02 Jun 2019 • Interview
A former ad man becomes a full-time artist, by way of film and light
After some early adventures in advertising, Clint Baclawski embarked on a career in art. To his new field he brought a love of the backlit billboard image, adapting the advertising mainstay to create his distinctive installations. Taking large-format photos – images purged of ad-world glamour and glitz – he slices them into strips. Wrapped around LED bulbs contained in plastic tubes, then mounted in sequence on mirror Plexiglas, they become three-dimensional and dynamic, glowing landscapes that change as the viewer moves around them. For example, His installation Zephyr features a brilliant panorama of wind turbines that seem to stretch into infinity.
A native of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Baclawski studied at Rochester Institute of Technology and Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He now lives and works in Boston.
From advertising photographer to artist. How did that happen?
CLINT BACLAWSKI: Actually, becoming an advertising photographer was never my ambition. I was studying technical photography at Rochester Institute of Technology, and I opted for advertising photography, as it offered the best technical experience in large-format film, strobe lighting, still-life methods and so on. During my senior year, we visited New York City to meet with some of the top ad agencies. That trip already convinced me that advertising wasn’t my scene, but after graduating I moved out to Oregon where, in between capturing action shots for several snowboard camps, I had the chance to do some advertising work. I did a shoot for a sunglasses company and was paid in sunglasses, which kind of confirmed that advertising wasn’t for me.
What was the most important thing you took from the ad world?
That it’s all about getting the one shot. Once you get it, don’t waste any more time shooting. In fact, I typically capture only one image when I take photos. I either nail it, or I don’t.
Plus the billboard aesthetic, of course.
That started at RIT, where we did a critique of each other’s work every week by looking at prints on light tables. I always found them completely mesmerizing. Later, as a grad student at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, I began making large-scale light boxes to display my photos, and I learned to wire them myself. One day I was working on a box when one of my prints fell onto a tube light and sort of draped over it, and that’s how I got the idea for my tube installations.
How do you put your tube installations together?
I start out with a photo I’ve taken. I get the image printed on inkjet backlit film and figure out how to slice it up. Then I wrap each image segment around an LED bulb and place it in a plastic tube – of a standard design, cut to size. Finally, I mount the tubes onto mirror Plexiglas. I collaborate a lot with others during this process – on the fabrication or electronics, for example. I can’t do it all alone, even though I have a finger in all the processes.
What inspires the images in your pieces?
I don’t chase after specific images. I prefer to notice things in the moment, whether I’m driving home from work or travelling abroad. I like to visit national parks, photographing an abandoned camper for Death Valley, a church in an Indian village in the Grand Canyon for Pink Church, and so forth. I guess I’m looking for a different view. I gravitate towards images of nature, or images of places that people inhabit but are free of advertising. If I have a ‘dream image’, it’s one that requires very little touch-up work.
You shoot on an analogue camera. Why not digital?
I love the graininess you get with film – that’s what makes it so beautiful. And on a purely practical level, film gives me the freedom to enlarge my images beyond the dimensions a normal digital camera would allow. I like the fact that my work begins as an analogue process during image capture and then morphs into a digital output. I’m happy that I can embrace technology, and all its possibilities, while still preserving craft. I’ve shot with the same camera and the same lens for the last ten years. It’s a Horseman 4x5 field camera with a standard 150-mm lens. I love the quality of film negatives, but I could see myself giving it up for a Hasselblad H5D.
I’m happy that I can embrace technology while still preserving craft
Is it becoming harder to find places to develop film now?
This is such a timely question, as the place I’ve used for the last 12 years just closed down. Although I don’t have another lab lined up, I hope to find one through my creative network.
Is the process costly?
Yes. Producing my work, particularly as the scale has increased, definitely comes at a price. I often have to sell another piece of work to finance the next idea, but I’ve always been able to produce my vision and pay for it.
Which artists have influenced you?
California’s Light and Space movement is a big influence, especially Robert Irwin and James Turrell – I’m really fascinated by them. You can get lost in their work; you forget where you are. It’s the installation aspect that I love. While I think my work nods to that of those artists, it takes a new and unexpected direction through the wrapping and slicing of images. Also, LEDs last longer, much longer than fluorescent bulbs. The kind of print I use is said to have a longevity of 100 years, whereas the average billboard is used for only two or three months.
How do people react to your work?
It doesn’t sound modest to say so, but people are generally pretty blown away. I love seeing people interact with my installations. The image comes together, then dissipates, and the eye reconstructs it in front of you. For this reason, video does my work more justice than photos.
I often have to sell another piece of work to finance the next idea
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work?
Balancing a teaching job, my art career, and being a parent. I’ve learned to be very disciplined with my time. I block out nights on my calendar for doing studio work and attending art openings.
How long does it take to make a piece?
From conception to completion, anywhere from months to years. Zephyr took nearly four months from start to finish.
Is there a size limit for your installations?
My biggest piece so far is 8 x 30 feet [approximately 2.4 x 9 m]. It occupied a narrow hallway. But I have a proposal out now for a larger piece of 10 x 40 feet [3 x 12 m] that would be permanent. The biggest tubes I use are 8 feet tall, but there’s no reason you couldn’t stack them on top of one other. The only limit is how small they can go, because the bulbs are never shorter than 6 inches [about 15 cm].
What would you like to work on next?
There are a number of directions to develop. For example, in many pieces, like Lush, I use the bulbs horizontally or the image runs horizontally across a space. I’d like to create a piece where the image runs vertically up a wall, so you’d view it from the ground looking up. The tube still seems to offer infinite possibilities. It’s a process of discovery.
This interview was originally featured in Frame 120