“Everything we build we’ve taken from nature. The ideas, the materials, the way things feel and look. Urban environments are human, but all the ideas and all the concepts come from nature, so there’s a direct correlation between the two.”
Nomadic environmental photographer Sam Kweskin often looks for the intersections between nature and the built environment, both capturing elegant shots of cities and machinery, while subtly highlighting where man is encroaching upon the natural world. He alternates between the macro and the micro, capturing much of his work from an aerial angle, but also observing urban life from a distance, and infrastructure from so close the naked eye fails to grasp the identity of a larger iconic site.
RUINS: Your personal work has a tremendous sense of scale, and a unique graphic quality to it. What led you to aerials and landscapes, and drew you into that graphic approach to the aesthetic?
KWESKIN: When you get up in the air, it really sets the scale, and sets the tone for how big we are in the grand scheme of things. I try to find those places where nature and man are coming together.
How much planning do you put into your shoots in advance, versus how much of it is an instinctive, on-the-fly kind of thing?
It’s a combination of both. I start with an idea of an area, and then it becomes an exploration. In the past, it was very much just—get in the car— or I would just be on a plane and find somewhere new, just kind of stuck with wherever you’re kind of driving through. Now, more and more you can use Google Earth, you can get a little more planned, and be more intentional with what you’re doing. I’d say for the most part it’s kind of random exploration, like on the L.A. River series. I definitely had intentions I was exploring, and the river was my entry point—same with the Corn series.
How do you relate to the urban environment in your work?
In a city environment, I guess it’s a bit more of trying to see the moment before it happens. It becomes a game of trying to predict the future, or lining your self up and trying to get just that right moment.
What do urban environments have in common with nature, having shot both prolifically?
You find similar forms. The urban environment’s what we’ve organized, then you get out to nature and nature’s organized everything. Everything we build we’ve taken from nature. The ideas, the materials, the way things feel and look. Urban environments are human, but all the ideas and all the concepts come from nature, so there’s a direct correlation between the two.
What city has left the deepest impression on you?
Something about Paris has always really resonated. It’s so organized, and it’s so refined, and it’s such a contrast to Los Angeles, where I grew up. It has similar light to Los Angeles in a weird way, but something about the organization and refinement out there is really interesting. There’s something about the fact that most all of the buildings are at one height that really just gives you a sense of horizon that you get in nature, but you rarely get in urban environments. You are able to see this mass of humanity, but then see really far at the same time, just by getting slightly elevated of a view. The clouds seem to roll in more often than not. You get such a variety of light.
How might you imagine the future of cities from above? What do you imagine Paris being like in like, 2050? How will that change the information in the photograph?
It’s kind of stating the obvious, but as the sprawl continues, there’s going to be more and more opportunities for people like myself to find those interactions between the raw nature and where mankind is approaching and taking over.
What do you imagine in the actual infrastructure, and technology, and architecture of the cities, how that will change in the course of the next 35 years?
Inevitably, we’re going up, both physically with the buildings, and more and more with our travel. Even just from the time I started doing aerial stuff, 10 plus years ago, and now, look at drones. Not everyone has the ability to have that perspective, and it’s becoming more and more of a normal perspective for people to experience. I think instead of being on the XY axis, we’re going to have third dimension up there. We’re going to be flying around cars in the not so distant future.
What is the next step for your work?
I’m going to be getting into more work about consumption, and waste. As I’ve seen these cities grow and push further and further into nature, and you see how much stuff is being used. I think we need to find a more harmonious way to interact, and to live, and to consume. Fresh Kills that we shot is an example where you just had these huge lots of space that are just filled with all of our waste. It’s interesting to find a way to reuse that space and turn it into something pretty again. We also really, really need to figure out a way not to be putting that much stuff back into the ground. I don’t want to feel like I was on this planet, and just consumed a bunch of stuff, and just lived a very selfish life.
What struck you the most about shooting Fresh Kills?
I was surprised how big it was, the scale of it was pretty amazing. It was a little haunting to think about all the 9/11 debris in there. I was thinking about some of those ghosts.
Is there anyone who influenced your work, or influenced your decisions to go into photography?
I would say Edward Burtynsky, the contemporary photographer, was definitely influential. I saw his first show about 15 years ago. There is a craftsmanship in his imagery and a beauty, then there’s a thought-provoking side which is very masterful. Also, the photographer Harry Callahan. He was a working class guy from the Midwest that did amazing work shooting the streets of Chicago and the natural environments of the surrounding area. His playfulness with light, form, and texture play heavily in my work. Over 10 years ago I saw a show of his Nickel Tailings series from Canada and it blew my mind. To make work that beautiful, and to inform the public of the effects of our so called progress on the planet in such a way, is a very powerful combination to me.