We’ve been talking for about an hour and are about to leave Josh Winegar’s office to head downstairs when he says, sort of offhand, “So, actually, my office is a camera, too.”
There is a lens I notice, then, in the window of his office, and the rest of the window is blocked off with black panels.
I’ve been chatting with Winegar in the Kimball Visual Arts Center at Weber State University where he makes work and teaches art and photography. We’ve been discussing a new series of work he has on exhibit at the Granary Art Center in Ephraim, how he got to this point in art and life, several cameras he’s built from scratch, and his tiny house in the forest. By this point in the conversation I’ve come to understand Josh Winegar to be an artist of insatiable technical curiosity as well as conceptual rigor. He is interested in context, and much of the power of his work comes from what is missing, what has been removed.
Winegar grabs a plastic chair from the hall so he can reach panels covering the windows into the hallway, and adjusts them to block out the light. Done, he closes the door, and switches off the overhead florescent.
An upside-down ghost of the parking lot wraps the door to the hallway, the bookshelves, the walls above the book shelf . Telephone poles—or maybe they are parking-lot lights—jut down darkly into the sky. It’s both disorienting and fantastic.
“I moved offices,” he says, holding a white panel up a few feet in front of the door, “and the lens was designed for the length of my old office, so it’s a little bit out of focus in here.”
“Oh!” he says, “there’s a car moving. That’s always… where’d it go?” A hamster-size car slips off the panel he’s using to focus his office/camera, ripples across his sweatshirt, and slides upside down along the wall toward the door.
“There’s something about the world being projected and silent that’s really satisfying,” he says.
Winegar’s show at the Granary, Burst a Part / Burst Apart, consists of eight large photos (each 24” x 28”) that wrap the upper gallery. Each print is a landscape that has been slashed by a strip of light. The photos seem narrative, but the narratives are a mystery. When you get up close to the work, you see that the print has actually been slashed with an X-Acto knife or a box cutter, there are tendrils of paper curling along the gashes of light—as if the cut itself is allowing the light to come through. The rupturing isn’t done with Photoshop. Josh says he uses Photoshop for color balance, dodge and burn—that sort of thing. But the big slash of light through each of the pieces is done “live,” Winegar says. “In camera.” For this series, he photographed the location, then, he says, “I make a print, and alter the print, and re-photograph it.”
“I like making and building and I don’t necessarily like staring at computer screens,” he says. “I get tired of the process all being mediated through a computer. A lot of my work is interdisciplinary or mixed media. There’s a lot of hand in it. A lot of analog processes.”
His current analog process involves building a giant custom-view camera. We visited the camera in the studio he’s working out of at Weber shortly after I arrived on campus. “These are my film holders,” he says, shuffling through plywood film holders the size of large drawing pads. Winegar is 36, tall, sports a neatly trimmed beard, and wears a thick black hoodie. Currently he’s working on the front standard, next he’ll make the bellows. “I want to make unique prints,” he says. “Not reproduced prints, just one-of-a-kinds. So I’ll be able to do that at 24” x 34”. Also, if I shoot negatives on it, I can enlarge those… theoretically you can get really good quality at like 40 “x 60”. I could do prints the size of that wall,” he says, motioning to the nearly two-story studio wall.
“It’s a total Frankenstein camera,” he tells me, “Every part of it is made out of salvaged materials.” Except for the lenses, but he’s thinking of custom-building one of those, too.
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Josh Winegar spent his early years in Salt Lake City; then moved to Layton when he was a teenager. He identified as an artist from a young age, and his family was always supportive. He took a couple of photo classes in high school, but initially in college he thought he’d go into advertising design. “And then I took an advertising design class,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know why that ever… I was like, this punk rock kid! And it dawned on me while I’m in these advertising classes: ‘What am I doing? I hate advertising. I hate capitalism. I hate consumerism– I hate all of that. Why would I ever spend my days doing that?’”
He was home the summer after his first year of undergrad, scheduled to transfer to a private art school in California. He took a few classes at Weber just to get some generals done, but then, he says, “I took my first photo class, and that changed everything. I had a really amazing instructor, Sue Barratt. She showed me photography as art, not as something to promote something, or sell something.” Not only was he inspired to make art, he also got excited about teaching. He realized what a great photo program Weber had, how many resources and how much support he had there, and stayed.
After undergrad Winegar left Utah and moved for the MFA program at Columbia College in Chicago. He and his wife, Peggy, had a new baby and the three of them moved into a little one-room apartment. He was a grad student, new dad, and working as a designer. He moved through several series of work, many employing techniques, such as erasure and appropriation, which have become themes in his art. All of his work, he says, had a lot of his hand in it, to the point where he starting painting on appropriated images. And then, somewhat by accident, he came across an image while doing a Google search that spurred what became his thesis work.
“It was a picture of a guy carrying a mountain lion that he had shot. Trudging through the snow. And it really struck me. Just as an image it was heartbreaking. There was kind of a grace to the way that the lion was draped over his shoulders that was really beautiful. And there was also the struggle of the human carrying it through the snow. Almost like a soldier carrying a wounded soldier. I found it really complicated as an image. And so I stole it. And I printed it and I painted on that.”
He shows me the image. A mountain lion floats serenely in the center of the page, its body making a graceful arc through space, paws crossed, trailing a ribbon of bandage that is wrapped around its belly. A dot of blood on its forehead. A human fist intersecting its leg.
Winegar started searching the Internet for hunting images, printing them and painting on them. Those images turned into The Still Life Series. “It brought in these ideas of violence and the way that we not only celebrate violence, but how we find it acceptable in certain situations,” he says. “This was after Abu Ghraib, and the similarities between the conventions of the hunting pictures—and then the military, those people who were basically using all the conventions of trophy-hunting pictures to pose with prisoners.”
We walk up to his office so he can show me originals. He hands me an image of a wild dog and her pup. He has painted the background white around them, and painted a long ribbon, or bandage, across the mother’s face. At first, because of the quality of paint around them, you think the animals are illustrations. Winegar says he likes how the process creates ambiguity. “It almost looks like they’re running, now,” he says of the dogs. “It doesn’t look like they’re laying on the grass with their…faces shot off… but that they’re… it kind of brings them back to life, in a way.” He has several deer, elk, a fox, a coyote. Spotted with blood, often with the ghost of their killer hovering behind. “You can still see the people through the paint in a lot of them, so their smiles are still there,” he says. By erasing the context, the context becomes the conversation.
The next body of work, Winegar’s The Rapture Of series, came out of moving back to Utah. After moving away, he didn’t expect to come back, and really didn’t expect that he’d end up back at Weber State. But when he was looking for jobs, the photography program at Weber really stood out. He loves the range of classes he gets to teach, the amazing facilities, and the ability to bring the same exploration and innovation that he puts into his art into his teaching.
When he got back, he was very aware of the discrepancy between the actual Western landscape and the Western landscape of the cultural imagination. He says that even in art history classes in Chicago, in the Midwest, the discussion about landscape would be about the Western landscape. “It’s really romanticized. We like to think about this place as being this kind of wide-open, untouched… there’s a lot of nostalgia. Especially in photography,” he says. So he traveled around the West (a five-week road trip with his wife and two young kids, all four of them sleeping in their Winegar-modified Subaru that included a little bunk for the kids). He photographed actual Western landscapes— mountains, frozen lakes, forests, ocean coves, meadows. And then erased the human-created features—graffiti, ice fishers, chain- link fences, houses, garbage. The work shares a kinship with the new Burst a Part / Burst Apart series, in that the images are modified with unexpected light, but where the effects of the new series are created in-camera, Josh worked on the negatives to get the burst effects in The Rapture Of.
For the next series, Folds, he revisited Google, this time searching for “Scenic Overlook.” He printed out the images, “and then I would remove the people out of them just by folding the photograph over,” he says. The effect is odd and wonderful, with backgrounds that feature disembodied twin shoulders, toddler legs, hands clutching handlebars, floating arms, and random drapes of skirt like flounced orange Rorschach tests.
For a moment I mentally fold Josh Winegar out of his office. Behind his desk but in front of a vintage flat file are Josh’s hands, caught as they attempt to grasp an idea and turn it into words. Around his (very expressive) hands the office seems to be full of the artifacts of his ideas and experiments. To the left, a small rack of deer horns is mounted on the wall above some prints, tests maybe, and family photos, including a tintype of a little boy and a photo booth strip. There is an antique viewfinder and two stacks of reel-to-reel tins on the desk. In the bookcase he has vintage cameras, rows of photography books, and an old projector. A snowboard leans on the wall. To the right: a couple of computer monitors, more vintage cameras, a terrarium with a desiccated mummy cat he acquired from relatives who excavated it from under their deck, and a small pinhole-view camera Winegar made as an undergrad.
As far as the work he has up at the Granary: he says that he sometimes calls it his mid-life crisis work. “I feel like I was playing a part in a lot of ways,” he says. “Which is where the title “Burst Apart/Burst A Part” comes from.” The series evolved out of “exploring the idea of growth, and change, and progression. And putting the past… in the past, I guess. So I started thinking about that and how I could do that. The process of rupturing the surface of the print, of the landscape itself,” he says, “that fits.” So he revisited and photographed places from his past and then brought them back to the studio and ruptured them with light.
One shot is of a suburban town from a hillside or a plane; one is a shot pointing up into dark, textural clouds; another points down at the pebbly edge of a lake. One is simply clean white sheets; another is of the corner of an empty apartment or house with boxes being packed or unpacked—an old box of Legos the last to go, or the first to come out. There’s a weedy lot, like an unused bit of someone’s property— not quite a park—with low-hanging power lines and late afternoon shadows. Winegar doesn’t explain the landscapes or talk about the actual locations. “I don’t think it really matters to anybody but me,” he says. And, he adds, “It’s not all negative—it’s just significant. And I think that’s interesting, too. How much of a role place is to our identity.”
The non-art part of the mid-life crisis work, he says, involved moving the family to Huntsville into a little log cabin built on what used to be Forest Service land. “I think up until we moved to Huntsville, Chicago still felt like home. It was really odd, even though I spent the majority of my life here.” He realized that the problem was living in the suburbs. “I can’t live in the suburbs,” he says. “Now I live in the woods. I don’t have neighbors. Neighbors that I see, anyway. The city is like that, in a way. Even though there are tons of people, you can get lost. You can be yourself. It’s just more comfortable knowing that nobody cares what I’m doing. In the city nobody cares. In the woods nobody cares. In the suburbs, totally everybody cares. It drove me nuts. I feel at home when it’s easy to get lost.”
Josh, Peggy, their now 11-year-old, 8-year-old, and the family dog share the 600-square-foot cabin. The move wasn’t just about getting into the woods, he says, it was simplifying in general. “For the first year-and-a-half we were up there we didn’t have a TV,” he says. “I got rid of my Facebook. I just started purging and shedding all this stuff, and looking inward.” It strikes me that this is another kind of erasure. “We did it for the kids, too,” Winegar says. “It’s the yard I would have wanted to grow up in. And the place I would have wanted to grow up. And just trying to get them unplugged and a little more… wild. I think it goes back to not wanting to stare at a computer all the time and work through that screen, but to make work in the world. And have a hand in it. I want that in life in general.”
This profile appeared in the November 2015 edition of 15 Bytes.
Amie Tullius, moved to Utah after finishing an MFA in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2006. She writes fiction, essays, and is also the director of sales at J GO Gallery in Park City.