Artist, performer and writer Samuel Townsend is a longtime friend and collaborator who seems to excel at whatever they put their mind to and creative energies toward. Photography has been core to Samuel’s artistic practice for many years, and it meant a lot to me to be asked to write for this latest body of work: American Daydream. This essay accompanied the exhibition at Photoaccess earlier this year, and is also found within the stunning artist book Samuel produced to accompany the show. You can buy the book here, and I recommend that you do.
In travel we interpolate our selves, our experiences and worldview with the psychic and physical spaces of another place. Moments of illumination emerge as connection flares at the most unexpected points and situations.
Samuel Townsend’s America is introspective; cool, quiet, self-contained, an almost liminal, neutral space. Concrete and glass, orange, grey, blue and green under hazy diffuse light. City’s inhabitants are caught in the motion of living, in the thick syrupy time of ordinary days. There is a longing to go deep– the sense of wanting to get past the surface. Desire makes a generous lens and a tender gaze.
Photography was not the objective of Townsend’s 2017 trip to the United States. As part of his teaching career he was chaperoning a group of high school art students to New York City, Washington DC and San Francisco. As they plowed through a full itinerary, traversed tourist icons and negotiated crowds they were transient and constantly moving. Amongst this all, characteristic of so many artists and perhaps photographers in particular, Townsend was constantly seeking out compositions, the fleeting marriage of subject and light. With ten young people in his duty of care, it was a search he enacted stealthily and with high orchestration. Choosing his moments carefully, trying to get the shot while avoiding the subject–or his action of art making–becoming spectacle or distraction.
The high-pressure scenario was a conscious creative challenge. In his practice as a photographer, writer and performance artist Townsend is acutely aware of the points at which he needs to extend himself, to engage with new matter or develop new skills. In this way, the US trip presented an opportunity to create work that pushed well out of his comfort zone.
Approaching strangers and asking for a photograph was one particularly challenging way to do this. Townsend’s work typically focuses on an intimacy and sustained engagement between subject and photographer, born of a more formal portrait sitting. While works in American Daydream are at times reminiscent of a broader tradition of street photography Townsend has never had an interest in working on the street or ‘shooting from the hip’. Trying to preserve a reflective, intimate exchange is central to his practice. Asking someone: ‘would you allow me to take a photograph?’–receiving their consent and at times even their creative input–presented a new variation on intimacy that was profound though fleeting.
Townsend lived in the US in 2010. While there he created Postcards From Texas, a body of work exhibited at PhotoAccess in 2012. American Daydream is a continuation of that conversation, with repeated motifs and a gentle unfurling examination of American archetypes. Over a range of subjects–people and otherwise–Townsend carves out a space between humour, beauty and tragedy. He reveals the human condition, as personified in a nation of fascinating extremes.
The ‘daydreams’ captured are both those of the photographer and his subjects. The artist himself is present within the work, inserted in shadow or reflection, in the meeting of his subject’s returned gaze, even echoed in the small lone figure of Self Portrait as Bird.
Belying the circumstances of their creation the resulting images evoke Townsend’s own private experience. They become a space to explore landscapes, interiors, moments of meditation and escape. The images feel still and quiet even while we know that what is beyond the frames, out of our view, is filled with noise and busyness. As is the power of the photograph, they are at once the reality and unreality, truth and lies, of a point in time and space.
American Daydream tells us less about a nation and more about how it is to see with an artist’s mind. To be constantly searching, scanning, to see layers beneath layers, to reach through noise to crystalise moments otherwise already forgotten. Townsend enables us to see with the clarity and obfuscation of daydreams, and to meet on this other plane.