Career Narrative

October 26, 2017

Paul Thulin

Guggenheim Fellowship

Career Narrative, Fall 2017

Isla de las Palmas



My career narrative --- I believe I took my first “images” of the world long before I ever made a photograph. By images, in this context, I am referring to a conceptual and formal awareness of moments that contain powerful paradoxes, mystery, and ambiguity often presented in the smallest details of a precise moment or within the weight of a collection of situations.


In my bedroom, at age 11, I often daydreamed; re-visualizing moments of the intense verbal and physical battles between my fiery Puerto Rican mother and my emotionally cold, Swedish father. The flashing lights of the City of Richmond Police responding to a domestic disturbance call and the suffocating silence in every room of a house, not a home, playing out the predictable drama of early eighties rising divorce statistics sprouted my desire to contemplate the absurdity of one’s life. In the halls of an all-boy, Irish Catholic, military high school during the late eighties, I mentally captured moments of lunacy watching confused, testosterone-fueled adolescents, fat proselytizing priests, and alcohol breathing, PTSD plagued Vietnam War veterans mix a social soup of sexual tension, guilt, substance abuse, judgement, and violence. In church basement AA meetings, my 18-year-old self sat in stunned silence pondering his current reality, the consequences of his past, and insecurities regarding the future while chain-smoking, weathered skin, recovering 40-year-old addicts, often with an air of braggadocio, confessed their past sins to a “captive” audience sharing the veil of their anonymity. In my espresso-stained, notebook scribblings as a Philosophy undergraduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, I sat in cafes studying Marcuse, Marx, Irigaray, Adorno, Deleuze, Heidegger and so many more, interrogating the evils of capitalism, patriarchy, and language itself while listening to Nirvana, and slowly becoming disenchanted with honored intellectuals that questioned the meaning of life, truth, ethics, and beauty yet always seemed doomed to a lifelong existential crisis. I made images at these moments, important, identity-altering, mental images that formed the basis of my current worldview. These immaterial but formal imaginings of socio-political forces allowed me to survive the perceived chaos and seeded hopeful dreams of one day being able to make a difference in this world through critical inquiry, imagination, and a desire to openly communicate with others.


At age 27, in 1998, working 60 hour work weeks in an auto parts store stock room, having had no formal education in the arts or photography, I printed a portfolio of B/W images on Kodak Ektalure paper using my grandfather’s homemade enlarger in the bathroom of my rat-infested Sears home apartment. The collection of images, an ancient memory now, was a metaphorical attempt to visualize the demise of Western civilization through a Zen-inspired, rather cliché, sequence of images of collapsed buildings and overgrown gardens within the capital of the South. Exhausted from theoretical writing and readings from pursuing an MA degree and hoping to escape the often world negating ramblings of philosophical inquiry, I took the portfolio and applied to attend the MFA Photography and Film program at my alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University. I was naïve and had no clue what art school involved, why people attended, the influence faculty had in the art world, the importance of an established alumni network, and the career building impact of a nationally ranked school reputation (the MFA did not have this). I just knew I needed a new outlet for communication, for conceptual inquiry that was engaged with the world and reached outward. I was provisionally accepted into the MFA program and began what I guess we can officially say is the starting point of this career narrative.


At that time, the Department of Photography and Film at VCU consisted only of the graduate MFA program and five full-time faculty that served to teach undecided majors and graphic design students basic B/W photography and 16mm filmmaking. The faculty that became my mentors were unknown names to me but were alumni of some of the Vietnam era 1st and 2nd classes of SAIC and Visual Studies Workshop. George Nan, Dale Quatermain, and John Heroy guided me through the program during a period of intense debate and confusion in the medium as analog met digital. Critiques were a blend of technical deconstruction, conceptual defense, and impassioned debates between faculty over the digital tide. As a student, I was one of the first to openly gravitate to digital printing while continuing to capture and scan large format film. After three years, in 2000, I successfully defended my thesis exhibition From Oz to Eden; an inkjet printed portfolio of digitally montaged 4x5 film scans of theatrical tableaus of dark but often humorous moments of the imagined meetings between popular cultural icons such as Mickey Mouse and the Statue of Liberty, Nixon and the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and Warhol’s soup can. The work was of extreme political irony, attempting to expose the entertaining spectacle of United States history while at the same time aiming for a diversity of audience to engage its borrowed political cartoon aesthetic - funny, formally beautiful, and conceptually sophisticated.


Immediately after graduating with an MFA in Photography and Film, I took a full-time job as an assistant in a commercial photography studio, The Cosby Group, in Richmond, Virginia. For two years, Herbert Cosby, a 70’s alumnus of RIT’s Fine Art MFA program, taught me valuable skills in studio lighting, high-end digital technologies, and large format film capture for fashion shoots and corporate catalog work. It was fast-paced and challenging. Unbeknownst to most people, Richmond, Virginia was the third largest commercial photography market on the East Coast, trailing behind New York and Boston. It was home to the corporate headquarters of big tobacco, aluminum manufacturing, massive rock quarries, international finance companies and the Martin Agency, currently the largest advertising agency in the United States.


In 2001, my creative life changed drastically when I was accepted as a fellow into The American Photography Institute National Graduate Seminar in NYC and met one of my most influential mentors, the director of the institute, Cheryl Younger. The American Photography Institute National Graduate Seminar (1991-2003) invited 20 of the nation's top photography MFA students each year to a week-long, intensive seminar exploring a current topic in photography. Internationally renowned artists, editors, curators, and theorists were invited to speak in what seemed to be an endless stretch of back to back days that often ended late into the night. I participated in the performance-themed seminar and returned for two more years to help run the program under Mrs. Younger’s guidance. When I attended the seminar as a student, it was my first time in NYC, my first time meeting talented students from prestigious MFA programs, my first time interacting with international artists and historians...basically the first time my ideas, artwork, and worldview engaged the challenging and expansive photographic universe that currently defines my life’s work and inspires me to be an artist and an educator. Mrs. Younger, an intelligent, 2nd wave feminist, educator, artist, and New York visionary changed my life by providing me with confidence, challenging debate, a new vision of the world, and friendship.


Inspired by API, I was determined to exit the commercial realm and pursue my photography and teaching interests full-time. From 2002 until the present day, my educational career path has been an unplanned journey of chance, opportunity, and promotion. When I started teaching, many long-term photography faculty were retiring from VCU’s recently created and quickly growing undergraduate photography BFA program. I quickly moved up the ranks from a hustling part-time adjunct (2001-04), to a forward-thinking Visiting Artist Program, Special Programming and Technology Coordinator (2004-06), to an innovative Graduate Coordinator and then Director (2007-present), to a faculty-building Interim Department Chair (2011-12), to my current status as a re-energized, research directed, tenure-track Assistant Professor (2016-present). I contributed a significant amount of time and energy to the growth and success of both the undergraduate and graduate programs, and in 2013, the MFA became nationally ranked by US News and World Report under my leadership. I have enjoyed every moment of my teaching and academic administrative career but think it is important to note that its success slowed down my ability to get my artwork to broader audiences and in the hands of curators. I have always been dedicated to making my art, but the creation of a successful and innovative MFA photography program in the South was my primary focus of interest during these years.


Regardless, two photography portfolios, Dissolving Boundaries of The Self: A Rhizomatic Psycho-History and Machines, were created between 2002-2013 that received recognition in 16 national group exhibitions (e.g. 2004 LBI Foundation of Arts and Sciences, Loveladies, NJ; 2007 SPAS Gallery Rochester Institute of Technology, 2007 Nightingale Gallery, Eastern Oregon University; 2010 Spiva Center for the Arts, Joplin, MO), 4 university solo exhibitions (2006 Texas Tech University, 2006 Sinclair Community College, 2006 Truckee Meadows Community College, 2009 Lawrence University), and an invitational juried portfolio review (2007 The Center, Review Santa Fe). The work was also included in the Getty Collection as part of API, received a $5000 Virginia Commission for the Arts Grant and was showcased at the Toronto Fair by Modernbook Gallery, San Francisco and Miami Scope Fair and Chicago Art Fair by ADA Gallery, Richmond, Virginia.


Dissolving Boundaries of The Self: A Rhizomatic Psycho-History was conceived around 2003 and is a digitally-montaged, fictional image archive of manufactured (actual objects) and documented (photographs of objects) deteriorated, glass plate negatives of appropriated civil war images seamlessly combined with original artist character performances. The series examines a Southern identity crisis while also conceptualizing photographic technique, materiality, and presentation. It was my first real attempt to blur the lines between fact and fiction in an effort to inject imagination, conceptual complexity, material ambiguity and purposeful image sequencing into an art climate of banal postmodern photography, formal abstraction, cartoonish digital art and high fidelity, large format, straight photography.


Machines is a futuristic photographic sequential narrative influenced by Leo Marx's theory of “the machine in the garden.” The images were created through a process of traditional color photography and digital assembly of American landscapes, thrift store items, industrial parts, animals and people generated from some appropriation of imagery but mostly original film captures. The images reveal a contradictory "middle landscape" characterized as a lush, untamed wilderness under the dominion of a mechanized and highly bureaucratic society. The series, completed in 2008, was my creative reaction to the aftermath of the Bush political era that spawned economic recession, accelerated environmental damage, growing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a culture of fear. This series was my furthest foray into an aesthetic that attempts to balance the photographic with what one could interpret as a form of digital painting. I desired to return to a more traditional mode of photographic materiality and representation - to creatively engage the medium-specific boundaries of photography within a documentary methodology. This desire led me down the path to create my most recent, most original photography portfolio, Pine Tree Ballads.


Pine Tree Ballads is a journey into my family history, cultural identity and childhood memories on a farm on the coast of Maine. The project explores the emotive, conditional, and material constructs of history, culture, personal identity, memory, and folklore. The work advances a sequential narrative through a “docu-literary” approach that represents subject matter within an oscillating framework of objective fact and subjective interpretation. Additionally, the series openly adopts an “aura aesthetic” that purposely celebrates the formal beauty and conceptual profundity of analog material disruptions/mistakes. The series is made with a variety of photo-based processes including both small, medium and large format b/w and color film, as well as hi-resolution digital captures. The entire portfolio consists of over 150 Archival Pigment prints in sizes ranging from 8"x10" to 36"x40.”


With Pine Tree Ballads, I began to seriously reconsider my preconceived bias against creating work about one’s own family and felt a strong desire to push the envelope in regards to challenging seemingly inherited formal conventions regarding “proper” documentary and straight photography techniques. The work was rebellious, and it took awhile to find the confidence to put it out into the world. In 2012, I began submitting portions of the portfolio to calls for grants, group exhibitions, publication competitions, and juried portfolio review opportunities. Many of the calls were for “emerging artists” which seemed so strange at age 41, however when one considers the unusual nature of my career path in photography it makes sense. The location of my practice in a medium-sized Southern city with a small collector base, the rather unknown name recognition of my alma mater within the world of prestigious photography schools, the lack of a connection to an influential alumni network, and my non-traditional rise in academia, taken together and weighed in relation to the stereotypical career dynamics of other artists my age, the descriptor of emerging is also seemingly appropriate. The irony of this is that my age often disqualifies me from many opportunities, as cultural institutions seem to equate youth with emerging talent.


From 2013 until the present, Pine Tree Ballads has received many exhibition opportunities and international attention. I was awarded the Conveyor Magazine Exhibition Grant (2013) which included a solo exhibition at Photo Industries, NYC. These events led to a collaborative project with artists Antone Dolezal and Lara Shipley in which we created a combined showing of our works that have exhibited at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center (2015) and the University of New Orleans St. Claude Gallery in New Orleans, Louisiana (2015). Additional solo exhibitions have been at the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Virginia (2013) and the Workspace Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska (2016). Also, Candela Gallery in Richmond, Virginia (2016) invited Dolezal/Shipley, Daniel Coburn, and myself to exhibit our most recent series in an showed entitled “Chasing Tales.”


The portfolio has received recognition as a Clarence John Laughlin Award Finalist (2013) from the New Orleans Photo Alliance; a Review Santa Fe Invitation (2014); a Juror's Commendation "Fellowship 16 International Photography Competition" (2015) from Silver Eye Center for Photography, Pittsburgh; a shortlist for the Gomma Photography Grant (2015); a Encontros da Imagem Portfolio Invitation (2015), Portugal; the Lensculture Emerging Talent Grant (2015); a finalist for the Barcelona International Photography Awards (2016), Spain; a Top 10 finalist for the Nera di Verzasca Award (2016), Switzerland; a Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards (2016) finalist; the Winner: Best Series, Renaissance Photography Prize (2016), London, England; and a Landskrona Foto Festival (2017) Portfolio Invitation.


In addition, the series has been exhibited in invitational festivals and group exhibitions at Candela Gallery, Richmond, Virginia; PPAC, Philadelphia; Foto Gallery, Barcelona; Grand Prix Fotofestival Lodz, Poland; the Athens Photo Festival, Greece; David Weinberg Gallery, Chicago, Illinois; The Center for Fine Art Photography, Colorado; Mt. Rokko Photography Festival, Japan; SF Camerawork, San Francisco, California; the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Fort Wayne, Indiana; the Kuala Lumpur International Photoawards, Nera di Verzasca Photo Festival, Switzerland; FIF_BH - International Festival of Photography, Brazil; and the Noordelicht Photo Festival, The Netherlands.


Pine Tree Ballads was selected and published as one of ten emerging talent portfolios for GUP magazine’s (NLD) tenth-anniversary issue (2016) as well as highlighted in the May 2016 British Journal of Photography. Interviews about the portfolio have been featured on popular websites such as Lensculture, Paper Journal, Feature Shoot, Fotografia Magazine, and the British Journal of Photography. In Fall 2018, the series will be published by Candela Gallery, Richmond, Virginia as a monograph book.


I am excited to continue exploring the conceptual and aesthetic implications of the historical materiality of film and paper, especially in regards to its potential to advance complex visual narrative structures. Pine Tree Ballads has solidified my interest in further destabilizing the traditional documentary goal of representing objective truth. I want to inject imagination, exaggerated subjectivity, personal mythology, experimental sequencing, and a meta-film “aura aesthetic” into the documentary genre. My goal is to create culturally relevant, historically significant, documentary projects that exist somewhere between fact and fiction; I want to be a photographer that oscillates between pure documentation, spontaneous play, and wonder.


In my Statement of Plans, I will share my new docu-literary project, Isla de las Palmas, investigating my Puerto Rican identity (my mother is Puerto Rican). Receiving support in the form of a Guggenheim Fellowship will provide me with the time and resources to delve deeply into my photographic interests and create a new body of work that has naturally evolved from past projects.


Thank you for your consideration.


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October 26, 2017

October 26, 2017

October 26, 2017

October 26, 2017

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