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Charles Lindsay: The T|N|T Interview

2009 June 19
by Jordan Lindberg

The Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City is exhibiting the work of artist and fly angler Charles Lindsay this summer. His two concurrent exhibitions, “Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West” and “Carbon: Cosmic Worlds of Charles Lindsay” will be available for viewing from June 24th to September 20th. The work in Upstream is drawn from his book with the same title.

Of his work, Lindsay remarks that “I photograph to increase my awareness and to extend the process of concentration that culminates when the fish strikes. The most abstract images made underwater lead to the investigation I’m now exploring in the Science Fiction Worlds of Carbon. The ‘photographs’ are made from negatives which utilize a carbon emulsion on a transparent base – the result of experiments and manipulation.”

True|North|Trout was able to interview Mr. Lindsay, and to discuss both his art and his passion for fly angling.

Charles Lindsay, Raw and Howling

Charles Lindsay, Raw and Howling

T|N|T: I read somewhere that your grandfather taught you to fly fish when you were nine. Where did you grow up, and was fly angling an important part of your life when you were young?

C|L: I was born and grew up until the age of nine in San Francisco. My dad took me to the casting ponds in Golden Gate Park. My very early fly fishing was with my grandfather for about ten days every year at an old fishing club in Quebec. Although it was for a short time, it ranked huge in my memory and influence. I loved my Grandfather, too.

T|N|T: One thing that I find really interesting about the work that you done – my impression as I reviewed a number of your books and pieces — is that it would be totally inappropriate to simply label you as a ‘nature photographer.’ Your interests in terms of subjects are varied, to say the least. In your view is there a thread that hold all your artistic projects together?

C|L: From the beginning I viewed photography as a tool to learn about the world and to make a living. It has enabled both of those things to a remarkable degree. I am most interested in nature and our connection to nature. But my views are too complicated to be a ‘nature photographer’ alone. My early work was hardcore environmental. Now in my late 40’s I seem to have morphed fully into an artist and musician … with the underpinnings of a scientist. I have a projector in my studio and project Planet Earth HD on a ten-foot screen, with the sound off, while friends and I improvise electronic music to it on the fly. So I have enormous respect for that type of work.

T|N|T: Like many fly anglers who make their homes in the East, something about fly fishing in the West has a hold on you … can you talk a little about that?

C|L: Yes. Even when growing up in Canada I longed for the West. My wife and I spend six-to-eight weeks a year in Sun Valley, Idaho and I make fishing excursions from there. It’s the big open spaces and the air. And I don’t fish where the stock brokers do.

"Cutthroat" by Charles Lindsay

"Cutthroat"

T|N|T: I know that you’re probably tired of this sort of question … but it is inevitable … I think that any time an artist picks up a camera and makes pictures in the American West their work is going to be viewed in reference to some degree to that of Ansel Adams. Rather than speculate, I’ll just ask: How does Adams’ work inform yours, and in what ways are you pursuing a different set of goals?

C|L: I respect Ansel Adams and what he did for photography. His technical writings taught me a lot. We are very different in our photographic goals — almost polar opposites — not in the love for nature, but in our imaging. He developed the concept of f64, which is where everything is in focus — from your nose to the horizon. And his subjects are always at infinity, far from the viewer.

My approach is to be completely intimate and close with nature and to focus with concentration in mind; which means the depth of field, or area of extreme focus, is extremely narrow. This is what happens when we concentrate totally, when we are in that zone, so I set out to make images that way.

T|N|T: Your book Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West is really a collaboration between you and Tom McGuane… how did that come about?

C|L: I approached McGuane with the concept well developed while I was working on year two of what became a five-year project. First of all, the reason I asked Tom McGuane to write for the book is because he can do things with words that are for the most part beyond me. Just as most people can take a good photo every once in a while, I write OK every once in a while – but McGuane is a pro all the time — eloquent, smart, insightful, funny. I enjoy collaborating and love what he wrote for Upstream.

T|N|T: In your work and in your private life, you approach trout in two different ways: with a camera and with a fly rod … in what ways do these two approaches complement and compete with each other?

Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West

Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West

C|L: My approach in Upstream was to reduce my equipment as much as possible. I used a 1961 twin lens Rolleiflex which has a fantastic German lens — a fixed standard lens — no zoom, no wide, just normal focal length, plus no batteries, and which you compose and focus through via a top viewer – so the camera isn’t brought up to your nose; that way I was able to concentrate completely and equally on both pursuits. For that five-year period they actually melded together — no division — fishing was photography and vice versa. Interestingly, years after completing the book, after I stopped photographing fishing, I went out with the camera again and could not believe I made those shots. It was as though somebody else did that work – I must have been in the zone at the time. Now if I could only find that trapdoor once more…

T|N|T: The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked that “in art it is hard to say anything as good as: saying nothing.” Do you find this to be true? In your experience, do you find that photography to be a medium that lends itself to constructive commentary?

C|L: Absolutely. Look at the world we live in. Without photography there would be no environmental movement. Ludwig should have had that enema.

T|N|T: If I remember correctly, you live in upstate New York. As a fly angler, what do you consider to be your home water? Why is it special to you?

C|L: My home water is in the West. Silver Creek, High Rocky Mountain streams, the Big Hole where it isn’t floated. Upstate New York has beautiful small stream fishing but I tend to binge-fish, to go to a place for at least a week or ten days and fish every day intensely.

T|N|T: When you think about the future of American fly angling and the state and health of trout water, are you optimistic or pessimistic? You’ve traveled all over. In your view, are things getting better or worse?

"Henry's Fork"

"Henry's Fork"

C|L: For trout I am very optimistic, unless global warming causes unimaginable droughts. Many rivers and streams are coming back. We now understand things like: If you kill the wolves, the hoofed animals will overpopulate, and the river banks will become ruined, and the fish and everything else will suffer. We have knowledge. Salmon is a more difficult question. Much more like cutting a primary rain forest. Once gone, it’s over.

T|N|T: If you would, talk a little about your exhibition at the Dennos Center here in Traverse City … how did you go about selecting the work that your showing? How does selecting work for an exhibit compare with the selection of work for a book like Upstream?

C|L: The Upstream work at The Dennos is part of a traveling exhibition that the Aperture Foundation organized. This is the tenth museum show since the book came out in 2000. The group of pictures, all 40×40-inch silver prints, were chosen, both as a cross-section and to convey the overall vision of the project. One of Aperture’ founders in the 1950’s was Ansel Adams.

T|N|T: Do you typically fish alone or with a partner? Do you find that fishing alone enhances or detracts from your experience?

C|L: I do both and though I’m gregarious, operating solo has been my mode for a long time. My fishing buddies are similar to me in intent, so we give each other lots of space. Then it’s the best of both worlds – no distractions, but with beer and stories at the end of the day.

I have always found that I get more out of everything when I am engaged. So while I enjoy hiking in the woods and being generally observant, I think that the predator mode turns on a switch. It just feels very good to be stalking. If you were not fishing you wouldn’t be walking up the middle of a stream. And all your readers know how good that feels. A photographer can be a stalker, too.

T|N|T: Tell us a little about your next project. What are you working on these days?

C|L: The CARBON show at The Dennos Museum is the first big solo show of this work. It is abstract, detailed, incorporates sound and video. It ultimately sprang from the underwater work I did in a dry suit in those icy-cold and clear streams in Montana. This is something I’ll be fleshing out for some time to come.

For more about Charles Lindsay, his art, and current and future projects, visit his website. Other interviews are available as well with a bit of Internet browsing. Upstream: Fly Fishing in the American West is available at Horizon Books in Traverse City, the Dennos Museum gift shop, and online at Amazon.com.

Catch Lindsay’s exhibit this summer. The Dennos Museum Center is open daily 10 AM to 5 PM (Thursday until 8 PM beginning July 2) and Sundays from 1 PM to 5 PM. Admission is $6.00 adults, $4.00 for children (as of July 1) and free to museum members. For more information on the Museum and exhibition, call 231-995-1055. The Dennos Museum Center is located at 1701 East Front Street, Traverse City, MI 49686, at the entrance to the campus of Northwestern Michigan College.

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