What drew you to photographing olive trees?
This body of work was catalyzed by an earthquake [in Spoleto, Italy, where JoAnn and Jim live part-time]. I felt the tremors and had a lot of uncertainty about whether I was going to live or not. So, I went outdoors and ended up in an olive grove. Which was also scary, but being dislodged like that and then feeling that I could stand up with my feet on the ground and be safe led me to engage with nature in a balanced way, beyond any expectation I’d ever had about what balance meant.
What was your creative process like when you tried to capture that feeling on film?
I went for a swim. I’d wake up early and do laps for a half-hour or so in an Olympic-size pool. The first length of the pool I’d be frustrated about some comment that I’d made or someone else had made or some little thing that was itching at me. By the second or third length of the pool, I’d start looking at things floating on the water, and then I’d let go of that and just focus on the light at the bottom of the pool. By the end of the half-hour, all the things that were annoying in my life just went away. Then I’d take a shower, get in my car with my camera, drive to an olive grove outside of town, and just look at the light—and the sky, trees, earth—and allow myself to have no expectations. I had to let go of my natural instinct to be competent, to get to a deeper place and be fully present.
That sounds like a meditative process, putting you in a state of what’s often called “beginner’s mind.”
Yes, if it goes well. I think my work is related to meditation, but I don’t use that word. What I do involves completely clearing out the mind. And when I’m in that zone, I can never tell how long I’ve been there. When I’m with the olive trees, I can’t tell you where I go.
I was listening recently to an interview with singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy in the New York Times (see below), who says that “disappearing” is the most sustaining part of what he does. Do you resonate with that?
Totally. My job is: number one, to show up; number two, to have whatever equipment I need; and number three, to get myself out of the way.
You talk about your pictures as being a portrait of the viewer. How so?
The olive trees as olive trees per se have never been a real interest of mine, but they’ve allowed for so many things to come into the images. Working in olive groves allows me to let go of the distinction between myself as an individual human being and the world in which this body of mine lives. I have the privilege of standing in a natural place and letting go of my ego, to the point where I feel completely integrated with everything: the trees, the moment, the sky, history, the future. All those distinctions dissolve and disappear.
You’re connecting with the oneness of life…
Yes. We compartmentalize everything in order to control it. What I’m talking about is finding a way to work where I let go of control.
So, where does the viewer come in?
The viewer looking at the picture is seeing a bit of me—my attitudes, my philosophy, my way of looking at the world—and yet the viewer is alone at the same time. So, the photograph becomes an invitation for him or her to imagine who I am without hitting them over the head with my ego. It’s a reciprocal act. Something in the photograph expresses something about me through the subject matter, the vantage point, the time of day, and the viewer brings the life, the breath, the moment into the experience of viewing the picture. That’s parallel to a relationship with another person, me in this case. But—and this is really thrilling to me—it’s also true of the viewer’s experience of the subject matter: the olive trees, nature. The viewer brings a unique appreciation of nature to the experience that nobody else has in quite the same way. Because we’re all individuals, we’re all unique, we’re all alone. And that’s a fantastic thing.
For more information and additional photos from JoAnn’s show at the Pace Gallery, go here.