Portland-based photographer Delaney Allen started to trace his path in photography when he first engaged in shooting crude self-portraits that he didn’t fully understand. Through them, he could take full control of what he was creating and found a way to make work that was unique. Later, his practice evolved to other tropes with still life, experimental and landscape photography, and even diary-esque writings. The result is a blurred line between honesty and fiction, photographs that make us curious and allow us to dream.
First of all, could you tell us, who is Delaney Allen?
Let’s see. I’m a Portland-based artist who tends to be intrigued by these disjointed forms of narrative works that combine self-portraits, landscape, still life and writing. Photography is the medium I use to produce these bodies of work. Other than that, I’m a new dad and an avid basketball fan.
What about your photography journey? Do you remember the first photograph you took? What came after?
At eighteen, my father gave me a camera as a birthday gift. I hadn’t shown any interest in photography specifically but was always interested in creating. For a time, I used it but never with a desired outcome. I’d try snapping skate photos of my friends when we were out or maybe a self-portrait in the window of a store. Eventually, in undergraduate school, I shifted my attempt at studying filmmaking to photography out of a disinterest in the collaborative aspects involved in movie-making.
Once in my intermediate class, I began to really engage with photography by shooting these crude self-portraits that I didn’t fully understand. I wanted to make work that was unique. At the time, I thought that if I was in the images as well as behind the camera then no one else could ever have made the same image. Eventually, I graduated undergrad having developed a bit of process surrounding these self-portraits.
After that, real life took over and the camera went away until I enrolled in graduate school. There, in my second year, I picked up a camera again and challenged myself to study landscape photography to further my abilities within the medium. After graduation in 2010, I attempted to make it within the arts field and, by 2015, had moved into photography and art as a full-time profession.
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How would you describe your own practice?
I feel at times it’s some sort of jumbled bag of tricks. For better or worse, I experiment with most tropes surrounding the history of photography. I work with still life, self-portraiture, and experimental and landscape photography. My work, at times, has also included diary-esque writings that advance the storytelling and wrap up the loose ends of blending these different modes of imagery to form a most cohesive body of work. At the end of it, I believe in creating work that has a minimal influence from outside sources. Outside of an interaction with nature, I’m generally working alone focusing on creating using myself as a subject or photographing instances I’ve created by hand.
Do you create for yourself? Or for the others?
I most definitely create for myself. That’s the root of my practice. That being said, I began in 2015 working editorially and commercially so I do stray from time to time to shoot for others.
At what time in your life did you realize you wanted to fill your work with honesty? Do you ever fear people’s opinions?
It was something I had not set out to intentionally create. Life took over and, in 2010, I released the series Between Here And There, which looked at the dissolving of the relationship I was in at the time. I contemplated if I wanted to put it out in its full version thus opening up this look into my life. Eventually, I settled on an edit I felt told the best story. With Between Here And There, I’ve always felt it was a semi-autobiographical look at my life. As with any series, we’re left to procure the best edit. In doing so, speaking more about my earlier works, my hand led the viewer through specific events. Those works were more about storytelling than a fully truthful look at my life.
When I write about my daily activities in Painting A Portrait, I purposefully leave out the times in which I’m trying to further my career through emailing and researching. Between Here And There is edited to make myself look almost broken and desperate, never disclosing texts that were sent dealing with frustration and anger. As I’ve grown as an artist, I still feel entrenched in ideas surrounding truth. But now I find that juxtaposition compelling as photography has very little truth to it. At least, I try to stay truthful to myself.
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You do a lot of self-portraits. What do they mean to you? In which way is photographing yourself different from photographing other people, still lives, landscapes, etc.?
It ultimately began as a means to take full control of what I was creating. When studying film, I found myself drawn to the ideas surrounding the auteur theory while reading Cahiers du Cinema. That research led me away from film and into photography and wanting to create solely for myself. Since a photo is presented with a sitter, who is fully responsible for the outcome? I felt it to be a collaborative effort between the subject and photographer. I didn’t want that.
Over time, as I’ve felt more comfortable with this approach, I’ve explored using my body as an object or stand-in to build images from scratch. In the series Artifact, I incorporated this idea using a green screen mask over my face and later constructing new found faces from magazine cut-outs. Prosthetics have been incorporated as well to generate something new from my body. I feel this approach is relatable to my photographing of still life images as well.
The outset is similar with both – collect discarded thrift store items with the idea of utilizing them in a telling way. It’s the same with both the costuming I make as well as the set-ups for the still life photographs. Once an idea has materialized, I comb through my collections and begin building in front of the camera, whether it’s a portrait or a photograph or corresponding objects. Landscapes, on the other hand, hold a more exploitative sense in my making. I attempt to photograph them in ways unique to my aesthetic but ultimately those scenes are open for others to find.
I’m personally fascinated by your still life photographs. They’re so elaborate and full of illusion, it almost feels like you’re representing dreams. What’s the process behind those, from conceptualization till having the final pictures?
First, the conceptualization varies on my intended means. When looking to incorporate a still life into a series, I generally have an idea of the intended outcome. I will sort through the studio or the local thrift store to find the colours or fabrics I want to start building from. On the other hand, when shooting just to create, those instances feel more impromptu and I’ll pull from what I have already collected. Ordinarily, the process begins with a simple idea and builds off itself until a collapse. I’ll set the table top and begin to add items until they fall in on themselves, thus ending the shooting for that specific image. If the process continued for some time before the breakdown, then I’d feel I have something captured within the frame to work with when I turn to editing.
Before working in photography, I was employed at Anthropologie as their visual coordinator. Their philosophy for building out each display in the store was to create and repeat simple elements in mass. I feel I’ve held some of that and applied it to my still life images. To me, a lot going on in the image lends to a sense of amazement and confusion – in which my work is rooted.
A lot of your series were developed during your travels. Do you plan what you want to photograph and what concept you want to explore before going or you just let it flow and photograph the unexpected? How do those travels contribute to your growth as a photographer?
That tends to vary. Early on, out of general curiosity, I would research various areas and set out to explore them. I was shooting anything and everything I found of interest. Then, as a series started to come to fruition, I would pull a first edit out of my travels and eventually look to go out and fill in the pieces with what might have been lacking. The road has allowed for growth. Spending days alone on the road allows no escape from yourself. You face yourself on those long days, and for me, I’ve become more well-informed about myself, my flaws and my goals.
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In your work, you talk (and show) a lot about being lonely. Do you think that loneliness and isolation have helped you become a better photographer? When you feel lonely, do you tend to concentrate more on your work?
Photography is a very lonely and observational profession. Even those who partake in society and photograph individuals around them always have a buffer between themselves and the subject. For me, it’s a slightly different approach as well as a love/hate relationship. With my subject matter being very personal, either myself or my interactions with the land, I’ve set factors that require me to indulge in solitude. And solitude can be vastly different from loneliness, as I’ve found out.
During those lonely spells, I could find myself being proactive in making as well as spending days in a funk. I’ve always been a bit of a loner but we, as humans, do need interaction from time to time. I would leave and head out on the road and I might only converse with the motel clerk when out. When driving to and shooting these more remote locations, you stand alone within the landscape. It was hard at first but I felt I could benefit from it as well.
Tell us about your series Artifact, what is it all about? It looks like, in that series, you stepped out of photography and tried other artistic practices like painting, sculpture, and even digital manipulation. Was that due to the fact that you wanted to relate this series directly to art history?
Artifact’s inspiration came from art history. Before the series began, I viewed a lot of art books in hopes of understanding how we’ve documented past works, movements and people over time. With that basic documentation as a building block, I started to work on the ideas around the series. I set out photographing various landscapes within the American West as a backdrop for these people I was hoping to create. While doing so, I was also setting up a simple lighting technique by photographing these areas with the hopes I could later implement myself back into the image.
As I moved to the studio to work on the series, I purchased a green screen and set up the same simple lighting. After collecting and building various costumes for this community I envisioned, I photographed myself on the green screen and taught myself (all new technology to me) to extract the portrait and place it in the environments. Eventually, I wanted to further the art history aspect. With this, I felt a need to build simple artefacts that these people would have left behind. I ventured into sculpture and tapestry as well as building still lives to document. Ultimately, this series gave me an outlet to explore a broader means of art making as well as challenging those notions of truthfulness in photography.
I see that you’re very much into writing as well. Is it a complement to your photography or a separate passion?
It started as a compliment to my work but, as I’ve grown more as an artist, I’ve attempted to become less dependent on the writings. Since my early works felt very disjointed because I was attempting to combine all these various photography tropes, I leaned on writing to further the narrative. Previously, when I was a film major in undergraduate school, I studied Robert Altman’s film Mash. That film, upon its first edit, left the viewer confused because it was incoherent.
After reworking it, they finally settled on incorporating a bit of a narrative coming through a loudspeaker during the film helping with the linear edit. This idea became a bit of a backbone for my earlier works. The text would help to give a sense of feeling that could help these disjointed images fit together. More recently, I’ve strayed from this idea hoping that less can be more. That being said, I’ve attempted to not find myself dependent on text and only tell the story through images.
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Do you feel relieved for putting your feelings and thoughts into photography? Do you sometimes feel emotionally abused by this constant confrontation with yourself in order to produce work?
I view it as therapy at times. With each series I produce, I’m hoping to discover something new about myself. It’s allowed me to come to a better understanding of issues at hand. And, as we try to carve out a space within the art world, I’ve found these reflective and confronting styles to work for me. Lately, though, I’ve strayed from this as I’m not quite ready to revisit this approach. As my father passed away in 2015 and we welcomed my son into the world in 2017, I’ve purposely kept a bit of a guard over my personal life. I’m researching a series based on these events but I’m not quite ready for how taxing it might be to produce based on a narrative in this behaviour I’ve built.
Who are your favourite photographers?
I’ve got the hardest time trying to understand Roe Ethridge’s edits but I love his work. Also, really a fan of Charlie Engman’s website at this time.
What are your plans for the future? Any exciting new project you’re working on at the moment?
Currently, I’ve just finished up shooting my most straight-forward body of work to date. I’ve been intrigued by the road trip books of American photographers and have been photographing my take on that genre over the past year. We’ve just started the initial edit and should have a book coming out in September.
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