How did you get involved in photography, initially?
My formal education was in painting and sculpture. I did teach myself to develop black and white while an undergraduate and had many friends who were photographers in grad school, but I never took a photography class. After college, I was a model maker, both for architecture and product photography, and often assisted photographers on shoots, but wasn’t involved with the processing. My actual transition to pursuing photography started around 2014 or 2015 with a deep dive into it starting in 2016. Although that is fairly recent, it follows a lifetime of involvement with art.
I’m not a fan of asking every photographer I interview about their equipment, but readers always want to know. So, what do you use?
I am not a very technical person, and I basically learn what is necessary. I work very quickly and often preset my camera, then do minor adjustments in the field. I have stuck with Nikon for many years, both analog and digital. My original work was done with a Nikon D7100 and a Nikkor 16.0-85.0 mm lens. My later and current work is done with a full-frame Nikon D850 and a Nikkor 24.0-120.0 mm lens. I use a tripod on all of my night shots, except when traveling, where I hand-hold with high ISO. The one unusual tool for my night shots is a hybrid car, which allows me to slink around the neighborhoods in a silent electric mode.
I notice a lot of your photography is produced at night. Why?
My conversion to night photography was natural and unexpected, though I quickly became obsessed with it. I did a few shots for a show on night photography in California, and it took off from there. It wasn’t planned, which is why it worked out, as anything I do plan inevitably doesn’t. Why it appeals to me is something I have analyzed in hindsight. When I was studying painting there was an underlying idea that painting should be two dimensional and flat. The art critic Clement Greenberg was still influential and was a proponent of that idea. I still have a tendency in day photography to do flat composed images that read as a single object. Night photography, however, lends itself to coming inside the frame. It naturally presents itself as a shared experience, where the viewer comes into the image together with the photographer.
I am a huge fan of the ephemeral and the mundane. I need no convincing, however, many people do. What inspires you to take a picture with nothing but a road sign, a tree, and a bunch of electrical wires?
Somehow I think of the landscapes I photograph as being both ephemeral and timeless at the same time. Partly, I learned to paint studying patterns, color, and light in the landscapes of western Virginia, and I spent many years in New York City working with and around architects and architecture. Those two experiences lend themselves to urban landscape photography. That said, I think what draws me in, and is both seen and felt, is an energy that exists when no one is there. If there is a figure in a photograph, no matter how small or insignificant, that becomes the focal point. People often miss seeing places. And so it is this energy, which is a reflection of those people, that both inspires and attracts me to this type of photography
There are two consistent elements of your work that instantly captivate me, the light and the angles. Can you tell me a little about each?
Starting with the angles, I don’t really think about it much, but I would think it has something to do with leading the eye into the photo. It introduces perspective, depth, and movement. As far as light is concerned, in my daytime photos, I like to use light to give clarity, while in my night photography I am drawn to the romance and drama the darkness reveals. We light our urban areas just like a stage would be lit for film, maybe it is the other way around, but in either case, it makes places which would barely get a glance turn into something magical.
Copyright ⓒ Peter Ydeen
Copyright ⓒ Peter Ydeen
Copyright ⓒ Peter Ydeen
Copyright ⓒ Peter Ydeen
Bill Eggleston once complained that there was nothing “pretty” to photograph around Memphis, to which someone replied, “then photograph the ugly”. What they really meant was to take advantage of the mundane, as we are less accustomed to seeing those things and, therefore, can be visually impacted more easily. Fabric hanging in a window, a crooked fence, a cardboard couple, a hedge, you have an uncanny eye for seeing the “nothingness” that surrounds us. Tell me more. How did you develop this way of seeing?
Being able to see the beauty in the mundane is something all of us owe to Bill Eggleston. That aesthetic was with me indirectly because of him my whole adult life; and if seeing “beauty in the mundane” is the mantra of urban landscape photography, then night photography is the ultimate example. As a student of painting, I was always taught to look for patterns, shapes, and light. My first paintings, 40 years ago, were of leaves and garbage. This is all part of learning to see. Everything is of interest visually. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t look at the world this way.
Your work indeed does remind me of William Eggleston’s work. This is, of course, a huge compliment. It’s not easy to do what he does; what you do. I’m also reminded of Carl Corey’s work, a photographer whom I admire tremendously. Who do you feel has influenced your work and career as an artist and photographer?
Although I have been around photography and photographers for many years, I never really followed it. When I started diving into it, the one photographer who I would say was an influence was George Tice. This especially applies to my night photography. I knew of many photographers because of their images but not so much about them personally. I just started looking at Carl Corey because we were both featured on Instagram during the Rust Belt Biennial. Once I looked, I knew many of his images but had not connected a name. So there are many indirect influences but I would only consider George Tice as a direct influence from photography. I spend a lot of time looking at my contemporaries, including among others; Patrick Joust, Todd Hido, and Emmanuel Monzon. I also follow Carl Corey’s daily postings on Instagram. I have many major influences from the world of painting too, such as Charles Burchfield and Arthur Dove.
One of the things I see missing from so much amateur photography is a signature look. I believe it is critical for one to be able to look at a photograph and recognize (without having seen the actual photograph before) the photographer. I am often complimented on this element in my own work. But a signature style is not an easy thing to achieve in the visual arts. You seem to have nailed this perfectly. How do you approach this?
People often tell me they like my style, but truthfully I have never made any effort to have one. I think I just naturally become methodical and start working a certain way repeatedly. I could not even tell you what my style is.
The fact that names like William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Meyerowitz spring to mind when I look at your work tells me you likely have some formal art education lingering in your background. Your eye has been trained. You see as a painter. Tell me about it.
I received my initial art training at Virginia Tech, in the mountains of southwest Virginia. We studied by going out and painting landscapes. My teacher, Ray Kass, who is still a friend, taught me to look and see. It is a great gift that goes with me everywhere. I was also taught by many wonderful painters including Phillip Pearlstein, Alan D’Arcangelo, and Robert Henry for my MFA and Francesco Clemente, among others, at Skowhegan. Though not a formal education, I was also greatly influenced by my wife Mei li, and Marc Leo Felix with whom we operated a business for many years selling African, Chinese, and Tibetan antique sculptures. It is a humbling experience to work daily with the work of unknown artists, which kept me looking and seeing art on a daily basis.
What comes next?
My main concentration is on printing and the presentation of my work, mainly Easton Nights. Conditions permitting, I should have four shows this upcoming academic year. I have been making my own framing and am trying to make a more sculptural exhibit, including floating frames, as well as framing arrangements. I have also started a series of video montages, which I want to include in most exhibits. I am also currently working on the financing of a monograph, which I hope to finalize in the upcoming year.
To see & learn more, visit Peter Ydeen