These are the words Stephen Lawson dreads: “Welcome to Wal-Mart!”
The photographer, who just turned 63, is mulling over the frightening possibility that he will soon need a job. “A time comes in your life when you realize you’re no longer coming up,” he says. “You’re coming down.”
“I don’t want to be a greeter at Wal-Mart,” he adds.
Lawson straddles a bench inside his house, in the hills surrounding Morgantown, W.Va., sipping a glass of homemade beer diluted with water. He is tough and wiry, with intense eyes, and he has the durable-looking pink skin of a man who scrubs with scalding water and steel wool. He looks young for his years. But then again, he’s always been superattuned to time and its effects. The evidence is on his walls: a succession of time-lapse landscapes, captured over hours, weeks, even years. Cloud Cover stands out: It’s a daylong exposure he took in 1996 at his childhood home in Stratherrick, Scotland. An angry red sun emerges from blackness at the left and rages briefly over Loch Ness before being subsumed in murky, nasty weather at the right. Throughout, because of the way Lawson’s instruments compress time, the clouds appear as a vibrating graph of fluctuating light.
With images that impressive in his portfolio, it’s pretty obvious that Lawson’s talk of day jobs is mostly bluster. No, he’ll likely continue to explore his curious field of “time sculpture,” using an ever-expanding toolbox of cameras he pieces together in his basement. His work will continue to grace small museums and private collections nationwide, including those of a host of notoriously shrewd corporate buyers. But for the most part, the art world will ignore, spurn, or forget him—Lawson can never be sure which, given that he lives far away from the big-city scene.
Outside, the night has an inky concentration you don’t find in the city. Save for the upkeep of his property, there’s nothing for miles to distract the photographer from his work. If he and his wife, 51-year-old painter Elizabeth Jaeger, want cultural stimulation, they’ll drive to D.C. or Pittsburgh to watch a foreign movie. Or they’ll lie on a mattress by their wood-burning stove and listen to tapes of Steve Reich. Magazines in the house are limited to National Geographics and New Yorkers; Lawson eschews art periodicals: “They don’t pertain to the world I inhabit during the day.”
Instead of art mags, Lawson has art. There are great quantities of his pictures hiding in wooden crates and heaped in stacks in various rooms. It’s three decades of one man’s life, collected behind glass like trophies.
Lawson recently built an addition so he wouldn’t have to eat off the same table he cut mats on.
“An idea that goes through my mind occasionally,” he says, “is what would life be if this place burned and I lost everything? Would it be a liberation or would it be tantamount to suicide?” He lowers his voice to a mock whisper: “I think it’d be a liberation.”
Lawson bought his 12 acres of West Virginia in the late ’70s. The Glasgow-born artist, who trained in Edinburgh under a student of a student of Rodin and later got his sculpture MFA at the University of Colorado, intended to build Neolithic-style monuments.
The plan fizzled when he found his back yard—a basin-shaped depression dotted with ponds, sourwood trees, and cows—too pretty to adorn with stone rings and timber pilasters. “I became a conservationist pretty fast,” he says. So Lawson decided to create his natural sculptures in a gentler, more ephemeral way.
One night, he went to a distant field and walked a Pythagorean triangle while holding a flashlight. Another time, he rigged a laser level so it shot a horizontal red strip onto the surrounding hills. He also emptied a bag of fertilizer onto the slope that faces the back of his house, so that a 100-foot-wide green circle appeared in springtime for the few neighboring farmers to puzzle over. Months later, he heard a rumor about a madman in the neighborhood who was trying to contact E.T.
Just as that circle got the townspeople thinking about Lawson, it also got Lawson thinking about his art. Staring at photos he’d taken of the circle to document its growth, he had a new idea: Why not make the documentation of the performance piece the piece itself?
Lawson tested the idea at a 1982 exhibition at Morgantown’s CAC Galleries, “393902 N, 800401 W.” Named for the coordinates of his downstairs threshold, the show presented a year in Lawson’s back yard through photos of his nonintrusive earthworks. Included was a time-lapse panorama that followed the sun as it swung over the basin. The sky was uniformly squalid, because of the humidity haze, but Lawson was hooked.
“I immediately saw, if I had been smarter about the day I chose to work on, how exciting it could have been,” he says. “Just being able to see that development of the weather—it’s almost as if the panorama is alive in the way a movie is. You seem to be within life, rather than looking at it.”
Lawson quickly constructed a better rig, using a secondhand camera whose insides he rejiggered to cram a series of sequential, toothpick-wide exposures onto the negative. And using scrap aluminum from local machine shops, he fabricated a turntable that let him capture huge, wide-angle shots in intervals of hours, or weeks, or until he’d had enough. Lawson fixed his rig to trees and utility poles throughout the basin, where they produced panoramas alive with a cubist shuffle of snow, rain, sun, cows, birds, and tractors. “I can to some extent write a script for the play, and to some extent I can choose the proscenium,” Lawson says. “But it’s the world out there that’s actually enacting the play.”
Occasionally, the world took an interest in Lawson, too: Shooting on private property, he found this threatening note stuck to an unattended camera: “Have a nice day, see you tomorrow—think not.” And there were recurrent problems with cattle circling his equipment. “[They] inch in, and inch in, until some hoodlum kid in the group reaches forward to lick it to see what it’s made of,” says Lawson. “And then immediately they’re all over it.”
Shortly after “393902 N, 800401 W,” Lawson left his post teaching sculpture at the University of West Virginia. “The administration couldn’t perceive that what I was doing was sculpture,” he says. It was the last day job he ever had. He packed up his daylong-exposure rig, rented out his house, and went with Jaeger to Scotland. The next five years saw Lawson getting accolades for such inventive techniques as bolting a camera to the hood of his truck and driving a circle around Edinburgh. He exhibited alongside pop phenom David Bailey at London’s Photographers Gallery and alongside Paul McCartney at the city’s Royal Festival Hall.
Lawson came back to the States full of inspiration. His cameras evolved in the ’90s to include battery-powered motors. He fixed them on surveyor’s tripods, where they clicked and moved on their own. Some of the pictures these machines produced revealed Lawson in the distance, fiddling with another camera. (“The sickness of our age,” he says. “Even the artists multitask.”) Lawson also built a camera on a gun stock that could capture an object’s movement through seconds of time. The results are disconcerting: Tracking a pickup truck down the street, for example, produces a long, liquid smear of a car but leaves the background more or less unfiltered.
“There’s something almost like an outsider artist about him,” says Alison Nordström, curator of photographs at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y. “It doesn’t have to do with his training, and it certainly doesn’t imply a lack of sophistication, but it’s this combination of single-mindedness and passion. Imagine taking a year to make a photograph.”
Making people appreciate his labor was tough. “When I was first doing these things, if I went to an art gallery, they would say, ‘Oh, we don’t show photographs. This is an art gallery,’” says Lawson. “When you go to a photography gallery, they say, ‘This stuff’s weird.’”
Lawson’s work typically begins in the miserably cold hours of the morning. He’ll stuff a pack with coffee and energy bars, a clock, a compass to figure sun angles, and gloves—to keep his fingers from shivering too violently when he’s recording degrees, intervals, and weather conditions in his logbook. (“[R]ain, rain, rain,” reads a not atypical entry.) When he gets to his chosen site, he’ll set up his gear, find a rock to sit on, and then chill—in both senses of the word.
“If you put yourself into it, it is such a simple, exhilarating experience…just being there and being self-aware,” he says. “I don’t mean that in a self-improvement sense but just being aware of being alive, which most adults have a big struggle with. They get it squeezed out of them at work or they wind up doing weird things like watching other people vicariously being intensely self-aware on television.”
Lawson recently returned from a three-week residency at Acadia National Park, in Maine, and is lining up work for two local biennials. In 2004, he showed at the University of Rhode Island, and a Charlestown dealer sold a half-dozen pieces: a pretty good year, if not a booming declaration of his arrival. But he’ll wait.
In the meantime, he’ll keep those thoughts of big-box-retail slavery at bay by continuing to shoot. The best works, he says, are those he doesn’t even need to think about. He’ll look up and realize it’s already evening and the camera’s rotation is nearly complete. “That doesn’t happen very often,” he says, but when it does it’s immensely satisfying.
“Despite the fact I work with time…I haven’t actually experienced time,” he explains. “I’ve just been there.”CP