A conversation with Mark Obenhaus

 

    We spoke with Mark Obenhaus about his house in East Hampton, the magic of the darkroom, the horrors of military conflict and why deer overpopulation might lead to the apocalypse.

    The combination of the darkroom and that camera put me on the path I pursued for the rest of my life.

    1

    Julien Fernandez

    You’ve been a photographer, producer, writer and documentarian for years now… but how did it begin? How old were you when you arrived in New York City, and what was it like at that time? Who was in your social circle?

    Mark Obenhaus

    My father gave me a darkroom kit for my eleventh birthday. I loved the experience of being in a dark room alone and seeing pictures emerge from a blank sheet of paper floating in liquid. My father had a camera he loved called a Speed Graphic. It used 4 x 5 inch sheet film that I learned to develop. It’s crazy to say, but the combination of the darkroom and that camera put me on the path I pursued for the rest of my life.

    I started making films in high school and gained more experience in college. It all seemed like an extension of still photography. My hero as a still photographer was and is Robert Frank. His book The Americans was my single most important inspiration. Robert had started making documentary/art films in the ’60s and that influenced my interest in moving beyond still photography to making films.

     

    I left college in 1968 and went directly to New York. I’d made a film called The Disc Jockey Film and that got me a scholarship at a film school in the city. I didn’t last long in school because I quickly found work as a cameraman. I could shoot vérité scenes especially well – and that was in demand at the time.

    New York in the ’70s? An incredible place. It was dangerous. Crime was out of control and the streets at night were not safe, but it was great being alive in NYC in those days. The film scene and the art scene were nothing like today. They were small. The art scene – and to some extent, the independent film scene – was centered in SoHo. There was a lot of interaction, especially at night at places like Max’s Kansas City. You could drink too much and end up at a booth with Robert Smithson talking to Patti Smith about politics at 2 a.m. There was still the feeling about New York that it was emerging as a cultural center, but it wasn’t quite yet the cultural center is became in the ’80s and ’90s.

    2

    You have a wonderful house in the Hamptons, and I’ve been privileged to spend a lot of time there. Did you design it yourself? Do you have any stories about life in that house?

    I designed it with friends who also built the house. I think it is fair to say that the look and feel came from me, but others made large and meaningful suggestions. I always wanted to build something large. If I could do it again, I would. Building something that you live in is an experience unlike any other creative act. The one story I tend to tell is that most of my friends wondered out loud why I was building such a large home.

    I was very single at the time and had no need for many guest rooms. Barely five months after the completion, I’m in love, soon to be married and I’ve got a lot of family that needs the space. I must have known something deeply about my future that my conscious mind did not see.

    3

    Have you seen the documentary Grey Gardens (1975)? I found its story about a mother and daughter who live in a derelict mansion to be really captivating and inspiring. Have you seen it? If so, how did it strike you?

    I have seen the film and I knew the filmmakers. I admire the Maysles Brothers, but the film has not stayed with me. Like a lot of artists and filmmakers, I think their early work is their best. In their case, that would be Salesman (1969).

    4

    Can you describe yourself as a person, using only the terminology of gardening and landscaping?

    I like to plant, watch it grow and then prune.

    5

    What was your last recurrent or lucid dream?

     

    I dream constantly in a mode that I can only describe as a mingling of Dalí, Buñuel and David Lynch. The only recurrent dream that I am experience is not like these surreal concoctions. My recurring dream betrays some deep-seated anxiety absent from most of my dreams.

    It goes like this: I am in my last year of college and about to graduate but I do not know if I have passed a geology course that is required for a degree. Family and friends are coming for the ceremony and I am facing the prospects of disappointing them deeply. I’m not in a panic, which surprises me. I feel like I am looking down at the situation with concern but calculating that the geology teacher probably won’t want to flunk me and be the reason I do not graduate. But I’m not sure of what he will do… and then I wake up. I always wake up at the same point in the dream, unsure of the outcome.

    I see Bambi on my lawn as a signal. Maybe this is why Steven Hawking predicts the rise of machines.

    6

    Please tell us about deer.

    I read the following statement in a book called Nature Wars by James Sterba. It amazed me because I immediately knew that it was almost certainly true.

    It is very likely that in the eastern United States today more people live in closer proximity to more wildlife than anywhere on Earth at any time in history.

    The assertion Sterba is making is based on two concepts that seem in conflict with conventional thinking. The first has to do with forests.  We hear constantly about the destruction of the earth’s forests, and this is a reality for much of the developing world. But in my part of the world, on the east coast of the United States, the opposite is true. This is a part of the country – a huge part of the country – that was agricultural for more than a century. Forests had long ago been harvested and replaced by fields for growing and grazing livestock. Wild animals were purged from the landscape. The big cats, wolves, bears, and yes, deer were hunted to extinction in this region. In the 1950s, the appearance of a white-tailed deer was so unusual that it was reported in the local papers.

    But all that has changed. Fifty years ago agriculture started moving to the Midwest and elsewhere, and the expansive fields of the Northeast were abandoned. So what has taken its place? The answer is suburbia and forests. Formerly productive fields started sprouting lots of oaks and cedars in my immediate area. Houses sprang up too, but suburbanites like to live in the shade of trees so the two coexisted in what once seemed like a perfect marriage. But then the deer started appearing and they were just the most visible part of a massive influx of smaller wild animals; everything from beavers and foxes to rodents of every type.

    Here is the second challenge to conventional thinking. The frequently expressed view is that we humans have intruded on the habitat of these wild animals. Now it is true that they were once here in some numbers, but that was two hundred years ago. The reality is that they have returned to a landscape that we humans have enabled. The white-tailed deer has entered our world, not the other way around.

    Initially, nearly everyone was in their thrall – who does not think a deer is cute, even beautiful? But there was and is a problem. We have not allowed their predators to return – the big cats, the bears, the coyotes. Human hunters have not filled the void because suburbanites largely frown on hunting. So today, deer are a sight so common that I often have seen twenty on my property over the span of a day.

     
     
     

    This brings me to my garden in East Hampton, New York. I love it in every light, in every season. I grow many things in it, and in fact, what I grow expresses much of what I love about life. But then there are deer. I have a deeply conflicted relationship with this animal. Parts of this place I love are walled off, a closed environment because I need to protect my garden from a predator. Predatory deer, that will devour all of my garden if allowed. I have confessed to my neighbors that I encourage my friend Bill to hunt deer on my property. Most people think it is crazy that there is an active hunter in a community that is associated with wealth, celebrities and manicured lawns. He is indeed a rare breed in these parts. I know many people who feed deer and passionately defend them even as they over run their landscape. For them, deer elicit smiles typically reserved for pets, but deer are not pets. They are wild animals and they are without a predator unless one considers an automobile a predator. There have been almost five hundred car-deer collisions in our town this year to date.

    So what does all this make me think? I’m now wondering if the deer is the “canary in the coal mine” for testing suburbanites’ relationship to the landscape and nature. We are living in this strange post-natural world that exists in much of the western industrialized world. I say “post natural” because it feels so out of balance and doomed to some kind of failure. Already, deer are linked to all manner of tick-borne diseases that are infecting people in shocking numbers where I live. I’ve had Lyme disease twice already.

    So the rest of the world is overrun with wars and conflicts based on ethnicity, tribes and nation states but ours is consequential too, speaking to a gross imbalance that is not easily reversed. Maybe humans can’t be expected to figure all this out. We are too attached to each other and the small worlds we inhabit to see the big picture. Maybe this is why Steven Hawking predicts the rise of machines. Yes, those are the kinds of thoughts that all this sets loose in my head, apocalyptic thoughts. A bit crazy, I know, but I see Bambi on my lawn as a signal. The wild animals are back, and I am left to defend my garden and my dreams against them.

    7

    Over the last few years, you seem to have immersed yourself in the history of aviation. Have you learned anything bizarre or out of the ordinary about it?

    Yes, but it is a disturbing reality. Historically, conflict is the driver of technological innovation. The military has incubated the technology that runs the modern world and it has probably always been so.

    I have never tried to describe the flavor of a wine and often laugh when people do.

    8

    One of the last times we met, you were attending a Noam Chomsky talk. I’m very influenced by his analysis of the modern world. What was the talk about, and what did you absorb from it?

    Noam is a brilliant student of history and political behavior. He is also a person who is not particularly astute about the emotional drivers of human behavior. He looks at the world from 35,000 feet above (and there is much to observe up there!) but it is hard to influence the lives below from such heights.

    9

    What’s your favorite wine? How could you describe it, for someone who’s not familiar with a lot of wine terminology?

    I am not knowledgeable about wine. I find one that I like and I drink it. I have never tried to describe the flavor of a wine and often laugh when people do.

    10

    We’ve been interested in the Society of Pataphysics, which studies “imaginary solutions” to problems. What would you like to find an imaginary solution for?

    I realize this is prosaic and not very elevated, but I would like to find a solution to the hitting problems of my team, the New York Mets.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 30
    Curated by: Julien Fernandez
    Conducted by: Email
    Published: September 6, 2017
    Total questions: 10
    Word count: 2020
    Reading time: Seven minutes
    Hyperlinks: 17
    Imagery: 4
    Deer: Plentiful
    Deer: Predatorless
    Deer: Apocalyptic
    Deer: Rise of the machines

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