History is all around you. You pass by it on back roads in the country and street corners in town. No one would blame you for not noticing. It sits quietly as the hustle and bustle of time continues its ceaseless, frenetic pace. Jim Westphalen notices, however. And as he points his lens towards the past, he captures a few lessons about those who came before us.
Jim has an eye for stillness. In both his fine art and commercial work, he preserves the storied calm of structures both old and new. When he gets talking about it, you can tell he is still as inspired by finding a good shot as he was the day he received his first camera as a child. It was exciting to talk with him about the past and what it can teach us all about the present.
Roominate (R): What inspired you to become an Artist/ Photographer? How did you get started?
Jim Westphalen (JW): For as long as I can remember, I loved the thrill of capturing an image with a camera. When I look at photos of myself as a kid, in so many of them I have a camera strapped around my neck, some as young as about 7 years old. That was back in the film days when you would send your film out to be processed and eagerly await the day when that little yellow Kodak envelope arrived at the drug store with those 3×5 bordered prints. I can still feel the excitement in that anticipation.
Then in high school, I got my first 35mm camera and that opened up an entirely new world for me. Capturing images on film, processing the film and then making prints in the darkroom. It’s like magic. Although this was not my course of study in college (I studied marine biology), that thrill never left me, and in 1980 I decided that this would be my career.
(R): How has your photography changed over time?
(JW): The most obvious change came with the inception of digital capture. I switched entirely to digital in 2008. As an artist, I think you are ever evolving. Although I still do commercial photography, I now focus more on my personal work that is exhibited in the galleries that represent me.
My current body of work, entitled Vanish, is an ongoing project/narrative that documents disappearing iconic structures in rural America.
(R): Walk us through your shooting process – Where do you start? What makes you snap that first picture? What inspires you?
(JW): My inspirations are many, but I make a study of many painters, always dissecting the light quality, textures and color palette they use. My biggest influences have been Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper and A. Hale Johnson.
For my Vanish series, I first do research to locate structures that might fit the narrative. This includes Google searches, talking with historical societies, town clerks and locals, and often roaming many miles of back roads. I rarely photograph a structure on the first visit, often returning many times until the light and elements are just right.
As for gear, I create my images using a vintage view camera that has been adapted for digital capture.
(R): Rural and historical structures are a big focus of your photography. What message do you feel we can take away from these relics of the past?
(JW): I think we live in a pretty interesting time in history. These structures are fading fast. Your kids or grandkids aren’t going to be able to witness these things firsthand because they’re coming down fast. But it’s not only about the structures themselves, it’s about the people who toiled on the land with them.
If you look at one of my images, there are little hints and clues as to how these people lived and what it was like to be on their land. It’s a little peak into their history that is gone. I see these as beautiful things. It’s not just a way that I can honor the people who went before us, but also honor the structures for what they have become today.
(R): What should people know about your work that they might not be able to tell by looking at it?
(JW): Many people have mistaken my photographs for paintings. I print most of my work on a larger scale and one truly needs to see the image in person to understand this. Countless hours and days go into processing and rendering each finished piece to achieve this style/effect.
(R): What is the one thing you hope for your audience to take away from you and your work?
(JW): A feeling of emotion – whatever it may be. Something that will stay with them long after they’ve viewed the work.
(R): What’s your favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
(JW): I have many favorites for many different reasons. Sometimes it’s the quality of the light that makes it amongst my favorites, sometimes it might be the subject matter and sometimes it’s simply what I had to go through to get the shot (e.g. perched on the edge of a cliff during a lightning storm etc.).
(R): If you could describe your work in 3 words, what words would you use?
(JW): Light, texture, intimacy.
(R): Do you create with any other mediums or forms of art?
(JW): I love to draw and sketch.
(R): Do you have other interests, work, hobbies that inform your photography?
(JW): I’ve become more interested in history in recent years and this has played we’ll into my Vanish work.
(R): What is your biggest achievement as a creative? What are you proudest of?
(JW): I guess just that I’ve been able to use my God-given talents to create a successful business doing something that I absolutely love.
(R): What advice do you have for emerging Artists and Photographers?
(JW): Work hard to create your own style and most importantly, be persistent and don’t give up! Be inspired by other creatives, look at many other artists, but don’t copy another’s style.
(R): Can you tell us about your relationship with Graphik Dimensions Ltd./ pictureframes.com?
(JW): I’ve used Graphik Dimensions Ltd. for all my framing for about 10 years now. They are always willing to work with me as I demand perfection in the framing/presentation of my work.
(R): Why do you continue to create with us?
(JW): I can always count on you to accommodate my specific needs.
To see more of Jim Westphalen’s work, visit his website: www.jimwestphalen.com