I first met Colin Stearns in New York around 2008, where we worked together in the Photography Program at Parsons. I was immediately a fan of his first book, Meridian, published by RITA in the fall of 2015. Small and full of deceptively simple, yet elegant black and white photographs, Meridian at first glance, reads as a traditional photobook. However, through beautiful sequencing and a series of semi-transparent images, the book unfolds as a more complicated meditation on memory, emotion and landscape.
His second book within a three book series, All That Cannot Be Said was just released by Kris Graves Projects. Departing in tone and place from his first book, All That Cannot Be Said shows the dark, layered, and often broken urban landscape of New York City. I recently talked with Colin about his process and the new book, which can be found at Kris Graves Projects or Photoeye.
There will be an official book launch on May 11th from 6:00pm - 8:00pm at Rubber Factory in New York City's Lower East Side.
Interview by Joy Drury Cox
Joy Drury Cox: To start off, can you talk a bit about your process and the photographs in All That Cannot Be Said? What was the timeframe of the image making? How did you approach the editing process?
Colin Stearns: Much of the way I work comes from constantly making images. I'm not sure when this body of work began, precisely, but somewhere in 2013 I knew I was working on a series of photobooks. At the time, I was at a personal crossroads, coming to terms with many things, and this moment shifted my creative process. I wanted to make a photobook that really dwelt on a dysphoria, and I knew that a singular book could not handle the depth of the emotional transition that I wanted to depict. All That Cannot Be Said is book two of three, and it’s where the character believes that everything good is probably gone and that the damage this is done is likely irreparable. Those two words, ‘probably’ and ‘likely’ are important, and they drive the choice of the images, edit, layout and then the narrative.
Drury Cox: Do you think that knowing you were going to make a book changed your approach to photographing? If so, how?
Stearns: Without a doubt. I now think a lot about musicians and writers, how they go about creating the pieces to their puzzles to convey meaning. I’ll often know where I want to take someone but I need to help them get there. So much now I see images as words and I place those words to tell the story. It’s funny for me, laying out the book, I’d think, I need another busted car here, time to go find one. Which in some ways is a strange way for me to make work.
Drury Cox: What’s behind the title, “All That Cannot Be Said.” The images waiver on feeling so very silent, while at the same time looking so full, so descriptive, so visually loud.
Stearns: This being the second of three books, it sits in the middle. I think about those times where so much has happened and for a brief moment there is nothing to say, the moment that also sits in the middle. Those moments are frequent, slivers of time that rarely get examined or coalesced into a larger experience. I wanted to take an utter moment of silence and make it loud, to make images and a story about that space. Or to take many of the moments over years and put them all together and to see the rhythms.
Drury Cox: Throughout the book, there are a series of repeating motifs - open books, flowers, tied markers, busted cars and missing signs - to mention a few. I see these operating as both literal evidence of the urban landscape continually in flux, but also as symbolic markers. How do you see the interaction between the literal and the poetic in the work?
Stearns: It's hard for me to extrapolate the literal from the poetic, maybe that’s the book right there. I see the repetitions as symbolic markers, the significant moments when the landscape reminds you that you are correct in your suspicion of things; all things are loosely tied together, going missing and falling apart.
Drury Cox: I find this idea of the landscape reminding us as quite intriguing,especially considering the repetitive patterns and paths that most of us use on a daily basis. Building off these idea of repetition, I see two related but different visual explorations of time at play in your work. One is the literal repetition or re-photographing of the same subjects over time. The other is carried out in your use of formal, visual similarities across different environments. The book’s sequencing highlights a curious and slightly disorienting sense of time, re-seeing but also re-looking is required. How do you see time functioning both in the images but also within the structure of this book?
Stearns: With Meridian, I sought to manipulate time with premonitions and echoes of ideas but this was done with printing. In All That Cannot Be Said I wanted the same effect but chose to do it with subject matter. Flowers are a motif I come back too often in this book. I like the elasticity of meaning, from celebration to death, and how that re-seeing and re-looking is a furthering of the narrative. As a photographer, I love being able to fracture and break time, like it’s a hard object. As a photobook maker, I love being able to expand and contract time like it’s silly putty, and I wanted to do both with this book.
Drury Cox: For me this work operates as a mirror of sorts, reflecting my own (and I'm guessing many people's) increased fear and anxiety after the 2016 election. Our rotten/rotting system is somehow still functioning, and I see some parallel evidence of this in the images. At the same time, there seems to be this searching that feels tied to hope in some way. How do you see mood or tone operating in the work?
Stearns: The images were all made before the election however, I was creating the narrative during that time. The specifics of the political world weren't present in my creative choices. That said, I was thinking about a very broken existence, that despite the reality that it should die, finds a way to live on. The mood in this books is stark and sits in that starkness until the very end and even where there is a shift. I'm pleased that you feel a level of hope in the book, or that not all is lost.
Drury Cox: Richly detailed, scared and marked surfaces pervade many of the images, and seem to suggest a deeper level of decay. How do you see surface operating in the book?
Stearns: I love this question, the idea that the surface is suggesting a deeper level of decay is fascinating. I use these surface moments to suggest impenetrable barriers, where the the narrator is looking for something accessible and familiar only to find the opposite, like a passageway that is now closed and we are left with the residue of a moment now in the past.
Drury Cox: How do you see your first book, Meridian, and this new work connecting beyond visual consistency - both being black and white and about the same size?
Stearns: I photographed the images for Meridian over three summers in Paris. Meridian is the establishment of the main character or narrator that moves through, what will be, all three books. For this character, Meridian is the loss of a center and self identity and this was conveyed in the book using standard photobooks techniques; however through the printing technique and the repetition of images the viewer will become confused as the story folds in on itself. All that Cannot Be Said is the same physical dimension and images are roughly the same size however there are subtle differences.
I see this as a much larger body of work, with three separate but stand alone parts. I made All that Cannot Be Said knowing full well that many people will not have seen Meridian. I am motivated and influenced by literary fiction, William Faulkner in particular. Often his characters will move from book to book and while not precise continuation of plot, the reader gains more insight into the character from each story.
Drury Cox: It might be a bit early, but can you give a little hint about when and what to expect in the third book?
Stearns: I only know a little right now, so, I can only share a bit. Meridian is about the inability to understand where someone is and All that Cannot Be Said focused on a paralyzing dysphoria. The next book is (for now!) about picking out the pieces from time and space, to rebuild one's self.
Colin Stearns is an interdisciplinary photographer based in Queens, New York. He earned his MFA in Studio Art from Hunter College and his BFA from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. He currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at Parsons School of Design in New York City.
Joy Drury Cox is an artist living in Durham, NC and is currently a faculty member in the Art Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.