Interview: Stagnation of Time – Colin Kopp

An introduction in his own words.

I was born in Milwaukee, WI. In high school, my arts practice was focused on painting and drawing. I took pre-college figure and still life drawing classes at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. I was accepted to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2002. I intended to study painting and drawing, but I became really interested in photography. In 2003, as a sophomore, I took a color photography class taught by Alec Soth. He was very supportive, and encouraged me to focus on photography. From that point forward I’ve primarily worked in photography and video. Initially, I only used a 4×5 field camera, but recently I’ve started using a 50 mega pixel digital camera to shoot my personal work. Over the last year, I’ve started adding cinemagraphs to my Phantom Homeland series. In their physical form they exist as large scale animated light boxes (you can see the online versions on my website).

I currently live and work in Minneaplois, MN. I wear a lot of “hats”. When I’m not working on personal projects, I work as a freelance photographer, videographer, lighting tech and photography assistant. I also work for a small record label in my spare time. Some day, I hope my creative work can be my main focus. Until then I’ll continue to work in commercial advertising to pay the bills.

What was it like to have Alec Soth as a professor? What are some of the best lessons/advices he has given to his students?

Alec only taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for a brief period. I was fortunate enough to study with him during one of his last semesters at MCAD. It was wonderful having Alec as a professor. All my professors at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design were amazing, but Alec definitely had the largest impact on my creative direction. He was very encouraging. Until that point, I hadn’t decided to pursue photography. The color photography class I took with him definitely solidified my decision to pursue photography as my major.

When I’m working a photo series I often think of a piece of advice Alec gave me. He said, “all your photos can’t be winners”. What he meant is that you need rises and a falls in a photo series. Just like in a story or a piece of music, a photo series needs quieter moments and big splashes. They’re all a part of building a successful flow.

Do you feel like your original focus of drawing and painting has helped you with your photography? If so, how?

Yeah, as a painter I was most interested in color and composition. I’m kind of a formalist in that way. Those skills definitely translated to photography. That said, one thing that always challenged me as a painter was deciding on a single frame to start with. I could never make up my mind. The act of deciding composition in photography is equally important, but it’s a little more ephemeral. You can try multiple variations very quickly and decide on the best one after the fact. That process came more natural to me.

Was there a specific moment, photograph, or experience you remember that moved you away from drawing and painting towards photography?

I hadn’t experimented much with cameras before College. I had always been interested in photography, but was intimidated by its technical nature. At MCAD every freshman was required to take Photo 1. That class was a turning point for me. I loved it! The following year I took color photography with Alec Soth and the rest is history.

Tell me a bit about your Phantom Homeland series, what inspired you to start it?

As long as I have been photographing, I’ve been drawn to an austere beauty and sensibility of “home”–specifically, the imagery of Midwest blue-collar America. The scenes are typically of a paradoxical nature; pictures of contemporary life that seem trapped in a memory. It is a decaying vision of the past and an uncertain view of the future. Phantom Homeland is my attempt to make sense of these ideas by exploring the process of constructing nostalgia: That complicated mix of an emotion that exists in the spaces between joy, regret, memory, and fantasy.

Is there anything specific you’re trying to capture in the series?

I have gradually been working on the Phantom Homeland series over the past several years. I start and I stop, but I always come back to it. Originally I thought I was making a documentary, but I moved away from that awhile ago. Now I approach my work more like I am making a narrative film. I think of the landscapes as establishing shots; the portraits, interiors, and vignettes bring deeper contextualization to the places I am examining. The work consists of a combination of scenes I have discovered while exploring, and environments I have manipulated or fabricated. I am very interested in the “Midwestern identity” and how it connects to my memories of the towns and cities that dot the pastoral landscape.

How do you know which image fits into it and how do you find them?

It’s hard to know sometimes. My background with large format camera has made me a terrible preemptive editor. I don’t shoot many images. Most of my time spent “shooting” is really just searching. I’m lucky if I find a shot I like. It can be really frustrating sometimes. I don’t recommend this process. Haha! That said, I pretty much know immediately once I’ve shot an image, whether or not it’ll work in the series. Recently, I’ve started scouting places online before I go out shooting. I want to have a sense of the place before I shoot there. Also, I manipulate spaces and fabricate sets to get exactly what I want if I can’t find it as is.

Recently, you started using cinema-graphs for the series, how do you think this changed the nature of it and the story you’re trying to tell?

I don’t think the inclusion of cinemagraphs has inherently changed the work. I was really interested in the cinemagraph as a new hybrid medium. They’ve become very popular in advertising lately, but I hadn’t seen many fine artists using it. So I decided to take the idea of a cinemagraph “offline” and make large scale animated light boxes. I think they’re unique and bring a new dynamic to the work. Freeing the photograph from its static state creates a mesmerizing effect. The infinite loop, where there is no perceived beginning or end, instills in the viewer a sense of being stuck in time or lost in a memory, which I think is referential to the imagery in a Phantom Homeland.

What is your process like when working on commercial advertising versus when you’re working on your personal projects?

It depends on the project, but there isn’t always that much creative freedom when you’re working for a client. On a commercial job my goal is to make the best looking images based on the clients parameters and vision. Having forced constraints is nice sometimes. It can be a welcomed break from my personal work which often feels very open ended.

The processes are very different. 90% of my commercial work is in a studio setting. We mainly use strobes and hot lights. It’s very controlled and precise. My personal work is made mostly on the road in less controlled environments. I primarily use daylight, practical lighting, and sometimes I’ll add strobes or hot lights if needed.

How do you find balance (creatively and time-wise) between your commercial work, freelance work, and personal work?

It’s tough sometimes, but my time freelancing in the commercial industry has made me a much better photographer, which has definitely carried over into my personal work. And thankfully, as a freelancer, I have a lot of freedom in determining my own schedule. That said, there are definitely moments when I wish I had more time to focus on personal work.

What are some of your goals with photography?

I’d really like to be commissioned/hired for commercial and editorial jobs that are more aesthetically in tune with my personal work. That’s the dream. I’m also working on completing Phantom Homeland, and I’m working with a gallery in Minneapolis to show the series late this year or early next year.

Would you have any advice for aspiring photographers? If you had to start all over again, what advice would you give yourself?

Just enjoy it, especially if you’re still in school. Experiment as much as you can. Find a mentor and stay in touch. Don’t worry too much about taking amazing photographs. Just shoot! All of your photos can’t be winners.

Photos Courtesy of Colin Kopp



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