Could you tell us a little about your background?
My background is in theatre. I was a lighting designer and director for many years. That’s what I studied in school, and I still consider my photos a theatrical project that happened to end up on film.
Do you remember playing with miniatures or figurines when you were a child?
I had a huge collection of miniature animals as a kid. I pursued realistic and exotic ones, since I planned to be a naturalist. When I was five I was given a miniature farm, with a barn and animals and people. It was my most treasured possession. What was odd, though I didn’t think so at the time, is that instead of playing out a whole story, I would set up one precise little scenario and leave it in place for weeks at a time, until I restaged the figures into another precise scenario. I maintained rigorous internal consistency; I never considered introducing a china dog into my plastic farm. The scenes I created weren’t particularly dramatic. They were very slice-of-life. I did not name the animals, but when I pulled out the set recently, I realized that the farmhand with the sack of grain over his shoulder had been my first crush.
Were you creative as a child?
I was an observer. I was a reader. I was a writer. I was pretty shy as a little kid. I was introduced to a camera very young, and that suited my nature. My dad took beautiful photos, and would set up a darkroom in the bathroom every few months. It was a magical ritual.
When did you decide to become an artist?
Ha! I didn’t decide to be an artist. I’m still not very comfortable with the term, even though I have been deeply involved in creating art of some form since I went backstage at my high-school theatre.
I had my first photo show in 1996. It was a huge leap, because theatre work is always collaborative, and this just had my name on it. I decided to try to make a living with my photography in 2000. I had been producing corporate media, and I was being paid more and more money to do worse and worse jobs. When I was solicited to create a marketing video about dietary fiber and intestinal parasites, at the same time that I got accepted to a major juried art show, I took it as a sign from the muses that I had to take the plunge!
What were the most important factors in your artistic development? What or who inspires you?
I am inspired by people with vast curiosity and an ability to communicate their passions and ideas, whatever their field is. My artistic development is influenced as much by science and history as it is by painting and sculpture. I always cite Jacques Cousteau and Dr Seuss as strong influences, and heroes. Certain creative artists have forever changed the way I see things. Giorgio DeChirco, Pina Bausch, Krzystof Kieslowski, Anselm Kiefer and Peter Brook, to name a few.
Where do you live now? Is your city a good place to be an artist in? Do you ever feel like a miniature yourself?
I live in San Francisco, California, which is where I was born. It is an inspiring place to be, full of natural and cultural diversity. It is challenging because it is so expensive, but there is a big community of independent professionals in all fields. You don’t feel out of place here if you don’t have a nine to five!
What was the most 'vertiginous' or 'out of scale' experience you can recall?
Walking through old growth redwoods is a dizzying experience. I have a palpable sense of being out of scale, not just in size, but in durability. I feel like a little mouse, skittering around for my short little life, climbing over the roots of these trees that seem to go on forever into the sky, and forever back in time. It is awe inspiring. There is a reason they call redwood circles “cathedrals”.
How would you describe your work?
I would describe my work as theatrical, playful, wry. It is surreal in the classic sense, in that its effect depends strongly on a sense of defamiliarization.
How do you work?How your sets are realized? Do you start from photographs? Do you sketch? Write? Model-make?
Sometimes I start with figures, and look for settings for them, but more often I start with an object. I look for props that have resonance, either a personal connection for me, or something that speaks to common culture. Then I’ll play with different figures and scenarios to see if I can create something evocative. Sometimes particular figures have ongoing stories, like the scuba divers who are always looking for water, or the cycling group who are exploring.
Do you work with assistants? Manufacturers? Other third parties?
I usually work alone, but I’ve had a few friends help me. With the right person, that is really fun. The youngest lighting assistant I had was five years old. I made him hold a flashlight for quite a while, but he was really great sport.
I always work with figures from the same manufacturer. They make beautiful and very realistic figures- but I’ve never had them make any specially for me.
How do you decide on the scale of a particular project?
I always work with the same scale, so the series has an internal consistency. I decided on it (HO 1:87) because I can get tight enough to have a lot of detail, without going so small that the objects that I’m working with become completely abstract.
When was the first time you thought about working with miniaturized scenes? Can you still remember what it was?
Well, the first time I photographed miniature scenes I was probably seven. My brother and I set up campfire scenarios in Golden Gate Park with our Cowboy Joe, Cowgirl Jane and their horses. I didn’t pick it up again until 1991, and that’s when this series started. I was in a critique group with some other photographers, and we took a trip to a salvage yard. I had always been attracted to rust and peeling paint- seeing them as their own little ecosystems, and I wanted to introduce something into the picture that would make the viewer look at those textures as if they were jungles and deserts and mountains. I set out looking for architectural figures, but found the train figures, and that got the ball rolling. The image Ascent is from that first day.
Is there always a story behind your works? Do you ever write scripts?
There are usually a few layers of stories in my pictures. I try to leave my work open enough, both in the visual and the title, that the viewer can bring their own story to it. That’s part of the engagement with the audience, and I think it is a lot of the appeal of the work. It is very gratifying to me that people of all ages and backgrounds find a way to connect. Tiny kids delight in discovering the characters and the objects, bigger kids see fairy tales and myths, scholars see puns, politically minded folks see social critique, spiritually inclined see commentary on our place in the universe. In my best pictures, that is all there, hopefully supported by technical and formal beauty. It makes the work very conversational. People don’t look at my pictures silently, they want to talk about what they see, and exchange their ideas, and I love that. When I was putting my book together, I thought about adding more text, and I’m glad I held back.
What kind of effect do you try to achieve through miniaturization?
I try to recalibrate people’s vision, in hopes that they will become more attentive to things around them.
When I offer a payoff for paying attention, I am encouraging behavior that I would like to reinforce in the world.
At heart, my photos are always about seeing things differently, and that starts with seeing them at all. There’s a reason for the pun my book’s title.
1. To rise above, especially so as to afford a view over
2. To fail to notice, to miss. To ignore deliberately.
We can go out of our way to see something, or we can go out of our way NOT to see something. I’m for seeing.
What makes models so special?
Good models have a great deal of dramatic tension. Since they don’t come into existence by accident, you know that there is intention behind every bit of them, so you can question every detail.
Do you always know what a piece will be like before you start?
I know that a piece will change as I work on it. That part is like directing theatre. You start with an idea of how you want a scene to go, but as you work with the specific actors and the set, you discover things that you hadn’t imagined before you started rehearsal. If you insist on your predetermined plan, you will discourage the actors and flatten the performance. I know that sounds a little crazy, since I’m working with toys, not actors, but I know when my creations have vitality, and when they feel forced.
How much of an element of 'playing' is there in your work?
Without play, I wouldn’t have any work. Play is essential. Play does not preclude precision. Play does not mean carelessness. Play can be serious. I’m trying to activate, or reactivate, the play instinct in my viewers.
Do you ever lose your patience? Did you ever have any big production/exhibition disasters?
I have caught myself talking with my little figures, pleading with them to behave. And of course I’ve had near toy-tragedies. I was shooting some characters biking on the railing at the rim of the Grand Canyon, and one of my bikers went over the edge. A group of kids had gathered to watch as I had been shooting, and they were quite upset. I explained that it was very sad, but it was just a toy, and that it wasn’t safe to go get him, and I just had to let it go. As soon as they dispersed, of course, I was over the fence and scrambling in the rocks to find my little model. I was glad I didn’t get caught. I might have ended up in an Arizona asylum.
As for exhibition disasters…. I have exhibited outdoors for the last ten years. There are plenty of colorful and wet exhibition stories!
Do you mainly sell the photographs of your work, or is it the installations themselves?
I sell the photographs of my work. I often eat the installations.
How would you place yourself with relationship to the so-called art world?
Which so-called art world is that? I think that there are a lot of artificial divisions in the “art world”. I like to think of an art community that includes artists, collectors, fans who can’t afford to collect, exhibitors, teachers and promoters, who all work towards the same goal. That goal has to be higher than the bottom line to interest me. I seek out, and try to align myself with, people from all of these areas who cultivate creativity in our communities and welcome all people to engage, enjoy and participate. It may sound grandiose, but I do hope that my work, and the way I go about it, helps to promote a more open minded and thoughtful community.