Marley Trigg Stewart in Conversation with David Campany

MATTE no. 50, 2022

Marley Trigg Stewart in Conversation with David Campany

MATTE magazine, no. 50, 2022: The Hills Keep Burning in California

David Campany: Marley, when I look at the images that make up your project The Hills Keep Burning in California, and reading nothing about them but the title, this is what I sense. A first-person road trip in the USA, probably heading west. Solitary but somehow haunted, or at least preoccupied with a man from the past. Analog photographs, perhaps made with a faulty camera, leaking light onto the film, leaving saturated color washes (a set of visual associations float around such faults: hazy memory, melancholy, yearning, mystery.) There’s an erotics here too, as­serted yet left undefined, bound up with auto-curiosity, also undefined. So if this is a road trip it is also a time trip, a memory trip, an inward trip. You don’t need to tell me if I’m right or wrong, art being an occasion for interpretation. But maybe you can tell me a little of your motivations.

Marley Trigg Stewart: In terms of motivation, that word “auto-curiosity” you mentioned really sums it up. The whole thing fell into my lap by chance, as these things do. I feel as though it’s something that I have to make. It feels compulsory, or like a knot in myself that is constantly being untangled. When I started making images as a teenager, I wanted to create things where aesthetics dominated the fore. I liked photography as a facade, something that could obscure or transform or create distance, concepts that appealed greatly to me as a young person desperate to conceal their sexual identity. Some fourteen years later, I feel much more attuned to the fact that this is something that I’m honestly making for myself. I’ve always found photography to be a very solitary practice. It’s a journey inward, a way for me to get to know myself. These days I’m more interested in bridging distances where I can (or where I want to) and mapping out gaps in a landscape. While there’s this kind of obvious impulse to use the camera as a method to com­municate something to others (a story, a feeling, etc.), I think it’s always been the case that I’m ultimately just trying to contextualize my own life, just trying to make sense of where and when I am, and in this case in relation to my own family’s history.

David: Making sense of history is so complicated, and it never seems to resolve, not least be­cause our perspective continues to change, and we can never know if we have it right. But how do you balance the solitary aspects of your work with the family history?

Marley: That’s true. There are so many fabrications to begin with, and so many revisions. I don’t know if I do strike a balance between those two things, actually. There is usually a leaning into one or the other at any given time. Part of that is the reality that constitutes my family history, on my father’s side in particular, which until two years ago I was not particularly invested in. This is really the first instance where I’m trying to gauge some equilibrium (between my life as someone’s son, brother, etc, and my life as a documentor of those experiences) with intent and curiosity. It’s new, and strange.

David: What prompted the interest in your father’s side of the family?

Marley: Chance, to be honest. It’s kind of a long story. On March 14th, 2020, I flew out to Cali­fornia to surprise my mom for her birthday. The day prior, my boyfriend had flown to Florida to visit his own mother. In a matter of hours, we found ourselves suddenly forced together with our families and apart from each for the next three months. By June, our jobs had long gone, life had shifted even further online, and the country was in the wake of another racial reckoning. After a lot of back and forth, my boyfriend bought a car and drove five days from Boca Raton to Sierra Madre, where I was staying with my mom and brother. Sierra Madre is adjacent to Pasadena, where I grew up and a lot of my family on both sides did too. We didn’t find ourselves in a rush to get back to New York, which at the time was talked about as the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. And so we found ourselves heading north to San Francisco, then improvising a route east over the next week and a half or so. We were as optimistic as we could be. There’s a certain romance and mythos around the idea of the American road trip. And there’s some merit in that. There is a vastness, a quietness, and a sublime kind of beauty within the American landscape. But I couldn’t spend hours traversing that vastness and taking in that beauty without also thinking about the fact that it’s all stolen, and that this beauty is witness to such violence. That weighed as the trip went on. Our route east incorporated several national parks and monuments, including the Grand Canyon, Arches, Yellowstone, and at my odd insis­tence, Mount Rushmore. It was there, that third week of June in South Dakota, that broke us. The awful, incredible faces staring from that mountain, and the awful, unmasked faces of tourists in the visitor center below. Then and there we decided “fuck it” — that we would make a beeline to Brooklyn within forty-eight hours. Leaving Black Rock, we stopped at a dealership so a me­chanic could take a look at the car. The tire pressure kept triggering a light on the dashboard. My boyfriend was talking to the mechanic, and I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. That’s when my dad called.

My father and I hadn’t spoken in two years and hadn’t seen each other in several more. You could argue that until recently, we were relatively estranged. Our relationship had been compli­cated since I was child. He wasn’t in the picture, and when he was, it was never easy. We spoke with the level of comfort you’d expect, exchanging awkward pleasantries. I wanted to end the call as fast as I could. But before I got that far he asked if I was still in New York, and I ended up explaining about this unorthodox road trip that we were on. He surprised me further by asking me to come visit him in Atlanta. I told him I’d think about it, and hung up. I discussed it with my partner, and we found we had five hours’ worth of driving before we had to decide whether to head south. Close to three hours in, I said, “yes.” My father welcomed us warmly when we arrived, made sure we were fed, and gave us a tour of the house. In the entry hall there was a portrait of a young man in a white button-up shirt and glasses. My father pointed him out as his brother, Greg. The name was familiar, but not the face. He went on to tell us that he’d passed from HIV/AIDS and I recognized the ghost of this knowledge in my memory. I knew of Greg, maybe. Knew he had died, maybe. The way my father was speaking was telling. He told us about their lives in East Oakland, how much he had admired him, and eventually how he died. He said then that I reminded him of his brother. I didn’t want to admit that when I saw the photograph, I thought we looked related. He only mentioned Greg once more, when we were alone, talking in the living room during the end of what had turned into a weeklong stay. It was just before the Fourth of July. He said again that I reminded him of Greg, and he offered that Greg was a good dancer. I just smiled, but all of it had begun to feel a bit off, or at least like a hint of something else that I was missing. When we left on the holiday, I tried pushing it out of my mind until we made it back home. I never really succeeded. The trace of a memory I had of this person nagged at me. He’d never been mentioned in open conversation before, and yet, in his absence, his pres­ence was made so obvious. I called my mom and asked her, and she surprised me by saying Greg was the favorite child, going so far as to say that he was the star of her wedding to my father. She revealed more than I thought I was prepared for then, when she recounted Greg’s fu­neral and where he was buried. He was in the Presidio in San Francisco, where we’d just been at the beginning of our trip. It then kind of dawned on me that my father and his siblings, including Greg, had spent their adolescence in Pasadena and the neighboring Altadena just as I had. What else was I missing? That question really was the initial impetus into this history.

David: That is a lot of emotional weight and complexity to ask images to convey. Do you see the account you have just given me as part of the work itself? I ask this partly as a writer, as I often wonder exactly how writing stands in relation to a body of images. A backstory, a commentary, a literary or autobiographical “set-up” for the visual component — what is it best for the viewer to know?

Marley: Context, yes. Catalyst, yes. Work? I’m not sure. I think it was Avedon who said you only have the surface of a photograph, and thank God. Can you imagine trying to fit that entire story into a frame? Sure, there’s a lure to load as much meaning as you can into a work, but it’s also absence, nuance, and room for interpretation that I think makes art interesting, especially in photography. I feel inclined to not give everything away, especially considering I don’t have everything myself.

David: What is the extent of the project? Is there more than we have on the pages here?

Marley: I’m not sure yet. It’s very much tethered to the relationship with my father that we’re re-establishing, so much of the ebb and flow of the work stems from that.

On my last trip to California, I asked my mom for my her and my dad’s wedding tape. My uncle passed in October of 1991, and they were married in March of that year. It’s one of the last visual records of him, and it felt important for me to have and see. So I’m working on something with that now, as well.

David: Ebb and flow. Perhaps this is a project that, like the web of feelings that motivates it, will arrive at no final form.

Marley: There’s a relief and also a sense of heaviness that comes with that. On one hand, I think it’s good to feel compelled to make something because you feel like you have to, you know? On the other, the idea of engaging this for years on end seems daunting. I want to feel free to explore and be curious about other things, too.

David: That feels healthy. Being definitive is an impossible burden, and it still seems to weigh heavily upon photography. But even if one avoids it there’s still the question of how and when one says “that’s enough.”

Marley: It comes down to the contradictory nature of the medium, the fact that it deals with fictions and half truths, which, honestly, is how I feel we tell the stories of our lives to others. A question for you: what do you think about the alleged relationship between photography and death?

David: I feel it is both undeniable and easily overstated. The anterior aspect — “what was” — is there, always able to assert itself. But if every photograph always asserted its deathliness the medium would be unbearable.

Marley: Yes. I’m still coming to terms with that, that there is always some inescapable implica­tion. Maybe it’s just part of getting older, when you consider your own mortality a bit more, and you might have a better grasp on what loss can look like.

Is there any instance where loss has made the experience of viewing certain works more impact­ful for you?

David: I was at a cousin’s funeral yesterday. In the chapel during the service a slideshow of family album photos recounting her life played on a big screen, accompanied by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” I found it unbearably corny and yet unbearably moving.

Marley: I’m very sorry, that’s terrible.

[plays song] I’d never heard that song, and just listening to it now I see (or hear) what you mean. Resentment for clichés exists I think because they’re partly true, and they touch a part of us that doesn’t always hold in the world we live in. But there’s the part that moves us regardless like you mentioned.

You’ve brought something up that I’m curious to get your thoughts on: the relationship between photographs and music. Could you say more?

David: Oh I find that song just awful, but yes, a cliché is a truth worn out by use, I guess. Photo­graphs and music? My mind goes to two things. Michel Chion pointed out that we have eyelids but we don’t have ear lids. We can look away but we cannot hear away. So much follows from this, not least the fact that sound is much more pervasively bodily. Secondly, Roland Barthes noted that when listening to a voice, particularly a singing voice, we are feeling imaginatively the inside of the throat of the singer, and our own. If photographs are ever bodily it is in a very different way.

Marley: That Michael Chion bit is kind of mind-blowing. There’s so many conversations these days about the oversaturation of imagery in the world, but that can’t hold a candle to the sounds we imbibe in our lifetimes too.

I’m thinking now about the slideshow version of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, and how particular the soundtrack is. There’s that famous image “The Hug” and “This is a Man’s World” by James Brown immediately fills my ears. But that’s really it, unless you want to talk about moving pictures. Now that you mention it, it’s hard to think of photographs as bodily in a real way.

David: For me, music always seems to emphasize the stillness and the silence of photographs, often with a cosmetic poignancy. (Cosmetic in the sense that the music is “applied” to the image). I’m sure there could be a lovely soundtrack for your photographs but maybe not as lovely as their silence.

Marley: That’s an interesting observation, and a very nice thing to say. I tried putting together a soundtrack/playlist but it became an entirely separate beast and felt as you said, cosmetic. The silence seems more appropriate at the moment.