How could that be, when most of what we hear about the Mason Dixon Line is related to the Civil War? It was fascinating to discover that the intention of the line was to end a violent land dispute between two families, the Penns and the Calverts, whose land grants were ill defined. The astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon were sent from England to “draw” the line, utilizing the stars to establish their position. By the early 1800s the Mason Dixon Line was already considered a demarcation between free states and slave states, now a dispute over human property. Land as property and slaves as property and never mind the indigenous tribes!
Granite mile stones were placed every mile, larger crown stone every five. My original intent was to discover as many of these stones as I could, an attempt to touch history, and simply look around and see. I discovered two things. One is that over time property overlaid property, and many of the stones were not publicly accessible. The second is very few roads follow the Mason Dixon Line, which leads me finally to answer why I photographed the periphery. Because it is what I could do. It was very exciting to come across a mile or crown stone but much more exciting to park my car in a border town, wander, and photograph what caught my eye. As I followed the line west or south, I was literally spinning circles over the line, stopping, wandering, moving on.
I often tell students as they are working on a project that there are “sticky” photographs and there are “stand alone” photographs, both have their functions. Mason-Dixon: American Fictions contain both, the sticky ones are supportive, the stand alone’s are iconic. Even though the project is five years old the difference is still pretty fluid. When you ask what it is about certain favorite photographs, the composition, timing, moment of shutter release, my hope is I can suck my audience in to that moment, to feel me there, the now when all of that collides. When I look at photographs, that is what I imagine, and it’s an electric thrill.
Why black and white? There are several reasons for this, (a) that I consider black and white to be one step of abstraction away from experience, and more poetic, for me. There are photographers working in color who make amazingly poetic images. (b) I prefer the darkroom to the computer screen as a working environment, (c) maybe most important, I think working within limitations is critically important for creative endeavors. The encouragement that one can do anything with a digital image gives me hives, a sandbox has edges.
You shoot many images interspersing churches, religion or expressions of faith combined with the local surroundings. I see you also have a series on HolyLand. How does faith play into this work?
On the presence of religious symbols, churches, expressions of faith in my photographs: A simple answer is that churches, crosses, faith expressions are as abundant as the flag. The Christian religion and American pride feel like the warp and weft of the culture within this section of the United States. I’m actually very conscious of how many images containing flags, crosses, gun culture I make. Do I need more, am I saying something new? I grew up in a Sunday Christian family if you know what I mean. Belief didn’t necessarily extend beyond Sunday.
Like many teenagers I ran away from church soon after my confirmation, only to run back to it in Art School when I started reading the bible backward. A fertile imagination and a sense of a world gone wrong took the apocalyptic vision of the book of Revelation and ran with it. I actually took a break from Art school, eventually transferring to study philosophy looking for answers, diving deeply into the problem of evil, time and eternity, the mind/body problem, language and knowledge. Along the way the qualities of an angry, judgmental, there’s only “one way” God were replaced by compassion, grace. If faith enters into this project I would have to say it is not dogma and judgement but the desire to accept, attempts to be compassionate and open, that have cooled suspicious minds, opened doors, properties, and photographic possibilities.
In building a portrait of this region, what would you like us as viewers to walk away from this series with?
“If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty — nothing is insignificant or unimportant.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Observe, and get on with it.
This is the short form:
Co-opted the family cameras in my youth. Who doesn’t?
Studied Photography at the Art Institute of Boston and earned a BA in Philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan.
I worked as a staff photographer at several production houses in the Boston area until going out on my own in the mid 90s.
Clients include Johnson & Johnson Innovations, Polaris Venture Partners, Paul Russell and Co., Classic Cars Magazine UK, Childrens Hospital-Boston, Brigham and Womens Hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare, Lahey Clinic, Massachusetts General Hospital, The Peabody Essex Museum, The Boston Globe, Genuine Interactive, The Governors Academy…..
I’ve exhibited in numerous solo and group shows in Massachusetts, Michigan, New York and NYC, New Hampshire, Vermont, Virginia, Texas, and Toronto Canada. Personal highlights have been the Danforth Museum New England Photographers Biennial in 2015, 2011, and 2003, Strange Days at Philips Exeter in 2015, A Nickel and a Kopek at the NESOP Center for Photographic Exhibitions in 2008, Calvin College in 2011, and Panopticon Gallery in 2013. My work resides in various institutional and private collections. In 2014 I curated 21st Century Monochrome, an exhibition at the Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon College, an exhibit created to highlight select contemporary Boston area photographers and their chosen materials and processes.
In 2006 New England School of Photography offered me a teaching position. I’ve never looked back. Teaching has reconnected me with those who are passionate about image making and actively exploring its possibilities. I taught my last class at NESOP in their 2019 Spring semester, finishing up two days before the school announced that it will close in 2020.
I am currently professor of photography at Gordon College in Wenham, MA. and am represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston.
You can see more of Bill Franson‘s work on his website.