Since 1950, water levels in Florida have risen by eight inches, averaging an inch every decade. Another six inches is predicted in the next 15 years. The Sunshine State may soon be swimming with the fishes, but the mystical destination continues to allure new residents and millions of visitors—approximately 34 million US residents traveled to FLA in the first few months of this year. It’s that magic, that sublime enchantment, that photographer Anastasia Samoylova explores in new hardback, Floridas (Steidl), paired with works from the late, influential Walker Evans (1903-1975).
Walker Evans, perhaps most known for his work with the Farm Security Administration during The Great Depression, photographed Florida beginning in the 1930s—before families flocked to Disney World, before art enthusiasts and elites gathered in Miami, and before the shorelines threatened its residents—and continued to do so in the years before his death. Through Floridas, Samoylova captures the Florida that Evans witnessed the unequivocal originations of. Weaving the past and the present, marred by an uncertain, and often apocalyptic future, Floridas presents a timeline of an image of the state so often notorious for its politics, economics, tourism, and dear lord, the humidity.
The work of Samoylova, who was born in what was then the USSR, moves back and forth between observational photography and a photographic studio practice. Her photos, which have exhibited around the world, often deal with environmentalism, consumerism, and the picturesque. In this particularly unique project, Samoylova, with the resonant contributions of Evans, presents a picture of a state—Florida, in this case, but perhaps a stand-in for other places—that may have become famous for offering salvation, but may very well need saving itself.
We sat down with Samoylova, who later this year will publish an additional photography book with Fundación Mapfre, to discuss Floridas, the edge of reality, and the shift from visitor to resident.
How do your works reflect or distort those of Walker Evans in this book?
Evans’s images and mine play off each other in a careful sequence assembled by the editor David Campany, who also contributed an essay for the book. As the captions are not provided until the end, you can engage in a guessing game about the time period and location of each photograph; not all are immediately recognizable as historic or contemporary. The idea was to interpret an extensive selection of Florida photographs and paintings by Evans from The Metropolitan Museum’s collection in a meaningful way by interspersing them with my own images amassed during the many road trips in the state. I found it fascinating that Evans spent four decades making work in Florida, and that work has barely been published or exhibited; yet it is clearly important as it was preceded by some meaningful early reflections on the state and the country as a whole that he recorded in writing. The book also includes a selection of Evans’ paintings that look quite contemporary—another side of his vast artistic oeuvre that is little known. When I moved to Florida, it was with the intention to expand my studio practice, to continue painting and collaging. Instead, I pursued observational photography, a deviation from my previous work and an exciting new frontier that was undoubtedly inspired by Evans, and by discovering the complexity in Florida once I was no longer just a visitor.
The imagery has an otherworldly quality to it. David Campany’s text relates it to the edge of Truman’s world in The Truman Show. How do you feel these photographs relate to reality?
Photography has a complicated relationship with reality. A degree of detachment from the visual chaos of reality is ingrained in the medium itself. A photographer selects a specific subject from a wider scene when composing a shot; aesthetic choices are inevitable—it is an art form. At the same time a photograph truthfully shows what was in front of the lens; and if that scene wasn’t constructed—this is as close as you can get to life in that particular moment as seen through that photographer’s point of view. I claim no objectivity in my outlook on Florida, as I don’t think objectivity in photography or art exists. Perhaps the otherworldly quality of my images comes from a deliberate effort to present them as metaphors for what Florida represents (to me) rather than literal depictions of this place, even though nothing in the images is staged. Florida owes a lot of its current reality to the fictionalized narratives that continue to surround it.
The theme of this issue is ‘emotional rescue.’ How do you feel Florida can rescue us?
I believe Florida is perfectly suited to illustrate the subject, as it is entering a phase of deep self-reflection amidst some serious socio-political turmoil,and that impulse shows commitment to emotional rescue if that term could be applied to a state. A state, after all, is just a community of people, often a politically and economically disjointed one, that is trying to keep it together with the government and laws they choose locally. As we know, nobody can emotionally rescue us apart from ourselves, but perhaps Florida, with its extremes, could propel us to pursue the endeavor with more rigor, to really get over our differences and get it together for the sake of not regressing into something very dark.
Does Florida need our rescuing?
The idea for my project was to show Florida as an allegory for a broader spectrum of issues in the States while pushing the iconic Floridian palette to resemble a fantasy-like world. Florida was built as a place for either escaping to or reinventing yourself in, with all the accompanying imagery associated with those concepts. On the one hand, Florida needs no more rescuing than California or New York; it’s one of many places that could use some reform to make them livable for a wider range of people. On the other, in a few decades, it will be teetering on the edge of extinction due to its vulnerable geographic location, and the prospect of it sinking is a convincing enough image that represents how our current modes of consumption and flawed policies can erode a place to the point of disappearance.
How do you see yourself reflected in the Floridian surroundings?
Florida has a way of seducing you—whether it is with its lush tropical landscape, mysterious past, or unconventional people. I moved to Florida six years ago and got to know the state via countless road trips; there are very few places I haven’t visited and explored. The impetus for the road trips was a sense of deep curiosity and desire to really understand this place. Being based in Miami, I’m aware that this is South Florida’s metropolitan bubble; certainly not representative of the rest of the state. It was easy to find a community of creative people, artists, writers here. Miami is a cultural melting pot; most people here came from elsewhere, or at least their parents did. I’m originally from Russia, I grew up in Moscow, and in the early 2000s it was my community of fellow students in the creative fields that made it livable for me. So I already had a strategy when moving to Florida—joining an artist residency and meeting like-minded people. However, amidst all the outwardly easy living there is a sense of uncertainty, and a crisis of Floridian identity is something that many are eager to investigate. The title of my book, Floridas, refers to the multiplicity embedded in the state. Some areas have absolutely nothing in common besides hot summers.