself attracts me to a place like that. But it was also the place where the Manson family was hiding out in 1969 when they committed those horrible murders. I’m fascinated by these locations and how they became the backdrop of historical events completely by happenstance. There’s nothing left of the ranch. The image I took is of a generic landscape. The only clue that I provide is the caption, which is the name of the town, Chatsworth. For most people Chatsworth is just a suburb of Los Angeles, and when they look at the image, all they see is a pretty landscape picture. But for some people, people who are interested in California history, that name is an immediate link to the events that took place in 1969. And they may be more curious of what they’re looking at, and I’m sure they see an entirely different picture. I like images that are ambiguous.
What do you love most about making these photographs?
They give me an excuse to make books. For me the book is the ultimate destination of photographs. The two are really made for each other. I like the intimacy that a small book of photographs like Still Lifes, U.S.A. provides. I imagine the reader at home, sitting in a comfortable chair, and closely studying the images sequentially, or perhaps standing in a bookstore, flipping through it back to front. Both of those thoughts give me a great deal of satisfaction.
I also enjoy the process of getting a book like this published by a professional book publisher, and going through the design, proofing and printing processes. There are so many people involved, and so much expertise is necessary to make a small book like this. And then to have the book distributed and to finally see it in a bookstore on a table surrounded by other books where it is seen by unknown numbers of people is the ultimate reward. That’s why I love doing this.