“The Developing Process”: Scotty Poston ‘18 talks photography

Lucas Weals-

Face (unknown date, 2017) by Scotty Poston ‘18. Printed with permission of the artist.

This week I sat down at Brickhouse with Scotty Poston ‘18 to talk about his love of photography, approaching art outside of Davidson’s academics, and skateboarding. He is wearing a windbreaker with purple cuffs and sipping on a bottle of Rolling Rock. The transcript is lightly edited for clarity.

Talk to me about the photo series you’ve been working on; talk about how you got into photography, what you’re doing with it at Davidson, the broad concept behind the project, and how it’s developed over time.

I got into photography two falls ago, when I was abroad—I had just gotten a DSLR before I left. And new countries are the best places to take pictures, because you’re looking at stuff in a new way anyway. And I was living with a lady—my host mother—who actually used to develop film for some of the biggest photographers in Argentina back in the day, so I got lucky on that. She told me all about the developing process—so that idea was really fresh in my head coming back from abroad, that film photography was something to explore. But I didn’t really touch that concept until this past fall.

Last summer I was working in Montana, as a photojournalist intern for a newspaper [The Boseman Daily Chronicle]. And while I was there I mentioned to their main photographer that I was interested in trying film. And she was like we have a dark room here (she does film photography all the time, she develops and prints in there on her own), so she taught me the whole process. That’s how I learned to do it. At the end of the summer she actually gave me one of her four enlargers—which is the light that shines down through the negative to print, and it’s the most expensive piece—so I got that for free.

I came back here and thought, “All right, time to do something with it.” And I remembered friends having done Spike! Grant projects, I knew that was an option. So I talked to Grace Leonhardt [‘18], got the application done, got the funding.

The concept started as: “Capturing Absurdity and Performative Behavior.” It was basically a commentary on people performing for the camera. But the project has taken a few turns—now I’m trying to actually give the subject an absurd experience. (“Absurdism” here’s referring to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value in things and their inability to find tat value, by the way.)

So imagine someone taking a picture of you: you’re putting something out for the photographer to capture, and when you hear the shutter, that’s validation that what you’re doing is right. The photographer likes it so they take the picture. People derive some meaning from that little click. But if I don’t click when they expect it—if I actually wait until they let their guard down, until they’re frustrated or confused, and then I take the picture—then we get something totally different.

So it’s not candidness, exactly, it’s not taking pictures of people when they don’t know the camera’s there; you’re taking pictures of the uncanny space after the moment when the camera is supposed to deliver them from their poses. Do you feel like the thing that frustrates your subjects isn’t just that you haven’t taken the picture, but also that they start to feel their own pose?

They literally sink into themselves. And in a way it is doing exactly what I wanted in the first version of the project, which is to comment on the way people perform. But instead of commenting on it by looking at my pictures, I’m letting the subjects experience it themselves. And it manifests differently in everyone, for obvious reasons. The shoots I’ve been doing lately, with this new concept, start with that initial denial of the conventional photograph. But they branch off into different things for different people. If someone’s really nervous, I’ll ask them why they’re so nervous. They say, “The camera,” so then I’ll put the camera down and look them straight in the face, wait for the right moment, and then take it. So I mess around with different methods inside the concept.

What kind of equipment are you using here at school? What’s your set-up?

The camera I shoot with is my dad’s Canon F1. I have a few lenses, but I really stick to the 50mm. I think a lot of times equipment can dictate style, and if you learn your equipment and grow into it, it can guide your stylistic choices. I just like the aesthetic quality of the 50mm. I shoot on 35mm Kodak film, 400 ISL, and I develop the pictures in my room—well, I guess in our bathroom. But to get the film into the developing tank you have to do it in total darkness, and also printing, so I’ve put trash bags under my door and over my window to turn my room into a dark room. The Spike! Grant paid for all the chemicals.

(The Health and Safety dude asked me about this project, and he seemed cool with me keeping them sealed under the sink. Anyway, we haven’t had a problem yet.)

Once the film is all developed I cut it up and keep it in sleeves; and then to print, you black out the room—I keep a red light bulb on, because you can use red light—and then I put trays of chemicals under my bed, set up the enlarger, shine light through the negative onto photographic paper in three different chemical baths.

I actually had to rig running water for the printing, so I used a water pouch from DO and let it run down through a hose into a suspended tray, which runs the water over the paper. Afterwards you just dry it, and you’ve got your prints.

What other art do you work on in your free time? Is your art mostly academic, or mostly  non-academic? How have you found the balance between those two things at Davidson?

I’m into film, music, photography; I paint sometimes. I’m not really involved at all in art as academics here—I’m never in the VAC, and the only real academic artistic stuff I do is film, for my major, Film & Media Studies. Like class projects, that kind of thing. But photography, music, painting, that’s all on my own.

So from my outside perspective, that’s been a good thing. I think there’s a weird lack of a definition around an arts community at Davidson—in a lot of ways you have to approach things in a nonconventional way if you want to actually make things. I wanted a basement in Watson for my dark room but they hadn’t disinfected it from the animal research labs, and so I couldn’t do my photos there. They were worried about E. coli, apparently. So what you do is sidestep and figure it out on your own: in my case I got a Spike! Grant and built the dark room in my bedroom because I was tired of waiting around.

Again, not that people try and stop you, but I don’t think there’s as much of an artistic infrastructure for students to pursue things on their own. The Spike! is an exception in that regard. That’s how my other stuff is too—I buy paints at Hobby Lobby and teach myself. I’m sh*tty, but I’m learning! That’s how I started with photo and film too. There’s an individualism, that’s been my lens.

When you work with other students, if you have a project in mind, how do you approach that? What’s the pitch? We’ve talked about the institutional art culture, but how do normal students react to something like, “I want to take potentially embarrassing photos of you for a really cool project I’m doing”?

You always have to gauge the subjects. Sometimes I can just feel the nerves, and if I don’t say anything then they’ll be totally thrown off. So I’ll preface by saying, “This might be uncomfortable, but I’ll explain what I’m doing once I’m done.” I want them to know, because otherwise they might feel manipulated, but I also can’t tell them beforehand because that’s the whole project. I just say, “We’ll talk about it after.” That’s for this project specifically—I selectively supply information.

What are you going to do with these pictures when you’re done?

I have a gallery show on March 22 in the racquetball courts in Baker. Also, unrelatedly, I’m working with Matt [Hunter ‘18] on some kind of performance piece for later in the spring. We imagine a big collaboration with lots of artists, so be on the lookout for that.

Even if they’ve never seen you shooting photos, probably everyone at Davidson has seen you riding your skateboard around. Does that relate at all to your art?

It makes you look at campus in a different way! The high schoolers who skate on our campus—honestly it’s a cool culture; there’s so much sharing and meeting people. Any time you pass someone skating they’ll ask to do a trick on your board, you know.

It’s community.