Inside the Studio: DC Photographer Frank Hallam Day

Frank Hallam Day in his studio

Frank Hallam Day is a Washington, DC based photographer, artist, former State Department employee, and the son of a librarian and the artist Arthur Day (who also worked for the State Dept).  His most recent body of work, RV, which recently closed at Georgetown’s Addison Ripley Fine Art, has received much attention: an honorable mention in the Lens Culture competition; a finalist in Voies Off 2010 in Arles, France; and was recently featured on the cover of the Photo Review where I saw the work for the first time.

The beauty of the RV work, for me, is the depiction of this American experience: the industrial design and man & machine idea of car culture, captured amidst this Floridian fecundity of foliage.  Spanish moss drapes over Airstreams. Nature looms as man sits in his little pods protected from the outdoors.  I contacted Frank for a studio visit and shortly thereafter found myself sitting with him in his lovely Mt. Pleasant row house, surrounded by enormous prints (EVERYWHERE) and African artifacts – the legacy of his State service, sipping espresso and chewing the proverbial photographic fat.

From RV at Addison Ripley Fine Art

FHD is a bit of a format chameleon, and while his previous work was shot on 8×10, Hasselblad, and large format banquet cameras- among others, this current body of work was shot on 35 mm digital, and he professes a new found loyalty to this format because of the large file size and ease of turn around.  Like me, who will soon be heading to the warmer climes of the Peruvian summer, Frank is a fond devotee of Winter Avoidance.  Thus the RV project originally started as something else. he was simply looking at the Florida landscape and the glow of the campfires whilst more frigid temperatures prevailed up north.  Then he turned around and saw an RV.

“The first one you see is usually the best because its so good it gives you the idea and after that you are just trying to match it.”  Indeed, it was the ensuing photograph, Airstream #19331 that was featured on the cover of the Photo Review.  The names are taken from the directory of airstream owners.

“I’m much more interested in the history of painting than the history of photography, ” Day asserts. He expounds further on the connections of his work to the painter Henri Rousseau. The portrayal of foliage in the RV pictures for him is evocative of the medieval landscape painting of Jan Van Eyck, whose “Adoration of the Lamb,” is marked by a non-directional light source, the anti-Rembrandt, if you will.  To achieve this effect, the apparently spry FHD climbed into the surrounding landscape and painted, unbeknownst to the pod-dwellers within, as he worked over the greenery with a flashlight while creating long exposures on a tripod-mounted camera.  The resulting images are then printed as large as 66″ across on a Canon inkjet printer and mounted to aluminum in editions of 15 for the smaller pieces and 7 for the larger.

He insists he couldn’t achieve a successful result without the immediate feedback of the digital (as someone who painted with light in school on chrome film, and spent two hours “working” a trashcan on MF film with a snooted strobe, I respectfully beg to differ), but photographer’s choice it is, and he prefers the cleanness, sharpness, speed and “colors gone off” of the digital long exposures. As I am currently sitting on about 1,000 undusted images you will find no argument from me there!

Installation at Addison Ripley Fine Art of RV

A social scientist major from the University of Chicago, who completed a masters in sociology at UC Santa Barbara (again shades of Winter Avoidance!), Day insists that sociology plays no role in his work.  But in his huge inventory of work from Africa, I do see a bit more of sociology coming into play as he mediates the western influence upon the African identity.  Unfortunately only a small selection of the work is available on his website, but for me it is this body of work that ultimately intrigues me the most.

An isolated George Foreman statue looms over “the middle of nowhere,” and speaks to the famous 1974 Ali/Foreman fight “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.  He’s got quite a backlog (9000 negatives according to him) of material from this subject, no surprise since he was stationed in Africa for the majority of his State experience and is a fluent Amharic speaker.  I look forward to him organizing the material into a monograph in which his distinctive viewpoint on the African identity as an insider/outsider will certainly interest both Africans and cultural tourists such as myself, alike.

He insists that now that he is retired from State he is not as productive as when he had a full-time job.  Snarky comments about federal employees aside, if you please, I empathize with the idea of the increased productivity that is gained when you are running on all 8 cylinders, though I offer that his immune system is probably much more grateful to him now.

George Foreman Statue © Frank Hallam Day
© Frank Hallam Day

He started off with photography in the late 80’s and essentially was working two jobs as a federal employee and artist.  He had his first show at the now defunct Kathleen Ewing gallery, a Washington institution, and gradually made his way over to Addison Ripley.  He’s served as a cultural envoy to Ethiopia for the State Department where he ran a couple of workshops and set up two shows, one directly across the street from the Cloth and Curtain Market in Addis, so his subjects could see the fruit of his labor.

Photographs by Day are included in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Sackler/Freer Gallery of Art, and the Berlinische Galerie und Landesmuseum.

Some of his previous bodies of work, Ship Wrecks, Ship Hulls, American Waterscapes, the previously mentioned Ethiopian Beauty Salons, Blow Up (on parade balloons), are available on his website, (which is flash oriented and not individually linkable) but not his early work on the changing landscape of Berlin, where he grew up right after the wall came up, and returned to after its fall.

Much of his work is marked by ambiguity, loss of a sense of place, scale, things transformed and an compulsive return to the same subject in countless iterations as in a series on Baltimore bridges which he explains as a kind of Buddhist philosophy about the shimmering lovely portrayal of ugly things, the relationship between man and nature being all “fucked up, the world is shit, but if you look at it in the right light it is lovely . . . about seeing the same depressing stuff and being happy about seeking the underbelly and talking about the worst of the worst” and transforming that into a state of grace.

As much as it is au courant to attribute one’s influences to the painting tradition, one can not but admit that Frank walks the walk as he paints to this writer’s eye with as much proficiency as he photographs. Witness this painting inspired by one of his Baltimore bridge photographs:

Painting from the Baltimore bridge series © Frank Hallam Day

We talk a bit about the validity of working in traditions and approach to subject matter.  I unload a bit about my insecurities with the color large format work I’m currently pursuing, and I have my doubts as to the worth of it or not, though ultimately, I decide to take the approach of the “journey is the destination,” and it is the process that creates the value for me and that is all I can control.  He decries what he terms as  “the fascism of the new, if it’s not new it really doesn’t matter and if it is new it’s great, even if it’s crap.” Which serves to buck me up a bit and I leave him happily ensconced with his prints and philosophies as I head back to my bat-lair across Rock Creek Park to ponder. Thanks Frank Hallam Day. Please do check out further.  A short quiz will follow.

2 thoughts on “Inside the Studio: DC Photographer Frank Hallam Day

  1. Pingback: Post Pop Punks at Cohn Drennan Contemporary

  2. Pingback: Ctrl+P: Photography Taken Offline – Frank Hallam Day | Cyclops

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