They are hauntingly beautiful, serene, and yet enigmatic. Richard Dawson’s photographs taken throughout Virginia over a period of years may be the most comprehensive collection of images of our state’s vernacular architecture ever assembled in one place. While searching online for something else, I found myself inadvertently sifting through thousands of images taken by one person from Caroline County Virginia. Dawson’s images are important both as an educational resource and as art. The selection of images presented here, is a very brief flash of a much larger collection. These in particular remind me much of the Alabama work of artist William Christenberry whose objectified images of houses and churches elevated functionally obsolete structures to the level of art in a changed landscape – before time would erase them from memory. In Virginia, Dawson has preserved the memory of our vernacular landscape and I believe it’s important to shine new light upon it so I’ve asked him to share the inspiration with us.
Richard Dawson has an MFA in painting from Queens College, C.U.N.Y. and currently lives in Caroline County, Virginia
Interview with Richard Dawson | by Josh McCullar
Q: Why Photography?
A: Actually it’s digital photography that seduced me. I had a completely manual SLR camera with a couple of lenses, I took basic photography classes in college and I enjoyed them; but photography for me was secondary to painting and drawing. When I lived in NY I did dark room work for some very famous artists. I made a living, but I never enjoyed it. For me, photography in the film days was a completely utilitarian thing that I used when documenting my art. It was never an artistic venture unto itself. It couldn’t compete with painting and drawing.
Then circumstance came into play. A student was using my SLR camera, which I had mounted on a tripod, to document her paintings. But by accident she hit the release button on the tripod, dropping my faithful thirty-year-old camera onto the concrete floor. This forced me to play with my digital Kodak point and shoot. I started shooting photos of my gardens and macros of specific plants. I would run these photos through Photoshop and became excited by the results. This actually was step one in my evolution to photography because now I was focused on creating a photographic image that was art. All I can say is, “Thank god for Alfred Stieglitz.” Stieglitz’s philosophy was that photography should be made with cameras that were accessible to the everyday man. Operating in the early 20th century he used a simple Brownie box camera for his work. So, I next bought the cheapest camera I could find – a Samsung point and shoot for about fifty dollars. I could have given up on my new found fondness of photography at this point, because obviously I didn’t have a camera that any self-respecting photographer who wanted to be taken seriously would use. But, Instead I wholeheartedly embraced Stieglitz. With the Samsung in hand I began to shoot photos around Caroline County. I started looking for old buildings that had acquired a bit of age and history while at the same time keeping an eye toward finding interesting landscapes. I was also moving past my earlier trials in Photoshop and began to make my photos look their best through subtler editing. It was now that I found myself applying the color theories of painters to my photographs in how I selected, composed and edited my work with a focus on shadow and highlights, saturation, contrast and color balance.
Today, I find myself more interested in photography than I am in painting or drawing. If it were not for circumstance and a change in technology would I have transitioned from being a painter into being a photographer?
Q: How do you choose your subjects?
A: When I see something, I’m reacting to what opportunities it offers for composition and color. But equally important is that there must be some sort of charm or content to give the object a specificity. I do tend to search out the old buildings, so my subjects have a specificity of age or history. A case could be made that my subjects choose me. I don’t have any real master plan; I don’t map out anything before hand or go out looking for anything specific. I just head off to parts unknown to see what I can find.
Q: What are you attempting to show or document?
My overriding interest is in finding things that are visually interesting which may not last another twenty years, much less another one hundred years; but which have endured long enough to have a story of their own. For example, in Caroline County there was an old barn that I had captured an image of and now just a couple of years later it has disappeared. It was located just outside of Port Royal, and it was a beautiful ceramic brick barn; but it’s gone. So while I choose my subjects with the thought of their artistic merit, they also have to offer the opportunity for one to think of the stories that they could tell if only we took the time to listen.
I tend to see my subjects as the gifts that our forefathers left to us that speak to the ideas and values that they held dear. It could be a building such as a church, a courthouse or a home, or it could be farm field or a park, but they were all left to us as they are, for a reason. The question is, will we value that reason and see in these things the seeds of invention to recreate ourselves as our forefathers had hoped, or will we turn them over, only to replace them with something that speaks to our vanity for the here and now? My photos stand as sentinels for future generations to judge whether we handled ourselves well when we considered what we valued from our past.
Even if buildings do last, the environment in which we see them today will be so greatly altered in the future as to place them into an entirely different context than what we now know. If people come to Virginia and only visit Williamsburg, have they really seen Virginia?
Q: There is an almost painterly sensibility to the way many of your images are composed emphasizing the essence of shape and color. Can you tell us about that?
A: A building’s architectural design or shape dictates how I capture it. I try for a descriptive angle and a feel for the environment in each photo. Light also comes into play. I tend not to shoot to many photos where I am shooting directly into the sun. If the light is not something that I think I can work with, then I would just as soon not take the photograph and wait for another day.
As for color, I most often add complimentary colors into the mix. For example, If I am faced with a solid wall of green trees in the background of a photo, as is often the case, I will increase the reds in my color balance. Not by a lot, just a touch of red will often make the trees feel much more 3-D. This is especially true if the trees are cedars. They seem to hide an abundance of reds in their foliage that I can bring out. Cameras have never picked up the subtle shimmers of color that the human eye can see. A camera will see green as simply green. I was amazed when I first realized this. I was in Maine painting landscapes and shooting photos of what I was painting. This was back in the days of film so I didn’t see the photos for a week or two after I had painted and shot the photos of the location. When I finally saw the photos I noticed that my paintings were much more lively because I was picking up on bits of color that the camera could not.