Jefferson Hayman is an artist and photographer living and working in upstate New York. His work is represented in galleries in the US, Russia, and Europe, and resides in many permanent collections including the Museum of Modern Art, The Boston Athenaeum, The Library of Congress, and The New York Public Library. We sat down with Jeff to learn more about his photographs, what inspires him, and why pared down compositions create a powerful impact.
In the spirit of this series, let’s start with a simple question. Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Jefferson Hayman, and I am an artist. I now work exclusively with photography.
How long have you been a professional photographer?
I have a degree in drawing and photography got in my blood at a later age, after I had moved to New York City. I first picked up a camera in the year 2000. I was working in an antiques and art gallery in New York, and I learned how to do everything myself. By 2006 I had started to sell enough work that I took the big jump and I left the nine-to-five world.
With a background in drawing, why the move to photography?
When I was drawing and painting, and looking at something I was working on, a photograph would always be in my mind. That was my source of inspiration and I realized I couldn’t compete with it. My drawings were getting very photorealistic and then at some point—I don’t know when the “Aha” moment came about—but I thought, “Why am I slavishly recopying this photograph with graphite when it’s already a work of art in silver gelatin.” I just started using the camera as my main tool, and I promised myself I’d take it with me everywhere. And I did.
What defines your work?
Lately, my work has become simpler and simpler and simpler. I have this kind of joke I say: As I get older, I want to walk up to the edge of nothing as a subject and take one little step back. My work is becoming pared down, edited. White-on-white subjects are something that I’m shooting a lot these days. It’s fun, it’s a process and, not to sound too metaphysical about it, but even I don’t really know where it’s going.
So how do you select your subjects, and what’s your process?
That’s an interesting concept. I have this theory that when you photograph something that’s grand, or beautiful, like let’s say the Eiffel Tower or a July 4th fireworks celebration, as an artist, no matter what you medium is, in some way you’re borrowing and tapping into the existing magic that’s already there. In today’s world where everyone has a camera and one million people will be photographing the same subject at any given moment, there’s bound to be some really interesting shots. But when you train your eye, and you have a knowledge of art history, to me, a more interesting thing is to photograph something that has no inherent magic or grandeur. By the artist’s process, you then give it back to that subject.
One of the subjects that comes to mind is the simplicity of a Post-It Note. When I get an idea, I write it on a Post-It Note, and the Post-It Note gets stuck to my studio wall. Some of these ideas never go anywhere. One time, I was trying to think up “what’s next,” to come up with something I could photograph, I was thinking this while I was staring at my wall of Post-It Notes and I thought, “what better subject than that little yellow square, with nothing on it.” So I photographed it, printed it actual size. I put it into a clean, white handmade frame and it became a small, almost religious icon of our day. The way that the Post-It curls up at the edge, creates a slight shadow, so it really looks like it’s a three dimensional object. It references some of the early American, 19th century painters. It also references Josef Albers color theories, his square. It’s just a fun little piece. Very simple, very pure.
I joke with my wife that if my eyes are open then I’m working. I drive somewhere, I see a cloud formation, I have to pull over and photograph it. If I don’t, it really haunts me—how I missed that opportunity. It’s another reason why I like to have my camera with me at all times, because the one moment that I don’t, something fantastic happens and I miss it.
I use a camera as a visual diary. There are some people, DaVinci scholars, who suggest that all of the countless and thousands of pages that DaVinci made in his notebooks would be a video or photographs if he were around today. The sketches he was making were a visual journal of his experiences. And that’s what I do with my camera. For example, I wear one pair of shoes at a time. That’s it. I wear the shoes for three of four months, or however long they last until they’re destroyed, and then I photograph them. They move into my prop box and they become a subject for a still life—and that’s a kind of a portrait of that three or four month window of my life. I photograph the clothes that I wear. I photograph coffee cups, in the places where I’m drinking them at the moment. Just these little moments of life. Trying to find beauty everywhere.
Is environment a large factor in your work? What inspires you?
Environment plays a huge role. I lived in Manhattan for 12 years and that was one of my main subjects. It was a subject I never got tired of. It was a constantly changing subject with new architecture being both built and taken down. I moved to the suburbs, and then the landscape became a big subject in my work. The moon, the stars, the things that are difficult to see in Manhattan, now play a very serious role in my subject matter. The immediate environment should influence any artist.
I know it sounds broad, but everything. Literally everything. My children’s toys, for example. The other day one of my kids was blowing soap bubbles so I photographed a singular, simple soap bubble by itself. My general environment, the landscape, the stars, the moon—basically I can find inspiration anywhere I go.
Picture frames seem to play a large role in your finished work, and in many cases, you build your own frames. Why is the frame so critical to you?
The frame and the notion of the picture frame and all it entails, is a very interesting story. When I was back in art school, I needed a job, and I had two options: a dishwasher, or picture framer. Those were the only two jobs available and I had already been a dishwasher for longer than I care to say. So I decided that I would take this job as a picture framer and learn a skill—and also hopefully get free art supplies, which I needed at the time. After taking the job, I realized the importance of the picture frame. It’s this DMZ between the art and the world. It’s that last area, a border basically, between reality, and the reality of what the artist is creating on the page.
The frame is that last area before the artwork hits reality. It’s a very valuable tool to me. To name a few ways that influences my work: it lends color, it lends drama, it lends a source of antiquity or nostalgia, but probably the most important thing that it lends to my work is that it creates a unique object within an edition. Each one of my photographs gets its own unique picture frame. No two are exactly alike.
In this day and age, with digital media—which I do use by the way—it’s the first time that people are able to create the largest photographs that we have ever seen, with relative ease. That being said when you go to galleries and you go to art fairs, you’ll see these monumental 20-foot long photo murals. I’ve done the opposite by creating a whole series of framed miniatures. These are works of art that you can hold in the palm of your hand. This brings a level of intimacy into the relationship between the viewer and art object. It’s striking. Sometimes at my gallery exhibitions, on opening night, I like to step back and observe people observing my work. To watch them approach these miniatures on a wall is really something to see. They have to get close. There’s a physicality there, because you have to get very close to a piece of artwork to take it in.
How does the ethos of simplicity play out in your process?
The more simple a composition, I have always thought, speaks louder than a more complicated one. There’s a phrase out there: “A whisper is more powerful than a shout,” that’s something that I think about when composing work or when formalizing an idea. I think it evokes a sense of contemplation. A lot of artwork these days doesn’t require that you stand in front of it for too long. A lot of it is flash and pop-oriented images. But what I’d like to do, what I hope to do, is to engage the viewer to contemplate my works in hopes that it stays with them once they’ve moved beyond my artwork.
By showing less, I’m engaging the viewer because he or she is forced to complete the rest of the story. That’s this kind of thing that I love to do. N.C. Wyath had a great story once where he took his entire family to the movies. When they were leaving he saw these very satisfied looks on peoples’ faces and he thought it was because this story was condensed and neatly packaged to one and a half hours where the beginning middle and end were provided and there were no questions afterwards. Every question was answered, that was it. A neatly little packaged story. But he didn’t believe that art should do that. Art should suggest a narrative, maybe push it a little bit in a certain direction, but there has to be engagement between the viewer and the artwork. He created that—he used, for a lack of a better term, a suggestive narrative in a lot of his work. I try to do the same.
There has been a very positive reaction to my work, especially as of late. Oddly enough as I get simpler and simpler, interest seems to increase. I’m fortunate that my work appeals to a very wide swath of the population. I have interest from designers, museums, seasoned art collectors, first time art collectors, and just the general public as well.
Ultimately, what are you trying to achieve through your work?
Timelessness. I’m inspired more by painters than photographers, especially the 19th century painters. The American painter Albert Pinkham Rider would paint these landscapes, and the viewer would have no idea what time of day he was portraying. The object emitting light in the sky could be the moon could be the sun—you really have no idea. That man created his own physics, his own universe, and I think that is something that the magic of art can lend. He was doing something timeless. He was doing something completely magical, creating his own world.
What advice do you have for emerging artists?
It’s such a cliché but there is no substitute for hard work. If Nike didn’t coin the term “Just do it” somebody else would have. But it’s so simple. It’s so elegant. Those three little words combined. That should be everyone’s grad school. Just that motto on a piece of paper hung on a wall somewhere. I’ve found that as long as you keep making artwork, whether it’s good or bad, it will allow you to move forward. If it’s bad, you get feedback that it’s bad and you learn from that. If it’s good, you move forward on that quality alone. But the worst thing you can do is stop working, stop creating.
In brief, what does “simplicity” mean to you?
An understated elegance, which is something that I really strive for in my work. Again, that can link up in terms of how I proceed with my artwork and subject matter. It helps to reinforce a timelessness, a beauty, and a little presence—all of my own.