Interview: Clayton Shilling on his “Tour of India”

This month’s exhibit in the Post Art Library features Clayton Shilling’s photographic “Tour of India.” From the Golden Triangle to Auroville, Clayton spent six weeks traveling the country. I had the fortune of asking Clayton the following questions about his tour.

(Jill’s comments/questions are in bold,
whereas Clayton’s are not.)

How long have you been a photographer? Could you tell me a little about your camera set-up? That is, do you work primarily with digital? What are some of your techniques?
I became interested in photography about 8 or 9 years ago. I didn’t own a camera and had been wanting one so I asked for one for Christmas and the interest grew from that point forward. The majority of my experience behind a camera has been in digital although I took a film photography course during my undergrad studies and I have also worked with a Lomography camera which takes film as well.  Mostly, I shoot with a Nikon DLSR camera and I shoot most everything in manual mode which gives the photographer total, free-range control over both the aperture and the shudder speeds.

I read that your tour of India took six weeks. It’s my understanding that when you took this tour, you were five months post-craniotomy. How do you think this experience impacted your outlook as a photographer/traveler?
The initial idea of going to India came to me the days after I had surgery. I was in ICU and in between moments on consciousness I remember laying there planning out my life over the next 4-6 months and a little voice told me to go to India. My original plan was to move to Denver, where I am now but since I didn’t have to be here at any specific time, I set a few “gap months” aside to do this. Obviously I had to clear it with my Dr. and she didn’t have a problem with it. Planning something this big during that time was the perfect distraction. The physical and emotional recovery after something like brain surgery can be so overwhelming and the idea that I had to get better and pull through this so I could go to India was far more appealing than getting better and pulling through this so I could go back to punching the clock and paying bills. It was exciting and motivating and kept my mind in focus.

This exhibit includes 13 photographs. Have you an idea of how many you took from which you selected these 13?
I took around 6,000 photos total but a lot of them were several shots of the same subject taken at different camera settings. I still consider myself to be a novice at photography so I like to take as many shots of something as possible in case I goof up.

Of the photographs in this exhibit, most depict people. What about people appeals to your photographic sensibility?
A lot of what I shoot depends on the country I’m in. Typically I’m more drawn to architecture and landscape photography. During my year abroad in Germany I had a mild obsession with taking photos of people’s homes, historical buildings, and cityscapes all over Europe. Life in poorer countries doesn’t always present the most photogenic settings therefore as a photographer it’s on you to find the expression elsewhere. In India, it was people and daily life. I chose the man in Delhi: Day 1, and the 2 girls with the baby in The Residents of Tamil Nadu because they were all so eager to have their photo taken. That’s one of the things I love most about India. They have no reservations about being photographed.

Interestingly, all of these photographs are close-up. What weighs in your decision to photograph close rather than depict a scene at large?
As I sorted through my photos when I returned I did a lot of cropping and zooming and found there was so much more detail in some of these photos than what I had even noticed while shooting so I guess subconsciously I wanted to include all the vivid detail. Plus, my camera lens has its limits and I find that it shoots better shots when things are a little closer.

Generally, these photographs are very colorful, vivid. ‘Waiting for the Parade’ is the exception. What’s the significance of this photograph being in black and white?
What can I say? Sometimes a photo just looks better with no color at all. It seemed to show better when I turned it black and white. Although I chose 13 different shots, I tried to think of all 13 pieces as one whole piece with a variety of sizes, colors, subjects, etc. and I wanted to include some quiet, small shots to help balance the bigger presentations.

Did you set-out to India with photography/an exhibit in mind or is this something that came later?
I set out on two missions: to backpack and cover as much territory as possible, and to eventually end up in Auroville, an international eco-community in the SE region of India just outside the city of Pondicherry. I had stumbled across this township during my undergrad studies and as an International Studies major, I chose Auroville to write my senior thesis about. I had spent an entire semester researching this interesting little community and felt it was only appropriate to visit after all that work. I packed my camera, naturally, but had not planned to turn it into an exhibit. I spent hours upon hours riding trains, commuting between cities and during that time I would read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to DSLR Cameras and would take the time to practice when I stopped in a new area.

Do you have a favorite among these particular photographs?
The Best Kept Secret is one that is very dear to me. But if I told you why, it wouldn’t be a secret. 🙂

Do you have a memorable moment not depicted in these photographs that you would like to share about your tour of India?
I set aside several times throughout my trip to put my camera down and just enjoy the moment. Often times when you travel somewhere and have photography in mind you can get stuck behind the camera and forget to take in your surroundings and just be in the moment. I would have to say that some of the best memories were those moments when I got a little off the grid and away from the touristy areas. There’s enough going on in India that anyone can find something interesting depending on their taste. If you like the big city environment and the hustle and bustle of city life, India is the place to go. If you’re a history geek and enjoy monuments and museums, they’ve certainly got those too. I took the time to enjoy all those things but renting a small hut a half mile off a small country road and laying and swaying in a hammock all day proved to be the perfect fit for me.

Worn Hard and Hung Wet to Dry

“Tour of India” is on display in the Post Art Library through February 2015–be sure to stop by! To read more about “Tour of India,” visit 

Discussion: Images by Cody White

On his website (, Cody White describes himself as having “a job and a home and some loved ones.” Indeed he has. One might further describe Cody as having an inclination toward words and images. Moreover, one might say he’s talented at that. Indeed he is. …Years ago, Cody and I met via mutual college friends. I’ve since had the opportunity for close-ups of his creative endeavors, particularly his poetry and photography. Cody photographs sets that he builds from the ground-up:

In both Northpark Diary and Familiar Spirits, Cody cuts, outlines and sculpts white paper into particular dimensions (some of which are scaled life-sized). In A Day in the Woods, he builds sets with dimensional objects which he’s painted black. He then repaints the sets with light as he takes photographs. I recently visited Cody in his studio, where we discussed his photographic process.

(Jill’s comments/questions are in bold,
whereas Cody’s are not.)

One thing that’s important to me is to keep the content itself realistic. The style can indulge in fantasy and I think it does.
I do, too. And I think that your content is realistic.
Yeah, I really like that set-up, with the content being realistic and the style being the more indulgent.

May I start asking you questions?

How long has it been since you took a photograph and thought that it’s something you would like to put time and effort into?
I think that my first desire to do photography started with this project.
With Northpark Diary?
There were some pictures that I made before Northpark Diary when I first had the process in mind. I made them with just a little click-click camera that I had to go and get the film developed.
So when you first started you were doing stuff on film rather than digital?
Yeah. Digital versus film has never really been a particular concern for me. I’m not aesthetically disinclined toward digital. Somewhere along the line I got the idea to make these and that was the first time that I ever thought of photography as art for myself, about four or five years ago.

You have your photography grouped into three distinct galleries: Northpark Diary, Familiar Spirits and A Day in the Woods. Although each gallery features a unique theme, all photographs showcased are built from the ground-up. Why are you drawn to creating scenes rather than photographing those which already exist?
I want to have a high degree of control and of what the viewer sees, but not necessarily control the viewer’s reaction to or relationship with the photograph. The pictures that I produce look like the pictures I envision. Building them gives me the ability to create them as I see them. It would be harder to say why I look around my apartment, for example, and envision a scene that’s black and white and has this odd sense of depth to it. Something about the black and white does resonate with my imagination. Thinking about the black and white [scenes] was really the thing that launched the whole process for me. There’s a lot of things that I’ve thought about it since then, a lot of reasons why I think it’s powerful, but I didn’t think of the reasons and come up with the project.
Right, you just started doing it and the reasons happened organically.
Yeah, exactly. It’s important to me that I don’t control the viewer’s experience too much. What I would actually like to do is corral the experience to a degree, but leave them a certain jumping off point.

Whenever I look at Northpark Diary and Familiar Spirits, I sometimes feel that all of that white space is impersonal. Yet other times it feels inviting, as it plays with depth and encourages the viewer to sort of fill in the blanks. Initially, I was put-off by A Day in the Woods. Perhaps because those photographs seem more typical, as you’re photographing dimensional objects painted black rather than creating something dimensional out of something flat.
What I really want out of A Day in the Woods is not so much for the viewer to see that they’re objects painted black, but that I want them to be a uniform dark color so that I could repaint them with light. What I envision is something where these different forms are swallowed in the blackness and the blackness blends together. But from the color that I project with the lights, the viewer can see the edges and slivers of traces of the forms and these bits will seem to be glowing unto themselves. But honestly these images aren’t where I want them to be yet. There are some technical problems I need to solve on the photography end before these will look like how I see them. But I couldn’t resist putting them up, even though I shouldn’t.
When I think of a day in the woods, I think oh, a day in the woods, la, la, la, la, la… and your Day in the Woods is very dark, more like a scary night in the woods.
That sort of disorientation is a starting point for me. I want there to be the play between the different tones and the different ways of seeing the same objects. Because sometimes you have an ambiguous relationship to the things in the world.

That’s what I like about what you do. You focus on what makes up the big picture–the ambiguities, if you will–rather than THE big picture. It’s appealing: no particular beginning, middle or end. It’s not figured out just by looking at it. It’s something that exists which is a part of something else that existed and it’s fluid.
I think that I feel pretty strongly that if you try to give THE big picture it’s always going to fail and you’re always going to be lying. Reality is always more than can be encompassed. All you can really do is capture some of the complexity, some of the ambiguity and the mixed experience that you personally have with it. To be honest, I don’t have a feeling.
You have multiple feelings.
Yeah, shades of feeling that continually blend and wash amongst one another. It’s important to me to capture that flux.