An ongoing series of Q&As with L.A.’s most fascinating contemporary artists, introduced in their own words. This week it’s photographer Luther Gerlach, whose old-school technical processes combine a vintage sense of the romantic, metaphysical landscape with images of natural disaster and volatile climatology. His most recent work deals with the aftermath of the Thomas fire but has gained new resonance in the wake of the more recent Woolsey fire.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
LUTHER GERLACH: I think every child is an artist, but as a child with dyslexia I had no choice but to express myself creatively. Reading and writing just weren’t available to me in the way that my school expected them to be, so I used images and objects and music to get by in a very fundamental, day-to-day way.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
Beauty has become such an unfashionable word in art, so I hesitate to say this, but really there is no other answer: I’m looking for beauty, I want to participate in beauty, I want to share it with the world. It’s not necessarily a romantic beauty that I’m looking for — it’s about feeling an emotional connection with forces that are greater than us like nature or time, even destruction.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
That’s an interesting question — there’s so much I do as an artist that’s not directly about making images. I love teaching, I love collecting antique lenses and repairing and building my own cameras. Anytime that I can play with chemistry in the darkroom or incorporate my biology background into my work, I jump at the opportunity. No matter what, I know I would be working with my hands and spending as much time in nature as possible.
Did you go to art school? Why/why not?
The story of my higher education is a little all over the place. I started out studying freshwater biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth and left, disillusioned, with two honorary master’s degrees and no bachelor’s degree. I switched to photography at Minneapolis College of Art & Design, and though I taught a couple classes, never finished there either. I guess I have to call on the dyslexia card again; there were just so many roadblocks to me meeting academic requirements, and in every other way I was ready to take off. I ended up working alongside Prince on Purple Rain, falling in love and moving to California.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I don’t live in L.A. per se, but I definitely consider myself an L.A. artist. Honestly, there’s a lot about living and working as an artist in coastal Southern California that is absolutely prohibitive — affording space for a darkroom comes to mind. I think the reasons I’ve stayed here for so long are all the ones you see in the movies — it’s just so incredibly beautiful and the opportunities that present themselves here (and very often pass you by) are some of the most exciting in the world. I think that the vibrancy that comes with the movie industry here really feeds all the arts, and there is such a talented, well-funded art scene that it’s hard to turn your back on it.
When was your first show?
My first photography exhibit was in 1983 at the First Avenue nightclub made famous by Purple Rain. When I was in art school, I got really into the Minneapolis music scene and I spent about four nights a week photographing behind the scenes, about a roll or two of film a night. After about a year of this, I started hanging the work on a 15-by-35-foot area of wall in the curved entryway of the club. It turned into a continually transforming collage that stayed up for several years, and it was one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve ever done. People really responded to the interactive aspect of being there listening to music and then searching for their face the next night.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I have a show up now through Feb. 17 at the Carnegie Art Museum in Oxnard called “Catalysts of Change” featuring large, hand-toned silver gelatin prints of burnt landscapes and underwater native seaweeds. I will be giving an artist’s talk there on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 6 p.m.
I’ll also be delivering a presentation on my use of historical processes and modern technology over the past 30 years at Focus/Photo L.A. at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica on Friday, Feb. 1, at 1 p.m.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
I would love to show at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, nestled among all my heroes from Anne Brigman to Clarence White.
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Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
Always. It’s 80 percent classical and the rest is very eclectic, from Ethiopian jazz to Tom Waits.