Art editor Kristin LaFollette recently had this exchange with Issue #49 featured artist Jeffrey Heyne. Here’s what Jeffrey had to say about the origins of his “To Hunt a Moon” series, how his work in architecture influences his art, what it is like to work as an artist in Boston, and more.
You note that your work searches “for a narrative based on subtextual readings ofdisparate images and concepts.” How do you see this coming through in To Hunt a Moon?
This is a long story. You may want to sit down. It began when I was caught trespassing, but it slowly morphed and culminated into a narrative of land ownership centered on the intersection of the native peoples of the West, the fledgling statehood of Colorado, cattle ranches, and the Apollo Moon missions.
But it is not what I set out to do. My original intention was to photograph hay bails captured from the same location but under different times of the day and seasons. I saw myself channeling Claude Monet and his haystack paintings. My hay bail photos were, well, pretty crappy.
To Hunt A Moon grew out of a chance encounter with Bill, a ranch owner in Steamboat Springs. In 2015 I was photographing in the middle of a large ranch capturing the summer evening light. I thought I was the only one around for miles except for some cattle and hay bales. A mile away I see an old fellow limping towards me. After 30 minutes he approaches,takes off his cowboy hat, and I can see his face is deeply creviced and darkly tanned from being outdoors his entire 70 years. He asks me if I am taking photos, if I realize I’m trespassing, and if I consider myself a kind soul. I slowly answered, “ y – e – s, ” three times.
Fortunately for me he was a kind soul too. He seemed to relish watching me squirm while testing me, but we struck up a long conversation standing in his hay field watching the sun dip below the mountain ridge. I learned of his Swiss grandparents settling here in the late 1800’s after the local Native Americans were relocated to a reservation; I learned his father was killed 20 years ago while feeding cattle just 20 feet from where my tripod was standing; and I learned this would be his last year owning the ranch. He would stay on one more season helping the new owner manage the 1,500 acres and 300 cattle, but after 125 years he would be the last of his family in Pleasant Valley.
Bill and I struck up a warm friendship and he invited me back whenever I was in the area. I followed up the next winter spending much time in waist deep snow with my cameras mingling with the cattle, hay bales, and heavy brooding snow squalls that rolled in over the mountains punctuated by periods of bursts of intensely bright sunshine.
I also traveled to other ranches in the Yampa River Valley area. While capturing images, I was noticing similarities between the white snow covered rolling terrain, and my memory of photographs from the NASA Moon missions. Photos taken by the astronauts of the rolling and mountainous Apollo 15 and 17 landing sites and my photos of Steamboat Springs could be nearly interchangeable. You would have to squint but the similarities of the topography were evident to my eye. If the white snow covered ranch photos had craters, they could be mistaken for the Apollo pictures. If the moon photos had barbed wire fences running across the mare, they could be mistaken for my ranch photos. This was my first aha moment.
Intrigued by Bill’s ancestry and the 1881 forced removal of Ute Indians from the lands around Steamboat Springs, I researched more deeply on the native peoples and early history of the western progression of settlement and land acquisition. I came across an 1898 article in the newspaper, The Steamboat Pilot. It reported on the U.S. Army being called in by the local game warden to prevent a group of 200 strong Ute hunting party members from taking game around Steamboat Springs. The Ute’s annual hunt had been their tradition and now the new state of Colorado was flexing its muscle. The newspaper quoted the Ute leader saying they traveled here determined, “…to hunt a moon,” or a month long period. The Ute hunting party conferred, and with the intimidating threat of U.S. soldiers looming, the Ute acquiesced and were escorted under armed guard back to their Utah reservation. After almost 9,000 moons, this was one the Ute’s last hunting parties on their ancestral native lands.
The phrase “to hunt a moon” was my spark and my second aha moment. This metaphor for time and the Apollo missions of exploring and conquering of new worlds launched my thinking of a subtext dialog through pairing and collaging my snowy ranch photos with the Apollo Moon photos. While standing in the powdery regolith next to the lunar lander, one of the Apollo 15 astronauts ruminated while staring up at the 12,000 vertical feet of Mt. Hadley a few miles away, “…this reminds me of skiing back in Squaw Valley.”
I’m from New England and I’m only familiar with the intimate bucolic scale of the region I grew up in. When talking with Bill in the middle of his hay field, I commented that we don’t have farms like this in New England. He smiled and said, “This is not a farm; its a ranch.”
Fences are a man-made element; they separate land that what was once whole and continuous.
During summertime, I was not really aware of the cattle fences because, I guess, they just visually blended in with the sage and scrub of the arid landscape. But not so when I returned that winter. I noticed barbed wire, split rail, and electric fences etched dark lines that rolled for miles over the stark white snow covered grazing lands around Steamboat Springs. They clearly make evident boundary lines parsing up the landscape, defining property and land ownership—all backed by a deed on paper of a legal construct but very abstract to the native peoples of 120 years ago. I was seeing and began to understand.
Why bring these images and concepts together in this series? In conversations with Bill, I sensed a quiet revealing of “white man’s guilt.” To me, it was like a slow-motion punch to my gut. It awakened an awareness of my own privilege and made me consider how I could shed light on these injustices my government has levied on the indigenous American peoples.
To build upon the last question, what was the process of creating this series like? How did you find/create these materials and bring them together?
In researching the Apollo files, I discovered there are nearly 7,000 photos from the surface of the Moon which NASA has scanned and archived online for public use. In sifting through them I have culled out a few for reuse in this series. Some are black and white, some are color, some are stitched together mosaic panoramas, and some are red/cyan 3D stereoscopic anaglyph photos.
I have also sourced moon maps from NASA, as well as vintage Moon map engravings by the British astronomer, Walter Goodacre, published just a few years after the repelled 1898 Ute hunting party. All but one of the 27 photos of this series are all set in a horizontal format 14” tall by up to 188″ wide. The photos of the Moon and the winter cattle ranch lands are composed of collages of two or three photos. The continuation of a line of a mountain or the fold in the contour of the land is the formal device that “bridges” the ranch images with the Moon images. Sometimes the images are abruptly bounded and contrast sharply. Sometimes the images meld the topography of the cattle pastures with the Moon landscape, blurring the line between the terrestrial and the lunar.
A few rolls of film from the moon experienced degradation from lunar dust, static sparks, accidental light leaks, and lab processing accidents back in Houston. Some of the accidents are quite colorful and stand out, almost resembling a Navajo blanket. Many of the lunar images have been purposefully color shifted and altered by me to echo the processing lab accidents and technical flaw artifacts of the time. I feel the overall message conveyed in my collaged photos can be read as calm, soothing, possibly even pretty, but the imprint of the ranch fences ring a note of discord.
This series touches on several pertinent and controversial issues, including honoring Native American land (I’m thinking of the recent Dakota Access Pipeline protests) and sustainability and conservation. Why tackle these issues here? How is this series contributing to conversations about these issues?
These questions get at the crux of my motivation, thank you for asking. 2016 in Cannon Ball North Dakota, land issues reached fever pitch. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were joined by thousands of others, including my brother-in-law, to protest the river crossing of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline. Originally set to cross the Missouri River upstream of Bismarck, N.D., but this was deemed too hazardous to the city’s drinking water supply from the river. Instead the pipeline river crossing was deemed safer at the Reservation. Construction resumed and oil began to flow late spring 2017.
Most treaties with the Native Americans are broken due to pressures in exploiting land resources be it minerals, agriculture, grazing, or the expansionist doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Today this is being tested in the heavens. Ratified by 105 nations, The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 declares governments cannot claim sovereignty over any celestial body such as a planet or the Moon. Yet in 2015 the United States signed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. It gives private companies in space the right to extract minerals for commercial purposes, yet not claim any territory. The corporations Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are now developing robotic missions to the Moon and asteroids to mine for minerals. With inevitable boundary disputes, many legal experts believe this Act will violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
The conflicting directions of the 1967 Treaty and the 2015 Act was my third aha moment. We have clearly failed in the past uphold treaties; how can we be trusted to not continue this in the future. We have to get his right.
To continue from the last question, when approaching new projects, how do you decide what the focus will be? Are you currently working on any new projects?
Usually I rely on serendipity to point me in a direction. My extensive Barbie series began when I tripped at the top of a steep stair case and in that instant while trying to regain my balance, for some reason, I thought ‘what would Barbie, who is supposed to possess such elegant poise and beauty, would look like falling down the stairs.’ Yes, a little odd but there you have it. I called the series The Barbie Fall Collection.
My next series though has been planned out more methodically. I wanted to continue the theme of land ownership explored in To Hunt a Moon but on land much, much further away. The election of our current federal government and policies being enacted raised my ire and set me in a direction.
In 2017 our federal government led by Interior Cabinet Secretary Ryan Zinke took actions to reduce the size of the Grand Staircase/Escalante and Bear’s Ears National Monuments. Along with four other national monuments, protected lands the size of Connecticut will become available for commercial enterprise such as logging, agriculture, and mineral extraction. As soon as this action occurred a Canadian mining company purchased the rights to reopen the dormant Colt Mesa Mine in Utah. This copper and cobalt mine was operational for a few years in the early ‘70s but when the ore ran out, the mine was sealed. It will now fall outside the protected boundary of the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. I decided I should travel there and possibly photograph the remnants of the previous operation and any new exploratory mining operation underway.
Upon delivering my 2018 award talk at the photo festival CENTER Santa Fe, I scheduled time to travel to Utah to camp out and photograph the mining activity on Colt Mesa. I spent months researching maps from the Bureau of Land Management and the Mineral Resources Data System, and cross referenced them with Google satellite images. I needed to be sure of the passable condition of the 4WD restricted dirt road leading 25 miles into the unknown. I did not want end up being listed in a newspaper story about another ill-prepared city dweller having perished in the desert.
I found Colt Mesa to be a desolate area in the middle of about 500 square miles of a few lizards, some sage, intense quietness, and seemingly not much else, but much beauty that is America. It is also the region of the ancient Pueblo People’s, their culture, their extensive rock art, and unfortunately, a suspected vast coal vein lying below the desert floor. I camped there at Colt Mesa and captured about 600 photos from the mine and I’ve been now collaging them with borrowed images from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. There are about 40,000 images from this mission so I have my work cut out for me.
I’m calling this new body of work What Was Yours, Is Now Mine and is developing into a coda to my To Hunt a Moon series with a focus more on the physical scars of the landscape from of extraction capitalism. I’m also using other images of mine (pun intended) of mineral extraction sites in Wyoming and New England to amplify the notion of the impact of mining on sacred/protected/public lands.
You mention that you got your first camera when you were eight. What prompted you to get a camera and what drew you to photography as a child?
I won a very tiny “secret agent spy camera” in an arcade game at the Lake Compounce amusement park in Bristol, Conn. I took my “clandestine pictures” and mailed the small roll film off to the processing lab, but was disappointed to have the film returned and no pictures. A short note accompanied with it said I have to include money for processing and printing. It was a learning moment. My older brother laughed but a few years later he let my play with their 35mm Minolta.
I borrowed my uncle’s vintage 1940’s enlarger and set up a darkroom in the basement of my parent’s home and my other brother gave me some pointers on printing. There I spent years and all my allowance on Plus-X film, chemicals, and Kodabromide paper. I did the usual photos of family and my dog but was really inspired by the stop-motion photos by Doc Edgerton I saw in a science book. With a Vivitar electronic flash and my home made electrical trip switches, I captured balloons exploding and milk drops falling. But I could not mimic the iconic Edgerton bullet-though-the-apple photo. My BB gun did not have enough umph and my flash duration was not short enough to freeze the action.
Later I started processing my own Kodak Ektachrome slide film which I occasionally messed up one of the 12 chemical baths but was intrigued by the colorful happy accidents. These led me to more color experimenting with color infrared film and how various artificial light sources registered so differently on film. I started taking long exposure star trail photos at night and was blown away by the rainbow of star colors that your eye does not really notice, but is very evident on color film. Around age 15 my best friend and I pooled our money and we bought a telescope and star tracking motor drive for astro-photography. I recall one cold winter night where it was hovering around zero, and my film shattered when I advanced it. I still have a few of those Moon and Orion nebula photos in a box some where.
How has your approach to photography changed over time?
For awhile I tried to be like Ansel Adams. I thought I could master the Zone System and print B&W with a full dynamic range as he had. The end came when traveling in New Mexico I searched out the same spot Adams captured his Moonrise, Herndandez photo. There was no moon available but the light was still just right, the old adobe church was still there including the white cemetery head stones. I was ecstatic to be there in the same spot, at the right time, and with the right light. But was very disappointed when I pulled prints from my 35mm negatives. My prints were dull, lacked any concept of contrast, were not very sharp even though the lens was stopped down to f/16, and they had no drama. I soothed myself in the realization that Adams’s photo came from an 8×10 negative, and I was not about to invest into that kind of equipment.
My wife was working in a frame shop in Boston and she mentioned she was matting and framing photos by the twin brothers Doug and Mike Starn. And I fell in love with their crappy camera technique, their crappy taped together mosaic print presentation, and their use of color toners. I found their unorthodox pictorial style that verged into sculpture that transcended a photo from merely a visual record into a melancholic exploration of culture, history, light, resulting in an orchestra of phenomenological implications of the human condition. From that point I understood that just recording a place or making a perfect print were not what moved me inside, but that I need to capture a feeling of psychological space.
You say that, in addition to “imagining photographic stories,” you also practice architecture. How do you see these two things intersecting in your work and life?
At the time my subject matter was shifting to abandoned industrial architecture. From my architectural schooling, I was taught if my designs were to be successful, I would have to consciously imbue meaning into my buildings so they would signify their function. But with my photography, I was instead interested in industrial buildings that were unconsciously designed by engineers that dealt with physical things like gravity and mechanical processes. These structures have a compelling honesty.
In looking at the photos of Charles Sheeler and paintings by Charles Demuth, I was attracted to heroic industrial architecture. American economy was shifting to the tech/service sector and buildings of heavy industry were becoming rusting relics. But I thought of them as romantic ruins of a lost culture, just like the Parthenon or a Roman aqueduct. I sneaked onto properties of an abandoned blast furnace in Pittsburgh, a decommissioned uranium mine in New Mexico, and a dormant dry dock in Boston. My photos from these places are darkly color toned and heavily blurred in a printing technique I developed that smoothed out the lack of sharpness of my small 35mm negatives. Many of them were cut apart, collaged, reassembled, mixed with oil paint, layered with encaustic wax or gold leaf, and some set into a flickering light boxes. I felt I was beginning to elucidate a narrative a story of America through my architectural eye.
Some of your work was showcased in a film in 2008. Can you talk a bit about how that opportunity came about and what that experience was like?
A few months after 9/11 I was in New York City doing office design work for McKinsey & Co. In the evenings I was walking the city streets with my Polaroid SX-70. On Madison Ave. I came across some department store windows displaying mannequins in wedding gowns. I wondered if these brides witnessed the towers falling. A few years later I received and email from a film producer inquiring about this series she saw on my website. They would be filming around MIT for the movie 21. In my Boston Fort Point neighborhood the producers were transforming an empty building into a stage set for a swanky Las Vegas hotel room. The producer wanted to lease and purchase a number of my Madison Ave. Mannequin photos for the hotel bedroom scenes. I agreed as long as my artwork was not shown in a derogatory manner. I was fearing I would see the movie and see a actor pointing at my work on the wall and saying something like, “My four year old could have done this crap.”
You mention other collections of your photography that have been (or currently are) showcased or exhibited. Can you talk about a couple of those projects?
My Muybridge Series explores the technology of photography.In this series I am reinterpreting Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion photos from the 1880’s. It is from toy flip-books of the photos comprising his seminal publication, Animal Locomotion, which my work borrows from. I am interested in the idea of playing with his iconic images–to make his frozen photos “move” again. Muybridge’s high shutter speeds broke down movement into distinct visual images, separated by equal intervals of time that could be analyzed frame by frame, all to observe a cause and effect sequence for scientific study. From a physical point of view, each of the still images is actually a record of a period of time of about 1/2000 of a second—a short time but still a duration of time. From a phenomenological point of view though, can this freeze-frame image, in a sense, be re-activated to release the latent motion they originally recorded?
With Photoshop, I alter Muybridge’s image by distorting, blurring, warping, stretching, or twisting to imply a sense of motion. I would like to elicit a metaphorical sense of allowing time re-flow. Like pressing
With the application of a thick top coat of glossy resin, the picture plane of the photo image becomes “visually slippery,” and appears to float somewhere within the thickness. I think of my Muybridge images as cast in another type of frozen state, much like an ancient biological specimen locked away within a piece of crystalline amber.It’s been noted though that Muybridge’s work of photographing nudes morphed from scientific purposes to more of quest to fuel his voyeuristic tendencies during the Victorian period.
This lead me to explore the female form more in-depth with my Voile Series. Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria-Queen of Hungary, was considered the most beautiful woman in the world of the 1850’s. And she knew it. So concerned with her image that at the age of 32 she ceased to sit for state portraits, did not allow herself to be photographed, and only made public appearances from behind a hand fan, raised to veil her visage. Veiling the female body extends to various and opposite purposes. An Afghan burqa conceals a man’s property, a representation of chattel. A Victoria’s Secret nightie is fashioned to selectively reveal, entice, and evoke sexual arousal. Lingerie is worn as a display, a representation of power over the viewer, and a signal in initializing foreplay. As in my previous bodies of works on the female form such as Barbie dolls and allegorical sculpture, my Voile Series looks at the representation of women found in iconic Renaissance and classical painting. I appropriate images from Botticelli, Ingres, and others from postcards sold in the gift shops of the Uffizi, Louvre, and other museums. I then blend in a digitally created vertical veil, similar to a hanging shear curtain, with colors derived from the painting palette itself. The veil and female form merge together, intertwined in a complex relationship about what is chaste virtue, what is beauty, what is eroticism, and how they bind together in reinforcing the female objectification of the male gaze.
Since you live and work in Boston, I’m wondering how your location impacts how you approach your work? What is it like being a creative in Boston, Mass.?
I have the wonderful opportunity to be part of the Fort Point Arts Community in Boston. My wife and I have a live/work studio in a building we share with 46 other artists and a small group of like minded commercial condos, a cafe, and the FPAC Gallery where I volunteer on the gallery committee. There I help with programming, exhibits, and curating. I like to feel all of us here are like art ambassadors to the city and beyond. Today though it is difficult due to the pandemic. All of our shows scheduled are now on hold but this is minor. A few of my close artist friends are fighting the disease and helping them is paramount. But being here at the right time and in the right place has had its benefits. My series called Clouds has been added to collection of the Boston Athenæum.
Over a two week period in the summer of 2013, hot and humid weather conditions over Boston created large, violent and quickly moving thunderstorms. As if on cue in the late afternoon, large cumulus clouds collected and welled upwards creating giant multiple thunder cells; and the city was pummeled with hail, rain, and lightning.
As the storms began to dissipate, strong horizontally raking light from the setting sun made vibrant the textures and roiling turmoil of the clouds. I tried to capture this visual violence with my camera while dodging between episodes of hail, rain, and lightning. At first I thought this was similar to the drama the Hudson River School painters portrayed with their pastoral and romantic stormy skies. But at ten stories up on the roof of my Fort Point studio building, I started to become aware that I was clearly exposed to danger. My adrenal glands took over and they snapped awake a sense of fear and trepidation that came from a deep and primitive part within me. I was “seeing” the raw, pulsating, and heart pounding music of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Weeks later while processing the images on my computer, I was finding my photographs were not emoting the same power that overwhelmed me during the storms on the roof. I decided to think about using the colors your retina and mind sees during an ‘after image’ phenomena. By reversing the colors captured by the camera, then pushing and altering the RGB channels to extremes, the resulting images on my computer screen gave me the same primordial sense that overcame me on the roof. It seemed I was tapping into atavistic feeling of pre-language, and colors were the only words I understood.
These evening storm events were two months after the Boston Marathon bombings. The storms of rain and hail seemed to be cleansing and sanitizing effect for what happened to my city, and my Clouds seemed like a cathartic response.