Andrew Wertz is Visiting Assistant Professor of Fine Arts at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. His photography addresses the social landscape and built environment of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast United States with a particular attention to the Anthracite Coal Region of Pennsylvania. He speaks to the changing nature of our cities and the marginalization of identity endemic to the unmitigated pursuit of capital. Also, life… he speaks to it’s charms. Not hopeful per se, but diligent when it comes to work. He is the delighted father of Samuel David, and husband of Kate. He resides in Andover, CT.
Everywhere Under Your Feet
These photographs are part of a long term body of work exploring Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, a place that holds special significance for me as the place where my parents and grandparents were raised and called home. It is both a revisitation of past memory, personal mythology, and present day interrogation of place and meaning. The coal region’s long and steady decline from prosperity and it’s continued march toward obsolescence is not presented here as lament. It’s a part of us eventually as well. While it’s impossible to not acknowledge and perceive a sense of loss herein, that is only part of it, the work and the world itself ask more.
AB: Hey Andrew, glad to have you onboard! I have to say that at first glance your work oozes with the melancholy of a forgotten past and an uncertain future. How do you feel about this sort of reading?
AW: I think that the reading is accurate, but I’m hoping that the more one looks at the work, the feeling goes deeper than just a surface level description, i.e. nostalgic navel gazing into the past. The word you used, melancholy, is fitting. That there is a sensation of describing something that has already past, and won’t return, but in some way is still here. And that’s the part that I’m interested in: what’s still here, the rareness of these spaces existing both in and out of time. The read of the work I’m constantly trying to avoid is one that evokes sadness, or bathos… a heavy handed or easy read that says, “Look at what’s happened to this place, isn’t it a shame?”
AB: Many photographers who work within the ostensibly defined genre of documentary, myself included, recognize the inherent responsibilities one must be aware of when making work. As you said, you want to avoid a superficial read that can lead to negative sentiments such as pity and contempt. How do you feel making this work as both an insider and outsider to these communities?
AW: It was initially an extremely difficult thing for me to do. One of the first times I went there with a camera, this was back in probably 2005 and just a couple years after my grandmother had died, I found myself completely unable to take pictures. I was so aware of the gulf between what the place meant to me and what I wanted a picture to say, and the reality of what a picture actually says… and doesn’t. I just completely froze up. So when I returned years later, it was with knowledge and the awareness that I had to find a way to make photographs that were capable of translating my own intense connection into images. They had to be generous, open, complex. I’ve also been extremely privileged in terms of being both an outsider (not having been raised there) but also an insider in that both sides of my family tree all came from there. It has allowed me a level of access and acceptance that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
I’m also coming from the starting point of acknowledging that there isn’t “one story” or even a “right” story about this place, only a right way of approaching it. That is honestly and directly the best way I knew how. That it was impossible to remove my own filter in regards to my status as outsider, and that this was an integral part in the way I looked at this place. From my earliest childhood memories, these towns provided the backdrop of what I knew of as “upstate”, the place we went to visit my grandparents, the place my parents grew up; it was locked in that unalterable mythic narrative of the self. It’s visual imprint from such an early age is inseparable in a way.
AB: What are your feelings on the documentary practice as whole? Mainly, how do you see documentary photography operating within the seemingly infinite complexities of the real world?
AW: That’s just it. “…the infinite complexities of the world.” The desire to engage that is at the heart of my own relationship to the photographic art. Of all the labels prescribed to different ways of working, I’m most comfortable with “documentary photographer” in that it acknowledges the very intense relationship, dependent relationship, with what surrounds us, what’s going on outside, what’s here. And that the camera becomes this bridge into seeing and engaging and investigating that reality. It’s just always so much more than it seems at first glance, so one must be open and willing to be knocked over by your own incredibly simple understanding and through work and diligence and more work, begin to build something that is capable of existing meaningfully in and of itself.
It’s that Walker Evans quote, “Stare, listen, pry, eavesdrop, die knowing something. you are not here long.” I would like my time on this earth to be spent up through things, and I see a documentary pursuit as a way of saving myself, in a way, from an insulated navel gazing myopic existence. Not that it doesn’t perhaps end up that way eventually; it’s a much more honest attempt.
AB: I must say it is truly humbling to accept that no matter how hard we try and fight for this subjective truth, we might never attain such a reality if that is even possible. The sort of self-awareness and honesty you are speaking of is crucial more than ever, and I commend you for disseminating such important ideas.
AW: Yeah man, it’s the real shit. Everybody’s got to find their way to comes to term with it, and it doesn’t help to not acknowledge it. But I see it in your work too. The dissolution of home and identity is unstoppable… it’s only our brief sense of stability that is the exception. Anyways, what matters is what you do with yourself once you get over the fact that there is no lasting objective truths, it’s all a wash. But you make work and you keep going.
I love this quote by Diane Arbus, “The world is a noah’s ark on the sea of eternity containing all the endless pairs of things, irreconcilable and inseparable, and heat will always long for cold and the back for the front and smiles for tears and mutt for Jeff and no for yes with the most unutterable nostalgia there is.”
AB: Thank you, and that is a great quote to keep in mind. One last thing before we part, and this is just a quick observation: would you consider yourself a romantic?
AW: Yeah, entirely. I like to think it’s balanced with a sturdy dose of skepticism and cynicism, but I’m unabashedly a romantic. If there was ever any doubt, the experience of being a new father put that to rest. And it’s interesting that you bring it up, because that’s what is kind of at the heart of the matter. I still want to believe and feel beauty, and yet i’m not really sure it entirely exists independently at all. But I can’t let go of the need and the desire for reconciliation, for love.
AB: I fully am on your boat, and I don’t want to sound sappy but love and reconciliation is often forgotten in the world we live in now. I would love to expand on your experiences being a new father but unfortunately our time is up! We’ll keep that one for the next time. Thank you for being with us today, and I hope the best for you in your future endeavors!
AW: Thank you!
To see more of Andrew’s work, check out his website.