Nathan Wirth takes gorgeous black and white landscape photographs. Wirth lives in Novato – a city in Marin County, north of San Francisco – where he teaches English literature and finds inspiration for his scenic images. The works of poets and authors, like William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, and Elizabeth Bishop, have guided the self-taught photographer to "explore the silence of sublimity" of the places he shoots. But for Wirth's recent photo series, "Imaginations," he turned to more contemporary popular culture for his source of inspiration: science-fiction and fantasy books, comics, and films from his childhood. Taking images from films like Star Wars, Superman, Batman, and Lord of the Rings, Wirth Photoshops them into his stark landscapes and the results are absolutely striking.
I got in touch with Wirth to ask him a few questions about "Imaginations."
"Imaginations" is different than the rest of your work, because it incorporates other people's images – those from popular films – into your powerful landscape photographs. How did you come up with the idea?
The very first image I worked on in the series is the one with Darth Vader standing in the sand. I have been working on a series of self-portraits for a while now — typically with me, as a lone figure, standing in a lot of negative space with a minimal presence of sand, rocks, sky and/or sea (almost all of them long exposures). While many viewers have seen those self-portraits as an expression of loneliness, I have always thought of them as an expression of contemplation in solitude (part Zen, perhaps, and part Emersonian). One day I was looking at a self-portrait I had taken at a beach in Point Reyes (on the coast of Marin County in California,) and I suddenly thought: what would it look like if Darth Vader was standing there in the sand, looking out at the sea, instead of me? The mere thought of it made me laugh; after all, one does not typically associate Vader with contemplating nature (I had considered putting the Death Star up in the sky but decided such a choice would ruin the fun of him appearing contemplative). This laughter led to a Google search of Darth Vader images and soon — via a few tricks and strokes of Photoshop — he was standing there in the sand instead of me. This made me laugh even more.
I had no plans to create any other images like that, but as I continued to work on my other images, ideas suddenly came to mind and I started to play with a few more of them and soon a series formed around my desire to express something whimsical with my photography. The images with C3P0 and Yoda were variations on the idea of placing Star Wars characters in contemplative scenes. Having Yoda contemplate an egret makes sense because Lucas’ ideas about the Force are very reminiscent of the contemplative qualities of Zen, but having C3P0 contemplate nature is downright silly because he is, after all, a robot. Other ideas followed … and they just came when they came. I never tried to intentionally plan any of them. A few of my ideas failed because I could not find an appropriate image or I could not make them look the way I wanted them to look.
At first, I never meant for these images to make their way to the public eye, but after a time, and as I added more images to the mix, I realized that I was forming a small collection of homages to the films, comics, books, and television shows that I had loved as a kid — and while I still wanted to focus on the whimsy of the images, I realized I was also paying tribute to the process of the imagination — particularly to the way I, and so many others, were invited to imagine creatures and individuals of a fantastical nature throughout our childhoods (and that these engagements with imagined worlds have, in various ways, become part of our creative processes today).
Did you feel weird about mixing others' works with your own?
I never felt weird about making these images because I purely thought of them as tributes to the imagination — and because I specifically wanted to pay tribute to those characters, I really needed to use the actual elements from films and television shows. Because these images include elements that are not mine — and are bound to the legalities and difficulties of copyright issues, I have never and will never sell them (I have given some away as gifts) or enter them into any contests.
What was your process for "Imaginations?" Did you choose the movies you wanted to include first and then choose the images from your collection or did your photos inspire the films you chose to feature?
To be entirely honest, I have no real process for anything I do (which is why I always turn down requests to write tutorials and how-to articles about photography). I simply work on things as they come to me — and I work on them in any way that makes it possible for me to realize whatever I wish to create. In other words, I work within the limitations of my skills. I have many ideas swirling around in my mind, but I rarely set out to create something as a process.
For some of the images, I was creating a gift for someone. For example, I made the Godzilla image for my mother-in-law because we share a nostalgic fondness for those early Godzilla films from Japan (and I had been looking for a way to use the spiky rocks—which are from a very rainy evening at Bandon on the Oregon Coast). I made the image with Gort, from Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, for my father-in-law. I don’t know if anyone recognizes how whimsical that image truly is. I have, as I already said, taken quite a few self-portraits using long exposures and have learned to stand as still as possible for up to three minutes for those images (with even a little movement you end up with a blurry individual in the shot). For those that are familiar with the movie, Gort stands as still as a stone throughout most of the film, guarding the ship and waiting for instructions. Who better to choose for a long exposure image if you need someone to stand absolutely still than Gort? I added the cormorant to infuse the image with even a little more whimsy (as if the bird sees the robot as little more than a rock). The image with the Tardis on the pier was a gift for my sister who loves Doctor Who (I often watched the show on PBS back in the seventies when I was a kid).
One of my personal favorites from the series is the one of Gollum standing on the rock. I titled it as a vacation picture because I thought the idea of Gollum going on a vacation was hysterical. I have to confess that I don’t know if viewers find these images as amusing as I do — but that whimsy is an important part of why I made these images.
As for the actual landscapes I used, most of them sat in my folder of extras, where I keep images that I don’t quite know what to do with yet. The images in that folder came in very handy when I was looking for backdrops to create the various moods in the images. The Batman/Dark Knight image is, for example, a long exposure I took in a tunnel at the ruins of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco. It sat in the extras folder forever because I could never quite figure out anything to do with it. So, in many ways, this whimsical series of images has given me the opportunity to use images which would otherwise have been left unused. Again — I never really meant for these images to form a series or to ever release them to the public, but as I worked on each new one they seemed to naturally form a series, and I realized that they were very expressive of a time during my childhood when I was very drawn to fantastical worlds of heroes, aliens, monsters and faraway worlds.
You explain in your artists' statement that you weren't trying to make the images realistic; in fact, in some ways you're trying to emulate the rudimentary special effects that were used back in the day. What about that time in movie making do you think is so special, and why, when you have the technology to make something look more "real" do you prefer to use low-tech techniques in order to recreate childhood whimsy?
All of this has everything to do with imagination. Modern films and their special effects are quite impressive, but, in my humble opinion at least, there is a significant difference between (a) being invited to activate one’s imagination, to suspend one’s disbelief, in order to imagine worlds and characters that are not real and (b) to be fed highly sophisticated CGI effects that seek to make that which is entirely unreal more believable — as if one needs a certain quality of realism in that which is entirely unreal in order to believe it. I guess I grew up believing that none of these early films, shows, books, or comics were ever meant to be real or to be perceived as such. Rather, they were mere invitations to imagine the impossible, to the point that the viewer or reader’s imagination was a true, active participant in the experience.
Modern filmmakers seem much more concerned about upping the believability, at least visually, of these fantastical worlds. Something in the process and wonder of imagination that I valued so much as a child is missing in this. Plus — on some level at least — to attempt to make entirely believable that which is entirely impossible is somewhat silly. The images, therefore, are not meant to make you believe they are real in any way whatsoever. They are meant to make you smile and to imagine — and they serve as a quirky homage to the early effects of these films and television shows from the fifties and sixties (and even the seventies). A few of them were also born from my memories of reading comics as a kid — and my childhood and teenage preoccupation with J.R.R. Tolkien’s books.
You grew up in San Francisco and lived most of your life there. Why did you decide to move to Marin County? Has the move affected/changed how you see and perceive the Bay Area or just your world in general?
My move to Marin was purely out of economic necessity. I make my living as an English teacher at City College of San Francisco, which, by definition, meant that, five years ago, I simply could not afford to live in San Francisco any longer (and, very likely, with the continuing rising in cost I will never be able to afford to live there again). My wife and I decided that our four-year old daughter would eventually like to have her own room — and previously lived in a one bedroom apartment — so, during the broken economy after the burst of the real estate bubble, we found an affordable townhouse in the northernmost region of Marin County. I really loved San Francisco and felt terrible about leaving. I had always felt that because I was a native that I belonged there (my father was born in San Francisco as well).
From a photography perspective, I had more or less taught myself how to take long exposures at the ruins of the Sutro Baths, Marshall Beach, Ocean Beach, the Presidio, and down south in Pacifica. Part of me felt that I was going to lose touch with my photography after leaving San Francisco. However, moving to Marin ended up being the best thing I could do. I can still very easily get to San Francisco when I want and after moving to Marin, the whole coastline of Marin and Sonoma Counties suddenly opened up to me — especially the Point Reyes National Seashore.
While I would not say that my perception of the Bay Area has changed, moving to Marin has opened up a lot more possibilities of things for me to photograph because I explore new places whenever I can — especially the dairy farms, wineries and hills of Marin and Sonoma (which I often photograph with an infrared converted camera).
I have found, especially over the last two years, that visiting new places is very beneficial to my work. For example, trips to the Oregon Coast, the Olympic Coast in Washington, and the Oceano Dunes in Southern California have yielded many different opportunities.
What's the next project you're working on?
I must confess that I don’t really work on projects. I just work on a variety of stuff, which I suppose can be thought of as a project in itself. That said — I am waiting for the fall and the winter to come, when, hopefully, the stormy quality of light that I prefer to work with will return to the Bay Area. Meanwhile, I am preparing for a gallery show that will be a merging of some of my seascapes and landscapes with poetry written by my mentor, Peter Weltner (whom I formally studied poetry with when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at San Francisco State University, where I earned my BA and MA in English Literature). We recently collaborated on a book of his poems and my images, Stone Altars, and this gallery showing in September (at the Great Highway Gallery in San Francisco) will be a celebration of the publication of that book (including a poetry reading).