Lily Brooks

Rarely do we see people in Lily Brooks’ work, but there is little else we tend to think of when looking over her photographs. They recall Walker Evans’ proclivity to see idiosyncrasy in everything, banal and grandiose, quotidian and spectacular. And like William Christenberry’s work, the presence of people seems to saturate each bit of grain in her photographs all the while without any figure, with few exceptions. Brooks is not a southerner, yet she has come to make the lion’s share of her work in the South after studying at the University of Texas and then sticking around, finding herself today in Baton Rouge Louisiana where she teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University.

For the last six years, Brooks has worked on her project, We Have to Count the Clouds, which has taken her all over the country. In her work, she has elucidated the ways in which we at times feel the incessant need to know something—in this case about the weather—yet we indulge our recidivist impulse to ignore the signs. Her work is no testament to a forthcoming doomsday, but it is the evidence of the tact which people posses, the hope that lies out there, the progress made, and all its markers. At a glance, her work has focused on weather stations, landscapes in the crosshairs of climate change, and those places which stand between, concurrently forthright, personal, sentimental, poignant, yet not maudlin nor saccharine. I sat down with Brooks late last year as we mused a bit on how she came to this work and what place its headed in the year to come.

Michael Adno: How did you come to the title, We Have to Count the Clouds?

Lily Brooks: It came out of a conversation I had at Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory. I was there making a video of weather instruments spinning on the roof, and a meteorologist came up behind me and asked if I was “watching the weather for him”. I replied, “No sir, not much weather happening today”. And he said, “Well, we have to count the clouds,” and started naming all the different types of clouds he could see in the sky, cumulus, stratocumulus, and so on. It was in the background of the video–I hadn’t intended to record audio. When I was editing, I heard this conversation and thought, oh, that’s going to be the title for the project. I like it because it implicates the viewer and points to our collective need to know and understand.

MA: Could you tell me how you got from the map [initial photo Brooks made] to the weather stations and so forth?

LB: I moved to Texas for graduate school in August of 2011, during a record-setting heat wave. We had 90 days over 100 degrees in Austin. Being from New England, I had never experienced heat like that. The body of work I had been making prior to the move, called Birds of Maryland, was very personal. When I got to Texas I knew I had to start making work, but I was without the material I normally worked with: my family, friends, the familiar landscape. So moving across the country was disruptive in a number of ways, good ways. I had to adjust and start over.

I decided to make photographs about heat. It was the only thing I could think about. I couldn’t imagine going out into the landscape with a 4 x 5 camera, the dark cloth, etc., but I immediately thought of the newspaper weather map. One day when it was 112 degrees outside, I went to the store, found a good-looking map in the paper, cut it out and glued it on the window inside my air-conditioned apartment. In the following months I made other pictures about heat in a more conceptual way, thinking about desire, color and also temperature, but I kept coming back to that first picture.

I felt it was one of the most complicated photographs I’d ever made. This dumb little paper symbol represented the daily symptom of a huge, complex problem that had short and long term consequences. As I whined about my sweat and discomfort, ranchers in Texas were being forced to sell off their cattle because it was impossible to keep them watered. It was the most serious drought since the 1950’s. That Labor Day weekend, there was a wildfire outside Austin that took more than 1600 homes, including my professor Mark Goodman’s house. All of this was unfolding around me, and I think that picture had a sense of tension in it, between the control involved in the act of making and the chaos described by the pink and red of the map itself. It pointed to my own anxiety.

I decided I wanted to figure out how all that important information got distilled into a cartoon version of itself. I wondered who was translating patterns of wind and rain so that we could understand it, perhaps anticipate the coming day, track daily events as evidence of something greater. I remembered visiting Blue Hill Observatory as a kid–it’s the oldest continuously operating weather station in the US, outside Boston. I was heading back east that spring, so I called, and they gave me permission to photograph. I later was granted access by the National Weather Service to photograph at their office in New Braunfels, TX.

At these observatories there is a lot of evidence of the fact that it’s actual human beings who keep operations running. To me that was unmistakable in the objects that I saw there. For instance, in the image of the rain gauge, there’s a sharp barrier cut with a saw that looks like teeth or a crown, a modification to prevent birds from defecating into the gauge and skewing the data. When I saw it, I thought it looked quite menacing and also a bit like folk art. There was a kind of mark-making that happened when that person altered that thing. Other marks were being made as well, records kept, notes taken, graphs drawn. It occurred to me that I was looking for this invisible thing, the weather, the wind and temperature, which is often hard to see with a camera. I liked the idea of those forces becoming visible at these observatories–the places where rainfall or cloud cover can become data. That made me think about how mark-making could happen in the landscape as well. I started looking for other kinds of traces and indicators.

Meanwhile (and perhaps because of my heightened awareness) it seemed that extreme weather events were happening everywhere­. I remember people encouraging me to go to Oklahoma to photograph in the aftermath of a series of devastating tornadoes in 2013. I never thought of the project as being documentary in nature, and I felt trepidation about telling other people’s stories or making photographs that I felt would be exploitative. Finally with a bit of reluctance I went to the state forest in Bastrop, where that wildfire had happened in 2011. It was maybe 18 months afterward, and I photographed the regrowth. I found other places where weather events had left a mark on the landscape–a flash flood or drought. I looked for formal qualities I thought would relate to the meteorological images. There’s a picture of erosion of the pink clay cliffs on Martha’s Vineyard. My reason for going there was twofold. I knew I wanted to make a photograph addressing rising sea levels after reading about the effects of climate change on the island, but I also had another motivation–I wanted a pink picture for the edit. I tend to follow my instincts, respond to surroundings. This past summer I was at a residency in the Flint Hills of Kansas. I went there not knowing what I’d work on, trusting I’d find something, and then I spotted a tornado siren in the tiny town of Eskridge. The thing is an object of beauty, like a little yellow sculpture perched on top of the volunteer fire station–I had no idea what it was at first. Following that, I made a series of pictures of sirens. It was the perfect excuse to explore, and I find it fascinating that each one is different, each tiny town has it own beacon of defense.

I’m not attempting to make a comprehensive inventory or tell the whole story here. The project has taken shape over the course of years–that’s partially because a lot of it is based on my own experiences, sense of wonder, anxiety and intuition. It’s very personal though you might not see that immediately. I also don’t think I’m presenting just one question. I’m looking at our relationship to weather and climate in a way that I hope is complex and nuanced.

MA: I know you’ve taught for a while, and I wanted to ask how working with slightly younger people has influenced your work and the way you approach your work?

LB: With teaching, I oscillate between feeling reassured that I know a lot, then on another hand, and sometimes in the same moment­, I feel like I don’t know anything. There is a constant exchange of information, and I try to listen as much as I talk, most days. I have to ask myself a lot of questions, so teaching is intellectually stimulating and challenging in a way that’s generative. Looking at students’ work and thinking about it, helping them identify what it is that they care about and how they can make pictures about those things, is an exercise in asking myself to do the same. I think that sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s true. I also think your students can connect you to a place. When I started teaching in Austin, I had never lived off the East Coast for very long, so when I began teaching these classrooms full of people from Texas, they became my access point. The same is happening in Louisiana [Where Lily teaches at Southeastern Louisiana University]. Louisiana’s cultural landscape is incredibly complex–wild and beautifully full of distinct, autonomous but overlapping traditions. I feel connected to this place through my students, they are helping me to understand it more than any book or map ever could.

MA: With the kind of real-estate climate change has staked out in our public, political discourse, in light of the election and so forth, how do you feel about this project now with the increased interest in the environment internationally?

LB: Climate change was always the subtext for the work, but with the way facts are being twisted and truths ignored or smoothed over these days, I feel I need to be more explicit about my intentions. When I started this work, I assumed (perhaps stupidly) that the existence and threat of climate change was a given, a fact most people accepted. Especially since the inauguration, however, there seems to be an inability or trepidation to have a frank conversation about the consequences of what is happening by the people whose job it is or will be to create policy. Scientists are being silenced, and our Secretary of State is a career oil executive. I think the role of artists is to ask questions and invite reflection and I hope that’s what this work does. The challenge for me is that I’m not interested in making pictures that prescribe an answer to a problem, or tie this bow up neatly by being didactic. I sure don’t have an answer. I’m just more and more interested in describing our roll in this as both potential victims and responsible perpetrators.

Since moving to Louisiana I feel more of an urgent need to address our vulnerability. I can tell you that the flooding we had here in August last year–which was catastrophic and completely unreported by the national media–seeing that made me feel more humbled, more afraid and more determined than ever. Before I moved here in 2015 I had started coming to the Gulf coast to photograph the flood control structures, the levees and seawalls. Recently I’ve been returning to the Bonnet Carré Spillway, which prevents flooding of the Mississippi in the case of heavy rainfall. I find these engineering marvels formally beautiful–a built environment that is a kind of monument to futility, fear, maybe hubris. It’s part of the reason why I wanted to live here, before I got the job, and it’s part of the reason why I want to stay here, because I think this is a place where I can make a lot of work.

Lily Brooks was born in Massachusetts in 1981. She received a BFA from the Massachusetts College of Art + Design in 2006 and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin in 2014. In 2013-14, she was named a Powers Research Fellow. Lily’s work has been published in the Austin Chronicle and Cabinet magazine, and was recently exhibited in Forces at Work, a three-person show at the Visual Arts Center in Austin, Texas, and in a solo exhibition at Aviary, in Boston, MA in January, 2015.

Lily is full-time Instructor of Photography at Southeastern Louisiana University and lives and works in Baton Rouge.

Michael is an artist and writer based in New York City, born in Florida as a first generation American. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Surfer’s Journal, Camera Austria International, and At Large magazines among others. Over the past year, he was a fellow at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, awarded the Lower East Side Printshop’s Keyholder Residency, and nominated for the Smithsonian’s Artist Research Fellowship in 2017. He’s written about the privatization of juvenile justice to the first surfing demonstrations in America and the restoration of the Everglades.

To view more of Lily’s work, visit her website.

To see more of Michael’s work and his writing, visit his website.