Robert Leslie is known for his photographic journeys through India, Brazil, China, and Europe. But in 2009, the British-born and Canadian-raised photographer set his viewfinder on the Sun Belt of the United States, the economically challenged, 8,000-km route between Miami, Florida, and Los Angeles, California. He used this body of work as the basis for both his printed book and his enhanced ebook, Stormbelt (which, by the way, you can download for free until October 16).
Blurb: Can you describe your Stormbelt project for us?
Leslie: In a simplistic way, you could say it was an “outsider’s” view of America’s Sunbelt from a socioeconomic and environmental point of view.
I had spent 20 years shooting around the planet & particularly, quite a bit in China through 2007 and 2008, so it was interesting to have seen the inside of that country before that of the US. We all have a view of America from the media, but I was curious to explore beyond the headlines. Attending the transmission of Obama’s inauguration in Miami had me pretty hyped up to discover the land he had inherited…
It was pretty apparent, from the first days in Miami, the effects of the recession – boarded-up building sites and foreclosures. The further I drove, I was made aware of the ruin that came from both bad economic decisions and the destructive forces of nature. Stormbelt is a first sketch of a series I hope to develop in the future.
Blurb: How does your photography inform your videography?
Leslie: I was in the deep end with the video – ever since I started in photography 25 years ago, people always said I should do video as I had a background in music and sound engineering. Stormbelt was essentially the first work I have ever made with a filming device. At first with (Aperture Director) Chris Boot, we met and he said, “hey, this is an ebook, we need new content!” More or less all of our discussions about this content were about audio as we wanted to make sound collages of the encounters that I had and craft some musical arrangement around them. This wasn’t going to be too easy, so kind of reluctantly, I took a dedicated video camera with me. As the journey went, I was really dissatisfied with the audio I was accumulating, but quite intrigued by the video – the coolest part for me came when I started editing video and audio together. It took me back to my sound engineering days, with an extra buzz of working with the peculiar video that I recorded. In any case, I find the book without the video is kinda mild – the film segments really complete it.
Blurb: Having seen both the printed and ebook versions of Stormbelt I find that the enhanced ebook dictates a bit the pace of going through the book. Do you have a specific strategy as to where you place rich media in the sequence of the book?
Leslie: I worked very closely with Chris Boot on the sequencing of the ebook. He had made a selection and sequence from my 2009 journey. When I returned from the second trip in late 2011, I submitted to Chris the new still images, but he was holding out for the video content before making placement decisions. We stuck very closely to a chronological/geographical continuity. Each of the films appears in more or less the same region as the journey had covered. In a few cases, I did take some liberties with the audio, moving it east or west to suit the content of the film.
Blurb: To me, one of the most memorable video sequences in the book is “Highway 285 New Mexico” – a cow stands, almost motionless in a barren field, and then you hear this approaching vehicle and it is very loud and rather unnerving. What does this video mean to you?
Leslie: There are a lot of elements in this image that drew my attention. I pulled off a major road onto this smaller one heading towards Sante Fe. I looked at the scene developing in front of me and was attracted to the almost monochrome tonality of the image (it reminded me of the four kids on the beach image in Mississippi). I pulled over and immediately realized this was one of the quietest locations on my entire journey. It had just snowed and any ambient sound was absorbed by the snow.
I think the cow was as curious as I was, as we had a New-Mexican standoff, staring at each other. I kept the video rolling and this one lone car passed, catching the cow’s attention. Honestly, the volume of the car passing seemed ear splitting compared to the calm of the quiet. I’m always amazed by what we are capable of accepting & tolerating in our regular environment – In this case, the noise of one lone car.
Compositionally, I really like the two elements present on the landscape: agriculture on the left and power and electricity on the right. I find it is a very subtle way of showing man’s impact on the environment.
Blurb: Do you have plans for more enhanced ebooks?
Leslie: Would you believe me if I said I have done two or three regular ebooks in the last month and am working on a major one for a charity/foundation currently? The first ones are like portfolios for myself and the last one should be publically available over the next month.
I would like to do one from scratch – Stormbelt started in a “pre-enhanced ebook” world; now I’m ready to make one (or more) specific to the medium!