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I discovered Paul Puiia’s sophisticated, eerie architectural photography during Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward Festival in Boston last spring. Selected for the Flash Forward Undergraduate Photography Now (Part 2) exhibition, catalogue and portfolio walk, Puiia’s otherworldly nighttime photographs of building exteriors and their surroundings in Worcester, Massachusetts are quietly arresting. His imagery is complemented by a printing technique that emphasizes the rich tonality and nuanced hues divulged by his lengthy exposures. Puiia is a senior Photography major at Clark University in Worcester, studying with Stephen DiRado, Frank Armstrong and Rachel Loischild. Recently, Paul and I had an opportunity to discuss the inspirations for his unique photographic approach and projects, and the direction his work is taking now.
Elin: What is it about architecture and cities that excites you? Do you always turn to the built environment for your inspiration?
Paul: I’ve always been fascinated and stirred by architecture. I grew up in a small mill town in Maine—we would travel to the city to shop or take a small vacation and I remember seeing the smokestacks of my town’s paper mills from the back seat and knowing that I was home. One of my favorite activities was drawing those long and elaborate factories on rolls of paper. I loved levers, gears, and conveyor belts – I found the connectedness to be satisfying. I always seemed to prefer exploring subjects that felt more geometric and permanent than people. Only recently have I been inspired to incorporate the relationship of the built environment to those who inhabit it. Now, it seems useful to acknowledge myself and others within these spaces and structures.
Elin: What do your photographs say about how people relate to buildings and cities?
Paul: I hope that my photographs can show our relationship to buildings and cities in a way that extends beyond what is merely useful, beautiful, or ugly. I think we relate to these places on a very personal level. It might not always manifest as respect or appreciation. Alienation and fear are just as valuable in understanding our surroundings.
Elin: What led you to begin your latest portfolio of work, “Brick and Glass”, photographing abandoned or condemned buildings around Worcester?
Paul: My projects tend to vary in the amount and type of context I put in my images, despite all of them being architectural or spatial in nature. I find the oppressive and overwhelming nature of some structures to be quite interesting. “Monoliths”, the project of mine that precedes “Brick & Glass”, explores this idea by using abstraction and an alienating sense of scale to find the relationship between the viewer and parking garages as frequently overlooked but visually striking objects. I wanted the images to be devoid of readable space, to be reduced to their impressions, despite being photographic representations.
“Brick & Glass” shows a wider variety of building types. Mostly they’re banal spaces: behind box stores, in empty parking lots, and around old factories. This project is intended to be more representational, providing some sense of readable context and scale. It began with the desire to acknowledge a sympathy I found for the structures of Worcester. I try to show some of them struggling to exist within their environments, and others taunting the viewer, like in “Monoliths”. The end result is a set of photographs that illustrates the essence of Worcester’s urban landscape.
Elin: Shooting long exposures at night lends a surreal feeling to photographs, since the resulting images accumulate a luminous light that our eyes cannot perceive in real time. All of your images in “Brick and Glass” and your earlier portfolio, “Monoliths”, are extended nighttime exposures. Why?
Paul: I’ve always preferred shooting at night. I find the slowness of the process to be very valuable – each shot takes around twenty minutes to expose. This allows me to walk through the frame, add light to shadows with a flashlight in small increments, and experience the scenes as they unfold. Exaggerating the images with mixed ambient light and Worcester’s thick sodium-vapor light-pollution allows the structures, however familiar they might seem, to be seen in a new context, one that can seem surreal and unnatural, since they can’t be seen with the eye. They exist only in a photographic context.
Elin: How do architectural structures attain “soul” and how do you try to capture such an intangible quality in your work?
Paul: The ‘soul’ of buildings is not something that I believe exists outside of our perceptions of our environment. It’s important to keep in mind that we imagined and built these structures – we designed them and organized the materials and labor to construct and maintain them, however oppressive and unlike us they can sometimes seem. I think the imagined ‘soul’ that I’m trying to capture is some kind of empathy we experience when we relate to these structures as a part of our lives. Some of these buildings rely on us to stay alive and seem reluctant to die. Others seem entitled to their existence and appear greater than the beings who created them.
Elin: What roles do music and poetry play in the genesis and execution of your artwork?
Paul: Both music and poetry are excellent media for capturing and transmitting ‘auras’. I think of auras as acute emotions that we experience in certain spaces. They color how we perceive our surroundings and how we feel inside them. Trying to transmit an aura in an image is partly how I determine if a piece of mine is successful or not.
I’ve also had the opportunity to work with various musicians to create the artwork for their albums. In these instances, I think of the aura as the mood of their music, which I try to transform into images that call up the same visceral feelings.
Elin: I think your work reveals a unique sensitivity to patterns and an exceptional talent for composition and framing. Do you have a methodical approach to the places you photograph?
Paul: Taking the time to understand a space is vital to my practice of photography. The feelings I have in unfamiliar places don’t serve me well, as I find myself photographing with a documentary eye, one that is too hasty. So, I spend a lot of time with the spaces that I photograph and find it useful to work in only one space for a month or so, until it’s exhausted. Finding what parts exist well together, what parts of a structure dominate space and should be featured as lone objects, and what parts seem initially photographic but are ultimately best experienced only with the eye, can help to reveal the ‘soul’ that I’m speaking about. For this reason, I visit locations a handful of times without making an image so that I can become comfortable enough to see past the initial urgency of newness. Framing and composition tend to fall into place naturally at that point, and the deliberate nature of working on film with a heavy large-format camera slows the process further.
Elin: How does your printing process help achieve the look and feeling you want for your images?
Paul: This project is printed on a very heavy, flat matte paper. This gives it a look that almost resembles silk-screened prints, as fields of colors, white, or black appear very flat and uniform. At the same time, the lack of any reflections on the paper makes the scenes appear very tactile. In this project, I’ve tried to have each image achieve a perfect tension between the surreal flatness and the hyper-real texture.
Elin: What direction is your photography taking next? What are you working on now?
Paul: Currently, I’m working on a project that explores the semiotics of the urban landscape. The images are made up of familiar scenes, but the parts and pieces are very much removed from their contexts – trees and buildings don’t have bases, power-lines come out of nowhere, letters on signs are cut off as to be unrecognizable. Despite this, the scenes are still legible, helping the photographs reveal the phonemes of our landscape, demonstrating how ingrained it is in us. I’m also in the process of releasing a book for Brick & Glass, along with a short film.
To view more of Paul’s work and learn where it is being exhibited, go to: http://www.paulpuiia.com/
Feature Image: “Maywood St.—1970” by Paul Puiia Courtesy of the artist)