Photographing Great Falls

Artist Michael Dalton on his book release and solo exhibition

Words By Stephanie Ballantine / Erika Clugston
Photos By Michael Dalton

Monumental landscapes, intimate portraits, and candid snapshots of every-day life make up the comprehensive photographic series, The Great Falls.

With tenderness and compassion, photographer Michael Dalton explores Patterson, New Jersey, USA, and the surrounding national park. Images of waterfalls and lovers portray a physical, emotional, and cultural landscape that is beautiful and complex.

The photography exhibition is on display at Fk-Kollektiv Gallery until May 31st, 2018 where you can experience the images in their full force. We delve into the series with Dalton, to find out more about The Great Falls and his exhibition in Berlin.

Can you tell us a bit about the project and why you approached this subject? The Great Falls is ostensibly an exploration of the Great Falls National Park in Paterson, New Jersey. Drawing on inspirations like William Carlos Williams and Raymond Carver, I employ the place: its geology, the waterfall, the river, and the people as a means of exploring both local and universal themes of fall, redemption, and eventual release However, the project encompasses more than one specific location; I wanted to create a narrative within the sequence of images that was at one time a reflection of my personal experiences and a meditation on how nature and humanity can strive to make the best of any given circumstance.

What was your intention in bringing this series together? I grew up in New Jersey, and being from a blue collar background, I was drawn to Patterson because of its rich industrial history. I had been making photos all along the industrial northeast, but I struggled to get deeper into my pictures. I had to learn to see what was actually in the photographs. I found that by focusing on just the pictures, I would be able to see a connection and a way to clearly identify the themes and motives in my work. I think part of creating this project was an effort at finding my creative process and my own photographic language.

When the book was complete, I had a final product that was nothing like I intended in 2011. I think it evolved and improved, coherently describing the concepts that I intended. I believe that diving into the unknown, like the excitement of seeing a piece of film or photographic paper come out of some chemistry is probably closer to how I approach my work, rather than with a specific intention. You have an idea of how you want the work to come out, but by the end, things change. Allowing that fluidity and evolution to happen is where the work really becomes alive.

Why did you use a mixture of portrait, landscape and still life? I blame Alec Soth circa 2008. Kidding/ not kidding. My process of working generally involves making pictures first and asking questions later. There is a lot of information that can be hidden within any style of photography. Good photographs tend to play with the possibility of manipulating a viewers expectations and biases so that what is actually on the wall or in a page, can be read in a different, individual experience. Sometimes it’s more about what’s inside of you than what’s inside the picture. But at the end of the day, you can still go back to the fact that it’s just a picture and what you are feeling can be in direct contrast to what’s in the image. Windows and mirrors and such. I think by looking back to Eugene Atget you can find photo projects that use landscapes, portraits and still lives together in a natural fluid way that allows a sense of place or feeling to come through from a group of images. I think it’s pretty par for the course in classical style documentary -like photography. I still love looking at projects like that. Even after 10 years.

What do you think those who are not familiar with the area can take away from the series? I think I’d have to ask. Maybe they’d want to visit Paterson, or look closely around their own surroundings for relatable experiences.

Can you tell us a bit about your process? How long did the series take you to photograph, edit and then finalise? I make a lot of photos, with a vague idea of what I want to do. Eventually I compile a large archive and edit down my favourite images. Through those images I create a sequence. I do some writing. I do some reading. Put images on the magnet board in my studio. Figure out what other photos I need to make. Share work with friends and colleagues. Repeat. This project started in 2011. I stopped making photos for the project in 2015. From then, I finished working on the book in the middle of 2017, it was eventually published at the end of 2017.

Sometimes it’s more about what’s inside of you than what’s inside the picture.

What has been your connection with Berlin? Can you tell us a bit about your process of working with Berlin based publisher Peperoni books? I first saw Berlin almost 10 years ago. I fell in love with the place. Luckily, I started going to Berlin frequently while I was Hartford MFA photo program. While I was there, I made a lot of images and found connections in the photographs I was making in Paterson. I met Hannes Wanderer during one of our sessions, and loved his enthusiasm, vision, and passion for photo books and photography. Do you know that Hannes is a master printer? That guy can do anything! From offset printing to tri color carbon printing. The guy is badass like that.

Why FK-Kollektiv and what can we expect from the upcoming exhibition? I went to an opening at FK-K and loved the space. I love what Zack and Stephanie are doing and thought it would be a great venue to show TGF.

How would you recommend starting a project like this for other young photographers? Read short stories, poems and nonfiction. Watch movies and documentaries. Spend a lot of time outside observing the world around you. Allow yourself time to space out.

What have you been working on since this series? I’m starting to get back to a project I began in 2013 That I’m temporarily calling Labor. It’s a series of photographs that focuses on my experience working in blue collar jobs, and the difficulty of manual labor, the notion of vulnerability (or lack thereof) and masculine toxicity within the blue collar world.

I’ve also been training to become a welder. I’ve been doing this art/construction thing for quite some time. But I’m really excited to do something that is so technical… it’s a change from my usual line of work involving digging holes, or managing a warehouse or utility construction. I’m also going to get back to my sculpture work… that’s another medium I’m very excited to work with. It’s very new to me so everything feels experimental.

See the exhibition at Fk-Kollektiv Gallery until May 31st, 2018.