Aaron Canipe is a 27-year-old photographer, designer, and bookmaker based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA. He earns a BFA in Photography and an MFA in Experimental & Documentary Arts, and cofounded the photobook publisher Empty Stretch in 2010. Born and raised in Hickory, NC, his poetic series evoke loss, innocence, and faith within the backdrop of the American South.
Aaron, thank you for this interview, we are happy to have the opportunity to talk about your work. What got you into photography?
I’m so thankful to be on Velvet Eyes. Thanks so much for having me. I sort of came to it by way of drawing and painting. As a kid, I took art classes in this elderly woman’s home and during one session she announced there would be a photo contest. The winner of the contest got this amazing set of soft chalk pastels with every color imaginable. I had to have it. So I made a photograph of our black lab during a late winter snow with the family’s point-and-shoot 35mm camera. And the photo won. That kind of started it all for me. The camera got me out of the small room where we had art classes and I was supposedly good at it!
You work at Reynolda House Museum of American Art as Chief Storyteller if I am right. Is there anything about the way you approach your personal work that you carry over to your job at the Museum?
There’s always something of myself that goes into my work at the Museum. I can’t help but be anyone other than myself sometimes. In my role, I help tell the stories of our historic house and museum and the folks who pass through. The art and history that’s specific to our place has global meaning that I think can and should reach wider audiences. I feel in my personal work, I also find global meaning in local places, places one might not look for it initially.
Most of your work takes place in North Carolina, and confront the landscapes and people of the region. Tell us about what define this southern culture and about your own connection to the area?
I was born and raised in the piedmont of North Carolina. I didn’t start appreciating and questioning my origins until I left it when I went away to college. I’m not sure if I can define all of Southern culture; I can only speak about my South that’s informed by my own experiences, mixed in with real history and true fictions. Writer Flannery O’Connor put it best when she said “…the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
In your book Plateau, we can find two excerpts from The Lost Boy by Thomas Wolfe [giant of American literature]. It is a portrait of Grover, Thomas’s older brother, who died when the author was only four years old and son idealized by his mother. Also, your work suggests the theme of the loss of innocence and the magic of childhood eyes, is it a reflection of your own experience?
Rediscovering Thomas Wolfe was a huge touchstone for me in the Plateau project. Like James Agee, and even O’Connor, and others in this Southern canon, these writers were at once placed in the American South and transcended some of the trappings and limitations that come with being a “Southern” writer. I felt like that was a good place to be in photography as well. I think images have that ability to reflect bigger truths and experiences and at the same time maintain a sense of place.
Sadness and loss are a part of those bigger truths art can speak to; I think those are universal feelings. They’re not just a part of my childhood.
Including a vinyl, the book Plateau gives us the opportunity to listen to Andrew Weathers music. What is your relationship to music and how does this influence your photography?
Music is an unsung partner in my photographic experience. It’s not only there as background while driving back roads, it’s sometimes directly related to the images I inevitably produce. I was so grateful when Andrew Weathers helped me with the songs that would accompany the book. He and I share an affinity for old time music heard in new ways. My favorite of his renditions was Fifty Miles of Elbow Room, made famous by the Carter Family, but Andrew was inspired by Revered F.W. McGee and His Congregation in 1928.
“Photography is also closely tied to spirituality. I rely heavily on the faith of my aesthetic and the faith of plain seeing that sees me through projects”.
It’s a song about heaven and its vastness of space, something I tried to aim for in some of the landscapes in Plateau. Music helps ground my photographs and while sequencing for a book or exhibition, it’s important to get the music right so my images can rhyme as well.
About your series Forks & Branches taken in 2016, the use of black and white could convey ideas of nostalgia and connections to the past, was it something you were looking for? Why?
Thank you, I think that’s right on track with what the images convey. In a lot of ways, I was thinking about my own start as an undergraduate in photography. The series initiated with getting back into the black and white darkroom and making contact sheets. I had just moved closer to my hometown so I took that opportunity to explore that landscape deeper. I guess I do chase nostalgia in images — or at least try to freeze moments in time to keep them from going away. It’s not something intentionally done. I more or less follow my intuition.
I wanted to talk about your introspective approach and the spiritual value of your photographs. According to you, how does this medium contribute in the representation of these concepts?
What you notice is who you are. Like photographer Minor White once sagely said (among many other things!), “All photographs are self portraits.” If I represent spiritual values, darkness, loss, it’s because a little bit of that might be in me. For me, the medium of photographer is a great tool for introspection, since of the the work of photography is done in isolation. Whether printing, archiving, or driving, or producing the images themselves, I am more or less alone with my thoughts and feelings. Until I get to do an interview!
Photography is also closely tied to spirituality. I rely heavily on the faith of my aesthetic and the faith of plain seeing that sees me through projects.
About your process, how do you decide what you want to do for a specific project? Do you carry a camera with you all the time, or do you plan ahead before going to shoot?
I wish I were more of a planner! I carry a camera with me a lot, but I also pick specific days to photograph. I plan one trip and end up doing a completely different journey, based on what I see and what detours I take along the way. Sometimes I get an urge to visit a place I’ve never been, almost like Flannery O’Connor’s Enoch Emery with a “wise blood.”
What are your main influences?
I’m heavily influenced by the place in which I live. There’s a fruitfulness there that provides inspiration as if from a muse, like writer Flannery O’Connor’s Milledgeville, or Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu. Seeing photographer William Eggleston’s work as undergraduate shook my world. For the first time, I saw an affinity for the South that went beyond the stereotypes I knew. I’ve somehow never been far away from the work of 19th century painter Frederic Church. There’s a love of light and color there that I think is rooted in my own photographic seeing.
And last but not least, what is your favorite photo website(s)?
I admire the websites that are pushing the experience of online publishing. The Reservoir are up to some amazing things — Ahorn’s archives are always a great resource — The Heavy Collective — Landscape Stories. I continue to be inspired by the photography community on Instagram.
Enjoy Aaron Canipe’s work on his website.