In Conversation: Esther Macy Nooner

Esther Macy Nooner was raised dividing time between Maryland and Arkansas. She spent much of her childhood exploring coastal and rural terrains that provided a fundamental belief in the necessity and importance of Nature to human beings. Historic photographers and travel influence her research and studio practice. She received her M.F.A. in Studio Art from University of Arkansas, School of Art in 2018. She has participated in Artist in Residencies in the National Park System, shown work nationally and internationally and is currently the Studio Coordinator for Photography and New Media at Anderson Ranch Arts Center.


Modified Landscapes: The Nature of Representation

At the core of my studio practice is the exploration of the photograph as a material object. Because of its representational abilities, photography has provided a reliance on images for truth. The history of landscape representations has established the tradition of Romantic ideologies that, in our current climate, provide a disproportionate view regarding our environment. By pushing the photograph and breaking from the formality, the object presents the viewer with an opportunity to mediate on the yielding of Nature.

Modified Landscapes is the photographic meditation and exploration of my experiences within the landscape. Photography has become a primary method of absorbing information and I believe we should question the images we are swarmed with on a daily basis. Even though photography has been regarded as ‘truth’, there are still many decisions made in the production of any image. My formal disruption is meant to be an awareness of the falsehood that Romanticized landscape representations perpetuate. The installation of this exhibition pushes the tradition of the framed photograph. The varying placement of the photographic objects, whether in the corner or on the floor, utilize the structure of the gallery. The play with representation by way of multiples, shape, placement and fundamental elements of the medium also provide moments of thought and meditation.

Kyra Schmidt: Hi Esther! I am thrilled to be able to connect.

Your series “Modified Landscapes” and “Well-Worn Landscapes” looks at the production, consumption, and distribution of images – in this case of our landscapes. Why is it important for you to work apart from the traditional, idealized romantic vista?

 Esther Macy Nooner: I’d like to think that I start in the traditional and work my way out of the idealized. Beauty and aesthetics is important to me when I make work about nature. Not for the sake of Art, but because it offers up a more open and relative approach to landscape that is still within the canon of landscape photography. The landscape has been portrayed throughout history via idealized romantic views, so using that as a point of reference for the viewer and for myself as a maker is important because it is the landscape we historically recognize. How I treat the sublime (or representation of such) is my reflection on how nature is more accurately treated today, specifically in Well-Worn Landscapes. In this series, I asked individuals to wear a photograph printed on adhesive vinyl, stuck on their cell phone. Their everyday use wore the image away. I am intrigued by how the ink and the content of the image is slowly erased by everyday smartphone usage. It immediately reminded me of hash tagging and geotagging photographs – how this brings the masses to sacred spaces but  in turn destroys them.

 Kyra Schmidt: There is also an environmental undertone to your work. What are you hoping to bring to or lay out on the table?

 Esther Macy Nooner: When I started thinking about nature and (modernist) representation, I was doing a lot of looking – at other artists work online, in books, etc. I viewed plenty of work that portrayed the landscape as defeated, bygone. Then, on a long road trip, I picked up a John Muir book. I was captivated with how he talked about Nature in such a present and raw voice. His text awoke me. In such a way that I knew I could not talk about what has been done. I didn’t want to focus on hopelessness or irreversibility, while it certainly has an importance. On the trip, I noticed human artifacts in Nature – plastic bottles and other wasteful materials. Why was it there? How? Consumerism, capitalism, convenience and privilege. Of course, this is a known fact. Instead, I am questioning the tradition of the representational landscape and our hand in climate change. I haven’t yet set out to directly make environmental art but it is difficult to look at Nature without considering climate change.

Window from Modified Landscapes

Kyra Schmidt: Yes. It is difficult to ignore the effects of the Anthropocene, but hopeful to see so many contemporary artists bringing attention to it. You are also working in such a way that brings explicit attention to the photograph as a spatial and commodified object. Not just something for one to look through. Why?

Esther Macy Nooner: I have a sticky note in my studio that I have had since my second year in grad school that reads “Ink sitting on paper. The end.” This is what a photograph is, ink on paper. Szarkowski would say it’s a “window” or “mirror” but a photograph is a manipulatable object, not just in content but in presentation and material. My manipulations touch on the photograph, not as a portal to another space but as a representation crafted by human language. It is yielded and formed in a very precise manner. This is where disruption comes into play (thinking of my piece Window from Modified Landscapes). It is a simple approach, cutting out the center of an image and denying the viewer entrance into the space represented. It also forces the viewer to engage with other parts of the image that maybe, if given the entire frame, they wouldn’t necessarily focus on. It’s mostly about denial. 

Kyra Schmidt: The act of denial certainly emphasizes other details whether in the image or the materiality. What else draws you toward photographic intervention? Better, what makes this re-making of the traditional straight photograph significant for you?

Esther Macy Nooner: Again the straight, traditional photograph is a point of entry. It represents a way we probably WANT to think but actually don’t act on. The significance, for me in making, is the questioning of the photograph and its content. There has been an argument within this medium of whether a Photograph is the “truth”. But my poking at the photograph as a material certainly questions the mode representation and the content…thinking “perhaps these past ideologies are inappropriate for our current state” (speaking strictly about landscape, if this treatment of the image was done to a person or a culture it would certainly ring different bells). I think this “re-making” certainly places the question to the viewer “why is this like this”, “why it this disruption here?”

Kyra Schmidt: I imagine you are interested (or perhaps distressed is a better term) in the reproducibility of the photograph and its inferred transparency – what is the character of this relationship for you? We are bombarded daily, even hourly, with an overabundance of information – Instagram, travel magazines, etc. Do you think it is still possible to have a genuine, unfiltered experience with Mother Nature? Are we too far gone? 

Esther Macy Nooner: Toward the first part of the question, my relationship to landscape and its reproducibility, I would say it is a love/hate, push/pull kind of thing. 

Do I think it is still possible to own a genuine experience in Nature? Yes. However, I think our definition of Nature is evolving and relative to an individual. Maybe time in Nature for a New Yorker is sitting in the trees of Central Park but to someone who lives in Colorado it is bushwhacking in untrailed terrain. Maybe its sitting on your porch looking at the sky or pounding out a 20 mile hike in one day. The more I think about it, at least for myself, I think it’s a state of mind, a mental and emotional space above all. Is this making sense? I feel like I am rambling my thoughts a little. 

Kyra Schmidt: Oh yes, I am following you! But I guess what I am worried about (maybe too personally) is the distraction of the masses. The lack of being able to get into that headspace, wherever it may be. That act of contemplation feel like a lost art! I guess I shouldn’t sound so pessimistic, mindfulness is kind of making a comeback. 

Esther Macy Nooner: You’re right, there are so many distractions that keep us from achieving that experience. I have done some traveling to National Parks in the past few years and it seems no one can let go of phones and social media connections. Our views become filtered through the front facing camera, posing for a selfie rather than the actual experience of the space. I believe it is possible and it always will be, we just have to fight harder for it and be conscious of our decisions. 

I hope I am not coming across in a defeatist manner, because I don’t think that way. Why I talk about Nature is because I think we need to hold onto what we have. Nature is a place and subject that humans, especially artists, have returned to throughout history… for good reason! It can be such an unforgiving environment that allows for true internal reflection. Sometimes that can be a scary idea, I know it is for me at times.

Kyra Schmidt: Sure. I think the act of contemplation and mindfulness is difficult, truly for the lot of us (myself included). But we must hope in the making, creation, and re-presentation of images that we can channel potent ideas even in the absence of traditionally representation or overtly political subject matter. 

What do you hope your audience will take away from this work?

Esther Macy Nooner: The questions I mentioned before: “why is this like this”, “why it this disruption here?”, “how is this manipulation altering my view?” These are the questions I want viewers to internally ask themselves about my work. And maybe those questions can transition to how we regard Nature. How and why did we get to this point and if we can change, how do we do it? I like to use recycling as a metaphor. Folks think that if they recycle their plastic and other one-time use materials that that evens the playing field. But my follow up to that is what if we didn’t have to recycle? What if we got to the point where we could not have so much waste to begin with? I try to think beyond the band-aid solutions and really contemplate these questions about Nature and also about Photography and Representation. I want viewers to walk away curious and inquisitive. And I hope my work allows for contemplation and meditation. 

Kyra Schmidt: Esther, this has been a delightful talk. To conclude, what does 2020 have in store for you and/or your work?

Esther Macy Nooner: 2020 will be a year of more research, writing and making. I started a new job this year so moving to a new state with my partner has certainly affected my studio time. But now that I am settled and loving my position at Anderson Ranch, I hope to be able to keep pushing and making. Also, in November of 2020 I will be an Artist in Residence at Burren College in Ireland. I am so excited about this because what led down the road of this current work years ago was the experience of a foreign landscape, so I am very thrilled to be able to be having something like that again. Thank You, Kyra! I am so thrilled to be talking with you and sharing my work!

To view more of Esther Macy Nooner’s work please visit her website.