Mossless in America: On the Road with Briner, Leavenworth, and Stewart

Mossless

Sean Stewart, Timothy Briner, and Joe Leavenworth all photograph on the road in different ways, so it makes sense that they be interviewed in a van headed west.

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 Timothy Briner

We meant to conduct an email interview with photographer Timothy Briner, but he couldn’t get back to us because he was on a road trip with two other photographers who have work in Issue 3 of Mossless magazine: Sean Stewart—whom we've previously interviewed for VICE—and Joe Leavenworth, who recently had a well-attended exhibition and book release at VUU Collective in Brooklyn. Since all three of them are in our latest book, we decided to jump on the opportunity to do our first three-way group phone interview.

Sean Stewart, Timothy Briner, and Joe Leavenworth all photograph on the road in different ways, so it makes sense that they be interviewed in a van headed west. Sean photographs on the road, primarily in and around Pennsylvania. Joe has explored his hometown as well as the contemporary Southern landscape, shooting sensitively and photographing details we'd otherwise feel uncomfortable staring at, which creates a sense of honest vernacularity. Timothy nestles into communities around America for weeks at a time, shooting predominantly in black and white. He traveled to six American towns named Boonville for a series called Boonville, which we feature in our latest issue. 

It was late at night, and they had just pulled out of a restaurant on the New Jersey Turnpike when I called.

Mossless: Where are you guys headed?

Timothy Briner: We're driving to Cleveland for Christian Patterson's opening at the Transformer Station and Lois Conner's opening at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Where are you guys based out of?

Timothy: We all live in Brooklyn. I live in Windsor Terrace.

Sean Stewart: I'm in Lefferts Gardens!

Joe Leavenworth: I'm Bed-Stuy. I heard you're now my neighbor.

Yeah, I just moved there. I'm in a brownstone, and I love the neighborhood. How did you all meet?

Sean: The internet.

Most photographers I've met I know through the internet as well.

Timothy: Yeah, I think this is the first time the three of us are hanging out together. 

Sean: I met Tim at the launch party for The Collector's Guide at the Humble Arts Foundation. He had longer hair then.

Do you frequently travel to see photography shows?

Timothy: I don't go to a ton of shows in the city, mostly just my friends or someone to support. I'll drive somewhere to go to a friend's opening. I went to Brian Ulrich's opening out here. It's fun; the road trips are fun.

Photo by Joe Leavenworth

Joe, at your opening for your book Native Son, we met at the table where I shook your hand, and Curran [Hatleberg] was next to us and he introduced himself; I hadn't met him either. You are both in Issue 3, and, well, all of you [in the van] are too, but it was such a trip that night. People we knew from the internet were left and right.

Joe: I met a lot of people that night too. That was the first time I'd met Curran, even though we'd been talking for months.

How long have you all used the internet as a place to show your work?

Joe: I think I made my first website in 2006 when I was in college. I realized there was an opportunity there, that people weren't doing that kind of thing. But I have a pretty bad web presence.

Timothy: I guess it was 2005 and 2006 when I started... I guess really trolling the internet for photographers, I had a blog and interacted in that space for a little bit. It's been good. I would say that a majority of the people that I hang out with, I initially met online.

Same here. I even made a lot of skateboarding friends through a message board. Do you guys use Flickr or Tumblr?

Joe: I use Tumblr. I don't use Flickr anymore, but that's how it started for sure. Flickr had a huge heyday before Tumblr [came out]. I was pretty active on Flickr for a fair while and met a lot of people through it, and then it transitioned into WordPress, Blogger, then Tumblr. It's been a progression.

Joe, I wanted to ask about about your series Native Son. Are the pictures of your hometown?

Joe: The work stems out of my relationship [to the town] which is kind of abstract and rather ambiguous to me. I was born in Decatur, Georgia, in '85, adopted at birth and raised in Connecticut. I began thinking a lot more about that, getting older and thinking about my biological mother and father. I've always been aware of it and my [adoptive] parents were very supportive. There had been this letter that my biological mother had written me, that I knew about but was never really ready or prepared to read. It was daunting. I don't know, I knew it would open up something, and I didn't know what that would be. I ended up reading that, and that kind of propelled me into beginning this relationship with traveling to Decatur and spending time traveling throughout Georgia where [my mother] had grown up and spent a good part of her adolescence and ultimately where I was born and left rather quickly. 

Photo by Joe Leavenworth

I don't really have an identity there or a connection per se, but I was really intrigued by this sort of mysterious nature of the beginning of my life and who this woman was, and by being there and feeling the place out, meeting strangers and friends of friends who'd grown up there, I started to build this community, and it's all been a way to give me a sense of grounding with my biological roots. It began with the biological connection and interest in that, but it has kind of extended beyond that. 

I'm spending a lot of time looking at the contemporary Southern landscape, and that's very much a part of what I'm interested in. The passage of time and how that affects the American landscape is something that I'm really interested and certainly feel connected to, being born and raised here. Always looking up to and admiring the generation that photographed on the road, I've always been interested in continuing that conversation. I identified rather quickly when I began photography with Walker Evans, Eggleston, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Mark Steinmetz, now Christian Patterson. 

Would you say the community that you're a part of is one of your influences?

Joe: Absolutely. I certainly look to a lot of my peers who are working now, and a lot of them are in this book, I think that's what I gravitate towards and I'm most interested in photographically.

Photo by Timothy Briner

Timothy, for your series Boonville you visited six different towns with that name. How different were the towns to each other?

Timothy: Remarkably similar. They were different from each other in the sense that each one had their own special something that they identified with. For example North Carolina's Boonville was built on tobacco farming, upstate New York's Boonville had logging, Indiana's Boonville was a mining town, and Boonville in Missouri was built on the Missouri river, so they identified with the river and shipping. But they were more similar than they were different. Oh, and Boonville in California had weed. It used to be logging, which is still existent. They had a large population of people that came in during the harvest every year; that was a big thing that people identified with there.

The community surrounding the towns were really the core of the places for me. That's what the series is really about—the people and their stories. Everybody had something interesting going on that I had met, and I had lived in each town for like a month to two months. I'd lived with people that I'd met along the way, or that I met at a bar or a restaurant, or with someone willing to put up with an itinerant photographer that somebody else had recommended. 

Your photographs of [the aftermath of] Hurricane Sandy, were they commissioned, or was it personal work?

Timothy: It was personal. I grew up in Indiana, and I became fascinated with the weather very early on in my life. We had some tornadoes and was fascinated by the force of what the weather to can do to our landscape. I was working on a project in Brooklyn when Sandy hit. I gravitated towards it. I went to the water during the storm and then I went home and ended up going out in the middle it and documented just the few blocks around my house, which was in Ditmas Park at the time. I was just really interested in documenting it, and there I was in the thick of it, experiencing it. Two days later I went to the water to see the devastation and the people that were affected. I met a few people who invited me into their homes, and I started to feel connected like I had felt in Boonville. I initially went to Coney Island because it was the closest place to me that I knew had been affected by it. I ended up going back to Coney for the majority of the project. For the first 15 days I rode my bike to Coney because there was a big gas shortage. I went once or twice a week for the rest of the year, give or take.

Photo by Timothy Briner

For the photograph of Marie, sitting in the bottom of the frame in a room with almost no furniture, did you stay at her home?

Timothy: I didn't stay at her house, but she was one of the first people I met. I met her on day three. She invited me in; she was living on the ground floor of a housing development called Sea Rise. The space she was living in had flooded up to her waist. She didn't want to leave her apartment. She was still staying there, sleeping on her wet bed and couch; it was terrible. There was no electricity, no heating; she was using her oven for warmth. When you walked in you'd get blasted with gas. It was pretty overwhelming. I went back a number of times. She finally relocated after 14 days to an apartment four stories above where she was, and that's where I took that photograph. That was temporary housing while they cleaned out her space. In the photograph, she's sitting on a cot in an empty room, and all she has is a wine cooler, her radio, cigarettes, and a box of tissues.

I'd like to field the next question to everyone in the car. Are you optimistic about photography on the internet?

Sean: Yes! There's so many young people that are finding photography and discovering something about the place they lived or some place they wanna go. I've been involved with teaching and the new students never cease to impress me with their ideas.

Joe: I agree; I'm optimistic. It's rapidly evolving, and photography has more and more of a presence [on the internet]. The photographic image is much more a part of our language... and we identify with it so immediately now.

At the same time, some would say that so many photographs on the internet will lead to an oversaturation of the medium. They may worry that photography is losing its ability to be compelling.

Timothy: They're haters! 

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