Born in Abbotsford, British Columbia and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan, Thomas Gardiner is a prize-winning photographer currently working in Vancouver. Using techniques of traditional large format photography, he shoots on an epic Kodak Master View 8x10 camera, looking at scenes of phenomenal natural beauty butted up against the raw horror of social degradation. Here he finds vivid, captivating – almost filmic – drama in the workaday reality of frontierland North America.
You use photography to describe your immediate surroundings. You've documented Western Canada, Brooklyn, and also New Haven, where you were studying at Yale. Convenience aside, why these locations?
The element of convenience isn’t something I would overlook. Often times a location is something I might pass by everyday as a part of a regular routine— like going to work— and for some reason it sticks with me until I finally decide to take a closer look. It’s not usually the location itself that I’m interested in but rather its spatial characteristics. In most cases I feel like I am referencing a place that I’ve experienced before and continues to hold my fascination. When I was a young child, my family moved around a lot. From when I was three until I was 10 we lived in 5 different towns. As a result of this, I feel that a lot of my work is about trying to process this sort of unresolved impressions of the places where we lived.
How do you choose your subjects? Are there characteristics or undertones you hope to find in the people or places you shoot?
I can’t say for sure how I choose the people I photograph; or— for that matter— whether there are consistent characteristics or undertones to these people? Sometimes I just make a photograph of the first person I see in a specific context, sometimes it’s someone who’s approached me and we’ve had a conversation, or sometimes it’s someone I know very well. It’s always random and never consistent. Having said that, however, I would say that the people I photograph have a kind of familiarity to me, similar to the locations where I shoot.
A few of the images are outright perverse. Take the image of a young woman at a music festival, scantily dressed in a bikini, her breasts each receiving a squeeze from a different guy, or the shot of two men in Klansmen’s hoods. Do I sense a fascination with behavior outside social norms?
I don’t think I would necessarily say I have a fascination with wayward behavior. And as a matter of fact, these two images were ones that I actually wasn’t all that excited about until I began to see the scans and started printing them. Given the loaded cultural context of the KKK, I think it’s interesting how often people can’t get past the signifier as such, while at the same time people almost always ask me if the figures are real KKK members, which they are not. The figures are actors about to go on stage for a play based on an historical event that happened in Saskatchewan. Although I don’t find this information necessary, I do find it kind of promising that people might question me in this way. I think in many cases when people do begin to actually look at what’s happening in the image, they recognize there is some reasonable doubt as to whether the men are in fact Klansmen. At the same time, there’s nothing definitive in the image that reveals whether they are or are not members of the KKK. In this sense, I question whether images are capable of definitively saying anything at all.
I have similar thoughts and feelings about the image of the 3 figures on the couch. I felt that a lot of the people I met at Craven music festival that day really possessed a flair for performance. I think it’s good to wrestle with an image in this way, to really look at what is and isn’t, especially in terms of it being a picture and how one’s own cultural assumptions affect they way in which he or she reads the image.
Your photographs feel a lot like Gregory Crewdson’s, but you're not staging theatrical sets or casting actors. How important is the element of realism to your photography?
I’ve always admired Crewdson’s work tremendously. He’s always talked about photography’s ability to create a world, which is a fascination I definitely share. One of the aspects which for better or worse tends to characterize 8x10 view camera photography is that you often begin to see the weight of the camera in the image itself, as compared with lighter cameras…I can’t speak for Crewdson, but I would guess that for both of us, this sort of energy is important within the medium of a large format camera.
I do however value realism in a traditional sense, insofar as I find it important to maintain a strong documentary aspect or look in my work. But at the end of the day, the power of realism lies in its ability to strike a balance between being able to seize the imagination while at the same time suspending disbelief.
Your Western Canada work reminds me of Werner Herzog's 1977 film Stroszek. Both you and Herzog play with the contrast between devastating realities of rural life and the epic beauty of those landscapes. How much inspiration, if any, do you take from film?
I really enjoyed Stroszek. It’s an amazing film with amazing imagery. It definitely feels like it has Herzog’s personality in it. I don’t necessarily see my work as depicting devastating realities, but I think if there’s that kind of perceived tension between two opposite poles along a spectrum— like beauty and “harsh realities”— that’s a good starting point.