Lorena Lohr started taking photographs when she was travelling around the United States at age 20. Her pictures give off a peaceful sense of stillness, contrasting with the ever moving way they were shot. Lorena does not photograph people but objects, traces of people’s existence, from a leftover maraschino cherry on a plate to a half-empty drink. She creates portraits without people, heavy with narrative, in soft pastel colors. Lorena told us about travelling, painting, and making artist’s books.
Who are you? How did you start your career as a photographer?
I’m half Canadian and half British, but I have also lived in America for quite a lot of time over the last 10 years. All of this work happened over time, chance, and also it involved a lot of moving around. I got a cheap film camera when I was a teenager, which I wanted to use as a way of remembering what was going on – you know, the beginning of being able to go on your own way. For some reason I started focusing on objects in the places I passed through as opposed to people. I guess I began to see how the camera could preserve these things just as they were standing at a certain time. It made them permanent, whereas in real life they would be built up, moved around, or demolished. Somehow, in keeping things still for a moment, the traces of the people who had made these rooms and streets would be revealed. I lived in New York for a while and in the springtime 10 years ago I started to take the Greyhound, riding on a multi-ride ticket they had called the Discovery Pass which allowed you to take unlimited rides for a period of 2 weeks, 1 month, or 3 months. I had no preconceived notion of what I would do, but I took the camera with me out West, a straight, three-day bus ride from the East to West coast, and was recording all the towns I passed through: the bus stations and motels and various streets. It just came together naturally, the photos joining up all the stops along the way. I was always filling up books with rough drawings and sticking in found wrappers, flattened cigarette packets and things like that, and so it when I got the photos developed it seemed right that they had to be put into some kind of order in a book or sequence. The first book was done on an old home printer and it had an illustration of some palm trees done in lipstick on the cover. I then got a batch of 100 made at a print shop. At that time, I was mainly just giving them out to friends or people I met, but some bookshops begun to take them in too. From then on whenever I wasn’t working, I would walk around the different boroughs of New York, and I took more trips out to the Southwest, riding the bus and then the Amtrak train on their multi-ride ticket. Though it was not my intention when I started out, it became vital to me to document the desert towns and other small towns connected by trains and buses throughout America, places that were for the most part overlooked or isolated, but each with their own highly nuanced character. It just grew out from there, people got more interested in the work, bought some books and prints, and all this went into allowing me to continue to make photos.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I wouldn’t want to attempt to work this out. To me it’s always shifting from day to day but I guess the photos look pretty consistent, in that they’re always in landscape. So I guess keeping things simple… using the minimum equipment and not relying on a fancy camera and expensive film. Those things can make any old lamppost or discarded fast food wrapping seem more profound than it is – you see people doing that quite a lot these days. That said, anything can make a photo at any time. You never know.
How did you find it? How has it evolved over time?
If there was anything that has informed the photos apart from the places themselves, it has definitely been painting more than photo or film. Specifically I’ve been interested in medieval and Northern Renaissance works of art, images made in a period before paintings could be too contrived or academic. In these paintings you see that the artists pay equal attention to all forms, whether they be simple, natural, romantic, magical, alchemical, or morbid and grotesque. It’s a wild way of distilling the whole world into an objective and highly tended image. The camera can work that way too, framing every kind of thing and making it last.
Have you ever wanted to experiment with painting?
I was always interested in painting, and when I woke up in the desert for the first time, 5 am in Arizona on a Greyhound bus, for some reason I started thinking about making kind of devotional paintings of a nude woman in desert landscape – as if one of those medieval guys was watching a smut photoshoot going on off a dust road. I’ve been making a book of paintings for a while, but it took years as I had to teach myself to draw and paint from scratch. Finally, it’s coming together.
How does painting influence the way you photograph? And how does photography influence the way you paint?
Definitely painting influences the photos, specifically the kind of style of painting that I mentioned before. It’s similar to photography in that it involves arranging the many disparate forms and structures that exist in any place into a more succinct or harmonious whole. All these things are essentially in disorder, but sometimes they can be fitted together and turned into something that is less fractured. I can’t say photography in itself influences the way I paint too much, but looking at things at closer detail like you do when taking pictures does feed into being able to form images out of memory – I pretty much always try to do everything from my head and not from life.
What inspires you? Which artists have influenced your work the most?
Every conversation with people you meet, every book, film, song, can add into your view of seeing the world, so it’s hard to say specifically. Painters – mainly I guess Bosch, Cranach, Hans Memling. Photographically, the restlessness of Garry Winogrand is always inspiring, and Henry Wessel, and Jacob Holdt too. And good old rock ‘n’ roll.
What is your creative process?
I walk around all day and see what happens, it’s as simple and complicated as that. I think you’ve just got to go out and make it up as you go along. I don’t ever think of what anything will become, what kind of specific effect anything will have. You just can’t do that or you’ll not let anything in. I will travel over a particular route by train and bus, getting off at points, walking around and collecting whatever comes. As with the photos, sequencing a book or project just builds itself. To me it’s about what feels right and feels strong, it’s an ineffable thing, really, and I don’t try to understand it too much.
To me your photographs feel like they reveal a kind of alternate dimension hidden in full sight, in the details. Looking at a sink or a table feels almost uncanny, like I’m seeing that object for the first time. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that you shot them while you were travelling? Did being a foreigner discovering another country for the first time influence the way you photographed your environment?
Well, I agree that there’s this element of an alternate, or unknown kind of world that some things seem to inhabit, as if they were telling some kind of story. Something can be revealed anywhere really, not only in new places but also the very familiar – on any street corner, in any room that you might have passed through even hundreds of times. Seeing these things depends on time and chance and it can’t really be controlled. To me it doesn’t rely on being a foreigner, it mainly just comes from the sense that everything is fleeting. In terms of travelling though America, the Canadian side of my family have lived dotted around the States for as long as I’ve been alive. I’d gone around visiting them over the years, so when I started travelling around alone I didn’t feel like I was coming from a completely different place.
How do you design your artist’s books? What interests you in that format?
The small books I’ve made are chapters in an ongoing series. For me it’s important to mark a certain period of time by arranging what I’ve collected into a smaller book that kind of caps it off, and then you move on down the line. Because the route taken is important to me, the photos are edited mainly chronologically, or so that they follow some kind of geographical direction. But certain images that were at first disconnected might just feel right in a more random pairing, so you leave them facing each other and there’s some kind of new conversation. The photobook is really important to me, as it’s a physical object but one that can be touched, passed on to someone, carried around, mass produced, not something that has the exclusivity and delicacy of a print. I always thought it was important to give books out to people I was meeting and not treat what I was doing as being too precious.
What is your favorite photograph you’ve shot?
Like all the photos, these things have just appeared by chance, though moving though a certain place. You could be walking around all day down a blank highway and you never know when something is going to show up, but often something just reveals itself to you unexpectedly. For some reason the phone on the couch sums that feeling up quite well for me.
What would you like people to feel through your work?
I think that is for people to decide, if they want to: I don’t think about the effects anything could or should have on people. There’s too much of that these days.
What have you been watching, listening to, and reading lately?
I have pretty constant favorites I guess, but the last great film I watched was St. Jack by Peter Bogdanovich. I’ve been reading a lot of Denis Johnson over the last few years.
What is next for you?
To get a driving licence…
Is there a question you wish I had asked you?
All good, thank you.
For nearly a decade, the British-Canadian photographer Lorena Lohr has been travelling the American Southwest by bus and train, documenting the fleeting landscapes and the distinct character of the region’s built environment. Taking in everything from motels and bars to parking lots and patches of waste ground, her photographs capture unexpected and often uncanny aspects of the commonplace and mundane in the places she visits. Without ironic detachment or comment, Lohr identifies beauty and individuality in overlooked or neglected spaces that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Though she does not limit herself to any particular subject, Lohr’s wider body of work is characterised by recurring motifs: electrical wiring, colourful drinks and details of the bodywork of automobiles are just some of the hallmarks that stretch across her series and artist’s books. Language, as glimpsed in commercial signage, is another leitmotif of her photographs: generic phrases that evoke an exoticism at odds with their surroundings feature heavily, both contributing the visual richness of her compositions and hinting at hope, longing and isolation.
Working with 35mm colour film and a variety of inexpensive cameras, Lohr stays true to the DIY spirit that characterises much of what she chooses to photograph. To these ends she has created a number of limited edition artist’s books, the most recent of which are Texas Blue (2018), Bar Room Paintings (2019) and Blue Springs (2018), the last published with Rough Trade Books. She is also the co-founder of Scenic Views, a different kind of interiors magazine focusing on overlooked and everyday places. Tonight Lounge, a comprehensive monograph of Lohr’s work in America over the last ten years, has just been published by Cob Gallery, London.
Lohr’s work does not expressly seek to romanticise or glamourise, instead documenting the incidental layers of narrative that build up over time in the places she visits. Her photographs celebrate the idiosyncratic traces of people’s involvement on a given area, adding up to a form of alternative portraiture.