Q&A: Jon Edwards

Jon Edwards is a fine art photographer who also practices environmental law. His powerful photographs are documentary in style, yet transcend identifiable people and places, making it easier for the viewer to connect with.

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© Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil: In all of your work it seems that you are somewhat familiar and comfortable with the subjects you are photographing and their way of life and I wonder how you became so close with these people and this place? Is it where you grew up? Are they family?

Jon Edwards: I find people I want to photograph mostly through word of mouth. I then set up a time when we can meet and discuss what it is I want to do (photograph them). On the first meeting I rarely photograph, just spend my time getting to know them, and letting them get to know me. If it looks like it's going to work (i.e., we are comfortable with each other, meaning we want to get to know each other) and they seem to be open to my repeated visits to photograph) then I start photographing and getting to know my subjects. We spend much time together, either a week at a time (when I visit remote islands with little transportation out to them), or multiple day visits (people nearer to where I live). I usually make myself helpful (in return for their letting me photograph, but never talked about during my initial visit) and join in doing whatever chore is being performed (stacking or setting lobster traps, repairing floats, hauling propane tanks, harvesting seaweed, picking apples, weeding, planting, etc.).

I do photograph in places that remind me of my childhood. Mostly the time I spent in the Adirondacks during the summers, and later in all seasons when I was a teenager. Most of the people I photograph become family, but I am not related to any of them.

Aimee Keil: Is is awkward meeting your subjects for the first time?

Jon Edwards: People are people. I love these people. They start by tolerating me, and then we get to know and admire each other. I have to say that all the really good photos I've gotten (hence the 2 1/2 portfolios on my website) are a consequence of developing deep friendships with my subjects. Maybe a tad awkward in the beginning, but if it's right, then it soon blossoms ... like a any relationship! If it is awkward, then it won't work, and I have abandoned several subjects, shortly after starting them, because of that!

Coming Ashore © Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil:
When reading your artist statement, I noticed that you said the individuals you photograph are living on islands, physically and metaphorically, what do you mean by this?

Jon Edwards: In my two main bodies of work, "A Way of Being" and "A Life," the people/places in the photographs are either on islands where they live or work. However, the subject of "A Life" lives and works on islands in the summer, but actually lives the rest of the year inland, and the subject of the series "Piece of the Maine" lives on the coast, but not an island. They all live in islands though. While they are aware of modern society, they only partake in part of it. For the most part they, sometimes out of necessity, do not participate in our "consumerism." They live to be part of nature, make their living form the natural resources of the State of Maine, and don't care to live in "nice" houses and drive new cars. They are more spiritual, and look to family, friends and nature to sustain themselves. They are islands amidst the larger society we live in.

Looking Back © Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil:
Your series "A Life", seems to be a comment about growing old alone, revealing somewhat intimate and private glimpses into an old gentleman's life and home. What was is like for you photographing this, was it ever difficult at times?

Jon Edwards: The subject of "A life", John Ryan, is a now, 81 year-old jack of all trades. In his working life he has fished, farmed, logged, tended apple orchards and harvested seaweed, among other things. This series is, indeed, about growing older. John can no longer make his living fishing, or harvesting seaweed. He cannot afford to fish (which requires a seaworthy boat, nets/traps, etc.), and no one will buyer his hand harvested seaweed anymore (they will only buy seaweed harvested by machine, which chops it up like spinach!). So, he relies on tending an apple orchard (winter pruning and fall apple picking) and providing for himself, i.e., collecting firewood to stay warm (from the woods and dump), tending a large organic garden, tending to chickens and getting by on social "in-security."

Last winter, for reasons too complicated to write about now, John lost his home and was waiting for his brothers to install a used trailer for hi m to live i. Snow ad freezing weather intervened, and he lived in an unheated cabin with no electricity or water. It was very hard for him, and for me to watch. I did what I could, and found him a wood stove (the one in the cabin didn't really work), so at least he was warm. He insisted on doing farm chores, caring for animals and chickens, to carry his own weight. He was sick for much of the winter, but hid it as best he could. He never gave up, and looked forward to spring!

My difficulty is in knowing that life is so unfair, and that I was going home to a warm house. But, I did what I could for John (while photographing him), bring left over meals, spending time with him and assisting in whatever I could. It was never hard to be with him though. I continue to learn from all the people I photograph. Never give up, and make things better, and do it yourself, with the help of your family and friends if need be.
Aimee Keil: Is the old gentleman in this series someone who is close to you? If not how did you get him to let you in to his personal life?

Jon Edwards: I met John @ 10 years ago, started photographing @ 7 years ago, and got my seaweed license @ 5 years ago.. Since then I've been "picking weed" with him (until this summer when he could no longer sell his "weed"), stacking cut apple tree limbs, hauling wood from the woods or dump, etc., and taking pictures on the side. We are now best of friends, and as John said to me earlier this fall, "I'm not sure how you came to be in my family, but I'm glad you did." Me too! He is my second father. It all came from spending time, and taking pictures.

Pondering Spring © Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil:
How did John respond to you when you first introduced your idea to him? When you first started photographing him did he hold back, or has he revealed more to you as he has built up trust for you?

Jon Edwards: John was very skeptical when I first told him I'd like to photograph him. Didn't much cotton to idea, as they say. However, the first time I went to photograph him was in the winter, and he was pruning apple trees at a friend's farm. It was a VERY sunny, bright winter day, with snow on the ground. So, how many pictures can you take of a man in a tree, who is just tolerating you, when the lighting conditions are so harsh that you're lucky if you get anything worth a darn!?? (Not many!!) So, with nothing else to do, I started collecting the cut limbs and stacking them between the rows of apple trees, as I noticed was customary. Much later John told me he was thinking, "who IS this guy? Is he workin
g for Jill (the owner of the farm), or is he taking pictures?" Once he figured out I was there to photograph, and as a consequence (only) was assisting him, he said he thought, "OK, you can photograph. I always liked looking at and taking good pictures myself." I didn't really plan any of it, it just grew out of the situation. (I had done the same sort of thing with the farm's owner the year before, planting, weeding and picking -- camera always ready).

Mug-Up © Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil:
How long did it take you to complete your series "A Life", and what is it like photographing the same person for an extended period of time?

Jon Edwards: "A Life" won't really be completed until I can no longer photograph John, either because he is gone or I am. As I mentioned, it's been almost 7 years now, and still counting. I would have to find another subject if I felt that I was no longer getting "new" images from my relationship with John. Fortunately, that has not happened. His life has been changing rapidly of late, and I'm there to assist him as best I can ... and record it. As my friendship with John deepens, so do my images (I hope!).

Aimee Keil: Your photographs seem to have a spontaneous or candid feel to them, where any of them posed?

Jon Edwards: I do not ask my subjects to pose. At most, I ask if they can "hold still" for a moment. Their portraits are of them revealing what they want to to me and the camera.

Eggs © Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil:
I noticed that most of your photographs are square format, is there a reason you like this better compositionally over a rectangle?

Jon Edwards: I use a medium format camera, which has a square 2 1/4 x 2 1/4" negative. I also started using a panoramic camera in the last 2 years, to try and better record the environments where my subjects live/work. I wanted a larger negative, and am not versed in large format, nor do I think it would work for me because, as you noted, many of my images are, indeed, spontaneous.

Aimee Keil: Your photographs seem more powerful because of the use of black and white, is this why you choose to shoot black and white, and do you ever shoot in color?

Jon Edwards: Yes, I too think that my work is better suited to the traditional -- black and white. I do not shoot in color, both for this reason and because I develop my own film and make my own prints in the darkroom. I could not have this kind of control over a color process.

Hanging Doll © Jon Edwards

Aimee Keil:
Have you always been interested in this kind of documentary type of work, or what made you become interested in it and how did you choose these types of subjects in remote areas?

Jon Edwards: As an undergraduate, I studied photography. I was interested in documentary at that time too, but it centered around people like Lee Friedlander, Gary Wino-grand and Diane Arbus. I also loved Walker Evans, especially Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (having found a copy of the book in a drug store in upstate New York when I was in High School), but at that time I thought his work too "old-fashioned." I also loved the work of Duane Michals, Les Krims and any other photographer doing bizarre work! I then went to law school, had a family and practiced law for @ 25 years. Over the past seven years I've come back to Evans, Lange, all the FSA photographers, Atget, Paul Strand, August Sander (and even Alfred Stieglitz!). And I greatly admire the modern work of Keith Carter (especially his early works) and Debbie Flemming Caffery. To name a few.

Whether my interest in documentary came from loving these images, or my love for the life styles of those I photograph, I have to think ... I guess my attraction to the life styles and personalities of the people I photograph AND the images of the above photographers, led me to the work I now produce. I started with individuals living inland, migrated to the coast and then met the Quinns (the subjects of "A Way Of Being"). Once on the islands, with the Quinns and John Ryan, I've never left. We found each other.

Aimee Keil: And do you have any tips for a young photographer interested in this type of work, who is just starting out?

Jon Edwards: YES ... find someone/something that resonates with you and go for it. You've got to be there to find the right moment, lighting, etc. It takes time. A friend tells the story of going to an Indian Reservation and being introduced to the tribe's medicine man by a mutual friend. The mutual friend left, and the photographer and Med. Man sat ... and sat ... and sat ... Not one word was spoken. The photographer decided, OK, if this is what he wants, I'll just wait and see what happens. By the end of the DAY, the Medicine Man said, "come back whenever you would like to photograph, and we can talk." An amazing relationship and portfolio came out of it! So, build the relationship, and the photographs will follow; but find the right fit and have confidence in your photographic abilities first.

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