Photographer Divola reflects on subjectivity and meaning in photography

John Divola, a visiting artist in photography, delivered a lecture at Yale School of Art Monday afternoon to an audience of roughly 30 students and faculty. During the talk, he went through a distilled chronology of his work and reflected on various aspects of art that have fascinated artists through the ages.

“His art is disturbing but not for the sake of acquiring depth,” said Karina Jones, a visiting student from Pratt Institute. “It has conviction behind it.”

He first began by discussing his fascination with symbolism in photographs and the inherent subjectivity present in every picture. He began by showing a photograph of a gushing waterfall with a man, one of his recent photos. Divola explained this specific image as representative of symbolic photography, showing an image of primitivity and man’s relationship with nature.

Divola continued to give a detailed description of his numerous shoots which moved from his figurative depiction of “sublime and iconography to a more literal one.” He showed a series of abstract photographs which became part of an extended project beginning in 1970s, called the “Vandalism Series.” He painted blocks of space with silver color and matched them with natural sunlight to create complex light patterns in his pictures. Divola called it an “investigation” of the two-dimensional space of a photograph which alludes to relationship between time, three dimensional space and circumstance.

Divola’s next project would be in a ghost town near Los Angeles Airport. A suburb was bought by the airport authorities because of its proximity to the runway. He initially photographed the exterior which contained all the signs of an affluent suburb mysteriously abandoned by civilization. A dystopian world is showcased in the pictures of broken windows, forced entries, and other results of juvenile vandalism.

Divola’s project near the Los Angeles Airport took Divola to nearby Zuma Beach, where he photographed an abandoned house for seven months until it was finally demolished by the authorities. Divola called it a “transition” to a different kind of iconography. He juxtaposed the majestic power of glorious sunsets with ominous interiors to create a disturbing collage. Divola attributed his fascination to the abandoned houses partly to a lack of a studio.

“I did not have money to make one [studio], and the houses became my own broad canvas” Divola said.

Divola added that he liked capturing the imprints of others’ lives around him.

Many photographs also showed a small spot at the center receding into an endless landscape, which in many cases featured the arid wilderness of the Californian deserts. Divola referred to these photographs as his self-portraits, as he is always the small spot seen at the center of the frame. He said he would set the camera on self-timer and then run as far as he could in 10 seconds.

“It is my meditation on mortality,” he said. “[I want] to show how far you can run away from something and then ultimately dissolve into it.”

Divola summarized the process of photography as “artistic subtraction,” an exact opposite of painting which he called artistic “addition.”

“[In photography], you deliberately cancel the effects in the real world to show your desired ones while [in painting], you start with a blank canvas and add your experience,” he said.

“I really appreciate the candidness with which he delves into the subject.” Ellen Song’13 said.

Divola graduated from California State University in 1971. Since then, he has written 5 books including “Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert.”

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