I’ve known photographer Dan Farnum since pre-school in Saginaw, Michigan. We grew up sharing many of the same experiences, and in college we both turned to artistic pursuits. And although we hadn’t always remained super close throughout the years, we’ve kept in touch, mostly meeting up with friends back in town for the holidays. After seeing his photographs on his website, I realized that he was wrestling with many of the same issues that I was in my poetry: the American experience, landscape, and culture, especially as viewed through the lens of our hometown, which is poor and violent and stands in the shadow of a failed auto industry.
In his most recent series Young Blood Dan turns his eye toward Michigan’s urban youth. Over the years, he has shown his work in exhibitions and galleries in San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York. He received his MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and BFA from the University of Michigan, and is now a professor of photography at the University of Missouri. Recently, I caught up with him to discuss Michigan, skateboarding, and the art of photographing strangers.
Frontier Psychiatrist: Your Young Blood series features portraits of Michigan’s urban youth. Where did the idea come from?
Dan Farnum: As you know, I was born and raised in Saginaw and have personally witnessed how the economy affected family and friends. So I have an investment in this region that I feel allows me to view the location in a more intimate manner. I focus on youth in particular in this region since they are the primary people who either have the ability to change urban communities or perpetuate the problems. Something positive that is happening in some urban neighborhoods is community farming and gardening. On the other hand, my hometown is known as having the most violent crimes (per capita) in the country for almost a decade. Much of the crime is associated with young people.
My background as a skateboarder is also an influence. I used to skate in several of the places I now photograph. I feel as though I am documenting a personal history as well as making a broader cultural statement. There is a lack of supervision in these kinds of locations that is great for skateboarding, but tends to also facilitate mischief. My teenage experiences serve as a common thread to open discussions with many of my subjects. This ability to bond with people helps them feel more comfortable while I take their portrait.
FP: From my understanding, all of your subjects are people you happen to encounter in these spaces while you’re walking around. What makes you decide to approach a certain subject? And has anyone you’ve approached ever turned you down?
DF: My choice to approach someone to create a portrait is based upon a few things. One of the primary things that I look for is the peculiarity of the situation. I’ve found that under populated urban spaces typically are sights of unexpected moments. For example I ran into a guy who hooked his electric guitar up to his car for power and was performing songs while facing a vacant building. Not all of the run-ins are this abnormal, but typically there are moments that contain some type of irony or surprise. I also look for how people fit into their surroundings. So clothing, demeanor, and age are some factors I consider in relation to their environment. I don’t want this to be a “ruin” project, but I also consider the architecture and landscape around my subjects. In general I am looking for people and places that challenge preconceptions of places like Detroit and Saginaw. Ultimately this project deals with stereotypes in regards to both people and place.
Most of my subjects are strangers. I actually have a high success rate with people who are willing to be photographed. Something that helps a lot is actually the equipment I use. I mostly shoot with a 4×5 field camera. People tend to be interested in what I’m doing since I look like I stepped out of the 1800’s with a cape on (the dark cloth). I usually approach people as if I just happened to run into them while photographing something else. I don’t actually ask to take their picture until mid-way into the conversation. My subjects seem to eventually understand that I am not taking advantage of them and realize I am not from the news, police, or just some freak. Occasionally people do say no. I equate it to dating though…if you are turned down then it wasn’t meant to be so I move on to someone else. At this point in the project there are a handful of people that I encounter over and over again. I usually re-photograph them every time I see them. There are a few boys in Saginaw specifically that I have a connection with. They actually get their friends to participate now too.
FP: What kind of story do you think this series tells?
DF: I am interested in how a place defines experience and life choices. Sometimes residents aren’t making the right decisions, but they are usually just misguided rather than bad people. Hard circumstances can force someone into suspect choices. I also want viewers to see how individuals are working together to overcome challenging circumstances. The region and Detroit especially has such a bad reputation. Also, this area is usually shown as a vacant wasteland. Once viewers on the outside see a human presence in these places it is easier to identify with the problems urban inhabitants are facing. I don’t ignore distinct problematic issues and paint a romantic light on the situation, but I do want to position my subjects in a way that dissolves fear and prejudices.
FP: For all that Detroit has been photographed in recent years, the focus is often “ruin porn”—pictures of abandoned factories and empty lots. I admire how you feature the human element. Have you always been interested in portraiture?
DF: For many years I was exclusively a landscape photographer. When I decided that I wanted to go back and do a project about my home state I knew that I needed to expand the conversation regarding Detroit and the region. There is an overabundance of images that exist describing the abandoned land and buildings. It was particularly seeing Andrew Moore’s Detroit Disassembled book that solidified for me that I must shoot portraits. I actually like Moore’s work, but am aware of how it reinforces negative expectations. For cities like Detroit and Saginaw to improve, it is important that viewers do not see them as empty lost causes. They are really more like blank canvases waiting for creative people to repurpose them.
I did shoot some portraits for a project called “The New Country” that I did just prior to “Young Blood.” “New Country” focused on modern activities in rural spaces. It combined landscapes with people. “Young Blood” is more predominantly a portrait project, but I do feel that the environment around my subjects is still important. I feel like I worked through some personal hang ups in regards to shooting people in “The New Country.”
FP: Are you continuing to shoot Young Blood images or have you moved on to another project?
DF: I am still working on the project. Since I live in Missouri I am not able to continuously shoot in Michigan. I make frequent road trips on holiday breaks and in the summer though. Luckily I have these built in breaks in my schedule as a professor. I can easily see “Young Blood” going for a while longer. I’ve also thought about shooting similar work in Saint Louis and Kansas City since they are both close by. I could see the work in Michigan as a chapter in a bigger project about youth in violent neighborhoods across the country. Memphis is also drivable from where I live, and I used to live in the Bay Area and have contacts in Oakland. I’ve also been considering starting another unrelated landscape project around Missouri. I like to have more than one project going at a time.
FP: Do you have any current or upcoming exhibits?
DF: I currently have a solo show at the University of Toledo specifically on urban farming. I also have upcoming “Young Blood” solo shows at the University of Wisconsin and Coastal Carolina University within the next year. This year has been really busy and rewarding. I had solo shows in Georgia, Grand Rapids, and Portland. I am also finalizing dates with a commercial gallery in Chicago to show another body of work called “Growing Up” during winter/spring 2013.
Gina Myers is a staff writer and the author of the poetry collection A Model Year. In addition to writing music and book reviews, she has also interviewed many indie writers and artists, including James Tadd Adcox, Dan Magers, Brian Oliu, Justin Sirois and Graham Foust.