Journal: Bill Finger: Thumbnail

Photographer Bill Finger walks us through his process and influences, from the Pacific Northwest to late night creature features.

Where are you from and where do you reside?

I’m originally from North Carolina, but I call Veazie, Maine home now.

When did you begin your current practice?

I began working with miniatures around 2003 in Upstate NY. It came about in a twofold manner. I was working on a project involving man’s molding and manipulation of natures. It was the middle of winter and I was wading in snow up to my waist with a camera on a tripod. It was at that moment all I could think about was how warm it would be back in my studio. During this period I was also photographing bonsai trees for that same project. The combination of lots of snow and bonsai trees led me to the construction of miniatures.

What led you to this process and how did you know it was the right one to pursue?

Initially, it began from my bonsai photographs. I was amazed by how the bonsai forests would appear life-size when photographed from the right perspective. The miniature trees became realistic, if not monumental. I became fixated on that, so I began experimenting with other miniature objects which I constructed rough sets. Coming out of the film industry this just clicked. As an Assistant Cameraman I am very used to actors and objects being staged in front of the camera. Also, it fed into the interest I have alway had with the idea of the film set. The idea of something that is labored over and constructed just to be photographed, all in service of the image. Then once it is photographed, it is destroyed, but it will always live again anytime you see them.

How do you choose your materials?

Often I choose materials based upon how they will photograph. I have to consider how they will appear enlarged. Will they look true to the scale or will they look out of place? Sometime it can be a bit of a treasure hunt searching for the proper materials to complete a diorama.

I have always been interested in the idea of the film set. The idea of something that is labored over and constructed just to be photographed, all in service of the image. Then once it is photographed, it is destroyed, but it will always live again anytime you see the image.

Bill Finger

Can you tell us a little more about filmic spaces? Do you see them as settings for drama or narrative?

I see them as spaces with dramatic potential. Within a narrative, these are places where either something has just occurred, or more likely, something is about to. My attempt is to imbue the image with a degree of tension. With Voyager, this tension can be fairly subtle. I see the images from this series as having a certain quiet to counterbalance the tension. The imagery embraces the notion and perception of passing time. Though time is quantifiable, the experience of it is variable.

Almost all of your photographs have an interest in space - even the works that feature terrestrial items like houses and satellite disks have cosmic elements. Where did your interest in space originate?

I grew up during the heyday of the Apollo missions. In part it is a nostalgia, in part it is a fascination with exploring and reaching beyond ourselves and what we know. I became fixated on the Voyager missions in part because I love the technology from a sculptural aspect. But even deeper, there is this wonderful childlike hopefulness within the missions. The two Voyager crafts each carries a golden record that contains a message of who we are and where we are. It is like a child casting a message in a bottle to the sea. It is this hope that someday, someone will find it and reach back. I could never see this being done today. It was a gesture that was truly of the period. The reality is that it will be another 30 thousand years before the Voyagers come close to another solar system with possible inhabitants. With that much time, it is doubtful that we will resemble the people illustrated on the golden records. If someone does reach back, I do hope though there will be some of that sense of wonder left in us at that time, though.

Can you tell us a bit more about your Transit of Venus series?

This series uses the Voyager probes from NASA's Voyager Program as a metaphor for the human desire to search beyond one's self. Structured in trios which can be collected individually, each image shows a beginning, middle, and end, another nod to storytelling and cinema, often organized as Morning, Day, and Night or Day, Dusk, Night. There are themes of time and the cyclical nature of the human condition, we sleep and start over, as with every day, and continue striving, learning and changing. The scenes are either vast – taking place in outer space, or intimate and everyday, showing how exploration happens everywhere, and is a process of both looking inwardly and beyond yourself.

Black and white photograph of an interstellar probe by artist Bill Finger.

What necessities do you require when making your art?

Time and patience mostly. I definitely have off days where I am breaking more than I am making. When that happens, I just have to walk away from the studio and come back the next day.

When you’re not in the studio, where do you like to go?

When I am not in my studio, I tend to haunt museums and bookstores. If I am traveling anywhere, these are the first places that I research before going. There are museums which I could spend days upon days in and not grew tired. I especially love visiting their archives when I can. Otherwise, hiking, movies, and following MLS and EPL soccer take up most of my free time.

What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?

The most difficult aspect of working this way is that it opens up a world of possibilities. Once I come up with an idea for an image, I then have to figure out how to do it. There is always some element that I have never approached before. It is at this point that I am asking myself, “how in the hell am I going to do that?” It is this type of problem solving that can make working this way very interesting.

How important is spontaneity in your art?

Spontaneity does not play heavily into my work. Where I see it most is during the lighting of the miniature set. During construction I have an idea of what I want things to look like. But it isn’t until the construction is finished that the miniature tells me how to light it.

I do a lot of research before beginning a photo series. That usually points me in a direction from which I sketch out five or six image ideas. But day-to-day, I am always looking at imagery. I look at everything from photographs, to painting and sculpture, to movies.

Bill Finger

Where do you source your materials?

I use a mix of materials, both found as well as more traditional model-making ones. I often borrow from various forms of mold-making. In day to day life, I am always keeping an eye out for something that I can use. For example, at the grocery I came upon a particular type of oregano. This oregano is not too crushed and has a wonderful form to it. I’ve used it in a number of images as leaf material. I am always looking for and collecting materials like that.

How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?

It has definitely been a growing experience. Each photograph builds upon what I had created before. I believe that the work will evolve further conceptually. I am still interested in seeing how far I can abstract the construction and have it still hold together visually. I plan on exploring the creation of an artist book. I’d like the experience with the photograph to become more intimate and tactile. There is something wonderful about creating a photograph that is intended to be experienced by being held in your hands. The photograph as object. It is in part why I pulled back scale-wise on the images for Voyager. I wanted to give the viewer the sense of looking into the image as opposed to just looking at it.

Is there something people would be surprised to learn about you?

People are usually surprised to hear that as a child I was the world’s worst model maker. They usually assume the opposite. But my attempts at model making were so bad, that we usually blew them up with firecrackers. That might be a fun series to pursue.

Black and white photograph by artist Bill Finger of a home within a deserted landscape.

What were your childhood models of?

My childhood models were the more traditional kit based ones, such as cars and planes. I will admit that I did keep the ones I made of movie based monsters. They weren’t very well crafted in my hands, but I really loved the late night creature features of the time.

Are you formally trained?

I have an MFA in Art Photography from RIT in Rochester, NY. Even though I was studying photography, I spent most of my time with the sculptors. The two most influential people for me at that time was Jeff Weiss and Therese Mulligan. Jeff pushed me while showing me the right questions and Therese taught me the value of research and history in creating artwork.

Have you ever collaborated, or would you?

My work is fairly solitary. So, I have not collaborated with anyone yet but would love to. Definitely have some peers locally that inspire me. I am very lucky to knew some very amazing artists in the Pacific Northwest. Specifically, Rick Araluce (sculpture and Installation), Whiting Tennis (Sculpture and Painting), and Jennifer Zwick (photography).

Have you always worked with models and miniatures for your photography?

No. Before I began working with the miniatures I think I was doing a lot of searching and experimenting with my photography. Like any artist, you start by creating work heavily influenced by those that came before. When I began working with miniatures, it felt like it was truly mine for the first time.

Once I come up with an idea for an image, I then have to figure out how to do it. There is always some element that I have never approached before.

Bill Finger

What are some themes you find recurring in your pieces, intentional or not?

The idea of the film set or seeing just off the edges of the frame. Also the roughhewn man-made construction.

How do the different elements of staging come together in your works?

In my work, the very first thing I do is set up is my camera. Once set, everything is constructed to the perspective of that particular lens. This usually involves constructing a mockup out of paper first. The mockup helps give me a lay of the land while answering scales questions. I often mix scale so that can force perspective and create a greater sense of depth.

Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?

I do a lot of research before beginning a photo series. That usually points me in a direction from which I sketch out five or six image ideas. But day-to-day, I am always looking at imagery. I look at everything from photographs, to painting and sculpture, to movies. I also photocopy images that influence me. I tack them on a bulletin board in my studio. It is usually covered by the end of a project. This way I can live with them and see them everyday that I’m in my studio.

Is there any artwork on display in your home/studio? Whose is it?

I do have a lot artwork on display at home. Much of it is from friends who are artists but most notable is a Marcel Duchamp etching and a Jacque Henri Lartigue photograph.

Are you influenced by any author or non-visual artist? Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?

At the moment I am very influenced and interested in authors that take the book form to the next level. Specifically, “House of Leaves” and “S.”. As for Visual Artists, I am currently influenced by the works of Leonardo Drew, Steve McQueen, Charles Ray, Martha Colburn, and Edward Kienholz. Also Love visiting the Surrealist Room at the Menil Collection in Houston and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA.

How has your day job influenced your practice?

My artwork is heavily influenced by the film work that I’ve been involved in. I do think it is time that I make the connection back to film in my work a little more forcefully. I believe to an extent that I’ve been denying it and keeping it separated. I was very lucky to work as Artist Doug Aitken’s Assistant Cameraman on a project for the Seattle Art Museum. It was on and off for about three years but it had a great influence on me. It made me realize the possibilities that I was missing.

Do you find that your location strongly influences the direction of your work?

I previously resided in the Pacific Northwest, and living in Seattle had influences on the work I create. My last photo series included a miniature chainsaw carved astronaut. I hand-carved it to appear chainsaw carved - you can’t get more Pacific Northwest than that!

Post updated June 26, 2023.