Ward Long in conversation with Elena Dolcini
A delicate, poetic and touching photobook that describes the daily life of a house where a group of girls lived together, with the photographer who realized the book; this private world is made up of friendship, tenderness and mutual care and, even if it opens the doors to an intimate microcosm, there is nothing voyeuristic about it. On the contrary, his natural and unfiltered approach allows us to enter here without artificiality, almost participating in the life of the house itself. The book is dedicated to the victims, many of whom were friends of the author and of his housemates, of a warehouse fire in 2016 in Oaklad, California.
Summer Sublet tells more than one story and it does that in different ways. First of all, it describes your life in a shared-house in Oakland and conveys eloquently what this experience represented to you : the love, affection and fondness amongst you housemates, the girls' way of living, how the house was lived, its spaces and all the objects in it, which seem to have a sentimental connotation. But there is also the tragic event at the Ghost Ship warehouse giving an a-posteriori sense to the book, especially for the people who learn about the story while flipping through the publication. The event is mentioned towards the end of the book, which you dedicated to the victims of the fire. This time the discourse is not visual, it is something you refer to in your hand-writings, written parts of the book placed in between photographs. The handwriting is a very peculiar choice, making everything even more intimate and suggesting your sentimental involvement in what you are telling us. I would like you to talk a bit about the relation image-handwriting you have chosen for the book.
At first, Summer Sublet was a rush of pictures, direct impressions of lived experience. Like I say in the book, everything overwhelmed. To help put the pieces together, I taped small prints into a notebook and then started adding in fragments from my morning journals. The text adds me in as a character, but it also invites the reader to stand next to the camera, to think of all the little stories between and around the images. Photographs and phrases are laid out on separate pages, giving each other room to breathe as the season moves on. I used my own handwriting because I wanted the words to feel urgent and intimate, like a letter to a friend. The Ghost Ship Fire came in December, months after most of the pictures. I put the dedication at the end of the book to recreate that unexpected and painful loss for the reader. Disaster instantly rewrites everything that comes before. Flip the pages back to the beginning, and the photographs are the same, but your feelings have changed.
I think this book could tell a lot to the people who lived a similar house-sharing experience; if they did, they might take a guess at what the images describe. For example, the photograph of the girl brushing her teeth, leaning on the kitchen-sink, describes a very common situation in a "busy" house (how many times did I act the same way when I had to rush out and the toilet wasn't available ?!) The photographs you have chosen for the book clearly document this kind of relationship between the housemates, made of complicity, mutual understanding and loving bonds. The book appears as a relational form of art, for these lively relationships play a fundamental role in the creation of the artistic work. This in some ways brings us back to the author-model question and of course adds something very particular to it.
I would like to pick up one picture and ask you to describe it to me; it is a very tough job though, as I love them all. So I reckon I will choose two, one with the girls and one with no human presence. The first picture is the one where three girls are hanging out in what looks possibly like a backyard, sitting on the steps while chatting and drinking cups of tea/coffee. I love that the image is half in the shade and half in the sun and, obviously, I love the intimate atmosphere between the girls. Their barefoot-ness on the concrete suggests it is warm outside, besides the informality, spontaneity and naturality of their life-style. The second one is the picture taken indoors with the yellow flowers ; aesthetically-speaking I find it very beautiful, not only because of the flowers and plants dressing, but also because of the light passing through the window. Moreover, I guess this picture tells a lot about the house and everyone who took care of it in a non-artificial way, with spontaneity, showing the house not just as a location or a place where to sleep but as a real organism, kept alive by the relationships between the people living there. I like that it is the first indoor picture of your selection, which makes it very meaningful.
Let’s start with Kate’s room, the picture taken indoors with the yellow flowers. As you noted, it’s the first interior in the book sequence, which gives it a little bit of extra emphasis. It happens to be the first picture that I took in the house. When Kate left for tour, I moved into her still very-much-furnished room. I didn’t bring much with me. You can see my black and bland toiletries kit in the corner by the window.
Now that it’s out in the world, I get to hear all sorts of people connect Summer Sublet with their own memories. Sarah sent me a picture of the BB gun range in her old apartment hallway, Janet said it brought back her 60s commune days, another friend just got one for her sister. When I finally had a physical copy of the book, I couldn’t wait to show it to my old roommates. What would they think? How did my pictures compare to their experiences? This house and this community meant so much to me. They trusted me. I had to get it right. I was painfully aware that the camera carried power, and that I was an outsider, a man taking pictures of women. Being photographed requires vulnerability, and to match that openness I wanted to share my own story with the reader. The handwritten text throughout the book became a way for me to acknowledge my presence in the frame as well as the limits of my understanding. The photographs show frozen moments full of feeling and detail, but the people in the photos had a life, a history, and a world beyond the fixed stillness of the photograph. I think that the best portraits are like an embrace, a place where the person in front of the camera, the person behind it, and even the person looking at the pictures are all held together, an unbroken chain.
Kate kept everything in olive greens, worn purples, and bright yellows. She had broken vintage furniture, big woven blankets, little old notes, long distance letters, photobooth pictures clipped to a clothesline, and slips from books and magazines. I had woken up in a stranger’s room before, but there was something different about the clutter, the chaos, and the color here. I wanted to be a part of it all. Here’s the second picture. It’s a Sunday morning in July. Alice and Hannah are matching the left and the right because we dyed a big batch of clothes with raw indigo a few days before. Sarah is in the middle. Hannah gave her an inside-joke stick-and-poke tattoo that says JINX above her elbow. I think she’s wearing long sleeves so she won’t pick at it. On the left, Alice is loading up her father’s heavy Yashica with expired Czech film. Hannah’s wearing her grandmother’s ring, and lying just inside the shadow of the balcony above.The mailbox is empty. No one needed to get in touch, we had no official business, we needed to brush our teeth.
Deadbeat Club Press
Full Color Offset
8.5” x 11”
Edition of 500
WARD LONG - BIO
Ward Long is a photographer living in Oakland, California. He received his MFA in Photography at the University of Hartford, and his photographs and handmade books chart loss, landscape, and the tenderness of domestic space, blending personal storytelling with documentary realism. Summer Sublet, his debut photo book, has recently been published by Deadbeat Club Press. He received a Beth Block grant from the Houston Center of Photography and was awarded Flash Forward from the Magenta Foundation. His work is held in numerous collections, including the University of Virginia and Pier 24 Photography.