An Interview with Curtis Hamilton

Washington Roundabout (Capitol Building)

ST:  Your work contains a lot of research.  Photographs accompanied with a lot of text about you researched.  Can you describe the process how you start your new project? For example you showed us your Hudson River project last semester’s crit.

CH:  My work begins with questions! A few years ago, I started looking at what I was eating, wondering where it came from and how it came to be.  Corn Syrup seemed to be the main component of everything.  Then, I learned that the animals I was eating (cows, chickens and pigs) were feeding on the same corn.  The stuff is ubiquitous, yet I felt so disconnected from it.  I traveled to Iowa and spent several weeks photographing the industrial cornfields and talking to farmers, workers at ethanol plants, local officials and locals.  I tried an ear also, fresh off the stalk.  It tasted like saw dust.  These crops are billions of nutrition-less calories, genetically all the same.


I spent part of my childhood living along the Hudson River in Beacon, NY.  I was always aware that the river was polluted, but we played there anyway, everyone did.  General Electric dumped millions of pounds of PCB oil into the river in the middle of the last century.  Just last year, they began dredging the river to remove the toxic sludge.  They are then shipping it to Texas, where a private company Waste Control Specialists (WCS) is burying it.  The cleanup is great for Hudson River communities, but the WCS disposal site is fraught with dangers.  The site is only thirty feet above the nation’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala.  In addition to the Hudson River sludge, WCS is burying a lot of nuclear waste that has recently been de-regulated.  I followed the waste from Hudson Falls, NY to Andrews, TX last summer and photographed in each location.  I’m using text in this project to account for what the photographs can’t; this means everything from state and federal policies to core samples and well data that confirm the presence of the aquifer beneath the WCS site.  My research is sprawling.  I have hundreds of documents, site evaluations, maps, and of course photographs.

GE/WCS (Hudson River Dredging)

ST:      What is your purpose telling the story? Are you trying to achieve a certain goal or trying to persuade viewers to any action?

CH:  Yes, I want the viewer to look and read.  These are far from passive acts; I think they can be formative.

ST:  So, you want to give viewers a trigger to do something.

CH:  I believe it is important for the public to have a full understanding of how corporations and the government are impacting their lives.  When people are informed, they make different choices.  For instance, my refrigerator broke last year.  GE makes good looking refrigerators, but I’d never buy one.

ST:  How is your experience at Grad School so far?

CH:  It’s intense.

ST: How so?

CH: So much thinking, so little sleeping.

ST:   Are there any assignments that challenge you?        .

CH: Nayland gave an assignment last semester to create a narrative using a disposable camera.  We had to use every frame on the role; this was pretty revealing in the end.  That same week, someone broke my car window.  My narrative began when I found the window smashed in and followed along as I took my car to the repair shop. Using every frame to get from beginning to end loosed me up.  It showed me a different way to tell a story with images.  Suddenly everything between the car and the shop was relevant.  It was new to work in the first-person and to pay attention to day-to-day happenings.

ST: What did you work this year so far?

CH:  In January, I went to Washington DC.  I took tours of the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court and visited the museums along the Mall.  I made thousands of pictures of outdoor public spaces, museums and government buildings.  Its coming together as a spiral bound book, “Washington Roundabout.”  It’s a mix of iconic images like the dome of the Capitol Building and details made from deviant perspectives.

Washington Roundabout (Fountain)

ST:  What are you working right now?

CH:  Finishing the book I just mentioned.  I also made another book from that trip called “Lafayette Park.”  This project looks at the squirrel population living across the street from the White House.  It’s the densest population of squirrels on the planet.  People feed them too much, 300 pounds of peanuts a month!  The park can’t accommodate all of them, so they end up fighting to the death over nesting sites.  This book has 35 photographs of nests and a short essay.

More recently I’ve started blogging.  I’m very excited about this.  I think it goes back to Nayland’s assignment.  From that point I started to look closer at my everyday experiences.  I’m still thinking about similar things like government.  For instance, I made an entry about the people who mistakenly call me looking for the New York Housing Authority.  I’m also thinking about domestic happenings like spills in the kitchen.  Last night, my cat caught fire after she brushed against a candle!

Wrong Number

ST:   You were using a 4×5 camera for your other project but recently switched to a smaller camera.  Could you talk about this shift?

CH:  I was using the 4×5 in earlier projects like “Iowa” and “GE/WCS” to make very formal pictures.  I think the black and white images bring the projects closer to language and point towards objectivity.  When I was in Washington D.C., I was just as much a tourist as I was a photographer.  The buildings and spaces there exist in a way to be photographed.  I was curious about how they would translate onto a tourist’s camera.  I’ve stayed with this camera this semester because it helps me to be more flexible in my approach to making images.  It brings my work to a more personal level.

ST: Yes, our class really enjoys your blog and I think people are more interested in your experience.

ST: Which artists are you interested in now?

CH:  My classmates.  Its an incredible experience seeing what they make week in week out.  Sometimes I feel that I am learning just as much from their experiments as they are.  They always surprise me.

ST: Do you make pictures everyday?

CH: Yes.  One must while in grad school.

ST: What did you shoot today?

CH:  Well, I’ve been in school all day.  I made a picture of a florescent light reflecting onto Paul Graham’s book “A Shimmer of Possibility.” I photographed an instructional book on how to bind books.  I use this camera to take notes during slide lectures, instead of writing things down, I make pictures.


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