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