A Conversation with Photographer CHRISTINA HEJTMANEK
Christina Hejtmanek by Tyler Malone & Marie Havens
Anyone who has driven crosscountry knows that simultaneous sense of freedom and confinement when caged in a car on the open road. While driving, your mind loses itself a bit and enters an impermanent dream-state where images and emotions and ideas blur together. The outer scenery and inner landscape merge. A strange mix of excitement and melancholy sneaks up on you when you endure highways and explore the unknown. In traveling along those highways and byways of the United States, the traveler shores up memories, but as many as one holds onto, more are discarded along the American landscape like the ruptured carcasses of rubber tires–forever lost, forever forgotten.
Is this mental detritus truly forgotten forever or stored somewhere in the furthest recesses of the mind? Suddenly, years later, snippets return to you: small poetic moments, little emotional epiphanies, images, ideas, sensations. That’s what we see when we look at the photographs of Christina Hejtmanek: the abandoned anamneses of an unknown journey. Her pieces feel like postcards from a place between places, or stills from a film in which none of the main characters appear and nothing really happens–a deleted scene.
But so much happens in those images–they tell the stories that we create, they are the sensations we instill them with. They aren’t anything dictated or certain–they are ambiguous. To compare these pictures to a place between places or a still in a film, as we’ve done, is to disregard their greatest asset: they are not still, they are moving. There is no stasis in Hejtmanek’s work–everything is liminal, everything is an in-between, but everything is continually moving, changing (even if the photos themselves are obviously immovable images captured on film). They represent an almost rather than a there. They embody that feel-good phrase that tells us that the journey is more important than the destination, and they instill such a mundane cliched maxim with new life and interest.
The almost is more important than the there.
Christina Hejtmanek is all about the almost…
Marie Havens: Your photographic series Almost and Day Without A Name capture moving landscapes, displaced clouds, glowing meadows and reflections of light–documenting various journeys you’ve had throughout America. How did each series begin and how did they evolve?
Christina Hejtmanek: Almost is the title of a catalogue that includes a collection of works from 1998-2007. The publication is also online in its entirety on my website. Day Without A Name was the title of an exhibition that I had in 2009 at Blackston Gallery on Ludlow Street, NYC. The work included in Day Without A Name was shot on a road trip to my place in Marfa, Texas. I always travel to make the photographs and much of the work is shot on the roads throughout the US. The Day Without A Name exhibit is the only exhibition drawn from works that were shot on one trip. Generally I use images from many trips/places to create an exhibition.
MH: I am extremely moved by how your photographs read as impressionistic paintings capturing soft, dream-like moments in time. It’s as if I lose myself in their peaceful and abstract essences. Has art (and specifically: painting) played an integral part in your work?
CH: I come from a painting background. I’m sure that this has influenced the way I approach photography. I think about the medium in a very open way. Though I have a traditional photography education I have always looked for ways to push the process and question the idea of the “perfect image.”
MH: Please tell us about your creative process, and whether you use film or shoot digitally.
CH: I shoot film. Film is so tactile and it has limitations. I love what happens to film if it is pushed slightly beyond its boundary–lens flare, color shifts, and pronounced grain occur and are utilized to create a painterly effect in the images. Turning the inherent technical flaws of the medium into assets.
I shoot while traveling. Hand held long exposures allow the motion of the scene to register on the plane of the film. I work quickly and I shoot a lot of film. When I get the contacts back I go in to the darkroom and make a selection of 11 x 14” test prints. These prints then go up on the wall and from these I make a selection of which images will become editions. I spend a lot of time living with the tests. During the editing process the works naturally fall into groups or themes. The work organizes itself. The final prints are 30 x 40” or 40 x 60.” They are made traditionally in the darkroom.
MH: I am also curious to know if there are stories or symbolism connected to each piece?
Regarding symbolism, I am not trying to relay a literal story. I am interested in the experience that occurs between departure and arrival. I do not set out to dictate a specific narrative. That said, the images, though often fragmentary in detail, do possess a strong sense of place that may suggest an experience recollected. Themes of longing, nostalgic desire, and fleeting memories are implied.
MH: Many of your photographs appear to be taken behind glass, or a window, and reflection, glare, and beams of sunlight are used to enhance the imagery captured. How important is natural light and utilizing reflection in your work?
CH: Shooting through glass and into the light allows me to create the subtle abstractions that contribute to the mood of the images. Glass is a great diffuser. It can be used to bring down the tones of a scene and encourage a painterly feel. Add some rain and grime and you have yet another physical layer to shoot through which creates greater surface texture in an image. On a sunny day pointing the lens through glass and in to the light can create extreme contrast in the form of wonderful lens flare, spectrums, refractions and reflections.
MH: I find camera perspective so intriguing. Many of your moving landscapes are taken at eye-level, the clouds obviously are taken above eye-level, however most interesting to me are the series taken below eye-level within the meadows documenting flowers, long blades of dry grass and perched butterflies. Without question, one feels an immense intimate closeness to nature from nearly a butterfly’s perspective. Your chosen angle to photograph was so powerful, how was this decision made? Were you actually lying down in the field?
CH: Thank you. In many of the images my position while shooting is fixed inside the moving vehicle. I use that experience to transform landscape in a way that is not always possible on foot. With the specific images you mention (fields, meadows etc) I have the ability to physically enter the scene. When I am working within the vehicle I utilize the motion of the car. In the field I need to create another set of tools to work with. In some cases I use the motion that occurs in nature: the wind or rain, etc. The camera angle is intentionally close to the subject matter. I will often flatten the plane of the image to further the effect. A shallow depth of field is often necessary as well. The working parameters change and so does my relationship to the landscape. And yes, sometimes I lie on the ground.
Tyler Malone: Looking at your photographs, they feel to me like stills from lost movies. They’re so cinematic. They project memories, glimpses into unknown stories. In that sense, they remind me of the French film Sans Soleil. Have you ever seen that movie?
CH: Yes, and it’s funny you say that–people have often mentioned movies that they feel my images have some correlation with, and one such is Sans Soleil.
TM: Yeah, because not only in just the cinematic quality of your work, but also there’s a real thematic resonance between the Sans Soleil and your photographs. I just see the same fascinations with, as you say, “themes of longing, nostalgic desire, and fleeting memories,” in that film as in your work. There is that great metaphor of journey. There’s this idea of the fragmentation of images and the disjointedness of memory.
At one point in the film the voice-over says, “I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.” Does that have some resonance with your work? Do you see your photographs as rewrittings, in that way?
CH: That quote spoke to me when I saw the film. It is very intriguing. I am most definitely interested in the function of memory. My images create a sense of place without defining that place. This leaves things relatively open. It is fascinating to me how many people ask me to identify the various locations. “Where is this is” is such a commonly asked question. There seems to be some sort of strong need to know, a need to define. Of course, I’m not interested in the answer. Do people try to figure it out? Recollect their own travels in attempting to identify the locale? I don’t know but it is possible and in that I would think they are drawing from their personal histories and memories. So while I can’t say I rewrite the situation with a defined intent. I think that the work lends itself to the projection/assumption of a (fabricated) history or memory.
MH: Like you, both Tyler and myself have driven across America numerous times and your photographs feel exactly like those incredible moments where, for thousands of miles, the passenger becomes “lost in travel” with no definitive landscape dividing one location from another. As if the journey is more important than the destination. Is this the feeling you wanted to capture? Or were your intentions more defined?
CH: Yes, it’s all about the journey. I love the feeling of the road ahead, space around and the feeling of displacement. I am interested in the “in between” spaces–the emptiness that lies before or after the destination and the possibilities that present themselves in an innocuous, unidentifiable, anonymous space.
TM: There is definitely a sense of liminality in your work. Many of the titles of the pieces have directions, but it is ambiguous direction. Is that intentional? And related to the idea of “in between” spaces?
CH: Yes. I generally create titles that are directional in nature, but ambiguous and open as well. I like those opposing ideas coming together in a name. Some of the titles are specific, but even in their specificity, there is an openness and ambiguity. Oftentimes, the parts of the titles in parentheses act more as signposts to me to remember where they come from. They are usually songs or other things that remind me of a journey. In that sense those are directional as well, but mostly to me, and would have little meaning (or different meaning) to a viewer.
One example: My husband, on one of our trips, was playing this CD with this country song that I wasn’t very fond of, but it became part of that shoot. So I used a song title in the parentheses on the photographs.
MH: You live in two unique and contrasting environments: NYC and Marfa, Texas. How do both places inspire you and your work in different ways? Do you primarily drive to and from?
CH: Having both Marfa and NYC is a great balance. Each place feeds me in a different way, and both are necessary. On the one hand, you have the extreme energy of the densely populated New York. Marfa is the extreme opposite: the vast landscape, the intense light and the smells of the desert, not to mention the slower pace of the west provides contemplative space. My husband and I do drive to and from Marfa. He drives and I shoot. I vary the route each time in order to photograph new areas of the country. I try to cover as much ground as possible. I started working in this way in the mid-1990’s. I have thousands of images from various trips through the US. I think I’d be happiest living in my car on a life long road trip making images.
My energies in NYC are in printing and editing. In Marfa, I generally spend time shooting, selecting images, writing/reading and exploring new ideas when I am there. The days are long and there is much time to work.
TM: Any new work or projects in development?
CH: I am currently working toward an exhibition that opens in September at Blackston Gallery, NYC. The work is more abstract than usual, and I’m really excited by it, but I can’t really give any specifics.
I am also working on a video project.
MH: Lastly, we’ve discussed at length your works emphasis on the journey, on being “almost there”–
TM: And how a lot of your titles reflect this ambiguous directionality–
MH: So at the end of your career, when you’re say 90, will you title your work: There?
CH: No! It will always be almost…
Christina Hejtmanek is a photographer and artist. Her photographs have a painterly aspect to them, and they push the medium slightly beyond its boundary towards interesting abstraction. They explore the liminal states of travel and consciousness, and mine our collective lost memories.
Christina Hejtmanek by Tyler Malone and Marie Havens
Written & Edited by Tyler Malone and Marie Havens
Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
Design by Marie Havens
Returning to Marfa, 2001, 26 ¼ x 40”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
Texas by Dusk (Torn and Frayed), 2007/09, 27 3/8 x 39 ¾”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
Further, 2001/2004, 26 ¼ x 40”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
10 August (Ryusui Kusabana), 2001, 26 ¼ x 40”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
Hwy. 30 South through Arkansas, 2, 2007/09, 30 x 44 5/8”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
To the Ski Basin, 1999/2004, 26 ½ x 40”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
Lafitte VII, 1999, 27 x 40”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
To Miami, 2001, 26 ¼ x 40”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek
White Sands, 2006/2010, 40 x 59 ¾ ”, Photography by Christina Hejtmanek