Interview with J.H. Hardcastle / April 2015

Blood Rites by J.H. Hardcastle was published by Cold Green Tea Press in April 2015.

1. How did you become a photographer?

My first camera was a twin lens Yashica on loan from a girlfriend who was a photographer. At the time I was working on a screenplay and every day I would go on these long walks only ever looking down at the ground, laying the world in my imagination over the one beneath my feet. The world around me came into focus the day she loaned me that camera. In the beginnng, my photography was an antidote and relief to the hours I spent writing. My first shots were very literal, factual, documentary - the mashed down grass from a recently drained fire hydrant, a shirt caught in barbed wire of atop a chain link fence - I just walked around the city gathering things up on film like someone might gather berries into a basket. It took several years before I found the “art” in it, before I realized that I could shape the world with it like I could shape a story with words. 

I’m not sure what, if any, distinction there is between “photography” and “art” but as I paint my images with an encaustic mixture of beeswax and damar resin, the less like a “photographer I feel. Where the printed image used to be the core of my work, mounted on a wood panel it is now the foundation and beginning. Which brush I choose has become as important to me as which lens. When people ask me what I do, it’s getting more and more difficult to call myself a photographer.

Photograph © J.H. Hardcastle

2. Most of the photographs in Blood Rites were taken with film, yet now you seem to shoot almost exclusively with digital cameras.  What precipitated the change?

It was a conspiracy of events, really. Several years ago a friend asked me to photograph his wedding. It was at the height of my interest in large format photography and the only cameras I owned were large format - 4x5’, 5x7, 8x10. I used the invitation as a reason to buy my first digital camera and when a wildfire destroyed my home and darkroom a few months later, that little bag of digital gear was one of a handful of things I was able to carry with me. I “went digital” because it was the fastest way to get back to making pictures. Up until then, digital had no appeal to me because the romance was in making pictures through antique and homemade lenses. But thanks to websites like “Lensbubbles” - an incredible resource for adapting old lenses to digital cameras - the transition has been a revelation and the sacrifices not as profound as I had feared.

3. What is the history of the photographs in Blood Rites? What drew you to the subject matter?

Although I was born into a family of hunters, hunting never held my interest like it did other members and so I have a different relationship to the hundreds of antlers and animal heads which hang on the walls of my family’s ranch and which speak more loudly to me of symmetry and form than they they do of conquest. My brother runs the ranch now and about a decade ago I found myself temporarily living there after a tumultuous time in my life. And so I fertilized the weeds of my melancholy with these relics from my childhood, weaving my camera between the antlers and bringing the skulls down from the wall one by one to meditate upon them.

Fast forward to the wildfire. After the grief of loss had given way to a curiousity for what remained, I opened the only box of negatives I was able to save. Alongside a handful of my earliest attempts at medium format were the negatives from these images neatly archived in sleeves and envelopes. If I had hoped to find consolation in what remained of my work, I felt only loss as the memory of that time in my life came flooding back to me. To give you an idea of just how filled with sorrow these images were to me, I never kept them in the darkroom alongside my other negatives, but segregated them on shelves away from the others where they gathered dust from almost the moment of their conception. And so not surprisingly despite being the only negatives to survive the fire, when I saw which ones they were, I closed the box and put it back on a shelf where they sat for another three years.

Photograph © J.H. Hardcastle

4. What changed for you after the fire?

One of the most important lessons the wildfire taught me is that what we don’t give of ourselves to the world dies with us and that immortality, if there is such a thing, is really just the depth of our connections to one another where we outlive ourselves for a time in what we shared of our lives. It just struck me one day that the reason why my losses from the fire were so complete was because, other than a dozen prints given away as presents to friends, that I had never shared my art with anyone. By not printing those surviving negatives and putting them into the world, I would be repeating myself - setting myself up for the next fire to sweep through my life and once again take everything.

5. What is your relationship to art?

Losing my darkroom and 10 years of negatives in a wildfire was the best thing that ever happened to me as an artist. When I made the images for Blood Rites, or any images during that decade of large format photography, I didn’t think of myself as an artist or even a photographer. To understand this is to understand that until recently making pictures with a camera has soley been a means to an end for me. The negatives were little more than receipts of ecstatic moments captured through hundred year old lenses to be filed away as quickly as I created them. 

So it has been an interesting process to take something which had little value at its time of creation - the negatives I salvaged from the fire - and re-signify them with meaning. Which is to say, to take something conceived in the imagination and give it form in the world. I believe that is where the bulk of an artist’s work lay - building a bridge between this world and that other, less tangible one. For an artist and anyone involved in an act of creation, the ether is a miraculous place to be and it’s easy get stuck in it - for me, endlessly wandering around with my camera looking for butterlfies in my stomach. The problem with going soley in pursuit of the butterflies is that it is largely a masturbatory act with its only impact on the world concealed or trapped within oneself. My work as an artist began when I started building these bridges and giving form to my visions. As a photographer in particular, it began when I started putting my work into the world, both online and in print.