Midwestern Gothic staffer Ben Ratner spoke with photographer Dan Farnum about his creative process, the entwined history of words and pictures, and more.
Dan Farnum was born and raised in the blue-collar town of Saginaw, Michigan. His photographs address the American experience, landscape, and culture and have been showcased nationally in several exhibitions and galleries in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Dan received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and BFA from the University of Michigan. He is currently an Associate Professor at The University of Tulsa.
He is the recipient of notable awards such as Best in Show in the Midwest Contemporary exhibition from Natasha Egan and Karen Irvine at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, an award from Ann Pallesen at Photo Center Northwest in Seattle, two prizes from the Paul Sack Architectural Photography Contest at the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Juror’s Selection Award given by Christopher Rauschenberg in an exhibition at the Center for Fine Art Photography. For his work included in the exhibition Landscape Interrupted at the Coconino Center for the Arts, Dan received an award from William Jenkins, curator of the New Topographic exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House.
Dan’s prints have previously been exhibited at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, Black Box Gallery in Portland, Root Division in San Francisco, and at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies in NYC. Dan’s photographs have also been featured in multiple solo exhibitions in venues such as the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, University of Wisconsin, and at Alibi Fine Art in Chicago. Dan’s photographs where recently featured in the Beijing based magazine called Vision and in TIME Magazine.
Dan Farnum: I grew up in Michigan and have spent the majority of my life living in the Midwest. I was born in Saginaw and lived there until I moved to Ann Arbor
for undergrad. I also lived in Columbia, MO working as a professor at the University of Missouri. I have been living in Tulsa the last four years and teach at the University of Tulsa. I also lived in Grand Rapids for a little while before moving to Columbia.
My hometown Saginaw really shaped the way that I view the world. Saginaw is an economically depressed auto-town. The city doesn’t get as much national news coverage as Flint and Detroit, but has parallel adversities. I grew up in a regular neighborhood, but spent most of my teen years hanging out and skateboarding throughout the city regardless of the condition of the areas. I also used to go skateboarding in both Flint and Detroit.
BR: What launched you into the world of photography?
DF: Skateboarding, the regional music scene, and road trips were my initial connections to photography. As I mentioned earlier, skating took me to a lot of different locations and brought me in contact with a diverse range of people. I started taking pictures of my friends and their tricks. I actually had a few pictures published in Thrasher Magazine early on. I loved skateboarding (still do), but wasn’t good enough to do anything serious with it. I started photographing that world to stay connected to it. My current photographic work is actually still influenced by those novice pictures I used to make.
Skateboarding was also very closely related to music for me. I mostly like indie stuff and some hip-hop. I used to listen to hardcore and punk more back in the day. I used to photograph at shows. I sometimes photographed for my friend Sikander’s hardcore band called Life Set Struggle. My friends and I would also go on road trips to skate and/or see shows so I documented those adventures.
When I was in college I started taking photography more seriously as an art form. I was lost the first couple years in undergrad in regards to a career choice. I had initially gone to the University of Michigan for engineering. That educational path ended up being very brief. Also, my father passed away while I was in school as a sophomore. His death motivated me to study and pursue something I loved. I started taking art classes. I found that photography was cathartic on a personal level. It also overlapped my other areas of interests that included youth culture, politics, and social engagement. My photographic practice grew into a way of seeing the world that was both personal and cultural. This was also partially informed by seeing Robert Frank’s book called The Americans. It was the first photo book I ever owned.
BR: What do you think photography as a medium can add to the literary profile of the Midwest?
DF: Words and pictures have a long history together. Whether it is in the journalism, literary, or fine art worlds they seem to compliment each other. Both images and text ask people to use their imagination in similar ways. Some parts of the Midwestern landscape tend to be subtle and nuanced. The details of these types of places and people can be brought out in creative fields through interpretive depictions. Places affect people and the way they think about their surroundings. This inevitably has an impact on the type of creative work that is made. I have been inspired by literature about the places I have photographed. I imagine that happens the other way around too.
There is also the possibility of doing collaborative work between writers and photographers. Alec Soth and Brad Zellar’s project called Dispatch was a compelling way to depict the lives of Midwesterners. Some of their adventures were based in other parts of the country, but their publications on Michigan and Ohio were a couple of their strongest releases. That series blended reportage, fine art, and subjectivity in fluid way.
BR: Your project The New Country is an attempt to break down the romanticized image of the Midwest as idyllic farmland and show how many Midwesterns live between past and present. Why do you think nostalgia runs so deep in the region? Do you think this false image might be self-created?
DF: This project originated after reading Allen Ginsberg’s piece called Kansas City to Saint Louis. I was living right in between both of those cities in Columbia when I started my photo series. Ginsberg’s piece recalls driving through this stretch of Missouri where the news of current events on the radio intertwined and contradicted the small-town life that he was seeing along the way. My project called The New Country was a modern depiction of this experience. The photographs were mostly shot in Missouri, but also included some images from Kansas, Illinois, and Michigan.
Nostalgia for the past has become part of the identity of rural America. Places are frequently defined by their histories. Overtime that identity morphs and blends with the present whether people want it to or not. It is inevitable that things change, but it is understandable that people cling to notions of an idealized past. The way this manifests is sometimes contrived. Although, if the experience isn’t too distilled, some places can still embody unique characteristics that have genuine connections to the past.
One of reasons that the romantic notion of small town American still exists is an attempt at tourism. When I used to drive along I-70, I frequently remember seeing signs that said things like “Visit Historic Blackwater” or something similar. There was also a string of stores on that drive called Nostalgiaville, which sold cheap and stereotypical mementos. The impact of pop culture in these places was distinctly evident though. The way people dressed, the music on the radios, and the cars people drove did not fit the idealized image of the past.
Recreation in the landscape also started to play a role in the project. Camping, off road vehicles, float trips, gun ranges, and things like dune rides were common activities that I found. These activities quickly broke the illusion of the beautiful pastoral landscapes. I don’t think there was anything necessarily wrong with most of these activities, but they were evidence of modern life. They were contemporary ways of enjoying nature. People can get stuck in the past. History is important, but it can sometimes hold people back from also seeing the present. I try to be careful of using the word beauty, but my goal for the project was to capture the experience of embracing the past and present at the same time. It was necessary to deconstruct idealized notions of rural American to see what life is like now in those places.
BR: We have a few of your photos here from your Young Blood project that are new to the MG site. Can you take us through the inspiration behind the series? How did you come across each of these shots and what is it that they convey to you?
DF: Young Blood focuses on teens and young adults living in Michigan’s auto-towns. Some of the cities in this project include Saginaw, Lansing, Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids, Flint, Pontiac and the Detroit metro area. I see many of the issues happening in Detroit and Flint as being a regional crisis. Each city has its own specific hardships, but there are also larger overarching themes related to the demise of the auto industry. This project is scene through the faces of young people since they are a generation that can help bring change to the area or fall back into the cycle of hardship.
The portrait of the boy on the scooter was taken in Flint. This neighborhood was a few minutes away from the city’s water plant and was taken after the crisis was discovered. This spot was also in the driveway of a closed down school in a run down neighborhood. I was interested in how young this boy looked and that he was wheeling around on this scooter by himself. I also really liked the red laces on his shoes. Like many of the other national headlines about Michigan it’s easy to forget the individuals impacted by systemic failures of municipalities.
The picture of the guy with the backward red hat was also taken in Flint. This location was adjacent to the downtown river walk where I used to skateboard with my friends as a teenager. This image was also taken after the onset of the water crisis. The details of the text on the hat were of course the prime attraction to this person. I found the “Keep Calm and Get High” pin to be particularly interesting given what was happening in the city. My personal connection to this place made it easy to talk to this subject. I generally find that talking about skating and music helps my subjects identify with me.
This is an image taken in Detroit near the Woodbridge and Corktown neighborhoods. These are some of the areas of the city where I have photographed periodically for around 15 years. These neighborhoods are being quickly gentrified a few minutes away from this line of houses. This stretch has newer townhomes for low-income families and is a pocket where hipsters haven’t moved into yet. The work I have shot in Detroit commonly deals with the intersection of where new residents and original Detroit natives live in close proximity. This particular moment in this picture was one of those gifts from the photo universe where everything came together. It was shot with a large format film camera and originally did not have any people in it. I set up my equipment and had already shot a picture of just the scene. Then the boy with the red shorts walked up and agreed to be in the next shot. The other children happened to travel through the frame while I was waiting for the primary boy to relax in front of the camera. This picture will actually be on display at the Aperture Foundation in New York City this summer in an exhibition called On Freedom.
This picture is one of my earliest portraits from Young Blood. I recently found the scan of this shot on my hard drive and fell in love with the image again. This photograph was taken along the Saginaw River in my hometown. This location in Saginaw is where people from both the eastside and westside of town come together to hang out on nice days. The city of Saginaw is split by the river, which divides a really poor part of town from the slightly better off area. I really liked this portrait in retrospect because of the girl’s eyes and smooth smile. People in these types of cities are commonly shown as victims or as others. I felt that this portrait captured the sweet personality of the girl and had an endearing sassiness to it. This portrait has a presence to it that shows her individuality. This part of Saginaw is another place where I hung out as a teen.
BR: Is there a Midwestern author that speaks to your soul?
DF: I particularly respond to poetry. I really love Gina Myers’ work. Gina has moved around the country, but grew up in the same neighborhood in Saginaw where I’m from. She currently lives in Philly. I like all her books, but False Spring resonates the most with my photographs. This book was written when she moved back to Saginaw after living in New York City. I had a similar experience of circumstantially moving home after grad school in San Francisco. False Spring eloquently captures the experience of living in an economically depressed city through the lens of personal relationships and self-reflection.
Since I’ve moved to Tulsa the work of S. E. Hinton has played a significant role in my project called Rumbleville. The Outsiders was one of my favorite books and movies growing up. I’ve more recently been into Rumble Fish. Tulsa is a complex place, which was accurately reflected in Hinton’s novels. In many ways it hasn’t changed very much. Tulsa actually reminds me of Saginaw, but the specific histories are different. I’ve been shooting in the neighborhoods used in her books and from the Francis Ford Coppola’s movies. Tulsa is a city that is hard to categorize as part of a specific region of the country. It sits at the intersection of the Midwest, the South, the West, and the Southwest. Tulsa feels like both the beginning and end of the dividing lines of Middle America. This makes for a unique environment where diverse cultures, histories, and world-views collide. These qualities created an interesting setting for Hinton’s novels that I also utilized in my project. Recently I’ve also been getting into Ron Padgett, who was originally from Tulsa.
BR: What’s next for you?
DF: I have a few projects going. My portfolios tend to span several years. Sometimes this is because I don’t live where the photographs are being made and need to travel. Also, I sometimes need to take a rest from a project before I can resolve an idea. I’ll work on something else in the meantime.
I am headed to Michigan in a couple weeks to continue working on Young Blood. Whenever I think I am done, I have new chapters that come to mind. I am going to focus more on gentrification on this trip. There are already aspects of that theme in the project, but it is a subtopic that could be expanded. I am also going to shoot some more in Lansing. I had started photographing around Malcolm X’s childhood home on my last trip. I am in the process of putting something together to find a publisher. The project is pretty expansive at this point. I feel ready to put this into book form. A photo book will allow me to incorporate multiple aspects of my project into a longer edit in comparison to an exhibition.
I am still working on my project called Rumbleville in Tulsa and expanding into different parts of town. Recently I have been photographing more in North Tulsa. Black Wall Street was located there in the early 1900’s. The hundred-year anniversary of the 1921 race riot is coming up in a few years. Tulsa is unfortunately still very divided and there needs to be a contemporary look at the topic.
I have also been working on a project in Los Angeles called Syndicated. I’ve been making photographs in neighborhoods around Los Angeles that were used in teen movies and television shows. I just got back from a trip a couple weeks ago. This project is about the filming sites where regular people live that also serve as landmarks of collective childhood memories for millions of people. Some of the filming locations in the LA area were supposed to be situated in the Midwest in the Hollywood productions. Freaks and Geeks for example was supposed to take place in suburban Detroit, but was primarily filmed in Santa Clarita, CA.