Photo by Brad Carlile from "Tempus Incognitus" at The Independent
BY BRIAN LIBBY
With summertime travel season in full-bloom, a lot of us are hitting the roads, airways and railways and spending nights in hotels.
Though my inclination during hot weather is to hide in the basement or by the air conditioner, I for example, have stayed about 10 nights in four different hotels since late May. Each time the basics are the same—bed, TV, little bars of soap, buckets of ice—but the little variations can loom large. The quiet river view I’d imagined at Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie, Washington was spoiled by jackhammer-filled dam deconstruction outside, but the bathroom did have a Jacuzzi and the whole place sat atop the waterfall from "Twin Peaks". Hotel Palomar in Arlington, Virginia had the best smelling lavender shampoo, even if sausage and eggs in the restaurant downstairs were $21. Most importantly with temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun, the thermostat went down to 65 degrees and the TV had Food Network.
No matter where or what the hotel may be, staying in one puts one in a different kind of temporary, transitory society. A hotel room is an oasis from the otherwise motion-filled act of travel. Yet they are also, in most all cases, anonymous spaces that, however stylish or well-appointed, act as a common denominator in terms of style and amenities.
Hotels and the settings they provide are the theme of photographer Brad Carlile’s exhibit “Tempus Incognitus”, at The Independent gallery through August 14. Carlile was one of the winners of the 2009 Hearst 8x10 Photography Biennial, an international competition for emerging photographers, among eight photographers singled out from over 1,000 entries. The Independent is located at 530 NW 12th Avenue (at Hoyt) in Portland.
Empty hotel rooms from all over the world form the basis of Carlile’s show. Each of the 12 works was shot in multiple exposures over time in slide film, with no post-exposure or digital manipulation. The rooms are full of vivid, almost psychedelic color, yet their emptiness makes the spaces a kind of blank canvas for one’s imagined narratives.
Recently I interviewed Carlile over email, exploring the photographer’s ideas about travel, interiors and alternative theories about the passage of time.
How did you become interested in hotel rooms? Is traveling in hotels a palpable memory for you?
For this series, I'm exploring a variety of topics including time, space, and change. To me, hotel rooms epitomize the transitory nature of modern life. Hotel rooms also put people in close physical proximity. I'm sure the diminished stage of these rooms often heightens the wide variety of human dramas they sometimes contain. The heightened colors of my process reflect this.
I'm fascinated at how architecture often defines our environment and feelings. I'm a huge fan of Edward Hopper's interiors and how he uses the different perspectives and compositions to create powerful paintings. In my series, I like working with trapezoidal compositions for tension and the sparseness of the rooms to invite a narrative.
I describe these photographs as Edward Hopper interiors awash in James Turrell colors with David Lynch directing to make you a bit uneasy. I feel there's a little bit of detachment from our normal lives when we're in hotel rooms. I think the mix of colors in my images are beautiful but also convey an certain uneasiness that comes from detachment.
My love of travel certainly also plays into this series. I took my first big trip at 6 years old when our family traveled around Europe on a shoestring. I blame my parents for my wanderlust – one of the many reasons I'm grateful to them.
What are some of your favorite and least favorite hotels that you've stayed in?
One of my favorite hotel rooms was also probably the cheapest. I think it cost about $1.50 in the back streets of a small town in Indonesia. The hotel was targeted at non-western travelers. As you can image the room was sparse and very basic. What made it a spectacular was fantastic interactions with this incredible cast of characters that wandered up to the door to talk.
Another favorite is at the Parador in Arcos de la Frontera, Spain where my wife and I stayed. Our friends had this amazing story there decades before. I'm sure we stayed in the exact same room, but that is a much longer story.
My least favorite hotels and probably similar to many other people. The soul-less and dirty ones that just suck the life out of anyone.
Could you talk about some of the hotel rooms you chose to photograph and why you chose them?
These are rooms where Andrea, my wife, and I stay during our travels. I like to combine the element off chance with certain predetermined rules. I shoot most rooms we stay in without scouting them. I believe each room can tell certain stories. I get a feeling for the room and then set the camera on a tripod where it will remain for two days. I then set a schedule for the 3 to 9 exposures.
As I mentioned earlier, the view in the camera shows a depersonalized room. This is to invite a narrative and not bring our particular story into it. This of course leads to a very crowded behind-the-camera scene. Another rule I have is we must live in the room as normally as we can so our changes to the rooms – curtains changing, TV on or off, beds changing – are captured as they happen.
I know this invitation to narrative works. For example, one woman who visited my Houston show swore that she stayed in the exact room. She went on to tell me the story of her stay in that room and the weekend of events in that town. "New Orleans,” she told me. Am I right?" I nodded vaguely and smiled. I didn't tell her that the light socket meant that it must be in Spain (Madrid). But it could be anywhere, and I want to invite those kind of connections.
The press release describes a setting in the photos in which "the perimeters of shifted space and time are blurred." I'm curious about this notion of transience on one hand (all these people passing through the rooms over time), but also its opposite on the other hand (the rooms staying more or less the same even as the people pass through interchangably).
I've always been fascinated by what changes and what doesn't. And it seem we need something that doesn't change to show what changes. I'll admit at first glance hotel rooms are easy to overlook, but they provide a wonderful backdrop to think about the people and their dramas passing thought. In some sense even the dramas don't really change as the "characters" change.
In physical worked, space and time are theorized by modern physicists to be mutually inseparable. In the mind, however, they are asymmetrically separable.
Children can think about space independent of time, but cannot conceptualize time independent of space. It even effects our language, examples include long day, short meeting. As the physicist Brian Greene said, "I believe in time, I think our intuition about it is wrong." I'm trying play with some of these ideas by making time material/literal by showing time in color and not showing change as an ethereal blurring that it used in most still photography. I think the color in these works really connects with people and inspires these and other thoughts.
The press release also notes there was no digital manipulation of the photographs. Why was it important to convey the rooms in that kind of documentary-like, reality-orient fashion versus using digital tools to enhance a particular mood? Is it the reality of these spaces that interests you more than what we imagine there?
I like the fact that each of these images simultaneously contains moments from many different times, just as these rooms simultaneously contain stories from countless visitors. I don't think you can create these connections with colors tweaked in a digital way to create a false mood. Yes, these are real rooms with real stories that I hope will inspire people to stop and think and feel.
I'll end with one of my favorite quotes, which is from HH the Dalai Lama: "As your insight into the ultimate nature of reality is deepened, you will perceive phenomena as illusion-like."