Jay Seawell In Conversation With Samantha Belden / by Paul D'Amato

Reporter II, 2012 from the series National Trust

Reporter II, 2012 from the series National Trust

Samantha Belden: Can you speak about your project National Trust?

Jay Seawell: National Trust is an exploration of American political and media culture in a time when the 2012 presidential election was happening. The work is concerned with surface appearances and how calculated appearances are in the context of various spectacles like political rallies or events generated for the media. Another component of the project is looking at classical architecture in places like the Financial Districts because the ongoing financial crisis is part of the context for this work. So there are a subset of pictures in this project where the spectacles are unfolding around this classical architecture that communicates stability. The project is a synthesis of these different angles.

SB: Do you see it as a finished body of work or does it continue to evolve just as politics change and media changes?

JS: Well, I do see it as finished. I actually stopped working on it around the time of the government shutdown in 2013. Conversations I had with people about the work revolved around this notion of trust and how much can we really trust the government. How much can we really trust the appearances and manufacturing of appearances when in reality things are in shambles? When the shutdown happened that seemed to be the climax. Our government couldn’t even function and we’re supposedly the most powerful country in the world. I did photograph a couple of times for the project after the shutdown, but I really just felt like I was repeating myself and I felt like the project ran it’s course. So I’ve moved on from it. I have been interested in having the work exist as a book.

Supreme Court, 2013 from the series National Trust

Supreme Court, 2013 from the series National Trust

SB: Why is a book the proper outlet to show and contain this body of work?

JS: Part of the reason for that is because I developed a personal fascination with photobooks when I was a grad student. In terms of the work itself, I felt like I wanted the project to have more than one subject. What I mean is that I didn’t want every single picture to be about the media or about history and architecture. I wanted there to be some relationships among these subjects. I think a book is a good way of establishing connections between pictures and to get a conversation going about pictures and how they inform each other in the project.

SB: You’ve been working with the Skylark team to edit and design the book. How has it been creating the book and allowing others to have a hand in it? Do you think differently about your work? Have you found any new or surprising connections in your work?

JS: In terms of design I was working on layouts of this book before Skylark Editions’ proposal came about. With this body of work, I was very conservative with the design. I felt that the pictures themselves were kind of classical and had a strong formal sense in them. I wasn’t going crazy with the design and that’s why I’m glad I handed it over to other people like Paul, Kelli, and Greg, who have had other suggestions on how to design the book. They came up with a version that has much more variation in sizes of images and placement on the page. It brings a new kind of flow and energy to the work that wasn’t there when I was working with a more conservative aesthetic.

Five Dollars, 2013 from the series National Trust

Five Dollars, 2013 from the series National Trust

SB: What has your experience been trying to find a press to publish your project? I remember you made a mock-up and I’m curious about your experience through that.

JS: I submitted the mock-up to some publishers. I was nominated for a First Book Award. I also met with some publishers in-person at Review Santa Fe during the summer, but nothing has come from it. So it’s been very challenging trying to find a publisher. It made me realize just how difficult it is to get published. I’m very excited to have this opportunity with Skylark and to see the book take shape. This version of National Trust will be a more concise edit and a smaller trim size than what I was working with before. I think it represents the project well, but I hope this is just the first iteration of the book.

SB: I am curious about your new project, The Mall. You’ve been working on it for a while. How has it been evolving? I remember you were talking about ideas of working with a specific place and even the idea of the man-made landscape that’s in the National Mall, but I’m curious about how you’re thinking about it now.

JS: I think when we talked a year ago I was still working with archival images of the National Mall and mixing it in with my own images. A big change from then to now is that I discarded the archival images and I’m only working with my own images now. I’m thinking about the project in much more subjective terms, how it is my very personal and intimate interpretation of this landscape. It’s an ongoing theme in projects about America to explore the discrepancies between the ideal and the real. I've been thinking about the project more in those terms as well, because the Mall in D.C. is such an idealized place. The project is more of an expression of what this place looks like from the point of view of somebody who has grown disenchanted and cynical about the idealism of the place in light of the anxiety I feel the state of the country is in right now. It is hitting closer to home now that I live in D.C.

4th of July, 2013, 2013 from the series National Trust

4th of July, 2013, 2013 from the series National Trust

SB: Are there any photobooks you are looking at now or getting excited about?

JS: Yeah, recently I’ve been spending a good amount of time looking at John Gossage’s Berlin in the Time of the Wall and also reading Gerry Badger’s writing about it. There’s a lot of writing in that book. I think partly because there’s a lot of pictures in that book. It’s very epic, so the book itself is a force to be reckoned with. On top of the fact that it’s dealing with a very serious subject matter. It’s definitely been informing my approach to photographing around the Mall.

SB: You just started a blog called “Mysterious Facts.” I’m curious about that. Can you speak to why you started it and do you see it as functioning as something else in the future?

JS: I started the blog because I felt like I had some things to say about photography and art. I mean everyone has things to say these days but I felt like what I wanted to write was a much longer form than a Facebook post usually is. I’ve only put up a few posts to this point, but in the future, I’ll plan on doing some reviews or little articles about photobooks that I’m really into. I also don’t want it to just be me rambling about things all the time. I want to start interviewing people who I think are doing really cool things. Expose them and what they’re doing. Blogs aren’t so hot right now. I’m very aware of that. The blog craze has already happened, so I’m kind of working against trends, but podcasts are really hot right now, so I’ve thought about starting a “Mysterious Facts” podcast that would work in conjunction with the blog. So we’ll see.

Samantha Belden is an artist and a recent graduate of the photography program at Columbia College Chicago. She produced this interview as a member of the Skylark Hub, a cohort of Columbia students that helped launch Skylark Editions in the Fall of 2015.