On viewing the work of photography graduate Justin Carter, the first of many things that hit our team was the sheer depths he goes to in his series. Projects of Justin’s are mammoth, comprising of 30 – 40 photographs at a time and, somehow for this Novo Scotia College of Art graduate, each photograph he takes is seemingly better than the last.
Justin communicates an interesting stance on the medium of photography, noting in our discussion that he prefers photographs to be enjoyed in sequence rather than singularly. Now knowing the photographer a little better, it is clear that this stance has developed from a general inquisitiveness about the world and how he could view it, choosing in his case to view it behind a camera lens.
This becomes even more obvious when you learn how Justin chooses projects based on his personal experiences, the literary influences which shape his thematic work, the frequent questions he asks himself about what projects he should be creating, and the further questions he asks while making work too. One question that his portfolio to date does answer however is that photography is firmly the creative discipline and future career for this overwhelmingly talented graduate.
It’s Nice That: What was it that first attracted you to the medium of photography as a subject to study?
Justin Carter: Photography has allowed me to view life from a certain distance. It taught me that to be outside of something can help to better understand and appreciate it. It’s tough to be objective otherwise. I turn to Nietzsche to help further explain: “If I could pick my favourite spot, I think the place I’d cultivate, is in the midst of Paradise, or better still – outside the gate!” The more photos I took, the closer I felt I inched toward comprehending infinity (an impossible and most daunting task).
I was originally at Ryerson University in Toronto, but I decided to transfer to NSCAD last year. At the time, I wasn’t in a great place mentally and so I hoped a change of scenery might help. NSCAD is located in Nova Scotia, which is where my father is from. I have never met or spoken to the man, and don’t know much of him either. So, naturally, Nova Scotia was shrouded in mystery from the beginning.
For me, what I have come to love most about NSCAD is its impressive collection of rare art books and exhibition memorabilia, especially concerning conceptual art. I, personally, have spent a great deal of time with its selection of Ed Ruscha books. It also has a fine selection of films for the students to rent. There really is no shortage of inspiration available.
INT: All of your work that we’ve seen is in black and white, why have you made this aesthetic choice? What are you trying to say with your imagery?
JC: I use black and white for various reasons – both technical and conceptual. Technically, it is much more compliant than colour. It affords me the luxury of being able to photograph mid-day, where colour would otherwise be too saturated and overbearing. This is crucial because so much of my practice involves chance – maybe even dumb luck. I can’t always sit around waiting for some kind of divine light.
Secondly, through the denial of colour, it forces the viewer’s imagination to work harder. In other words, it is much more ambiguous! And, for me, there is no quality that I cherish more in a photograph than ambiguity. I believe that when the right amount of ambiguity is achieved – among a few other things – the result can have a poetic effect, a term Umberto Eco described as, “the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.” He is of course talking about text, not photographs; however, I have found much of literary theory can be applied to photography, often with the simple adjustment of a word or two. Above all, I hope that my withholding of colour leaves the viewer enough neutral space to interpret the photographs however they wish.
Now, regarding your last question, it really depends on the project. I can say for the recent work I have been doing in Nova Scotia, the problem that I’m trying to solve, through images, is how to create a project that deals with an alternate past – a uchronic myth. And is this even possible? This might be a good time to clarify: I have always been more interested in what a sequence of images has to say, rather than a singular one. For me, photography is a literary medium.
"Camp stemmed, like most of my other projects, out of a problem"Justin Carter
INT: In particular it was your Camp series that really blew us away. Can you tell us a little more about this series?
JC: I made that series a few years ago when I was 23. Camp stemmed, like most of my other projects, out of a problem. At the time, I felt my age was a problem. I felt no one was taking me or my ideas seriously because of it (a very typical undergraduate problem). So then I asked myself, what kind of project can I do now that, say, 20 years from now, I could not do?
I thought about this for quite some time, mostly to no avail, until finally I remembered that the year prior I had the faint idea that a summer camp might make a compelling subject. Shortly after, I was lucky enough to find a camp in Ontario that would grant me access. Looking back now, my insecurity about my age at the time was a bit delusional, perhaps in the best way, as it got the ball rolling. Who’s to say that art should not first stem from delusion? The most profound things I know, I stumbled upon unwittingly.
"I made this project for an audience that is not yet born"Justin Carter
I ended up living at the camp for a week. I incessantly photographed everything from the moment I got up to the time I went to sleep. What was great was that the campers really just thought of me as another counsellor. After a couple of days of photographing, the camera seemed to go unnoticed to most. And to others it became a tool for collaboration.
What interested me most about the summer camp was its structure. It felt like a micro-society that was both finite and in a way, fictional. It was important for me to be there on the first day; to see relationships form and hierarchies be established. Who knows how much longer summer camps will be around? The survival techniques taught are becoming less relevant by the year. In a lot of ways, I made this project for an audience that is not yet born.
Justin Carter: Camp
Justin Carter: Camp
INT: Is there a creative, friend or someone who has shaped your creative outlook in general?
JC: Of course, there are many – both ancient and contemporary. And the ones that seem most important, I love then hate then love again, although, the second time in an entirely new way. Over my desk hangs drawings of both Anne Carson and Frank Stanford; I like to think they watch over me as I work. Over the last couple of years, these two have arguably had the most influence on me. I very much admire Carson’s Short Talks. They are like strange little photographs that never could be. As for Stanford, I quite enjoy his first collection, The Singing Knives. There’s a good chance that I will never again read something so fiendish and brutal.
INT: What would be your dream project and what can we expect from you in future?
JC: I would love to do a project in Athens. What exactly? I don’t yet know, but I am very inspired by Greek mythology, philosophy, poetry, etc. This is partly thanks to Anne Carson. She did some great translations of Sappho’s poetry that I hold dear. I think there are many things still to be learned from the men and women of old – we’ve only scratched the surface.
Justin Carter: Camp
Justin Carter: Camp
As for what you can expect from me, that is hard to know. I’m currently completing the last few classes of my undergrad. I then plan on applying to grad school in the winter (wish me luck). If all goes to plan, I would like to teach photography one day. These are, of course, goals though, and maybe not what you can expect from me. The only things guaranteed are that I will continue to photograph and try to improve as a person.
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About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.