An Interview with Zack Dougherty: September's MAI + t Collaborator

Cover image by Zack Dougherty
Introduction and Interview by Billy Zhao
Gifs are primarily known on the internet as memes, pop culture references, or snippets of last evening's feature reality television show. Zack Dougherty, who runs the blog hateplow, is turning what we know about gifs on its head. Rather than using the gif as a reduction of time and content, Dougherty creates gifs that extend time to contain unique worlds. He brings life to lifeless sculptures, buildings, paintings, and more. Dougherty is able to achieve control over these objects through an innovative 3D scanning process and some subsequent computer magic. This month, Dougherty's gifs for MAI revolve around the concepts of stillness, endlessness, and immateriality.

6 Hour .gif (2014), Zack Dougherty


BILLY ZHAO: What is your background and what did you study in school?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: I went to school for mechanical engineering. That was very brief, and I switched right into astrophotography, which was — and hopefully still is — a class. I basically took that class as many times as I could along with other astronomy classes and did the basic education in that realm. By that time, I’d also been getting into more robotic photography and so was using different mounts to create composite photographs. I didn’t really go to school for very long and then got right into doing the photographic work.


BILLY ZHAO: What drove your interest in astronomy?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: I have always been fascinated with the concept of a space with no end. It turns my thoughts into a knot.


BILLY ZHAO: That’s great. So the idea of endlessness compelled you.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Yeah, it was always something that stumped me and has stuck with me. Just seeing the wonderful pictures from our telescopes really got me at a young age.


BILLY ZHAO: Were you already familiar with photography?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: My parents had cameras so it was always a part of my life. I had some digital cameras and did film when I was a kid. In high school, I took one film class. After high school, I had a little point-and-shoot that I would carry with me when I was on trips. Then I got into robotics to create composite photography — you know, having a robot move the camera so you can take very large photographs. That was kind of my foyer into getting serious about photography. That was also when I got into astrophotography. It's been my passion ever since.


BILLY ZHAO: Wonderful. How did you start using Tumblr? And when did you start putting your gifs on there?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: My buddy Scott Schaus showed me some people doing cool things photographically on Tumblr. He also showed me some people using photographs in succession, doing stop-motion-esque or 3D-esque work. At the time, I took tons of photos already so it was a very easy thing for me to start creating stuff and putting it up on Tumblr. I began doing that around three and a half years ago. It was all just photo-based for while.



BILLY ZHAO: When did you start compiling the photographs into gifs?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: I think the first gif I made was when I was taking photographs and 360º panoramas at a protest and I did a short little time-lapse and I compiled those into a gif and then put it online.


BILLY ZHAO: I remember a couple years back when I was using Tumblr, the gifs were very humor-based and all about internet memes. You add a surreal twist to the form. It gets wacky and distorted. What’s your process like for creating these gifs? How do you decide when to make one?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: At first, I would explore Portland, where I had just moved, to take pictures and experiment. My process requires a lot of experimentation. I'll be trying to achieve something specific and I’ll discover something on the way and that leads me somewhere else. Thats what it’s been for the last three years. Then, when Scott introduced me to 3D animation software, that opened up a whole new playground.


BILLY ZHAO: Is that when you started doing the classical sculpture gifs?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Yes. 3D scanning was something I had been really interested in because it was in the same rough pipeline as the panoramic photography. The statues were a first real run into scanning because I need something that doesn’t move and something that is textural and gritty. Old statues were kind of the perfect thing and there was an exhibit on loan from The British Museum, so I just went and scanned all the statues in there and that was the start of that.


BILLY ZHAO: Do you have a portable scanner that you bring?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Yeah. I just take a bunch of pictures with a DSLR and the 3D data is derived in post.



BILLY ZHAO: Wow. So how do you overlay those into different scenarios? I see some of the sculptures put into street views and superimposed onto different locations outside of the museum.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Using various programs, I work with the scans and the photographs to composite them in whatever way I need to. I’m usually in museums or parking garages. Often times, I keep them inside of their own photographs/location, so I’ll scan them and then I’ll put them back into the photograph. Those are the ones where you see things twist or the statue will look back at you or the electrical box on the side of the street will twist, or bend, or breathe. That series is more photographic but they go through a whole loop of being turned 3D and then back into a photograph.  


BILLY ZHAO: You mentioned you work a lot in series. Are there some that are your favorites that you want to talk about more? 


ZACH DOUGHERTY: I like the gifs that are more photographic and have minimal movement and greater pauses.


BILLY ZHAO: Yes. There is a stillness to many of them. Whenever I show people your blog, I say, “Wait for it, it’s going to move.” It’s pretty fantastic when it does. What else are you working on outside of Tumblr right now?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: A mix of work, animating and experimenting with other mediums. I’ve been doing 3D prints of the sculptures and getting the tools together to do bring more of them out of the computer.


BILLY ZHAO: That would be pretty amazing. How long are you spending in front of each of these sculptures, photographing them?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: It very much depends on how big they are, the lighting, people around, etcetera. If there’s good lighting, it can be as quick as five or ten minutes, so it’s not very long.


BILLY ZHAO: I love that you photograph different sculptures around the gallery space and you can see in the background the other sculptures that have also been scanned.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Having continuity between works as they grow is quite fun.


BILLY ZHAO: It creates another world in the background, which is interesting. What are some of your favorite kind of bloggers or people who are working in gifs?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: James Kerr and Hayden Zezula are two of them. There are many, many out there.


BILLY ZHAO: Have you ever attended a long durational performance of six hours or more? 


ZACH DOUGHERTY: I’ve been to long plays and operas but I don’t think they have ever exceeded six hours.


BILLY ZHAO: How do you find them?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Well, for any performance that lasts an extended amount of time, it usually turns to one extreme or the other. If you’re still there, you either you don’t like it but have an obligation to still be there, or you love it and you’re still there because you want to be there.


BILLY ZHAO: That’s true. I feel like your work is so much about making material works immaterial and it becomes this slow form of immaterial media. You have to stop and stare at all the images to get a full experience and often, you have to spend a long time looking at them.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Yeah, the fun thing about the gif, too, is that it allows for delay, each frame can be four minutes long. You can end up making some really long ones.


BILLY ZHAO: Yeah, in "gif world." [Laughs.] Gif years.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: The modern attention span.


BILLY ZHAO: I love that they are almost like living individuals that you just put together in a room and one will move faster and the other will just sit for five minutes.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: The loop is the real challenge. There is an art form to the loop. The challenge is to create something that seems like it’s longer than it is. If you can break the rhythm, you can make a piece seem a lot longer than it actually is. It could only be 30 frames but you can make it appear so much more than that because the viewer loses where the beginning and end are.


BILLY ZHAO:  Yes. This goes back to when you were talking about the idea of eternity and how that is mystifying. It seems like you‘re really interested in exploring that idea of endlessness.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Always a good thing to think about.


BILLY ZHAO: Have you made other works about astrophotography?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: I have and I do. I live in Oregon so there are some of the darkest skies out here. I don't live in a great place for it, though. I have to travel about four or five hours to get to a spot where I can actually be in a spot where’s there’s a real dark space. Unfortunately for you East coasters, you can’t escape it.


BILLY ZHAO: There’s no hope for us.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: There’s literally a line drawn half way through America where’s there’s light pollution. It’s quite a fun map. I'll send it to you.


BILLY ZHAO: Cool, I want to see it. It’s interesting because I know in third or fourth grade, I tried to do a report on light pollution and a teacher told me that it did not exist. [Laughs.] It’s totally a thing.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Oh, it’s crazy a thing. And it’s something that few care about. Here is the map. 


BILLY ZHAO: Wow, that’s pretty crazy.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: It’s just amazing. The line is just straight down the middle of America.


BILLY ZHAO: Wow. We hardly see the stars here.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: We'll, you see some.


BILLY ZHAO: We just have to really look for them. 


ZACH DOUGHERTY: If you look at that map, there’s a dark spot up in the top left of America and that’s Oregon and Nevada. That's where I am.


BILLY ZHAO: I see it.


ZACH DOUGHERTY: It’s our little island of darkness.


BILLY ZHAO: Where in the world would you go, if you could go anywhere, to see stars?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: Well, actually where I go is pretty darn good. Chile would be amazing. You want to go to high desert. You want altitude and desolation, which usually come with each other. Chile has some of the best skies. There’s a big telescope site there at the European Space Observatory. It’s an amazing site with a lot of telescopes and more to come. I was hoping to go tomorrow out to the desert to take some pictures but I think I just got another job so this weekend's probably gone.


BILLY ZHAO: I have one last question and that is where did you get the name hateplow?


ZACH DOUGHERTY: An old high school teacher of mine — Mr. Owens — and I were talking about coming up with amazing band names and Hateplow was one of them. Strangely, I found out later that there is actually a band with that name.

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Zach Dougherty is a multidisciplinary artist. Working primarily in photography, digital media and projection. Background in composite photography and 360 degree video. Based in Portland, Oregon. See his website and Tumblr.