When artists talk about their work they often project a feeling of inevitability. It had to be; either that or they say it was an accident. Speaking on film, Georgia O’Keeffe points to the top of a nondescript hill she feels she must climb with her paint box. “Wouldn’t you go up there?” she asks her interviewer, who appears unmoved by the opportunity to scale a dusty slope in the desert heat. But what if there are no accidents: just artists who have learned that it’s easier to call it chance than to explain what drives them to pursue their chimeras long past the point where others would quit? Thus Amanda Moore, talking about her Motion Pictures — visual images that document the surviving traces of westward migration — explains her focus on back road motel signs by referring to the difficulty of traveling by car with a husband and a family of dogs that are not welcome in national parks and big hotels. The only choice she admits to making in there is a preference for old highways, which is inevitable for anyone who sees driving as the best way to truly be here, rather than a way to bypass here on the way to somewhere else.
Where Amanda Moore always wanted to be was the West. It’s an urge she traces to seeing a production of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, True West, which she says she wanted to watch over and over again. Given her stated preference for a nomad’s lifestyle, though, it seems likely that while Shepard may have given her restlessness a focus, the suggestion that she had already seen enough of what lay beyond the horizon was never going to sit well with her. Instead, she is continually on the move — always planning the next road trip — and the art she leaves behind is the record not only of her journeys, but also of her search for the technical means to bring the life she discovers out there back to those who share her inquiring nature.
Artists from around the world who are LDS gravitate to Utah; others usually dream of New York. By that logic, Moore should be living in the Big Apple, where her expeditions might take her to shoot the Erie Canal or the eastern end of the Oregon Trail. But, “Ah don’t want t’be — uh Yang-key,” she says, exaggerating the subtlest of accents to stake a durable claim to her Southern roots. Born in Cleveland, Tennessee, and aware at an early age that she would be an artist, she studied first literature at the University of Tennessee, then photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Photography won, but not the conservative approach she encountered in Georgia. “Most art schools are very segregated and hierarchical,” she explains. “On the bottom is where you find photo, video, and now at the very lowest, computers.” For someone who figured out, in that moment, that the newest technology would always offer possibilities that appealed to her, but would also be forced to take the chair nearest the door, it was not an attractive bargain. When her complaints were met with the assurance that “SCAD doesn’t need you, honey; you need SCAD” (that Southern honey again), she knew her future lay elsewhere. The University of Utah’s photography program offered two virtues: its inclusive ideals were more congenial to new approaches, and it was in the heart of the West.
Growing up in the South, Moore enjoyed being outdoors even when she was at home. She spent part of the day hanging out on the porch, a cordial lifestyle that encourages neighbors to introduce themselves and be invited up. It was only one shock about the “true” West for her to find out that here people keep to themselves; we live farther apart and like it that way. Utahns will tell you they socialize within their families, but setting aside the dubious oxymoron of locating society within the family, it’s not much comfort to those who left families behind to move here. Fortunately for Moore, the U of U provided her with a like-minded community, and then with a family. In addition to the collegiality of the graduate program, one of her fellow MFA students was Grace Ashby, who introduced Moore to her son, Jason. He and Amanda were married and, after assembling their menagerie (two dogs, four cats, and a lizard by one count), set out on their travels over the blue highways of America. “If I had my way we’d be nomads,” she says, adding, “He’s more practical.”
Moore calls herself an artist first and a photographer to the extent that her artistic medium is photography. That shouldn’t be taken to imply that those of her peers who see themselves primarily or even exclusively as makers of photographs are any more involved than she is in the technical concerns of the medium. In fact, her techniques are often experimental, and in any event she is far more involved than some professionals who use a camera but send the results to a lab for processing and printing. Still, it tells us something about how we as audience should view her works.
As Moore explains in a recent essay that will appear in 15 Bytes next month, many popular uses of photography operate at cross-purposes to hers. Most of us have had the experience of showing around a snapshot of friends that we treasure, only to have one of the subjects complain, “I don’t like the way that picture makes me look.” The validity of the complaint, and the reality of the conflict, only underscores Moore’s point. A recognized difficulty for photo-artists is that most of the time viewers don’t really see the photograph; rather, they bypass the medium in the belief that they are seeing the subject directly, without mediation. For some photographers, that immediacy is the point; for others, there is a struggle to force the audience to notice their artistry. Moore’s goal is for the artwork, which happens to be a photo, to convey qualities of the subject that being present impressed on her at the time. While other artists have attempted to achieve this effect by the use of heavy subjective filtering — think of Expressionist paintings with their slashed and gouged surfaces — Moore has chosen an opposing approach. The viewfinder of her Hasselblad camera has an architectural grid that allows her to precisely align a subject orthogonally. After the negative is developed she scans it into her computer, which allows her to manipulate it as necessary in pursuit of the desired effect. The subject is permitted to speak for itself, in its own visual voice. We may think of Marcel Duchamp and his “ready-mades” — objects he found and brought into the gallery to be similarly discovered by viewers. The camera comes into play because some quality of the subject, whether size, impermanence, or some other ephemeral quality that appealed to Moore, resists bringing the original into the gallery. Then the “crucial moment” that is chosen — or more often created — by the photographer recedes in favor of the viewer’s moment. The subject will remain fixed, on paper, available to interact with whatever the viewer brings to it. That encounter, in all its dimensions, is what he or she will take away as well.
An Amanda Moore photo, then,
is a signpost; rather than a fact itself,
it points to facts she wants to share.
Other techniques exist for achieving similar results with a camera. A portrait may be made using the auto-timed shutter to avoid imposing the photographer’s choice of expression. Multiple images, moving pictures, or a repeated format are other options. Moore calls her aesthetic “shallow,” presumably meaning the surface evidence of the artist’s presence may be easily penetrated and the subject readily encountered. But of course, and as is often the case, what the viewer doesn’t see is the considerable skill and preparation that went into setting up that encounter: labor that remains out of sight.
Moore spends a lot of her time on the computer. Recently she has spent much of it on the Internet, searching for materials that have “come and gone” as photography has absorbed the innovations of digital image making across the full range of its technology. “The only way to find the materials I want is on e-Bay,” she says. “I’m an addict.” Talking about her increasing emphasis on showing the work — the gallery or exhibition space prepared as a compound, unified work — she ticks off a litany of exigent circumstances that have contributed to the look of her past works. Bubblography, her 2006 show at the Sprague Library, presented many of her signature subjects, but shown as if viewers were peering like voyeurs through holes in the wall, like those made in the fence around a construction site to permit sidewalk superintendents to indulge their curiosity. Reverse the point-of-view and you get “life in a bubble,” an appropriate metaphor for art that emerges, like a memoir, from the artist’s own life.
From all this emerges a sense of what Moore, usually so clear in stating her likes and dislikes, doesn’t quite explain about her idiosyncratic approach to the camera. Looking over a suite of prints for her coming show at the Rose Wagner Center, she murmurs, “This is life.” It’s an odd comment to make about so many solitary, often derelict buildings, but she elaborates: “Entropy and chaos are good things. I also love revitalization: seeing things brought back.” So she takes the long view. An empty landscape, a failed tire store, and a ruin are all evidence of life out west, but the first and third have proven easier to romanticize.
Moore’s answer to the idealized image isn’t the equally distorted negative view, but the honest encounter. Of the numerous artists and works she names in passing, one that stands out in this context is Robert Adams. Responding to the coincidence of their sharing a name, Robert Adams has sought out places seen in Ansel Adams’ iconic images of nature, only to turn around and photograph the human evidence that was behind the celebrated master as he took the famous picture. “There is no truth in photography,” Moore tells her students; but she knows she’s exaggerating. She might say instead that the truth inside the photograph is unrelated to the truth outside the photograph, just as the photograph she takes isn’t precisely the one we see. An Amanda Moore photo, then, is a signpost; rather than a fact itself, it points to facts she wants to share. She remembers taking it — who was there and what was happening in her life at the time. She fully expects it to mean something else to those who follow it to an experience of their own. She thinks about that, smiles, and says, “That’s O.K.”
This is a rare moment of accommodation in a conversation with an assertive, opinionated artist who says, “I’m better at the fight. Even when it’s not personal, it’s personal.” But her art presents her world in a manner so playful and indirect that it could almost be mistaken for a passive view. Of course an artist in person is not the same as her art, but there is something else: a divide between the artist and the advocate. Moore clearly expects her work to speak for itself; she reserves her campaigning for the issues that surround it. She says, “There are a lot of ‘celebrity’ photographers. We live in an age when everyone feels special, feels his or her life is unique and entitled to celebrity. Photographing one’s life is a way to accomplish that.” It’s a harsh judgment, but true far beyond just the taking of pictures.
As a teacher (of basic photography, darkroom technique, and the use of plastic-lens cameras at U of U Extension, Weber and Westminster College), Moore can be expected to uphold standards; hers are anything but objective: “A lot of photography uses the same language as art, because if it’s arty, its mediocrity is ignored.” While no snob — she expresses curiosity about Brett Sykes’ recent show of highly enlarged images taken on a cellphone — she does have a feeling about which comes first. “Fine arts trickle down into the mainstream,” she argues, leaving the rest of the equation unstated.
Of more interest to her are the odd, exceptional, and especially dead-end works that end up being left out of an artist’s canon. So it is that future generations receive an image of the artist that is as distorted as the photograph she refuses to take: the life as vocation, moving like Picasso from triumph to triumph. Yet no one who refuses to take risks can make art that matters. Amanda Moore compares this quality to making music. “I could play “Stairway to Heaven” all day,” she says. “Or I can try to find my own voice.” To this we can only reply, “That too would be O.K.”
True West, Amanda Moore’s exhibit of photographs will be on exhibit at the Rose Wagner Art Center through the month of July. To view more of her work visit her website: movingtruewest.com
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.