Eliot preserves both a land and a culture on the brink of disappearance.
Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), will be published this spring.
Photo by Eliot Dudik, from the series Broken Land
Eliot Dudik preserves both a land and a culture on the brink of disappearance. As plans for an expansion of US Route 17—a thoroughfare that bisects South Carolina's 'lowcountry'—progressed, Dudik turned a lovingly prudent lens on historic homes and ethereal landscapes that would be destroyed by construction, as well as the people who inhabit them. This series, Road Ends in Water, became grounds for Dudik's first book of photographs. On a personal note, these photographs make we of Mossless reflect on the work of Grace's father, Jack Leigh, who documented the daily lives of people in the South with a level of humility and generosity that is rarely seen these days. For this reason, we have dedicated Issue three of Mossless to his memory.
Mossless: What do you love to photograph most?
Eliot Dudik: Landscapes, especially in nasty weather.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a sheep farm in central Pennsylvania. I believe this is where my attraction to the landscape came from as I spent most of my youth engulfed in it.
You mentioned in your interview for The Great Leap Sideways that you find Charleston, South Carolina, better preserved than Savannah. How do you mean? What is life like in Charleston?
Yes, I love Charleston, South Carolina, more than any place I've been so far. When I said I found it better preserved, I meant that I think Charleston has done a better job restoring the old architecture of the city into fabulous establishments and dwellings that still retain their historic charm. Savannah, Georgia, also has this, but not to the extent that Charleston does.
In a lot of ways, Savannah is very run down, and Charleston is a bustling, beautiful little city with some of the best food I've ever imagined. There are many reasons its consistently voted the best tourist destination in the country.
Photo by Eliot Dudik, "Bud," from the series Road Ends in Water
Tell us a story about one of your subjects.
Let's talk about Bud, who is the subject the first photograph in my book. I met Bud at the cigar shop where I worked while living in Charleston. Or, more accurately, I met him at the martini bar above the cigar shop. We had many a good nights up there talking about the history of Charleston, potential inventions, whether or not to get married, and the preservation of the land where he lives on Edisto Island, South Carolina.
I visited him often on the island. He has one of the longest docks I've ever seen; it stretches out over the marsh to the waterway. We would sit out there and drink Heineken, his favorite beer, and then take one of the smaller boats out in the water to watch the sun set. Once, he told me that he had seen a crazy phenomenon where dolphins would hurl themselves at the mud shore like torpedoes, slinging a bunch of fish up onto the rolled as they rolled around and ate them. That day when we went out in the boat, we saw it happen again.
Bud loved to invent things. He invented a thing called a Whirly Bird that was simply a gallon Gatorade jug turned upside down with fins cut out of the sides to catch the wind. Upside down, the jug would sit on a nail and spin in the wind keeping birds away from his dock to cut down on all the poop. He also ran a string the entire length of his dock on the railing, kept taut by nails every so often, that would hum. This also kept birds away from his railings. I thought it was genius, and it had a great sound to it.
One of my fondest memories with Bud was helping him pick up his Trauler—a big boat—from having its bottom cleaned, and as we were coming through the Intracoastal Waterway, Bud moved over to let a bigger boat pass. Unfortunately, this caused us to hit a sandbar, and we got stuck. The bigger boat passed by a few times trying to use its wake to knock us free, but it was no use. When we first got stuck, there seemed to be plenty of water, but very quickly, the tide rolled out.
Slowly, the boat started leaning toward one side, eventually settling on dry land at a 45 degree angle. I had to call work and tell them I wasn't going to make it in. Bud and I just took a nap while waiting the 6-8 hours for the tide to come back in and send us on our way. When we finally got going, it started to get dark, and Bud couldn't tell where we were headed, so we dropped anchor and called it a night.
Photo by Eliot Dudik, from the series Still Lives
Do you feel you're following anyone's photographic footsteps?
The "influences" question is always a tough one to respond to interestingly, but I like the idea of following in someone's footsteps. I think we are all following in everyone's footsteps who came before us. It's the same reason I love history, even the history of an object. I enjoy considering how things we take for granted might be different if something had happened slightly different in the past.
Certainly, I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude to the tinkerers, and ultimately, the inventors of photography, the early practitioners and experimenters, the expedition photographers, the pictorialists, the straight photographers, the surrealists, the social documentary photographers, and so on. They have all shaped what we think of as photography today. I love studying photographs, old and new, and considering where I might fit into the whole mix. I'm not really sure where that might be yet, but I fear the day I figure it out will be the day I no longer enjoy making photographs.
What do enjoy about making photography books?
Too much. If I could, I would just make books. I've made books out of pretty much all of my own imagery, so the problem has become making new imagery fast enough to have something to bind into a book. I've recently started working with select artists to bind some of their photographs into books. We'll see how that goes, but I am excited about it.
I love sitting down with a set of images and trying to narrow it down to a concise edit and sequence. I found early on that nothing seems more final than binding a set of images into a book, and therefore the need to get the edit and sequence right is substantial. I love that. Get it right the first time, there's no going back.
In terms of handmade books, I just love working with my hands. I love exactitude, precision, and accuracy, all of which are deeply necessary for bookmaking, and is likely the same reason I am addicted to playing darts. I enjoy working harder than I would have previously thought possible, and then being able to hold the object that I created knowing that I will enjoy it for the rest of my life. That's it. I love books.
Eliot Dudik is a fine art photographer currently exploring Southern culture and landscape in a large format documentary style. SAGA publishing released his first monograph, Road Ends in Water, in 2010. After studying Anthropology, Art, and Art History at the College of Charleston, Dudik received an MFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. In 2011, Eliot joined the University of South Carolina as an adjunct professor of photography.
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