When did you begin making these digital artworks? What inspired the first?
I started making pictures, oddly enough, because I’d begun having trouble seeing. Five or six years ago I had some fairly serious eye problems that made it difficult for me to read or write for any length of time, so as a means of preserving my sanity, I began walking every day for a couple of hours through the woods and fields here at Sweet Briar. It so happens that I’d just acquired an iPhone, and I began taking pictures along my walk.
I walked the same route every day, so I wound up taking pictures again and again of the same places and things – certain trees, a small stream I had to cross, the old barns of the college’s abandoned dairy – everything, really, that caught my eye: milkweeds, a bamboo grove, vines twining through cracked windows. I’ve always loved photography – my father collected cameras and subscribed to lots of photography magazines – and as a kind of tribute to Cartier-Bresson’s famous quip that your first ten thousand photographs are your worst, I decided I
would take – and post on Instagram – ten thousand pictures. So that’s what I did. What happened, though, is by the time I got to the end, I’d begun using various filters and apps to modify those images. And that led me to decide that I should open another Instagram account and create another 10,000 images, which I did.
I don’t ever have to be done. One of the truly wonderful aspects of this process is that I can endlessly alter an image, make it new, without losing the previous version.
Some of the imagery in your artworks reappear in altered ways in new works—sometimes many times and sometimes after a good bit of time has passed. What is it about a particular form or image that compels you to return to it again and again? Is there ever a moment when you feel “finished” with a particular image?
Since I don’t have any training as a visual artist, I don’t have much of a vocabulary for my process. There have been so many rewards, though, in the making of these pictures. I don’t have the weight of “accomplishment” to contend with; it just feels very different to make these images and not have to worry, as I do with my novels, whether or not my editor or publisher will like what I’ve done. And I don’t have to use words; I don’t have to employ that specific kind of artistic effort in the making of these images. The repeating motifs in my pictures – roof-lines and leaves and milkweed, for example – simply appear to me as pleasing shapes. And finally, I don’t ever have to be done. One of the truly wonderful aspects of this process is that I can endlessly alter an image, make it new, without losing the previous version.
One of the interesting effects of this returning is that it has a way of unveiling the apparatus of the artwork to the viewer—after seeing the image in abstract, we sometimes see it again in a nearer-to-life form, then perhaps again rendered even more altered from the actual object. Do you see your artworks in conversation with one another in this way, or in other ways? When you stack images together on Instagram, do you see these stacked images as one artwork or many?
I’m more interested, I think, in exactly what you describe – the conversation between these images – than I am in these pictures as singular works. I love the immensity of this project, that by now I’ve created tens of thousands of images. Although I do make prints from time to time of certain works, I love the various possibilities contained within so large a digital archive – that they can be strung together as both a carefully ordered or as a random sequence. When I first began this project, Instagram would only allow a single image to be uploaded at a time. When it was updated to allow for ten images, it was perfect for what I was up to: with the flick of a finger you can move through various versions of an image, almost like an old-time flipbook.
How do your visual and literary art obsessions interrelate (or not)?
The primary connection, I think, is what’s at the heart of all artistic enterprise: to make something new and compelling and mysterious and striking, and maybe, if you’re lucky, beautiful.
Ever so occasionally it appears that a particular Mrs. Brown makes an appearance in your artworks. What is it like working with the image of a family member?
I’ve never asked Carrie to pose for me, but I love it when I stumble into an interesting picture of her. Introducing the human form into a work completely alters the possibilities for that work, and it has a funny way of reminding the viewer – and reminding me – that however much I alter the pictures I make, they begin as photographs.
What is your process like? Do you find it improvisational or more calculated?
The process is absolutely improvisational. I make most of these pictures in the middle of the night when I’ve woken up and can’t fall back asleep, and that appears to be the ideal time to do this kind of creating. My head is a bit foggy, and the only light is from the screen I’m staring into.
What are some recently published books you’d recommend and why?
Well, the catalogue accompanying Sally Mann’s show at the National Gallery, A Thousand Crossings, is one of the most beautiful art books I’ve ever encountered. The show itself was staggering – powerful and exquisitely curated and profoundly moving. And the catalogue truly captures that. And another Virginia-born photographer, Emmet Gowin, recently published a monograph of his photographs of moths. It’s called Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, A Study in Beauty and Diversity. It sounds like a scientific endeavor, which it absolutely was, but it’s also an incredible artistic enterprise. I’m also interested in the history and process of camera-less photography – photographic images created without cameras – and a wonderful recent monograph in that vein is by the artist Allison Rossiter. It’s called Expired Paper, and it presents the images she created with expired photography paper.
What are you working on now—in visual, literary, or etcetera arts?
I’ve got another novel taking shape — more in my head than on the page, which sadly is the way writing seems to work for me, as if my brain needs to soak up like a sponge enough ideas and characters and incidents for me to then turn to the painstaking process of getting them to emerge in language. And I continue to make pictures, though the process has slowed the last few weeks because I’ve acquired a new puppy whose only job at the moment is to make sure I’m thoroughly exhausted by day’s end.
Where can we find your work?
My current Instagram account is @john.gregory.brown. Anyone interested in examining the previous two ten thousand image accounts can check out @johngregorybrown, which was the first one, and @whereisthewriter, the second one.