Morgan Davis Foehl is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, most notable for his work on Hollywood film Blackhat starring Chris Hemsworth. When he's not writing he is often creating images around his hometown. He grew up twenty-five miles outside of Boston, in a small town in Massachusetts. Before moving to California, Morgan studied film at Emerson College and in his senior year took a darkroom class. "The professor put special emphasis on the New York school of midcentury photographers — Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander, Arbus. I was knocked out by their work, which I’d never seen. It was such a radical experience, albeit one I was coming to fifty years late, documenting quotidian people and places in this unmediated improvisational way, but giving the content the same weight as large format pictures in the landscape or portrait traditions. It felt like a kind of experiential truth telling."
What was your first experience with the camera?
When I was about six, I got one of those bright blue Fisher-Price 110 cameras that were popular in the eighties. I remember the feel of the rubberised grips, loading the cartridges with the built-in frame counter, the excitement of bringing the film into the local camera shop and getting prints back. It seemed very mature to me, something I had total ownership of.
Do you remember the first bunch of photographs you took? What was that like?
On that 110 camera, I took rolls of the anonymous suburban development I grew up in; it was built in the late seventies and featured about four variations on the same Colonial home repeated over and over in a chain of winding streets and cul-de-sacs pressed up against the edge of a swamp the developers couldn’t dredge. There were photos of backyards and above-ground pools and family pets. I was so excited to be using a camera, I shot compulsively, without thinking if the material was photographic. Now, three decades on, I suppose I’ve come full circle and am back making images of banal environments close to home, though perhaps with a bit more intentionality.
How do you feel your photography has evolved over the years? Any key learning experience to share with us?
My work has occurred in two discrete periods with a hiatus. From 2002 to 2007, I shot only black and white 35mm — street work in Boston, then a cross-country road trip from Boston to Los Angeles, and then more street work in Hollywood and Venice and Beverly Hills. That was a hobby as I was getting a career in film and television going, and eventually, that career wound up consuming so many hours, my old Paterson tank got put in a garage to collect dust. By 2012, I was so sure I was done with photography, I sold all my developing equipment at a yard sale.
What changed was in 2016, my wife was pregnant, and I started looking at my baby photos and my wife’s baby photos and thinking, “Well, maybe I want to be able to take family photographs that aren’t iPhone shots…” So I started shooting with a rangefinder again, and slowly resumed black and white street work. At the same time, I began checking out a lot of photography books and in the process continued my better-late-than-never education, delving into the color photographers of the seventies and eighties — Eggleston, Meyerowitz, Shore, Sternfeld — picking up from the midcentury work I already knew. Those photographs were a second revelation. I saw a kinship with Frank and Winogrand’s desire to examine the quotidian, but the use of color opened up new paradigms and showed me a methodology that allowed me to make pictures again in daily life.
Where I live in LA, it’s not easy to go out and take an abundance of Winogrand-style street shots; there’s just not that kind of foot traffic. That said, there’s a tremendous amount of surface and texture where all these elements and periods of human existence collide, and I became interested in exploring these scenes in color and seeing if I could create pictures with the same emotional content as street work, but mostly devoid of the human presence.
His latest photography projects, "Here"is a series of photography shot mostly in Los Angeles, California where the photographer is currently based in. "There" on the other hand were shot out of Los Angeles, around California, Georgia and some in Europe.
Most memorable experience: Coming from the street tradition, I had never asked permission to take photo, but that changed in this series with the interior of a church. I was going to a screening in Hollywood on a Sunday night, and a woman and her young children were opening the sanctuary for evening services, waiting to greet parishioners. It was getting on toward 6pm and no one had arrived, but I could see this great swath of red through the doors of the empty chapel and it struck me as very beautiful and also very lonely. I walked by a couple times before I finally got up the nerve to ask if I could take a picture because I loved the way the light looked, and she graciously said yes.
How long did this project took you? This is a selection of about a year’s worth of work, but it’s very much ongoing
“Here” and “There” are two separate photography project, I can’t help to wonder though by it’s project title itself - is there any relations between these two projects?
That’s a great observation. It would be a disingenuous of me to call them separate; it was more an organizational technique to get material posted on my site in a better format than Instagram allows. All of the images in “Here” were taken within Los Angeles, and everything in “There” was taken outside city limits, some in California, but also in Georgia and over in Europe. The working process and thematic interests for both sets of pictures are the same — it’s just this somewhat arbitrary distinction between images taken at home and images taken on the road.
I’m very intrigue by the images from “Here” and “There”. They capture normal scenes of everyday life but yet leave me wanting to know more about for place, the people, the weather. How do you find the inspiration in these everyday activities.
Thank you! That’s a great question, and one I have trouble answering. Alec Soth talks about photography’s kinship with poetry, and I think that’s apt; both mediums exist largely based on what’s excluded — what’s not on the page or what’s just outside the frame can be as important as what’s in it. For me, it’s this very instinctual reaction to seeing something that presents as workaday or overlooked and seeing a photographic possibility, seeing this little bit of the world that when you put a box around it, becomes poetic in a miniaturist way. I guess, if I could explain it better in words, I wouldn’t need to take the pictures. The pictures are the answer to the question.
I notice light and colours seems to be an important role and a recurring style in most of your photographs. Can you share with us what’s your thought process like when capturing an image.
I try to have as little thought process as possible when I’m working, to make the act subconscious. I shoot on 35mm, which lets me work quickly handheld and on foot. I make a point of only taking one frame of any shot, a practice I stole from Eggleston and Shore. It pushes me to work in this automatic way, reacting on a visual level, not using language, framing instinctually, shooting and moving. A lot of the photographs inside LA were shot while walking my dog, so that might provide some insight into my thought process or lack thereof!
What normally attracts you to photograph?
This isn’t something I think about when I’m shooting, but having edited hundreds of rolls of my work, some patterns have arisen — text and institutional iconography, strong color, direct light and heavy shadow, infrastructure, aging environments, signs of isolation, the commercialization of human needs like shelter and food and sex — but again, I try not to be consciously hunting for anything when I’m working.
What do you normally shoot on?
Most of the photographs on my site were taken on a Leica M4, except for the “Mono” work which was largely a Bessa R2. I started out using 35mm lenses, having learned that length from my days shooting black and white, but last year I moved to 50mm, first a Zeiss Sonnar and more recently a Leica Summicron Dual Range. I’ve found the longer length gives me more control over framing, especially in backgrounds. For color work, I use all three flavors of Portra and just shoot and process it all normal.
What is your relationship between being a screenwriter and also a photographer? Can you share with us a little about the creative process between these two jobs?
I think I’m interested in similar ideas in both formats, but I approach them from oppositional methodologies. Whereas film and television are collaborative, structured and deadline-driven, my photography is solitary, improvisational and unplanned — a way of being open to my surroundings with no agenda. Each medium is in some ways a release from the other.
As a screenwriter, what is one film that inspires you?
There are many, but I’ll go with the most recent unequivocal masterpiece I’ve seen, which is Phantom Thread.
Is there any film that particularly have an effect on the way you view photography?
I hadn’t really thought about this before! Fellini’s work is so inventive in the way he uses the frame and shifts what seems like subject to the background and then introduces a new subject, for instance in the spa sequence that opens 8½. Antonioni is a master of composition, especially in terms of relating the human environment to the natural environment and expressing emotion and ennui. I’m thinking of L’Avventura and Red Desert, though Blow Up is a quintessential treatment of photography and isolation and obsession. As for color, I don’t know if anyone’s ever beaten the work Bertolucci and Storaro did in Il Confirmista.
What are you up to these days, any upcoming projects?
In the screenwriting world, I’m working on a few things I’m excited about. One is a feature adaptation of a big sci-fi novel Ridley Scott is producing for Netflix; the second is a true life story about the lone survivor of a pirate attack in the 1800s for End Cue and Epic Magazine, and then there’s also a Los Angeles true crime story I’m developing myself. Outside of that, I’m still carrying a camera loaded with Portra wherever I go and seeing what happens.