An Interview with Spotlight Artist: William Eric Brown
By Steve Miller
Steve Miller: This issue is about “risk.” And when I saw your photos, I was struck by the date they were first taken by your father in Antarctica in the 1950s.
William Eric Brown: Yes.
Steve: The world is so different now, and losing this world of ice is now our biggest, inevitable, risk. Was this a factor in your selecting the images?
Eric: I've had these images in my life and memory for a long time; more recently in my possession. My father scanned his slides of Antarctica (he was on an icebreaker there during his career in the US Navy) about ten years ago and he sent me a digital copy and I was trying to figure out what to do with them. I always wanted to work with them, and then as I started making these artist books, it seemed like the time to deal with them. At the beginning, I wasn’t thinking about climate change, or the environmental aspect of these, but as I worked with them, it became evidently clear that that was part of the subject matter. Because it was something that was just so present in collective minds these days, it became something that I definitely thought about and in doing so did choose some of the images over others and that became an underlying theme: the icebergs and the broken ice flows. But it didn't start that way, but as things happen with me, they don't ever end up the way I initiate them. So it was one narrative arc that evolved as I created this book.
Steve: Work process is about evolution and because of the context and the timing today you just can't ignore a world that has environmental risk.
Eric: Exactly.... and then certain images play up stronger with that in mind.
Steve: There is another risk I saw when I was thinking about your work in your studio. It's the risk of messing with your fathers images.
Steve: On some level it's Freudian, whether you mean it or not. I also think it's a technical challenge, so what were you thinking?
Eric: One of the biggest risks for me in working with my father’s images was to keep this from being too nostalgic. Not to make the book and the work have that overarching tone. So that, to me, is always a risk. Try to make something that's going to be a little bit more broad reaching or accessible and not just about my relationship to my father. These images were part of a regular slide show that he would present to our family and friends that came over to the house while I was growing up. They are something that I am so familiar with, and then I come at them again from a totally different point of view where I can put my imprint on them, which was something unexpected. I never thought about working with these images until he started the conversation and wanted to transfer them to a digital state. And I just said, “send me copies.” Then it started the ball rolling.
Steve: But did he think you were going to play with them artistically?
Eric: No, not at all. I just sort of relayed that I was interested and wanted copies of them. I still need to show him the book so, that will be an interesting interaction to see what he thinks.
Steve: There's so many ways you could use language around this. One, it's a collaboration. That would be an interesting way to think about it. If you start to go into the psychology of your action, you can think about superseding your father. You're the next person that lives. You put your imprint on his images where there is an emotional risk involved.
Eric: Yeah, there totally is. What does that imposition mean, and why?... like the "why" of it is huge for me. I always was attracted to these images not only because they were familiar but also because the images were about desolation and isolation; the boats in these vast expanses of water and ice and the floating icebergs, the otherworldliness of that part of the planet. And that it was my father’s point of view in these pictures and then I come in and add my marks to them and make them mine.
Steve: I think they work well because they are formally beautiful and the combination of family, environment and global impact coming together at once really makes a complete aesthetic experience.
Eric: Well there's a lot to sort of chew through with that. I'm not obliterating the images but I'm adding to them. I'm creating filters and screens in my own hand and mark making. Like you said, it does become a sort of collaboration, which is very interesting to think about, you know?
To discover more of William Eric Brown’s work, read our newest 21st issue on Risk.