Interview: DELANEY ALLEN

On fact, fiction, and photography.

Portland-based photographer Delaney Allen has a knack for blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. His images are rooted in familiarity, but imbued by an eerie sense of otherworldliness. At times, a misplaced glow permeates the composition. Mysterious subjects with obscured faces replace the traditional portrait. With a quirky approach to set design, theatrical lighting, forced compositions, abstraction, and, occasionally, alterations to the physical image during its post-production process, Allen’s vision transforms his everyday environment into a breeding ground for the uncanny.

We caught up with him to discuss his vision as an artist and a photographer. 

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AC: Your work frequently merges the boundaries between self-portraiture, still life, and landscape photography. How do you see these three approaches intersecting; more specifically, which technical or conceptual elements do you hope to draw from each one?
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DA: These three components you mentioned feel like the root of photography at its base. We study each as we learn the fundamentals of the medium built over time. I felt a desire to experiment with each as I first ventured into image making. When beginning to form full bodies of work, the portraiture purposely shifted to self-portraiture. I found myself living these intimate moments and attempting to spell them out through image and edit. How can I put myself into the work? First, photograph myself, then document my travels and eventually pursue studio-driven imagery I’m building on set. Now that I have assembled this unique style, can they live side-by-side furthering the narrative? 
For me, early on the edits that included personal accounts through text helped lead to a blending of all three mentioned factors. This approached carried on through my series Getting Lost but eventually shifted from a text driven narrative with my latest work ARTIFACT. That work saw an implementation of this particular style but sans text. To speak more specifically about that series and the intersecting of varying imagery, I felt a framing of a fictional world and all which encompasses it could allow for a new approach to this narrative in which I’ve become known for. 
With ARTIFACT, each component is arranged to play off the next. Still-life images are built to display that in which the community might have contrived. Portraits live to tell the accounts of varying individuals. Landscapes portray the lands that were lived upon. This converging in the series is allowed by assembling the narrative of the community and displaying it referencing art history books the audience is accustomed to. By building my own fictional art history, I was allowed to experiment with the blending in a new way.
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Could you talk a little about your process – I’m especially interested in the deliberate use of artifice and illusion in your imagery. In which ways does image manipulation allow you to transcend the scope of narratives typically accessible within traditional photography?
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I have a hard time believing in photography. We’re taught to, and I do believe this to be true, look within the frame unaware of what might have been left out. With that understanding, I feel a struggle to truly accept everything with the medium’s world. Beyond that, when viewing expanded works, we are guided by the edit. It’s storytelling 101 and will/should contain moments of fiction as the reader or viewer fills in the blanks. 
I feel that which I described also holds true in ARTIFACT. As I created the series, I accepted the work to be that of a fiction nature and tried to implement moments within images. Shoot, at the root of the entire body of work is a fictional people which I created. With that, I purposely altered what we might recognize as documentation, or rather truth, from our understanding of art history books. Although the subjects depicted were associated with what we might know – portraits of people, landscape, and works of art from the past – I shifted small moments within the frame in the post production to give hint that these were indeed false. At times the portrait subject may blend into the background. In others, the still-life appears to be a cut-out merging with other elements in the image. By working on modest occasions hidden with the photographs, I hoped to show my hand as the maker throughout the viewing.
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Regarding your reference to the ‘artist’s hand’ – why are these visual clues important to your overall narrative?
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For that specific series, I felt it critical to further my underlying theme that I was responsible for building the entirety of the work. We understand that the photographer is authoritative in the making of traditional photography. Even with those contemporary artists who have a studio-based practice, we understand they to be the creators. With this approach I addressed, I wanted to leave clues that I was still responsible for and visible within the imagery. An image may contain the face of woman I built in photoshop but contains my hand.   
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In your ARTIFACT series, you juxtapose the extraordinary and the mundane to construct otherworldly, alternate realities. What function does the continuum of fact and fiction play in your communication with the viewer?
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Like I previously stated, I find it complicated to put faith in a believable photograph/series. ARTIFACT was my take on the notions of that fact versus fiction. But even prior to this series, I found difficulty in working in that mode. With my first body of work, 2010’s Between Here And There, I used email exchanges with my ex-girlfriend to communicate our break-up. As I have talked about that work in the past, I use the term “semi-autobiographical” in discussions. I formed that story in the manner in which it currently resides. But, that was not the entire truth. Although it is fairly close to reality, I was able to play up the victim aspect for myself while casting her in a specific role. These emails don’t discuss the phone calls we were having at this same time. Life can never be completely depicted within the pages of a photography series.
After Between Here And There, I began to work on series that depicted a tone rather than a truth. Symbolism has become an important factor in my making/editing. The color palette of the work will help to dictate too. These tools are meaningful, for myself, in fully exploring an idea. But I understand the truth will never be present. I also grasp that each viewer comes with a contrasting history and therefor could have their own unique read of work. Ultimately I hope to tell a story or mood regardless of fact. 
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What do natural landscapes symbolize to you, and which of these meanings emerge most strongly in your photographic work?
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It varies from series to series. With a body of work like ARTIFACT, they worked as a sense of place to further this notion of another world. They existed in the series but I felt them to almost work on a slightly less level than the portraits of still-life images. But when looking at 2014’s Getting Lost, the landscape played a key role in symbolizing this tone I was creating.
Prior to Getting Lost, I had created a series in 2012 titled Painting A Portrait. With that work, I first explored the ideas surrounding landscape and symbolism. As the series is based on the feeling of loneliness, I set out to photograph very isolated or broken moments within the environment. Rocks and trees may stand alone while a cliffside can appear broken. I revisited that concept while shooting and editing for Getting Lost. Within my process, landscapes had moved beyond the simplest notion in which we’re accustomed to them. I desired to create an edit in which loss and lost would be prevalent throughout. At the beginning of that series, these ideas are on display as the landscape depicts a barren scene. My hope was to show road trips in which I was lost while driving – areas that might not be an intended target for photographing. As the series advances, we begin to introduce more promising landscapes as I attempted to portray a recovery from this loss/lost.
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What are some of your biggest artistic influences? 
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While an undergraduate student in the early 2000’s I studied film and film theory. My hopes at the time were to become a cinematographer. That understanding of film and storytelling has been my biggest influencer as I turned strictly to photography in 2009. 
At times I feel I’m not well versed on photography. I feel a need to keep it at arms distance while creating. I’m more intrigued looking at photo books rather than individual photographers. When I begin the editing process I will revisit the books I’ve acquired over the years to view the edit. More often than not I will turn back to a Roe Etheridge book even if I can’t figure his edit out at times. 
Thank you, Delaney! 
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Have a look at more of Delaney Allen's work on his website or Instagram.

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