Will Major

William Major is a documentary photographer from Johnson City, Tennessee. He currently lives in Athens, attending the University of Georgia seeking an MFA in photography. 

Websitewilliammajorphotographs.com

Instagram: @darlingspider


How did your interest in your medium begin and how did you arrive at your current style?

From a young age I have always had an interest in art, and I was always surrounded by artists. My parents are both theatre professionals and educators. I was constantly viewing plays at a professional or collegiate level, watching my father direct or act, or was around my mother sewing or dyeing garments for a production. Other members of my family are artists in their own right as well: my paternal grandfather creates hand painted signs and is always painting Americana scenes out of recycled materials. My father’s sisters are incredible quilters and his brother is a writer. My maternal grandfather built models and was an excellent carpenter, and my mother’s brother has always done photography as a hobby. I was constantly creating from the beginning whether it be drawing, painting, reading, writing, or playing music. Art has always been a source of comfort and inspiration. 

My uncle who photographs gave me my first camera. I had a vague interest in it at first. I was really obsessed with playing music and painting at the time he gave it to me. I remember taking several rolls of film around my back yard and when my family went on vacations. But the camera sat idle in my closet for most of my teenage years so I could pursue other avenues of creating. 

It was not until I went to college that I fell in love with photography. I went in as an art major and music minor. I wasn’t very technically skilled in either medium, but those were the avenues I thought would best fit. A friend of mine had a medium format camera (I think it was a Mamiya RB67) with a waist level view finder. I thought the camera was incredibly beautiful and was fascinated by how it took photos, because I had only been exposed to SLR’s. I asked if I could go with her photographing, and for several weekends we went out and took photos. We trespassed onto a lot of abandoned properties, sought out an old psych ward to photograph, and rummaged through old dilapidated houses. The sheer adrenaline and excitement about getting off campus and finding grungy places to shoot piqued my interest.

But it wasn’t until she took me into the darkroom that I fell in love with the medium. I remember watching her load the film into the light proof tank (flabbergasted that she could put it on a reel in the pitch dark), develop, and then eventually see the latent image become visible was purely magical. When we went to enlarge some of the photos we took I messed up big time and took out some of the paper out under the florescent lights, accidentally exposing it, and being incredibly embarrassed and upset with myself that I ruined half her paper. After much apologizing we enlarged one of the photos that I had taken and put it in the developer. Watching the image slowly appear on the paper was one of the most exciting and beautiful moments of my life. I was instantly hooked. 

I transferred schools in the middle of my freshman year, and I immediately changed my major to photography. The reason I kept up with the medium is mainly because I could document what was around me with better accuracy than I felt like I could achieve through painting and drawing, and I was in love with the darkroom and the analog methods of creating images. 

My style has always focused on Americana, the bizarre, cultural groups, and most importantly Appalachia. My inspiration has come from those that documented the south (William Eggleston, William Christenberry, Sally Mann, Walker Evans, Shelby Lee Adams), to those that documented America as a whole (Robert Frank, Joel Meyrowitz, Mitch Epstein, Lee Friedlander, Alec Soth), and those that documented social justice and individuals on the fringes of society (Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Vivian Maier, Gordon Parks, Weegee, Josef Koudelka). All of these individuals and other photographic and visual artists have inspired my work. Through expanding my visual literacy to going out on drives on the weekend to document what I see is how I arrived at my social documentary style.

As a southerner and someone from central Appalachia I have an affinity for familiarity. In my work that is what generally pops up the most – religious iconography, handmade objects, folk art, landscape, family, friends, and things that can’t be categorized. I’m constantly looking for something exotic or strange within the familiar as well. But I also document the mundane and every day scenes that surround me. What I photograph and my interests vary constantly, but I always feel like I am photographing a part of myself, an experience, or memory.       

How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?

Place is extremely important to me. I think it is important to every artist, whether they will admit it or not. The landscape and culture that one lives in influences their individual make up and how they see the world. Even abstraction comes from a relationship to one’s surroundings or if the work doesn’t directly detail that relationship it still exists – you can’t escape it. I’m obsessed with my surroundings, even if they are foreign to me. I am keenly interested in the cultural make-up of our surroundings.

In relation to the South, that means I am fascinated by archetypes and people/objects that defy those archetypes. I’m interested in sociological methods of looking at culture and how those methods define and redefine my surroundings. When I venture out of the South I like seeing the similarities and differences that make up the larger ID of America. I sometimes have to remember if an image I took was in North Carolina or Arizona, but most of the time Appalachia and the greater southeast has certain social and visual signifiers that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Appalachia and the South cannot be easily defined, just like any region. But the South, and Appalachia in particular, have had certain social stigmas attached that can’t really be shaken off. Stereotypes exist for a reason, but in my work I want to challenge those stereotypes as much as I can. Or make the stereotype into the grotesque.

I strive for humor, documenting unique objects within my surroundings, and attempt to fight for social justice. In short, our surroundings define who we are and the kind of art we make. If it were not for the landscape and the people within that landscape that made up multitudes of my being, then I would not be making the kind of art I am doing today.  

How do you choose your subjects?

A lot of it is instinct, stream of conscious, or something out of the ordinary. I am normally driving down long stretches of road when I find my subjects. It’s normally something that seems out of place. I’m going down a stretch of mountain road and all of a sudden there is a painting of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Or I will hear about a place, such as a man in Bluff City, TN, who has a dinosaur theme park in his front yard. I photograph my friends, family, mentors, and strangers. I am normally trying to capture a scene that I find bizarre. I’m glad it exists, but I don’t know why it does. I want to know who was behind placing these objects together, why they did it, and how my image of it translates to an audience.

A lot of what I photograph is what Robert Rauschenberg refers to as “readymades.” Objects are created and placed together in an unusual or unique way, and my job is to document them. My hope is that my work will call attention to the things we pass by every day. What are people’s stories? What is the history of certain surroundings? What makes people do the things they do? There is often an absence of figure in my work, but there is almost always a mark on the landscape from humans. I’m always searching for subjects, because the only “making” part of my work so far is in post-processing. Choosing is a toss-up as well, because there is always that one place or person that I didn’t photograph that will continually haunt me (the ultimate image that could have been). I am a collector of stories, memories, and moments. But choosing those entities is normally just a fascination with what I have happened upon. 

Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?

I mentioned photographers that have influenced me earlier so I will mention other artists in different mediums that have influenced me. Writers are a huge influence. Kurt Vonnegut, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, Hunter S. Thompson, John Gardner, and many many others have influenced how I see the world. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, Vonnegut’s satire, McCarthy and McCullers’ vision of the South, and Gardner’s interpretation of the “other” have shaped how I capture images. Graphic novels and comic books are a source of inspiration as well. Music is another influence. I listen to just about everything, but my favorite genres are experimental, punk, and jazz. I have played bass for over ten years now, and actively playing, listening, and watching live performances fuels another side of my creative energy.

The first visual artists that I became obsessed with were Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Picasso, and Van Gogh. I had a huge fascination with street art from a young age – stemming from my obsession with Haring. In high school I made stencils in art class with the intention of creating graffiti, but never getting the nerve to do it. Movies, plays, and popular culture also inform and foster my imagery.  

Formal teachers that helped me cultivate my artistry were my high school art teacher, my main photo professor in college, my art history teacher in college, and my jazz studies professor in college. But my parents are the ones that have always continually urged my creative side. My parents say I went through “creative phases” as a child, which I think we all go through as artists. My first phase was when I was three I was obsessed with the film Fantasia. I would get up in front of the television and wave a paper tube off the end of a coat hanger as if I were conducting the orchestra. I would watch myself in the mirror as well conducting the invisible Fantasia orchestra. I got my picture on the front page of the Johnson City Press around that time conducting the Johnson City Orchestra who were doing a performance in an outside pavilion at the VA. I had my own baton then since my father got one for me for Christmas.

Speaking of Christmas – that was another phase. I dressed up like Santa every day (I had a onesie Santa suit, hat, and beard) and I decorated a small tree every day and would literally drag it around the house. I even dressed up as Santa for my first Halloween. I had a Titanic phase in the first grade, where I was obsessed with the history and the disaster. Constantly drawing sinking Titanic ships with people jumping off and trying to escape. The phases continued and my parents were always buying me sketch pads, paint, charcoal, markers, pens, and encouraging me to create. They bought me musical instruments, cameras, canvases, and just about any creative tool you can think of. They never told me what I was doing was bad or weird. They never made me think I couldn’t make it as an artist.

I never went to Disney World (still haven’t). Instead my parents took me to galleries in New York and to Broadway plays. Not a lot of nine-year-olds from central Appalachia can say they have seen a play on Broadway. I was privileged, even though I was from a middle class family. I was privileged in the fact that my parents never discouraged me and were always trying to expose me to art and to the world, unlike their parents had done for their career choices. I am thankful for that. That’s why they are the greatest teachers I have ever had, because without their constant support I would probably not be pursuing a career in art.    

Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of? 

Currently I am in graduate school pursuing my MFA in photography at the University of Georgia. So, my creative and artistic peer group is within the school of art. 

Back home in Johnson City it wasn’t so cut and dry. My main creative peer group was a crappy punk band I was in and the people who frequented a counter-culture rock club called the Hideaway. Those individuals and the bands that came through were my main inspiration for the four years I was in undergrad. A lot of the ideas, humor, and culture that was presented to me while playing in a band and hanging out with people in that venue still sticks with me.  

Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?

I’m fascinated by all the aspects of southern culture. I am the most interested in central Appalachian culture, because those are where my roots are grounded. The only thing I try to avoid is stereotyping, which can be really hard sometimes. I try to stay away from imagery that makes an assumption of an individual. Appalachia has a history of being pigeon-holed into a category of uneducated poor white hillbillies. The FSA photographs of the South during the depression have stuck to the region unfairly. I stray away from “poverty porn.” It does exist still and is something that shouldn’t be covered up, but it is subject that shouldn’t be exploited.

Bruce Gilden did a “series” in Harlan, KY, last year for VICE that I would call exploitative. As an outsider he came into the region with his brash street photography style he developed for New York and used the same methods of capturing rural Appalachians. The images felt like he was using people as a backdrop for his work – they were dehumanized and treated as if they were animals in a zoo. This isn’t to say that “outsiders” can’t photograph the South. I’ve seen tons of photographs of people and the landscape from those that don’t live in the area that are ethically and artistically sound. Trust is something that a lot of people in the South are wary of. They have been beaten down so much by companies coming in and pillaging the land and then leaving once the job is done – leaving hundreds of people unemployed. Getting to know your subjects, the landscape, and having a respect for it will hopefully come across in one’s work.

Shelby Lee Adams at first glance looks like he is attempting to exploit his subjects, but once you read his essays and understand his undying respect for those that live way up in hollows then you realize his work is documenting a region of the South that is personal and beautiful. I do photograph in rural areas, and I photograph the poor, but I have a respect for those people and I get to know them before I document them. I want to know their stories, their beliefs, morals, and goals. Through that respect, understanding, and treating them as human beings instead of organisms under a microscope then I think the image will transcend. I am interested in work being done by Roger May who has created the foundation “Looking at Appalachia,” in which it seeks out to look at the region with all of its diversity instead of zeroing in on the obvious stereotypes.

The South contains multitudes, just like any region, but unfairly has been seen widely as a grotesque. My mission is to avoid stereotyping and instead to bring enlightenment to “outsiders” to see that the south is not an “other,” but instead a beautiful portion of the country that has so much to offer. 

Do you feel creatively satisfied?

No, I never do. I always want to do better and make better images. Being an artist is a struggle. I’m never satisfied with my photographs, and I always want them to be better. For me when I’m truly satisfied with my work or feel like I have “made it” then I know I am done for. I want to constantly find ways to better my work and my understanding of what it means to be an artist. I constantly have ideas, but never execute them. I want to start honing in on specific subjects instead of being so broad with my ideas. I want to create more and think less. I want to be more methodical and conceptual all at once. And I think my creative struggle will last an entire lifetime. I think it’s good to be momentarily satisfied with some work, but I never want to be entirely content because that would cause paralysis in creative ability. I’m only satisfied when I’m working. If I’m not thinking about art, photographing, making prints, playing music, watching a film, reading a book, or engaging with any artistic outlet then I feel like a part of myself is missing. So, I’m content when I’m engaged, maybe not entirely with the work, but I am satisfied that I am at least engaging. 

Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.

I am really in a transitional period with my work. I’m still just making documentary style images of the southeast with no real clear project in mind. I’m hoping grad school will help me hone in on a specific subject. I have become ever increasingly fascinated by folk art and vision artists. I also have ideas about a genealogy project (memories through objects and places). I also want to do more social justice and ethical art. My next exhibition will be small and short and is through my first year graduate seminar, where I have to curate pieces of mine alongside someone who doesn’t practice photography. I was assigned to work with a jewelry and metalwork student, which should be interesting. But as of now everything is kind of up in the air, which means an incredible amount of opportunities that I am excited in engaging with.