An Interview with Photographer, Educator, and Bookmaker Meg Griffiths

cover of Nothing That Falls Away

About the interviewee
Meg Griffiths was born in Indiana and raised in Texas. She received two B.A.’s from the University of Texas in Cultural Anthropology and English Literature and earned her Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design. She currently lives in Denton, Texas where she is an Assistant Professor and Area Head of Photography in the Department of Visual Art at Texas Woman's University.

Meg’s photographic research currently deals with domestic, economic, historical and cultural relationships across the Southern United States and Cuba. Her work has been shown in multiple venues around country, including: Columbia Museum of Art, Center for Fine Art Photography, Museum of Living Artists in San Diego, Griffin Museum in Boston, Houston Center for Photography, Candela Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, and  Rayko Gallery in San Francisco. She has also been published in Oxford AmericanAint Bad MagazineBoston GlobePhoto District NewsSouth X Southeast MagazineLenscratch, Le Journal de la Photographie, and Fraction Magazine. Her work is a part of many private collections as well as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Center for Fine Art Photography, and Middle Tennessee University.

She was honored as one of Photo District News’ annual PDN 30: New and Emerging Photographers; named one of eight Emerging Photographers at Blue Spiral Gallery; Atlanta Celebrates Photography’s Ones to Watch; and was recently awarded the Julia Margaret Cameron for Best Fine Art Series in 2017.

Her new book with Eliot Dudik and published by Zatara Press, Nothing That Falls Away, is available as a signed publication with Grenade in a Jar.

From Nothing That Falls Away

Melanie McWhorter: Meg, we had a lovely visit in Santa Fe recently and we started a discussion about the process of making a book. What are your favorite 3-5 books in your collection and why?

Meg Griffiths: The first book I ever received from colleague and friend Eliot Dudik, I believe by way of you as a special order for my birthday, was Jesus and the Cherries by Jessica Backhaus. I feel in love at first sight. It is bright pink with a plastic lace tablecloth type cover that has a specially designed slip case in watermelon green with three photographs which are inside the book. Jessica Backhaus, American-German descent, made a series of interiors, portraits, and still lives with color, vibrancy, simplicity and intimacy that focus on the village of Netno and its residence in Northern Poland.

One of my favorites is The Iceberg by Giorgio Di Noto. It represents a selection of photographs that are meant to look like stock images used to illustrate ads for the dark web. The delightful part of the book is that the images are printed in invisible ink and they can only be seen under ultraviolet light. The book comes in a lovely box, which states on the back, “Once the package arrives, bring it inside and don’t open it for 5-15 minutes.” It’s a delicious way to experience work that is meant to be illicit and private.

Another spectacular book, and not just because I love Amy Friend as a human and friend, is Stardust published by L’Artiere out of Italy. The book itself is housed in a brown simple laser-cut box which has holes scattered across the top in between the title, which resembles the star dust effect that Amy exacts upon found antique black and white photographs from the 1920’s to 1940’s. Her process I surmise, which some have stated resembles alchemy, breathes new life into past ephemeral moments through a sprinkling of perforations which she enacts upon the pieces of paper, then she lights these altered pieces and re-photographs them to create a new imaginary world, exploring the relationship between the non-visible and the visible. The book design perfectly compliments this intent, given the butterfly fold pages, with tiny hole punches cut into the images on delicate off white paper, so as you move through the pages you catch bits of light coming through the images. It is genius.

MM: What are your thoughts on the current state of photography book publishing? Who are some of your favorite artists and publishers that you have seen online, in bookstores, or at art or book fairs?

MG: There are so many publishers now! It is a very exciting time. Photography books are the best way to make art accessible to everyone. Not all can afford, the money or the space, so having such a wide variety of book publishers now is really nice. There is someone for everyone, both the consumer looking to collect and the artist looking to share work. From a collectors point of view, it is such a privilege to be able to sit with an entire body of work, not just one piece, but all them—it feels very holistic. We really get to know the essence of the work in this format. All those little details. It is very intimate.

Book publishers that I have not worked with that I really enjoy right now: Radius, Mack, Candor, Kris Graves Projects, L’Artiere and One Day Projects.

From Nothing That Falls Away

MM: Now let’s discuss your work and books a bit. You have created a self-produced artist book and worked with a few publishers including the co-monograph with Eliot Dudik Nothing That Falls Away that was published by Zatara Press. What are the origins of the title of your new books Nothing That Falls Away?

MG: The title expresses at the outset that you carry everything with you and nothing falls away. On a personal level, all of your life experiences, all your relationships, whether platonic, familial or romantic, the transitions, the autonomy and connection, the elation, the heartache, the growth. It makes us human, it makes us who we are, it makes us the artists we are. On a geographic, cultural and historic level, there are many other narratives of this land that also do not fall away, but are inherent. It carries the weight of all these stories, both harsh and rich, and for me this is the subtext of the images as well. A narrative which witnesses the absenting and re-populating of culture: from the Native tribes of the Washoe which inhabited Nevada for millennia to the immigration of French, Portuguese and Chinese with the introduction of the railways system and the mining of copper, silver and gold. The images reference Nevada’s economic fluctuation, from the boom of the Great Silver Strikes in the mid 1800s, to big busts like the 2008 economic crisis. And of course more traditionally, the work pays respects to a long-standing photographic tradition of traveling West, to the idealization of the road and the American idea of freedom being wrapped up in the car.

MM: Tell us a bit about making Nothing That Falls Away. You were going through a major life change when shooting the work for this book. How did the new environment of vast and open desert landscapes and the changes in your life effect what and how you shot that differed from your work in the past?

MG: Yes, at the time I was 7 months pregnant. I was drawn to make this work for personal and primal reasons. There was a sense of urgency– to be autonomous, to wander and be alone, to have something of my own before giving birth. I thought, naively, this might possibly be the last time I could do something like this for myself. Even to be alone with someone, traveling like this, one of my best friends. I also had this fear that in having a child that I might possibly be giving up my potency, viability, and relevance as an artist. In this choice of binding myself to another human, I would also give up the option of choice to be many other things in my life. I was also very aware of time, the giving away of this gift of time. At this point, making work was very different for me than it had been in the past. For me I feel there was a lot of the internal projected onto the landscape. How this translates into the images, the viewer will have to let me know.

MM: How did you make many of the design decisions on Nothing That Falls Away? Sequencing, cover, paper, other materials, etc.?

MG: Given that both Eliot and I make books as well as teach bookmaking, I think it was important to both of us that this book look and feel like it was made by hand. That the intimacy that would be revealed in the book be matched by the intimacy of the materials and construction as well. Lots of time and heart was put into every detail, which relates back to the content and the overall meaning. From the exposed spine which foreshadows the vulnerability of the work and the prose within, to the copper foil stamping which references Nevada’s history with mining, to the powder blue speckled Asahi book cloth that mimics one of the many blizzards we experienced crossing the expanse of highway 50 when making the images for the book, to the cover art—a line drawing of an image within hinting that the book would contain both physical and interior emotional landscapes.

We wanted the viewer to experience the book on their own terms before sharing what the experience meant to us, as separate human beings. So in the book we dive right into photographs, even before the title. Dropping you right into the car and on the road with these scenes. We invite the viewer to come along on the trip with us, to get lost on the road, to take ownership of the images. In order to do this we designed pages with no numbers, no titles or geographic markers as to where we are, no assignment of authorship to the images. It is not until the very end that we reveal what our reflections are upon that work. Our hope, that the viewer goes back to the beginning and starts all over, this time traveling across the landscape with our words in mind and walking around a bit in our shoes if you will.

From Nothing That Falls Away

MM: How does this process differ when giving up control of making the entire project on your own? How much did this differ between making the artist book on Cuba versus working with Zatara?

MG: When you make a book on your own you have control of everything, which is amazing, but you do not have anyone to bounce ideas off of, reel you in or help you to make tough choices. You are on your own somewhat unless you seek outside guidance. Which in the case of my Cuba book I most certainly did given it was the first artist book I ever put out into the world.

I think working with a publisher as well as a co-author changes the game a bit, there is potential for conflict when making decisions. In working with Eliot, well, it was a dream and a goal of mine since grad school (I mean l literally have it on a 5-10 year goal sheet tacked up in my office). I found the entire process to be collaborative and supportive -- I was really a part of a team. I feel we got very lucky in working with Andrew at Zatara too. He really let Eliot and I design and make the book we wanted. I never once felt I was compromising. From the edit, the sequence, to the materials, printing and onto construction, he really just asked us what our dream book was and made it happen.

MM: Diverging a bit from the book and your work, you are also an educator. How has this changed your career in photography?

MG: This is such a good question! Teaching and making is really quite reflexive. Everything effects everything. We have to know to teach. Which means we as educators are constantly reading, studying, and writing about photography. We are in the soup. Which makes us better educators, but also better artists. In researching to teach I often find inspiration and I take this into my studio practice. And vice versa, in my practice I find new ways to engage students.

I will say, time takes on a whole new meaning when you are an educator and a mother on top of being an artist. I often tell my students to soak it up, this time they have now in school. Time to make my own creative work is something that I have much less of now so I get really organized about it. I prioritize and focus. I am also learning to carve that time out for creativity like a habit. Making that time sacred by creating rituals to help me gear up for it and transition into it. It has been great this summer.

MM: How do you engage young photographers in their photographic education? How do you see that as different from your photographic education, especially with the changes in the perception of photography and its mass consumption online and through social media?

MG: I embrace all things. My first camera was a Nikkormat 35 mm. Most students today make their first images on their cell phones. They get digital cameras and possibly already know Photoshop, somewhat, by the time they step foot into a photo class. So I teach curriculum that engages in all the ways. I teach analog, digital, alternative process, installation, writing, and professional practices, just to name a few. I do think it is important to engage students by having them use the tools that they have been raised with, like cell phones and social media. I do not shy away, but embrace these technologies. For instance I have a section within in my Digital Photography class called Digital Conversations where two participants solely communicate through their cell phones with pictures. Back and forth they send images to one another until they reach a set amount. They must receive, read, and respond to the image. After which they come together make a PowerPoint then analyze what they have made together through a series of questions I provide. This section based off of projects shown on A New Nothing and the show at the MET called Talking Pictures—Camera Phone Conversations. The students love this project. I think it is imperative we meet students where they are at and show them how powerful these devices can be. Teaching visual literacy is incredibly important precisely because it is so ubiquitous.

MM: You can speak to this at your institution, your research or dialogue with other educators, how do you think that education can prepare them for the visual and professional aspects of a photographic career?

MG: We cannot prepare them for everything, but we can try to provide them with a well-rounded photographic arts education given the time that we have with them. Realities do not change with a degree, nor do responsibilities or the job market once you get out of school. This is a fact. I think the most important thing is to teach students, who want to continue as working artists, how to maintain a creative practice outside of school. Giving them the tools to set up habits and rituals that will ensure this is paramount. Teaching them to diversify their skills, to network and most of all persevere would also be on that list of priorities besides teaching them everything I possibly can that is photo related. I have told my students time and time again, no good story of success came without perseverance.

MM: I know you are working on some new projects. Do you want to share a bit about what you are working on for the future for your work and collaborative projects?

MG: Honestly every project affects the next in some way. The experience of a soon-to-be-mother out in the world in Nothing That Falls Away directly lead me to the work that I am making now, which focuses on the aftermath of birth, moving into motherhood while maintaining a sense of self and autonomy as a human. It is divergent visually (given it is not traditional landscape images) but it is a direct descendent of this work albeit more abstracted and non-linear. The project is entitled Somewhere Within and Without, and it attempts to subtly shift and deconstruct the ways in which we engage with space, time and perception—being and not being. It draws upon personal historical identity to raise questions about the self before and after a traumatic event, such as the birth of a child or the loss of a loved one (or even the self for that matter). There is strangeness in this liminal place we inhabit. Say for instance waking each morning, to the familiar, coming into a new consciousness of who you are now versus who you were before—feeling only this echo of the former self. The images in the series are distillations of these senses and experiences. Using everyday household objects, to mark a point of departure from what we think we know. The work offers a way to meditate and contemplate these discordant and poignant transitions.

As for collaborations, I have some other things coming down the pipeline and once those are more solidified I will be delighted to share!