The Plague of Memory

Edison William combines reverie with photographic skills into his own personal blend of “photostration”

(“Wrong Vacation Bill”)

Edison William layers memories and dreams into evocative images of impossible landscapes. While the 29 year old artist Jacksonville-based almost cringes at being categorized as a photographer, William chooses to work solely in film (and in his case the almost-cloistered medium of color slide film) while also pushing the technology to its near breaking point in his approach to color processing, chemical treatments and extreme saturation. William’s work resembles a sort of travelogue for sleepwalkers, blending hallucinatory scenes of nature where clouds dot the earth and trees hang down from the sky, a counter clock realm with humans reduced to a phantom-like phenomenon, while horizons bend like frowns and our perceptions can no longer be trusted. His work has been featured on posters and releases for local indie bands Opiate Eyes and Personal Boy, while William (born Bill McGee) is also a musician and sonic collaborator with members of the aforementioned groups.

Edison William’s upcoming show “Chasing Nostalgia / Subconscious Assimilation” features ten large scale pieces that were created over a period of years. At the upcoming opening reception at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, William also intends to project original imagery on the walls as a sort of real time demonstration of what he describes as “illustrated illusions.” This show is the latest local exhibit of consistently cutting-edge and engaging work curated by Staci Bu Shea. The opening reception for Edison William’s “Chasing Nostalgia / Subconscious Assimilation” is held from 6-9 p.m. on Monday, November  12 at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, 869 Stockton Street, Riverside, 855-1181.

Starehouse spoke to Edison Williams about his technique, making the nature scene and how memory can either serve or destroy us. What follows is a transcription of highlights from that conversation.

Starehouse: Why did you choose the name Edison William?

Edison William: Actually it reminded me of kind of a pioneer name from a different time period and I was also born in Edison, New Jersey so I wanted to use something that is nostalgic from my life.

S.: So it is almost a Medieval England name in that it pays tribute to your origins, kind of an Elric of Gloucester or (laughs) Thomas of Kinkade?

E.W.: Exactly.

S.: Where are you located in Jacksonville?

E.W.: Avondale.

S.: How did you wind up in this area?

E.W.:  I actually moved here in 1989 when I was six. In my midtwenties I started moving back and forth between New York, Florida and Philadelphia.

S.: Were those moves based on creative endeavors or family obligations?

E.W.: Basically, girls. Two separate girls, one in New York …the first time I moved to New York I worked for HBO for a little bit … I was actually a production assistant for some things and was living with a girl for about six months. I think three years later I moved back to Florida and lived with a different girl for about eight months. I wasn’t really doing much as far as graphics yet. I was actually working at Anheuser-Busch as a brewer. I was working at the Newark [New Jersey] brewery. It wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia when I started making this work, that was 2008, when I moved up there. So that was when I started taking photographs and working on this project, from 2008-2011 was when I was living and working up there around Philly.

(“Vagabond Road”)

S.: I think I saw on Facebook that you studied at University of North Florida?

E.W.:  I did. Actually my very first semester at UNF was in 2001. I graduated from Sandalwood. I went to Bishop Kenny for two years and then Sandalwood for two years. And then I was living in the dorms at UNF in 2001 and was majoring in business at the time. I pretty much dropped all of my classes the very first semester and then sporadically went back between FCCJ and UNF. But I started the photo program at UNF in maybe 2005 and stayed there through 2007.

S.: Who did you study under? Who were some of the instructors?

E.W.: Dominick Martorelli, Paul Karabinis, Alex Diaz…those were the three main ones. Paul Karabinis really had the most impact on me.

S.: So I imagine you were doing some form of photography before you started taking formal classes.

E.W.: Yeah, yeah it was like I was a…what would you call it, a dilettante? Is that what you would call it?

S.: Yeah.

E.W.: I was just sporadically doing it.

S.: Well, dilettante – you could be called worse.

E.W.: (laughs) Yeah. But I started there from the beginning and the new photo department hadn’t even been built yet and that was originally with Dom [as first teacher] and that’s when I probably really was a true dilettante. It was really around 2007 or 2006 when I really started applying myself, bought a nice digital camera for the time being…and six months later it shorted out on me during a shoot. And I never went back to digital again.

S.: Is that right? So it was kind of an “experiential” decision more than just being a purist. So when did you go from dilettante to full-blooded devotee? Did that happen from studying photography at the academic level?

E.W.: It was actually after being introduced to slide film. Published slide film. Alex Diaz was teaching a color photography class and most of the projects we were dealing with in the beginning involved working with color slide film, obviously in reversal…and I was so impressed with the saturation of it and the color reproduction. And I started actually overlaying slides…it was very muddy in the beginning. When you’re overlaying the film, obviously you have to account for each piece of the film’s depth as far as things like tonality…so what you really need to do is print out the film by overexposing and over-developing it – so you chemically alter it. So that thins it out but it keeps the color saturation. And in that way, when you are layering them in hand it doesn’t get too muddy on you, like when you have to scan them in. So really it was basically working with slide film that really invigorated a different sense of what you can actually put behind something else. Rather than a digital image, that’s flat on the screen and there is nothing you can do but keep adding to it with other files.

(“Magnificent Vagina”)

S.: So was it the color [of color slide film] that you found so alluring? How big were these original images? Did you see it projected in a large scale on a wall or screen during a class?

E.W.: Yeah, exactly. When we would do critiques, they would obviously be projected with whatever projectors they had at the time. But when you are looking at them in your hand you are using a loupe to look at it…and it is an intimate experience to try and look at something that small. You get a different appreciation for dimensions. So straining your eye to look at something that is being magnified by 32 times was something that I really admired. It really had this odd impact.

S.: So it really kind of caught your attention by its almost exaggerated projected size but when you looked at it at a smaller, subtle level was when you could really appreciate the color or vibrancy of the image.

E.W.:  Absolutely.

S.: How do you define what you do? If you were at gunpoint would you just say that you are a photographer to describe what you are trying to do?

E.W.:  Yeah but it’s a stigma. I almost hate saying I’m a photographer. I actually labeled it one time as “photostration” – kind of a mix between photography and illustration, after the effect of what it looks like.

S.: Well (laughs) photostration is pretty apt. Is that an original term?

E.W.: It is the original, I guess, “branding” of what I am trying to do.

S.: There are ten images for this show but I’m wondering how large the images run and are they printed on standard photo stock paper?

E.W.: Well the largest is going to be 34 by 34 inches. Actually Doug Eng, who I’m sure you are familiar with, is printing them out for me on his printer. And I think the smallest one is maybe 9” x 9”…most of them are in the range of 32” x 26” so it’s pretty big scale.

S.: Even though you seem very involved with the process, is your work even “process based” or is the technique just a means to an end?

E.W.: As far as wanting the end result to be a print? I don’t like that aspect of photography because it so “out of control” and computer-derived. My greatest thing is looking at the slides through a loupe and a white back drop or light table and being illuminated that way. They are so vivid and bright and then the computer just muddies it up a little bit and blurs it. So I am actually layering them in hand and then scanning them in just blurs them because there’s a gap between the two slides …so there’s not a “pure process” with the prints. However, it is the most feasible way to display them for right now. Another way is like in airports, where they have back-illuminated images or transparencies. That is eventually what I want to get to, so it shows that these are more derived from slide film. But I saw the test prints that Doug did and they look very vivid and well saturated and the color reproduction is nice. But it’s just something I’ve always wanted to steer clear of; printing out on these large Epsom scale printers…I don’t feel any real attachment to that experience.

(“Torture Box 1”)

S.: So your approach isn’t really anachronistic, it’s just a way you feel more comfortable with and it sounds like you want to have, for lack of a better word, “control” of the outcome to make sure how those colors are conveyed. But other than your obviously bad experience with a digital camera, had you ever worked in digital photography or graphic art in the past? Did you ever try to explore that?

E.W.: I did a couple things in college at UNF and it was with slide projectors, projecting onto human figures. I did some album artwork for Opiate Eyes that exhibits one of those. But that to me was far better than shooting with digital cameras and doing fashion shots. That was from Fashion as Art classes. I would take the camera out into the field and just use slide film to do it, because I could layer little intricacies, little textures over it to give it more of a magazine-style “pop” or some other artistic flair instead of just a boring fashion shoot. I’m really not too enthralled with fashion photography as art unless it has some kind of texturized idea to it. But as far as using the digital camera for shooting art, I shot a lot of things that were assignments, that were academic, and I would just try to figure those things out. But I never really printed anything out that I ever did with a digital camera and considered it ever important.

S.: Personally, I am pretty indifferent and really unimpressed with most digital art. But I’m probably biased because in my own limited experience I’ve seen stuff where it always winds up being something like “Flamingo with Sunglasses” or bad, airbrushed things bordering on softcore porn. It sounds like you are comfortable with the digital domain and were intrigued by some of it. But do you think you are in some way working in a reaction to digital or technology-driven art?

E.W.: I feel like this is an under-exposed technique, of doing an actual methodical and mathematical alignment of collage or photomontage. I think most photomontage of the past, especially the more I have seen, is very randomized. It’s like “here’s a building with a woman on it” and it’s not exactly aligned and can be kind of interesting because of the juxtaposition of different images. But I think what I want to do with the methodical side of it is create a resurgence in what film can do because we have abandoned it so much. And what I wanted to do was define it as separateness from digital photography. But do it where you are kind of competing with the same visual aspect as far as saturation goes and that depth of field and all of the little things that go along with photographs. I don’t want to mock it but maybe cryptically mock it in a way. But I definitely want the work to personify film as much as possible without appearing like I am on some high horse. Maybe three years ago I was a little more negative minded about film versus digital. But I can have my opinion about digital art and be against it and everything but I just want to sort of rise above that and look for a way to prove a better point. So rather than just denouncing something, you really have to compete with, like you said, those airbrush effects and other things people can do.

S.: It’s cool that it exists and I like the fact that technology kind of levels the playing field. I definitely believe in this kind of egalitarian ideal, but I also think that just because everyone might be invited to the dance doesn’t necessarily mean everybody knows how to dance. Do you know what I mean? Like this sensibility that everybody can create art and while technology invites that, I don’t believe that is even true. Just because someone owns a guitar doesn’t mean they will be the next Jimi Hendrix. I don’t think this is elitist – I think it is just true. Everyone who starts making art is not going to make good art.

E.W.: Well, the instant gratification has allowed a lot of people who don’t dedicate enough time to the scholarly aspect of things the ability to create visual imagery very quickly. So now everyone is a model and everybody is an artist and you have an oversaturated field. And that is another point I want to make with my art – that it is done over a span of years. There are images that are shot in 2008 that are combined with something shot in 2010. And it is through studying the slides and knowing the alignment and recalling in mind “Okay, this will be layered over another image I shot a couple years ago.” That is, to me, a dedicated effort playing over a long and still- progressing thought.

S.: It seems that technology too, at the very least … keeping in mind that I am saying this to you over a smart phone, with a digital recorder going into my ear (laughs), as I stare at a laptop in front of me, so I’m not on the wagon trail either…but it seems like technology is simply just offering information and choices. But in my own experience, it seems like sometimes all of this information without a sense of discernment just kind of leads to more obsessions. We have all of this information, all of these technologies…you are working in a very “fixed” technique but I’m wondering if you have ever been…paralyzed by possibility? Do you know what I mean?

E.W.: Oh yeah, absolutely. I compare that to a painter, because I have always considered myself having more of a painterly mind and that’s something I have studied more and appreciated more. Someone like Dali is obviously someone I have admired. My grandmother was a prolific painter as well, never well-known but just painted for herself. So I kind of grew up with that mindset that photography is almost an easy means to an end to create imagery. But I wanted to complicate the very nature of that.  So regarding being paralyzed by choices, or possibilities, what I try to do is shoot in very difficult scenarios. Most of the images that are shot are done in time lapse, at least 30 thirty seconds and sometimes upwards of eight minutes long, and that gives you a sort of surreal imagery already. And then chemically altering them, overdeveloping them, will “thin down” and create these really strange kinds of psychedelic effects to the film. So you can control a little bit of it but what you can control with photography, even though it is based on being given a composition … everything you look at is your reality. But what you have to try and do is deconstruct reality and break everything down to what I consider formulism: shape, line, color and form. Then you can better assess the situation and know how to maybe reciprocate for other shots. So I try and not think of the limitations of film photography, even though when you’re shooting you can’t see what you are doing and there’s always room for mistake. But it’s nice to maybe make a mistake, wait two weeks until you actually see it and then you kind of “get fed” and go again, you try again and learn to “fake it better” – you learn more, as a visualist.

(“Tourist Season Flock”)

S.: All that being said, how do you decide when you are done? Some of your pieces are the result of images separated by years. When do you walk away? When do you say “this is done”?

E.W.: I kind of never do. In my head, the images that I’ve made are just one single concept and I am just expanding upon it. I never really close a series. I kind of group them underneath little allegories. Like [his three different series] “This Lonely Stretch of Time,” “Assembling a Subconscious Landscape” and “The Esoteric Fluctuations of Character Development” are all intertwined with a stretch of time I spent kind of in reclusive study up in Pennsylvania, kind of this idea of living in a cabin in the woods, alone in the winter, and then finally coming out in spring. But that was really an authentic idea that actually happened to me. It was nice and it seems so cliché to say it.

S.: Well then that’s a good cliché, because it is based on your own proven experience. Your press release describes how this body of work was born from a “tumultuous and personal time” spent in Pennsylvania and your “means of escape.” Would you feel comfortable describing the events that inspired this work?

E.W.: Ah…between you and me it was directly female-related.

S.: I gotta tell you nothing is “off the record” with me. I’m not a journalist. Do you still feel comfortable going on and talking about this?

E.W.: Well, it’s not like I went through some metaphysical change. I was dating a girl and living with her and we had a toxic relationship and it almost made me form a project, to do something… and there is like this angst that you have of creating something, then waiting for time to pass. And we maybe had indulged and drank too much and other aspects of toxic pleasures but it was more of me, my own idiosyncrasies, my own peculiarities, of how I deal with time, rational time and maybe even sober time. It was just a very conflicting period of trying to balance out so much and wanting to put such an effort into the reality of things. You have to deviate from that when you have an “outside of the box” idea of progressing and something that you know might be “prudent thoughts,” concerning your future… and there’s gonna be short term turmoil for hopefully long term benefits. So going over that period over a stretch of three and a half years is very taxing on a mind. You wouldn’t believe what stress can actually do to somebody. And then when I departed from her and lived alone for a while up there, away from friends, away from anything…I kind of lost contact with a lot of people because of how habitual living alone became. You’re just walking around in the woods of Pennsylvania…New Jersey really. Right along the Delaware River, New Jersey is unbelievable, just gorgeous with cliffs and landscapes. Basically all of Bucks County in Pennsylvania and some of Jersey is just like a dream and such a fresh of breath air too since it is such an art-driven community. A whole lot of academic work and work for painters but not a lot jobs for photographers, unless they’re willing to maybe photograph drive-in cleaner signs or some other small businesses.

(“Tornadoes Took My Home Away”)

S.: You must have had some peace just being surrounded in such a pastoral atmosphere.

E.W.: Yeah and really felt like I could finally breathe.

S.: And this kind of ties in with another point. In all of your work it seems like nature takes dominance, yet in two of the ten pieces – “Tourist Season Flock” and “Wrong Vacation Bill” – humans seem almost like they are these comical invaders to otherwise natural scenery while in “Vagabond Road” they are literally transparent and reduced to a ghost-like presence. Where do people fit into your work?

E.W.: I actually despise having people in my work because of the saturation of people appearing in digital photography and essentially from portraiture in the field of photography. It is so overplayed. So when I use people I use them just as shapes, very distinct shapes, but I really don’t want any features to be shown. “Tourist Season Flock” puts the people upside down and they take on the ideas of being airplanes or biplanes or a flock of birds, just these flying creatures. I’m trying to use people in the same way I would use something like a tree limb to create a bridge. So I’m trying to break apart the natural representation of things and I’m definitely doing that with people because I almost want the imagery to be devoid of human beings. And I think it is kind of symbolic of when you go through a reclusive period, when people become distant from you and you become distant from people. I can see that reflected in the work that I do. Like “Tourist Season Flock” is one where I went to the Jersey Shore one day in the spring and I had just pulled through one of the worst winters and it was extremely cold. And I am a Floridian so it was taxing on me, taxing on the mind…and I get to the beach and you pay $9 to get on the sand, there’s people everywhere and you have this vision of a place of solace and tranquility and it’s just, for lack of a better word, a headache and completely not what you envisioned. So really out of frustration, “Tourist Season Flock” is an example of crowds, how upsetting things have become. I really preferred my isolation at the time and I was upset that I could never truly find it unless I was in the woods. Even there you don’t feel safe, because people suddenly just walk up around you (laughs).

S.: So are you saying there’s no escaping the fallibility of people (laughs)?

E.W.: I know and everyone is scared of each other these days… maybe for good reason.

S.: You build a cabin in middle of the woods and someone builds a cabin next to yours.

E.W.: Exactly.

S.: You have a deliberate process of how you are making your images and also an equally strong sense of narrative. In the press release you describe how you address the “gravitational manner” of nostalgia. Could you elaborate on that idea?

E.W.: Well for me, it’s almost that I complicate these very idealistic things, like this idea of going to the beach, which is just a completely open area that I really like. It’s almost like I value the surrounding elements specifically from a certain time in life. And if I’m not having it at a certain time, and I was more impulsive in a previous time – I’m a little more grounded now because I have to be, because I caused so much turmoil by not being [grounded] – so my own impulsivity is directly related to what I called that “gravitational manner.” Like when I started trying to find things to photograph it made no sense logically and at times was even irrational.

S.: It’s weird because it seems like nostalgia can be as educational and poignant for people as it can be completely haunting and confining or even imprisoning. Our memories will just turn on us. It seems like this series was born out of…

E.W.: Restlessness.

S.: And you mentioned that this romantic relationship was kind of the flashpoint. So do you think that this series was a success, in the sense that it purified your life? Has it allowed you to move on to some degree? Or is it “gravitational” in the sense that you are being held back?

E.W.: I’m still being held back entirely in not being able to chase what I am after, as are many artists. I don’t think I’m any different than them. I would say some of my nostalgia I experience now was created during tumultuous times and I appreciate it and I love it and I miss it sometimes, even as toxic as it was.

Daniel A. Brown

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