Vermont Arts Council

Storytelling and Image-Making: An Interview with Photographer Dylan Hausthor

Dylan Hausthor standing next to a deer, captured by a trail camera.

Vermont artist Dylan Hausthor’s photography features everything from the raw intensity of farm animals giving birth to the fleeting tranquility of a deer captured on a trail camera. Regardless of content, Dylan’s objective is not to capture how a scene looks, but instead invite the viewer to engage with any emotions the image might spark.

Over the years, Dylan’s creative practice has flowed and evolved, changing in response to each season of life. Lately, they have been grappling with the “deep history of colonial violence in image-making.” As a result of this struggle, Dylan even stepped away from image-making entirely for a few years, returning with a new perspective on photographic storytelling. Their response to this complex issue was to “fall even deeper into fiction writing and try to engage with the power that image has in telling fiction, instead of this relationship with truth and journalism.”

While image-making is important to their artistic practice, photography isn’t all that their work encompasses. They specifically note, “performance lives in my practice” and is intertwined with much of their work. Dylan’s unique style, utilizing black and white photography and stark lighting, makes it clear that each image is an intentional production.

One of the photographs in Haustor’s upcoming photography monograph. Credit: Dylan Haustor

With the help of a Creation Grant from the Council, Dylan is currently working on creating a new photography monograph.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you go about capturing how a photograph feels, instead of how it looks?

It changes so much. There are definitely tools that I’m excited about using, like books. I think book production is such a concise and powerful way to utilize sequence. Images in a sequence are, almost across the board, more powerful, because story is more powerful, and sequence leads to story. I think it’s mostly story.

I’m just staring at these pieces that I just finished for this show in a week, and it’s these seven pictures of moths. It’s one moth that I took a picture of every night against my window. It would just come back and flutter, so I made all these pictures and then adhered these spiderwebs to the glass of the frames, and mounted this high-vis hunter glow orange in between the two. This feels to me like such a conceptual art move and not really rooted in story so much. It feels more akin to Agnès Varda or John Baldessari, someone who’s utilizing these kind of jokes and little tricks and rules for themselves instead of just something really dramatic and emotional, which I’m also interested in.

With this book that I’m working on, that the Arts Council so nicely funded, the compass seems to be pointing a little bit farther away from the conceptual and toward the traditional use of an image, which is also super powerful and exciting to me.

When you create images, do you have a story in mind for each photograph, or do you hope that the viewer will come up with their own?  I’ve been thinking about this idea put out by Carmen Winant, who’s one of my favorite artists working right now. She points out that using photographs or art practice just to ask questions isn’t that dissimilar to the use of the devil’s advocate, which I think is a problematic use. Something she puts out in this beautiful little manifesto is, what if we use photographs to make statements instead of provoke?

Can you tell me about something you have been working on lately that has a lot of meaning to you?

I have been thinking about spiderwebs as cameras. There’s this history of colonialism and image making, of going out and collecting, and I’m thinking about that as analogous to the hunt. I was thinking about other living things, specifically ecological things, that do the opposite and collect instead of exploit. I was thinking about spiders as hunters that get the thing that they need from elaborate preparation and then waiting. I’ve been thinking about how to make photographs like that.

One of Hausthor’s photographs that will be used in the new monograph. Credit: Dylan Hausthor

I’ve been using trail cameras, which is something I’ve used for my entire art career, but I’ve been thinking about them a little bit differently… this thing that is so historically about truth and reality and finding things to murder, how I can change that. I’ve been making these pictures with trail cameras that I’m hoping are more delicate and conscientious.

How do you view your role as an artist?

I’m thinking a lot about music. I’ve stopped looking at images and stopped thinking about image-based art as a source of inspiration. I’m thinking a lot about sound, this really emotional response that we have to sound, and how I can bring emotional truth back into this medium that has a deep history in factual truth, and how to start warping that a little bit.

What are you able to accomplish with black and white photography that you’re not able to accomplish as well with full-color photography?

I started using it because I really didn’t want my photographs to look like they were plucked from the world. That goes back to what I was saying about this colonial history and my own fear of trying to show someone else any factual, true thing about the world. If I was to sort of take 90% of the information away from that thing, which is the cyan, yellow, and magenta, then I was just left with this one tone. It pulls things out of reality in a way that I think is exciting.

It also points at me in a way that I think is really important in most image-making. I hope it reminds viewers that there’s a person making this thing. That’s a big part of why I like to use flash and artificial light, too. This is not the way that when we walk through the woods, we see the deer that’s 20 feet away. If I use a little bit more intention in the craft and use black and white and artificial light, there’s no way for this to feel like an incident. This is a production.

How about finishing projects? Do you take space in between projects to process, or do you tend to jump into the next thing immediately?

I hate finishing projects. I don’t know how to do it well. I sort of hate the things that I make pretty quickly after I make them, and that makes completing a bigger project really frustrating. But yes, I’m always working on a project, and way more than one.

I work on a lot of stuff at the same time, for sure. And some weirder stuff. I’m working on these ridiculous screen prints that I’m sure will go nowhere. I’m trying to do this CNC etching that I think could be interesting. I’m working on a website as a piece of art that I hate. Yeah, I have all these other weird little projects.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention that we haven’t discussed?

Previous installation of related work. Credit: Dylan Hausthor

Image making is really important to my practice, but it’s also not all of it. There’s a lot of performance and performative lives in my practice.

I’m working on a lecture right now, this performative lecture about me applying to be on “The Bachelorette.” And also, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ukraine and Putin, and I’m working on this piece of this Bachelorette lecture where I talk about one of Putin’s right-hand propaganda producers. He goes to the Russian version of “The Bachelorette” to learn how to produce fiction and show it in these methods of reality.

That’s the core of most things that I’m interested in: where fiction and reality exist, how powerful fiction is when it’s shown as reality, and how powerful reality is not when it’s competed with by fiction.