Heath Creel, Why Photography? Why Now?

Heath Creel is the kind of artist who transcends categorization. The photos he takes with his point-and-shoot are pure poetry, while the poems he writes are as lucid and striking as the very best visual art. Of course, he isn’t the first person to dabble in both poetry and image making—but the way he does it, the way he moves between both mediums so naturally, so effortlessly, intermingles the languages of the visual and literary arts in the most generative possible way. For Creel, there is no distance between the two. 

He is a poet with a camera; a photographer with a head full of words. Though Creel was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and is presently based in Denver, Colorado, I met him while we were both undergraduate students in Arkansas. Back in those days, you were most likely to find him tucked into the corner of our local coffee shop, book in hand. 

Though we’re thousands of miles apart, now, I wanted to begin our conversation in the place where the beginnings of all good ideas start: books. 

Justin Duyao: Not to get too in the weeds, but I know you’re a big fan of Roland Barthes. Years ago, you pointed me in the direction of Camera Lucida (1980), which is the reason I, now, also love Barthes. In fact, long before I ever knew you as a photographer or poet, I knew you as an omnivorous reader. Some of our most memorable conversations have been about books. 

Are there any figures—theorists, poets, or photographers—who have been particularly impactful to you or your work? Any images or stanzas that have sort of followed you around, over the years?

Heath Creel: As a symptom of artistic insecurity, I’m annoyingly obsessed with conveying myself well, so let me take an ordered response to this question. 

As for theorists, to discuss the theorists who have inspired me the most is tough—I feel decently well-read in theory, but have read across my scattered interests, avoiding any kind of disciplined, holistic study, which unfortunately leads to a difficulty in fully conveying why I choose these theorists or what they mean to me. 

For this project, I was inspired by Freud (I read his “Observations on Transference Love” the day I organized the images into a work), but over the past couple of years I’ve gotten a lot from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, whose Anti-Oedipus, read the first summer after I graduated college, which opened my brain in a way few authors had before (the irony of naming these theorists is not lost on me). 

With poetry, on the other hand, I can answer pretty easily. By far, the poet who inspired me most throughout this project was David Berman, the late poet/lead singer of the band Silver Jews. Growing up around Nashville, TN, I have loved his work for a long time, viewing him as a perfect encapsulation of growing up in my strange hometown (see his blog Menthol Mountains, the song “I Remember Me,” or the way he would talk shit about the Titans’s upcoming rivals onstage during performances). On the playlist I made for the trips out to Lookout Mountain, I included SJ’s album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea in full (“Strange Victory, Strange Defeat” will eternally be one of my favorite songs). Other poets I have taken a lot of inspiration from recently are John Berryman, Charles Simic, and Ted Berrigan.

As for photography, I feel confident in my answer as with poetry. It feels somewhat heretical to say now, considering my long-time adoration of William Eggleston, but the photographer who I have most drawn inspiration from recently is Lee Friedlander. After finding my first book of his on eBay in June of this year, he has slowly begun to take up a major part of my photographic mind: I love the ways certain photos of his can manipulate a strange world around them, twisting and contorting cold space into a wholly-human world. Like Eggleston, his works seem to me to have a way to portray a vaguely Whitmanian vision, solely of the artist himself, which has, from the beginning, been a major purpose of my work.

JD: I love the ordered approach—part of me knew I was going to get a fantastic Fall/Winter reading list out of your response to that question, so I appreciate your being thorough! Knowing you and your appetite for big ideas, I could’ve seen you walk down any of those paths: theory, poetry, photography. Of course, with the project you published with Dismantle, you’ve married the latter two brilliantly—and you’ve more than enough time to kick off your career in theory, if you ever so choose—but a majority of your creative career so far has seemed to focus on photography. 

Is there something about that medium—photography, visual art—that draws you to it? And if so, would you say you feel most at home taking photos? Or is there any part of you that feels more at home writing? 

HC: Admittedly, this is an extremely tough question for me to answer. For a glimpse behind the scenes, this interview is being done in a shared Google Doc where Justin sends an individual question, then I answer it. The first question was answered in 10 min. I’ve been sitting on this question for 4 days. 

Every time I think about the question of “Why photography?” I feel like it’s an utterly arbitrary series of events that have drawn me to this medium: I was in middle school in the era where Instagram was becoming dominant, and, because I was a part of the first generation to grow up around cell phones, I consistently had a camera on me. 

My dad had a job in Detroit while I was in high school, which fit exactly the emergent, slightly-nostalgic/fetishistic era of destruction-porn, which was popular around 2016 Instagram. I went to school in Arkansas, monthly making the commute from Nashville through Memphis to Searcy, and I discovered William Eggleston’s Guide as a recommended book on Amazon during my freshman year. My dad bought me an Olympus Stylus Zoom at a thrift store, and I fell in love with how easy it is, eventually buying three different versions of the camera. 

Then, I moved back to Nashville after graduating college. I felt hopeless being back at home (it was this era which led me to photobooks) and the sadness pushed me even further into what was formerly a hobby. One day, I went to the photobook section of a local bookstore and met Caleb McCool, who lived in Chattanooga and who became both a mentor and, more importantly, one of my closest friends. When thinking about this question, I guess there doesn’t have to be a “Why,” right? The world demands so much meaning already.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that I do feel at home with a camera. I have recently taken up developing, which I had largely avoided beforehand, due to financial and creative reasons. In the process of learning, I was shocked to see how easy it came to me—developer, stop bath, fixer, inversions, it seemed as if I had done everything before, maybe in a past life. Taking portraits—another new dimension of my craft—was the same way. I just started doing it one day, and it felt so natural. 

Writing, on the other hand, has always felt different—it’s a relatively new thing I’ve learned, and it feels more intentional (or, in my worst moments, preoperative) than I feel with photography. It is something I love, but it takes up so much time and energy that I often wonder if it’s really worth it (even though I, regrettably, know it always is). 

JD: I’ve always thought of your camera as an extension of yourself, as if it were a fifth limb or a third eye. Your work is so effortlessly infused with your inquisitiveness, your lovingly meditative relationship with the world, it’s almost hard to believe there was a time in your life when you weren’t taking photos. Then again, you’ve raised an important point: For so many people our age—or for anyone of any age who has a phone with a camera, really—“photography” isn’t an art as much as it is a reflex. Taking photos isn’t so much a way of taking hold or making sense of the world, it’s more a way of moving through it. 

Does that proliferation of “images” make you worried about the future of photography, in any way? Has that posed a challenge to you, in your practice? Does it represent an opportunity? 

HC: The issue of what to do with our contemporary world’s proliferation of images has been a responsibility which, out of necessity, I have always kind of jutted against. It’s hard to do anything intentional with images if you feel like they are utterly lost at sea from their creation, due to the image-saturated state of our contemporary consciousness, a view which I’ve always associated (even if wrongly) with Susan Sontag’s “On Photography.” 

You mentioned Barthes earlier. My biggest complaint about Sontag’s perspective, that worries about the proliferation of images, that pushes back against a photograph-drenched culture, is that it blinds one from actual images—her subject matter in OP, after all, is not an individual photograph (as with Barthes’ “Winter Garden” photograph) but “photography” at large. It’s been a long term belief of mine, even faith, that individual images are extremely resonant and deep, resisting this diffusion-out-of-meaning-by-volume through their granular, almost-quantum scale. 

Despite that, I do love Sontag. If I get one thing from her thoughts on photography, it would be the importance of words, of communication, in the drawing out of photographic meaning. To some degree, this rounds up and connects everything we’ve said so far about why writing and why photography. I write because it helps me make meaning of the world. I photograph because it’s the way I see the world. To photograph and to write are reflexes, yes, but together they mean a lot

Justin Duyao
Justin Duyao is an art writer and editor based in San Diego, CA. He holds an M.A. in Critical Studies from the Pacific Northwest College of Art and has been published by Variable West, HereIn Journal, Contemporary Art Review, Los Angeles, Southwest Contemporary, Northwest Review, and The Clackamas Literary Review, among others.
Heath Creel is a photographer, poet, and teacher based out of Denver, CO. In August 2023, he self-published his 3rd photobook project, Idiot Wind: Minnesota/Florida, a book loosely following the path of the poet John Berryman, from his early life in Clearwater to his early death in Minneapolis. Inspired by travel and Whitman’s affirmation of the self, his work is largely made up of studies of place, rooted within the certain, unique experience of how he experiences the world. Explore Heath's work at https://www.heathcreelphoto.com/