We talk to Washington-based Frank Hallam Day about his work as a photographer, the beauty of ship hulls, and secretly shooting trailers at night …
Alongside exhibiting, self-taught photographer Day also teaches photography in several educational institutions in the US. He majoured in social science at the University of Chicago, and went to complete a masters in sociology at UC Santa Barbara. Formally a State Department employee, Day travelled extensively, being stationed in Africa for much of the time, during which he continued to work as an artist, predominantly painting. He has found success with series including Ship Hulls and RV Night, and continues to work on personal projects internationally.
CR: Can you tell me more about your background – how did you first get into photography?
FHD: I started when I was 15 years old. My Dad knew how to develop film and print photos, so we installed a small darkroom in a closet, I don’t remember where we got the enlarger. I still have the first roll of film that I shot. By the time a year or so had gone by I was pretty serious about artistic quality, although I didn’t necessarily actually have any. I thought it was kind of magical that an ordinary person could make a photograph without relying on any outside commercial intervention – you could do it all yourself.
CR: How would you describe your photographic style / aesthetic?
FHD: Well for much of my life I have also been active as a painter, and my photographs owe a great deal to the history of painting; more, actually than they owe to the history of photography. For quite a while I have been interested in ambiguity in my pictures. Ambiguity about place, time, space, dimension. That comes across both in the ship hull pictures, and the camper vans (RV Night), although in very different ways. I also like the work to say something about culture, society, and social and political processes; something beyond the aesthetic dimension by itself.
The ship hulls are perhaps the closest to the purely aesthetic, but they are also commentary on the effect of the passage of time on the works of man; these vessels were once proud technological achievements. Now they are beached in the mud of some West African harbor. They were all photographed in Lagos, Nigeria and Douala, Cameroon.
CR: Would you say that travelling extensively has directly affected your work?
FHD: Very much so. It has certainly made me very aware of culturally, historically or politically important symbols that I see in a given context, and I try to incorporate them in the work if I can. For instance, for the Pakistan series I have a mini-series of images of posters of Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated Prime Minister. I am always looking for ephemera, chalk marks or other graffiti for example, that is illustrative of something that is going on.
CR: Could you tell me more about your Ship Hulls series?
FHD: That series has been quite successful, but oddly enough at the time it was an afterthought to what I thought was a more interesting series; images of wrecked ships. Not just flat sections of hull, as in the Ship Hulls series, but entire wrecked vessels with a visible background. I photographed the ship hulls everyday on the way out to where the wrecks were. I was in small motor boats, and was generally a bit nervous – the backwaters of Lagos Harbor are a wild place. People are living on those wrecks, and on occasion were very concerned about why a white guy was motoring about in a boat photographing their wrecks. Europeans just don’t get out to those places, ever.
I worked with a Hasselblad, then later scanned the film and made the prints digitally. Accurate focus from a moving boat was a constant problem.
CR: There is a particular painterly quality to this series, how does this relate to your creative influences and interests?
FHD: I was very aware of Mark Rothko’s work when I shot that series. Every image had to have some water in it, which created the third spatial plane. When I was working on these images as digital files, tweaking the colour balance of the water was by far the hardest part. The colour of the water needed to reference and relate to the colours of the hull (the hull’s reflection in the water helped with this of course) but it also had to be different from them in a very calculated and controlled way.
CR: You have also found success with your RV Night series. Could you tell me more about it?
FHD: These images of RVs lodged deeply in night jungles suggest a humanity isolated from a dark, unpredictable nature. The powerful sense of displacement and alienation from the natural world conveys a relationship with nature in which something has gone very wrong. The occupants of these glowing ‘life support pods’ are hermetically sealed off from the natural world looming darkly just beyond. The voyeuristic creepiness of these pictures also brings other salient topics into play: the withdrawal from public space and engagement in American life, and the interest in survivalism and individualism. The RVs are the night song of a dark American dream, lovely and glowing, yet somehow toxic and chilling.
The series is overtly theatrical, with the foliage surrounding the RV’s resembling scenery props, and they are intended to look staged, almost dreamlike, concocted exercises in artifice. In that sense they share the current wave of interest in the theatrical and artificial, but in fact they are not. I am out on the road in Florida every night week after week with lights and tripod looking for appropriate RVs. I then use incandescent lighting and (as the star streaks visible in some will show) time exposures to make the image. The occupants never know I’m there; their blinds are drawn and their TVs are on.
CR: Do you have any rules when it comes to your process?
FHD: Not intervene in the scene. I add light, as in the RV series, which is completely dependent on added light, but otherwise everything is as is. I don’t move, add, or remove, although in the RV images I did occasionally remove distracting background details such as lights in post-production.
CR: What items are in your must have kit?
FHD: Well, that depends. I spent years working with a 12×20 inch banquet camera. Very hard to find a neck strap for that… I don’t use medium format film any more; full frame digital is just as good as scanned MF film. Now I carry the Leica M, a bunch of Leica glass, and the new Sony Alpha 7r with an adapter to use the Leica lenses. Leica glass is amazing, nothing else like it.
CR: What’s the best thing about being a photographer now? And the worst?
FHD: The creativity made possible is perhaps the best thing now. With digital image processing, there’s much better control of all the variables. The worst? The sheer number of people out there with cameras, it’s just crazy.
CR: What are you working on at the moment?
FHD: I am in post-production on a large series on the interiors of phone booths shot at night in Thailand. Don’t laugh, they are amazing. I would spend as much as an hour inside a little glass booth with a tripod. But the Thai are so amazingly tolerant no one took any notice.