Meghan Duda: The States Project: North Dakota
The North Dakota landscape represents a challenge for many photographers; its vast, open sky and fairly regular horizon limit the number of variables an artist can shift in any given frame. Photographer Meghan Duda, however, took an innovative approach to the task of representing the level environment: she designed a photographic tool suited to its depiction. Duda created a handmade pinhole camera out of a trailer and created exposures while driving along interstate highways in North Dakota. The final works present an ethereal look at the limitless horizon lines that characterize the experience of moving through the state. Together, the final grids offer an experiential view of the northern plains, one that foregrounds the hypnotic lure of the open landscape over its uniformity.
Meghan Duda creates atmospheric recordings of space and time with a collection of handmade pinhole cameras. After earning her bachelor degree in Architecture from Virginia Tech in 2005 she began traveling the country, developing a practice photographing vernacular architecture. Born in western Massachusetts and raised on the South Carolina coast, she finally settled in Fargo, North Dakota in 2007 and was struck by the vast prairie landscape. At this point her photographic focus shifted from architectural photography to experimental landscape photography. It was while pursuing an MFA at the University of North Dakota that she built her first handmade camera which she named the Trailer Obscura – a 5’ x 8’ pinhole camera on wheels that she uses to make large atmospheric recordings of the prairie. Duda continues to construct cameras as a way to explore vantage point and perspective and to express the many ways in which the camera perceives light.
The first time I ventured into the vast landscape of North Dakota I knew this place would become a centerpiece in my photographic explorations of space. I was instantly struck by the beauty found along the prairie horizon, a meeting of earth and sky that I had never experienced. Although the farmland remains superficially similar, stretching as far as the eye can see, to the observant traveler there are subtle changes in light and atmosphere that emphasize the beauty of this unwavering landscape.
With the Trailer Obscura, a 5’ x 8’ enclosed trailer converted into a mobile pinhole camera, I am able to objectively record light along the horizon as it varies depending on atmospheric changes, space, and time. The final image, imposed upon a grid of twenty-four 8”x10” sheets of silver gelatin photo paper, can vary from a gradual transition from grey to white, or a sharp shift from white to black. At times the horizon line is practically invisible.
I am particularly drawn to the pinhole camera as it breaks down the barriers between space and record, creating an unmediated projection of light and atmosphere, perspective and scale. The extended exposure time afforded by the pinhole allows me to compress space as I draw the trailer parallel to the horizon, recording a view much larger than what is allowed by a traditional camera.
The final images are simple atmospheric gradations of light that become place and no-place at the same time, challenging the relevance of vantage point and scale and demonstrating the effect of time on our perception of visible space. This inquiry into the fundamental elements of photography, and the surprising aesthetic I discover through this investigation, is the primary driver of my photographic pursuit to observe inhabited space in an objective way.
You moved to North Dakota just over ten years ago. What are some of the things you feel changed in you after you moved here, or were perhaps brought out in you?
My appreciation of space grew in ways I hadn’t expected. I had recently graduated from architecture school and was pretty focused on the built environment. While I had spent much time outdoors appreciating landscape, I did not consider it as a photographic subject before being exposed to the vast expanses here in North Dakota. Living in this landscape helped me to recognize the potential of recording space independent of the built environment.
What is the best part about living and working in North Dakota as an artist?
Life is easy in Fargo. I spend very little time fighting the city, the cost of living is extremely reasonable, and because of that I am able to travel often. While the cultural scene is small the ability to travel helps supplement my cultural exposure. That’s not to say the arts are not present here. There is a quite active and lively art scene, which has supported me well. Then, of course, there is the landscape…
Is there anything that surprised you about North Dakota? The North Dakota landscape?
At first is was suburbia, and this dominated the bulk of my early photographic explorations of this place. While I had encountered suburbia where I was from on the east coast, it was mostly tucked into pockets of cleared forests and somehow integrated with existing neighborhoods. But I was astounded by midwestern suburbs. They are a contractor’s dream – typically built on former farmland, a clean slate ready for manufacturing communities. I was shocked!
However there is something else that I encountered during my first full summer living here. I should preface this by mentioning that I spent my teenage years living in Charleston, SC, where the ocean was an ever-present element in my daily life. Moving to North Dakota meant moving as far away from the ocean as I could possibly be – the geographical center of the North American continent is only a two hour drive from Fargo. I miss the ocean terribly. Yet, a few times during the summer months, the great plains pump the air directly up from the Gulf of Mexico, straight to my backyard. On these days I can smell the sea as clear as if I was on the shore, and as the landscape is as vast as the ocean, the clouds often have the look of coastal clouds. It is in this moment that I feel a little less homesick.
You studied architecture as an undergraduate student. How do you think this background has influenced your photography?
I began by photographing architecture. This was my first true subject. When I experienced my first camera obscura while in architecture school I realized that photography is born from architecture. The two fields go hand in hand in my eyes. I would not be working the way that I do now without my background in architecture.
Do you feel that having a photographic community is important? What is your impression of the community in North Dakota?
Yes. There is a very active photographic community here in North Dakota, both commercial and fine art, but I am not sure that the members of the community interact enough. Although, I do spend much time in my own bubble, so maybe that feeling is my own because I am not taking full advantage of my colleagues. There is a new event growing here in Fargo, and that is the Exposure Festival, established and curated by local photographer J. Earl Miller. It is in its third year, and each event is larger than the previous. I would say that it is the one time each year that I will come together with my colleagues and really discuss work, not only what is on the wall, but what we are looking to for inspiration. I am excited to see how the festival grows and evolves in the future.
What’s one thing you’ve come to know, think, believe, feel about the Northern Plains that maybe you didn’t upon first encounter? Is there something about the landscape that you feel is best expressed through pinhole cameras?
That it is and will always be beautiful. Every time I find myself traveling across the plains I am struck by the beauty found along the horizon – finding something new to enjoy on each stretch of road. I assumed it would become dull over time – that the initial awe would wear off – but it still hasn’t.
I am not sure if I can say that the pinhole camera captures the landscape the best, it is only an alternate view, one that includes aspects of time that traditional still photography is unable to render. Of course the Trailer Obscura images tend to emphasize the horizon, but if I were to use the tool, the trailer, in an alternate way, maybe it would emphasize some other aspect. I am working on another body of images in which I use the Trailer in the same manner as the prairie images to photograph the light along the Mississippi River. The horizon is also quite present in these images, but other elements tend to sneak in due to the closer proximity to the surroundings. The space along the river is not nearly as vast as on the prairie.
The Trailer Obscura project has been a long-term, ongoing project. How did it start and how has it evolved since its first iteration?
The Trailer began as a teaching tool. My first experience with a camera obscura was so profound for me that I wanted to share it with my students, so I developed the Trailer as a mobile camera obscura. The obvious next step was to begin photographing with it. I quickly realized that it was perfectly suited for recording the prairie in the way in which I had primarily moved through it – by car.
I have experimented with using it to photograph different elements of landscape, most recently the Mississippi River. At this point I have traveled the entire length of the river with the trailer, from the Gulf Coast to the headwaters at Lake Itasca in Minnesota.
What’s next? Anything new you can share?
The Trailer Obscura exploration of the Mississippi River in Minnesota – titled “Two Mississippi” – will be featured in two exhibitions in the early parts of 2019. The first is at the Bloomington Center for the Arts in Minnesota from January 11 through February 22, 2019. The work will then travel to WORKSPACE GALLERY in Lincoln, Nebraska and will be on display March 1 through May 2, 2019.
What is one book that you think every photographer should read?
The Nature of Photographs: A Primer by Stephen Shore. I love this book because it so eloquently puts into words all the things we photographers inherently know about photography. I always share it with my photography students, and I make a point to reread it each year. It seems to refocus my thoughts about why I look at the world the way I do.
What is giving you inspiration these days? Something you are listening to, seeing, or reading?
Bees. I am deep into reading about bees – honeybees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, alkali bees, etc. – and their environment. Did you know that North Dakota is the largest honey producing state in the country?
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