Dominic Lippillo’s portfolio Stories We Tell Ourselves was selected by Rfotofolio for the 2020 Rfotofolio Selections. We are pleased to share his work.
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Would you please tell us about yourself?
I am Associate Professor of Photography at Mississippi State University where I have taught since 2010. I grew up in Michigan and Ohio. During my childhood my parents rented the houses we lived in. Every time they moved to a new house I would wonder about the uncountable past experiences that may be embedded within the walls, how the former inhabitants used the space, and how their time in the house affected their lives. As a result, I became fascinated by the residual essence of the former inhabitants that still lingered in and around the home and the remnants they unintentionally left behind that seemed to be discarded, forgotten, or unwanted.
Throughout my projects I often photograph in or around my personal surroundings in an attempt to understand the spaces and the people who may have once lived there. In doing so, I create photographs of experiences that exist in my mind but not in reality. I aim to create and capture fictitious moments, while subsequently calling into question the legitimacy of photographic representation by employing a practice, which utilizes staged photography, found vernacular photographs, and digital composite imagery in which I embellish the depicted information through a process of addition and deletion.
My photographs are included in the permeant collections of the Museum of Photographic Art; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; and the University of North Dakota. Features in publications include Some Recent Findings, Don’t Take Pictures, Mono Chroma, Exposure, Daily Serving, and The Eye of Photography. Grants and Awards include: South Arts Fellowship (2018), Finalist Critical Mass Top 200 (2017 & 2016), Mississippi Arts Commission Visual Artist Fellowship (2016), Mississippi Arts Commission Artist Mini-grants (2010, 2013, 2014, and 2018), and the Mississippi State University Faculty Research Award for the College of Architecture, Art and Design (2019 & 2013).
Where did you get your photographic training?
I earned my MFA in Photography from Ohio University in 2009 and a BFA in Photography from Youngstown State University in 2005.
Who has had an influence on your creative process?
My professors in undergraduate and graduate school have had the most profound influence on my creative process. I was fortunate enough to study under several photography professors who were caring and nurturing of their students.
My first photography professor at Youngstown State University was Richard Mitchell. He created the photography program at YSU and had a very traditional belief of photography and introduced his students to photography history, theory, and diverse techniques. Right when I became a photography major, Kelli Connell joined the faculty at YSU. From her I learned sensitivity in art making, being inquisitive, and honest about the work you are making. I was extremely lucky to have studied under both of them at that stage in my education.
In graduate school the two photography professors on my MFA committee were Laura Larson and Jim Fike. They both had a way of coaxing out ideas through engaging you in conversation. The one defining character each of these four people had was a strong belief in the potential of their students. When talking to any of them I always felt like each idea I had was possible and worthwhile. These are qualities I hope to possess as an educator.
Please tell us about an image (not your own) that has stayed with you over time.
I think the very first image that stayed with me is Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away”. I remember seeing that image in the Robert Hirsch text, “Seizing the Light” when I took the history of photography course as an undergrad. I felt like seeing that image at that time had a profound effect on the way I started to think about photographs. That image was an overt way of showing how photography could exploit the inherent qualities of truth and authenticity. It became the foundation of what I appreciated the most about creating photographs. To this day, I love introducing that image to my students when I teach the History of Photography class.
What image of yours would you say taught you an important lesson.
I can’t say I have a particular image, but I definitely have a particular project. Prior to making the work I submitted to the Rfotofolio call, “Stories We Tell Ourselves”, I worked with a collaborative partner, Mark Schoon, on two projects, “Anti-Local” and “Conflation”. In our collaborative projects we would make individual images in our own living spaces to create diptychs and composites to comment on ideas pertaining to space and place. This was the first time I ever worked collaboratively or seriously made diptychs. Working with Mark taught me about the importance of juxtaposition, to be open to chance, and that art can be like putting together a puzzle in which you do not have all of the pieces. It also made me become hyper-critical of how my compositions would interact with someone else’s compositions. Finally, it taught me that making photographs did not have to be a solitary act.
Please tell us about the work you submitted to the Rfotofolio Call.
Throughout the series, “Stories We Tell Ourselves”, memory, landscape, and vernacular images, coalesce in a series of constructed photographs. Drawing influence from my experiences, American Scene painting, literature, and cinema; I seek out non-specific American landscapes to become settings that simultaneously feel familiar and unfamiliar. In doing so, I embellish the images by adding atmospheric conditions and appropriated figures that are alien to the melancholic landscapes.
I begin the process for this series by photographing unoccupied suburban and rural areas to serve as backdrops of the everyday. I then search through my collection of anonymous vernacular images – photographs with unknown internal and external contexts – that have been purchased in secondhand shops to find figures to inhabit the minimalistic scenes. In doing so, a pensive human presence appears as a rückenfigur contemplating the landscape. I approach finding the locations to photograph, and choose the figures to appropriate, with an eye for ambiguity and an irrational attraction and fascination to unassuming details, thus allowing my mind to wander outside of the confines of my eye’s visual field.
In these re-contextualized photographic realities the landscapes and figures share a symbiotic relationship, which allows them to transcend time, space, and experience due to their juxtaposition. Throughout the series I invite the viewer to impose new meanings and create their own narratives intertwining the anonymous figures and unspecified locations.
I started making images for the series in 2016. I was fortunate enough to photograph in the South, Midwest, and the Eastern part of the country. In 2018 I was on sabbatical and I spent a month as an artist in residence at the I-Park Foundation in East Haddam, CT where I was able to continue making images for the series.
What part of image-making do you find the most rewarding?
The most rewarding part of image-making is when I have a solo exhibition of my work and I can see all of the images in conversation with one another. This also allows me to listen to the thoughts the viewers have about the imagery, answer any questions, and have conversations with them about the work. I’m deeply interested in the interpretations, narratives, or memories the images provoke in the viewers.
How do you work through times when nothing seems to work?
If I am stuck on a particular image I will make multiple versions of it and then let them rest. I will move on to another image and give myself time before I re-approach the image that was troubling me. Sometimes being honest with yourself and admitting you do not know why an image isn’t working rather than forcing yourself to power through it is the best way to move forward. It is easy to get frustrated, call the image a failure, and quit. It is more difficult to accept that now is not the time for this particular image, take a break from it, let it resonate in the subconscious, and then come back to it with fresh eyes after some time passes. I find when I come back to something that wasn’t working after having had some time away from it (it could be days, weeks, or months) I am able to see things clearly and make better decisions. I regain the excitement and curiosity I had when I first thought of the image.
What tools have you found essential in the making of your work?
For “Stories We Tell Ourselves”, the essential tools are a DSLR camera, scanner, found 35mm slides, a Wacom tablet, and plenty of time and patience.
Is there something in photography that you would like to try in the future?
Besides teaching still photography courses at Mississippi State University, I also teach video and moving imagery classes. Whenever I teach these classes I always get ideas for video projects. I know I will pursue working in video once my current series comes to a close.
How does your art affect the way you see the world?
My art affects the way I see the world because I am trying to understand and make a connection to the location I am photographing. As an introvert, I inherently feel uncomfortable wherever I am. I find that using the camera is a cathartic tool to discover, observe, and engage my surroundings as I try to make a meaningful connection to the world around me.
How has the pandemic influenced your work methods?
The pandemic has not influenced my work methods but has challenged the way I view my work. Right now we are all feeling isolated, alone, helpless, yet hopeful. We can also project those feelings onto the figures that appear in the landscapes. They are alone in the quiet stillness of the landscape that is reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic when the country was in lockdown. At the same time the figures are looking into the distance or confronting something floating in the air, something that is simultaneously there and not there/seen and not seen.
What’s on the horizon?
I am not done with this project. I am working at a slower pace with creating new images because I am entering a new phase of experimentation. In doing so, I hope to ask more complex questions about the world we live in as the project progresses.
Thank you Dominic. To learn more about the work of Dominic Lippillo please click on his name.
“Thanks for introducing us to Dominic’s work. I hadn’t been aware of him before, but I just love his image-making.Really powerful work!”