Wednesday, September 28, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Photographer Jan Downs documents the rodeo
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To photographer Jan Downs, Rodeo life is "more American than baseball and apple pie." A Lexington native and MFA candidate at Radford University, the artist is currently showing a collection of photographs of rodeos in Harrisonburg and Lexington, which are on display at Bollo’s coffee shop in Blacksburg. To Downs, who has traveled to Colorado, Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico, and even Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech republic and Poland to take a good photograph, the rodeo gives her a chance to fulfill her mission as a documentary photographer. Here the artist shares some thoughts about that mission, and some insight into her newest exhibit.
How did the photographs for this exhibit come about?
Jan Downs: Documenting rodeo life … was one of the first things that got me into photography. I’ve been doing it for about four years. I have an agriculture background, and I used to do little rodeos when I was a kid growing up. It’s more American than baseball and apple pie to me. If you think about how other countries see the American West, the cowboy, the rodeo …
I think the rest of the world pretty much sees us as still being the Wild Wild West.
JD: Well, maybe. But it’s something that’s truly American and unique. Especially on the East Coast it’s sort of a subculture. … It’s a very good opportunity for photographs, really good subject matter. So I’ve probably photographed 15 or 20 rodeos in the last four years.
Were the photographs in this show digitally manipulated?
JD: Yes. One of my first attempts at serious digital work. I wanted to do something a little different.
I like it, because you can tell that they’re manipulated but it’s not overboard. The base or core image is still the analog subject itself.
JD: The digital age is great but you can get carried away with it. … Whatever I do with digital, I really like to stay with what I could do before digital. You know, like a black and white with some color, where you hand-paint with oil on a regular silver gelatin print. So I try to not get too carried away with the digital stuff, because I like that traditional style.
So what goal do you have in manipulating these digitally?
JD: What I wanted was a lot of motion in these photographs, and that’s why I called it "Still Motion," because it’s capturing a moment that goes by in a flash. … I wanted to capture that motion in one still frame. … If it was on a video you wouldn’t catch that power, that fast action. So you can look at this photograph and see everything that’s going on. … It was important to me to catch something that the human eye wouldn’t catch, that only the lens would catch. Some of them have a very painterly image, all that blurred motion. My approach was, how can I make this artistic and visually interesting, and tell a story, and show something that the normal human eye would not see?
What goals do you have as a photographer?
JD: What I really love is getting to the heart, and spending time to get to know the subject and telling the story. If you’re a photographer, you’re a sort of historian, an artistic historian. You’re capturing things in one moment for all time to be remembered by.
That’s a whole school of thought as to the mission of the photographer being to document. In the rodeo then, you’re trying to document what this experience has to say about the culture.
JD: There are so many things out there like that, so many stories to be told, cultures people would not otherwise be exposed to. These places are part of the framework of American society. I’m very into Americana. We’re getting a bad rap, and maybe we’re misguided, but they’re are things about our country and our people that are really genuine and unique. I like trying to capture those images and tell those stories through a visual media.
So it makes sense that you’re shooting the kinds of photographs in this new exhibit, rather than the kind of abstract art that exists more for aesthetics alone. I think we need more documentarians these days.
JD: I love taking beautiful photographs, particularly landscapes. I love photographing the West and Alaska, because it may not be there in 50 years. And maybe when you’re looking at it you don’t realize that there’s a greater purpose to it. Having something beautiful up on your wall might make your day better, and that’s still very important as a photographer. So I guess we’re trying to find that balance between what’s important and also what’s still aesthetically pleasing.
"Still Motion" by Jan Downs is on display now until Oct. 9, at Bollo’s in Blacksburg. A meet-the-artist reception will be held at Bollo’s at 7 p.m. Oct. 6. For further information visit http://filebox.vt.edu/users/jadowns or email email@example.com.