A Conversation with Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom
by Anne Tucker
Editor's Note: This discussion was held on May 1of 2004 on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition, MANUAL Two Worlds—the Collaboration of Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom, spanning 28 years of work in photography, video, and computer-based media. Originally exhibited and organized by the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York in 2002, an expanded version of MANUAL Two Worlds was on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston from February 29 to May 23. 2004
Anne Tucker: In 1979, at this veritable in your home, the three of us convened to conduct an interview for an exhibition catalog produced by the Museum of Fine Arts. Houston on The occasion of your show, Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill (MANUAL): Research and Collaboration- That exhibition was much smaller and focused on three projects: White Oak Bayouby Suzanne, A Phenomenohgical Study of Life Drawing by Ed, and Art in Context by MANUAL we jokingly referred to it as a three-person show! In contrast, the retrospective at the MFAH is solely of your collaborative work. One of the issues I'd like to discuss today is the process of assembling a retrospective. In the case of MANUAL: Two Worlds, this involved looking at 30 years of work and evaluating individual pieces as well as successive series in terms of a coherent survey. There was the consideration of what could and could not be borrowed for The show because of diverse reasons, ranging from practical considerations of size to economic factors, such as the cost of shipping work from various locations. More importantly, you had to evaluate pieces to be included in terms of central issues in your work—issues with which you began your collaboration—and how they evolved over time. Did the process of putting the show Together shift in any way your understanding of your own work?
Ed Hill: It's hard to say whether it shifted, but the process certainly gave us an opportunity for greater clarity. Even though we're constantly re-evaluating our work as we prepare lectures and artists' statements for exhibitions, this retrospective, because of its size, was a chance to really focus on the totality of our work,
Suzanne Bloom: Preparing the work for the show, and especially seeing the early video Running in Ricker's Field [19761 with fresh eyes, really did affect us. We viewed it over and over again. This prompted us to think about using that same strategy to get into the landscape again, which led directly to On the Verge, our latest series of still images. Only this lime we are walking, not running, through fields, woods, or on the beach.
The first gallery in the exhibition at the MFAH contains all the basic concepts and approaches we've used and built upon for thirty years. There are four different series which explore three different Themes—culture, nature, and technology—and several different stylistic approaches, including both staged and hand-held photography, and still and time-based imagery.
Also, our use of sharp, detailed photography in the earliest work, like the black & white photograph Lovis Corinth in Vermont (1974], was reinforced during the period we were preparing the retrospective. We've spent the last six years making photographs with a tripod because the panoramic camera we used throughout the Arcadia project is so bulky. And much of the digital time-based work like Big White Pine required a tripod in order to maintain exact image framing for the animation process.
Another series in the first gallery, Thirteen Ways of Coping with Nature [1980-81], consists of photographs of mixed media, collage, and assemblage pieces—all processes we continue to use heavily, although now we do this through the use of computer programs rather than by hand.
EH: The process of doing the retrospective definitely brought us back to the beginnings of our collaboration. We had lo pay close attention to thirty years of work because there were many decisions to be made. Of course, Ed Earle, curator at ICR played a major part. He had a long list of pieces he wanted to include for which he had his particular reasons. Ed had his own take on our career.
One of the things implied by your question raises another thought: were we to start all over again, is it conceivable we could end up with a different show? I don't believe it would be radically different, but I certainly think differences would emerge and there could be a different lake on the whole thing.
SB: For instance, we didn't include any of the photographs from the large series Northampton/Houston Connector  But, stylistically these are more representative of a kind of conceptual street photography, something we haven't done since the mid-70s.
AT: I could argue with that assumption. The phenomenon identified in that series is a geographic comparison between Northampton, Massachusetts, and Houston. Since then you have regularly commuted between Vermont and Houston, and the back and forth between these two residencies is very much a part of your work. One could argue that TheNorthampton/Houston Connector seta precedent in the evolution of your work.
SB: Good point.
AT: You referred briefly to the three themes in The first room. One theme is your commitment to the place of culture m your lives, in your intellectual lives. The An in Context series is so much about revisiting Culture. Another theme is Nature, which relates to your Vermont existence, and the third theme is, as you have referred to it, a love/hate relationship with technology. One other theme has evolved, and I think it's an important one—History Lei's begin with The evolution and understanding of culture in your work. When one mentions culture, one tends lo think high art, but you have engaged both high and low culture. Yes, There are pieces in the show referring lo paintings by Goya, Velazquez, Rembrandt, and others, but popular culture is also very much a subject in your art.
EH: Starting in the late '50s, and well into the '60s, artists, writers, and critics looked at popular culture and its social significance in a different way. For example, they looked at pervasive television series and how TV encapsulated American life, hopes, and dreams; they looked at advertising, movies of the time, and, and so on, any critical thinkers, for instance Marshall McLuhan, were doing This. It was m the air. I remember a particular occasion in the early '60s where a number of people were meeting regarding the founding of Hampshire College. As they were talking about curricula, I found myself arguing for the importance of popular culture entering into the academic scene. And now I think of the old adage, "be careful what you wish for," because popular culture, as defined then, has become our current hyper-media culture. Media dominates the popular mind-set. Media utilizes culture for its own ends. We're bombarded by popular culture. I really have developed an aversion toit. I'm turned off by most popular music, sitcoms and especially reality programs. While I still understand their relevance as defining forms, I'm not engaged by them.
SB Bui what is your favorite TV program?
EH I don't have one anymore.
SB Yes, you do. What about The Simpsons?
EH Suzanne's right! The Simpsons are wonderful because they absorb everything and throw it right back at us. They are the one shining light on the scene for me. I know there are some other savvy programs, like Six Fee: Under, but we don't get cable. And, the assault of commercials on Network TV is really out of control.
SB: When we began our collaboration both of us were very idealistic about photography. We thought of it as a democratic medium, a perfect medium for our '60s frame of mind. We didn't want to be elitists, didn't want to marginalize culture or make things of interest only to a small group of people. This was one of our reasons for dealing with popular culture. Also, at the lime we did a lot of reading about the concept of received ideas and strategies for deconstructing them. Ideas, opinions if you will, come to people through their families, peers, and immediate surroundings. It's something most often one doesn't bother to examine. Personally, I sat in front of the television a lot as a child. I took in every single one of those programs from Lassie to Superman, Lawrence Welk to Dragnet
SB: Of course! All of them. So, Ed and I Thought we should examine and visually deconstruct various ideas we had "received" in order to reconsider what we really believed and what we thought was culturally worthwhile. In retrospect, however, we were/are probably pretty sentimental about our youthful pop culture experiences.
AT: Was moving from photography to include video, and eventually, working with computers, part of the democratization of your art?
SB: We made a conscious decision lo do things with digital technology because that was the direction in which the language of the time was moving and we were going to go with it. Idon't think it had to do with democratization per se, but more with the pervasive communication systems we could see were coming down the pike.
EH: Well, in terms of form, the answer is McLuhanesque: "The medium is the message." But in terms of content the Internet, which has egalitarianized content, didn't yet exist ifwe had come to computers after the development of the Internet, we would say, "Yes, democratization was important to the process." But, although we do use the Internet, it doesn't engage us as a cultural phenomenon as much as it apparently does younger artists. We came to computers more or less to solve a pragmatic problem— putting text onto images. It didn't excite us in the same ways as the camera. The camera was, "Wow!" Cameras had been in our households all our lives, but all of a sudden something triggered an awareness of their image-making potential. In my case, it was seeing the 1967Antonioni film Blow Up and realizing the excitement of photography. We had the same "Wow!" reaction to video. But our response to the computer, at least initially, was "We think this would be useful, but we aren't absolutely sure how useful."
SB: Also, The computer definitely presented something different in Terms of learning. It wasn't as simple as picking up the video camera, reading the manual enough to get it working, taking it out and getting immediate results. Even though we also studied the mechanics of cameras thoroughly, we found out that with the computer, one really only gets out of it as much as one puts in. including a willingness to learn the technology.
AT: There's a very important difference here. You are both trained in painting, which has an ancient tradition. When you adopted the camera in the '60s and '70s, it had a tradition of only a hundred and thirty years, but there were precedents there were people ahead of you. When you began to use the computer, you had nothing to push against. You were, and have been, in the forefront of this medium as an art form. So, it s a very different kind of engagement.
EH: By the way, we consider ourselves part of the second generation of computer artists. The first generation was mostly bound to institutions or universities or corporations like Xerox or IBM where they worked with mainframes. These artists might have worked at home on a computer that was plugged into the mainframe by a phone line, but they needed the computational power of the mainframe to do their work.
SB: Personally, I find early computer work to be too driven by technology. Sometimes artists were desperately trying to simulate simple things more easily drawn with a pencil. They often wound up writing their own software just to make something appear, to visualize it We didn't participate in that We waited until there was software we could use creatively because we weren't really interested in being programmers Write a program so you can make a specific kind of simulated paint mark? No way!
EH: Anne's point is quite true. This was not an established tradition which we could respond to and build upon,
AT: Even though there was a generation before your the wealth of imagery produced by computers wasn't anything like what existed in the history of photography and, heaven knows, not what existed in the history of art! You both have the imagery from those two traditions in your heads Those traditions are very much a part of what you do, but in terms of computers, you didn't have a tradition to call upon
Before I continue the discussion about computers, I want to bring in one theme that we haven't discussed, which is Nature.I don't know of another instance where artists have maintained such a strong dual commitment to the world of imagery invented by artists and imagery that emerges from the tradition of landscape. Artists tend to be committed to either a landscape genre or they lend to be committed to invented imagery: but you two have kept your internal dialogue with that polarity. Is it largely because of the coexistence in your own lives—living in Texas and in Vermont? What other issues are involved in this commitment?
GH: Well, There absolutely are two passions present in our work. To put it in simple terms, both of us really love art and nature in general. I was taken to museums when I was a kid. My feet would get tired instantly, but J always came away excited. I was stimulated by an. My love of nature may have started out modestly—in the fruit tree grove of my back yard—but it was a very formative experience.
SB: My experience was similar Our family home bordered on a small farm with a couple of cows and woods with lots of beautiful trees, and I was a devoted landscape painter before going abstract We both have a long-standing relationship to landscape through th* act of trying to interpret and contextual^ it. And we both have spent lots and lots of time doing that. It seems our common goal was to get on some level with nature that wasn't superficial. We have an innate fear of the superficial.
EH: The point is, the incorporation of art and nature into our work is not just an intellectual thing. It's not just about critical targets. These are two worlds that really stimulate and invigorate us and always have
AT: This is the perfect segue into the issue of History. Because, while this show evolved out of a commitment by Ed Earle and it opened at The International Center of Photography m New York City, we changed the show in Houston. That process involved time spent standing over models of the galleries and adjusting the existing show to the MFAH space. In that sense, it is a site-specific installation Pieces were created or re-created to be in that space. And during this lime we often talked about the three Themes, nature, culture, and technology. But, since the show opened, we each have recognized issues that relate to history, including art history, broader intellectual histories, the history of popular culture, and even the history of the thirty years during which this work has evolved, embodied in your work.
Times have changed around us. Being contemporary and staying contemporary has required a commitment to grounding yourselves m your Time, but always in relation to what came before you This is another distinguishing characteristic of you as artists, and therefore, of your art.
EH: I think that's particularly true in the case of the Arcadian project. But, first, let me back up. When we talk about Nature, that's a generic term. But in our art we have tried to give discussions of Nature a more specific shape, so it is not just a big, vague term. That is why our project Arcadia was more focused than anything we have ever done. Arcadia has an extensive history.
AT: When you say that, are you referring to your Arcadia project or the concept of Arcadia?
EH: Yes, The concept of Arcadia. Its history goes back to an actual place called Arcadia, but poetic myths took over early on, m fact, with the Greek poet Theocratus. We wanted to reach that far back in order to bring ourselves forward to where we are Today in an informed way. We are still enthralled by the mythology of Arcadia, but with vastly different Tools to manipulate our perceptions of that world. Making art using the computer is just a small instance of humans using computer-based looks to create and re-create the environment.
SB: As artists we have choices in relation to dealing with the subject of Nature and The environment. We could take a more activist roll, and we have occasionally made more issue-driven an. Our show Forest/Products at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Houston, in 1991, was fairly didactic in an attempt to make contemporary environmental issues dearer. But since then, we have taken another approach, which has been to use history as a way to get back to the roots of these issues, back to the very beginning of The Western world s relationship with nature. Arcadia was structured as a poetic ideal and has firmly stuck m the collective human imagination. People may calf it by various names—Eden. Paradise, etc.—but all imagine it as this wonderful place where all the problems of the city are magically resolved in the quietude of the country. People often don't try to understand the connection between these two places in relation to a whole-world environment. Whether or not taking this kind of historically informed, or, "long view" approach in our work is always effective for the audience is less clear tous.
EH I was just going to add that ultimately the work won't survive as merely a lesson in environments I ism. It has to survive on its own as an
SB: In relation to my saying Thai we have a dread of being superficial, I should add that we also are as capable as the next artists of being glib. We love to make images and we can slip into the facile, but we don't want to do just that
AT: The thought of you two being glib makes me smile. I think your idea of glib is somebody else's idea of serious. If anything, I have always felt that the two of you so mistrust your innate ability to make beautiful art that you have resisted The inclination. In the last rooms of the exhibition there is a kind of mastery that often occurs in the work of artists with long careers. You seem more confident and less inclined to worry about being superficial or look aesthetically pleasing. You are so comfortable now working with the computer. You make these pieces that are just hauntingly beautiful. On some level, you are more accepting of the fact that an intellectually rigorous component can coexist with an aesthetic beauty; an acceptance you wouldn't have allowed yourselves in earlier decades.
EH: There is a kind of irony that arises as a result.
SB: Throughout the Arcadia Project the work is purposefully beautiful and tragic at the same Time. The multi-layered content and references are often thoroughly embedded rather than obviously inserted.
AT: The tree that you've chosen as the subject of your Lengthy meditation—Big White Pine 12002-04)—is a grand old tree. It has reached a great age and has many broken limbs and scarring. One shouldn't just see it as beautiful, which it is, but should also think about the life this giant has led. Talk about embedded! So much history is embedded in that tree. How old is it?
EH: It's hard to say, but at least 100
SB: The reason it survived is because it's actually a double tree. Loggers do not like that, so it remained untouched.
AT: So there is irony in the tree surviving because it is imperfect?
EH: Early on when we were working on the site where our house now sits, I took down a maple tree that was quite tall and straight, I wanted lo give light to a really twisted yellow birch. It has great form to it. Our neighbor came down and asked. "What were you cutting?" I said. "I cut that maple over there/ He responded. "So that ugly birch could survive? Really?" It was a contrast in aesthetics. For most of our neighbors, straight trees are the ones you keep because they make good lumber. We brought in an arborist last year to cut and prune our trees in preparation for building our studio. Arborists work very, very, differently from loggers. Mostly They use The same tool, a chainsaw, but they go about cutting in an entirely different way.
SB: When they thin trees, they use exquisite pruning saws with fine teeth so that they won't hurt the tree as they cutoff limbs and branches.
EH: And when they take down a tree, they climb it and take it down in pieces from the top, rather than just culling it off at the base. It's quite dangerous.
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AT: There is so much information that you've accumulated over years, you don't even consciously think about it. For instance, regarding embedded ideas, your relationship with the site is embedded in the work, as is your understanding of the seasons and their effects on the site. Time is another thing that we haven't talked about. Time as a concept is introduced in the video Punning in Picker's Field. And, there's humor in your running through Ricker's Field in the first piece in the exhibition and your walking Through Ricker's Field in your last piece in the exhibition.
SB: We re interested in the difference between cyclical time—the movement of time from the harvest, to winter, spring, and then the growing season again—and linear time, which is more about the idea of a certain kind of development and progress.
EH: Right. In 1974, when we completed our tent platform, the first domestic structure on our land, Nixon was being run out of office.
AT: Actually, now that I think about it, the Superfund site pictured in Post-industrial Landscape, Verso 120021 in the last gallery is probably contemporary with the life of the white pine.
EH: No, the Ely Copper Mine is older than that. It goes back to the early 1300s
AT: There are issues that, I think, if people will take the time...
SB: Is there time enough these days for people to get involved in exhibitions of this kind? If they go to a natural history museum, maybe they expect to get immersed in that history and nature. But do they expect to get involved in that way in an art museum? Or, do they just look at form, the gestalt of a picture, which they can absorb quickly, and then move on?
AT: No,I think the difference, the big difference, in art museums I've noticed in my life—the three decades I've been in art museums—is the amount of text on the wall and the acoustic guides that say to people there are issues to be understood if you're willing to lake the time to read and to listen. The danger is that people feel that having read two paragraphs of a wall label or having listened to three minutes of a tape provides them all they need To know about the piece. They do not discover the kind of resonance that we're talking about between the pieces in your exhibition. If I could teach people one thing about looking at art in museums, it is to ask themselves why, for example, three paintings are hung together and, using their own observational skills, what are the similarities and differences between those three pieces. How much they would learn without our telling them anything! But that's not something that we Teach m museums and certainly not in schools. I think the difficulty for museum audiences is that too many curators don't encourage museum visitors to think on their own. One of the pleasures in your exhibition is that it rewards viewers who take the time to contemplate.
EH: Actually, the Big White Pine piece was envisioned to confront the issue of "You've got 6 seconds to catch my attention." The piece is really meant to oblige the viewer to either slow down or move on. It's definitely counter to the hyper tempo of popular culture. Our aversion to today's culture is mostly because it's pumped up. It's adrenaline-driven. It's meant to speed you up and keep you going. We're trying to do exactly the opposite. We want the viewer to slow down and look.Actually, as a projected animation. Big White Pine should be installed in a public space where people move through and around it. During a whole day, they would see that it changes and is not the same picture they saw earlier.
SB: The animation cycle goes backwards through the daylight hours, 6 pm back to 7 am, but forward through pan of three seasons (September to January}, which are much more extreme in Vermont than they are here.
EH: Also, the changes in the piece happen so slowly that if you sit intently you may still not see them occur. That is, the changes are barely perceptible except between the distinct hours which were shot ten lo fourteen days apart.
AT: The only way I can see changes occur [in Big White Pine] is if I pick out one place that has some sunlight on it. The sunlight moves across the tree limb or the background. Then I can detect the passage of time. Again, it's about observation and the analysis of one's observations. I think there s a certain generosity in your position about your audience's capacity to follow you.
SB: What do you mean?
AT: You invite people.
EH: We try to give people something back for their time.
AT: Audiences might prefer art about people, not Nature.
SB: That may be true. Some people are afraid of Nature.
EH: In the case of Big White Pine, we didn't photograph it by simply setting up a camera in the woods using a timer. We were there, whether it was warm and muggy or really, really cold. And the reward, actually, was the solitude of thai hour spent out there at the site.
AT: Each segment was an hour long.
EH: And when it was really cold, we traded out at the half-hour point.
SB: We used liner gloves and outer mittens and Took off the mittens to release the shutter.
AT: How often did you lake a shot?
EH: The first time we did BWP, as we call it, it was every twenty seconds. The BWP onview al the Museum is the second version and we found it wasn't necessary to shoot frames every twenty seconds, so we took one every sixty seconds.
AT: And, because it's a digital camera, you don't have to stop and change film?
AT: All right, is there anything else either of you would like to add to this particular dialogue?
EH: I would like lo clarify a little bit my feelings about working with computers. A positive aspect is that the computer is so powerful. It's really seductive because it can do so many things really well. From a photographer's point of view, one can get inside an image, control color, value, sharpness—all sorts of things. It seems like instant control. And, if you are building a three-dimensional world, as we do, you start with nothing and can create whole new environments.
SB: The computer is the facilitator.
EH: On the negative side, everyone has had their bad days with computers, so they know what I'm referring to. We are hooked into systems that are constantly developing. Although this provides upgrades, it's also a negative, a real downside because of the planned obsolescence factor. It means we have to keep up with the technology.We can't arbitrarily decide, "Well, we'll just stop at this level/' because everything will move on—capacities of the hardware/software, and the expectations of the audience.
SB: Operating systems,..
EH: Operating systems forever change. So there is a kind of dependency on the industry which is rather daunting at times and can become a major distraction to making art. It grips you by the pocketbook and sometimes by the throat! Frankly, it's not a cost effective way to make art. nor is it an easy way to make art. That's not the attraction. It's the power of the tools and what we can do with them that seduce us.
SB: There are some pictures in the later part of the exhibition in which parts, maybe an inch along the top and bottom, had to be digitally rebuilt. We used the information in another part of the image to repair what was missing, or to even out the image borders, and so on. But this required quite remarkably Time-consuming activities, mainly micro-managing an image.
AT: I hear you, but I have had very similar conversations with people in the past when they were working with black-and-white photography and killing themselves in the darkroom. I know photographers who wouldn’treprint a particular black-and-white photograph because it required so much attention in the darkroom. It was just too demanding.
SB: Burning and dodging...quite right.
EH: But you don’thave to replace your camera every three years.
AT: However, the materials might get changed on you. Richard Misrach pre-sold a whole series of pictures and had to give the money back because the manufacturer changed the paper and he couldn’tdo what he used lo do.
SB: Here's an example, though, where there has been improvement in making prints because of the computer. We had vintage prints from the series VIDEQLQGY thathad lost color and contrast, so we didn’t want to use them for the exhibition. Instead, we had fifteen of the negatives from the series scanned at Que Imaging [a digital photo lab in Houston] at a very high resolution. Previously, when we printed those same negatives in the darkroom, they were really hard to print. I can remember every single burn and dodge step needed to get something like The A-bomb picture the way we wanted it. The problem was the mushroom cloud. It has a red glow to it, but if one exposed the whole image enough to get the rest of the print just right, then there was too much blue in the cloud. And, there’s just so much you can do in the darkroom with two hands but, after scanning and manipulating the same image in the computer, the final print was perfect. Perfect! It was that way for all fifteen images from the series. Adjusting colors and fixing up problematic areas was a dream compared to the old methods.AT: In terms of how we began this discussion, I think this last little bit is perfect as an ending because it conveys your relationship with Technology, both in terms of your use of it in your art and how we are using it in our lives and in our society, or how it may be using/abusing us.