It also indirectly helped to reinforce the scientific belief that water in liquid form is a prerequisite building block for life. To that extent, Earth (whose surface is nearly three-fourths covered by water) is the only planet confirmed thus far to be able to stabilize and sustain life forms. We can witness this sublime power in any number of ways: we use water as a resource for drinking, cooking, cleaning, recreation, irrigation, commerce, employment, and much more. We can identify on a map and trace through history the concentration of human migration and settlement around oceans, lakes, rivers and other sources. Even the human form itself is comprised mostly of water: approximately 60% of the body and 70% of the brain.
In that sense, its fascinating to think that humans have some kind of symbolic connection to water. Beyond merely our physical or proximal engagement, many people even feel a certain psychological or spiritual attraction to water: it is integral to our identity, our presence, and our experiences.
Here on the North Coast, we're fortunate to be able to project those sentiments onto our crown jewel, the Great Lakes. Over 35 million people live around the Great Lakes on the American side; taken together, the five lakes form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, and hold over 20% of the world's fresh water.
The topics of fresh water and the Great Lakes are revered and addressed in an exhibition of photographs by Kevin Miyazaki opening this weekend at the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee. Titled Perimeter, the show focuses on Lake Michigan and its profound social, political and environmental importance.
Consisting of 98 prints split between portraiture and water landscape images as well as a companion catalogue with quotes from the subjects about their relationship with the lake, the exhibition is a modern-day documentation of the people living around Lake Michigan and their connection to the water. Miyazaki created the majority of the images in summer 2012 on a continuous trip to circumnavigate the 1,800-mile shore of the lake. The typological portraits were made in a portable studio he hauled along on his travels.
The works in Perimeter are very refined and systematic, revealing the artist's attention to fine details and tight compositions -- illustrated by the serialize method of portraiture with consistent lighting and background, and the repeated horizon line that perfectly bisects each waterscape and hints at the physical axis of the lake.
In the midst of installing and preparing for the exhibition, Miyazaki took some time to chat with me about the project.
(**note: all photographs below are copyright Kevin Miyazaki, from the project Perimeter. Please click images for larger view**)
GR: How did the Perimeter project come about? What drew you to the Great Lakes, to Lake Michigan, as a subject?
Kevin Miyazaki: I was approached by the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University and asked to consider the Great Lakes region and fresh water as subjects for a commissioned project. I live in Milwaukee and the city has become a center for fresh water research, which reaches through the local academic, environmental and business communities.
This is an enormous body of water, with historic and growing importance to our society, so who are those that benefit most, or are hurt by our care of it? Who are those who making a livelihood from it, or experiencing spiritually from its presence? I proposed to create a contemporary portrait of Lake Michigan by photographing the people who are closest to it.
Being a university art institution, it was important to the curatorial staff at the museum that the work have educational legs - and I was excited that the project could be less introspective than most of my personal work generally has been. In addition to the exhibition, the pictures will be incorporated into a classroom curriculum about fresh water.
Regardless, I still think Perimeter very clearly shows your vision, and shares a lot of attributes from your other projects: the sense of place achieved through the faces and figures of its people (similar to Wisconsin Protesters), or the exploration of complicated historical/contemporary landscapes (similar to Camp Home or Fast Food), just to name a few overlaps that come to my mind. How do you see Perimeter aligning with your other personal projects?
You're right in that the practice behind this work is a continuation of the typological portrait series I've made, which started with the Wisconsin Protesters series. But by "less introspective," I'm referring to the aspect of family history and memory that runs through much of my fine art work. The approach to Perimeter, and the accessibility of the photographs, felt at times more like the editorial projects I do. My magazine work often involves portraiture, but I haven't photographed people for any of my larger, personal projects. That said, I've just started a series in 2013 called Memory Portraits, which are portraits of family members, and addresses the subject of recollected memories.
Talk about your decision to photograph all the portrait subjects against the black backdrop. In a certain way, this removes or decontextualizes them from the lake environment, yet at the same time there's also a definite power to the serialized approach, in how it focuses us directly on the human element and speaks to a larger unified view of people. Do you have a specific intent to focus the viewer's attention onto the people? Where do you place the emphasis of the human element in your project?
I’ve been making series of typological portraits for the past few years, photographing people against a neutral, black backdrop. The visual strength in this approach is in the simplicity and straightforward nature. The individual is celebrated and elevated, and when viewed collectively, the photographs truly represent a community of people. There is diversity that exists in race, gender economic status and occupation that emphasizes the fact that the lake is something we share collectively.
For this trip I built a portable photo studio out of PVC piping, which allowed me to set up and photograph people just about anywhere I found them. I photographed 277 people for the project, in all four states (Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan) that border the lake.
I stayed off of all interstates (except for the Mackinac Bridge, which is technically I-75), so I really saw the lake as much as was possible by car. Not surprisingly, the areas with the least access were those with heavy industry or greater values. I was disappointed to find a fair amount of posted private roads nearest the lake. But on the other hand, some of the most gorgeous, quiet spots I found were small, well maintained county parks.
Staying on that topic, what kinds of variations did you experience with the lake in each of the four states? Or did it seem relatively uniform all around? I guess I'm thinking kinda in terms of the physical landscape (or topographic, i.e. the towering sand dunes in Michigan) as well as the social landscape (i.e. public vs. private access), etc.
It varied widely in both aspects. In Michigan and Wisconsin, where the majority of the lake exists, there was incredible beauty. As you mention, dunes, both in the southeastern and northwestern areas of Michigan, beautiful, lovely waterfront towns near Traverse City and in Door County, Wisconsin. The lake in Illinois and Indiana was proportionately much smaller. In Indiana, most of what I saw was industrial, with large, inaccessible areas taken by the steel mills and related industry. In the northern suburbs of Chicago, there was a lot of private land and inaccessibility, at least by car.
Seascapes, (albeit now mostly rendered in deep colors of summer). Can you talk about how/if Sugimoto's work has influenced your creative process?
I love that work by Sugimoto - it’s so still, so Japanese. But I actually didn’t intend to photograph the water and horizon until shortly before my trip began. The waterscapes reference the performative aspect of the project, the physical trip I made around the lake. I really think of them as being made on an axis, as I was always pointing my camera toward the center of the lake.
I was surprised by the variety of color that the lake and sky revealed. The lake rarely looked the same throughout different points of the day. And though it changed constantly, I’m also interested in the idea that these lake photographs could have been taken 50 years ago, or 50 years from now. Conversely, the portraits have specific visual references that make them of this time - clothing, hairstyles, etc.
While the portraits were my focus, the water is equally represented in this installation at the Haggerty Museum of Art, titled, “Mauka, Makai.” My mom was born and raised in Hawaii, and the words “mauka” and “makai” are commonly used and mean, “towards the mountains” and “towards the ocean” respectively. No matter where you are in Hawaii, those directions are quite physically evident, and that’s true for those of us that live in places bordering Lake Michigan as well.
I'm curious about your personal connection to the water. Sugimoto talks about the water being a "mystery of mysteries" yet also providing a "calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home." Do you identify with any of those feelings? How would you describe your personal connection or history with Lake Michigan?
I have a greater appreciation for the lake today than I ever have, especially after meeting so many people who love it deeply. But I can’t honestly say that I’ve had a deep relationship with Lake Michigan in the past, and in that way, I’m probably quite typical of the average Milwaukeean. I love that Lake Michigan is a part of my city, find it beautiful and at times, inspiring, but have largely taken it for granted. I hope that attitude is changing, both for myself and for others.
I met such a wide variety of people, mostly for a very brief time. Because of the nature of the photo booth, I was often only with people for a few minutes at a time. But I did have memorable encounters, and one example was meeting Frank Ettawageshik, a Native American leader and water rights advocate in Harbor Springs, Michigan.
After I took his picture, we sat and talked about the lake and his heritage. He was talking about the Native American water healing song, and sang it for me proudly. When I asked about the wealthy waterfront land owners in the surrounding affluent area, and he said to me, “They think they own the land, but they don’t own the land.” This really hit home with me, as the idea of stewardship from one generation to the next was something I’d been thinking about.
I also was inspired by 4 women who each made their way around the perimeter of Lake Michigan in different manners. Loreen Neiwenhuis hiked the around the lake and wrote a book titled "A 1000-Mile Walk On The Beach". Amy Lukas and Mary Catterlin made their own dugout canoe, and proceeded to paddle it around the lake from their home in Beverly Shores, Indiana. And Chicagoan Jenn Gibbons rowed and biked around the lake to raise money and awareness for breast cancer.
(installation view, Haggerty Museum of Art)At the same time, Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes face a growing list of environmental struggles, pollution, invasive species, erosion control, potential water withdrawals due to extensive water demand/shortages in other areas, etc. What did you hear from people around the lake about their concerns (or possible solutions)?
I wanted to hear the subjects' thoughts about Lake Michigan, but knew that trying to gather that information in a short time wouldn’t be productive. So I contacted everyone via email and and asked for their thoughts on Lake Michigan. You can see some of their responses here.
I know you've also talked about being inspired by the tradition of a water walk, a practice which, from my understanding, has at least some of its roots in Native Americans who view the waters as the sacred life-blood of Mother Earth. You had also been carrying a jar of water from Lake Michigan along with you as you worked on this project. How did this come about, and is there a certain symbolism for you in the gesture of carrying the water?
It was a very small act, inspired by learning about the Mother Earth Water Walks, which began in 2003 by members of the Anishinawbe tribe. The walks are completed by many individual walkers and helpers, who physically carried water around the perimeter of one of the Great Lakes. I had hoped to photograph one of the Lake Michigan walk participants for the project, but unfortunately that wasn’t possible.
To reference this in a small way, I collected a little canning jar full of water on Bradford Beach in Milwaukee when I started the trip. The water kept me company for 13 days of driving, and when I reached Milwaukee 1,800 miles later, l returned the water in the same spot.
(installation view, Haggerty Museum of Art)Miyazaki's Perimeter project will be showing alongside the exhibition Dark Blue: The Water as Protagonist, which also opens at the Haggerty this weekend and continues thru 19 May. More info here.
photographs by Kevin Miyazaki
opening Friday 18 January, 5-8
continuing thru 19 May
Haggerty Museum of Art
530 N. 13th St. (at Clybourn), Milwaukee