Gazing into Death Valley with Jordan Sullivan
 

the divine nothing
mountains move slow as eternity
circling the borders of an age before language
drifting silence filling a heart as full as a universe
visions of lost time
wandering light
there and not there
a shadow memory of past lives
uncertain fragments
the beauty of nowhere and nothing
so close to real absence
and wind
lost in the mirage of a void
no ghosts of anything here
no death
only disappearance

- Jordan Sullivan

 
 
 

Jordan Sullivan is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles, California. His photographs of the Mojave Desert's Death Valley capture the feeling of the desert, and his Death Valley Light Series conveys a sense of the sublime.

RFP You took these photos in the Mojave Desert’s Death Valley. What drew you to the Mojave and what was it like?

Jordan Sullivan I've always been drawn to open spaces, particularly the desert. The sea, the forest, the desert they are all indifferent to us, but the indifference of the desert is something else, specifically in the Mojave. It's almost comforting to feel so insignificant. I was at a fairly low and selfish point in my life when I first went there. Death Valley is actually the lowest point in North America, so maybe, at first, I wanted to find out what sort of pictures might come from that juxtaposition of place and emotion. I was definitely attempting to confront this void inside myself by reconnecting to the natural world, or at least to something larger than myself.

Are the colors of the sky in Death Valley as surreal as they appear in the photos?

JS These pictures are more about the surreal feeling time and space in the desert rather than what it what it actually looks like. The images sort of play with our sense of perception within landscapes. At the same time these colors sort of mimic those you see behind your eyes when you look at the sun or a flash of bright light. The Mojave is very bright. It's like the ocean in that way — vast stretches of are mostly white during the day.

Was the sense of absence you write about in the poem a feeling you encountered while in the Mojave? Did you write it while you were there?

JS Yes, absence is everywhere all the time, and I felt it so much in Death Valley, but the absence I felt was in me — the desert is full of life. Again, I wanted so badly to feel connected to the natural world, and the poem, which was written later, was an attempt to reconcile those feelings.  

What was your favorite time of day to photograph?

JS Magic hour.

Rubber Factory exhibited your work, The Sun At Night, earlier this year, which featured photographs printed on unique silks. What was the context of this body of work?

JS These photographs were shot at night in a small section of Death Valley. The installation was a recreation of the feeling of moving through a landscape at night. The images were printed on translucent silk so the viewer could see through them. The images were hung from the ceiling, so people could walk around them. They were sculptures in a sense, but they also had this ghostly presence. They moved as people passed by them. It was almost impossible not to touch at least some of the pieces. The installation, like the acre of desert it was shot in, had its own unique life. I think that's what I'm always trying to make - something that has the potential to take on a life of its own.

interview by Fernanda Penfold

 
Fernanda Penfold
Yael Malka, On Limbs
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When I visited Yael's apartment in Crown Heights it was a muggy August afternoon. We sat in her living room, drank coffee and looked at photos, talked about her work, her poster, where her ideas for it stemmed from, and about a fun editorial project involving fetishism. We also talked, for a while, about her recent trip she took to Israel, which inspired her upcoming book Kinneret, and her complicated history with the place. In fact, right as we started talking about it, she remarked, "other than my girlfriend and the printer, you’re the first person who's seeing this!" So now, I guess that list is going to get a little longer.

 
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Yael Malka This book, Kinneret, it’s like the total beginning. I did this trip in April and came back in May. I was in Israel for three weeks, and I hadn’t thought in book form in a really long time. But this felt very narrative to me, so it makes sense that I make it into a book, that felt like the right format for it.

RFP It very feels cohesive in the way that it illustrates a place and culture. Is that what took you to Israel, wanting to make a photo book?

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YM I lived in Israel when I was younger. My dad's from there and I have a very complicated history with this place. And I visited Israel a lot, and every time I went I brought my camera and took pictures, but it was never with a formed idea. This time I went knowing I want to make a project, and I want to make it into a book. I want it to be about the history and I want it to be about the land. It felt very different this time around.

Different from what?

YM It's not even just the book but the process, the way of taking photos, walking around and taking photos of what was in front of me. Taking photos of something that intrigued me, taking photos of something I knew fit into the idea of the book. I normally have ideas I want to execute and I make them. It's conceptualized.

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Like you have an image in your head, and then you make it happen and take a picture of it?

YM This is the most recent body of work I did before working on this book. And I guess this is what I mean by it's very different. These are set up shots, all of these are created.

You said that you live in a kibbutz when you were 6 to 8?

YM Yes, I lived there from 1996 to 1998.

And during that time, did you live in the community housing you described, where all the kids lived together?

YM It had already changed at that point. My grandma and grandpa, and my aunts, uncles, and cousins, they all live there still and they make different salaries, and they have jobs they're actually interested in. My uncle is the head of the mechanic shop. My aunt, she's a manager of the a laundromat there. But you can see the remnants of labor lying around, you can see what it once was. I think it's really interesting to take a look at the decline or — I mean, you can look at it either way — the positive changes that happened.

When you were there, was it sort of an ideal place to be a kid, because there's so much space and you got to be free?

YM It's a utopia. Really it was, and that was kind of the idea. It was really pleasant, you walked around without shoes, there was grass, and trees everywhere, you'd just hang out. You just walk to your friend's house and knock on the door, everything is extremely informal. It was definitely a very ideal place to have part of my childhood.

Then we talked her most recent body of work, which she described as being "very much about intimacy and getting to know another person. It's veiled intimacy in a way, because we don't really find out about people through what they say all the time. Like, things can be found in the margins, from actions. I've always been interested in working with materials too. So in a lot of these images... there's a lot of dismembered limbs. I like disconnecting the body and showing parts of it. I like the anonymity of it."

Can we talk about this one, your poster?

YM Oh yeah, my poster! When I made this I was thinking a lot about intimacy, tension, violence, and how those two things could be put together. Like tenderness and violence in one image and one feeling. That's a lot of where my ideas stemmed from. And then I started thinking a lot about what knowing another person means, and if you know what you think you know about someone. And that's what I call veiled intimacy. Thinking you know something about someone but it not being truthful.

I totally get that from this picture, in the way that the hand pulling the shirt, it can mean come here I want to hug you, or it can mean I'm trying to hurt you. It's forceful and ambivalent, it could mean something positive or something negative.

YM Yeah, and I like playing with contrasting ideas in one image. I also think when you decontextualize it — there's no facial expression to show what's going on, the arm is cut off, you only see the shirt — it leaves that interpretation totally open.

It’s fascinating. And it really matches the words on the back of your poster, Grab Them Back.

YM Oh, this was just mailed to me [Yael reaches for a magazine from a pile of books], this is an editorial, but it definitely fits in with my work. Phile is a new magazine about sex and I got hired to shoot a Zentai fetishist, which is someone who dresses head to toe in spandex. And it was just really fun because it has to do with intimacy and sex which is something I talk about and think about a lot in my work. And this person is completely anonymous. It's a portrait of someone but at the same time it's not.

The other thing that's interesting about this is that usually when you are looking at or taking erotic images a lot of it is about flesh, the skin. And in this work, the figures are obviously erotic because of their stance and the setting but you actually don't see their skin, you don't really see any trace of them being actual humans, they're almost like robots.

YM Yeah, it really fit in with my aesthetic and my ideas. And I got to art direct and pick the location. And so we went to this place I've been wanting to shot at for a really long time called Cove Haven, it's a love hotel in the Poconos and there's like a fucking pool.

 
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interview by Fernanda Penfold
photos by Cait Oppermann

 
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Fernanda Penfold
Poster Show at 29 Ludlow

If you weren't at the opening night of our 2-week Poster Show at Rubber Factory, you missed out on a beautiful musical performance by Nathan Bajar, a photographer we featured in our first batch. Thankfully we have a clip of it at the bottom of this page!

The installation shows the fronts and backs of our whole line-up so far, as well as our latest batch, all of which were framed. The show is up for two weeks and closes on Wednesday, the 16th of August.

Nathan Bajar performed six songs at the opening. Here's a clip of him singing a duet with James Tillman, which he dedicated to his mom. 

Romke Hoogwaerts
Printing & Price Drops

We recently moved our poster printing to a local facility in Queens, NYC. They had acquired the same machine we'd been using to produce these posters. Because this meant we saved time and money on proofing, shipping and handling, the cost to produce the posters has gone down.

From now on, the shelf price all of our posters will be $29, including the ones we've already released. Don't worry — everyone who has purchased a poster when our price was still $35 is receiving a coupon for $6.

Last Monday, we went to Prestone to produce our latest batch and Maggie Shannon came along to take pictures while we filmed. Juan, the operator for the machine we use, walked us through how it all worked. Here's a few snippets from our day at Prestone.

We didn't bring our audio recorder because we weren't expecting dialogue. Our apologies for the awful sound quality in these videos! Lesson learned.

Then, Juan opened up the machine to show us the inside.

We printed five posters. Four of them were introduced at our latest pop-up exhibit at Rubber Factory, and the last was a redesign of Jordan Sullivan. Speaking of redesigns, we reduced the scale of the logo and adjusted the credit to reduce them from three to two lines. We've also added some color to those elements on a few posters. Here they are running out of the machine:

Our latest posters will be online this week. We'll update this page with the links to them once they're online!

Romke Hoogwaerts
Inside Nathan Bajar's Studio
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When I met Nate Bajar at his studio, My Own Color Lab on West 27th street, he was working on printing a picture of his sister. The photo shows her lying on a branch of a cherry tree in bloom. Nate was not entirely satisfied with the picture: he wishes she were sitting up. His family is his favorite thing to photograph, he tells me. They live in New Jersey and there are many of them (his mom is one of thirteen; his dad one of eight) and they frequently gather at Nate’s parents house, where he poignantly captures their day to day.

At the studio, Nate belongs to a different kind of family. The other photographers who print there are his friends and mentors; one of them, Gerard, is a former employer. Nate credits him as his sensei. By way of an introduction, Nate said about Gerard: “this guy taught me everything I know.” Later, looking at the photograph of Nate’s sister through various corrective lenses which he flicked in front of the image, Gerard advised Nate to add more yellow.

Back in the dark room, Nate stood before the bulky enlarger and changed the settings to get a yellower exposure. We turned out the lights and the room went completely black, save for a few glow in the dark stars. “I feel like a superhero in here,” Nate said, as though to himself, “like I can see in the dark.” As he operated the enlarger, he counted to five, softly, using the tapping of his foot as a metronome.

The musicality of his printing process is not incidental: Nate also makes music. Once he was pleased with the print (adding yellow helped, after all), we headed to Nate’s apartment in Bed-Stuy to listen to some of his songs. They are rhythmic and lovely to listen to ─ D’Angelo came to mind. One of them, made after a friend of his gave him the liberating advice that a song can be about anything, is called Spilled Milk.

With his music playing in the background, Nate showed me some more of his photographs. Many were of his family: his brother squarely facing the camera and holding a small dog; a larger dog with a cast, the aftermath of a fight with a German Shepherd; his parents in bed, sleeping. For Nate, making pictures means looking at things, and in his photographs he tries to capture an instant. His sensibility for the ephemeral comes through in his pictures ─ they all appear to contain a bygone moment.

We asked him a few new questions, expanding the interview which appeared on his poster. We are also excited to announce that Nate will be performing at Batch 3's Aug. 3 launch party at Rubber Factory, 29c Ludlow St.

words by Fernanda Penfold

RFP Through your work at your lab you’ve encountered some fascinating artists, like Alix Dejean. Can you tell us some stories and how they’ve impacted your own work?

Nathan Bajar So, everyone that I’ve worked with at My Own Color Lab has been vital to my growth as a photographer. I mean, school was also really helpful, but I think working at the lab has definitely helped me become the artist that I am today. Gerard, who’s the owner of the lab, taught me everything there is to know about working in the darkroom and the importance of the photographing print and making it, you know, perfect. And there’s also this other printer and one of my favorite photographers Matt Wilson, who’s also stressed the importance of the print but on a different level. He taught me a lot about feeling and sensibility with photographic printing. And one of the most important figures in my life as an artist is one of my former professors Stacy Morrison, who helped me get the job at the lab. It was really important for me to be in her class because she taught me how to look at things differently. I took a color class with her and it kind of just changed everything. I was like, “Whoa, this is exactly what I wanna do. I wanna be a photographer.”

What do you like to listen to when you’re in the dark room?

NB The crew in the lab usually has music playing over the speakers so I'm usually listening to what they’re listening to. But in my darkroom I can barely hear anything and I usually like it quiet so it’s easier to concentrate and do what I need to do, because printing requires a lot of care.

You’ve photographed a lot of musicians too, who were you most excited to meet?

NB I’ve been pretty excited to meet a lot of musicians I photograph. Most of the time, I reach out to musicians to take their picture because I like their music and it’s just cool that they’ve responded. I’m listening to their music one day and the next day I’m taking their picture. But if I really had to choose, I’ve probably been most excited to photograph Jay-Z just because, you know, it’s Jay-Z.

Your poster features Charlotte Dos Santos, a young musician. What drew you to her music?

NB I really like Charlotte’s music because her voice is different and she’s kind of in her own lane right now. Like, I haven’t heard anyone making the music that she’s making and I want to visualize that. I came across her music while browsing SoundCloud and I loved her sound. I saw that she was based in Brooklyn, so I reached out to see if I could make some press kit photographs for her. The shoot wasn’t for anyone in particular but I wanted to pitch the photographs and a small interview to music publications to get her music more out there. I also like to work with musicians that I like.

Your photograph takes love as its subject in both a direct and symbolic sense. Is this a theme you explore in other parts of your work?

NB Yes, like super yes, because with my other work ─ my personal work ─ I photograph my family a lot. I mean, I photograph my family because I love them and I photograph these musicians because I love their music. And I photograph my family because there are a lot of things I’d like to say to them but I don’t know how to tell them words with words so I take their picture.

You make music too, right?

NB  I make music yes!

What kind of music do you make?

NB  Lately, I have been making a lot of R&B inspired music but I’m definitely still trying to refine and carve out my own sound. Pharrell and MNDSGN have been heroes for me from a production standpoint and Frank Ocean has been a hero for me from a songwriting standpoint.

Is there a relationship between your photography and your approach to song making?

NB Yes, and no. Yes because with photography and song making I’m trying to put as much of myself into these things as I can. And no because with photography I have to go to a place more than once. Once to check it out, and then another time just to see or feel anything again and take some pictures. But with music, with song making, I can just make music out of nothing. I can kind of go into it without any preconceived ideas and go, “O.K., let’s just play,” and hopefully something happens.

Are any of your photographs inspired by songs?

NB No, I wouldn’t say so. If anything, my songs are more inspired by moving images, by movies or by experiencing things first person. I guess the one thing about music that I really really love is that music can be felt. Like, photographs can be analyzed and people can react to photographs, but I feel like music is more accessible, it’s universally accessible.

How can we make sure there’s more love around us?

NB We can make sure there’s more love around us by being more loving ourselves.

interview by Romke Hoogwaerts & Fernanda Penfold
photos by Maggie Shannon

Fernanda Penfold
Finding Nowhere with Brian H. Merriam

RFP Before Untitled was a poster, it was an Instagram post. You post a lot of beautiful images from your voyages on Instagram. Do you consider it an extension of your personal work?

Brian H. Merriam I guess I consider it the most immediate way to showcase something I've been working on without it having to be fully fleshed out idea. Sometimes though, it's a chronicle of a trip in progress, sometimes a project in progress. I guess that's something I like about it. It’s got a million uses. Not to say that what I do is meant to come anywhere near stretching the boundaries. But people do, and that's cool.

What draws you to the places you want to shoot?

BHM It's kinda been this long domino effect. I guess it started with travel when I was younger and coming to the realization that different places have different feelings, different vibes, etc. Then along comes photography, just the desire to start making images. So I started seeking out places that look like certain feelings or ideas. Along the way you encounter more places, different feelings. Maybe not exactly what I'm looking for right then, but I file them away in my mind and, if I'm looking for that feeling in the future, I'll go back. That time flying to a different place and taking a different route, finding more places and so on and so on.

On the poster’s back, the text side, Daniel Arnold describes how, when traveling with you in New Mexico, you “knew every inch of it, turning four times, mapless, off the main road to point out every tumbleweed cemetery, bullet-ripped road sign and dumb-tagged shutdown gift shack,” how you knew “exactly where they’re all plotted in the atlas.” He also said you keep bringing up an eagle. Supposedly, it’s pretty sick. Could you talk about your experience seeing this eagle?

BHM There's no way to describe the eagle that'll do it justice. But long story we short, we crested a New Mexican hill in the middle of a snowstorm. Big thick flakes kinda thing. We were on a dirt road heading to a wolf sanctuary of all places, way out in the middle of nowhere. So we crest this hill and we see this giant statue of an eagle, and there was a solid moment in time where we both just assumed there was a random eagle statue in a empty field in the middle of New Mexico. Then it took off.

What’s it like, traveling with Daniel?

BHM Fun, man. That New Mexico trip was the first time we traveled together. I'd say we were buds before, friends since. We get along outside of photo stuff, I think. But yeah, he's got some kind of a tractor beam of life. The world just comes at him in a different way and he's learned to capture it. It's fun to ride the wake and watch it happen.

You described Daniel Arnold’s short essay about you as “perhaps the most accurate assessments of [yourself] ever committed to word.” Can you talk a little more on your draw to ‘the void’ and nowhere places?

BHM I was a shy only child and I grew up out the in the sticks, so I spent a lot of time alone. Also, I guess I've experienced a sort of disproportionate amount of tragedy in my life. My mom was sick with several bouts of cancer most of my childhood and passed when I was 15, lost a lot of other relatives early, and then to top it all off, my dad took his own life last July. Out of nowhere. I'm not a sad person but I'm kind of inadvertently steeped in sadness, loneliness. Anyways, I guess I look for places that look like those feelings for me.

The vastness of the environment in your photographs is breathtaking. Are environmental concerns part of your work?

BHM First off thanks. And I'd say environmental concerns are a part of my life, not really a part of my work. At least not yet. I think I might see a light at the end of the tunnel for making personal cathartic work, or at least a break from it. I'd love to try to do something that takes those concerns into account. It's obviously more important now than ever, as things are looking kinda grim under this current administration.

Daniel Arnold describes you as a ‘Yankee’. Where are you based?

BHM I've been to every state, but lived in New York state my entire life, New York City the last 12 years, until last week. I live in LA now.

As a California native, I’m interested in where in California this photo was taken. I had a brief encounter with the poet Gary Snyder once and he mentioned how alienated people are from their environments. Like how most people wouldn’t be able to name any of the streams, trees, or ecosystems they technically exist within and around. Most people don’t even know which reservoir they get their water from. I’m interested in hearing how your understanding of many of these landscapes propel your work and where you shoot. With all that experience, are these nowhere places just that: nowhere places? Or is that just more of a desired effect for your audience? 

BHM I think I sort of addressed the last part earlier on. I definitely look for places that will have a desired effect. But yeah as far as the understanding of the landscape, I have this strange fairly detailed map of a good deal of America burned into my brain. The good stuff and the bad. Way more than I wish I was in there honestly, ha. I think memorizing stretches of roads and where they lead is kind of cathartic for me. And that photo was taken in northern central California somewhere between the Oregon border and the Mt. Shasta area. Sunset while heading to a campsite in the national forest.

I’m super interested in what you bring up about catharsis in your work. Like, on a personal level, how the accumulated memory of these inadvertently-steeped-in-sadness places can feel cathartic for you. But like, only kind of cathartic. Which feels like an important distinction. Like how you look for places that look like those described feelings––not necessarily something rooted or embodied but something more like an appearance. I like that a lot.

I think I’m fishing a bit here, but I’d love to hear a bit more on the sentence, “I think I might see a light at the end of the tunnel for making personal cathartic work, or at least a break from it.” How does that impulse, or thought, affect your subject matter?

BHM Well basically, I feel like in looking for these places and trying to absorb their vibe, for lack of a better word, or find a kinship with them, and then making that into my work. I'm really just looking for something to relate to. I don't know if it's the best analogy, but I grew up skateboarding in the ‘90s. Back then, it wasn't nearly as prevalent as it is today, and it was a rare occurrence to come across someone else who skated, at least in upstate New York where I grew up. Before the internet took off, information was a commodity, so it took actual work to learn the ins and outs of the culture. So when you saw someone else who skated, it could just be the holes in their shoes or whatever, you knew they knew, and they knew you knew. I don't think that's exclusive to skateboarding either, that's just how I experienced it. It could be any subculture. But for anyone that feels sort of out of place or different in 'regular' society, there's catharsis in just knowing you're not the only one. Sorry for the long winded analogy, but that's how I feel with certain places. I see it and feel it, and I know. My personal story is a bit more unique and people don't generally wear their pain or loneliness or sadness on their sleeve, so I guess instead, I look for that kinship in places.

There's a quote from Wallace Stevens where he said, "Life is an affair of people not of places. But for me life is an affair of places and that is the trouble." That just about sums it up for me, I suppose.

And as far as seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, when my dad died last July, I was in Oregon on my way to Alaska. I flew back to New York and headed upstate for a few days, but about 30 hours after his funeral, I was on the plane to Alaska. I decided then that I was going to devote myself to a project for the next year. That project has since evolved into three, though all under the same umbrella. One is about a immersion in geologic time as a means of therapy. Venturing to places where I could see and feel the eons to put my life and pain into perspective. The second part is about my father or his 'spirit' or 'ghost,' on an imagined journey from west to east in America. He retired a couple months before he died and him and my stepmom drove cross country and moved to northern California. Basically, from the moment they left he wanted to go back. The whole way across the country, and the entire two months he lived out west, he just wanted to go back. In May, I flew out to California and bought the minivan they drove in from my stepmom and drove it back by myself to New York and then back to California to move here. Along the way, I imagined my father taking the same journey across what must have felt like an unwelcoming, unfamiliar, transitory sort of spectral America. The third part will be a photographic journal of my year. Moments of beauty and clarity, and moments of hazy ambiguity and pain, that took place along the way. The photo from the poster will probably end up in this series.

Anyways, the light at the end of the tunnel is when these projects conclude. At least, I think so now. I feel like then I'll able to move on and focus on some other things besides my own story for a second. I definitely will do more work about loss and my family, etc. I can't escape it. But I think it will feel good to shift gears for a bit. I think a lot of photographers start by finding a story out in the world that they're interested in and hone in on that, and tell someone else’s story–not that there's anything wrong with that. But as time goes on, and they gain more perspective on life and the world, the work then tends to become more introspective. I guess I'm doing the opposite. A story basically got dropped on my head like a ton of bricks, and I'm slowly digging myself out. But yeah, It's exciting to think about what else might be out there for me afterwards.

interview by Nich Malone