Steve Nelson, associate professor of art

Professor Steve Nelson’s exhibition Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey is a photographic installation comprised of his most recent photographs documenting the tugboat industry in the state of Michigan. I had the privilege to listen to Nelson’s artist talk and experience the installation on view now in the De Pree Art Gallery at Hope College. To follow-up, I asked him a few questions to further the conversation and contemplation of his work.

Here’s what I asked and what Steve said.

Greg Lookerse, assistant professor of art

Greg Lookerse: Your work, on a basic level, is documentary photography, but there is something else behind each image that goes beyond just documentation. What does the process of making a photograph mean to you and how does it relate to this body of work?

Steve Nelson: I consider the work a very personal narrative in that it is an extension of my thoughts and dreams. I start with imagining images, then search for the opportunity to find them by choosing the subject, time of day/night, season or the year, along with other conditions.  

Although the style of photography may seem documentary I approach the project in a very different way than a documentary photographer would. The major difference would be that a documentary photographer would likely have tangible goal to inform or instruct the viewer about the subject of the photograph, whereas I am interested in bringing the viewer on a journey where ‘what is encountered’ brings a level of self-reflection and uncertainty with seeing something unknown in great detail.


GL: During your artist lecture you mentioned three themes in your work; artifact, apparatus and experience. How does the apparatus and aperture of the camera affect your experience of the places you photograph?

SN: By physically viewing the places through the aperture of the view camera, I see the world inverted and backwards.  Of course all images are received in our eyes this way, because of the nature of lens optics, but, for me, seeing the images presented this way is much more aligned with memory, than reality.  It feels more primal where what is encounter while under the hood inspecting the ground glass is both familiar and disjunctive. 

“As a young teen I remember carving a tug boat out of a block of wood, it was fitted with tires from my toy cars for bumpers like I saw on the real tug and was painted red, very similar to the tugs in the exhibition.” — Steve Nelson

GL: I detect a care or love behind your photographs for the subject matter in the work. Did you have a care for the subject before you embarked on this series or is that something that developed as you made the images and visited the places?

SN: Both.  

I’ve always been fascinated by the maritime industry. As a child I grew up in a major port city on Lake Michigan and lived near the channel where commercial vessels pass through, literally towering about the houses in my neighborhood.  This was a very impactful experience. As a young teen I remember carving a tug boat out of a block of wood, it was fitted with tires from my toy cars for bumpers like I saw on the real tug and was painted red, very similar to the tugs in the exhibition. 

By visiting the various sites over the two year working on this project I found great affection for the tugs.  In particular they enduring forms, as ‘little engines that could’ (move great things.) Their personal traits, with the variation of the hulls and other design features made them feel like members of a family, where subtle differences realized through close observation.  As I encountered them over time I became more aware of the differences and familiar qualities.

GL: How do you go about exploring a location to find the image you want?  

SN: Mainly through visiting the site. This was somewhat predetermined by the scope of the project as I decided to work with one fleet of tug boat because I was interested in the long trajectory of this particular fleet and the wide geographic distribution across a familiar body of water (The Great Lakes.)  Some of my access was restricted in time, because of security issues around accessing the site in major industrial complexes. Other sites were more accessible. Both presented challenges, in that I had some ideas about taking photographs in both daylight and at night. Working during the winter allowed me to access the sites at night because I could go onto the ice to take the picture, giving me more perspectives choice and working around security and access issues.  

GL: How many images do you take versus how many you exhibit?

SN: Probably one image exhibited for every two taken. 

GL: There are many ways to interpret the title of the exhibition; The odyssey of the tugs you photographed, your odyssey in going to photograph, and the narratives that the viewer can develop in a careful look at your work. What odysseys are most prevalent to you in the work?

SN: I can’t entirely separate these layers.  Maybe this is because they are all interwoven, as I am both the photographer who took the journey and the viewer.  The odyssey of tugs are probably the most prevalent, because the work would not exist without them.  

GL: The term odyssey carries with it a sense of growth. Odysseus’ journey was a coming home. Is the odyssey you have captured and created one of growing towards and end? What is that end?

SN: Yes, the journey was not planned, meaning the result was never predetermined for the work.  In retrospect, compared to my other recent bodies of work, both of industry with dealing with past operations in mining and manufacturing, this work is most satisfying for me because of my growth capturing and creating a growing narrative, in that the industry is not only the past, but also present and future, which to me is a more hopeful narrative, one that is circular in nature.

GL: Your circular photos seem to have morphed and changed over your career. I would characterize your older circular photos as little worlds. Now the circular photo has taken on a new meaning in the tugboat work. You mentioned the idea of a looking glass or periscope, I cannot help but see a porthole. Do you think that the circular format has found a new way to serve your subject matter in this series?

SN: Yes, they are both portals (into other worlds) or portholes (into a specific existence). In this context they hopefully serve to bring the viewer into the porthole to a dormant existence of a primary industrial form. This serves like a dream motif, to bring subconsciousness into awareness, to move the view from the states of sleep to clarity where the edges fade from the subject.  

“Beyond that my hope is to make work that opens up possibilities in multiple realms, both in the imaginary and real.”  — Steve Nelson

GL: You spoke of how invention is developed to address a need. Are your photographs developed out of a need as well?

SN: Maybe only in fulfilling my creative need. Possibly in that they provide an experience for a different kind of encounter, one that is physically experiential and reflective.   

GL: Speaking further of invention, you described these industrial sights and vessels as fulfillment of individuals’ dreams. Does you work further those same dreams? Augment those dreams? Take the burden of the dream to some other context?

SN: I think that it takes the burden of the dream into another context being one that could be experienced intimately with in the gallery environment.  Beyond that my hope is to make work that opens up possibilities in multiple realms, both in the imaginary and real.   

GL: This may be my own interpretation bias coming in, but do you think of the tugs as people or entities that are fallen? Are you helping sanctify them?

SN: That would not be irrelevant, mainly because you mentioned it.  My earlier comments about the familiar relationships of this particular fleet reflects this interest.  Hum…maybe not sanctify but more acknowledge their fragility and endurance, as well to recognize the limitations of physical form over time with the images of the construction of new tugs in the fleet. 

I would like to thank Professor Nelson for his consideration in answering my questions and for creating this body of work. It is both monumental and quiet. 

Tug: A Great Lakes Odyssey, is on exhibit in the De Pree Gallery until November 8th.

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