Rik Garrett is a photographer living and working in the Seattle area. His interest in photography goes back to his teenage years, and since then he has honed his skills and mastered the technical abilities needed to capture the world around us. He has gone beyond that, however, delving into historic techniques used to explore and try to capture the world we cannot see. Through his curiosity, research, and experimentation, he has pushed the boundaries of these methods, allowing him to create work that is unique and truly his own. It was a pleasure speaking with Rik as we discussed his inspirations and motivations, his series and what they mean to him, and of course his love of coffee.
Hi Rik, thanks for taking some time to talk with us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself to start?
Thank you for asking me to do this! I guess I would say that I am a photographer, and I tend to explore in one way or another things that are hidden, not visible or immediately apparent to the eye through different projects. I play with that line of photography’s normal role of documentation.
From what I've seen, you’ve been creating amazing photographic work since at least 2003. When did you get started and what inspired you to do so?
I actually started long before that. My mom was actually a photographer. My origin story that I tell is that she always wanted to be one, even from the time she was really young. When I was in elementary school, she decided to really pursue it, so I watched her do that, watched her take these correspondence courses and lessons. I would go with her when she worked on projects, and she actually built a dark room that was right next to my bedroom. So, when I was about 14, I thought I would try it myself. My mom didn’t just let me in there, I had to take a course in school before she would allow me access, but then she would help me out and coach me.
So, I’ve been doing it for a really long time. I latched onto the process, and it just worked with my personality, I guess. Maybe I just don’t show a lot of what I did before 2003.
Did you grow up in the Chicago area?
No, I actually grew up in Washington state, where I am now. I moved to Chicago in 2006 and was there for 10 years.
What would you consider the biggest influences on your work, and how have you seen these evolve over time?
It’s funny, because I feel that there are a lot of different things at different times that have inspired me. When I was in high school, I accidentally found the photography of Man Ray even though I lived in a small town and there wasn’t a lot of access to art, art history, culture and things like that. I learned about Man Ray from John Zorn album covers, so I had to pursue that by myself and it was actually a big influence.
Maybe we’ll come to this later, but right now I’ve been working a lot with things that are maybe less direct camera photography, and maybe more influenced by early psychical research involving photography. So, more experimental spiritual kinds of photography, things that are supposed to be more scientific, using photography as an apparatus to document something. I’ve been really influenced by these projects from the 1920’s and 30’s and those are the theories I’ve been working on right now. That's been moving away from cameras a little bit, but at different times different things have influenced me and it’s such a funny question because when I’m asked, I always forget to give credit to the things that have influenced me. In 2006, after I moved to Chicago, I went to Switzerland and ended up at the H.R. Giger museum. He was someone I had always known of, and he’s one of those people that everyone goes through a phase with and thinking it’s cool, but going to that museum was amazing. Seeing all of these things in person, when they are just humongous, these paintings are billboard sized. You see all these layers, and you don’t get the texture that’s going on when it’s printed in a calendar or a book, you know? I suddenly realized that I was doing a lot of stuff after that trip like layering light and dark, and I think it was influenced by that kind of texture. But, I’m drawing a blank on all the other people that have influenced me and not giving them credit right now! (laughs)
I’d like to talk about each of your series, starting with Symbiosis?
This was a series that was actually about falling in love. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but have done so more recently because people have been caught off guard by that fact. I think people read different things into that series when they see it, but that’s What it was about. At the time, my now wife Jane and I had been out of touch, and were reconnecting and moving ahead with our relationship and I was thinking about how to convey that, or rather work with these new feelings. At the same time I was thinking about things like that in Alchemy there is a figure known as the Rebis which is an androgyne, male and female in one being, and how that can apply to relationships moving ahead, working together as one being, so I started playing with all of that while working on that series. After going through different iterations and experiments, I settled on the final images which are very small, like 3.25” by 4.25” color darkroom prints. I’ve always wished that sense of scale came across online, because it really doesn’t. They’re very small, because I wanted them to be very intimate, you know? When you see them on a wall, you have to get very close to see them, and they are just color prints with paint applied to basically get rid of the lines between two bodies and fuse them as one character. There’s this act of painting that combined the bodies. I ended up doing a small handmade edition of books of that series which ended up getting a lot of attention online. A lot of different websites ended up picking up on that like Huffington Post and things like that. Actually Russian Esquire printed some of the images. It was really weird! There’s an issue with Jake Gyllenhaal on the cover and my images from Symbiosis on the inside.
So the painting is on the actual print, and they are all one of a kind. If you see them in person, you can see the texture.
Images from Symbiosis, courtesy of Rik Garrett.
Well, the Collodion wet plate process has a real unique look to it. I first learned it in 2009, and it has such a unique look to it. You can tell what it is when you look at it. A lot of people that use that process have done the same thing with it. It was very popular during the Civil War and the portraits from that time, and there are certain limitations to the process. You have to do it all right there, develop it right after you take the photograph and it’s very involved. So, I started to wonder how I could really make it mine, how can I make this into my own artwork and push the boundaries of it a little bit? I didn’t really think about it until 2010 when I was using the process and looking at it and thought “Boy, this looks like some real witchy stuff!” At the same time, I was reading a lot of 16th and 17th century writings about witchcraft and witch hunting manuals like Malleus Maleficarum and things like that. It was obviously all on my mind at the same time and just kind of coalesced. So, it was kind of like the process influenced the thoughts that went into the series, and there was this give and take in that regard. Also, I was thinking about some early pictorialist photography which I think is maybe not very popular to talk about right now? But there were these people like Anne Brigman doing these beautiful and slightly creepy outdoor things often involving women. Sometimes it lends itself more toward a beautiful outdoor nude and sometimes more of this forest creature. I really liked that and so it was the process, some of the things I had been reading, and then considering some of the early photographers.
Did you shoot that whole series in the woods surrounding the Chicago?
Yeah, it was all around the Chicago area. I grew up out here in Washington, where there are trees everywhere and when I moved to Chicago I loved it and loved having all of the people around, things going on, all of that, but after being there for about a year, I started having forest withdrawal and fixating on it. I started fetishizing the idea of what nature meant, so when I started the Earth Magic series, it was obviously influenced by that. It was all done in woods in and around Chicago, and there were deer out there! That totally caught me off guard. There were times I was taking photographs and like 10 deer would walk by. I always thought that if I had been doing this in Washington it would be so much better, because there would be all these trees and would involve all of these dynamic forest areas that would be really fun to work with, but it was so perfect in Chicago because most of those photographs were taken in September, October, and even November but it’s not evergreen trees, all the leaves are gone, it’s these scraggly, spindly looking trees that were perfect for the series.
Images from Earth Magic, courtesy of Rik Garrett.
Another aspect to Earth Magic that pertains to Chicago: I started a blog called Occult Chicago that is probably pretty embarrassing to look at now, because I was really just kind of learning about things and putting it out there, I wasn’t an expert about anything. I knew I was going to be staying in Chicago for a while and I wanted to learn about the history because it’s really, really rich regarding different occult movements, leaders, writers, publishers and organizations. It’s just so vast. So this blog just helped me put this information out there, and as a result of that, the publisher Fulgur found my work and contacted me to do the Earth Magic book.
I initially had done a small handmade edition before I was contacted by Fulgur. I like to make books and I had this hand bound edition, and then when the book was published, it had a regular standard edition and a deluxe edition, which sold out the day it was announced. It had a dark room print in it, a clam shell box and things like that.
Earth Magic - standard edition from Fulgur Press.
Oh man, I love the aspects of Washington state and the Northwest that you are talking about, but totally see how this worked well out here.
For sure, we definitely have the whole Cascadian Black Metal thing going on out here!
Wonders of the Unseen World?
This is another collection of different projects that started out with me fixating on different ideas from different times regarding the Earth being hollow. It starts out seeming like a real wild and hair brained idea, but the more you read and learn about it, you learn that it’s an idea that keeps coming up over and over throughout history. It consumes people. There are different cultures from all over the world and throughout history that believe that mankind basically came from underground originally. You find different ideas about a utopia in the middle of the Earth, or passageways at the poles where there is a secret world, usually called Agartha. So, I started reading about this and really fixating on it, because that’s what happens. There’s a certain type of madness that takes over when you decide to indulge this at all. I started playing with the different theories while I was still in Chicago, trying to think of how to explore this idea. There are a couple of different groups there. There are some images where I took photographs... Ok, I basically stole photographs from other people, which I saw as a repurposing, or reimagining… kind of a collage tradition. I took a lot of images from books of photographic history, of things that were more of the outside world and tried to make them feel internal, or like portals, or kind of play with the inside and the outside. There are various different thoughts, like in the Alchemical tradition there’s the emerald tablet which states That which is above is like that which is below, so I started playing with that idea. The inside of the Earth, or a portal or hole… taking the first photograph of the moon, rephotographing it and then manipulating that image until it becomes something totally different, and it looks like a hole. Also, the first photograph of the human eye, the retina, and turning it into something totally different.
Images from Wonders Of The Unseen World, courtesy of Rik Garrett.
This is one I’m still not very good at talking about, so I need to work that out! It really doesn’t make any sense when I talk about it. I worked on it for years and even had the show, and I still wasn’t good at explaining where I was coming from.
I made a book (because I fixate on books) where I took this early 20th century astronomy book, and I started painting over the pages and adding my own photographs, adding found photographs of different things. So, it was kind of this wordless book that turned into something about going inside, both going inside of yourself mentally as well as going inside of the Earth using an outer space theme and turning it on its ear a bit. That book was included in the exhibition.
So that is a very long and rambling explanation that didn’t really go anywhere!
No, no, no! I find it all very interesting. Actually, and you and I discussed this over email, I actually lifted and tweaked imagery I use for one of my coffees from the Hollow Earth Society of Chicago.
Yeah! Cyrus Teed. He was in Chicago for a little bit. We talk about people fixating on this, and then it takes over their mind and their sanity… He started out having kind of a Christian sect and talking about the hollow Earth and the next thing you know, he and all of his followers end up in this living arrangement in Estero, Florida, this hellish swamp, trying to prove that we are in fact living on the inside of the Earth! It’s amazing and saddening the way that it takes over, and I love it! Did you know about this thing they did on the beach? They were trying to prove that we are inside of a sphere, and they built this device called the Rectilineator; this saw horse looking thing, and they spent ages plotting the beachfront in Florida trying to prove that eventually it curves upward. It’s just amazing!
Yeah, when you contacted me I looked you up, saw that packaging and figured we’d be able to have a good conversation!
Rare Earth label by Ben Chlapek.
One last series, Subtle Bodies?
I’m excited to talk about this, because I haven’t had much of a chance to yet. It’s a collection of things I’ve been working on since 2010 or somewhere around there. I’m especially excited because I recently had an exhibition of this work in Seattle and I’ve made a book of this series as well, but I’m not hand binding them I’m having them printed. In relation to the show, I did a couple of lectures on the history of these processes, and talked a bit about my work and experiments, as well as photographers that dealt in the same ideas. I spoke at the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft in Ohio, and in Chicago as well.
It’s a variety of different theories based on historical processes used to examine the invisible. So, things like aura photography, spirit photography, thought photography and things like that. People invented photography as a medium to document the world and to document what was visible, allowing you to have a record of grandpa who otherwise would have been lost to time, and no one would have ever remembered what grandpa looked like, but then you could take a picture and generations would get to see him. I get excited about this and think it’s so wonderful, but almost immediately, people started trying to do things to capture what you couldn’t see. People were trying to capture ghosts and spirits, these types of images. It coincides with the spiritualist movement that was happening right when photography was really booming. This movement was based on direct contact with spirits, almost like a free for all and direct relationship allowing to document auras, life force, etc., So all these different innovations, procedures and approaches were devised. Subtle Bodies is this sort of umbrella I have used to encompass all these projects I have been working on for a long time. A lot of the projects involve Kirlian photography, which was invented by a married couple in Russia in the 1930’s which involves an electrical discharge to highlight, illuminate and photograph an aura. I modified this in order to do different things. With the Kirlian process, you can really just take photographs of small things. The really common stuff is a fingerprint, or a leaf, or something like that but I’m in my studio right now and I’m staring at a 9 foot long scroll of a photograph of a whole human body on color photographic paper, which is an absolutely insane process. So, I have been really excited to show these, because they don’t look at all like what you’ll see online. You don’t get any sense of the scale and the scope of this. There’s just amazing textures and I’m impressed with all of the things I happened to get out of this because I don’t even really know what it’s going to look like, so there’s really an element of the unknown. I hadn’t had a proper show in a long time, so I’d been busy preparing that, and working on the book which actually has words in it. I don’t really like to talk a lot, but I realized that this stuff needs some explanation to give people a starting point to try to understand what in the hell I’m trying to do here.
Images from Subtle Bodies, courtesy of Rik Garrett.
How did you learn about all of these processes that you utilized in Subtle Bodies?
Um, there’s a lot of reverse engineering that goes on! There are a lot of old books on spirit photography and Kirlian photography from the time they were invented. Also, I think a lot of people are into this now, there’s been kind of a resurgence over the past few years, but there was also one in the 70’s, so a lot of people were talking about it then. So, different texts from different times and then I try to just play with it, explore it to make it work.
Do you deal strictly with film vs. digital photography?
What’s your set up like at your studio? You just mentioned a 9 foot print.
Well my studio is in a garage, which I am very lucky to have. To do those scrolls, it actually happens in a trough or wallpaper tray, and you roll it up. It’s not like you have a 9 foot tub for the chemistry. You just kind of roll it through.
Aura 4 from Subtle Bodies, courtesy of Rik Garrett.
You lived in Chicago for several years and are now back in the Seattle area. What do you see as the similarities in the two cities and what do you see as the differences?
I’m naturally not very good at getting out and being social, so living in Chicago was actually very good for me in that respect. You’re kind of out in the middle of a city, no matter what. You run into people, you end up places, things like that. Here, it’s a little easier to get isolated. This was something I learned when I moved to Chicago, and learned again after moving away. I’m really happy to be here, but it is very different. It’s just kind of a different pace. I love seeing the trees everywhere, and I love all that. The place my show is at, Mortlake & Company, is a pretty amazing space. It’s an Occult bookstore and it’s an art gallery. It’s run mainly by William Kiesel, who also runs Ouroboros Press, so it’s a great “Ground Zero” for a lot of the stuff I’m into and the things I do. For a person that’s not very good at going out and being social, it’s great. There are a lot of people here, and I feel like this area naturally attracts certain people that gravitate toward certain things. Also, they have a book fair every September called Texts and Traditions and people come from all over the place. There a lectures, and rare book sellers, and it’s exciting. There are people doing things here, so that’s something I like about being here. It’s blown my mind to get to be a part of that and show at that location, and meet some exciting people doing interesting things.
Do you feel like that community thrives more out in Seattle compared to Chicago?
In some ways… I mean Chicago has some things that are kind of hard to beat. There’s the Occult Bookstore, the nation’s oldest of its kind. I think in Seattle, out of necessity, even though it’s not a small town, when there is something specific like this people tend to gravitate toward it more? I don’t want to say DIY, but things pop up in kind of interesting places and that’s kind of an exciting aspect here.
I’m a nerd for it, but it’s hard for me not to think of the atmosphere out there and what your describing and not thinking about the weird fiction of Laird Barron as well as Twin Peaks, both of which are perfectly set in that environment.
Yeah! Well, I’ve definitely told people before when I’ve been in other places that there is a reason that Twin Peaks was set here, you know? Also, when they did a remake of the movie The Ring, they moved it to Seattle. They had to find a place in the United States that could match that weird gloominess, and they found the right place.
What are you listening to these days?
Well there’s usually Black Sabbath nearby as a general rule, and one band I always want to tell people about is Taurus, which is Stevie Floyd from Dark Castle. I think they just have 2 records and they are both amazing. I’ve been listening to them all the time since I found them like 3 years ago. Also, I’ve been going back and listening to one of my favorite bands from when I was like 18, and that’s Neurosis. I’ve been enjoying it, it’s been nostalgic and I set aside for quite a long time so that’s been fun.
My wife and I just got some new speakers, we still had some that we found in an alley in Chicago around 2011, so it was exciting to be able to actually buy some speakers deliberately. I think they were the last thing we had that were an old Chicago alley find! So that’s why we’ve gone back and listened to all the Black Sabbath, Neurosis, etc.
Ok, it’s coffee time. We’ve established that you like coffee?
What do you look for in a good cup of coffee?
Oh my gosh. Well, I drink quite a lot of coffee, and I gravitate toward Guatemalan and Central American coffees. I’m not sure what the proper description would be, but they tend to have a quality that’s like round? I don’t know what that means!
I know exactly what you mean!
Ok, so how would you describe that?
They tend to be less acidic, and Central and South American coffees have more of a chocolate or caramel aspect to them as compared to say African coffees, which have a tendency to be brighter, with more acidity, citric and floral notes. Round is a really good description, as they also tend to have a heavier body.
Yeah, like Ethiopian coffees tend to be more floral and bright. I tend to lean toward something with more of brown sugar or fig notes, or something like that.
I tend to like a medium roast. I had that time period of being absolutely dirt poor and drinking Cafe Bustelo for many years. Basically anything that cost $3 and felt like “Wow! I sure am drinking coffee right now!’ is what I went with for a long time, and then I had the opportunity to learn and grow in this world just a little bit and try some new things! I’ve definitely picked up more of the nuance than during the college student experience.
How do you make coffee at home?
Well, on a day like today when I have a little more time, I’ve been doing a V60 pour over, which is nice. On more of a busy day, I’ve got a Buona Vita and that does pretty well in a pinch, but if I’ve got the time, I like to do a pour over normally. I used to have a Chemex, but I think I broke 3 of them, and then I gave up.
I’ve actually had one for 8 years, but now that I’m saying this I’m sure I’ll break it.
Ohhh. Yeah. Well, that’s amazing, and you must be less clumsy than me.
So, I also have an Aeropress. They’re nice, and fun for different things. Those are my main ways to make coffee at home.
Are there particular cafes that you where you’re at? Also, if you are grabbing a coffee at a cafe, what is your go-to?
Yeah! In Chicago, I liked to go to Wormhole, and sometimes I’d go to Ipsento. Out here, and I actually live in Takoma, there are some good places doing good things for sure, and the place I like in Takoma is called Lift Bridge. In Seattle, this is both great and dangerous, there’s a coffee place called Slate Coffee and it’s right next to an Occult bookstore called Edge Of The Circle which is really good. So, if I’m not careful, it’s kind of an all day event where I spend any money I have at all. You get some coffee beans, you get some coffee, and then you accidentally spend a bunch of money on books, and then some of my favorite Thai food is around the corner. I have to be careful about when I go to that block, otherwise it’s all over.
I tend to get a pour over, Americano or latte. Sometimes an espresso, which I would probably get more often, but I usually want to sit and have the experience of hanging out longer.
How do you feel that coffee intersects with your creativity?
I always load up on coffee before I go into the darkroom. I think I already mentioned that i started doing things in the darkroom when I was in junior high, and it was at home in a more casual approach. Later, when I went back to school everyone was like “You can’t bring food or drink into the darkroom!” but I had already been doing it for ages at that point! So, I’m always bringing coffee into the darkroom and spilling things, even though I guess you’re not supposed to do that? You’ve got all this chemistry and you should probably not be drinking cups of coffee right next to these chemicals. Coffee is always the first step before I go into the darkroom though, or even if I have to sit down and work on something.
After all these years, have you ever had any mishaps with coffee in the darkroom?
Never. I should be careful about that because I feel like I’m going to set myself up like you said earlier about your Chemex! I feel very at home in the darkroom, so in some ways I may throw caution to the wind. In Chicago there was a community darkroom that I used for a little bit there, and it was right by Big Shoulders at the time. They made this crazy strong iced coffee and I’d drink two and lose my mind in the darkroom. When I did the Earth Magic deluxe editions, I had to do 35 prints of this really difficult to print glass plate, and so it was a real feat to pull off. I hadn’t done 35 prints of one image in one sitting ever before.
Have you heard any good jokes lately?
I read through your questions, saw this one and was petrified! I told my wife and she said “You say funny things to me all the time!” and I said “Yeah but that doesn’t make them jokes!”
Have you heard any good jokes lately?
Only from the people that do these. That’s basically why I ask.
Many thanks to Rik. Learn more about his amazing work by checking out his site!
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