(Photo Credit: Stacey McMahan)
We had the opportunity to talk to local artist Adam Stephenson (@tiltandfade) about his upcoming photography exhibition with Edgar Lituma Soto (@estoydespierto) “F*ck it, I’m Out”. This show chronicles Adam’s five month journey out west following his departure from his job and home here in Atlanta. Read Adam’s insights on contemporary life, creativity, and art below, and be sure to check out his show this coming Saturday December 3rd at 634 N Highland Ave NE, Atlanta, GA.
Q: What caused you to just say ‘Fuck it’?
My work commute, that was the retrospective understanding of it though. At the time, I hadn't really seen any of that stuff. I’ve lived my whole life and I just started traveling two years ago and I've pretty much been stuck in the south and I've only seen the South. So my perspective was very limited to the south. The biggest mountains I’ve seen were the Smokys, the biggest peak was Clingman’s Dome. And that's nothing compared to what's out west, from what I’d heard. There's wilderness out there that I’d heard about. It doesn't seem real when you've been in Atlanta for 15 years. But during the trip it was like ‘Ok I see the worst part of my whole existence was the commute’, but it took some reflection to really understand that.
Q: When you went into this trip did you plan for it to be an art project or was this a really personal thing you wanted to do?
It was more of a personal thing I wanted to do. I'd been shooting cityscapes for so long. Not that long, like 2 years, but I got really deep into it. I was starting to get really abstract with it and I like that but I wanted some different subject matter. I wanted to learn how to shoot nature. Life had gotten really cushy. At one point in my life I used to be really broke. I didn't have hot water, I didn't have electricity. Not all the time granted, but there would be periods where it would be dark and cold in my house and I didn't have enough money for food. In some ways during those days I felt more alive. I was looking for that again. I was trying to strip down all the elements of my existence to bare, natural things. Put myself in a completely uncomfortable place and I have to rely on my own survival skills. I had food and stuff like that, I didn't have to hunt. But still if I got stuck in the desert I would have had to take care of that situation. Spending five months living in your truck you run into problems. I didn't have too many, but I ran into a few. I wanted to challenge myself, life was getting mundane.
Q: But you did get some art out of it?
I did. I ended up documenting the entire thing. Every day I wrote a journal entry too so every single day was documented to varying degrees of elaboration. Some days it was full on narrative and some times it was just ‘I did this today, and met this person and went here’. I plan on writing some kind of book or maybe starting a blog where I post an entry every day. I wanted to make sure I was having some kind of creative output during the whole process, I didn’t want to just go on vacation.
Q: Do you think it’s influenced you creatively now?
Oh yeah, for sure. I didn’t have nearly as much appreciation for nature. I still loved nature, my favorite documentary is Planet Earth. But I never had been in it. Like the Smokys were it. Getting out towards Yellowstone and Wyoming where there's fricking grizzly bears and jagged mountains that are some of the youngest mountains on earth, you could just see the raw earth power emerging from the ground. Yeah, I would say that mountains and glaciers are more of an influence on what I want to approach aesthetically, at least with my paintings. Where as before it was more abstraction and flowers and just ornate things. I want to incorporate big, powerful things but I have yet to figure out how to do that. But it's definitely influenced me.
In my photography, I don't know, I’m having a hard time going back to the cityscapes. I still find beauty in the cityscapes and the big tall buildings and the way light reflects off of them, but it doesn’t take my breath the way getting to the top of a mountain would. I really worked at getting to that point and you just feel at one with the universe. For a brief moment you feel you have some kind of understanding of life and it’s meaning even if it goes away as soon you walk back down.
Q: Is there one part of your travels that stood out the most? Do you have any stories you want to share?
One moment, Big Bend Texas, I went on my first real solo hike that was more than just a few miles, and summited my first mountain. I don’t remember the name of the mountain but I remember the name of the trail, which was the Lost Mine Trail. I was out there alone, there were signs for bears and cougars everywhere. I was terrified that I was going to die that day, I was pretty sure I was going to die that day actually. Or at least have some sort of encounter. Because I just had this perception that if you’re out here alone you’re gonna find a bear, it’s just going to happen, it happens all the time right? So I’m hiking up this thing trying to make as much noise as I can, being kind of ridiculous really. I got my backpack on the front of my body to protect vital organs. I did not have a gun, I had a big knife that and I was definitely practicing pulling the knife out. I had watched ‘The Revenant’ right before I left which was not the best move. I just continued hiking, at some point I came up to some older people, like around 70’s, and they were climbing it. I thought “These people are up here and they haven't found any bears”, and I hadn’t heard anybody talk about any bears so I started to feel a little bit better about it. I hiked with them for a little bit just to not be alone. But I left them behind and got to the top of this mountain and there was nobody up there. And, I don’t know, I had never been to the top of a mountain that I hiked, I’ve driven to the tops of mountains before, but not hiked. You could just run across the crest and over here you can see the Texas Badlands, amazing desert everywhere. I felt at peace and for that moment I understood “Ok, I’m doing the right thing”, still a little terrified, but felt good on top of the mountain. It was the first moment on the trip where I confronted fear and shook it a little bit.
Q: Did you have your camera on quick draw or were the shots more deliberate during the trip?
It was deliberate to some degree. If you’re going on a hike that's just like 8 miles of hike, you don’t really know what what the hell you’re getting into. Sometimes the whole hike you’re seeing amazing stuff and sometimes it’s just, you’re in the woods and you get to a vista. But you have to time it where, at least in bear country, you’re not out at night alone. It’s not safe to be out alone. So the timing was very deliberate, and I just always had two cameras on me. I had the wide angle and I had the zoom lens. I was shooting what I could when I could. I was getting way better composition as I went along and I got way better at the exposures I was taking. I put it on full manual at some point and really got expressive with it. But I couldn’t control the environment at all. I just had to hope for the best. Sometimes you go on a hike and it’s really beautiful but capturing it in an image is pretty tough, there’s not always a great view. So I would just hope for the best, that’s all I could do. That’s how I enjoy doing photography anyway. I don’t like setting up shots or anything like that. It feels too orchestrated. I like to catch things as they are.
Q: Do you prefer photography or painting? Do you have a preference?
I go through creative cycles. They both have their pertinent values. I think at this point I might enjoy photography more, just because it has pushed me to explore the outside world far beyond anywhere I previously imagined going. I didn’t ever think I would go out to the west and have this adventure. And if it wasn't for photography, I never would have done that. For painting, it’s not like I was going to go set up my easel in Yellowstone and try to find a bear. No, only photography would have pushed me to do that. So maybe photography has brought me more overall joy. But then painting has it’s own value, with photography I am exploring the outside world very deeply, painting I start to explore the inside world very deeply. It’s a period of introspection and focus, in my own mind, in abstraction of ideas. Theres things that you can do with painting that you just can't do with photography. You can do some abstraction with photography sure. With painting you can take it as far as your imagination will allow you, so I appreciate that about painting. But painting didn’t take me to Yellowstone.
Q: When did you begin photography?
I guess I started in 2014, and like a lot of people I started because of Instagram. I was just shooting whatever, I was shooting graffiti and stuff like that at first. And I just happened to catch a sunset somewhere on the beltline that got picked up by a few Instagram blogs like We Love ATL. When it got posted it had the second most likes of all the photos, and I was like “What? Ok, maybe I got something here”. So I got a little camera after that, a little Canon. Then me and Ryan Vizzons, A Modern Ghost, had a show at the W in 2014. I didn’t know what I was doing with a camera then, but it went really well and all sorts of people bought my photos. I didn't even have a DSLR at the time of the show, after the shows success I took the money from the show, bought a DSLR and really focused on photography. It began to take up a lot more of my time and I took it a lot more seriously after that.
I’ve always been into creative expression and exploration. When I was writing graffiti I would go into these abandoned spaces, because that's where you could paint and not get into trouble. So I already had that under my belt. Getting into photography gave me another reason to go back out there because I had already given up on graffiti, it was just too much trouble. Literal trouble with the law. I didn’t want to do that anymore but I still loved the exploration aspect of it and photography gives me a non-destructive way to do the same thing.
Q: Your work covers a wide range of subjects, what do you enjoy photographing the most? Why?
At this point its nature. I wasn’t expecting it to be nature. Just because of where your body physically goes to capture these images. The camera is just my attempt to share that with somebody, this crazy view or this crazy atmospheric phenomenon or something like that. So yeah it's nature. Some of that stuff you find in cities. I still love walking through cities, there's an energy and vibrancy there that you can't find anywhere else at all. Especially in New York or LA or somewhere like that. But I definitely learned from this trip that I prefer to be in nature rather than the city. I would be in nature for a while then I went to a place like LA. I was in LA for two and a half weeks and I shot every day that I was there and it just felt like something that I had already conquered to some degree. Whereas nature, I don't think that's something you can ever conquer. It’s just too much, too big. You can spend all your life at one park and still not get everything.
Q: Having travelled the country, how do you think Atlanta holds up creatively?
I feel like still New York and LA for sure have a leg up on Atlanta. From being in LA I was exposed to all this graffiti and street art seeing the dudes that inspired me when I was just getting started and they were everywhere. So it was kind of like going to the Louvre, it was cool because I got to see the masters. To me LA still has the masters, at least with graffiti and street art. Obviously thats arguable.
But we’re making moves here. I go to these other cities and if I tell somebody I’m from Atlanta they get really excited. There seems to be some kind of mythology about Atlanta that's out there now, that ten years ago I don't think it would have been there. It is people like Desiigner, who's not even from here, and Future, I think music is really putting Atlanta on the map.
Artistically there's a lot of talent, but as photographers we can only shoot Atlanta. And the city just doesn’t have the variety of aesthetic that something like Chicago does or New York City. So we’re kind of limited by our environment but our expression is easily up there with the best photographers in the country.
Q: What is your definition of art?
That is a loaded question. In my opinion, it should be something that's beautiful. I take contention with these people that make art that's just fucking stupid. Like stuff that’s just stupid to be stupid and make you really annoyed. Every now and then I have some appreciation for that stuff, but for the most part I feel that those people aren’t artists they’re just clowns.
So I think beauty is central to what art is even though the in the modern definition of art we’ve left that behind. You can show stuff from reality like homelessness and things like that, which isn’t necessarily beautiful, but that in my opinion still falls into the category of art. Because you can take a very beautiful picture of this very not beautiful subject and put it in a different light. So I think there’s some depth there. But I really do think it’s some kind of personal expression of your perception of beauty.
Adam’s closing thoughts:
What I want people to get out of the show, obviously it would be cool if you bought a print, but I'd rather you walk away with some kind of desire to leave the city and go out and get as deep into nature as you can, for as long as you can. There's just something about that that just puts you in your place. You start to see a lot of the anxiety that a city can create, that when you’re in the city you kind of just roll with it. But you get out of that city for a little while and it's just like “Is that even natural? Is that the way we’re supposed to be living?” And you start asking questions like that, and if you’ve lived your whole life in the city or the city is your thing you don’t ask those questions enough. I want people to come to the show and I want them to get the fuck out. Get out, way out. Scare yourself.