Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Journeys through Open Doors: A Conversation with Doug Tolman

Doug Tolman exhibits his photographs of abandoned structures in Utah, Mexico and Central America at Art Access beginning Friday, April 21. Ben Sang, of Shaded Minds, discussed this body of work with the artist in 2016 (see the original article here).

Doug Tolman is a young photographer based in Salt Lake City who uses traditional photo developing techniques to add an incredibly raw feeling to his specially captured meetings between perception and nature. The artist created his latest body of work in an extensive trip through Central America with which he hoped to spark a new fire in his life and art, which he claims to be one and the same. His works demonstrate his attention to special moments in which things seem to line up or work out almost perfectly. Each of his photographs holds a beautiful balance in contrast as well as composition all brought out to its fullest potential by Tolman’s decision to develop his pieces in silver gelatin in a darkroom rather than digitally, giving them a sense of craftsmanship and originality.

I had the pleasure of meeting Doug at a house art show called On Paper… that he curated and co-directed with other artists in 2016. He graciously agreed to meet later. Here is our conversation:

SHADEDMINDS: Your body of work at the show was mainly from a trip that you took that started in Mexico. Could you tell us about that trip?

DOUG TOLMAN: It’s not necessarily my whole body of work but the work in the show is collected from a backpacking trip that started here in Salt Lake City when I hopped on a greyhound bus and ended up in Mexico City two days later. It was a very, very interesting bus ride where I learned a lot and it kind of set a real interesting tone to the rest of the trip. Lots of the other riders were from very poor situations but were moving toward a better life and that kind of made me realize why I was on the bus – why I was going somewhere for a better situation.

SM: And why was that?

DT: I’d been kinda stuck in a loop working the same commercial-ish photography job for a while. And I’d been going to photo school for a while – which I’d learned a lot from – but I definitely felt stuck in a loop. I didn’t feel my work progressing necessarily. Maybe technically it was progressing but I really felt a need both on a personal level and with my art – which I guess can be the same thing – to move forward conceptually.

SM: Ok, so you needed a catalyst.

DT: Yeah exactly, and that’s what this trip was.

SM: What were you trying to capture on this trip? Were you aiming for something or were you just going with the flow as you went?
DT: So, I had one series before that I had been working on in Utah for the last two or three months. It was tied with my fascination of abandoned structures. I would enter these structures and kind of see the way they were becoming part of the natural environment once again – seeing all the new life, seeing all the plants and animals growing inside it – and seeing, basically, that they were turning back into what was there before they existed. One of the things that worked for me both conceptually and aesthetically were the windows. They served as entrances for all these critters and all these plants coming in as well as frames for the compositions. So that was one preconceived series that I’d been working on. The rest of the trip was just basically living. Living and having a camera on me. I really tried not to go out and shoot photos. I just tried to go out and be there and live the moment the way it was meant to be lived and if I saw a composition or an object or subject that I wanted to capture then I would pull out my camera and just do it.

SM: So that was a huge step, moving from something artistically where you felt in a loop, to kind of freeing yourself. Now that you’re back here in Salt Lake where you started, where you were stuck in that loop, what’s changed? What has the trip done for you and how has the trip changed your mindset since?

DT: The way I’ve described it is, that trip was kind of like going to grad school. So, I started with money and ended with no money, started without much conceptual material and came back with a lot of it that I did in writing. So, I came back with the mindset of basically continuing that trip. I kind of still feel like I’m still on that trip. I’ve gotten to know a lot of areas of Salt Lake and the surrounding areas in the same way that I would have lived in Nicaragua or Guatemala. It’s really given me a new view on where I really live and it’s made me live a lot more in the present I would say.

SM: So, if that’s the present, where do you see the next step going in the future?

DT: I don’t really see the next step in the future other than continuing what I’m doing now. I’ve got a lot of stuff happening now that I’m very happy with and I’d love to continue so I try not to live too much in the future because it makes me a bit anxious and I see this photography and art as a way of calming that anxiety.

SM: Along those lines of settling into art, you’ve talked about how you consider it your full-time job despite it not paying so much right now. How are you keeping afloat and how are you going along without seeing monetary rewards right now?

DT: Well, I’ve kinda seen that not only has art become my life but my life has become an art so I dabble in many kinds of photography, like skateboarding, as well as this silver gelatin printing in the dark room. I’ve also been doing shows and working in cyanotype. So, I wake up every day and have three or four longterm projects that I’m working on and at some point in the day I’ve got to touch bases with each of those. And it just kind of seems like now that everything I do has to do with art, my life has become an art – and it’s a balancing act! But everything is becoming interconnected in one way or another. So, it doesn’t even feel like a full-time job because it’s not even work to me.

Doug Tolman’s black and white silver gelatin prints of minimal compositions containing windows and doors of abandoned structures in Utah, Mexico, and Nicaragua opens at Art Access in SLC, Friday, April 22, 6-9 p.m. and continues through May 10.

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