Chelsea, Manhattan, NYC
Allen Furbeck’s curving, warped images of the Brandywine Creek in Northern Delaware—stitched together digitally from multiple exposures—are both restorative and unnerving. This beautiful landscape (“very much like your friend or your buddy as far as the landscape goes”) is the setting and subject of Furbeck’s exploration (as a painter and photographer) of the “decisive moment” of the photograph. Furbeck's works imagine this moment as a quiet yet vaguely frightening “accretion of a whole lot of observations” and forces. I had the pleasure of visiting Furbeck's studio to speak with him about about time, space, and skipping nursery school.
Are you from New York originally?
I’ve lived here now for almost 35 years, but I grew up in Delaware. I’ve continued to go back there; a lot of the landscape work I do is centered around there. I’ve been going back to this one place, to both paint and take photographs, ever since I was a kid.
Has it changed much
The place where I work has been pretty well preserved—it’s a small state park. It’s down in the Brandywine Valley. It’s kind of odd because it’s surrounded by strip malls, but you drive two or three minutes down the hill, and all of a sudden you’re in this place that’s really quite natural and quite wonderful.
What is it about that spot that keeps you coming back?
There are a couple of things. The first is that I think in some ways it didn’t get logged out or beaten up the way a lot of East Coast landscape has, so there are a lot of really old trees. There’s one sycamore down by the river that’s probably about five or six feet in diameter. It’s huge. It’s an incredibly cranky old tree, which is really interesting to me.
I think it’s also that the landscape itself has a very inviting and soft quality to it. It’s a landscape that you can feel a part of and not be totally overwhelmed by. I like big landscapes, I like the West a lot, and over the last year I’ve been working on a series of images I shot near Lake Tahoe. But there’s something about Delaware that makes it feel very much like your friend or your buddy as far as the landscape goes. It has a kind of shire-like quality to it—I say that with some trepidation because it’s a loaded word, but, you know, it’s true.
How did you find it?
I lived ten minutes away from it when I was a kid, so the whole time I was growing up I was hiking around it, and when I was in high school I used to go there after school as a place to get away from craziness.
Has it kept a restorative quality for you?
Yeah... I think nature by and large is restorative. It can also be deeply weird, dangerous and unnerving, but it’s definitely healing. I think this place is still like that that for me, and I have a particular fondness for it. Somehow or other when I’m there, every time I turn around I see something new to take pictures of. It still resonates with me. Other places I have to fight a little bit more to find something that interests me, because it’s not as internalized. But, yes, nature as a whole is very restorative to me.
I tend to find myself in all kinds of contradictions. I love the city, but I love nature too. There are others.
Have you always worked in landscape?
One thing that is always sort of hard to explain is that there are different threads that are woven through all of my work. Probably the strongest thread is still abstract painting, which you might not guess from looking at the photographs. There are things in the photographs that I never would have done if I hadn’t spent years making abstract paintings. Then there’s another side, which is much more conventional landscape paintings. I was often told I should try to combine the two, but they were two different things for me. I wanted to explore each one for what it was, and learn from each one. I would apply what learned from one to the other, but I didn’t really want to mash them together. In an odd way, though, the photos do kind of combine both of the painting styles.
So you started out painting?
It’s not really linear—they get braided through each other. I’ve painted since before I can remember. When I was a little kid, my mother sent me to classes at the art museum instead of nursery school, and for almost as long I’ve been taking photos, at least since I was in junior high school and probably well before that. I remember early on being at summer camp and experiencing that kind of magic that happens in the darkroom. In college I wanted to be a photographer, but painting became more dominant at that point. Then for a long time photography took a backseat. I did a lot of photography when I was younger, but it became too expensive to keep a darkroom going and have all that equipment. Even during the years when it took a backseat though, if I would take a vacation or go away somewhere I was still pretty serious about the pictures I was taking.
But while landscape does run through my work from the beginning, at one point I was much more interested in things like the materials and processes of photography, kind of a conceptual notion. I was never really a great darkroom technician. I had a real problem getting rid of dust, so instead of fighting it, I decided to see how much dust I could put on the negatives, and what that would look like. It was harder than I thought to make it work. I used to tear photos, scratch up the negatives- I was really into the physicality of the thing—
Does that turn into now digitally manipulating the photos?
Yes, but I think in a really abstract way. I think because I’ve always been interested in the way photography actually changes the way you perceive things, it doesn’t just reproduce them, I’m more open to being able to manipulate things digitally.
Do you start with one photograph or a series of photos to create the image?
Most of the new work uses a whole series of images to get a full 360-degree capture. That aspect is fully panoramic, in all directions, all the way up to the top and down to the bottom. I originally got into panoramic because I was doing large format film photography, I liked the resolution of it. I couldn’t get that kind of resolution with digital at the time, so I was stitching together multiple images to get a higher resolution picture. Before too long I became as interested in the kind of things that happened when you were stitching images together, as in the extra resolution.
There’s a series of cityscapes I did just before my current work where I would do a little dance with the camera, shooting a number of overlapping images at different angles, and when I’d stitch together the photographs the shape of the whole image would have to do with how I took the photographs, so the dance was part of the whole process. What I was really interested in was how things ended up looking really different to me when I came up with the final image. I was doing it a little bit of that in the landscape photography, but getting into the 360 VR thing led to a whole different group of surprises for how things looked.
So the process is that I shoot everything from a single point in all directions with up to 240 images which I then stitch together into a single 360 degree image. But, if you’re going to make a print, you need to find a way to get that back into a flat image, because it’s like the inside of a ball you’re looking at. There are a number of different kinds of geometric projections that you can use to get it to go flat again. A lot of the fun that I have is playing with those and seeing how they make the image and the space just completely different.
Any return to painting on the horizon?
For the past few years photography has taken up most of my time. I haven’t done much abstract painting for a while, and I kind of miss it. I’ve been doing a bunch of sketching with the intent of getting back to it. I’d also love to get out and do some landscape painting again. But time gets eaten up, I have a tendency to take on projects that take a lot of time. I think one of the reasons I like this way of working with photography is that it puts an element of time into the process and into the images, it gives me a chance to work on things.
I have sort of a different head about photography, which I think comes from being a painter. Generally, in photography there is a focus on subject, and the idea of the decisive moment. I think because of being a painter I’m not as interested in the single moment, but in an accretion of a whole lot of observations. I think when we look at stuff and see things, a lot of what we’re doing is putting together a whole set of observations to create a perception. I like to create work that you can look at for a long time and find new things each time you do. That’s a theme that I think runs through all of my work, whether it is photography or painting.