This week’s Questions with an Educator features, Nate Larson.
Nate is a Baltimore-based photographer and educator at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His more recent work explores the linkage between human experience and the particular location where the event occurred. His work is exhibited both nationally and internationally and is included in collections such as High Museum Atlanta, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and many more. Here, Nate outlines his recent projects, “Geolocation” and “Centroid Towns,” what he wishes he knew when first starting out in the photography industry, as well as what drew him to teaching.
We asked: Please describe your project, “Geolocation,” done in collaboration with Marni Shindelman. How did you come up with the idea for this project?
Nate said: In our collaborative project, Geolocation, we use publicly available embedded GPS information in Twitter updates to track the location of user posts and make photographs to mark the location in the real world. Each of these photographs is taken on the site of the update and paired with the originating text. Our act of making a photograph anchors and memorializes the ephemeral online data in the real world and also probes the expectations of privacy surrounding social networks.
We think of our work as idea-driven (or conceptual or methodology-driven), which in this case becomes about linking a tweet to its point of origin as a way to talk about that invisible layer of metadata that surrounds all aspects of our contemporary digital lives. It also speaks to the way that this technology can be used to surveil us – multinational corporations do it to market goods and services to us, but it has also been used as evidence in criminal investigations, and there’s a lot of potential for misuse of this data. Our intentions are to draw attention to this exposed information and to ask the viewer to make informed choices about their digital privacy. And, to be clear, all of the data that we collect is publicly available through Twitter’s developer toolkit.
In many ways, we think about our photographs like those historical plaques on the side of the highway. You wouldn’t necessarily know that battle was fought there, or that someone struggled with an emotional difficulty on one of our sites. But linking the tweet with the photograph in the project creates that new context and allows us to see something more about the modern places that we live our lives. It also makes us think directly about that disconnect from our physical location and our digital lives – how many intimate communications happen online but in parking lots or other seemly mundane locations. In many ways, it’s a form of data visualization, reconnecting that tiny bit of data with where it came from. And, we think, in many ways that it humanizes the landscape, finding a bit of humanity in otherwise barren landscapes.
We’re also digging deeper on particular issues with our later work. Two years ago, we went to Russia to track and photograph the hashtag #ThanksPutinForThis in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In the time since, we’re photographing tweets tagged #ThanksObama, in the sister cities of Chicago and Los Angeles. The completed project will illuminate the relationships between world leaders and their constituents, examine the tensions persisting after the end of the Cold War, and analyze the use of the hashtag as a gathering point for ideas online. We are planning to compile this work into our second book.
Most recently, we were in Rochester, New York, making a set of new photographs looking as social justice hashtags for a solo exhibition at the George Eastman Museum. This new work furthers our examination of how smartphones have contributed to a new era of social justice, including citizen journalism, information sharing, and community protest by exploring themes of racial discrimination, violence, right to protest, gun violence, police relations, political activism, and other social concerns.
We asked: When first starting out as a photographer, how did you go about deciding on the topics you wanted to focus on?
Nate said: Well, I think that we all have our obsessions, those ideas that get into our head and just can’t get out until you do something. I’ve always tried to trust that intuition – if I’m still thinking about that idea while swimming laps at the gym, it is probably sticky enough to merit more attention. I’m always looking for that sticky idea, the one that I can’t let go of. If it is that sticky for me, there’s probably something there worthy of an audience.
Looking back, there’s some pretty clear themes running through all my bodies of work, those of communities, belonging, geographies, cartographies, data, human connection or lack thereof. I don’t know that I was able to articulate that as a younger artist, but with the passage of time, those themes emerge. Sometimes you have to step back to see it.
My current project is Centroid Towns, a fine-art documentary project that uses photography, government data, oral history interviews, and local archive research to study the twenty-five cities that have been the mean center of population of the the United States. The project puts a face to statistical data, chronicling these towns and their inhabitants to illuminate the ongoing social and political transformation of America.
The Centroid or mean center of population, is described by the US Census Bureau as “the point at which an imaginary, flat, weightless, and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if weights of identical value were placed on it so that each weight represented the location of one person on the date of the census.” This point is calculated every ten years to accompany the Census, first located in 1790 near Chestertown, Maryland, and moving steadily westward, currently residing near Plato, Missouri. The path of these twenty-five coordinates mirrors the population growth of the nation, following the routes of settlement from the Atlantic to the interior. It also mirrors my personal history, linking my current home in Maryland to my Midwestern roots in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.
I first heard about the Centroid concept on a Public Radio podcast, and the idea stayed with me, so I did more research and spent some time visiting sites. I also started working with community partners in the project towns, and that really cracked the whole idea wide open. My current vision is that the larger project will be an anthology of stories, using this idea of the “symbolic center” of the country as a fulcrum to examine the larger challenges facing our nation.
We asked: What is one thing you know now that you wish you knew when first starting your photography career?
Nate said: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of sustainability – how does one sustain a lifetime of inquiry and discovery in one’s chosen medium?
There is a lot of pressure now for instant success, and that goes hand in hand with the feeling that one must be a failure if that success does not materialize right away. I’m not sure where that comes from, perhaps from seeing people on social media constantly promoting successes while minimizing failure. I’ve seen a lot of people over the years shine brightly for a moment, but then couldn’t keep that flame going. And I think that our work culture also promotes burnout.
I did a workshop with Artists U a couple years ago, in which they had us write mission statements for our artistic practice. The statements incorporated the things that we value and our goals as artists and I’ve been using mine as a metric ever since. If I get a collaboration invitation, or an exhibition invitation, or I’m deciding whether to apply for a grant, I’ll pull out that statement and see if it measures up to my current goals, if it’s worth the time. Life can be full of distractions, so it’s been helpful to set that boundary and those priorities for myself. I have a hard time saying no in general, either to myself and starting a new project, or to an external opportunity, such as an exhibition. I am striving to be better about protecting my time, staying on mission, keeping burnout at bay, making sure I don’t shave myself too thin.
So, my advice to young artists is to not measure success externally, to allow time and space for your voice and vision to develop, and to know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
We asked: What drew you to want to teach photography? How has teaching affected your personal photography work?
Nate said: I started teaching in graduate school at Ohio State, and at the time, it was part of a fellowship package with a tuition waiver and a stipend. I didn’t initially plan it as a professional career, but when I had my first few classes, I realized that there could be really amazing synergy between my own research interests and those of my students. Nineteen years later, I’m still in touch with a few of those first students and have had many hundreds since. And still chasing that perfect synergy.
After leaving Ohio State, I taught part time at Wright State in Dayton, full-time at Elgin Community College in Chicago for 5 years, taught briefly at RIT, and then came to my current full-time faculty position at MICA. Each of those schools has been really interesting for me, allowing me to work with a wide range of students from a wide range of backgrounds. The students keep it fresh for me – their energies inspire me to push even harder on my own projects. And I think the fact that I’m a working artist resonates for my students, I know very well how difficult a creative life can be and that creates a lot of empathy between us.
I have been at MICA for 10 years now, and also became the chair of the Photography Department this year. Taking on an administrative role has been time consuming and I’m still working to find a balance between the many hats that I wear.
We asked: How did you get the opportunity to be the visiting artist fellow at Duke University? What skills did you learn through that experience that you now use in your position at the Maryland Institute College of Art?
Nate said: I had a sabbatical from MICA in the fall of 2015, and applied to a number of fellowships so that I could go to a new environment, work on my own projects, and in the case of Duke, observe different programs. I loved my time at Duke – I spent my time digging in their archives, thinking about how to use those archival materials to speak to the history of the state, and then photographing based on those materials. I ended up making new photographs in the cities that were railroad stops in North Carolina in the late 1800’s, looking at the passage of time and the economic development of the state. In some cases, the towns were no longer there. Duke acquired the resulting portfolio for their Archive of Documentary Arts, and I’m so pleased that it can live in the collection that inspired it, alongside other truly great artists.
I also loved being able to hang out with Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where I got to drop in on some lectures and get to know some of the staff. They hosted a symposium while I was there and it was really great to hear from a lot of different folks as to how they approach working in documentary arts. I also spent a little time with Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program, doing studio visits with graduate students and attending a few of their events.
I think that as faculty, it is incumbent upon us to keep up on all the things that are being made in our fields, and this experience was really special for me in connecting with the larger field of documentary arts.
Find more of Nate’s work at the following locations: