Connie Samaras at De Soto Gallery | Q&A

by Ryane Gonsalves

Huntington Desert Garden (Cacti) and OEB 1723, novel fragment from the Parable of the Sower, 1989.

Huntington Desert Garden (Cacti) and OEB 1723, novel fragment from the Parable of the Sower, 1989.

Connie Samaras is a Los Angeles based artist working primarily in photography and moving image. She’s exhibited her work at galleries and museums across the globe and is a Professor Emerita in the Art Department at UC Irvine. We talked with her about the work she’s showing at de Soto Gallery, “The Past is Another Planet,” part of a recent series of projects dealing with speculative landscapes and feminist science fiction.

Her pieces focus on feminism, culture, technology, science, sexuality and gender studies. She loves to embody a layer of fiction and the real world within everything she creates, by using politics, history, pop culture, and the imagination of futuristic life. Represented by De Soto Gallery, the artist will be presenting he works during Photo LA . Ahead of the photo fair Flaunt got to speak to the artist about her body of work “The Past is Another Planet.”

Huntington Chinese Garden and OEB Box 326 folder 3, photograph of Octavia E. Butler, Deception Falls, Washington, 2001-2005

Huntington Chinese Garden and OEB Box 326 folder 3, photograph of Octavia E. Butler, Deception Falls, Washington, 2001-2005

Your multiple exposures in “The Past is Another Planet” is hallucinatory and ethereal like replaying love scenes in a single moment, what inspired you to experiment with writings on image?

The work I’m showing at Photo L.A., “The Past is Another Planet,” is based on the research I’ve been doing on Octavia E. Butler’s papers housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Butler is one of the great science fiction writers of our time. Until her untimely death in 2006 at the age of 58 she was, for many years, the leading African American woman science fiction writer. Her work has been and continues to be an influence to many well-known writers from N.K. Jemisin to Kim Stanley Robinson. I find it surprising that her novels (which cover a brilliant and stunning expanse of ideas) still aren’t more widely known. But that seems to be changing both because of the scholarship being generated by her archive and the resurgence of afro-futurism in film and art. Given our current political climate, I think Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” and it’s sequel should be required reading. If you haven’t read the series I guarantee you won’t be able to look at the landscape around you with the same complacency again especially if you live in Southern California.

So the writing you ask about on the images is not mine, it’s Octavia Butler’s. I’ve been taking pictures in the library of her papers including her photographs and photographs of her on an iPad. I’ve been particularly drawn to her handwritten notes and journal entries. They’re striking not only for what she’s saying but also visually for the multi-colored pens she often used as a kind of outlining and coding device.

Huntington Desert Garden (Agave) and OEB 1723, novel fragment from Parable of the Sower, 1989

Huntington Desert Garden (Agave) and OEB 1723, novel fragment from Parable of the Sower, 1989

Since I’ve been a great fan of Butler for many years, my plan was always to try to gain access to her archive and make work based on my research. As it turned out, the first part of the series was commissioned by Julia Meltzer at Clockshop (Los Angeles) for the exhibition “Radio Imagination: Artists and Writers in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler.” It’s good I had this initial deadline to work with because it forced me to cough up work sooner than later. At first I had no idea what I was going to do. The archive is voluminous and Butler’s brilliance is intimidating. But then I settled into the unknown terrain that comes at the beginning of the creative process. And as I did it came to me that there I was sequestered in the Huntington Library reading Butler’s notes on world building for her novels while outside surrounding me was railroad heir Henry Huntington’s built environment of a garden replicating different botanical regions from all over the world. It was then I decided to take Butler’s archive out of the library and overlay it on to the Huntington Gardens. So I enlarged and transferred onto mylar some of the journal pictures I’d taken. Then with the help of my friend photographer Julie Shafer, we took a 4x5 camera and double exposed the various journal entries and images over corresponding areas of the gardens. What’s particularly amazing is that we had access to the gardens during off hours so, for example, the picture of the cacti de Soto is showing was shot early in the morning when the plants are backlit giving them an eerie bright outline. It’s not something you’re likely to see during normal visiting hours.

What are your stills alluding to?

Well many things. My choice in what equipment and methods I’m using vary with the ideas behind my projects. Here I purposefully chose an old school large format camera because, beyond figuring out framing and exposures, I didn’t want to know in advance exactly how the pictures were going to look. I wanted the element of chance as a central element in making this work. This is because change is a central element in Octavia Butler’s work. Many of her protagonists are almost always young or adolescent African American women and you’re never fully sure how they’re going to survive or if the choices they must make to survive with others are going to hold or alter. Her novels point to the complexities of agency, resilience, and survival within a necessary collectivity. This is different from the usual mainstream science fiction fare where a white dude singularly weathers all odds in the name of the heteronormative nuclear family unit.

Chinese Garden and OEB 3245 commonplace book, journal fragment on climate change, 1990

Chinese Garden and OEB 3245 commonplace book, journal fragment on climate change, 1990

So I didn’t want predictability and I got it. For example in the cacti image, I’d taken a journal fragment Butler had written on climate change from a commonplace book she kept while writing Parable of the Sower. At the top of the image I very much wanted the following sentence to read clearly: “Los Angeles was dying. Much of the world was changing – changing rapidly, involuntarily blundering through vast climate change.” She’d written this in red ink but then had scribbled over it. But when I got the film back, I saw that the sentence had broken up into small red fragments that ended up looking like flowers drifting through the treetops. In a way this was perfect, as one person commented in a recent roundtable I was recently part for Locus Magazine, there’s a gritty optimism that runs throughout Butler’s work.

In your earlier question, you correctly describe the images as hallucinatory and ethereal. I wanted the images to be more about a kind of collaboration where one could feel her presence rather than an illustration of her work. By this I mean that, when you’re doing archival research on a particular person, combing through the details of their life while handling the very things they touched, you start to feel them by your side and around you. I’m not talking about a séance-like visitation but rather, as journalist Lynell George discusses in an interview I did with her for Bomb on her posthumous interview with Butler for Radio Imagination, it’s a feeling not a ghost. This is why I chose to enlarge and print Butler’s writing onto mylar (for it’s reflective quality) and then forego rigidly anchoring the translucent sheets as we exposed the writing over the gardens. Without prompting, Julie would start remarking how she felt Butler’s presence. Often there’d be no breeze as we were separately focusing the text image to ready it for its part in the multiple exposures. But as soon as we’d click the shutter, a current of air would come along and gently ripple the page. Again, this was not an image formed by a ghostly intervention. Rather it’s a photograph that’s been partially shaped by the material presence of the environment it’s taken in.

Huntington Rose Garden and OEB 7350, Photograph of Octavia E. Butler, Washington, 2001

Huntington Rose Garden and OEB 7350, Photograph of Octavia E. Butler, Washington, 2001

When do you find it appropriate to digitally manipulate your photography? Some images seem to be completely naturalistic on the surface, until closer inspection there are oddities, eccentricities that blur your naturalistic portraits with artifice.

First off, although I’m still a big fan of what one can do with analogue photography, once the film is developed and exposed I’m all in with digital production. Even if you’re a purist only making chemical prints, where exactly is the dividing line anymore between analogue and digital manipulation given that, if you want your photos to be seen, all are now viewed and distributed via jpegs regardless of how they’re produced. But in these images you’re right to notice my intention in blurring artifice and the seemingly natural, of emphasizing surface so that you’re caught between representation and abstraction. This way one is made aware of the objectness of the photograph as well as their own ideas of what constitutes reality. And although I intentionally constructed the photographs to seem like they’ve been digitally manipulated they’re not because I want viewers to be drawn into the surface, to displace pedestrian notions of digital wizardry, to consider instead the alchemy and possibilities of multiple futures inherent in our material realities and own imaginations.

Connie Samaras at De Soto Gallery will be on display at Photo L.A. from Jan. 31 to February 3rd, 2019 in Santa Monica.


Images courtesy of De Soto Gallery