Written by Zack Seckler
Edited by Sarah Lynn Knowles
Imagine living by yourself in the middle of nowhere — not a living creature in site – and all you have to keep you company is a camera and a good book. This is what photographer Murray Fredericks did sixteen times for up to five weeks each time to create an epic body of work titled SALT. The series is a wonderful collection of still photographs and his journey to create the images was turned into an award-winning documentary.
I discovered Fredericks from his documentary that aired on PBS in 2010 and was immediately drawn to the commitment he had in following through with his vision. It’s not often you find someone who submits themselves to solitary confinement for weeks at a time for the sake of art. Most importantly, the quality of the work is nothing short of stunning.
I recently interviewed Fredericks about creating SALT and a host of other topics. During this interview he discusses a wealth of information about developing a body of artwork, getting funding for a documentary, working with galleries and much more.
Seckler: Where you got the idea to do your series “SALT?”
Fredericks: I was at a stage in my career where I basically transitioned out of being a student and shooting my formative works which were three very long volumes shot over seven or eight years. One was in the Himalayas, one was in Patagonia and the Andes, and the other was Tasmania, the island at the bottom of Australia. Those works were what I’d call pretty traditional works. The photography I was taught was based around a fairly formal, hand-printed black and white, film-based way of working. It was good, as a student, to go through that phase because it nailed down the technique and the craft. But I reached a point where I looked around and thought, “well, this has been done”. I wanted to move on.
The work that still excited me were the images that had more to do with empty space. So I thought about it, and eventually I stripped the whole thing back and said, “Why don’t you just take empty space as the subject?” From there, it was a matter of finding a location. I had been on a salt flat before, so I thought, why don’t I go have a look? I did one trip, and eight years later it became sixteen trips, a documentary and many exhibitions.
Seckler: For people who haven’t seen your documentary, tell us what your experience was all about.
Fredericks: The lake was about 70 kilometers wide and 150 kilometers long. I needed to get out to a point where there were no more features so it was perfect horizon, perfect salt in every direction. I had a lot of gear to get out there, so I got a mountain bike and a little road trailer on the back. I brought all the water that I’d need, which was about 50 liters, all the cameras, the gear, the tent and everything, and I pushed the bike across the 4 kilometers of mud, which surrounded the salt. I’d want to stay as long as possible out there, but I found I could last about five weeks. Every 10 days I’d have to go back and get water, though.
Seckler: What was it about shooting emptiness that resonated with you?
Fredericks: What I’m fascinated with is how I feel —when you stand there in the middle of a salt plane and there’s no feature, no definition – you lose a sense of scale, and you lose a sense of boundaries. Some people would feel overwhelmed or unsettled by this, but I experience a sense of freedom. What I’m trying to do is to allow the all those emotions and sensations to affect the creation of the images. A successful image will convey not just a literal space but a psychic space as well.
Seckler: Can you talk about the technical aspects of producing this body of work?
Fredericks: One of the interesting things about this project was that it started in 2003 and ended in 2010. In 2003, digital didn’t really exist. It was on the horizon; I think you were paying 20,000 dollars for a 1.5 megapixel sensor? Once I worked out what wanted to shoot out there, I quickly found myself on 8×10 film. I chose the 8”x10” because it allowed compositions to be made out of really subtle subject matter – often just simple tonal gradations. I also knew that if the subject was ‘space’ then the exhibition prints were going to be quite large. I chose to work on negative film for the de-saturated palate.
By the end of the project, however, there was an exhibition at Hamiltons Gallery in London, which was two five meter panoramic prints, and they were shot with ‘stitched’ medium format digital back files. One image was eight frames stitched, and the other was 12 frames stitched. This approach was used to widen the field of view. I was continually pushing the project, trying to find new ways of conveying this sense of space and these advances in digital technology opened up possibilities here that were not available using film cameras. On a single-frame shot, there’s only so wide you can go before the lens starts ‘pulling’ the edges so much that the viewer becomes aware of the ‘stretch’. When the viewer is wondering about the photographer’s technique before the central message of the image then I think the image has failed.
Seckler: Did the night shots happen over one trip, and the ones with cloudy skies happen over a different trip? Or was it all mixed together?
Fredericks: I shot everything on every trip. I’d go out and live in the middle of the lake, and what I’d hope for was variation, because that’s what was driving the project forward. One of the big elements of variation was when it rained. Even though you’re in the middle of the desert, when it rains you get an inch of water across the lake, and they were probably the best shots that came out of the series. The water out there is so heavily salted that when the wind blows over it, it doesn’t move. The ultra-saline water has a ‘syrup-like’ quality to it that changes the way it reflects. So I’d start using that, and I’d find it would pick up an extra stop or two of light, which is really significant when you’re working at night. I’d experiment with night-time images when the Lake was dry, on all different phases of the moon. Then suddenly it would rain, and I’d be out there up to my knees in the water in the middle of the night — repeating the shots I’d already done and seeing if the stars and moonlight would reflect over time in the water.
Seckler: Did you bring a good book?
Fredericks: I had four or five with me at any time. That’s what fills the hours. It was great to get hold of a good novel—one that you just don’t have time to immerse yourself in back in urban life, and then read every word. I’d inhabit the world of the book.
Seckler: When did the idea for the documentary come up?
Fredericks: I was doing a master’s thesis, and my supervisor at university said, “You should document some of this stuff on video for your final examination so some of the examiners can get a bit more of an understanding of what you’re doing.” So I borrowed a simple handy-cam from the university, and started documenting the process. There were so many days and so much empty space, and it was a wet visually stunning year as well. Scenes presented that I’d never imagined – like the opening scene of the documentary. Then, I just started playing with the video more and more. It was a great way to learn the medium – a photographer knows how to frame a single shot so the jump to video was framing a series of single shots over time. So that’s how I approached it, and I ended up coming back with all this footage. I showed it to a friend of mine who’s a director, Michael Angus, and he saw it and fell over. He’s was saying, “I can get funding for this. We can get this in the cinema,” and I thought he was crazy. About a year later, we had a commission funded, and the year after that, we toured 50 festivals and won a ton of awards.
Seckler: Tell me about the funding process. You went in with some footage, and then what?
Fredericks: If commissioning editors are going to fund a documentary, they need to see what it is. So you really have to shoot a lot of it beforehand, often 50 percent or more. There has to be the structural bones of the story in a ‘teaser’, and in the teaser there has to be all the different elements [and] characters that are going to be expanded into the documentary proper. Then you have to negotiate the bureaucracy and there’s no way I wanted to attempt that. That’s the role of a producer and why you need to team up with someone. Luckily I had Michael Angus; he’s the director but he’s also the producer. Mick has a great track record. He knows the industry, the commissioning editors, they know him and his reputation is strong.
Seckler: What’s the effect the documentary had on your career as a photographer and fine artist?
Fredericks: You’ve got this empty visual space and an idea – I was just ‘mining’ that idea in that location and the documentary was another ‘possibility’ that became a ‘reality’ out of that. Nothing happens out there, yet we’ve made a documentary out of it!
Touring the festivals, winning awards and all that kind of stuff was an absolute bonus…we never set out with those things as goals so we just took it all as it came and had a good time. The team, which is Mick, Lindi Harrison (editor) and myself, worked so well together that we decided to carry our working methods on into the next project. We’ve been commissioned to do another documentary in Greenland, an even bigger one. Career-wise, it’s allowing us to go further and do far more adventurous or serious things than I could do on my own.
As a documentary on the process of the project, I think it gives the viewers of the stills another level of connection to the work. When collectors, galleries and curators understand where you are coming from and appreciate it, that can only be good for the future.
Seckler: In addition to fine art, you’re an established commercial photographer who’s done a lot of advertising and architectural work. Did that come before the fine art or afterwards?
Fredericks It came quite a few years after my exhibition work had started. I had a few friends who were architects, and one asked me if I could document one of his projects. I had the right equipment and the technical approach to the architectural photography is very similar to landscape photography. I remember taking the first shot, and loving it. I was just like, “This is fantastic.” I was working five, six nights a week waiting tables, working all day in the dark room. I had no social life, and I was just making the rent, let alone having enough money to buy new gear. So, I take a handful of shots for an architect and I’ve made more money than I’ve made in a whole week waiting tables. Not only that, I am working with design, interpreting visually another creative concept and honing my skills at the same time…Suddenly I’ve got my head and my life back, and I can actually focus on what I really want to do, which is the artwork. So that was a no-brainer.
Seckler: You’ve clearly made it work in both fields, and that’s somewhat of a rarity. Has it ever been problematic on either side?
Fredericks Occasionally you start to feel like you’re letting people down. I’ve got a commercial agent, and she would prefer me to be around and be available for jobs and promotion as much as possible. Also, I’m not always available for some of my commercial clients. This year I’m going to be on the road eight [months] out of twelve, so you do feel like it stretches some of the relationships. But I’ve always valued those relationships, and I think it is a bit of a balancing act. Maybe I’m just lucky with th
e work that I’ve chosen for my artwork. Commercial clients love coming to the exhibitions when I have them. They see the work I’m most proud of. Also they’ve all seen the documentary, and I think they really respect what I’m doing.
Seckler: Do you think you would be as successful with the advertising and the architecture work if you didn’t have the fine artwork behind you?
Fredericks I’m at a lucky stage where they both just feed off each other. And once again, that wasn’t my desire. I’ve got four boys and I don’t have a rich uncle or anything, so there’s a real necessity there to make the whole thing work. If you really want to get down to the driving force behind it, I’ve got to feed my family first and make sure all their demands and needs are met. Then I’ve got this bug in my head, the need to produce the artwork, and I know that unless I get the family side of things covered first, I’m not going to get to the artwork. And that kills me. There’s a lot of personal anxiety tied into all of that, trying to balance it all.
Seckler: Do you have any tips for finding and working with a gallery?
Fredericks There are a lot of commercial photographers looking at the art side of things as another market. They look at it with a commercial brain and say, “How do I access this as a business proposition?” There is a side that you can access through your personal work, but it’s probably not going to be the ‘art-historical’ or contemporary side of the art world. To access that, you have to create you have to be an artist, and really, that’s a personal journey for people. Art school will help some people; it won’t help others. Unless you choose a ‘naïve path’, you have
to know the history of the medium and understand the language of the medium. You’re responding to that history when you’re creating new work.
Seckler: What about fine art photographers who want to break into advertising work? Do you have any advice for them?
Fredericks: To hold commercial clients, it’s as much about how you relate to people as your talent. Talent is only a prerequisite. There are a hell of a lot of people out there with the talent who can do it, but it’s all that other stuff that keeps you working. I’ve learned it over the years through making mistakes – basic things like making sure everyone’s expectations on a shoot are achievable and then delivering on those. You really can’t play the moody, petulant artist on a commercial shoot and expect to do well. I think one of the lucky things about waiting tables and working in bars for so long, you kind of learn how to look after people no matter what mood you’re in! You’re working for tips. It’s just simple service. You can do that by treating people as equals too, without demeaning your position. I just treat people the right way, and they respond to that. When they’re on a shoot and they ask me to do something, I always say yes, and then try and talk them out of it if I think it’s the wrong idea later.
Check out Murray Fredericks’ Vimeo page for a sneak peak at his latest project Greenland.