Andy McMillan: The Light That Reveals Without Flattery

Photographers are never just photographers. Just like photographs are never just photographs. The earliest photographers of fame—Mathew Brady, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier Bresson—were painters before they picked up the camera, lending their work the quality and status of paintings. Their compositions—though arbitrary moments captured in time—appear as timeless images waiting to be recorded. Whether the image was a fiction or a fact or some mixture of both is, in many ways, immaterial. The work of Photography isn’t so one dimensional. Photographers both find and establish meaning. Though they often never appear in the pictures they record, a sense of how they view the world and a sense of their personality lives within their work.

A few years ago, I showed Andy McMillan a photograph I had taken of an abandoned ‘50s era service station. I was proud of the photograph. He agreed there was something to it and said I should return to that location every day to take the same picture. I didn’t. But Andy’s work conveys that kind of everyday discipline. His photographs are arresting and intelligent: they persist.

Andy lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. His images have appeared in national publications, including The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Time, and The Washington Post.

- Joseph Hurtgen
- Interview conducted by Eric Hurtgen

You showed me one of your most recent photographs the other morning on your laptop. It was of a woman, on an upturned tree, against the background of grasses. One of things we were talking about is how it will translate as a printed image. Later in the day as I was staring out a window, into the street, trying to work, I was thinking about the primacy of the printed photograph, even now—maybe especially now. What keeps you working toward that version of the medium? So much of photography is now located—and exists solely—online.

While they may seem subtle, the differences in the glowing, back-lit images we see on our computers or smartphones and a photographic print are substantial. There's a sense of permanent latency to images in digital form. Each screen will interpret them differently and communicate the information differently. Making a physical print is important to me because it's a means of communicating. I use a large-format camera that lavishes the subject matter with detail and I often make huge prints. The scale and detail complicate the reading of what otherwise may seem to be documentary photographs. This often gets lost online. Having said that, the internet is a perfect home for some work. It just depends on what you are trying to say.

I feel like you've been complicating your photographs purposefully for a while now—stripping away any kind of immediate didactic or metaphoric quality. Your focus seems to me to be only on the relationship of the elements in the frame to one another—as if anything that is not in the frame doesn't really exist or, at least, doesn't need to exist. Is this reading at all correct?

I think of it in less abstract terms. The world that we live in is a complicated one. The relationship between it and our interior universe is complex. The nature of photography is both exclusive and implicit. While it can represent with incredible detail and precision, it can never represent in totality. I see this as the strength and weakness of the medium. The more I photograph the more I lean into this dynamic.

I really like that idea. How does that seem to manifest itself in the work you're making now?

I can't address this specifically. I'm in the very early stages of what I think is a new project. I've been obsessed with the Nabokov short story Symbols and Signs. The story's protagonist is a mentally ill young man who is said to suffer from "referential mania." "He must always be on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things," Nabokov writes. He perceives what is inanimate to the rest of the world as alive with malice directed toward him. I've been thinking a lot about the idea of apophenia, which is our tendency to recognize patterns in random data. Art is certainly a benefactor of this tendency and photography, with its matter-of-fact fictional nature, is no exception. As far as my new work goes, I'm really just hurtling these thoughts at the world and seeing what comes back to me.

I always think it’s interesting how easily photography holds hands with literature. I don't necessarily see this as much in some of the other artistic mediums...maybe its there and I'm not as familiar, but I can think of more than one photographer who started out pursuing literature. I'm even thinking of photographers like Shannon Ebner, whose work has focused on type and symbols and letters.

The literature connection is real but it may be a generational thing too. I feel like a ton of younger photographers somehow got their start from skateboarding. Maybe it would be useful if on photographers' business cards it also listed the thing that they failed at before they became a photographer.
  • Eugene Atget
  • Photographer (painter, actor)

Well that's certainly the case with graphic design, though it's mostly just failed musicians who weren't very good skateboarders. Outside of Nabokov what have you been reading?

I'm reading Tenth of December by George Saunders. And I'm reading back through older copies of Bob Jones' Shepherd's Rod, which is kind of like a strange spiritual farmer's almanac. How about you?

I started to realize a couple of years ago how much I missed or misunderstood as an undergrad. So I've been re-reading some essays by Jean-François Lyotard, especially the Postmodern Condition. My brother gave me America by Jean Baudrillard for my birthday and I'm about halfway through that one. Do you ever go through periods where you return to something that you grappled with at an earlier stage and feel the need to approach it again?

For sure. I had terrible tunnel vision in undergrad and kind of blew off some really incredible classes because I was blind to their immediate value. I went back five or six years ago and read through a lot of the course material from one class in particular and really kicked myself for not getting more into it the first time around.

Isn't it funny how that works? Did you ever reach out to any of your old professors at all during that time?

Not really.

But you did return for a show after graduation, right? Although that was a completely different body of work than you're making now.

Yes, I showed PTL in a show where some of the Photo professors each chose a former student to participate. I've had some contact with former professors. It just doesn't happen naturally, since I live several states away now.

I remember that show. Around that time you were moving toward working in the way that you do now. The photographs that came after the PTL show were the ones that really began to resonate with me.

Meaning Wake Forest, NC and Untitled (After John Singer)? Or the landscapes?

The landscapes initially. I realize it's a well-worn subject for photographers but I love contemporary landscapes. When the New Topographics photographers were making their images for that show in 1975, they were supposedly devoid of beauty or opinion or emotion, which obviously wasn't true. So what I saw you doing—or at least what I thought I saw you doing, which was good enough for me—was consciously putting your own ideals of beauty and opinion and emotion into the images. Then a year or two after that I remember you showed me the black and white portrait of the bald man with the white shirt from Untitled (After John Singer) and that one was immediately my favorite.

I love landscape photography too. I think with those early landscapes I mostly just knew what I didn't want to do. I was focusing on the banal, suburban scenes that I grew up with, which almost felt rebellious. Obviously, the banal is not a new subject. No one is surprised by boring subject matter anymore. But it was important to me to push back against the sort of mythical representations of the south that we're used to.

Yeah I completely agree with that. The south is at least as much a layered and complicated place as anywhere else in the U.S., and I saw that reflected in those early landscapes. But if I'm honest, I enjoy those images for the framing and the attention to line probably above any other aspect. With so many of those photographs, there was this almost typographic rhythm to the way human additions to the landscape appear.

I've always been interested in how we project onto the landscape, how our desire, fear, politics play out around us in subtle ways. The man made lines were really important in those pictures. The infrastructure both enables and disables.

One of my favorite pieces of yours is the image you've been featuring in your O for 0 series. For me, the landscape and the banality is at best secondary to the shapes you're creating. There's this implied meaning that is created that is at once completely meaningless and also really meaningful. Did that kind of thing at all inform some of the choices you've been making in your current work? I'm thinking especially of the way you've been using the light of the sun to reduce many of your subjects' faces to very tense lines.

Yes, in the sense that I'm interested in using that ambiguity. In the portraits you're referencing from Untitled (After John Singer) the light is directly over my shoulder casting my shadow onto the subject. The subjects squint, sweat and sometimes their eyes water in response to the intense sunlight. But my shadow would imply that they are responding to me. I'm interested in the pictures being a natural fiction. My approach is very straightforward but the outcome is a little more complex. I'm also into the idea of characters that cannot hide, of light that reveals without flattery.