Human/Nature: A Conversation with Lucas Foglia
As I state in the book review that accompanies this conversation, Lucas Foglia is among contemporary photography’s most popular visual storytellers. The good-faith humor and clarity of his narratives about the relationship between humans and the natural world have become defining features of his practice, one that has been recognized in solo exhibitions this year at both Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Having once worked under the master portraitist Arnold Newman, it’s not hard to recognize the influences that Foglia channels through his own environmental portraiture. In Foglia’s work, the environment is not just a setting for a story to take place — a field of characterizing details — but an essential subject of the story itself in the photographer’s quest to reveal the complicated relationship we have with a natural world. Lucas was kind enough to answer some questions about the work.
Gregory Eddi Jones. Human Nature is your third book, and it seems very much like a continuation of your previous projects which all address relationships that we, or at least some, have with the natural world. To paraphrase from your biography, you grew up on a small farm in the wilderness near New York City, on which your family grew their own food and to a large extent kept you separated from the “strip malls and suburbs” around you. Could you talk a little more about your upbringing and the ways it has influenced your pursuit to photograph others with similar experience?
Lucas Foglia. I grew up with my extended family on a small farm in the suburbs of Long Island, 30 miles from New York City. While malls and supermarkets developed around us, we heated our house with wood, farmed and canned our food, and bartered the plants we grew for everything from shoes to dental work. The forest that bordered the farm was my childhood wilderness, a wild place to play that was ignored by our neighbors who commuted to Manhattan.
So making photographs about the relationship between people and nature feels close to home for me. My family’s lifestyle inspired my photographic projects. My first book, A Natural Order, focused on people leaving cities and suburbs to live off the grid in Appalachia, adopting lifestyles from the past. My second book, Frontcountry, focused on the current economy in the rural American West, exploring how people use the land in a region that’s famous for being wild.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded the fields on my family’s farm and blew down the oldest trees in the woods. On the news, scientists linked the storm to climate change caused by human activity. I realized that if humans are changing the weather, then there is no place on Earth unaltered by people. At the time I looked through my archive and set aside some photographs that became the seeds for my third book.
gj. What strikes me so much about your work is both the articulation and the romance of your storytelling. Each of your frames is formally beautiful and graceful, vivid color and light paint your scenes with humor and warmth, and your approach to narrative seems incredibly earnest and sincere. To me, they point to a spirit of idealism, which I suppose makes sense given how closely the subject matter reflects your own experiences with the natural world. Can you talk a little about the creative influences that have shaped your approach to storytelling? You had worked for the portraitist Arnold Newman for at one point, didn’t you?
LF. There is idealism in my photographs, but also tension and humor. My hope is that my photographs provoke people to ask questions and start conversations. Given the state of the world right now, I think candor, activism, optimism, and an appreciation of complex beauty are important.
When I was 18 I met and then started printing for Arnold Newman. He was the first person in the art world to tell me that I could make a living from photography. A few years before he passed away, he asked me to go pick up a pair of pants for him at the tailor. He wrote on one of his business cards: “Please give Lucas Foglia my trousers.” I framed that card.
As for influences, the values I grew up with feel like a compass. At the graduation ceremony from Yale, we had to wear fancy robes. I put mine on and walked with the other students and our families towards the ceremony. At a cafe we passed, an old man with crutches was sitting down at a table on the sidewalk. One of his crutches fell and I picked it up and handed it back to him. My mother said she was proud of me for picking up his crutch, more than for the fact that I went to Yale.
Just before I finished my MFA at Yale, I met Richard Misrach. He wrote to Aperture Magazine and recommended that they publish a portfolio of my photographs. Then he wrote to Nazraeli Press and recommended that they publish my first book. That generosity changed my life.
My community inspires me. Some of my friends are artists. Others are activists, doctors, scientists, inventors, writers, farmers, lawyers, dancers, etc. I read, recently nonfiction by Robert Moor, Jon Mooallem, and Elizabeth Kolbert. And, of course, the news.
gj. With so many locations you visited and the people you met during the course of making this work, I’m sure you had some really memorable encounters. Are there any moments or stories that really stand out to you?
LF. I asked a researcher at National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration where the cleanest air was. He gave me an exact spot. The air over Cape Kumukahi on the Big Island of Hawaii has traveled across the Pacific Ocean. It is arguably the cleanest air on Earth. I went there and took a photo of the landscape: ground, plants, and ocean. It wasn’t a very good picture. Then, walking back to the road, I met a couple on their first date. It was after sunset, so I asked them if they would meet me the next morning. I wanted to photograph them on their second day of knowing each other, in the cleanest air on earth. They met me the next day. During the shoot, they started kissing. That led to the photograph that closes the book.
gj. I love that story, and it makes me think that you really enjoy the aspect of your work that just involves meeting people and finding new experiences. I always find it interesting how photographers interact with those in front of their camera. Much of Greg Miller’s work sees him engage with strangers, gains their trust and directs them in a sort of on-the-spot tableaux. Bruce Gilden, for the most part, doesn’t bother to ask permission. Can you talk about how you approach those you photograph? Do you have any sort of overriding methodology you follow?
LF. I think of photographs as collaborations that rely on trust. I think the world is small. I can usually find my way through the introductions of friends. Or, if I introduce myself to a stranger, then I share a story about what I am doing that they can understand and retell.
gj. The images in the book were made between 2006 and 2017, which is a time period that has been witness to tremendous political activism and antagonism towards environmental policy. The bulk of these pictures were made during the Obama administration, who took such positive steps towards enacting environmental protections, and who I feel saw himself as a steward of the land, defined by his aspiration to responsibility.
In the past 15 months, Scott Pruit’s EPA has dramatically rolled back protections, reversing course even while we are witnessing in real time the consequences of changing climate patterns. (National Geographic has been publishing a page that tracks developments in climate policy changes here). I’m curious to know how you know might reconcile the idealism and hopefulness of your work now that it is viewed within the context of such disregard for the natural world and our dependence on it. Do you feel that these political conditions will change your storytelling approach to any degree?
LF. The Obama Administration did amazing work at preserving lands and waters as national monuments, despite economic incentives for mining activities. The EPA was given more of the resources it deserves. At the same time, I don’t think it is completely fair to say that Obama was pro-environment. Obama backed natural gas, which was marketed to him as ‘clean energy’.
I saw the effects in Pavillion, Wyoming, a farming and ranching community with a population of about 175. Within the town is a natural gas field owned by the Encana Corporation. Drilling for natural gas began in the area in 1960, and in 2005 local inhabitants complained about the foul taste and smell of their well water. The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report in 2011 saying that the recent introduction of hydraulic fracturing was to blame for the pollution of Pavillion’s aquifer. A peer-review process led by independent scientists was commissioned to settle the dispute. Instead, the Environmental Protection Agency announced in June 2013 that the study would be handed over to the state of Wyoming, whose research will be funded by the Encana Corporation.
Change has to happen throughout the system, not just in the presidency.
Now, under the Trump administration, things have gotten much worse for the environment and for science. When my book was published they had already proposed cutting NOAA’s budget by 17 percent, including a 26 percent cut to research. Given that, I think it is even more important to direct attention to people and programs who deserve support. I am not an idealist. But I do have hope.
gj. Going back to the book, the scope of the work seems more disparate than your two previous projects. The images represent a pretty wide-ranging set of geographies, cultures, and situations. One photograph surveys an urban greenway in Seoul, and you move to bring your viewer to a lumber mill in Oregon, throughout California and Nevada, Alaska, Sweden. What kinds of considerations came into play during your editing process when it came time to make connections and put a narrative together?
LF. By the time I was finished, I had made about 80,000 photographs for the series. I printed about 1000 small prints, divided them by subject, and started to winnow down the piles.
It was not until 2016 that I came up with the idea for the sequence. Human Nature begins and ends with interpretations of paradise, moving through cities, forests, farms, deserts, ice fields, and oceans in between.
In the sequence of the book, the photographs are connected by their content, color and composition.
gj. It’s interesting to me how each image is accompanied caption which describes narrative in the most minimalist terms. There’s a lot of space you leave to be occupied with your viewers’ speculation and imagination, and so to some extent, your photographs become untethered and enter into more of an interpretive mode of communication.
Could you offer some insight into how you define your role as a documentarian? Do you see yourself participating deliberately in a documentary tradition, carrying on specific philosophies or following in the legacies of any certain figures? Or do you consider your practice and approach more detached in the sense that you just don’t take precedent or artistic lineage into consideration?
LF. I wanted the book to be like the trunk of a tree, pointing to a number of different stories that spread out from the core like branches. I have published and exhibited many of those stories with more detailed captions, but in the book, the titles name the people in the photographs and provide just enough information to point a reader to the backstories.
I love the fact that a photograph can be used in so many different ways. A book, to me, is the completion of a series. I exhibit prints of my photographs in galleries, festivals, and museums, and publish the images in newspapers, magazines, and social media. I also give copies to local and national organizations to use for advocacy. All are different methods of storytelling. I’m grateful for them, and I think there is art in each of those methods.
I believe there is room for art in journalism, and storytelling in art. There are so many precedents for this. My bookshelves and walls at home are filled with the work of people who inspire me.
gj. Finally, what’s coming up next for you? Is your next project within sight?
LF. I have been saddened by the fact that, over the course of my lifetime, environmentalism has been politicized. People on the left care about preserving land, and people on the right care about promoting industry to preserve jobs. I don’t think those values have to be in opposition. In my next project, I want to speak about the importance of nature in a language that people on the right can identify with, and act in response to.
Lucas Foglia’s lyrical, formally considered photographs challenge the concept that humans and nature operate in opposition, while highlighting the relentlessly uneasy, sometimes absurdly comedic juxtapositions of human technologies and the natural world.
Human Nature was published by Nazarelli Press in 2017. Learn more about the book here.
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Originally published at In the In-Between.