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.
Lara Shipley is a Lawrence, Kansas–based photographer who follows a mythical glowing orb of light through the back roads of rural southern Missouri with her collaborator, Antone Dolezal. These pictures are available in an ongoing series of artist publications from Search Party Press, titled The Spook Light Chronicles. For her series Coming, Going, Staying, Lara brings this vision to more concrete material of people and objects in the transient border towns of southern Arizona. Clearly, this photographer is interested in ethereal subjects that do not stay put. We spoke with her about the mysterious "spook light," the nature of documentation, and how she revels in the ambiguity between the tangible and the fantastic.
Mossless: Where did you grow up?
Lara Shipley: I’m from a teeny town in the Ozark region of Missouri.
You shot your series Devil’s Promenade together with Antone Dolezal. The subject of the series is the "spook light" in the Missouri Ozarks. What is the "spook light," and how long has it been around?
The "spook light" is an orb of light that is said to appear on a rural road in southern Missouri. Sightings of it go back over a hundred years, and the earliest photograph I’ve seen is from the turn of the 20th century. There are many stories to explain the "spook light," which do more to reveal the history of the region and the mixing of European and Native American cultures that happened here. Symbolically, as a light in the darkness it has a redemptive force for this community located in the Bible Belt. Yet it is said the Devil also lives there, ready to steal a wandering soul. Like a moth to a flame it has attracted a number of eccentrics over the years, many of whom also become a part of the local mythology. The folklore, passed on through generations of families, shapes and contains the community living in the midst of the light. I believe this shared mythology is more important to the local community than what the light really is and whether or not it actually exists.
Did you approach to Devil’s Promenade in a similar way to your other seires, Coming, Going, Staying?
For Coming, Going and Staying and Devil’s Promenade, my focus is on small rural communities, the pain and pleasures of isolated living today, and how contained places develop their own cultural identities. In both projects I am interested in how local people respond to the unseen or unexplained in their community.
Coming, Going and Staying takes place in a town located in the borderlands of southern Arizona. There is large-scale migration happening in the desert surrounding town, visible mainly in the detritus left behind, such as a sleeping bag or a jug of water. My approach was to mix portraits of the local people with this difficult landscape and signs of the invisible movement within it. With Devil’s Promenade we were working with material that is more abstract. I see the searching for the spook light as a desire for the transcendent experience as an anecdote for the banality of life. For this subject it made sense to include images made in both straight and staged styles. Our project is not concerned with documenting this phenomenon but rather revels in this ambiguity between the tangible and the fantastic, the insertion of the mythical within a familiar world.
You've said that you like to adjust the surroundings of your subjects, which isn't typical for documentary work. What effect does it have?
I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer. I am a storyteller who is striving to find the best visuals to describe my perspective on my experiences. Portrait making for me is about using the body and the surroundings to invite a narrative, not to describe a situation as it actually is. I believe as an outsider it would be arrogant for me to suggest that was even possible. The effect is that the portrait is a mixture of my subject and myself. I am the narrator, the unseen presence in all of my images. I feel this to be the case with all portrait makers and am in dialogue with a long line of artists who position their subjects and alter surroundings (such as Dorothea Lange and Alec Soth), but I would like my role to be explicit.
Do you feel it sets your subjects outside of their personal realities?
The simple act of making a portrait is going to set a subject out of their realities. All portraits are a performance for the camera. I want my subject to have some control over how they are perceived (I never costume), and I strive to make an image that reflects the version of themselves they offer to me. But people are extremely complex, more complex than a portrait can contain. I wear makeup every day. Would a “real” image of me be one with or without this mask? I’m not sure, but for me what is more interesting is this malleable fantasy we create about ourselves and other people rather than the raw God-given material that is our bodies or the mess of our untended surroundings.
Can you tell us some stories of the people you’ve met and photographed along the way?
One of my portraits from the series Coming, Going and Staying is of Angel, a woman in her late teens living in a small town near the border. I spent an afternoon with her talking about her life and making pictures. She was surprised that I would find her home interesting, because it was so small and, for her, old news. She had graduated from high school a year or so before and had been working a series of odd jobs since, hanging out with a group who had also stuck around and were usually unemployed. That morning she had quit her job at the Dollar General, where she'd developed carpal tunnel from working the cash register. She talked a lot about leaving town, but she talked even more about a young veteran and rodeo rider with whom she was falling in love. I decided to photograph her in her car because her seats were covered in the hearts that seemed to float around her head. However, a car is a means of escape if you choose to use it.
What’s life like so close to the border?
In my experience, the places where I spent time while working on this project were not unlike the small town where I grew up in the Midwest. The effort to maintain a sense of community in the face of limited economic opportunity seems to characterize American rural living today and isn't subject to geographical differences. I met people who would be lost without the safety net of a tight-knit community, those whose isolationist tendencies require wide-open spaces, and others who are stifled by the sameness and the lack of resources but don’t or can’t leave. All of these people felt very familiar despite living in a landscape that for me was initially very exotic. When beginning this project I was surprised by this familiarity because of all the ways the border is so unique. But I found that for locals the presence of checkpoints outside of town, temporarily stationed border patrol in the cafes, circling helicopters, and the newspaper articles detailing the large quantity of drugs and migrants found dead or alive in the surrounding desert had become background noise to their small-town life.
Lara Shipley studied journalism at the University of Missouri, and photography at Arizona State University. Currently a lecturer at the University of Kansas, Lara also is co-publisher of Search Party Press.
Follow Mossless on Twitter.