The Swiss-born artist will work on a new photographic archive of California in the 21st century and contribute to the Center’s ArtsWest Initiative.
By Geoff McGhee
We are pleased to announce that Lukas Felzmann has joined the Bill Lane Center as an affiliated scholar for the 2018-19 academic year. Felzmann, a Swiss-born photographer, installation artist, and educator, comes from Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, where he has been a lecturer of art for 25 years.
This spring, Felzmann received a Guggenheim Fellowship that will enable him to work at the Center on a new photographic archive of California in the 21st century. The project will take him around the state by car and on foot, in search of life as it is. That collection of photographs made with medium and large format film will lead, he hopes, to a series of new books about the state.
The Meeting of Nature and Humankind
It’s a common cliche that Felzmann’s native Europe bears the heavy imprint of millennia of human activity, while North America offers wild and unspoiled vistas. But Felzmann, who arrived in the United States in 1981 to study at the San Francisco Art Institute, shows through his work a continent – particularly the American West – that has been heavily modified by humankind as well.
“This is very much about humans,” says Felzmann, “how we interact and internalize nature. Although many of my images have a a sense of the serene or even romantic they are quite conceptual and describe our modification and control of nature.”
An inheritor of the mantle of fellow Swiss photographer Robert Frank, creator of the iconic photo book “The Americans,” Felzmann says he is also influenced by the work of 1970s “land artists” like Richard Long, and Robert Smithson, as well as composers and installation artists.
“I feel a strong affinity to sculpture,” he says. “I feel that my practice comes out half out of photography, half out of sculpture.”
Felzmann approaches books as sculptural objects as well, and one of his published ones that made waves in recent years was his 2011 book “Swarm,” a series of 115 photographs of migrating red-winged blackbirds. Flocks swarming the skies of the Central Valley were photographed in stark black white against a largely featureless sky and sequenced across the pages of the book like an “aerial ballet.” Felzmann says he was struck by how “so many people could relate to it,” and how it was integrated into works by a dancer, a fashion designer, a Christian monk, a composer, and a scientist doing research. “Bird flight is a magical thing,” says Felzmann.
Works like “Swarm” are emblematic of Felzmann’s unconventional artistic vision. His 2015 book, “Gull Juju,” came from several trips to the Farallon Islands, where he discovered the scientist’s collection of manmade objects – a broken toy car, a credit card, a tampon applicator – regurgitated by seagulls returning from the mainland. “I’d say my influence is more Robert Adams than Ansel Adams,” says Felzmann of the photographer known for the 1970s exhibition, “The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.”
Other works, like in his 2004 book “Landfall” and others, depict fractured landscapes – a road engulfed by a flood, an abandoned guard house capsized, canted on its side in an empty field, a felled tree at the bottom of an eroded hillside with a lonely oak atop it.
It is in service of this unconventional vision that Felzmann will traverse the state. He aims to start by limning the short distance between Death Valley and Mount Whitney – the lowest and highest points in the continental US, he points out – and will follow that by exploring “the mountains, the deserts, the Central Valley, the coast, the islands. I think of this work as a conceptual atlas, and I will reformulate the categories as I am working,” he says. “Getting to know something can happen through a process of refining categories.”
For Felzmann, who in his long career has worked in editorial photography with future stars like George Steinmetz (Stanford ‘79), says he respects the skill of commercial photographers who have to be able to capture a successful image under pressure.
Teaching and Working at Stanford
As part of his work with the Bill Lane Center, Felzmann is exploring possible course offerings that celebrate photography in the American West. One idea, says Felzmann, is to teach a class where people build or appropriate an archive themselves and transform it into a book or installation.
To learn more about Felzmann’s project and to follow his work, watch for a public presentation on campus at Stanford this fall. The event will form part of the third season of the Center’s ArtsWest Initiative, which will be devoted to programming on photographic art. Felzmann will also contribute to ArtsWest this year, consulting with its coordinator Marc Levin on a series of programs on exploring western themes through the lens of contemporary photography. According to Levin, “Lukas brings a trove of artistic insight to ArtsWest and will be a great asset to our expanding portfolio of programming on western arts.”