Just an observer – interview with Mark Yaggie

Vacationland by Mark Yaggie
Mark Yaggie, Vacationland.

Mark Yaggie is a photographer based in Portland, Maine where he moved from San Diego, California. He graduated from the Brooks Institute in Californian Santa Barbara. Mark Yaggie’s work is almost as diverse as it gets. From landscapes of freezing seaside of Maine to images of the desert lands of California. From tasty details of nature to well-composed pictures of architecture.

Filip Stańczyk: you grew up in California, but now you live in Maine. How would you describe the latter, which is practically unknown for an average foreigner? Did you, as a photographer, learn something from living in these two environments located on different coasts of America?

Mark Yaggie: in describing Maine, I’d say it’s relative in some degree. If you were pretty familiar with this region of the U.S. (New England) or even just the eastern seaboard, Maine is something you could imagine, or at least would have heard of. I grew up in the opposite corner of the country. Southern California suburbia are in many ways the opposite end of the spectrum of reality. That’s why I didn’t know what to expect at all.

Maine is difficult, it’s pretty unpopulated, the primary industry is a very seasonal tourism trade and its winters are long and cold. But that being said, it’s also incredibly beautiful, the light up here is phenomenal and the presence of nature is strong and all around you. In California I often found it difficult to photograph landscapes in a way I found interesting. Not to say I couldn’t do it, but in comparison, the colors, the light and the skies up here… Well, it just lets you focus on composition because the rest is pretty well ‘taken care of’.

How and when did you discover yourself as someone who wants to make photographs and then show them to others?

I started taking pictures as a kid in high school. As I wasn’t an athlete or terribly good in school, I probably took a photography class to get out of taking something else. As a matter of fact, I enjoyed the process, especially the printing and darkroom work.  It turned out that I have a decent eye for composition. After taking courses in college, I ended up at a pretty well-regarded institute that had an excellent technical curriculum. But it was a school that emphasized the business of photography, and didn’t explore much art theory or art history, which today I regret. People seem to like my work. I guess that’s the thing that keeps me going, looking to improve it and explore what I can do with the medium. I’d trade it all in to be a great illustrator or a painter though (laugh).

Kelp and Ice by Mark Yaggie
Mark Yaggie, Kelp and Ice.

What is that you look for in photography?

I’m drawn to good compositions. I often find circumstances or locations that I think are interesting and wait to find the ideal time of day or light on a place. Sometimes I’ll photograph a place or subject many times over, sometimes I overwork it. I’ve made some of my best images on a whim, but I have others that I’ve returned numerous times to, waiting for the best light or sky, or whatever it needs to work. I have some self projects that are ongoing year after year, some I find an end to pretty quickly. The „Kelp and ice” series came out of a chance discovery that I felt was really interesting. After a few winters of shooting on the water in zero degree weather though, I’m pretty done with it.

In other people’s work, I really look for a good use of light. There’s a lot of effects you can do in
post-production now, but when I see someone who can shoot a portrait and nail it on set with the lighting, I really respect that. Albert Watson’s work I always loved. In the pre-digital age he could do so much with hard lighting and phenomenal darkroom technique.

So you look at photography from the perspective of aesthetics, or there is also some kind of a story you want to tell through the pictures? In connection to that: putting aside theories about the inexistence of an objective eye, how much personal on a conscious level your pictures really are? It seems that you are more of a documentalist who is pretty not self-centered, which is quite rare in modern trends of the medium.

Aesthetics? For the most part, yes. I’m just an observer, and when I’m lucky I get to make a good picture. There are times when it’s required to put yourself out there more than you would feel comfortable with, and sometimes you do some research to get to a place with good image potential. But plenty of times it doesn’t work and you fail to produce. Conversely, you could be driving down the road and there it is, the best image you’re going to make all year. You just have to pull over and shoot it.

I’m usually only trying to tell a story if it’s a story that I’m shooting, i.e. a commissioned piece, and even then I sometimes struggle with it. I’m looking for good pictures, I like to scout things out, I like to pick my shots. And, because of that, at times, I don’t think my images flow as much as they could.

I don’t think I’m very self-centered. I shoot what interests me, what speaks to me. I’m a perfectionist and I tend to over edit, but that’s just my style. I’m looking for perspectives or compositions that work, whether it be a landscape, a detail of a plant, a portrait, whatever.

Clairemont Facades by Mark Yaggie
Mark Yaggie, Clairemont Facades.

Why did you choose the analogue over the digital?

It’s just what I came up shooting. When I was in school and then assisting, it was in the early days of „35mm” DSLR, and film still had better quality. Nowadays it’s mainly because I prefer the cameras. I like the larger image size to work with, even the medium format digital backs aren’t where they should be aspect ratio wise.  Don’t get me wrong, digital is great in many ways. Your workflow is much faster and delivering work is a matter of hours, and I run all my film through a digital workflow. I guess it’s part nostalgia and part technical preference, that’s all.

Sally Mann once told that we ought to take photographs of things that are closest to us. You shoot a lot of local landscapes. Do you think we can somehow tame our space by taking images of it?

I shoot a lot of landscape because I’m good at it, and it comes easily to me. I don’t know about taming the space, but I think you can find new appreciation for a place or an environment if you set out to photograph it in-depth. Honestly, I would love to be a portrait shooter. Well lit, well executed portraits are what I look at most in other people’s work. I’m not as good at relating to people from behind the camera, so that’s where I want to take my work in the future.

Stops Along The Way by Mark Yaggie
Mark Yaggie, Stops Along The Way.

The „Stops along the way” project shows us mostly two distinct worlds: warm and dry California as well as freezing and snowy Maine. However, all of those landscapes highlight some kind of sad or mysterious emptiness, lack of human beings and dominance of space over a man. Is this how you perceive America?

No, not how I read America at all. In fact, I’d say it’s the opposite. Developed areas in the States look a lot alike, with certain variations of course. But I’m always looking for unique instances. I like to try and make images as timeless as possible, and the „Stops…” series is just me exploring or on road trips, photographing interesting things I see.

I’m asking about your perception of America because I find some European (Düsseldorf School, to be precise) approach in your photographs. Not only paying attention to detail, especially in the “Clairemont facades” project which is very reminiscent of some of Götz Diergarten’s work, but a general way of keeping the image simple but strong. Are you in some way inspired by the school of Bernd Becher?

(Laugh) Oh yes, the „Clairemont facades” do look a lot like Diergarten’s work. That style of shooting has disseminated enough so that many photographers have their own Bernd Becher style. I didn’t really think of it that way. It was just something I noticed and I thought could be an interesting subject for a series. Also, it was from where I grew up so it was something I was surrounded by and familiar with.

Stops Along The Way by Mark Yaggie
Mark Yaggie, Stops Along The Way.

Do you think that the space we live in shapes us in some way?

The space we live in should shape us, absolutely. Some people may be more inspired by the unique things about the place we live in, but that’s just having an open mind. When people here heard that I spent all my life in California, they looked at me like I was crazy. They didn’t understand that it hardly ever rains there. The weather is the same almost all the time and it’s very overpopulated. Is it nice to go sunbathing in February on the beach? Sure, but living somewhere where your lifestyle varies because of the seasons was a whole new experience for me. In my opinion it makes for a lot of interesting photographs. Nevertheless, I know that everything about perception is relative.

Is it possible to find Mark Yaggie’s album in a bookstore one day?

Hopefully someday. I have many ideas for book projects, but being able to devote enough time to them still eludes me.

The article was also published in Darwin Magazine.

You can follow Yaggie’s work on his personal website.

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