Contemporary Photographer Series - Eliot Dudik

from the series Road Ends in Water © Eliot Dudik

Eliot Dudik is a photographic artist exploring history, landscapes and politics. He holds a B.S. in Anthropology and a B.A. in Art History from the College of Charleston as well as an MFA in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design. He was named one of PDN's 30 in 2012 and one of Oxford American's New Superstars of Southern Art. Eliot's work has been displayed across the United States and Canada. Originally from Maryland, he currently resides in Williamsburg, Virginia where he teaches photography at the College of William & Mary. He was recently interviewed by Jessica Blindt for our Contemporary Photographer Series (CPS)

It appears as though your camera of choice is most always a large format camera. With this continual use, are there ever times when you feel encumbered by the process?

For the work I have completed thus far, I have not felt encumbered by the large format camera. I've actually felt the opposite: that I've had everything in front of me that I need to make the image I'm looking for, it's been a matter of recognizing the puzzle to be solved and figure out how to solve it. That being said, prior to moving to Virginia, I found myself surrounded by an onslaught of things I wanted to photograph on a daily basis and became tired of photographing them with my cell phone when I wasn't out specifically shooting with my view cameras. So I purchased a smaller Plaubel Makina 6x7 medium format camera to carry around with me everywhere and make random, everday photographs. This was pretty new for me, and I really enjoy it. I've been accumulating a lot of these images that don't specifically have a home yet, but excited to someday start sifting through them and pulling together narratives. I have some projects planned for the near future that will utilize differing types of cameras. Although I use mostly view cameras in my work, I am a firm believer that a photographer uses the equipment that makes sense for their work. For me, a view camera gives me everything I want nearly 100% of the time. For others, this won't be the case.

from the series Road Ends in Water © Eliot Dudik

In previous interviews, you have mentioned that you think of yourself as a collector. Do you feel that this need to collect and inventory comes into play within your photographic projects?

Undoubtedly. I believe it's the reason I became a photographer, to begin collecting moments and memories. I grew up on a farm with a family who didn't throw anything out because it might be useful in the future. For better or worse, I'm still this way. Now, I'm not only collecting moments and memories, but also ideas. Ideas that are important for me to investigate and try to learn from and that I may eventually share. In that way, the sort of become public journals. 

In Still Lives, you made portraits of Civil War reenactors, while with Road Ends in Water, the focus seems to be on the contemporary topography of the South Carolina lowcountry. Do you feel your work is driven more by historical context or by current events?

I find this question interesting because I actually see my work as equal parts of both. Especially more recently, my work has been based in historic events in order to discuss and understand contemporary circumstances. I find the most direct way of understanding our current cultural or political climate is to look to the past. So I find myself bringing it into my work mostly out of self-investigation and personal explorations, and sometimes it becomes relevant to others as well.

from the series Still Lives © Eliot Dudik

The title of your most recent project, Paradise Road, suggests a location where many of us long to be. Only knowing the name of the road you were to photograph, what were your expectations of what you would find compared to what you discovered? It also seems to call to mind a literary connotations, is there a specific reference for you?

I started the project by mapping out all the Paradise Roads across the country that I could find. As I looked at that map and the vast number of these roads, I expected there to be a wide variety of American culture and landscape to be found throughout all the regions. I've come to realize that there really isn't a lot of diversity from one to the next. I think part of this has to do with the fact that they're all "roads" and not avenues, streets or boulevards, etc. "Roads" often fall in particular parts of American cultural constructions. Furthermore, Americans seem to name roads "Paradise" for similar reasons. For example, I've visited quite a few that were within pretty banal lake communities, and the vast majority of them are far out in the country away from nearly any civilization. Often it is very difficult to find any evidence of culture to photograph on these roads besides the road itself lined with pine trees on either side. I have found a diversity in the length of road and how much ground I have to explore before I can make a decision on what a particular photograph will be. Some Paradise Roads are 5 miles or more long, others are barely 20 yards. 

As for a reference, this project came to me as I was visiting my father in central Pennsylvania, where I grew up, over Christmas in 2013. I was lying in bed one night with a multitude of things running through my head and there was a flash of a street sign that said Paradise Road. This is actually how many of my projects come to me, late at night, lying in bed. It's often either that or while I'm driving long distances. I believe it has something to do with the brain shutting down from many of the functions it is required to do during normal waking hours, and providing space to a particular kind of consciousness that allows us to think about things that were only in the periphery during the day. When Paradise Road came to me, I had been a little stressed about the direction of my career and my personal growth as I entered into my 30's. I think this is why I was thinking about Paradise - trying to understand what that means, what my life was going to look like, and how I was going to manage to direct it, or would I? The next morning I got up and mapped out all the Paradise Roads in the country. I think I had passed a road nearby my father's house called Paradise Road the day before and that was why it was in my subconscious. I went out the next day with my brother and photographed that Paradise Road in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania as the first image for the new project. Early on in this investigation as I was starting to photograph these roads, I realized we all asking these same questions I was asking myself and found this series to speak to our collective desire for the American Dream. So the project has become an attempt to understand what the American Dream is and whether or not it is attainable or something we should even be striving for. 

from the series Paradise Road © Eliot Dudik

Your project Road Ends in Water was photographed in South Carolina, Broken Land was photographed across Civil War battles sites, while Paradise Road was made throughout the entire country. Do you find yourself purposefully expanding your reach outside the American South or was this just happenstance?

It is somewhat purposeful, but not forced. It feels quite natural and exhilarating to me. I've been in the American South since I could truly call myself a photographer. In many ways, I've learned what I know in and from the South. But I've also felt that I need to understand the United States as a whole to truly understand what the South is. So I've begun to not shy away from finding interest elsewhere. The Broken Land series, although understandably often read as being about the Civil War, is about our current political and cultural climate. I felt the divisions have led us to where we are today, more divided than we have been since the Civil War. But my wish was to show these issues that plague our country as not southern issues, but national problems. This is the reason I made a point to photograph little known battlefields that look like they could be Americans' backyards as opposed to well manicured parks, and to photograph battlefields that extend across the country - well out of the South. Paradise Road certainly takes me out of the South and looks at human nature and American culture more broadly. I'm also now working on some photographs along the coast of Maine in the winter that I'm really excited about. Of course, Maine would seem very far from my roots in the South, but I don't really see it that way. In many ways, I see Maine as a kind of South of the Northeast. Of course there are many differences, but there are also many similarities. I am interested in understanding those similarities and differences. Exploring other regions helps me understand exactly what the South is, and maybe it will help all of us. After all, we are one country, although it's becoming harder to grasp that every day.

from the series Broken Land © Eliot Dudik

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