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Margaret Stratton, Iowa Artist

posted on July 8, 2008 at 5:40 PM

Iowa City photographer and University of Iowa Professor, Margaret Stratton, creates images that make us think about odd juxtapositions of place, ritual, and human activity.

Margaret Stratton: I think that one of the characteristics of a really good photograph is it makes you see the subject of the picture in a way you've never seen it before. And so it becomes almost like you have interpreted it to your own camera and brought that interpretation to your audience. And some people just have a knack for it. Composition is so important if you know how to compose and for some reason it just comes naturally to me, I don't know why. But if you compose something properly it's going to be so much more powerful. I mean, three steps to the left, three steps to the right, just moving the camera up or down can make the image really sing.

Margaret Stratton: I've always been really interested in what you would call terribly beauty which is the beauty of the sublime and it's a beauty you have to dig for. It's not surface beauty, it's a little harder to find and a little harder to categorize, maybe even to live with but it's what I'm interested in.

Margaret Stratton: And so I've made a series of photographs of prisons in America that were abandoned and it kind of started me out on thinking about how human beings occupy architecture once they have left it. Of course, they occupy it when they are in it too. But once it has become ruined it still bears the vestiges of those that occupied it and it still reverberates with the experiences of those that live within its walls. I wanted to continue my work with places that had this feeling of the soul still present, kind of hovering in the air. I've always used my family as a creative source and a lot of artists do. And for me it was not only their photographs that I borrowed but their literal possessions. I grew up in a house that was filled with the objects that were accumulated by Depression era parents. And so they had a proclivity to collect and not to discard. So, when I went back to their environment I looked around and I couldn't believe the weird taste they had. It was just strange. And so I started thinking about how I should start photographing their stuff and so indeed I did. And I took a piece of black velvet and put it in the basement and took a couple of lights and set it up and began carting boxes of their stuff down to the basement and making pictures of it. It's called Inventory of My Mother's House. It was 115 photographs of objects from their house.

Margaret Stratton: This is my first camera that I ever had and it's called the brick, basically, and I think pretty much everybody's dad had one of these. I inherited this from my dad about 1968 or so. And I could shoot with it now but I really don't make 35mm negatives any more because the quality isn’t' sufficient to make them large. And so I shoot 4x5 or 2 1/4 film and then I scan it actually and print it digitally. There's a little bit of purply but it's not so much that it bothers me and I probably got a little pop out of my grass. You know, the sky was pretty crazy. I went down to photograph this place. It's outside Seattle Proper, it's called the Duwamish area. This is the Duwamish slew and it was ordained a super fun clean up site because it was so toxic. And this kid in the developing lab that I was getting my film developed she saw my work and she said, well have you gone out there? I said, no. So, I went out and was getting ready to make this picture when this fella showed up and got out his McDonald's lunch and started eating lunch and I was just like, oh great, this is perfect, kind of the native in the wilderness only it's the McDonald's lunch eater, it's the picnic at the toxic dump site. And he turned to me and he said, well, why are you taking photographs because it isn't really beautiful? And I said, well, because it's really important to show people what is happening with the natural world and you're sitting here eating your lunch and you know what it looks like here and that they've had to clean it up because of problems that resulted from carelessness in industry and yet nobody else may know that or people in Iowa may not know that because this picture was made outside Seattle. And he seemed to think that was a good enough answer and he went back to his lunch.

Margaret Stratton: I was a black and white photographer for 20 years, 24 years or so and now I'm doing color and it's partly because I'm allergic to the chemicals in black and white and you can send the color out to get developed. But it's also because I really want to make color photographs and I'm interested in -- when I'm shooting I'm looking at the color and I see it in color now instead of black and white.

Margaret Stratton: And I've always had a really strong sense of place. I'm from the West Coast and I've lived in Iowa for 21 years. And so places are very clear, the edges of places are very clear for me and so I drive back and forth between Iowa and Seattle and I see these things and so I thought, you know, I think it's time to start taking photographs of the landscape instead of interiors. And I'm really excited because I think that I'm finally kind of putting two things together which is thinking about things that are important to me politically as well as being able to make interesting photographs as well as being able to be in the West because that's where I'm from and I miss it.

Margaret Stratton: I'm using a panoramic camera and I just love it, I'm having such a good time. And what I'm doing is talking about the pretty much age old topic which is man versus nature and man's impact on the land and who owns the land and how do we construct the idea of wilderness and how do we construct the idea of recreation and how do we construct the idea of city. And these are all issues that I think are coming to a head because of global warming.

Margaret Stratton: Why do I like to teach? I guess because I was such a hard student -- it was hard for me to be a student when I was a student. I struggled and so I understand what it's like to struggle and so that's one reason. But the other reason is it keeps you young, although I know I'm not exactly old, but those kids I'm their parent's age but they don't think of me that way because I'm not behaviorally that way. And so it's really exciting to be with a bunch of people that care about what they're doing and that want to take their ideas and make them concrete and that's what you do, at least when you teach photography.

Margaret Stratton: I think the hands on quality of photography is, in a sense, a kind of democracy because you can go to Walgreens and get yourself a little camera with film in it, it's in a box literally, and go and make photographs of whatever you please and take it back to whatever place you want to get it developed and you can make photographs no matter who you are almost. And so you can put your hands on that technology at all sorts of levels. And so that's pretty powerful, don't you think?


Tags: art artists Iowa Iowa City photographers


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