Q&A: Stephen Milner
By Zora J Murff | Thursday December 20th, 2018
Stephen Milner is an artist working in photography, sculpture, video, and installation. He received his MFA in Studio Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow from the University of Oregon and his BFA in Photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Stephens work revolves around the representation of masculinity, identity and community through images, objects, fictional narratives and the human-altered landscape. He is currently based out of San Diego, CA.
This conversation between photographers Stephen Milner and Zora J Murff took place from August through December, 2018. In it, they discuss navigating personal narratives in bodies of work, documentary photography, interdisciplinary studio practice, and the complications of gaze in photography to name a few. Stephen is in the process of publishing his work “Goat Trails” through Aint-Bad. Please visit his Kickstarter campaign to support his book.
Zora J Murff: Hi Stephen. I finally got settled in Arkansas…sorry the delay. But le't’s get started. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? How did you get into photography, and what shaped your initial experiences with making.
Stephen Milner: I grew up on the North Fork of Long Island, NY and spent the summers skateboarding around the island and NYC with a close group of friends. The culture of skateboarding definitely shaped my interests in art, music, and design. We all got pretty good at it, however, I was the least skilled and I was shamed into picking up a camera and becoming photographer for the group. Beginning then, I was self-taught. I took a few art classes with a teacher I really looked up to, but never really learned about the history of photography or contemporary art. One day, an older friend of mine who was taking college courses in photography gave me a copy of Tulsa by Larry Clark and I remember it having a profound effect on me and my understanding of how photography can be used to influence narratives. I also remember having to hid it in my bedroom, afraid that my parents would find it.
SM: Intimacy is really powerful in photography and I also find it impossible to convey how the artists was really feeling during that moment the photograph was taken. I also love using that idea to benefit my narratives. The notion of intimacy and difficulty to read is really important to my current project, The Goat Trails. The environments I photograph in challenge intimacy and kind of flip it upside down, both in the act of making photographs and in the way people who visit these locations perceive and share intimacy.
ZJM: I’m going to circle back to respond to a couple of things that you mentioned, but now I’m curious to know what your first images from Goat Trails were.
SM: These (right).
ZJM: Okay—let’s go back to what you were saying before. I want to talk about talk about the pressure and frustration that you felt with photography (and maybe more specifically, documentary photography) as a tool to create change.
SM: The most exciting part about photography is the process of starting a project. There is this amazing freedom in now knowing what you really want to say or do with a body of work, to just trust your intuitions in image making and operating out in the field. I love nothing more than finding a location and knowing there is something there. Of course, at some point you’ll have to become more pointed and directed in your subject matter.
ZJM: Was there an image in Tulsa that you felt was special, or that stood out?
SM: Accidental Gunshot Wound. The idea of Larry Clark taking this picture in the middle of a chaotic moment with his close friends shocked me. I was also intrigued by how difficult this photograph was to read it. It made me want to inspect every little detail in the image in order to figure out the narrative at play.
ZJM: Do you feel like it was those ideas—intimacy and indecipherability—are concepts you still think about or try to inject into your own work?
SM: Definitely. I can’t say that I’ve considered the two interacting in my work since I started photographing. I know in undergrad I was working on my project Ogeechee and and I was more concerned with the “documentary” photography school of thought. I was photographing a community impacted by a man made environmental disaster, I felt immense pressure and frustration in photography to be used as a tool to create change. While in graduate school, I focused more on my interior desires. Maybe because of this, my own priorities as an artist was to investigate personal narratives, fictional narratives, and the psychological undertones that come from the two colliding.
SM: To come back to the frustrations I felt with Ogeechee and the documentary approach, I started to notice that I was not able to use the images I liked or questioned the most because they might now have this clear agenda needed to tell this story of the river, that my audience wouldn’t understand or may be confused by them. This became really obvious when I was choosing images for my first solo show of the work that was completely funded by an environmental organization, which was totally an amazing opportunity and experience that I couldn’t have done on my own. The final show was very cohesive and just…easy. I felt sanitized, but it was because I did it to myself. I didn’t know any better about the language and functionality of photography outside the “documentary” school of thought. A few months later, I moved to Oregon to start graduate school. I didn’t start questioning personal narratives until graduate school critiques. I think fellow graduate students started asking me why I only photographed men and once that appeared, I started noticing all of these connections between my subject matter from all of my projects. Thus started the conversation in my research and art-making of my own gay identity and interior desires of being an artist.
ZJM: How did you begin navigating more personal narratives after focusing on something largely outside of yourself? Also, I’ve recently been doing studio visits at other schools with students, and this is a question that keeps coming up—navigating the personal without being too personal, or trying to connect a larger issue to oneself. What advice do you think you would offer to others who might be in the same territory?
SM: That’s a tricky question and relates not only to making work, but also while teaching. I always liked to tell my students that personal projects function better sometimes when they have multiple layers that you can peel back if you need to. The first layer should simply be visually interesting, compelling photographs using techniques and visual tropes that make sense for the artist’s voice. The next layers can be anything that can hold a narrative together (e.g., social, political, environmental, personal), but it’s definitely important to avoid the obvious in metaphors. This is also coming from my academic standpoint, where we are trained as students and educators to be critical. I’m so hoppy to not be a student anymore. All of these things come more naturally and free now. As of right now, I could care less about my audience when starting a new project, I can just follow my intuitions and enjoy the ride (for now).
ZJM: I think this is a good place to begin talking more deeply about your work. In your thesis exhibition, A Spiritual Good Time, you compare the surfing and gay men cruising for sex. How did you begin to bring these two things together? I’m also interested in your approach formally—using photography, collage, and sculpture. Why did you decide to incorporate other media, and how do those connect to your ideas?
SM: Blacks Beach is one of the main nude beaches I photographed for Goat Trails. It also happens to be an iconic surf break. I’m a surfer, so I would visit the same beach to both surf and to also make pictures. I had to keep the activities separated because I knew that if I went to surf, I wouldn’t actually make pictures because I’d never want to leave the water. The treacherous trails down are called “goat trails” because of how difficult and dangerous the are. They are also shared by men cruising for sex and surfers hiking down to the break. I started to recognize the same psychological and emotional feelings I’d get when hiking down for either activity. They felt similar in that they are performed in the conditions of the pursuit of chance and vertigo with psychological undertones of fear, desire, and body thrills.Growing up in a very small farmer town, I spent so much time trying to hide my identity as a gay male. While in grad school, I started to look back into my past and recognized that maybe I started surfing because I was attracted to the hyper-masculine surf culture. I was interested in investigating that space of confusion, hyper/toxic masculinity vs. homophobia in the sport. Sculpture, video, installation, and photography were the vehicles I used to merge my investigations into the history of gay identity, and to force a dialogue between surfing communities and gay culture.
SM: As far as using other mediums, I started thinking about sculpture and installation because of the community I had at the University of Oregon art department. I was one of the few photographers in the program, most grads were multidisciplinary and my critiques were different. I felt inspired by everyone else multidisciplinary approach and felt it was a safe space to explore other possibilities. I was also really envious of the “studio practice” that some of them had, especially while I was out driving around the state of Oregon or Southern California for long weekends, sometimes not coming home with any good photographs. The first successful sculpture I made was Other Men’s Sunsets, the photographs I found on Flickr were appropriated from dads on vacations photographing sunsets. People would come into my studio and interact with the piece for way longer than any of my photographs. At this point in time I was writing about the mythology and romanticism of the beach environment and gay identity in surf culture. I was looking at artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Roni Horn, Roman Singer, and Tom Burr. I was starting to understand the different languages at play with using sculpture, installation, and video that photography couldn’t really access. Having a studio practice, investigating different materials and spaces to make work in, and appropriating images and text was a new way for me to delve into my own personal space along. Not having to rely on meeting and developing relationships with strangers and chance encounters was so nice and refreshing.
ZJM: My experience in sculpture and installation was quite different, probably because I went to a pretty traditional photography program. I mostly wanted to break from what I felt that I knew, and wanted to see how sculpture could influence how I thought about photography. In retrospect, I feel that I had a hard time completely divorcing myself from photography, and the sculpture in my thesis was heavily tied to photography. I’d be interested to know how you feel your approach to image-making has changed?
SM: Yeah, I definitely felt the same way. I couldn’t and wouldn’t divorce myself from photography. I did have to learn that it was ok to have projects exists as photographs, rather than having this grand installation including appropriation and other mediums. The preparation of my thesis exhibition was a good lesson. Coming into grad school, I was thinking about the big photography project idea right from Ogeechee. I was spending all of my time making connections, becoming a part of a community, building trust and making relationships with the people in the area I was photographing, in this case the Oregon outback and high desert. Every photographer, especially ones working in the field of documentary personal projects , know this process very well.
SM: I was going into the MFA program thinking the goal would be a published photobook to graduate with, one big project over the course of 3 years. “Fort Rock” was my series that I couldn’t figure out how to introduce sculpture, everything I tried just felt too ready-made, like objects that I could’ve just existed as photographs. I came to realize that it was okay to just invest in photography based projects alone. I enjoy making narratives. I think that’s the human condition. Photography introduced me into emerging narratives and psychological undertones/nuances that can come from objects, sculptures and installations. The big difference of course is that photographs hang on the wall and sculptures can be stepped on or backed into the gallery floor. For example, I started sculpting objects out of Sex Wax surf wax. Surf Wax is immediately recognizable because of the artificial scents they use, like bubble gum, grape, and coconut, and those smells can immediately place people in a specific environment or place. As a surfer, the smell of surf wax makes me have pre-surf anxiety, of needing to get out into the water immediately just in case the conditions change for the worse. Also, the name “Sex Wax” has its implications, especially within the history of surfing and it being dominated by toxic masculinity as well as sexism and homophobia. The topic of my own identity as a game male and a surfer was rich in possibility because I could reference and force a dialogue between both histories of America’s gay liberation and surfing community. Both groups sought visibility, while attempting to preserve their own distinct, and somewhat sacred notions of masculinity. Whether toxic or spiritual, they both inhabit environments of transcendent experiences and bodily practices that in the end create stable, protected and localized social formations. The psychological inquiries into fear, desire, and the hyper-masculine pursuits within the each of these subcultures, creates complexities and depth that allow my research and my practice to echo my own interior desires and motives.
ZJM: In my final critiques this past week, one of my students was wanting to make work about gender identity. They were doing so through portraits of individuals in the landscape. They talked a lot about how we make assumptions on gender based on physical appearance, and then brought up the term “queer gaze”. They said they wanted to explore that term more with their work. This of course resonates when I think about your work, especially regarding the low-hanging fruit of the male gaze (the trope of the nude woman in the landscape taken by a male photographer). I’m sure you’ve thought about the complication of gaze in your own work, but I’d like to hear more about it.
SM: The male gaze is a challenging and complex subject. I agree on the low-hanging fruit notion, and it’s important to be aware of its implications when considering what the gaze is directing at itself. The environment I focused on for Goat Trails flipped my notion of the male on male “gaze” upside down, and really made me question what I was doing out there as a photographer. Firstly, no one likes a camera on a nude beach, so I rarely pulled out my camera until I made a connection with someone. Secondly, the arena of cruising really intensifies the gaze and the purpose of it. The psychological undertones of the trails were wild. Men are there on a hunt, and they are actively searching for pleasure. I’ve never felt so much tension before…sexually and emotionally. I wanted to explore this with the photo book. meeting men in these locations was very confusing to my ideas of photographing perceived and shared intimacy. It was the first time I ever photographed anyone naked and also the first time I ever spent photographing naked. It’s funny to look at the book and think about how I made the entire thing not wearing clothes and how that truly affected the way I approached people. I felt more empathetic for peoples’ privacy. I spent more time figuring out ways to start conversations without being a total creep. And I had to get used to being declined 90% of the time when I’d ask to make a portrait, even when hiding someone’s identity. I knew this when I jumped into the project, and I also knew that it would control the overall feeling of the images and narrative. I knew I wanted to respect the sacredness of the cruising trails and condos and the people who visited them. I still wanted to have a feeling of romanticism and mythology that comes with the beach environment.
ZJM: What’s next for you Stephen?
SM: The next thing for me is to find the perfect studio space for me in San Diego, I have a few sculptures I've been thinking about lately and I'm itching to getting a studio schedule again. I'd also like to move all of my studio crap out of my kitchen/living room!
ZJM: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Stephen. It's been great talking to you.
SM: Thanks for interviewing me over the past few months, it’s been an adventure!
With your support of the project, Stephen is hoping to reach a goal of $5,000 to cover the production costs of the book. He will be selling limited edition archival prints with the book for a crazy good and reasonable price with the mission of making it easier and more affordable to collect fine art prints. What a steal for the holiday season! To have your support in this venture means so much and he promises that if the project is funded, it will make something great! Stephen recognizes that you are putting a lot of faith in him and in the publisher, and that together they will produce a beautiful and meaningful addition to your library.
About the publisher:
Aint–Bad is an independent publisher of new photographic art. Founded in Savannah, Georgia, the collective is dedicated to publishing contemporary photography and text to support a progressive community of artists from around the world through online web features, printed periodicals, monographs, and exhibitions. Aint–Bad reveals an ever-more urgent, critical conversation about the human condition by way of thought provoking imagery. Each monograph is an intimate project with a hand selected artist, printed in small editions with the best materials available.