Photographer Interview Series: Quinta Scott
When and how did you start practicing photography?
My Mutti, a good friend of my parents, gave me my first camera for my seventh birthday. I put that little Brownie Hawkeye to my eye and magic happened. My parents, fortunately, allowed me use the local drug store as my lab. I’ve been making photographs ever since.
I come from a family of people who draw. My father was an architect for whom drawing was language. My mother was a wallpaper designer for whom drawing was language. My sister is an animator for whom drawing is language. While I draw better than most people, for me it’s not language. Playing with light and color to fill a view-finder is.
I studied painting and printmaking at Connecticut College and on graduation began studying architecture at the School of Architecture at Washington University. When I reached the point I had to decide whether I wanted to be an architect, I quit. Through it all, through college, through architectural school, I was making photographs, but a camera and a darkroom did not come together for me until I was thirty. I became a professional photographer almost right away in order to pay my expenses.
I started making children’s portraits, and expanded into weddings and adult portraits. When I became the photo editor of a small weekly, I expanded into photo journalism and began doing feature articles for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was out of the work for the small weekly that my first book came.
What type of camera do you use and why?
I have used all camera platforms: 35mm Nikon, a 2 1/4 Hasselblad, and a 4 x 5 Wista field camera. I used the 35mm cameras in my wedding and portrait business. I use the 4 x 5 Wista for architectural and landscape photographs. I bought the Hasselblad for a trip to Italy, when I wanted something larger than the 35mm and more portable than the 4 x 5. I used it on the Missouri Rock series, which requires a lot of hiking, before I turned to digital cameras.
I came late to digital photography and today use a Nikon D5100 and handed my D80 to my husband. I choose the 5100 because I can choose between live-view or through-the-lens photography. With the D80 I found myself moving through the landscape mumbling, “Think like a view camera, shoot like a 35mm.” There is a difference.
How would you define your style? Do you focus on particular subject matters?
My style reflects which camera I am using and how I am organizing a photograph. With the field camera and the expense of a 4 x 5 color negative ($7/negative to a contact sheet), I am careful in my selection of what should go into each image and position myself in order to frame the photograph accordingly. Stylistically, those images tend to be very direct, very formal, and almost painterly.
I use the 35mm to explore every aspect of a scene, a person, or an object until I have exhausted all possibilities. Bang, bang, bang, one photograph after another, yielding less formal images, but still very direct. However, once I started using the view camera all the time for architectural and landscape photographs, the formality of those images carried over into my 35mm portrait work and improved those images.
With the 5100 I can work both ways: I can set it on a tripod and use it like a view camera, or I can bang away and explore all possibilities of a scene like with a 35mm.
I am a landscape photographer. Occasionally, I will make an architectural photograph.
What or who are your inspirations?
When I was ten I received a set of Charles Eames’s House of Cards with very graphic, very flat images of objects, which filled each card edge to edge. These images have been in the back of my mind since I started making photographs.
The inspiration for my first book came from Charles Guggenheim’s film on St. Louis in 1964. He mounted his camera on the front of a train and ran across the Eads Bridge at St. Louis. I was still in architectural school and not taking photography seriously, but I knew that I would go to the train deck, the inside, of the Eads Bridge as a photographer and document the structure of the bridge. I did ten years later while working for a small weekly newspaper. I found a co-author, and developed the images into my first book, The Eads Bridge: Photographic Essay by Quinta Scott; Historical Appraisal by Howard S. Miller, which was published by the University of Missouri Press in 1978. The Missouri Historical Society published a new edition in 1999.
I bought a Speed Graphic to do the dust jacket for the Eads Bridge. While waiting for the publication of the book, I took it out on Watson Road in St. Louis, learned how to use it, and made photographs of old motels and gas stations. When I realized that Watson Road had been Route 66, I knew I had a great idea. There is so much American cultural history, across generations and surrounding the highway,
particularly the work of John Steinbeck and the photographers in Farm Security Administration program. I decided to do a book on the architecture of U.S. Highway 66. I published Route 66: The Highway and its People, Photographs by Quinta Scott; Text by Susan Croce Kelly, in 1988 and Along Route 66: The Architecture of America’s Highway in 2000, both from the University of Oklahoma Press.
My inspiration for my most recent book, The Mississippi: A Visual Biography, is Ruth Ferris, my fifth grade teacher who taught me, and several generations of fifth graders, about the Mississippi River. I always wanted to do a book on the river. It was a matter of finding the hook.
The architectural photographs had gone really, really stale. So documenting the towns along the river was out. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush was talking about “no net loss of wetlands,” and I was working on a short-term project, North Prairie, that took me through the floodplain of the Kaskaskia River. I could think of no market for the Kaskaskia River, but I could of the Mississippi. Later that summer on a trip through Mississippi, I stepped in my first nest of fire ants, made a photograph of an old oxbow of the Mississippi, and found my Mississippi River book: I would document the wetlands created by the Mississippi as it meandered through time.
Do you have a dream subject or location that you would love to shoot?
I am currently working on a project I call Missouri Rocks, using Missouri’s geological column (eyes gaze over) to document and organize a series of images on the Ozark mountain landscape.
I am looking forward to returning to Michigan this summer to work on the Michigan dune series.
And, I will continue working on the New River Gorge when passing through West Virginia on my way to Washington, D.C., where my son lives.
Where can the majority of your work be seen?
My work can be seen at my web sites: www.QuintaScott.com, www.AlongRoute66.com, www.MississippiRiverPhotographs.com, and www.MissouriRocks-site.com. Newton, my 16-pound Maine Coon knockoff, has his own web site at www.NewtonStop.com.
You studied painting and printmaking in college. How has your experience with other art forms influenced your photography?
I was an indifferent painter. The scale was too large. The confined scale of an etching plate appealed to me. Photography is really printmaking. The training in basic design I had in college and, particularly, in architectural school, forms the basis of my work, which is very graphic. Presently, I am teaching a photography course, based in the elements of basic design: line, shape, roundness, texture, pattern, color, and light. It will be interesting to see how going back to the basics as I work with students will change my work.
You say that you organize your work around projects, and in some cases turn these projects into books. How is it that you began working in this way, and where did you get the idea to make books?
I work in projects because it gives my work focus. Random shooting has never worked for me. It produces bad photographs. Working on a project, short or long term, allows me to develop an aesthetic, which I can then explore, until it plays out and the photographs become less compelling. Until very recently, turning the large projects into books was always a goal, even before I took photography seriously. However, book publishing has changed so in the last few years, I am re-evaluating traditional books and beginning to explore ebooks. I photographed and wrote my first a year ago and developed a web site for it, NewtonStop.com.
Can you speak a bit about the process of putting a photography book together. Any particular challenges or joys?
Setting the parameters and therefore the limitations for any book project requires preliminary research. While the cultural history of Route 66 was my inspiration for the project, the Congressional history set the parameters of the project. Congress authorized the Federal Highway Act in 1926, which laid out the system of numbered highways, including U.S. Highway 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles. Congress authorized the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which laid out the interstates that replaced the numbered highways. Therefore, I limited my photographs of roadside architecture to buildings build between 1926 and 1956. In the same vein, Kelly and I limited the informants from whom we took oral histories to people who came to the highway during the same period and invented roadside tourism.
I loved listening to their stories, which formed the basis of the text. I enjoyed the challenge of piecing their stories together into a history of the road. Once the text was written, I enjoyed the process of editing it. Route 66: The Highway and its People, however, is not the architectural history I planned, but it is the first and most comprehensive history on the highway.
I wrote the second book because I had thousands of images of old motels and gas stations that needed to go out and pay their way, and the book on the architecture of the road had yet to be written. Both books are still in print. A fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts financed the photography for both books.
In approaching the Mississippi book, I needed to learn exactly where the river meandered over time in order to set the research plan. I was very lucky that the first book I found on the Lower Mississippi was a geological history, for I learned that wherever the Mississippi flowed, when it moved elsewhere, it left behind wetlands. Therefore, I incorporated old channels of the river--the White, the St. Francis River, the Yazoo River--and others into my plan. I used U.S. Geological Survey maps to locate places I photographed. Because I was researching the text at the same time I was making the photographs, I learned that the more I knew about places I was documenting, the better the photographs became. The University of Missouri Press published The Mississippi: A Visual Biography in 2010.
The publishers of each book put their own limitations on the final product, and those are a function of economics. A draft of The Mississippi was 450 images long. The reviewer recommended that the press should publish the book once I got my act together to cut it. The final draft was 250 images long, which was cut to 200.
I collaborated with writers on the first two books. Collaboration is like a marriage: one was successful and we are still fast friends: one ended in divorce. After the divorce, I decided to screw up my courage and write my own books. In doing so I learned that my impatience at waiting for my collaborators to produce was uncalled for.
It takes a long time to research and write a book. Every book takes on a life of its own, and the fun in doing the work is following its demands to their logical conclusions.
Your work is held in numerous corporate and private collections, including the St. Louis Art Museum, Citicorp, Sprint, and the Missouri Historical Society among others. What advice would you have for young photographers looking to place their photographs in collections?
In the early 1980s I began working with an art dealer who had persuaded local corporations in St. Louis to buy the work of local artists. That’s important. As a result I am represented in an impressive list of corporate collections. Some were building their art collections; some were looking art conference rooms and public areas. Where there is a successful interplay between artist and the dealer, it can strengthen the artist’s work. It’s important to have a dealer who is committed to your work as it evolves. I once had a dealer who lost interest in my work when I began making photographs of wetlands. She didn’t like cypress trees. We soon parted company. And it’s important to keep in touch with your dealer, to continue submitting new work, and to get the dealer’s feed back on the work.