Interview by Giustina Renzoni
Images by Jack Ludlam
Drawing or photograph? That is the question on most minds when they first see the work of Jack Ludlam. His black and white hyperrealist photographs of antique chainsaws, fishing lures, knives, and other tools have gained a large following in the U.S.
Influenced by his youth spent hunting and fishing in the woods of Ohio, Ludlam’s subject matter harkens back to the bygone days of Americana. With his work, Ludlam explores his nostalgia for manual labor in our society and the quality tools that made it possible.
You’ve said that your childhood influences your art. How did that come about?
I grew up all over the place. This is bordering on being the longest I’ve lived in one place. I’ve been in Denver for seven years. I grew up in Europe and California for a while. Then we moved to Ohio. That’s where I went to high school and so that’s still home, where my parents are. I didn’t start taking photos until I was 15 or 16. I was into hunting and fishing , so that’s all I wanted to photograph. I would just go out hunting and fishing and take my mom’s 35 mm. I would just shoot and had no idea what I was doing. When It started to get dark out, I would use the same shutter speeds and I would be wondering why my photos would come out so blurry.
What happened from there? Denver and what else?
I didn’t want to go to college at all. But my dad was like, “You’re fucking going.” So the night that I had to make a decision, he said, “If you're not going to decide, what are your two favorite schools? We’ll flip a coin.” It was between Regis, right down the road here, and Western Washington. I flipped the coin and I ended up going to Regis. My freshman and sophomore year, I got into video production and realized that was definitely not what I was going to be good at but I had a lot of fun doing it. Then I went and saw an Annie Leibovitz show in Columbus, Ohio. That piqued my interest and I started taking art history classes at Regis. I declared myself as an art major six months later.
They didn’t have an analog program at Regis but they had a dark room they used as a storage closet. So I asked my professor, “Hey if I clean this out; if I get these enlargers working; if I mix my own chemicals, can I use this?” I took me a year to convince him. That was when I started using film, when I started shooting still life, started using a black-and-white format. That was really the start of the work I’m doing now.
And being in Colorado has inspired your aesthetic.
I think Coloradans are really driven by the whole outdoor industry. It’s easy to market my work here because it applies to the mountains, whether it’s hunting, fishing, logging. Anyone can get the aesthetic, but you can go a lot deeper too and investigate the objects themselves, find out where they came from and what they were used for.
Do you feel that when there’s a story behind the object, it resonates more with you?
With me personally, it does for sure. Certain objects have serial numbers or brands associated with them; you can look up where they were made, what they were used for, or the name of the owner. It definitely does resonate with me when I know where things are coming from and I know the object had some relevance and importance in the past. But even when you have no idea where it came from, you can invent your own stories for it.
Your work focuses on a lot of older objects, and of course, we’re living in this modern, digital society. And I feel like there’s something visceral about these objects because they’re so tactile. Yes, it’s mechanical, but the human hand has to play a part in order to make it work. Is that a value for you?
There was this family in my hometown called the Foremans. They owned half of this small town—true country people. So honest. They don’t beat around the bush with anything. They work hard. They own dairy farms. When I was young, they would let me hunt on their land, and I would help out on their farms in exchange. So I learned [about labor] from a really young age, I gained a respect that hands-on, non-mechanical, get-work-done aspect of life. I think that’s really underrated. Not everyone knows a hard day of hands-on work.
I would say very few people have manual labor as part of their daily life.
With manual labor, you are changing things with your hands. When you’re done, it’s a completely transformed product. You go in and get your shit done. It’s rewarding. That’s why I choose to photograph the objects that I do—the glorification of that lifestyle. I look up to it and I want to immortalize that in a photograph. I want to create a sense of nostalgia for hard work. That's why I choose to make prints, as opposed to only putting my work online. It’s really important when you can hold something.
Do you have a favorite object that you have photographed?
Honestly, the chainsaw is one of my favorites. It’s a lumbar chainsaw from the 30s. This guy’s dad was a logger and he gifted it to me. It’s truly authentic. It was used to build part of the Western United States. Most of the things I find they go into my collection. At some point, I will have to give some away or make more room, but for now, I am stockpiling.
So, you’re moving to Pennsylvania…
I’m addicted to Craigslist and I was looking at art studios in Brooklyn, just for fun; and this studio popped up at the bottom of the list in Pennsylvania. I saw it and thought, “That place is a fairy tale.” I love Denver, I really do. But I've been here for almost eight years; I need to change it up. Here every day is hyperactive, so much shit in your face. In Pennsylvania, I’m going to be on 20 acres in the woods. I have a beautiful studio to work in. If I ever get lonely, if I ever need to see people, I can go to New York for ten minutes and be overwhelmed. I’ll be like, “Great. I’m good. I can go home now.”
And all that stuff you’ve been stockpiling?
Taking it all with me—Uhaul!
Out east you’ll probably very easily add to the collection.
Explore new territory, knock on some new doors, see what’s out there. I have a show in the fall at the Filson Flagship store, right in SoHo. There’s nothing holding me back. I can take my job wherever I want. I have friends here, but they’ll be here. I can always come back.