Jim Snitzer by Annie Zimmerman

Posted on February 26, 2011


Q: First off, I’d like to discuss the ideas that started these kinds of simulated landscapes. From the sparse amount of information I could find (and hear) about you, I know of two interests that have been with you since the beginning of your career. Could you explain the origin of your interest in Yosemite National Park? Specifically, what interests you (and keeps you interested) in it, and how it has evolved over the years, especially after your residency there?


A: Since I grew up in California, I was very familiar with Yosemite as both an actual place and it’s connection to western landscape photography.

Early on I had used images of Yosemite in a few artist’s books and an installation. At that point – and for those projects -I think the images just functioned as a kind of generic/iconic reference for a/the landscape.

Before I was at Yosemite as a visiting artist, I had become interested in a number of ideas regarding the use of photography that seemed to be in the air at the time: specifically, the relationship between image and text, the collapse between high and low art and Baudrillard’s observation that our representations had eclipsed our actual experience. After looking through the Park’s Museum collection of art and artifacts, I began making tableaux (or very crude dioramas) that juxtaposed ­and blurred- the relationship between fine art, commerce and natural history. It wasn’t until much later that I made realistic models of specific places ­ Yosemite and Machu Picchu being the most ambitious.


Q: Next, your inclination to create models of landscapes and photograph them: What are its origins, what specifically interests you and keeps you interested, and how have these interests have evolved over the years?


A: I was always interested in the early landscape photography (Frith,

Muybridge) and the themes of exploration (and it’s aftermath), but since I didn¹t seem to have the time ­or the temperament- to photograph them, I began making models of recognizable, but generic landscapes to explore some of those themes. Later on, they became more specific, and were attempts to replicate very specific images that we were all familiar with.


Q: Could you elaborate on specifically what interested you with these themes, “exploration (and it’s aftermath)”?


A: Historically, I think our perceptions of the landscape are as informed as much by idealized (and often romanticized) myths as they are by representations in popular media. Nineteenth century America was obsessed with the relationship between nature, human destiny and progress. The idea of the power of nature and our power to control it is something, which is ingrained in our culture. When it was no longer a threat, it became something to protect, like an exotic pet. Now it’s seen and promoted as a special occasion or entertainment- nature as theme park. The landscape is now a mediated one, where second-hand experience has replaced our actual experience.


Q: When you are creating illusions of truth in your work, what tools do you use to ensure the belief of the viewer?


A: The images have always been untitled, though I have usually provided a statement that quotes Baudrillard as a starting point. The earlier images had text floating in the sky as a kind of authoritative, all-knowing voice to direct the viewer’s understanding.


Q: Do you have a certain eye level or type of image in mind?


A: What seems to be culturally ingrained regarding our relationship to the landscape is the idea of seeing nature more clearly is to come closer to the divine. The postcard view tends to idealize that as an intellectual abstraction. The all-knowing eye (like the all-knowing voice in the sky) is a form of parody.


Q: What are your thoughts on how strong the illusion holds within your images?


A: Much of what I do is hidden from the viewer, so the idea that my images might “pass” is intriguing to me and questions what are culturally constructed conventions and/or expectations.


Q: Now, if you would allow me to ask you some technical questions about your landscapes. My desperate searches for cheap materials have yielded few results, besides using found materials such as plants and rocks. Do you have any specific materials that you would recommend (inexpensive or not)?


A: In terms of materials, model train scenery has proven to be the best for my needs, especially because so much of it comes in different scales. I’ve also done a lot of mold-making and casting in order to augment what’s available commercially. I know that the chain hobby and craft stores have a lot of unusual stuff, but there’s not always enough in terms of variety to create a coherent pictorial environment.


Q: Any names of good model train stores or catalogs?


A: The largest supplier that I’m aware of is Walthers. They carry products and props manufactured by several different companies. There are also a lot of small specialty manufacturers that you might find at either large, retail model train stores or at the occasional tradeshow/swap meet in your area. You also might want to try and locate a local model train club or find a model train magazine for other sources.



Q: What is your process? What kind of lights do you use and how many?


A: My studio is a 3-car garage and the models range in size from table-top

(4’x5′) to room size (10’x20′). They’re built in front of a view camera and thus far shot on film. I have a motley selection of new and tragically old hot lights. I might use up to 10 or 12 lights and, with long exposures, walk around to vary the exposure times for each light. (I know that this sounds crazy, but I haven’t made these images for a couple of years, and there wasn’t a good digital alternative at the time. More importantly, though, these images always seemed to rely on the “straight” photograph to maintain any tension in the viewer’s mind regarding their believability, so I generally shied away from making them by compositing digital components.


Q: I hear that you now have models taking up much of your backyard. What are they of and why did you start to make them outside of the studio?


A: Since I had spent so much time on building the last 2 models, I didn’t want to just destroy them. That meant that I spent an additional several years learning how to make molds and cast them into various materials that would survive the outdoors.

The 3 that are in my yard are Yosemite Valley (with running waterfalls), the Pyramids, and the (prematurel) ruins of Machu Picchu.


Q: What do you mean “prematurel”?


A: By premature ruins, I meant that I lost some of the architectural detail when we cast that model ( we tried slightly simpler mold-making technique and a different casting process), so that it appears to be in an abandoned state of decay rather than the manicured state that the site is actually in today.


Q: Do you find that building a larger model helps the final result? Or are you just making them big because that is the most available scale in the materials you are using?


A: Part of it is what’s manageable within the confines of my studio; part of it is the scale of the materials (and sometimes the props) that are available. It also allows me to suggest a grand, sweeping view while simultaneously (at least in the in the later models) hiding my hand a little bit more.


Q: Do your models that you’ve kept serve any kind of purpose now? Do you plan to perhaps continue photographing them, working on them, or include them in a show?

A: I made a set of theatrically illuminated images of the outdoor models that were printed as gravures. These were attempts to replicate both the look of the early photographs of those places and to acknowledge the often mythic quality that they – or that we wanted them to – embody. My hope is that I’ll be able to figure out how to make a faux Google Earth flyover of them in the future.


Q: Also, one last group of questions about where you are now: What were your goals and expectations when you were graduating from college? What advice would you give me (or do you give your students) in terms of success in the field of fine art photography?


A: At the time, I had a vague idea that this is what I wanted to do, but in retrospect, I don’t think anyone knows what their future will be – or what it will entail. Although there are a lot of opportunities now, it’s also a very competitive field. While you’re in school, being dedicated to your work and developing a strong foundation from which you can continue to develop your work is critical. After that, it’s just like real life – luck and coincidence can often provide unexpected opportunities.

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