I had been familiar with Sean Litchfield’s work for a little while. It was when I saw the above image, I became enamored with his pictures and began to discover more of what his mind’s eye was saying. Sean’s strengths lie in photographing the suburban landscape, as well as the cities in which they’re a part. His work regarding the suburbs has been solidified in a body of work called The Tragic and Picturesque American Suburb. He’s been working on it for a while and after having time to live in one of those suburbs, I really began to understand his intentions. He depicts an overstuffed and overflowing American dream strictly for the 21st century that appears cautionary and bit humorous. Sean’s humor is also seen in the every day with thought to classical composition and drama in color in mind. I was glad to have had a talk with Sean about all this.
Empty Stretch: Age/current location/Three favorite activities:
Sean Litchfield: 24/Boston. I like riding my bike, thrifting and eating at diners.
ES: In your series, The Tragic and Picturesque American Suburb, your images are taken a lot in South Carolina. Do you see the American South as a face of a larger, changing America? Is this a theme you’re particularly drawn to?
SL: With that project, Zachary Violette, who, I might add is also my boyfriend of almost 3 years and a brilliant architectural historian, and I knew we wanted to work on a project together in the South. It’s an area we knew about but never really had a chance to explore. I had visited my parents several times a year since 2007 after they moved there and never thought too deeply about it. It was a huge unfamiliar place with very good barbecue. So we gave ourselves a week at first to just drive around and take it all in. It wasn’t until the 2nd trip down there where the idea came to him. I was just making pictures of things I saw interesting at that point, which was quite hard to do not because there was nothing interesting to photograph, but because I didn’t have any slightest idea of a concept but Zach assured me that it would come after the pictures were made, and it did. I was seeing things almost subconsciously. I was looking for something that I was unaware of. And back to your original question, I do see it as a face of changing America. It’s always changing down there. Nearly everything is new and none of it is built to last very long. It’s a type of place that’s completely new to this country and likely the entire world.
ES: How is your book project regarding your series The Tragic and Picturesque American Suburb progressing?
SL: Well, I’m pretty happy with the edit I have for the project. Zach has a lot on his plate right now. He’s working on his dissertation for his PhD and may be writing another book, too. It will happen soon. I’m not sure when but we don’t want to rush anything. There will be a big announcement when it’s nearing completion!
ES: As someone who balances their time between New England and the Southeastern United States, which part of the country is your favorite to take pictures? Do you feel living in each area influences how you approach the other?
SL: That’s tough. My heart is in New England because I’ve lived here for my entire life. The South is new to me which makes it a very exciting place to photograph. Since I’ve learned everything I know about photography up here, it strongly influences how I make pictures down there. I work on my feet up here. All of my projects, with the exception of TPAS, were made by walking around. It was incredibly difficult to be in a place where you need a car to get around. It completely changed how I think about composition and I’m sure I’ve missed dozens of opportunities for great pictures by driving but there’s simply no way around it. I kept thinking, “Is this worth stopping, putting the car in park, unbuckling my seatbelt, retrieving my camera from the back seat, opening the door, getting out and trying to remember what it was exactly I stopped for in the first place.” Rather than when I’m on my feet and my camera is slung on my shoulder and I can very easily make the picture I want. Working in both places has taught me how to make pictures in near complete opposite situations and I can start to see them blend together now.
ES: Do you find any common ground between commercial and personal work? Or, do you see these as separate entities?
SL: I think of everything as personal work, even if it’s something I’m not super excited to be doing. I always want to be making the pictures that I want to make and sometimes that means doing something different than what the client wants while still making sure I get what they want, too.
ES: Are you influenced more by painting rather than photography? How so?
SL: With TPAS, I didn’t have much to go off. I didn’t want to clutter my brain too much with photographer’s work who shot a lot in the suburbs. I wanted to make pictures that were my own. So I turned to Hudson River School paintings for inspiration. Breaking them down in to different elements helped me see the landscape down South in a similar way. It’s all there, you really just need to dig for it. With my other work, I keep a constant flow of new/old/iconic/camera phone work coming in for inspiration. There’s so much great work being made right now and you can’t stay in your own bubble too much.
ES: How do you feel color is important in your photography?
SL: Color is just as important as light and composition. A good composition means nothing without strong color to go along with it. It’s often the color in a scene that triggers something in my brain to reach for the camera and that becomes the predominant part of the image.
ES: I’ve noticed you’re blogging a lot of interesting portraiture you’ve taken. Do you feel a series of these pictures evolving or another body of work in progress?
SL: Portraiture is something that has always been, I’ll say, a “side dish” in my work. I’ve always been much more drawn to the place rather than the people in it (one says a lot about the other). I’ve gained much more confidence in approaching strangers and asking to photograph them. It’s becoming a lot like how I approach landscape work. I see something interesting and I photograph it. Now, I’ll see an interesting person and photograph them. It’s something I was never looking for and now that I am, it makes photographing that much more exciting.
ES: If you could change careers, what would you be?
SL: That’s hard. I can’t even picture myself doing anything else. It would have to be art related. I often think, “If I were to become blind what would I be doing?” Sculpture seems like a good option. I like making things with my hands and sculpting would allow me to still make art that I can feel.
Thanks, Sean! Connect with more of his work on his website, blog, and Flickr. Make sure also to support his and Zach’s book project, The Tragic and Picturesque American Suburb, by buying prints and joining his mailing list.