Introducing Dana Fritz

Dana Fritz is a fine artist and professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose work centers around cultivated landscapes.  In this interview, she expresses her gratitude to be in the places she photographs and tells us what exactly a landscape is.



Bamboo and Snow, Tenryu-ji

How did you get started?

My mom was an obsessive documentarian and photographed everything we did in our lives. We had mountains of photo albums. There were always cameras around. My mom wasn’t a camera nerd, she just wanted the memories preserved. She was always photographing, so making photographs was normal for me.

 

 

How would you describe your photography?

I make photographs that explore my interest in people’s relationship to nature and landscape.

How did you become interested in landscape?

When I give a lecture of my work, I talk about the ways in which my experiences of nature as a child were framed and bounded in some way: my yard, a park, a camp, a farm. I never had any experience with wilderness or long, unsupervised time in the natural world. I realized this when I met my husband, who experienced hours and days in the woods unsupervised.

 

Do you spend time in the uncontrolled wilderness now?

I do occasionally. I like to be outside, but I’ve come to appreciate formal gardens. For over five years, I worked on a project photographing formal gardens, traveling all over Japan and the U.S. They are an incredible combination of nature and culture. 

Sawara Cypress 1

 

The term landscape implies human vision and presence. There is no landscape without people.

How would you define landscape?

There are a lot of definitions. One of them is what a human can see from a particular vantage point. The term landscape implies human vision and presence. In other words, there is no landscape without people.

Shovel, Biosphere 2

Your portfolio includes a variety of formats. How do you choose a format for a certain photograph?

When I was making Garden Views, I loved the square because it’s so challenging to make an interesting composition. I purposefully switched to horizontal composition when I made Terraria Gigantica. I wanted those photographs to read as landscapes, even though they were all indoors. It was critical that they be horizontal.

By the time I came to Views Removed I felt burnt out with that format. In the past, I’ve approached my projects conservatively. After I was fully promoted, I decided that I would break many of the rules of traditional photography and try out my crazy, secret project which became Views Removed. I had been thinking about historical landscape painting in Europe, the United States, Japan and China.  Those from Asia are often vertical which is quite different from the generally horizontal format of western landscape painting.

Artists are making things that are hand-made and not mass produced, it’s part of our unique vision.

What’s the future of film?

People are pretty alarmist about film. I don’t think film is going to disappear as quickly or as completely as predicted. Recently, I heard the Walgreens in Lincoln will no longer be processing color film. But that service has always been for the general public. Artists are still making lithographs, still working in ceramics. Artists are making things that are hand-made and not mass produced, it’s part of our unique vision and role in society. Artists will always use film and other antiquated technology even if the general photography industry is focused on digital.

Covered Cycad, Nijo Castle

 

How did you become involved with Japan?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in Japanese art and design but it has always seemed inaccessible. In the 80’s and 90’s it was unthinkable to travel to Japan because of the exchange rate. It seemed unattainable, something I could never study in person. Early in my career at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I had the opportunity to participate in a Group Study Exchange through the Rotary Foundation. I was accepted and spent several weeks in Iwate Prefecture, Japan as a cultural ambassador. It was a deep cultural immersion. I stayed in homes of Rotarians, which is a rare thing in Japan, as people generally don’t have homes big enough to host someone. I saw traditional Japanese living. I even learned some Japanese in order to give slide lectures at the Rotary meetings we went to.

Tell me about your current series, Views Removed.

The photographs I’m making for Views Removed are a response to space and landscape composition and ideas throughout history and around the world which relate to constructed landscapes, like gardens and vivaria. I’m interested in the way Japanese and Chinese ink paintings use composition to flatten the image in a landscape, yet still read as a landscape. I wondered if I could make photographs that integrated ideas from painting.  What does it take for us to understand an image as a landscape?

I researched these paintings quite a lot. I found them incredibly opaque at first. Most aren’t based on observation, but on imagination or poetry of famous places. This project is a combination of straight photographs that are ambiguous in space and scale and constructed photographs.

 

I teach those rules to my photography classes and giving myself permission to break them was a big deal.

You’re breaking a lot of photography rules with these prints.

Some traditional photography folks are really uncomfortable with the printing, because the background is as white as the paper. I teach those rules to my traditional photography classes and giving myself permission to break them was a big deal.

Why 20”x8”?

That’s about the limit of what I can do in my darkroom. Some of the ink paintings are that scale. Many of the paintings are quite larger. I’ve seen some that are 8′ tall.

As much as I’m interested in the paintings, I want the work to be read as photographic. I don’t want it to be confused with painting, but to reference painting.

Green Ductwork, Eden Project

 

How did you become involved in the spaces you photographed for Terraria Gigantica?

Many of the gardens I photographed for Garden Views had incredible Victorian glasshouses: 19th century conservatories that held tropical plants. They were an opportunity for release from the dirty, industrial cities of the time. Any person could walk in and see these exotic plants and enjoy the warm air. They had an important cultural presence. I found that places like zoos, Biosphere 2 or The Eden Project are the 21st century versions of large public glasshourses.

Why do you make prints in limited editions?

My goal is to have my work in public institutions so it can be seen throughout the years and be well cared for. Can you think of a better place for your work than a museum? They’re going to take care of it forever with better care than you could give. If you want museums to acquire your work they need to understand that there’s some kind of limit to how many prints are out there. I think a small edition is good. I often make editions of three.

How could I possibly have anything to say coming from such a safe, sheltered, middle class world?

Who have your mentors been?

I had a handful of great teachers during my undergraduate studies at Kansas City Art Institute. My foundations teacher, Carl Kurtz was someone who believed in me. I had this existential crisis when I went to KCAI and met all these people from all over the world who were different from me. How could I possibly have anything to say coming from such a safe, sheltered, middle class world? Carl helped me to understand that I can’t change my background or who I am and that I would make my work from my own particular perspective. 

Black Hills Spruce

 

Photography is one of those areas that, as often as it has people who are into technical aspects, it also often has people who are well read and interested in concepts and examining culture critically.

Why photography?

I started as a photography student at KCAI, but explored a variety of media there and as an intermedia graduate student. It’s not unusual for grad students to try these other things. Everybody wants to make an installation, right? If they approach photography as a means to express a concept, they’re just as likely to venture into other mediums. That was me. My work has always been based on ideas, not materials. The materials serve the ideas. My ideas have always been consistent even since undergraduate school, but I’ve tried to manifest them in different ways. In the end photography is one of those areas that, as often as it has people who are into technical aspects, it also often has people who are well read and interested in concepts and examining culture critically. That’s where I felt at home, not with the technical aspects, but with the ideas and intellectual rigor that came with the photo programs I knew.

What’s the defining characteristic of a good photographer?

Somebody who is always looking, curious and has enough technical skills to make the pictures.

How do you know when a series is finished?

It’s a terrible challenge! It’s hard for all artists to decide to move on. It’s an anxious time, a time when you doubt yourself and wonder if you’re out of ideas.  For me, I know I need to move on when the images start to repeat themselves or I lose the initial passion I had for the ideas in the work.

I am often overwhelmed by my good fortune to be standing where I’m standing.

Exit, Desert Dome

Can you tell me about a memorable moment while you were making a photograph?

I’m lucky to be in such amazing places when I’m photographing. I am often overwhelmed by my good fortune to be standing where I’m standing. I’ve been to many of the world’s best gardens, most beautiful and historically important Japanese temples, and largest glasshouses. I’m overcome with the beauty and weight of history of the places where I am working.

Though I hope to show it in a new way, nearly everything I’ve photographed has been worked on by someone else. I’m impressed by the effort that went into what I’m photographing, whether it’s bonsai that’s been trained over a hundred years, gardens that are 500 years old, or the world’s largest glasshouse.

What do you like best about being an artist?

I’m interested in what I’m doing and look forward to doing it. I like teaching. I like making my work and being involved in a community of artists. I feel so fortunate all the time, even when I’m doing some part of it that I don’t particularly love. In general, I am really happy and fulfilled by my life and my job.

What do you find the most challenging?

Balancing my time; there’s so much I want to do. I try to keep myself mentally and physically balanced so I can do all of it. I make an effort to find time to practice yoga, to sleep, and to eat real food. This is what I teach my students!

What advice do you have for budding artists?

Are you committed to being an artist? If you are, stay committed, find ways to make your work, find time to make your work, do the research your work requires, make time for the community that supports your work. Make it your priority. It’s exhausting! It’s hard! It’s easier not to do all the work! But you won’t get any art made or shown if you don’t do these things.



See more of Dana’s work and follow her on the web



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