In January 2017, John Greiner-Ferris returned to being a photographer after a ten-year hiatus in theater. That winter, Greiner-Ferris was working on a play at a residency in Vermont when he picked up a camera and resumed where he’d left off. After all, many years earlier he’d worked as a corporate and freelance photographer and writer. In his photography, he’s attracted to the beauty of places and things that others often overlook. Nature is almost always the common element. He lives in the Boston area. He earned an MFA in Playwriting at Boston University and formed two theater companies. He holds a BFA in Visual Communications and Photography from Ohio University. See his work in WTP Vol. VII #9.
Photo credit: Susan Fearnley
Interview with John Greiner-Ferris
By Jennifer Nelson, WTP Feature Writer
Nelson: What led you to return to photography three years ago after spending a decade in the theater?
Greiner-Ferris: I was working on a play at an artist’s residency where I was surrounded by all kinds of artists—painters, installation artists, photographers, sculptors, weavers—not just writers, so I think that might have help stir the sleeping photographer. It was sheer head-banging frustration brought on from the struggle I was having with that play that led me to drive up into the hills in Vermont that January and revert to the visual language just to do something different. I couldn’t make a bad image that day, and the pure joy of making images brought to mind why I became a photographer in the first place as a teenager. I had grown up with the feel of a camera in my hands. I am so comfortable and confident composing inside the viewfinder. I still only use the LCD screen for reviewing images; everything else, including metering, I do through the viewfinder. I get extreme joy from making what I feel is a powerful visual, of discovering something new about the world. I hate to think how things would have turned out if I hadn’t had good luck shooting that day, but I feel very fortunate that things did work out.
Nelson: In the series Microscope, you zoom in on natural objects such as garlic and geraniums as if you’re a scientist closely analyzing them. Can you elaborate on the techniques you use in this series, as well as why you chose these objects to photograph?
Greiner-Ferris: My youngest daughter is a marine biologist and she gave me a simple USB microscope as a birthday present. I’m an artist, but a love of science and the natural world is something that she and I share, so yes, you rightly picked up on the scientific aspect of the work. The Microscope series comes from that same childlike interest to see the natural world as when you were a kid and would pick up a rock, curious to see what creepy things were under it. The choice of objects is infinite, but I tend to gravitate toward organic objects that present color, and I’m always surprised by what the microscope displays in real time on my laptop. Nature magnified can be astonishingly beautiful, and also at times shocking.
The images of geraniums I found highly erotic, and I would not suggest magnifying decaying parsley from the garden if you have a weak stomach; you will be visually bombarded by living creepy-crawly microscopic creatures scurrying around that live on the plants. The sprouted garlic cloves I found in our kitchen sitting amongst the onions. The geranium blooms, both fresh and dried, were in pots on the porch outside my studio. The microscope makes low-res images—72 dpi. Image control is minimal; there is a ring of LCD lights up inside the microscope with a dimmer, and you can zoom, from 400x to 1000x, which obviously affects the composition. I determine the background color on which the object rests—dark to absorb light or light to reflect it—and I play with the light as I would in a studio—albeit a very, very tiny studio where I’m a giant—blocking or diffusing ambient light coming in through a window, sometimes bouncing light into the scene with a small strip of cardboard, but it’s all very small and Stuart Little-ish. I print the images about 5 x 3 inches on Washi paper that further softens the image so the lack of detail isn’t enunciated.
Nelson: What artists do you look to for inspiration, and how does nature inspire you?
Greiner-Ferris: The photographer Robert Adams is someone whose work I can’t get enough of, as are Rose Mandel’s The Errand of the Eye series and anything by Walker Evans. I recently saw an exhibit of Olivia Parker’s work that I thought was fantastic. Jason Baumgarten is another photographer whose work recently has caught my eye, as are Karianne Bueno’s project, Doug’s Cabin, and Sylvia de Vlaming’s landscapes, mainly for their ability, I suppose, to delve into a more emotionally evocative way of making images that I don’t do. You’ll notice, though, that I hardly ever make images of people. I’m almost entirely drawn to the abstract world, especially abstract expressionism. I like my solitude, and that’s what I find in nature. In that solitude, I find beauty and order.
Nelson: Your series Cityscapes features haunting images of trees barren in winter in front of grand buildings. What was your intention with this series?
Greiner-Ferris: The Cityscapes series is a direct outcome of my series, Order from Chaos. It’s simply moving that view into an urban environment. I think what Cityscapes shows is that nature is all around us, that nature is impartial, that it is a lot more predominant than we imagine, and once again, is very beautiful, or even sometimes, to use your word, haunting.
Nelson: What type of camera do you use, and does it change depending on the type of series you’re working on?
Greiner-Ferris: I subscribe to the saying that the best camera is the one you happen to have with you. I now work entirely with digital cameras. My primary camera is the Nikon D-7100 because it enables me to autofocus with the lenses I used when I shot film. I use a mix of Nikkor lenses and one Tamron telephoto, all f 2.8. I have two camera bodies, and since they are DX format my 24 mm basically sees as a 35 mm, the 35–70 mm acts as a 50–100 mm, and the 70–210 mm acts pretty much as a 100–300 mm. I have a Nikon Speedlight that I hardly ever use; I much prefer natural light. I almost always have a little Fujifilm point-and-shoot with me that’s shock and water-proof that allows me to make basic adjustments and makes really wonderful images (or should I say, digital files?)
Post production I use Lightroom very sparingly, just as I had used the darkroom, making small adjustments to exposure and contrast, and slight compositional changes like cropping, for example, to straighten a horizon line. It’s my schooling that has imbedded in my brain to do as much inside the camera as possible.
Of course, camera types and makes are different (some might say superior) than others, and the lens combinations limit or expand an artist’s capabilities, but I think the artist’s eye is more important than the equipment used. For example, for the micro work I use a 400x–1000x USB microscope my daughter bought for me on Amazon for about twenty dollars. What I found most interesting and what really opened my eyes when I began using a digital camera was when I realized and understood that it’s not so much a camera as it is a computer. Yes, it’s capturing light, but for example, ISO is a real thing in film photography, whereas in digital photography it doesn’t have the same implications. It’s been reduced to just another setting, although a very handy one. It could have been called the “sensor adjustor” and the name would have been more accurate. You have to learn to think and see like your camera, and digital cameras don’t work the same way film cameras do.
Nelson: Please explain your motto “Simplify, simplify, simplify” as it relates to your artwork.
Greiner-Ferris: My mantra comes from my frustration for a lot of what I feel are the heavily Photoshopped images I see, where layers and layers of presets, if they were stripped away, would reveal a very weak underlying image, without any solid structure or composition. I’m not against digital photography or any form of image manipulations at all; clearly I practice digitally and I feel it has many advantages over film and the wet process. But at this time, there seems to be a trend in a lot of circles, including the host of photography competitions out there, that is enamored with red/orange/neon sunsets and garish landscapes. The underlying image, for me at least, has to be well-composed. At some point, I hope these images I’m referring to will transition into having the same appeal as Elvis on black velvet.
Nelson: How did your experience as a playwright and founder of Alley Cat Theater and Boston Public Works Theater Company impact your photography work?
Greiner-Ferris: Well, it was more the other way around; my visual side influences my theater. I knew I was a writer by the time I was seven years old. My visual side was developed later in life in school and from years of practice. I consider myself an artist first, and then a playwright, making me an artist who works in the theater. Therefore, I’m very comfortable working with the different designers, e.g. set, lighting, and costumes. I approach theater more like an installation artist, where there’s this big space and you can people it and fill it with places. There’s a funny story from when I was working with someone who was directing one of my plays, and she just couldn’t explain to me sufficiently what she was trying to do so I could imagine it, and in frustration she said to me, “You really are visual, aren’t you?” She didn’t mean that as a compliment. Of course, it’s obvious to say that visual people see the world, I imagine, more vividly than people who are less visual.
Nelson: How do you see your work evolving in the future?
Greiner-Ferris: It’s still very much in the early stages, but I’m excited that I’m starting to explore collage using images from my childhood and text to investigate my childhood and how it might relate to today’s world.
Read more interviews with our WTP artists on Art Central.
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