Category "Photographers"

New Ideas In Photography – Rob Hann

Julie Grahame:
I’ve known Rob Hann for about 20 years – my agency licensed his music and celebrity photographs here and in the UK. He relocated to the States about ten years after I did, and I’ve been impressed as I watched him reinvent himself.

Rob Hann:
I started working as a photographer in 1993, shooting portraits for magazines and record companies. I was living in London and shot over 900 commissions. I have seven portraits in the permanent collection of The National Portrait Gallery.

In October 2001 I took my first photographic road trip in the US, shooting landscapes and portraits for my own pleasure. I moved to New York in 2003, continued to shoot editorial portraits, and took road trips whenever I could.

By the end of the decade work was very thin on the ground. I was still shooting but not enough. My credit card debt was getting out of control, I was struggling to pay the rent, and I couldn’t afford to go on the road with my camera. A Chelsea gallery was selling my road trip photographs but not enough for that income to be significant.

In August 2010, out of desperation, I decided to see if I could sell my road trip pictures on the street. I bought a small table and set up in SoHo. I had a selection of prints in 11×14” and 8×10” mats.

I thought I was saying goodbye to any aspirations I had in the art world. I was just hoping I might be able to make the rent.

I quickly found that I enjoyed being on the street, meeting people, and my prints were selling well. To my surprise I found that people did not disregard the work because I was selling on the street. Instead I found that if people saw work they thought was good it didn’t matter where that work was.

I hadn’t been on the street many weeks when the owner of nearby Clic Gallery stopped at my table and suggested selling larger, limited edition prints. Clic Gallery is actually more of a store than a classic art gallery and sells books and photography as well as a variety of cool and eclectic objects. Clic has been selling my prints sized from 20×24” to 50×60” in editions of 25 for the smaller prints, to editions of 6 for the largest. Some of the editions have sold out. The gallery is only a few blocks from my table in SoHo and I often send them clients looking for larger prints.

In the spring of 2013 I met the owner of a Stockholm gallery in SoHo. After initially buying a small print at my table he got in touch to buy a number of my large prints. In November the gallery gave me my first solo show and I travelled to Sweden for the opening. The Stockholm gallery is similar to a classic Chelsea gallery and is a little shy about me selling on the street so I haven’t mentioned the name here.

Other good things have come about from connections I’ve made on the street. My pictures will be in a book of landscape photography, being published by Thames and Hudson in September, alongside the work of Edward Burtynsky, David Maisel, and other great photographers.

I’m still on the street four days a week and on a really good day sell more than 30 prints.

I still get the occasional call to shoot a magazine portrait but now I turn them down. I enjoy being my own boss and shooting whatever I like.

What I’m doing won’t suit everyone’s temperament. I work long hours in very cold and very hot weather and I find it tiring. I’m lucky that my photographs appeal to a broad spectrum of people.

I rent a studio apartment in Manhattan but don’t have a mortgage, a car, or even a television, and I don’t have kids I have to put through college. I have cleared my credit card debt, can pay my rent, and am funding my ongoing road trips… and I’m still a photographer.

Rob Hann by Dan Cruz

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Jason Langer Interview

- - Photographers, Workshops

Jonathan Blaustein: I noticed on your bio that you were born in Arizona, and raised in Oregon. But it looks like you lived on a kibbutz in Israel for four years. Is that right?

Jason Langer: Yes, but that’s not really pertinent to anything. That was in 1973, and I was seven.

JB: You were seven?

JL: Yeah.

JB: I didn’t do the math. So it’s not pertinent in that your seven to eleven year old self has little bearing on your current self?

JL: I would say.

JB: So it doesn’t matter at all.

JL: No. I discovered photography in 1982, and I came back from Israel in ’77. I discovered photography when I was in seventh grade. I was twelve.

JB: You were twelve years old, and when most people were trying to steal their Dad’s Playboys, you were working out how to use a camera?

JL: Well, I was doing that too.

JB: I’m not surprised, given the preponderance of nudity in your work, but we’ll get there. What was it like to start making art that young in life?

JL: I was hooked from the first minute I saw a print develop in the developer. It clicked, and I knew it was me. The chemicals felt familiar, and soon after, my mother bought me a darkroom kit from the old Spiegel catalogue. Do you remember that?

JB: No. It’s either before my time, or I never saw it.

JL: It was like an oversized JC Penney or Sears Catalogue. They had a 35mm enlarger and 8×10 trays. She bought it for me, and I cleared out my clothes and built it in my closet.

There was no running water, so I would bring buckets of water up and mix my chemicals in a completely unventilated room. When I was out of chemicals, I would ride my bike down to the local photo store. I was one of “those” kids.

JB: Did you have to earn your allowance to buy your toxic chemicals? Or did you set up a lemonade stand?

JL: I would imagine I had an allowance to begin with, and then I got my first job when I was fourteen or fifteen. I cleaned a vintage clothing store after they closed at night.

JB: What about the lack of ventilation? Are you less intelligent than you might have otherwise been?

JL: (laughing.) Maybe it unlocked the key of me always being crazy? I don’t know.

Langer_Bow, 1999

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Langer_Figure no. 186, 2009

Langer_Figure no. 253, 2011

Langer_Go-Go Girl, 1994

Langer_Moonrise Over Montmartre, 2002

JB: It’s a great chance to segue. In your work, you seem to walk right up to the edge of the dark side, without seeming to cross over. You photograph at night, and there’s an element of mystery and surrealism.

But you seem like a fairly sane and normal guy. I always find that dichotomy interesting. Are you crazier than you appear to be, or does your crazy funnel right into the pictures?

JL: I’ve made a point of exploring my crazy, haunted side in photography. That’s a crucial issue that I’m trying to work out now in middle age, raising two small kids and trying to retain some of that artistic absorption. In life, you have to choose your path. You can’t do everything. You can’t be a great musician, painter, photographer, and a father, husband, architect – whatever you want to do.

You have to choose where you want to spend your time, because there’s only 24 hours in a day. I’ve gotten good at switching gears.

I chose the path early on of fine art photography. I wanted to create photographs that had personal meaning for me, out of an urge that I had, rather than commercial photography. That’s probably why you might think I’d be a crazy person – I put a lot of investment into self exploration.

At the time, though, there was nowhere for the work to go but under my bed. But I chose fine art photography to be the ruler of my life. Furthermore, I stuck in spiritual fulfillment, and meditation, but I also chose getting married and having a family.

And as you know, once you choose that, it’s a really huge commitment.

JB: Doesn’t get any bigger.

JL: A lot of what I do now is try to carve out every possible minute of the day to allow myself time to do my personal work. As we’re bombarded every day with more and more media, I find I have to make a concerted effort to fall away from the rest of the world, and its responsibilities where possible.

Does that answer your question?

JB: Yes and no. It’s like a mirror, in that I can certainly relate to your situation. But you dodged the question, a bit, as to whether you’re psychotic, in the inner levels of your mind.

But I can understand why you’d dodge it. It’s a slightly offensive question.

JL: No, no. It’s fine. I’d say that having chosen marriage and family has put me more on the side of “normalcy.” Because I do want my kids to grow up in a stable house that is focused on education and fun, not on psychological exploration – not at this age. I try to come out of my cave at least once a day… (laughing).

With that in mind, I have to find ways to go to the dark side on my own. For me, that’s been leaving the house, going to other cities and countries, and just being in a contemplative, exploratory space.

I try to balance both.

JB: What is it about the night that excites you?

JL: Early on, I realized that if you went out at night to photograph, everyone would be gone and your experience would be transformed into the other side of life. There’s a whole other part of reality that is in many ways parallel to our subconscious.

When things are covered up in darkness, it activates our imagination. Having an absence, our instinctual need is to put a presence there. I tend to put in a contemplation of the other: what is beyond our life in a conscious state. Sexuality, which is mostly suppressed, aloneness, death, centeredness – the parts of ourselves that we don’t let out on a daily basis.

Being on the streets, I don’t know what’s out there. I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I investigate.

It was also a function of the films I saw when VHS first came out. Films my mother would show me, like “The Third Man,” “Frankenstein,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” With those films, there was always a singular male figure against the world, which is also a major theme of film noir.

JB: You became the lone man, wandering the dark city streets, alone? You chose to become the living embodiment of these metaphorical characters in these stories that activated your imagination?

JL: Yeah, I think chose is a good word. For instance, for many years I chose to teach, and then I chose to not teach. So the fact that I’m doing this workshop in Santa Fe is actually unusual.

There are many opportunities to be involved in other aspects of photography these days. You can run workshops, you can teach, be in photographic management, work in camera stores, be on juries, write about photography. There are all of these things to do, and I’ve been very conscious of not doing those things, and keeping my emphasis on photographing.

There are so few hours in a day that I put every spare ounce of energy into making pictures. Because life is just too short.

JB: When I first started studying photography in ’97, there were still teachers talking about the methodology you’ve adopted. Having five or six dealers around the world representing your work, each selling a certain amount a year. Getting books with reputable publishers. And that would sustain itself.

You’ve done that. You’re repped around the world, you’ve had two books put out by Nazraeli, and another coming out with Radius. You kind of seem like a throwback. How do you feel about that term?

JL: I would say that 2013 was very much a year of coming to terms with the new world. It was a chance to see whether my methodology still works for me, or whether it can be changed and still be just as fruitful.

I was always under the impression that not everyone is an artist. Those people that are really dedicated to it and have something to say, end up doing it. Of course in photography for decades there was a technical hurdle that people had to get over if they truly loved photography. Those people became artists. Now, I guess there’s no hurdle, so everyone’s an artist?

Also, I always felt that to become good at anything, you’d need to work on your craft for at least ten years – if you wanted to get good at what you were doing. I never wanted to get published too early, or show in galleries too early. I wanted to wait until my work was good, so I put it under the bed for years and years, until I was ready to show it to someone in the industry whom I respected.

Now, I can’t think of any young photographer who approaches it like that. Today, it’s pretty much “BANG” and it’s out there.

Last year, I asked myself if there are merits to that. Is there a new methodology to becoming an accomplished artist that is not the slow method? What I do is now considered “slow” photography.

To me, that’s absurd. It’s just photography. But in comparison to what is happening now, I guess it is kind of a throwback.

I am starting to experiment with taking digital pictures. And instead of gaining emotional distance from my work, and letting it steep over time, I’m making photographs, coming back to my studio, loading them up on the computer, and immediately editing.

I’m trying to see if that yields good results or not.

JB: You’ve used the phrase “under the bed” a few times already. I keep thinking, that’s where the monsters live. Under the bed. I can’t help but think there’s a connection there.

Do you feel like you use your creative practice to connect the nether regions of your psyche to the light?

JL: I’ve always been interested in the subconscious. The photographers I’ve always connected with early on were night-time and symbolist photographers. Artists that didn’t hand you the meanings; they remained ambiguous.

I love films that have ambiguous morality, because I like to be able to contemplate and think about something for an extended period of time.

So I would say yeah. The monsters, the demons, sexuality, suppressed feelings, darkness, the unknown. All of those things are compelling to me. I’m interested in those secret rendezvous late at night.

JB: We haven’t mentioned the word audience yet. I think it’s become more of a factor in what artists are thinking about when they put their work out in the world. We consider the relationship that develops between the object on the wall, and a group of strangers.

What do you want people to get from your pictures?

JL: This brings up an interesting question between the dichotomy of the old way and the new way. I feel that the audience is there to follow you. You are the person who is in charge of discovering things about life, making them into visual subject matter, and giving them to the world.

Your discovery of the world is paramount, and either people will like it, or they won’t. They will buy it, or they won’t. You will either capture the public’s imagination, or you won’t.

Your job is to be an artist. Now, there’s a new element, in which there is a feedback between you and the audience about what they think of your work. There’s more of an opportunity to talk to the people you’re showing the work to.

But I have to say, I’m not one of those people so far. We happen to be living in a time when public taste has gone away from what I do, and I have to just be OK with that- the pendulum swings.

With what I do, the viewer has to spend time with the photograph, inserting their own experience into it.

JB: Did you ever watch Beavis and Butthead, when it was first on TV, back in the day?

JL: Yes.

JB: Did you think it was funny?

JL: Not really.

JB: I had a feeling you were going to say that. But I am who I am, and sometimes I just can’t help myself. When you said the word “inserting,” I actually heard Beavis and Butthead giggling inside my head.

JL: When Beavis and Butthead were on, I was watching “The Third Man” and “Annie Hall” and “The Great Escape.” I was interested in those kinds of movies, so I was not watching MTV.

JB: I can understand that. And I can also understand why you didn’t think it was funny that I laughed at that word. It shows that we’re on parallel tracks right now.

But I have to say, I really appreciate what you do. And I’m glad that we live in a world in which so many perspectives are in the conversation.

You pose some interesting questions. How much can a person take on? Where should I be putting my time and energy? There are no easy answers.

JL: The greatest thing that I grapple with now is my love for photography in general, and how it is simultaneously exploding into all sorts of fantastic things, and being destroyed at the same time.

We’re so flooded with imagery that it doesn’t impact us the way that it did before.

JB: I hear you. I would love to talk a bit more about the way you teach, when you decide to do it. This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and you’re doing a workshop there next month called “Shots in the Dark.”

You’ll be leading photographers out into the spooky evening, and the early light of morning. How do you approach something like that?

JL: My first instinct is to give the students everything that I have. I don’t just talk about what exposures you need to make night photographs. I share the whole philosophy I come with, which includes treating the students as artists. I encourage them to search within themselves for what I call “The Creative Spiral.”

Everyone has their own set of meanings, and a unique perspective about the world. The themes that they keep coming back to again and again – obsessions, perhaps.

What I try to do with my students is that every time they go around that circle, they get closer and closer to the center, so they can create iconic images for themselves that express what they really want to express.

We will go over all the technical things, and Photoshop. I teach students how to dodge and burn digitally, as they would in a darkroom. We’ll learn how to make beautiful, archival prints, and also talk about how to interact with people.

JB: If you go out shooting in groups, how are you able to convey the feelings of solitary joy that you experience in your own practice?

JL: One trick is specificity. I took a class out once to the Marin headlands, near San Francisco, and when we looked at the resulting pictures, everyone’s pictures were the same. They were all of the trees, the rocks, the paths, and the abandoned bunkers.

JB: I would think.

JL: It was a real disappointment. Once we looked at the work, and decided which aspects were the most successful, I had them go back and focus on just one thing. Then it got closer to what each person’s individual interest and message was.

Splitting up, and deciding which individual thing you want to focus on is a good way to put one foot in front of the other, and discover what you really want.

JB: You do quite a bit of work with the nude figure, so is that something you’re going to incorporate in the workshop? Will you be working with models?

JL: We are going to do that. There are apparently models that have worked with the Santa Fe Workshops for many years. We’re going to ask them if we can come into their homes, and photograph them going about their night: clothed, or semi-clothed, or naked.

We’re going to be flies on the wall, or voyeurs, and see what we can do. I like bringing that feeling forward we all know when we’re up working late, the rest of the world is asleep, and all is quiet.

JB: That sounds kind of crazy. I almost want to show up and peek through the window of the house at you guys watching the model make her evening tea in the buff.

JL: I did that in a workshop at the Newspace Center for Photography here in Portland. We photographed the model in the studio, and in their home, and we allowed each student to be the center of attention for a while. So the other students could learn from watching each other’s approach.

That way, everyone came out with unique material. I’m going to try to take it to a place where everyone can let their individual needs show.

JB: What a trip. And I’m sure you’ll be roaming the streets together, as that’s what your work is about. I noticed you’ve spent time in Paris, Berlin, New Orleans, and probably many other cities. A lot of the images have the vibe that you just stepped out of a dingy bar, where you ordered a pack of cigarettes and a bourbon?

Are you going to try to find spots like that in Santa Fe?

JL: We are going to work with some bars and establishments, and ask if it’s OK to come in as a small group of photographers. I’ll teach students how I do it in an unobtrusive, non-offensive way.

There’s so much to do in four days, I’m basically throwing out a lot of opportunities to do things, and I’m interested in seeing where the class wants to take it.

SFPW_APhotoEditor_Jan2014

Jeff Lipsky Interview

- - Photographers
Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron

Kelly Slater

Kelly Slater

Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington

Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana

Ellen Page

Ellen Page

Jonathan Blaustein: I was ready to begin this interview the way I typically do, by asking some questions about how you came to photography. But in my last bit of research, I noticed that you had actually done an interview like that for APE in the summer of 2012.

Jeff Lipsky: Yes, I taught at Chris Orwig’s class at Brooks, and he did a little piece on me which was really nice.

JB: But I didn’t know that until six minutes ago.

JL: Oh.

JB: That means I’m up shit’s creek, because I can’t ask those questions, since you already answered them.

JL: (Massive pause.) Well…

JB: I don’t know what to do. I can’t ask you how you got into photography if we already published that.

JL: (Another massive pause.) That is interesting.

JB: We’re screwed, man. (laughing.) Listen, this is my thing. I’m just joking around. I’m not serious at all.

JL: (laughing.)

JB: Right. Now you’re with me. I was just messing around. The point was simply that we appreciate that you’re doing another interview, but we’ll have to take this one in a different direction. Otherwise, I become the laziest journalist in the history of mankind.

JL: Right. And my saying is, anyone can take a great picture or write something great under perfect circumstances. But when you’re thrown a curve ball at the last minute, like every photo shoot you do, it’s what you make out of it that counts.

JB: You, and the entirety of our audience will now be judging me harshly to see how I do. Can I hit the curveball? Because we now know the Denver Broncos’ center can’t hit the curve.

JL: Obviously.

JB: Obviously.

JL: I was on an airplane during the Superbowl, so I missed the entire game. I guess that was just as good.

JB: You know what you’re supposed to do next time then, right?

JL: Yes.

JB: Fly Jet Blue.

JL: Fly Jet Blue. That’s right.

JB: It would have solved your problem. Taking a look at your previous APE interview, as well as your website, it says that you were a, I don’t want to say ski bum, let’s say you were lifestyle skier in Telluride, Colorado for ten years. Is that right?

JL: You’re the first person to say that. A lifestyle skier. I love that. I’m going to use it.

JB: Feel free. I just made it up. It seemed more politically correct.

JL: It is very good.

JB: So you were there for a decade?

JL: A decade.

JB: With all the mountain towns in the US, what did you love so much about Telluride?

JL: I believe it is one of the best ski resorts in the world, as far as terrain goes. It produces great skiers, and I wanted to become a great skier/snowboarder at the time. Also, it’s one of the few ski areas in the world where the ski lifts go right into town. The town is not separated from the resort.

It’s a real town. It’s not like you’re living in a resort. People living there do normal things, and there happens to be a ski resort there.

It’s the most beautiful place in the world, too, as far as I’m concerned. Without a doubt.

JB: Without a doubt?

JL: Without a doubt.

JB: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I’m conducting this interview from the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Taos, New Mexico.

JL: (laughing.) Taos is pretty close. It’s very similar.

JB: Right. But if you’re going to say “the most beautiful” and “the best” to someone like me, it’s going to get my back up a bit and force me to challenge you on some of those assumptions.

JL: {Taos Ski Valley Founder} Ernie Blake made it so I couldn’t snowboard at your mountain.

JB: He did. It’s true.

JL: So Telluride is number 1 for me.

JB: I don’t know if you heard, but Taos Ski Valley recently sold to a conservationist, hedge fund billionaire. Around here, I think the general consensus is that Ernie Blake built the ski valley, but also doomed it by locking out the snowboarders for 20 years. It was inevitable we would decline, after that decision.

JL: I think that they should have remained snowboard free. I just love that certain ski resorts hold their integrity. Even though I’m a snowboarder, I do think snowboarding sometimes brings down the integrity of skiing, because skiing is such a nostalgic sport for me.

JB: Well, we did give up our integrity, and I’m suggesting that it happened too late. We’re now hoping that this guy Louis Bacon’s billions will fluff up the place, because the terrain is amazing, but our resort stopped taking care of itself in the early 90’s, and that was quite a while ago.

JL: This is a big deal. It’s going to be a big resurgence for Taos.

JB: Indeed. I’m telling my friends with money, which is a very short list, that Taos real estate a really good buy right now. We’re pretty much guaranteed to ascend.

All those people out there who don’t ski or snowboard are probably asking when the hell these guys are going to talk about photography. Right?

JL: Right.

JB: But I didn’t really have a choice. Once I couldn’t ask questions about how you got started at Smashbox studios in LA, I was in a bit of a pickle.

Let’s just jump ahead. You live in Venice, and you shoot predominantly in LA.

JL: I live in the Palisades now, and I have three kids. I still have my connection with Venice, though. It got to be too much for me. Venice is a little spoiled.

JB: I heard that.

JL: I moved my production office to Main St in Santa Monica. I just love it.

JB: Do you surf?

JL: I do surf, but not enough to call myself a surfer. I photograph the surf world all the time, and am often with the biggest surfers in the world, shooting their portraits. But I’m not allowed to say I’m a surfer, because my assistants are huge surfers, and they know I don’t really surf.

I can’t walk the walk.

JB: You don’t surf well enough to use that noun to describe yourself.

JL: When I’m with them, I don’t even admit that I surf.

JB: But if you took them to Telluride, with all that vertical, they might struggle.

JL: They would. I know so. I was with Jerry Lopez when he came to Telluride to go snowboarding, and all these great surfers. I had them on the snow, which was really nice.

JB: Is that a part of your street cred with those guys, that you can handle yourself in the mountains? Because you’re an outdoor enthusiast, do they have more respect for you?

JL: I think so. Definitely.

JB: There’s a comfort level that translates into the photography?

JL: Yes. Exactly. Every once in a while, I do get a chance to incorporate my snowboarding or my flyfishing in photography. I’m not really an action sports photographer, though. I’m more labeled a lifestyle celebrity photographer.

Sometimes, I’m able to go on these great adventures. Eddie Bauer was a really good fit for me. Roxie was a good fit too. Shooting surfers on the beach for Outside Magazine. It’s an environment that I’m used to.

I just shot Olympic snowboarders for this Olympic package in Breckenridge, and one of the Dads and I had twenty mutual friends, because they were from Steamboat. It’s always nice to have a connection. You’re looking for that one degree of separation.

JB: Which is maybe not such a hidden secret anymore? How much the personal connection enables the photography to get going in the first place?

JL: Oh yeah. You look for a connection. That’s the number one thing.

JB: You dropped the c-word earlier. Celebrity. That’s the equivalent of you saying Beetlejuice. It opens the door for me. I know our audience is far more educated than your average bear, as far as understanding how photography works.

But anyone who goes to your website will be immediately overwhelmed by the collection of star power that has stood on the other side of your lens. Anybody would have a little Hollywood envy. So we kind of have to talk about it a little bit, if you don’t mind.

JL: When in Rome.

JB: I just didn’t know if you were the equivalent of a lawyer, and part of being able to do this work was there was some kind of photographer/client privilege. I was worried you wouldn’t be able to share some stories.

JL: Oh no. That’s the whole point of my workshop that I’m going to teach at the Santa Fe Workshops. I say how it is. I literally describe the whole process of shooting anyone. Whether it’s a celebrity, or an advertising shoot.

JB: I was curious about the real world charisma of some of these people. The first link on your site is to celebrity men, and you open with pictures of Jon Hamm, Ryan Reynolds, James Mardsen. These super-handsome movie stars. You’ve got some old school guys thrown in there, like Dustin Hoffman.

How much of inherent charisma is dripping off of them when they walk in the door?

JL: It’s interesting. A lot of actors, they obviously have “it,” but a lot of them don’t necessarily have “it” for a stills camera. They’re used to being in front of a moving camera. When they have to stand in front of a stagnant camera and look into the lens, it’s actually awkward for them.

The ones that are pros, and have been doing it for a long time, obviously, are used to it. But they don’t necessarily like it.

Most actors, I believe, don’t like being photographed. When they’re acting, they’re doing their skill. When they’re in front of a stills camera, it’s not necessarily what they want to be doing. In fact, my job is to make it as pleasurable and easy for them as possible.

I’m usually done shooting them before they think they’re going to be done. And I keep them moving around as much as possible. I’ll never have anyone standing around on a set for more than 10 minutes. Then I’ll have another set or scenario where I’ll put them.

It’s always moving and changing. We also play amazing music. Half the time we’re talking, keeping them entertained and amused. So we’re always goofing around.

JB: You’re describing it like they’re going to the dentist office. And you’re in character. Not them.

JL: Sometimes it’s like that. There might be 50 people on set, and all this commotion. But I’ll break it down to be as intimate as possible, and have the fewest people around me when I’m shooting.

Basically, it’s a closed set. That way, there’s one-on-oneness. Or, if I’m not connecting with someone, I might have my first assistant try connecting with them. He’ll be standing right there, and we’ll just chat, and try to include the celebrity in the conversation.

We make it so they’re there hanging out with us. Like, “Hey, what song do you want to hear next?” And I’m firing away at the camera. When I’m done, I want them to say, “That was a pleasure. That was so much fun. I didn’t feel like I was on a photo shoot. That was great.”

That’s what I like.

JB: You’re basically talking about people skills. Which is an open secret among professionals.

JL: To me, you already have to have your skills down as a photographer. It’s already known that you know how to take a picture.

I know my lighting. I’m very technical. I’ve already scouted the location I’m going to be at. I know what time the light is coming, if I’m shooting ambient, which is my preference.

I know exactly what time the sun is going to come through which window. I know what diffuser I’m going to put in front of that window. I know everything about it.

If it’s cloudy, I know which lighting package I’ll use. I know what cameras, what lenses. I already have these things in place, and a fantastic crew.

That’s a given, that you have that skill. And then, when you’re with a celebrity, you have to turn that off. You know you’re prepared, so you just have to be yourself. Be personable. You have to show a certain ease.

You want it to seem easy and effortless. In fact, it’s not, with weeks or months of preparation for that twenty minute shoot. You have to let it go. You know you have everything in place, and you just do it.

That doesn’t make sense, does it?

JB: It does. And it actually helps lead up to where I was headed, especially as you so carefully dodged my attempt to get you to squeal about anyone in particular.

JL: I’ll squeal. Like Dustin Hoffman, whom I’ve shot many times. The first time I shot him, I said, “Thank you so much for sitting with me, and letting me take your photograph.” He said, “What are you talking about? This is what I do.”

This is what I do. It was so nice that he said that. This is my job, he said. “What do you want me to do, Jeff?”

JB: Wow.

JL: Right. Dustin Hoffman. Then you get some actors who are like, “No. I’m not doing that. Absolutely not. No way. No.” They put you on the spot. I’ve had things happen to me where you just want to shrivel up.

Sometimes, I go to my happy place and go snowboarding in my head.

JB: (laughing.)

JL: I’ll be behind the camera, and my crew will look at me, and I’ll look at them, and they’ll see in my eyes that I’m dropping in on my first turn. Then I come back and re-think the situation.

One time, I was on a big set in New York, shooting a TV show advertisement. There was a cast of five or six, and I was supposed to start with the first actor, so I had it lit for one person. He was a tough actor to shoot.

I’m trying to get the shot right, and there were at least 45 people on set. The creatives are all staring at the monitor, but I didn’t even see it. They were seeing it first, which is really hard.

So someone said, “Put the whole cast in.” So they put the whole cast in, and I went, “Oh my god.” How do you compose all of those people in a scenario you’re not prepared for? I shot a few frames, and I see art directors turning their heads, going, “Ew. No.”

I pretended to look at my viewfinder, and for 30 seconds, I say absolutely nothing. I was drifting away on a powder turn, in a happy place.

JB: Awesome.

JL: Then I had to get up, take a deep breath, re-compose, and say, “OK. Everyone needs to be off the set. I’m going to re-set for one person.” Because you always want to start out taking good pictures, not crappy pictures.

I said, “Let me do what I want to do first. One person. Standing over there. And let’s go.” They said, “Oh. Ah. That looks great.” And then I was ready to put the other people in the shot.

Sometimes, you have to check out for a second and re-group.

JB: You’re talking about gaining the confidence to assert authority. You have to get comfortable enough in your own skin to know how to crack the whip among people who maybe aren’t used to being told what to do. Right?

JL: Oh my god yes. Let’s say I’m going to shoot the cover of a magazine that I’ve shot maybe 15 times before. Sometimes, I’ll get caught with my guard down, and someone will say, “No. I don’t like this light.” Or, “I don’t like the height of your camera.”

I’ve had that happen to me. I have to remind myself, I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and I know what I’m doing. You have to speak up. I’ll say, “You see that truck over there? I have a truck full of equipment to light anything I want. And right now, the light I have on the subject is the perfect light. Trust me. This is what I’ve been doing for a long time.”

JB: Let’s go with one more question about the celebrities, because I admit I’m curious. Do you watch “Mad Men?”

JL: A little bit. Yes.

JB: Well, I’m a season behind, and hopefully no one will spoil it for me, but I’ve always been amazed with Jon Hamm’s performance in the show. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is.

His physicality as an actor is amazing. The way he manipulates his facial muscles and posture as Don Draper, so terribly tense. It’s totally different than when he switches character to Dick Whitman. Everything about the way he holds his jaw, and his cheek muscles. Everything changes. It’s the epitome of art, to watch the physical manifestations of his talent.

I know this is a long question, but because you’ve shot him, I thought you might have some insight into that skill set he has. Maybe he brings it with him to a photo shoot? Or maybe he doesn’t? I was curious about your observations.

JL: The thing about Jon is he can sometimes appear to be goofy. He’s such a good-looking guy, and he is easy to photograph, but he is kind of goofy. Some of the frames I’ll go through, you’ll see the goofiness he has, when you want him to be looking serious.

He’s so playful that in some sense, you’re not getting the frames that you really want. Like the picture on my website, where he’s laying back, in a jacket, looking over at me? We’re watching a World Cup soccer game, and he’s sitting on a bed in a really cool house.

He was talking about the World Cup, so I said, “It’s on right now. Kick back and watch.” He started watching, and I said, “Jon, look over here.” That’s the photo, because he’s so happy he gets to watch a few minutes of the World Cup.

Not that I would normally ever put a TV in front of someone, but it happened to be there.

JB: It says something about your improvisational skills.

JL: That’s why I like that photograph. It’s a fresh, real moment.

JB: Have you seen him literally turn “it” on and off in front of your camera?

JL: Yeah. A lot of people can do that.

JB: I got interested in the idea a few years ago, when I was watching “The American,” a movie that Clooney did. He turned his charisma off, 100%. It was chilling. I didn’t realize until I saw that film how many of these men and women are capable of adjusting their wattage like it’s on a dimmer.

JL: If you can have a choice to shoot someone in or out of character, I’d choose out of character. Because I’m always interested in who they are as a person. It’s easier to shoot someone in character.

JB: How often do you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into a real person, when their job is to obfuscate their personality for a living?

JL: I’m getting them as who they are all the time. I see it. That’s the goal.

But it’s different when you’re shooting a cover of a beauty or women’s magazine. There has to be a certain pose, and a certain look. You’re not necessarily shooting them. You’re shooting a look. That’s what’s so tricky about a cover.

JB: It sounds like a template.

JL: For the covers, yes.

JB: So much of your knowlege has been accrued over time, through experience. Going through the battles, finding your voice as a photographer, and your swagger as an authority figure. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and you’re going to be teaching a workshop there in March called “The Editorial Portrait.

How are you able to translate your experience in a workshop environment?

JL: It’s such a pleasure, and so much fun to do. I basically just dictate my approach to photography. I strip down exactly what I do. I don’t have any secrets. I don’t have a special “guru” light, and no one can know what it is.

All my stuff is pretty basic and simple, and I’m an advocate of “Keep it simple, stupid.” That’s what we say all the time. When I go to set, I usually bring the same things. You have a tremendous amount of equipment sometimes, because if something goes wrong, you have it.

I show how simple it is. I go through my photographs, and I simplify the process. I show them a photograph of Sharon Stone on the beach. It looks like beautiful light, and it is, but it’s just a piece of board bouncing into her face. That’s all it is. Nothing else.

JB: But you live, as you said, in Pacific Palisades. I’m guessing you use that golden, gorgeous, California beach light all the time.

JL: You have that, sure. But heck, I was just in Ireland shooting a “Game of Thrones” character, and I didn’t have that light. But I had the same light source that I always travel with. So I created it.

It’s true that in certain advertising situations, you have to have an arsenal. You have to know how to do the lighting, and it does get complicated. But generally, editorially, it’s more about getting the shot.

I keep it very organic, and let my subject know that’s how we do it. They appreciate it. If something’s not right, I won’t shoot it, and I let the subject know I don’t to waste their time.

I do that with my class, in Santa Fe. I teach them that it’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open for everything. I might put a celebrity on a couch, and someone says, “Hey Jeff, did you see that chair that was in the kitchen? It was really cool.” So we’ll go look at the chair. You’ve got to keep your ears open for all suggestions. It’s not a single-minded set. It’s everyone’s set, in a way.

I encourage that teamwork, as it’s very important.

JB: In your workshop, you have people work together like that?

JL: In the workshop, yes. I teach teamwork, and keeping it simple. We go through edits of photographs, they can see the mistakes I made.

JB: We’ve been talking a lot about how when the technical skills even out, the interpersonal skills dominate. That seems like a difficult thing to impart to others. I get that you do it, but I’m wondering a bit more about the specifics.

How do you teach your students how to be charming, and confident and relaxed, all at the same time?

JL: First, you need to be confident in your equipment. And you can only control so many things in your environment, so I teach people how to control the things that you can.

If you have certain things in place, what’s the worst thing that can go wrong? You need to put everything in place so that you can be confident about yourself. You do your due diligence, you’ve investigated who you’re shooting, you know where you’re shooting. You have your equipment that you know very well.

You know, if you don’t have any sun, that this light source works really well. You know that you have certain tricks that you can do. If you know those tricks, and you feel confident in them, you can be relaxed.

You can be yourself, knowing that you have everything in place. That’s the key.

JB: You use proper organizational skills, as much as anything, to mitigate your stress?

JL: Oh yeah. Beyond a doubt. I make sure everything is in place, and I have a team of people. If you don’t have a team, you have to do it yourself.

JB: When you teach your workshop, you’re able to go through the technical aspects of your work, you look at your student’s work, you present these philosophies, and they learn from you, even if they don’t have a truck full of expensive lighting?

JL: Yes. If I want anyone to get anything out of the workshop, it’s that photography is simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

When I was an assistant, and I worked in the grip room at Smashbox studios, I’ll never forget this one experience. Mario Testino was shooting the Gucci campaign. It was late at night, and I was loading the docks.

I remember that the campaign was already out, and I’d seen it. So I went into the studios, and I remember thinking, “That light is incredible.” He was doing some re-shoots, and I saw that he just had a single strobe on a C-stand with a reflector pointed toward the wall. That’s all he used for that campaign.

He could have had any piece of equipment, but he was only using that. That’s the day I realized, “That’s all you need. One light.”

I’ve come to that philosophy, if I have one light, and a couple of simple sources, it allows me to move faster. It lets me think on my feet, and change it up when necessary, to get the shot.

Keeping it simple is the hardest thing to do.

JB: So what’s coming up for you in 2014?

JL: I just came back from Kona yesterday, where I shot a portrait of a golfer. I’ve got a lot of great editorial coming out, but when you shoot celebrities, you can’t really promote it before it comes out.

It’s hard with social media, these days. I can’t say, “I’m on set with so and so, shooting so and so for this magazine.” I can’t do that. I have to wait for it to come out, and by then, I think it’s so old. That’s the downfall of shooting mainly celebrities.

JB: Well, I think I’ve got the perfect topical ending. You want to go topical, and keep it easy?

JL: Yeah.

JB: How about Bieber? You shot that kid. People can’t stop talking about him. What do you have to say?

JL: I feel sorry for him. I do. I feel sorry for all those kids that have to grow up in the spotlight.

He’s making mistakes. I don’t like to hate these guys.

JB: Understood.

JL: But I did ask him to give me a little smile, and he said, “I don’t smile.”

JB: (laughing.) There’s our ending right there.

JL: He was a punk. If you really want to know, he was a punk.

SFPW_APhotoEditor_Jan2014

Aline Smithson Interview

- - Photographers

Aline Smithson is a photographer, writer, teacher, and the publisher of the popular photography blog Lenscratch.

Jonathan Blaustein: Looking over your website, one of the things that popped up a few times is that you were born and raised in LA. A couple of blocks off of Hollywood and Vine. Is that right?

Aline Smithson: Yup.

JB: Well, we certainly don’t need to date you, or ask how old you are, because my mamma taught me better…

AS: God bless you.

JB: I write about LA a lot, and visit when I can. I think it’s got a mythology that people around the world are captivated by.

How do you view the place now, and how do you think it’s changed over time?

AS: I actually lived in New York for a long time. I had a whole other career, so I’ve actually seen Los Angeles in two incarnations. I left LA when I was 18, and didn’t go back for about 15 or 17 years.

Growing up, I lived in a very cool neighborhood called Silver Lake, which is now the Brooklyn-hipster community of LA.
It was that way when I grew up: a community of artists, and very ethnically diverse. Beck and Leonardo DiCaprio went to my high school, so I was in good company. Not at the same time I was there unfortunately…

JB: Did they have craft butchers and pickle shops on every corner back then too? As I might imagine they have now?

AS: No. (laughing.) It’s not that kind of community. We’re car centric in LA, so we don’t have things like that. We just go to Whole Foods.

I grew up in this great, nurturing, artistic community. Then I went off to art school, and moved to New York, where I met my husband and had my first child. Then we moved back to LA, and I was sure it would be a short stint, because I swore I would never return. I was a New Yorker by then.

I had my second child while my husband was in grad school, and we decided it was too hard to move back with two kids and live in Manhattan. So we stayed, and it took me a long time to fall back in love with this place. But I have.

What I found interesting when I returned was the influx of whole new communities. Koreatown did not exist, when I was growing up.

JB: As big as it is now, it didn’t even exist?

AS: No. The Asian communities are so much larger. The Persian community, which has now sort of taken over Beverly Hills, did not exist when I was growing up either.

It’s a much more ethnically rich city, and that makes it exciting. Our food choices are truly spectacular. Downtown has completely transformed as well–Photo LA and Art LA were held there. It’s a thriving place to explore, and a great place to shoot.

JB: Your bio says you worked in the fashion industry in your time in New York. What did you do?

AS: I moved to New York to be a painter, doing large abstract oils, and got a job in an art gallery. But I had also grown up with an interest in sewing and fashion. I spent a lot of time on the couch reading fashion magazines, and imagining that lifestyle.

After about a year of working in the gallery, I got very disenchanted. The gallerist that I worked for was very shady. He ended up murdering someone three weeks after I left.

JB: Get out.

AS: Yes, it was called the “Leather Mask Murder.” He was deeply into drugs, and into the gay bar scene, and he had sex with a young, Norwegian fashion student. He put a leather head mask (with no holes) over his head to feel what it was like to have sex with someone who was dying.

They could not convict him, but they got him on tax evasion charges. That’s who I worked for. I had a really bad taste in my mouth about the gallery world, from that one experience.

JB: Sure.

AS: It was eye-opening, because that gallery drew really famous people. I would show work to Diana Ross and Steve Martin and the movers and shakers from all different worlds. I learned so much about NYC in that year.

After that, I got a job putting together fashion shows, even though I had no background in it. And then I traveled around the US and put on shows in different cities. I did that for about a year, through Vogue Patterns, and then they asked me to be their fabric editor. All of this with no background.

JB: So how did it happen?

AS: I’m just a hard worker. I’d grown up sewing, so I knew a lot about fabric. Then I became the fashion editor for not just Vogue Patterns, but also Vogue Knitting. Ultimately, I was responsible for 19 publications a year, and went on all the shoots, and had to learn on the job.

What was unique was that every single day was creative. I picked out all the fabrics for the clothing, worked with the dressmakers, the art director, the accessory editors, hired the models and hair and make-up artists.

Then we made it all come together on the set, and the art director and I had to edit all the film. I did it for 10 years. I worked a lot with Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino and many others, and even once with Horst. Just amazing photographers. I learned a lot about working with people from them.

We went on a lot of exotic trips. I know I’m kind of rambling here.

JB: It’s a good story.

AS: For me, though, the job that has influenced me the most was waitressing. I did it all through college. That ability to see the one table, and what they need, but also to see the eight tables in the section, it teaches you to see the minute and the big picture at the same time. And it teaches you how to work with people.

When I applied that to the fashion editor job, it made a huge difference. For instance, we would travel to far flung places where we would not be able to find any accessories or that last minute item. So, before we left, at night, I would lie in bed and imagine the different outfits we were taking. I’d imagine every possible thing I needed to bring, so we were prepared.

It was a fantastic job, and then my husband and I moved to Los Angeles so he could pursue a masters degree in architecture. It was really hard give up a job where you have so much creative expression.

JB: Not that I would ask you to dish, but did you have any personal contact with Anna Wintour? Was she your buddy?

AS: No. Even though Vogue Patterns was at one time associated with Vogue Magazine, it wasn’t in the same building. Though I did interview at Vogue when I first moved to New York, and it was right out of “Devil Wears Prada.” People were raking me up and down.

I have to tell you this story. I went to college in Santa Barbara, so I was not coming with to New York with a suitcase of Chanel suits. I didn’t even own a coat when I arrived. I made one dress for myself. A beautiful Givenchy green silk dress. I wore it to my interview, and they loved it, and asked me back for a second interview.

But it was the only dress I had.

JB: (laughing.) I can see where this is going.

AS: Right. I had to wear it again.

JB: Oh no.

AS: So of course they said, “You’re wearing the same dress as last time.” They remembered.

JB: Of course they did.

AS: And I didn’t get the job. But that’s what gives you character. Going through these things.

JB: While you were working in fashion, were you also taking pictures for fun? Snapshots?

AS: I never considered being a photographer. I was a painter. After we moved to LA, and my kids got a little older, I decided to go back to school and get my degree in fashion design. I went to Otis Parsons, at night and on the weekends. Then, the day I graduated, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I realized it was way too much about business, and not creativity. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and went into a funk. I decided to take a photography class to learn how to use my camera better, and at the end of that class, the instructor told me I should start showing my work.

I hadn’t put it together. My father was a photographer; we had a darkroom in our basement. My uncle was a travel photographer. And I stood right next to the camera with some of the most amazing fashion photographers. As an editor, you have to see what they see.

I had been surrounded by photography all my life, and yet never considered it as my path. But as soon as I got that camera in my hands, that was it. I never looked back.

JB: I think we all have some version of that Aha moment. But let’s jump ahead a bit. Our readers are by now familiar with my thoughts about the 21st Century Hustle. And you seem to embody that right now.

You’re publish the popular blog Lenscratch, you teach, you make and show your work, and you’re a Mom. I was going to ask how you came to that, but you already described the progression for us. It sounds like you’ve always had multiple talents and interests, and the gumption to go for it.

So this current version of musical chairs is not so different for you?

AS: Yeah, I feel like I’ve always been a multi-tasker. I’m not someone who can just sit down and watch TV. I’m doing five other things at once. But trust me, I AM watching TV while I’m doing them.

I don’t come from any formal education, photographically. So part this journey, for me, especially with Lenscratch, is educating myself. What makes my blog different, maybe, is that I’m really looking at it as someone who is still so excited about photography and wants to figure out why people make the work that they make.

I’m not bringing the intellectual, MFA point of view about the analysis of photography. I just write about work in simple language.

JB: (laughing.) I hate those intellectual MFA types. They’re the worst. (pause.) Shit. Wait a second. I am one of those guys.

You’re answering my questions before I’m asking them, which is not the way it’s supposed to work. I was just about to ask how you came to found Lenscratch. It’s a very popular blog, where you show a different photographer’s work every day.

How many years has this been going on?

AS: Almost seven years.

JB: Almost seven years. Every day.

AS: Every day.

JB: That sounds like a lot of work.

AS: Hell yes. I’ve developed a muscle. It’s really helped me write. I write quickly now. A lot of students will send me their statements, and I can whip out the edit in ten minutes.

I’m getting to the point where I need to shift. I want spend more time on my photography. I want to put that role first.

I don’t want to get off topic, but I’ve noticed lately how quickly people are churning out new work. As a reviewer for Critical Mass, when I see a new body of work from someone every year, and sometimes two or three a year, I wonder if that project has had time to percolate.

JB: You make a good point. It’s crossed my mind a bit lately. A new body of work becomes a product line. Just like, back in the day, when the car companies would totally change the design of each car every year.

At some point, the hustle does begin to take away from the contemplative, creative practice that art is supposed to be about. We’re all working so hard to pay the bills, and still have time to make art, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you’re talking about.

If you’re always thinking about the next marketing campaign, it stands to reason you might have less time to think about how to make the pictures better, and what your process means to you.

AS: Frankly, I haven’t been pushing my work out for about two years. Maybe I needed that time to reboot. A lot of my work is conceptual and you can’t churn that out quickly.

We all love to make work. That’s the high that we get from this journey. The making of the work is the reward, not anything else.

As you get further along in your career, have your museum show, and meet the traditional goals one seeks as a photographer, it doesn’t feel like what you think it’s going to feel like. It’s just another marker. And when the fanfare dies down, you realize you have to start from square one again.

The true thing that gives you the high is the making of the work in the first place. I think that’s why people push work out so quickly. Creating work is a joyous thing.

JB: It’s really easy to forget why we fell in love with the process. We think acclaim was the goal. Social media makes that part worse too. We’ve become so accustomed to the instant gratification. And signs of popularity.

AS: Some of the major players, they’re not on Facebook and tweeting. They’re busy making work.

JB: Right.

AS: And I think about all the time we waste on social media that we could fold back into our journey. I’m really re-thinking it.

JB: I’m trying to build structure in the way I use the tools. I think they’re brilliant. But I also think they’re addictive, so I’m trying to find some structure to limit that pull. I began to feel like the monkey tapping at the lever all day to get the peanut.

AS: That’s a great description.

JB: Thanks. Tap. Tap. Tap. I don’t want to do that anymore.

With all the things you do that we’ve talked about, I want to focus on the teaching a bit. This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and you’re giving a workshop there this March.

Could we talk a bit about your teaching philosophy? What do you think are some of the key elements of being a great educator?

AS: I’ll give you a little history on my teaching career. Never in a million years did I think I’d be a teacher, though my mother and sister were teachers.

I used to have two great fears in my life: snakes, and public speaking. About 13 years ago, I went to a portfolio review with Julia Dean, who has a photography school in LA. She was there, along with the photo editor of the LA Times.

I was working alone in the darkroom, at that time. I had two or three photo friends, and no real photo community, beyond the darkroom. About a month later, Julia called me up and asked me to teach her toy camera classes, because that’s how I was working back then.

I told her I was too afraid to stand up there in front of people, and she said, “I’ll teach with you. I’ll help you.” So I went to the doctor, and asked if there was a pill for the fear of public speaking, and he said yes.

JB: (laughing.) It’s called Valium.

AS: No. It’s called Inderal. It’s a beta blocker.

JB: I was kidding. You’re serious?

AS: Yes. If you ever have to give a lecture, and you’re a little panicky, it’s called Inderal. It’s a beta blocker that keeps your heart beating at a regular pace. You can get scared, but you can’t panic.

It really helped me. I started out teaching toy camera classes, and then realized that no one was teaching anything about the journey of the photographer, at least in Los Angeles.

I began to teach things like how to navigate the fine art world, and learning from the mistakes that we make. Those classes helped build a fine art community in Los Angeles, and now I am so lucky to have a huge community of photo friends, many who have taken my classes. I work hard at keeping us all connected.

When the Santa Fe Workshops asked me to teach for them three years ago, I realized it was an opportunity to combine several of those classes into something titled “The Big Picture“. I help photographers become more visually sophisticated, give them a tool belt of ideas for making imagery, and then put it all into context of how to shape work and launch it into the fine art market.

Students finish the class having written their statement, bio, and are working on a resume. I try to answer every question a photographer has about the complex world of navigating the fine art market. And it’s in a very safe, nurturing environment for anyone at any point on their journey.

You asked about my philosophy as a teacher?

JB: Yes.

AS: When I was in art school I had some crippling critiques, that I can still remember. I decided I was never going to be the kind of teacher that devastates students. I really teach with enthusiasm and the idea of possibility. I look at every student, no matter how unsophisticated the work, and believe they have the potential to make amazing work.

I’ve seen it happen in my classes, right in front of me. The work they bring in initially is something they been doing in a vacuum. Then they see the bigger picture, figure out other ways of working, mine their own lives for subject matter, and then, all of a sudden, incredible work begins to emerge.

JB: You encourage them, I imagine, to mine their own lives. You say it like it’s an afterthought. But for so many people, when they first start out, they’re doing it for entertainment. For diversion. We all know how exciting it is when you first learn you can “rectangularize” the world.

That initial impulse can only carry one so far, before you need to become willing to inject yourself into it. To learn the self-criticality that is so necessary to improve.

You’ve explained that you’re positive and supportive. But what are your tricks for getting people to have the bravery to look at themselves, and then to share?

AS: I create a safe environment, where I don’t say anything negative. Instead I show them something different. There’s a way to guide someone without annihilating them, and that’s the way I work.

I feel like a photo-therapist. I know that sounds crazy, but…

JB: No. I love it. I’m not going to steal it, but I love it.

AS: Sometimes, I feel like the photo whisperer too. When I do portfolio reviews, I ask photographers to tell me their life story before I look at their work. Because I want to know what brought them to make the work they’re doing. Sometimes, I’ll see a connection to their life that they don’t even see themselves.

It’s the recognition of why they’re making the visual choices that they’re making. I also think I’m just very personal.

JB: Looking at your work, two words that kept popping up for me. Family and history. You’ve photographed your daughter extensively, and a project about your mother was recently featured on Lens.

Do you feel a connection with the past? Or am I over-reaching?

AS: It’s interesting. Because I came to photography later in life, I look backwards as easily as I look forward. When you’re in your twenties, you’re always looking forward. I’m in a position where I’m considering life in a different way. That just comes with age.

I think I would be a much more irreverent, edgy photographer if I was in my twenties right now. You get an attitude in art school that you are the next great thing and like to challenge the norm. But now I have more wisdom and an understanding of humanity.

I’m not so flippant. We’re so quick to judge the things we don’t understand. With Lenscratch, I often find that when I don’t like work, I force myself to spend more time with it, so I can understand it.

JB: (pause.) The quiet moments don’t show up so well in the transcript, but you definitely shut me up there for a moment.

It’s something I probably need to work on. In my role as critic, in parallel to being an artist, I’ve probably become a bit comfortable in the seat of judgement.

AS: That’s something I find really obnoxious in photography today. The quick judgement.

JB: Did you just call me obnoxious? Or can we assume you mean other people?

AS: No, no. There is a lot of photo crap out there. Fine. Judge it. But I try to slow down in that judgement, and try not to make it public. That’s just me. If I don’t like something, I don’t put it out into the world. Being an artist is a tough road, and criticism is subjective.

JB: I do have a hard time sorting out how you juggle all of it, but you have an active exhibition record as well. Do you have any shows coming up?

AS: Yes, I have a show coming up in May at the Davis Orton Gallery in New York. And I’ve got some group shows coming up in LA, Palm Springs and San Francisco. I might have a solo show in Paris this year.

JB: We’ve been talking a lot about slowing down, and being more contemplative. One word that hasn’t come up yet is patience, which I’m still learning. People can’t see the video of you, obviously, but you project an aura of calm. Almost equanimity. Do you feel like patience is a strength for you?

AS: Jonathan, that’s such a brilliant observation. Because I feel like I was always the last one to get asked to dance or picked for the team. I’ve had to be patient in life, but I also don’t have huge expectations. I’m always thrilled when something happens for me, but I’m OK when it doesn’t. I’m not waiting for recognition. I just want to make more photographs.

This week on Lenscratch, I posted all about work that’s 30 years old. I think it’s really interesting that these photographers are getting their moment in the sun now. Three of the photographers I featured are 2013 Critical Mass winners, and for two of them, it’s work that was made in the 70’s and 80’s.

If that’s not patience, I don’t know what is.

 

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David Maisel Interview

- - Photographers

Earlier this summer, I caught up with David Maisel, a few weeks after reviewing his new book “Black Maps.” He recently began working with Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, and has a solo show up at Haines Gallery in San Francisco through October 26th.

American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 8), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 18), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 1), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

American Mine (Carlin, Nevada 2), 2007 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

The Mining Project (Inspiration, Arizona 9), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 3), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 7), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 5), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

The Mining Project (Butte, Montana 9), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

The Mining Project (Clifton, Arizona 7), 1989 Archival pigment print, 2013 48” x 48” edition of five

All images © David Maisel courtesy Haines Gallery/SF and Yancey Richardson Gallery/NY

Jonathan Blaustein: Were you raised on Long Island? Is that right?

David Maisel: Yes.

JB: Your bio states that you went to Harvard as well as Princeton. That’s pretty impressive.

DM: True, but technically I would have to call myself a Harvard drop-out. I went there for graduate school in architecture. It was a 3.5 year masters program that I left after a year.

JB: At Princeton, you studied with Emmet Gowin and Edward Ranney?

DM: Exactly. It was quite a remarkable experience. They were photographic educators, but that kind of skims the surface of what their impact was. I had the opportunity to work with Emmet at Mt. St. Helens when I was an undergrad, and they both informed what my view of landscape could be.

And even what a photographic practice could be. To have both of those men as teachers so early on was really amazing.

JB: When I was looking at “Black Maps,” it made me think of the Nazca lines, and I know that Ed is one of the foremost contemporary photographers who’s worked in Peru. It occurred to me that it might be a literal link in the chain of your creative process. Is that the case?

DM: Absolutely. When I was working with Ed, he was engaged in this very intense, deep photographic survey of Mayan and Incan architecture, and the vestiges that those civilizations had left in the land. That sense of working as a visual archaeologist, looking at artifacts from former civilizations.

I’m looking at artifacts from the present. It’s a future-past, in a way. I’m documenting and cataloging that which our current civilization might leave behind. Ed’s work helped me view contemporary artifacts in the landscape through the lens of what remains when a civilization is gone.

JB: I reviewed the book, and wrote that there was an element in which you were making the work for future people to judge us. So it sounds like that is conscious in your process.

DM: I think so. I think there’s also a science fiction aspect to it as well. A JG Ballard, post-apocalyptic sense that these are the elements that might remain. Or we might be unearthing past civilizations. It’s not entirely academic in nature. I think Ed’s work in large measure is. And I think that’s one of its strengths. I’m playing with other elements as well.

JB: How do you view yourself, with respect to the contemporary environmental movement? You’re doing this exclusively as art? Or do you have motivations to try to alter people’s behaviors in the present, in addition to cataloging degradation for the future?

DM: These are really good questions, but I have to say, first and foremost, I’m looking at landscape from a conceptual point of view. Politics and environment enter into it, but I’m primarily a visual artist, and I’m not making these pictures in order to change policy. If I was, I’d need to make very different kinds of pictures, and I’d position them very differently than I do.

My primary interest is in making interesting photographs, and I think there’s a way that photography has a burden put on it that I want to refute. The pictures are not made in order to change policy, let’s put it that way. But they do have environmental concerns, and they’re based on sites that have undergone very intense environmental transformations.

Politics is part of it. But I think the conceptual aspects of landscape drive me more than the notion of being a documentary photographer. I don’t think that I am documentary photographer.

JB: In 80% of the interviews I do, we end up having a discussion about nomenclature, and the distinctions made in the worlds of photography and art in the 21st Century. Over three decades, you’ve made multiple projects looking at the way humans are interacting with the land. To me, that speaks to a very deep
personal motivation.

DM: It’s intrinsically political. You can’t spend so many years looking at these sites without having a certain kind of viewpoint. But my viewpoint is perhaps less about environmental demise than it is about the psyche of the culture that makes these sites.

These are distinctions that I think are important. In the past decade or so, there have been many more photographers looking at issues in the environment than there were when I began. I’m not really sure to what degree my work fits in with that movement.

There’s a history of looking at landscape in photography in the 19th Century, moving forward into the New Topographics. I see my work as a response to those prior ways of making images.

JB: You spoke of investigating the psyche of a culture that would do what’s been done. Since we’re talking about such a long investigation, culminating in the book, what have you learned about the psyche of this culture?

DM: We’re very distanced from the notion that the way we live exacts a toll. I’m part of the equation, and photography is part of the equation. We really do use natural resources without regard to where they come from, how they may or may not be able to be replenished, what the methods are of their extraction.

We’re divorced from any sense of how we are a part of nature, and how we fit back into nature, and how we use nature. We live in a house or an apartment building, in a city or a town. We drive to the shopping mall, we go to the beach. But we don’t ever really see the kinds of places that I’m interested in looking at, and sharing.

JB: When you show your work, you introduce these concepts to people through art. And there is currently a show in Scottsdale?

DM: Yes.

JB: I’ve been many places in my life, and Scottsdale, Arizona was one of the most challenging. With the all the concrete built right on top of the desert, and the obvious lack of water, it felt like a place where people shouldn’t be living, ecosystem wise. And yet it mushroomed into a city.

What’s your take on Arizona?

DM: The whole issue of desertification is something my work has been looking at through “The Lake Project,” and the “Oblivion” series,” but in my home state of California. But I think there are certain parallels.

I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner lately. You’re probably familiar with his writing.

JB: No, I’ve heard his name, but I haven’t read his work.

DM: I hadn’t realized the degree to which his writing in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s really helped construct a new way of looking at the American West.

He has a book titled “The American West as Living Space.” He writes about the West, and you can include Arizona and California both in there, as being defined by inadequate rainfall.

He basically says, “What do you do about that?” If you’re a nation that’s totally used to getting its way, you can do one of two things. You can either deny it, for a while, and then you either try to adapt to it, or engineer it out of existence.”

That’s what’s happening now, around the American West. We live in denial of the fact that the population of these places is not sustainable, given that there’s not enough water.

Or we try to engineer it out of existence with dams, and other kinds of waterworks projects, and systems of aqueducts, etc.
He’s quite a brilliant writer, and I think his influence has been profound on our concepts of the American West, and to a certain degree, legislation that set aside certain areas of the West. It’s pretty incredible, and worth taking a look at his work in depth.

JB: I will do that, and there’s also a chance that some of our readers will as well. So on their behalf, I appreciate the tip.

By putting together all the projects in a mostly linear way for the new book, did that give you new insight into what you’ve been pushing towards all these years?

DM: It was a really fulfilling project for me, because when I started making these kinds of pictures in the mid 1980’s, there was not much of an audience for this kind of work. I didn’t have the capacity to put this work out into the world in a way that would gather an audience to it.

So to have this trajectory of this work, over something like 30 years, and to look back at the origins of the work, that was incredibly meaningful and satisfying. It answered a lot of the questions that I had about my work in my mid-20’s.

To see the resonance the projects have with each other, the way my viewpoints change over time, the kinds of subject matter that I have looked at, I’m not sure it led to new realizations. But it brought me back to the person I was when I started this.

It helped recall the urgency that I felt about making these pictures, and the incredible frustration I had, because there were not many avenues to exhibit or publish, pre-Internet.

JB: You went to graduate school for photography many years after you had finished your schooling. A lot of people today are questioning and balancing the value of these very expensive arts educations. I got one, and loved it, but I’m still paying off the loans. What led to your decision?

DM: I’d moved to the Bay Area in 1993, and a decade later, I felt like I was still working in isolation here. I wanted to expand my community. That was one reason.

I also wanted to challenge myself to be more rigorous in my thinking. It was an unusual time, perhaps, to go back to school, but for me, it was perfect. I trusted myself enough, at that point in my life, to be able to discern what was useful to me, and what wasn’t, in that MFA program.

I could do it for myself in a way I wouldn’t have been able to, had I gone in my mid-20’s. It was a terrific experience. The environment at CCA, California College of the Arts, I liken it to the Bauhaus. There are all of these different disciplines happening under one roof. It’s an incredible hotbed of creativity, and intellectual and artistic growth.

JB: I was out in SF a year ago, and it was clear the place was really booming. Everyone was talking about Twitter moving in, rents going up, and the big Cindy Sherman show was at SFMOMA. There are a lot of younger SF and Bay Area artists who are doing well right now.

Have you seen anything lately, or come across any exhibitions that really spoke to you? What’s your take on what’s going on out there?

DM: It’s interesting. I’m pretty involved with the Headlands Center for the Arts. I’m on a board there. So that’s the filter through which I see a lot of what’s going on. There are some great things happening.

The de Young Museum has this Diebenkorn exhibit up called “The Berkeley Years,” so it’s not work that’s current. But it’s an exceptional show that focuses on work that he made in the mid to late 50’s. There are certain ways I see some parallels between his way of seeing and my way of seeing, which have been very intriguing for me.

JB: It’s a great point. It can be so helpful for photographers to look at painting, sculpture and cinema. Having a broad range of input tends to lead to more sophisticated output. If I were to make such a grand generalization, which is my speciality.

DM: (laughing.)

JB: “History’s Shadow” and “Library of Dust” are two projects in which you seem to be interested in categorization and typologies. History has a way of forgetting much more than it remembers, and things march on. As such, I was wondering where you were headed, creatively? What new things are you planning?

DM: I’m working now with some X-rays of paintings. The “History’s Shadow” work to date has been based on X-rays of 3 dimensional art objects, from antiquity through the invention of photography.

JB: And you photograph the X-rays?

DM: I rephotograph them. Exactly. So I’m now starting to work with X-rays of paintings. It’s pretty early on in that process, but it’s funny that we were just talking about Diebenkorn, and now we’re on the subject of painting.

I’m probably as inspired by other visual arts in my work than photography, or as much, certainly. Looking at Robert Smithson’s work, or Walter de Maria’s incredible Earth works art.

I found it very interesting to work with the X-rays of 3 dimensional artworks too, because in a way, photography is all about translating 3 dimensions down to 2. As you shift towards photos of 2 dimensional surfaces, it’s very interesting what happens. I’m still grappling with it, but that’s one of the things that’s coming next.

I’m also hoping to do some aerial work in Spain later this summer, or in the early Fall.

JB: What about architecture? Does that also inspire your photographic practice?

DM: It’s absolutely present in every single way. I thought from a very young age that I would be an architect, as soon as I could name it. I looked at magazines and floor plans from a very early age.

The ways architects analyze space acutely informs how I make pictures. You could extrapolate and say the aerial view is the way architects look at things and plan. The plan occupies the bird’s eye view and shows you things.

And the “History’s Shadow” work is more about cross-section: you’re slicing into something and seeing its structure. But the work is absolutely tied to the same interests and pleasures and puzzles.

JB: I was fortunate to see the “Library of Dust” project, in which you photographed the ashen remains of people who had passed away in a mental institution. I saw the prints a few years ago in New York. Maybe it was at Von Lintel?

DM: Yes.

JB: The prints were exquisite and also chilling, because you shined a light on a particular place, and people who had been perfectly forgotten. Did that spur anyone to come claim their relatives ashes? Did you hear any stories like that?

DM: Absolutely. One, in particular, was told in a beautiful and eloquent way by a woman and her adult daughter who were researching their family tree. They came upon a woman named Ada, who had vanished. Eventually they learned she had been institutionalized at the Oregon State Hospital.

They found out she had been one of these patients who had been cremated. They tried to work with the hospital to claim the remains, and were unsuccessful. When the “Library of Dust” book was published, that gave them another round of energy to approach the hospital. At that point, they were able to reclaim her.

It’s interesting, this idea of advocacy. Like I said, my work is not made with advocacy as its primary goal, but there is definitely a social aspect that is woven intentionally into the work. Hopefully in a subtle way.

Before the book even came out, the President of the State Senate in Oregon asked if he could use my photographs of these canisters on the Senate floor to advocate for more funding for the hospital. It was an active hospital even when I was making those pictures there, although some of the wards had been empty for a while.

He was successful in arguing for more funding, to the tune of $3.5 Billion. And in fact, the hospital has been rebuilt. This project was in some way a participant in that process. Did I set out to do that? By no means.

JB: Fascinating. Congratulations. You mentioned again that advocacy is not your primary motivation, but of course we also have secondary and tertiary motivations…

DM: Yes.

JB: Subtlety and nuance come from having multiple ideas sharing the same dance floor, and some times it’s hard to pick them out.

We’ve talked about your different interests and talents, and that multi-tasker model does seem to be hot at present. Do you have any advice you might share with other photographers out there, things you’ve learned that might help them with their careers?

DM: That’s a great question. For me, to study photography alone was not really enough. I do think that what might have felt at the time, as a younger person, like a lack of clarity in terms of making a career path, in the long run all of those things that might have felt like diversions were exactly the things that fed my artistic practice. Studying architecture, landscape architecture, the history of art, counseling and psychology, all these things came together.

JB: So that’s a yes, then.

DM: Follow multiple strands of study, and of inquiry. Follow your curiosity where it may go. Photography, in and of itself, is a vehicle for ideas. What are the ideas that you bring to the table? What are the ideas that you bring to your work? Those are the real, critical questions.

JB: Before we go, is there anything coming up that we ought to know about? Any new shows opening up?

DM: There is a solo show opening in September at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. (ed note, this is still ongoing.) It’s an exhibition of my mining photographs, and we’re going to focus on two bodies of work, one from 1989 and another from 2007. In a way, it brackets the timeframe of my obsession with open pit mines.

JB: And everyone who goes to see the show will get one free gold nugget?

DM: That’s right. And a vial of cyanide.

JB: Can you imagine? You have to pick a hand. You either get $10,000 of gold, or you die.

DM: Actually, cyanide is used in the capture of microscopic amounts of gold in many of those open pit mines. It’s an intrinsic part of the process, and it seems only fair that we’ll be serving little vials of cyanide at the opening.

Art Producers Speak: Will Adler

- - Photographers

We emailed Art Buyers and Art Producers around the world asking them to submit names of established photographers who were keeping it fresh and up-and-comers who they are keeping their eye on. If you are an Art Buyer/Producer or an Art Director at an agency and want to submit a photographer anonymously for this column email: Suzanne.sease@verizon.net

Anonymous Photo Editor: I nominate Will Adler. His take on the surfing lifestyle/man on wave is unusual in our world here of surf photography.

This is Katie, who I’ve shot a lot. We were in Maui, and I have always wanted to shoot nudes up at the Haliakala crater. What you can’t tell from this picture is how cold it is up there- she was a very good sport about it.

This is from a series I shot at Waikiki Beach in Oahu. I love shooting at crowded beaches- there is so much going on.

This is a pair I did for an art show last year. I really like to find images that play off each other, it can totally change the way an image works.

These are my friends Eric and Jenny, who I shoot and travel with often. This shot was taken on a remote Island, which we sailed to. It has the most amazing beaches, with not a soul around. Anytime I get the chance to go here I jump on it.

This was from a Roxy swimwear campaign. We spent a week near Cabo San Lucas, surfing and hanging out on the beach. Not a bad work situation.

Both these photos are from a series I did called Bamboozled, which was published by Kaugummi books (now Shelter Press) in 2010. The photo on the left was also used by Hixept for their t shirt series. The photo on the right is my brother. Whenever I need a stunt man, he is the first person I go to- he’s willing to launch himself off almost anything.

This is photographer/director Dewey Nicks. It was taken for Apolis Apparel, who I work with quite a bit. This was a fun collaboration all around.

The photo on the right is from a Simple Shoes photo shoot. It was a fun shoot because most of the models were my friends. We basically cruised around, doing what we normally do. Nothing was forced, it made for a very natural series.

This is Tori. She is a great model and also makes some pretty impressive head-dresses and costumes; a good girl to know if you’re a photographer.

The photo on the right was for Surfer Magazine. They called me saying they needed a portrait of Dane Reynolds, but he was leaving in an hour to go on a surf trip. So, I grabbed my camera and hopped in the car. I only had about 15 minutes to take some photos. It’s always fun to have things like this happen- it keeps you on your toes.

This was taken while I was surfing at Rincon. I have a small waterproof camera that I tuck inside my wetsuit. It’s my way of multi-tasking work and pleasure.

The photo on the left is Randy. He is always styled out in the most ridiculous outfits, hanging out at the beach. Here he is surfing in his 1980’s shades, with zinc on his nose and cut off jean shorts. Not to mention he’s on a 12’ board. The photo on the right was shot for Roxy in San Clemente. This was the first big job I had, and was a pretty ideal way to start.

How many years have you been in business?

I’ve been shooting for 8 years but only working in a professional way for the past 3.

Are you self-taught or photography school taught?

I’m self-taught—I didn’t study photography in school—but that’s not to say I haven’t learned a lot from all kinds of people along the way, most notably, Bruce Weber; assisting him, watching him work up close, has been invaluable.

Who was your greatest influence that inspired you to get into this business?

My influences, in addition to Bruce, are all over the map: from Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, William Eggleston, and Wolfgang Tillmans to Masao Yamamoto. But one person who’s really inspired me from the very beginning is my uncle, Tom Alder. He’s a celebrated art director, publisher, and designer deeply rooted in surf culture. I’m a surfer myself, so when I started taking photos surf culture was the direction I naturally pointed my camera; and that became my entrance to the business side of photography. But Tom was there from the beginning.

How do you find your inspiration to be so fresh, push the envelope, stay true to yourself so that creative folks are noticing you and hiring you?

I always try to pay attention to ideas that pop into my head without deliberation, even when they may seem somewhat insignificant. Those are often the ideas that surprise you and wind up having enduring power. But nothing is more important than actively shooting every week (if not every day). I love looking for new subjects and locations. I get most of my inspiration from my surroundings, and I try to keep my surroundings a little outside of the normal.

Do you find that some creatives love your work but the client holds you back?

Every situation is different, but generally speaking I’ve been very fortunate to work with great people. Something that I learned from assisting is how important a good crew can be when it comes to getting work done. If everyone is into it and enjoying themselves, it really doesn’t feel like work at all. But when you’re in a situation where you feel limited, I think it’s important to voice your opinion while at the same time remaining open to other people’s ideas—because in the end, commercial work really is a collaborative process.

What are you doing to get your vision out to the buying audience?

There are so many good ways to get your work out there these days, all of them totally viable and legitimate. I think the important thing is to choose an approach that feels natural and not forced in any way. But personally, I continue to believe in the tangible print over the digital screen. (I realize this exchange and my images are being published online! Thank you, APE.) Printing has always been an important part of my practice, and I think that in our digital age it’s something that gets overlooked by a lot of young photographers. I also think there’s no substitute for meeting with editors and art buyers in person. And having an inspired rep. I recently signed up with Massif Management, which has been incredible. Massif has opened up doors that probably wouldn’t have opened for me otherwise.

What is your advice for those who are showing what they think the buyers want to see?

Believe in your work, and pay close attention to how you present it.

Are you shooting for yourself and creating new work to keep your artistic talent true to you?

Whether it’s for a client or myself, I’m always taking photos that interest me. I try to be mindful of the importance of unconscious inspiration and let things come together.

How often are you shooting new work?

I try and shoot something every week, as well as review my work. Editing is a very important, if unglamorous, part of my practice.

Will Adler’s seemingly off-the-cuff photographs—typically of friends at play—betray a poignancy that can be hard to reconcile with their breezy surfaces. His photographs have appeared in Juxtapoz, Neon, Surfer, The Surfers Journal, WAX, The New Yorker, Rankin’s Hunger TV, and Paper; commercial clients include Quiksilver, Patagonia, Nike, and Hixsept. His newsprint folio “Bummerland” was recently republished in a second, limited edition by Fourteen-Nineteen books. Will lives in Santa Barbara, California. He is represented by Massif Management [http://massifmanagement.com].

Will Adler
Willadler.com
wadler@me.com

Massif Management
http://massifmanagement.com
jonathan@massifmanagement.com

APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after founding the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies. She has a new Twitter fed with helpful marketing information.  Follow her@SuzanneSease.

 

John Gossage Interview – Part 2

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Photography is a crazy thing to do with one’s time. And a crazy thing to devote one’s life to. It’s obvious that you’ve given almost everything a lot of thought. What do you think it is about this particular method of expression, as opposed to chipping in marble, that hooked into you and never let go?

John Gossage: Simple, practical things. It keeps me amused. It keeps engaging me. I make pictures for myself. I’m not an entertainer. I don’t make work for an audience.

I try to make it clear, and present it to others, because I really enjoy when other people value what I do. But they have to come to me, more than anything. That’s the difference between art and entertainment.

I played music for a while, and the idea is that you play for an audience. There’s an interaction there, and playing music is entertaining. What I do isn’t.

I suppose it’s serendipity, but it’s kept me amused, so it’s kept my audience amused. Around 1980, or ’84, I realized I wanted to make books, as I’d thought for a long time that artist-controlled books are the major leagues of photography. Books have the greatest impact on me, from other photographers. So I had faith that my work would make the most sense to people that way.

It stays out in the world. The first commercial book I did was “The Pond,” with Aperture. They set up a book signing at ICP, and one person came. Nobody knew what the hell it was. It got reviewed, positively in “People” magazine too, which is one of the most bizarre things of all time. Unfortunately, “People” has absolutely no cross-over with the audience that buys photo books, which I tried to explain to Aperture, so it made no difference.

Now, Aperture has re-printed it, and it’s one of the classics. Everybody I meet says they bought an original edition, and it changed their lives. But there could only have been twelve of them.

You have to have faith that if the work engages you, it will engage others. It’s about taking that bet. And sometimes, you can be wrong.

JB: Under that philosophy, if it doesn’t engage others, it doesn’t matter, as long as it engages the maker. Right?

JG: Oh yeah. I’m interested in continuing to be amused.

JB: You’ve made many, many books over the years.

JG: Unfortunately, yes.

JB: And in non-traditional ways, using non-traditional materials. Oversized books. Wooden books. And according to your Wikipedia page, and congrats for having one…

JG: I don’t know who did that. Not me.

JB: I don’t doubt that. But as I was saying, did you really make a book called “Hey Fuckface”?

JG: Oh sure. It was a box, actually.

JB: A box?

JG: I got interested in the space in between the wall and your lap. Pictures hang on the wall, and books sit on your lap. There’s that space in-between. So I made these boxes that can’t hang on the wall, because the back comes off. If you try to hang it, it falls to the floor.

It was called “The Things that Animals Care About, and” and “Hey Fuckface,” which is a book about curses. Or maybe it’s a publication.

Basically, you get a box with a Plexiglas front, and wood around it. You put one photograph in, and look at it for a while, and then you move it and put another photograph in it for a while. They have to lean against a wall, or sit on a book case, or something like that. Somewhere in between the two.

JB: Have they been exhibited as sculpture? How did that work? Did they make their way into individual collections?

JG: “Hey Fuckface” is actually original prints on boards with hand-written curses with each of them.

JB: (pause) You don’t know me well enough to know that I’m rarely speechless. But I don’t know what to say. As a formerly-foulmouthed Jersey Boy, I have to see that. Where could an average person see that? Is it possible?

JG: I don’t know what collections have it. Currently, they’re going for $7000 now, even though I sold them for $150 to begin with. That happens with photobooks too. But what they are is pictures of some of the most polluted places in New York State.

The interest is the nature of curses. If you’re not religious or superstitious, what is a contemporary curse? And also, curses never mean what they say.

It started by taking one photograph of this, up in Syracuse. I was taking a portrait of a young boy, and next to him was a telephone pole. Scratched into the pole was the mis-spelled curse “Dickless pigfucker.” Luckily, I wrote it down.

JB: (laughing)

JG: I thought, what a wonderful curse. Anatomically impossible, and aesthetically unpleasant. What more can you ask? It’s done to annoy people. I guess Roe was right.

JB: I was just thinking about that, as I recently reviewed a book by Dash Snow. It’s a interesting idea, how we offend people. Like it’s an action that you’re doing to somebody else.

I read that you got some NEA grants back in the day. Is that right?

JG: Yeah.

JB: That was before everything shifted, because Serrano and Mapplethorpe “offended” or perhaps “annoyed” the wrong people. As an artist, I think it’s kind of interesting to think about how personally people can take their own emotional reaction to somebody else’s ideas.

JG: I see it here in Washington. I saw a wonderful thing at the National Gallery, about six months ago. The National Gallery is free, and it’s on the mall, so it’s often the first museum experience for people. They’re going down the mall, and they end up in an art museum.

Anyway, there was a guy, almost totally cliché as a non-art person, and he asked the guard “Did my tax dollars pay for that?” He was pointing at an Elsworth Kelly painting of two colors.

I found out later that the guards are trained to say this, because he replied, “No. Mr. Andrew Mellon paid for that, Sir.”

He was offended. He wasn’t going to engage it. He was offended by the lack of understanding of what might be going on here. He didn’t speak the language.

It’s like being offended by Bulgarian poetry, if you don’t speak Bulgarian. People don’t do that, but with art, they do. Art can really get people worked up, which is one of the reasons, I guess, that we do it ourselves, and hope others get engaged with it. It still has that power, amazingly.

JB: Especially in a world where most people are so well-trained to tune out information that doesn’t coincide with their worldview.

JG: Its presence is offensive, if you don’t understand it. In America, most of the news about art has to do with how much it’s worth, not what it’s about.

JB: I made the local TV news at some point, for that reason. They got their hands on some documents about what the State of New Mexico paid for my work.

Thankfully, they didn’t kick up the outrage they were hoping to. The only person they interviewed was some un-important conservative political activist, and they didn’t rile anyone enough.

JG: (laughing.) I’m sorry they didn’t rile sufficiently. Maybe next time.

JB: Next time, I suppose they need to pick a more intelligent critic. It was just some guy who owned a pet store, or something, and was a Republican on the weekends.

JG: (laughing.) I’m willing to rile up a guy who runs a pet store. That should be worth doing for an afternoon.

JB: One of the things that I intentionally put into that project, “The Value of a Dollar,” and I continue to think it’s funny, is that anyone who wants to can spend a dollar on a McDonalds doublecheeseburger, and put it on a pedestal in their room. Or you can go spend a dollar for a pack of candy necklaces, and thumbtack it on your wall, for a dollar, or you can buy my picture of those same candy necklaces, on a piece of paper, for $1000.

JG: Exactly.

JB: I don’t often hear people recite that absurdity back to me, but I think those inherent contradictions are often what makes people respond subconsciously.

To me, what could be more obvious about pointing out the economic machinations of art than to say that simply by Two-Dimensionalizing something, I’ve increased its value 1000%.

JG: Sherri Levine was really involved in that in the 70’s. She re-photographed Walker Evans’ pictures exactly, and made them her pictures.

What? Where’s the value? Where does art actually exist in this whole transaction? What’s going on here?

That’s the whole Duchamp question. What’s going on here? What keeps us fascinated? How does this work? There’s no real answers for it. It’s a set of questions that keeps you going.

Why is the original less important than the image made of it? What degree of eloquence comes into play there? Because it is there.

There is a Bill Eggleston picture of little toy animals on a chrome counter-top. From the early 70’s.

JB: OK. I can’t think of it immediately.

JG: It’s one of his famous pictures. I actually have the animals Bill photographed, and the picture. He took them away from his son Bill Jr, he said, “Sure, you can have these.” So I could remake that photograph, any time I could find the right countertop.

JB: You didn’t actually steal candy from a baby, but you stole toys from a child.

JG: No. Bill did. It’s one of those evil Bill Eggleston stories that we all tell. He took them from his son, and his son has never forgiven him, I’m sure.

JB: I’d like to talk about politics, because I know it motivates you to some degree. For the record, I tried to get my hands on some of your books. I was at photo-eye on Friday, and the power went out across the city of Santa Fe.

I was actually holding your books up to the residual window light, just to get a sense of the objects themselves.

JG: I like that.

JB: No one says I don’t work hard.

JG: You could start a small fire at photo-eye with books I hate, and use that light to look at mine. But I won’t name which photographers’ work I hate.

JB: I would ask, if I weren’t so sure it would ultimately get redacted, even if you said so now.

JG: We won’t go there. Don’t pick on the crippled and lame.

JB: Well, I wasn’t able to see many of the books, but I tried. But where I was originally headed with the question was talking about politics. You spent time in Berlin in the 80’s, right?

JG: Yeah.

JB: So you photographed the Berlin Wall, and many years later, you made pictures through the gates of power in Donald Rumsfeld’s neighborhood in DC. When you’re dealing with topics that are so loaded, like heading to Colorado to photograph a town that has three Supermax prisons, or environmental waste sites, to what degree does your personal politics motivate your subject matter choices?

JG: You have to understand, I live in a town where politics is actually a true profession. But I would never make a claim that my photographs have any impact, politically, because I know people in the administration now. You live long enough, and you’ll know people who actually have real power.

I have the ultimate respect for how hard it is to actually do anything politically in this country. For anyone.

So the photographs have political implications. Let’s put it that way. They’re not political, as such, because I don’t have any faith that they change anything directly. It just doesn’t happen. You’re talking mostly to the already committed.

JB: Agreed.

JG: But let’s take it case by case. I was asked to do a show and a workshop in Berlin in 1982. It was interesting to go to a place where the literature of that place is already so pre-established, that I can lean on that, and see what I can do, as opposed to discovering it.

It had WWII, it had the Wall. The absolute dichotomy, right in front of you, between Communism and Capitalism, all laid out in UPPERCASE LETTERS. You could play off of that.

When I got there, I realized it was far more complicated than that. The Wall was incredibly beautiful. It was funny. I was utterly convinced that the guys at the CIA had conned the Russians into building it, because it was the worst PR for Communism you could possibly have in the whole world. And it was evil. Everything I was told. But it had all those other factors.

I got fascinated with photographing in the city, so I spent almost 11 years photographing around Berlin. I had close friends there, and people kept inviting me back to do stuff, so I spent a lot of time back and forth, but never lived there.

The thing with Rumsfeld is, this is my neighborhood. If I move to the other room, I can virtually see his ex-house out of my window. I was interested in the connection between beauty and elegance, and it’s a neighborhood I like a lot. I run through it, and have for many years.

Discovering that Rumsfeld was my neighbor made me convinced that I was at the center of the evil that was going on in the world at that moment. That dichotomy was of interest, so I tried to make very, very beautiful photographs that imply the sensibility that you can’t come from a perfect place. Everyone else wants what you have.

And you have the right to enforce that upon them, which would be an ultimate mistake. It seemed the perfect project to be my first in color. (The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/ Map of Babylon)

JB: Had you been shooting in color all along, but not showing the work, or was this actually the first time you tried to make pictures that way?

JG: I’ve been friends with Bill Eggleston since 1972. We’re really close. I saw the work before his show at MoMA, from very early on, and thought, this is terrific. This is brilliant.

So I made a couple of dye-transfers, and looked at them, and thought it wasn’t my vision. I didn’t like film color. I didn’t like the color space that you have to manufacture into film products. And I didn’t like the nature of the prints.

They suited Bill perfectly, especially dye-transfer. Dyes and Kodachrome suited Bill perfectly. It was exactly what he wanted. And for me, it wasn’t.

But then digital got good enough. Martin Parr is a close friend of mine, and I would see what he and the Magnum guys were doing. I asked them what was the best camera to get, and they said a Canon this and that.

So I got that, and started fiddling with the RAW files to see if I could get the color I saw. I realized that I could. So then I could do color, because before that, I couldn’t get it to look like what was attracting me, and that was really frustrating.

JB: Ironically, I think that might be the first book of yours that I saw. The pictures are really lovely.

JG: There’s a certain picture in there of a wrought-iron sign. It was made the first day I got the camera, and it convinced me I could do it. I figured if I could make that, I could learn how to make more of them.

JB: Speaking of digital, someone mentioned to me you don’t have a website.

JG: Right.

JB: Given that it’s 2013, what’s the reasoning behind that?

JG: I don’t have any interest in people encountering my pictures on a screen, except in the most casual way. Stuff that happens on the web is like conversation. It’s like what we’re having now.

I’m more interested in the form of literature. It’s different.

JB: You used that word with respect to Berlin, but you meant it in a visual way?

JG: Oh yeah. It’s all visual. I’m a terrible writer. Like I told you, we have to talk this through. I’m not going to write any of it.

JB: Don’t you worry. I’m transcribing this stuff. You won’t have to do anything. It’s on me. (ed. note, It took me two and a half months to get to it. My bad.)

With respect to literature, though, that’s not normally the way people use the word. How do you connect the word to the constructed visual experience to which you’re referring?

JG: For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that photographs look like something, and they’re about something. Those are two things that are totally intertwined. That “looking like” is integral to what they mean. It goes around and around. It’s an unresolvable conundrum.

As a maker of it, it’s a way to think about it. Like, “What are these things about?” And “What have I done to make them look and feel like that?”

You have a photograph in front of you. It’s in your lap, in a book, perfectly reproduced. You can see it absolutely presented. Nothing is hidden. It’s immediate. Every time you turn the page, it’s all there.

If it’s a really remarkable image, you emotionally react to it, you intellectually react to it, and you viscerally, sensually react to it. It all happens at once, in that instant. Similar to the moment of taking it.

This is the end of my Guggenheim Fellowship year, which is on a project that is going to be a book called “The Nicknames of Citizens.” It’s something I started in 2003, thinking about photographing in America, and what the nature of photographing in contemporary America might be.

The only parameters I gave myself were I didn’t want to photograph iconic American cities, in that I didn’t believe America had regionalism anymore. So the places were Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Rochester, MN, St. Louis, Tucson… just places.

JB: Did you come out of this project continuing to believe there is no longer any regionalism in America? Or did the act of investigating change your mind?

JG: It didn’t change my mind at all. Let’s put it this way: the degree of regionalism that exists is basically irrelevant to what I care about. My pictures, if I do them correctly, will all look like they could have been made in virtually the same place.

There are certain little specific differences, obviously. You can pick out that Tucson doesn’t look like Memphis. But anything that’s to the point of it is all the same. That’s where we’re going.

Walker Evans could go out and shoot Alabama one way, and Bethlehem, PA the other, and he’s stressing the differences. Even Frank’s “The Americans” doesn’t even stress that much anymore. When you decide to do a project on America, you obviously look back.

The bibles of American photography always took that subject on. And it’s interesting to decide to say, “All right. What did they do? What did they achieve? What’s left to do? Is there anything left?”

I’ve made a bet on that, but I’m not quite sure what it is yet.

In the middle of this, out of total happenstance, I wound up photographing kids that want to be artists. 17 year olds. I hadn’t done portraits in years, and I did one day in Rochester, MN, because I had nothing else to do, and it was raining. Every kid I photographed produced a portrait that just stunned me, so I did more of that.

JB: I did see those pictures, in a book at photo-eye. It’s oversized, to say the least. It’s bigger than a coffee table.

JG: It is pretty big. It’s one of those books you put under your bed. Basically, if I come over, you dust it off, you take it out, and then I ask to go to the bathroom, and I can see the square under your bed where the dust had been.

JB: Given how much you’re got going on, are there any upcoming exhibitions we can tell our readers about, or any other new books coming out?

JG: Long-term, in 2015 I have a retrospective show called “Routines” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Book-wise, I have a Steidl book that’s been for sale on Amazon for about six months that we haven’t designed or printed yet. And I’m doing a book with Kominek, the people in Berlin who did Alec Soth’s “Looking for Love 1996.” It’s called “Nothing,” with photographs I took in Saudi Arabia in ’84. Radius is doing a three volume set of color work taken in Italy, with three stories by Marlene Klein.And Aperture is doing a Masters of Photography book, which should be funny.

That’s about it for now.

JB: Thank you.

Italy, 2011

Italy, 2011

Italy, 2011

 

John Gossage Interview – Part 1

- - Photographers

John Gossage: I was just coming over to answer the phone, and I was thinking, “What if the interview is just all lies?”

Jonathan Blaustein: Lies? I’m just interested in things that read well, and are interesting…

JG: Exactly. There’s more interesting things that I can make up than I’ve actually done.

JB: That may well be true. You have my absolute permission to bullshit to your heart’s content.

JG: This is the assumption that previous interviews by me weren’t all bullshit. And most other photographers as well.

JB: That makes for a great first on-the-record question, doesn’t it? Should I expect what you tell us to actually be true?

JG: Just having fun with this, you know what I think the interesting question is? It’s a question that is sort of unanswerable. But thinking about these photos I just made around Albuquerque and Cañon City, do I think that they’re actually true, or are they just good stories?

You never really get an answer to that, as a photographer. You take what you’re offered, and assume it has some germ of both in it.

JB: It might be generational, but you go to college and art school, and they do whatever they can to rub the value out of that word: true. Thanks to the Post-Modernists, it’s almost like I have a reflex. You hear the word true, and you cringe a little bit. I think that’s sad. It should be a powerful word, but it’s been robbed of some of its weight.

JG: There is a generational difference. I had a whole bunch of people from Yale come by a few years ago. Some graduate students and an undergraduate. Really, really smart people. God, the degree of theory they have honed their way to has made them incredibly confused.

The way I came up, there was nobody to talk. Nothing was theoretical. Everything was practical.

JB: Maybe part of the development of that language was a defense mechanism against photography not being considered a real art for so long?

You started making photographs at 14? And you told me you had your first show at 16? Is that right?

JG: It was about 15, if I remember right. I had my first professional assignment when I was 14.

JB: (laughing.) Who gave you your first assignment as a 14 year old?

JG: The Staten Island Advance. A newspaper. I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, and a school friend’s father was head of the sports desk at the Advance. They had lost one of their photographers. I’d been doing it for the High School newspaper. They said it was better than what they were getting in the regular newspaper, so they asked if I’d like to do some assignment work, if it didn’t conflict with school hours.

JB: Did you look like a 14 year old, or were you unnaturally old looking?

JG: I’ve never had a good idea of what I look like, to tell you the truth. I have a feeling I looked 14, but I had really good equipment. (laughing.) As we all know, from all of the advertisements, good equipment trumps everything.

JB: Are we not now living in an age where that is more-or-less true? The off-the-shelf digital cameras, for $500, are so good that almost anyone can make a passable image. Given how much of the work that little computer chip does. Isn’t it amazing?

JG: The technical end of it has become phenomenally simple. Photography has always been a simple medium, compared to painting in oil or chipping at marble.

JB: Sure.

JG: There was never a lot of technical sweat, if you will, because the machines brought you a considerable distance. It was obviously a lot more sweat, back then. When I was in Santa Fe, I was shooting film with a 2 1/4 x 2 3/4 range finder camera, because for black and white, that produces the best results for me. I’m not wedded to technical stuff at all. I just want results.

When I shoot color, I shoot the highest end digital stuff, because I always hated film color. I sort-of stand in both worlds. But you are right, it’s very easy to make technically good images. What’s absolutely clear is that it’s very, very difficult to make images that are memorable in any particular way.

JB: I agree, and that’s a pretty terrific place to jump off from. At Review Santa Fe, you gave a talk, which I wasn’t able to attend. The word on the street was that you were there as the sober voice of reason. Or maybe not sober? It was a Sunday morning, so were there any bloody marys involved?

JG: My lecture was in a church. A few people took Iphone photos of it, and it really looks like we were delivering a sermon to the congregation. It was really funny.

JB: What was the gist?

JG: They asked me to do certain things. I was meant to speak to an audience of photographers who’d come for the review. People pay a lot of money to get there, so they wanted to give them as much take home as they could. Usually, people ask me to come and explain my work. This was more about whether I could tell them, at this point in their career, how things worked for me, when I was coming up. I said it isn’t really applicable anymore, because it’s a whole different world.

So I told stories, if you will. The running joke was that I was the speaker to crush all hopes, dreams and aspirations. But I think by that point, a lot of people had gotten a lot of opinions from people, so they’d already done that.

JB: You took it easy? I was hoping to get some dirt on what you said to crush all hopes and dreams, but it didn’t come to that?

JG: Basically, there were all sorts of photographers with different ambition levels as far as a career goes. I told them, “I’m a fine art photographer. I show in galleries and museums, and I do photography books. I don’t do commercial assignments.” By this point in my life, I would be awful at it, because I don’t take instruction well.

What does that mean? I tried to base it on the simplest business model. You’re selling a piece of paper for thousands of dollars. Why can you justify that business model? What I’m trying to do is make photographs that don’t fully reveal themselves, except after multiple, multiple viewings.

If a collector buys a $5000 photograph of mine, and puts it on their wall, and they have basically gotten from it everything they can get, in a month…I’ve ripped them off.

I’m actually sitting here right now, and there’s an Atget photograph right next to me that I’ve probably had for twenty years. I just turned my attention to it, swiveled in the chair to look. It still utterly amazes me. It’s the greatest bargain I ever spent on a piece of paper. That’s what artwork has to be. It’s not immediate satisfaction, or the whole business model is wrong. We make objects of fascination.

I saw a few people’s photographs in Santa Fe, but not a lot of portfolios, because I didn’t have a lot to offer to the people who were there. They needed concrete results. The few people who had subtler work, who weren’t getting immediate feedback of “I’ll hire you, or I’ll give you a show”…I wanted to talk to them to say that they may well be doing it right.

Somebody asked me once what the perfect reaction to one of my photographs would be, when someone saw it for the first time. I said it should be sort-of-like, “Huh.” That’s about right. “Huh” means “there’s something there…I don’t quite understand it…but there’s something that attracts me…something that I want to look at again.”

That’s what I try to do for me. To keep me interested in what I’m doing.

JB: How do you go about approaching the concept of subtlety like that? Most of the work that you do involves being out there in the world, navigating, and making pictures. What goes through your mind to force you to pull back? You’re talking about aesthetic restraint, in a sense. How does that work?

JG: It isn’t exactly thought about. When I’m out shooting, I’m not thinking. I’m reacting. It’s almost like the photographs are offered to me. That’s sort of an acquisition phase, if you will.

One of my oldest friends in photography is a photographer named Lewis Baltz. We’ve known each other since the early 70’s. Lewis is the ultimate conceptualist in the way he approaches things. Lewis knows what he wishes to do, and then he makes photographs based on those concerns, based on where he thinks he should go to illustrate those concerns most succinctly. I’m the absolute inverse.

I may set some parameters, like I’m going to Italy to photograph, or I’m going to Berlin. But I’m totally open to the world educating me on what the content is.

Having made photographs for a long time, I trust my ability to make photographs. Things almost appear to me. “That looks like that could be a photograph.” And most of the time it’s not.

I came back from this trip to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Colorado with about 130 rolls of film, because I was really pushing photographs that I didn’t know how to do. Looking at the contact sheets so far has been depressing. So many mistakes and so many stupid photographs.

Slowly I’m beginning to see the ones in there that are interesting. They’re a surprise to me.

JB: As we said, you’ve been making photographs for over 50 years. What were you doing that you didn’t know how to do? What were these challenges? Were they technical, or spiritual?

JG: It was very practical. I wanted to stand back further. I wanted to see how far I could be away from something and make contact with it. I’ve always appreciated tremendously another good friend of mine, Robert Adams. When you go to Colorado, you think of Bob Adams. There’s no way around it.

JB: Indeed. He owns it.

JG: He photographed things at great distances that seem intimate. I always thought, god, I don’t know how he does that. How does he make that work? I’m not shooting mountain ranges and tract homes.

I’m thinking “All right, step back a little further. Try to make the point of what you’re photographing almost hard to discern.” I failed a lot, because composition is like juggling a number of balls. I can only juggle six at once, and I was trying to juggle twelve.

Most of the time I dropped the ball.

The light of the fires and the smoke changed my whole sense of what light I should be photographing in. Very quickly we lost that clear-cutting Western light, for an overall smoke plume. I did a number of things with that that were of interest to me.

Changing the context of what I was doing, I started photographing right on the edge of Cañon City, where, if the fires had come over the hill that was separating the fire from the city, this neighborhood would be the first to go.

It’s not that uncommon in the West, especially these days, to have these fires. For me it was a totally different way of thinking about the anarchy of nature. (ed note, Now those same folks are worried about flooding at the end of the same Summer. Crazy.)

JB: To me, that’s why Mr. Adams’ work was so successful. It’s his emotional connection to the place. It’s almost expressionistic in that regard. You’re so aware that there was a human being, standing there with a piece of technology, capturing light.

Do you feel like maybe we’re entering a phase where it becomes far more about the accrued wisdom, knowledge and personality of the photographer, instead of just the light and texture and tonality? Does that sound reasonable to you?

JG: Everybody thinks their now is an exception to the rule. I thought so in the 70’s, and the 80’s. You think “We’re different.” The more you look, you realize we’re not.

Let’s just say, in the US, though of course it’s a world-wide community of photography, there are 25 serious voices working today that will be kept. It’s true, there’s a lot more to be disposed of now.

Look at photo books. Someone said we’re in “the renaissance of photo books and the dark ages of content.” That was the quote.

JB: That’s not your quote? Because it’s a good one.

JG: It comes from an email from a friend who I shouldn’t credit, because he’ll get in trouble.

JB: Of course you’re right, that everyone thinks their time is exceptional. But from where I stand, it’s hard not to look at the numbers game. Even if the amount of quality practitioners doesn’t vary, we’re living in a time where there are tens of thousands of photographic artists out there who all believe that they’re the ones who have something to say.

So it does seem exceptional, in that the amount of material that is constantly bombarding us is unique, in the history of photography.

JG: When I was coming up in New York City, there was little outside the city. Photographic education consisted of taking Lisette Model’s class, and maybe taking Brodovitch’s workshop. That was photographic education.

On the East Coast, there was also Minor White, whatever he was teaching at MIT, which I was never quite sure about. And at RIT you could learn how to make film with Kodak. That was the end of photographic education.

Then the programs came along. I taught graduate school for 14 years at the University of Maryland. My sense is that it’s one of the greatest educational failures of the American education system.

The College Art Association did a survey once, that I came across in their magazine. They surveyed people who had MFA’s in all fields, not just photography. They asked, five years out of graduate school, how many of them considered themselves working artists.

Five years out of school, it was 13%.

If you taught medical school that way, you’d be thrown out of school. You wouldn’t be able to teach. It’s a phenomenally abysmal statistic. There are no more really interesting voices out there with school than there were before it.

I think people become interesting in spite of it, as opposed to because of it.

JB: Let’s go there for a second. Is that not something that people are missing in general? The need to be interesting as a human being? The need to cultivate interests and passions, and contradictory attitudes? To take risks, and fail?

Where do people go wrong?

JG: Where do people go wrong? (laughing) I’m not the one to say that. With respect to the programs, I can only speak to the places I’ve been: Yale, Bard, Columbia College. People who have asked me to come and speak recently.

People have to defend their work, week after week. That’s brutal. You have talk about it all the time, but that’s stuff you can’t talk about. There’s this incredible pressure on projects, as opposed to sensibility. Most photographic projects do not resolve a subject in any particularly interesting way. Photography subjects do not tend to come to resolution.

They’re a framework in which a sensibility exists. That’s totally misunderstood by most of the younger photographers I meet. They think that projects are inherently interesting. Most projects aren’t.

One of the people I’ve gotten to know recently, and I’m going up to his opening next week, is Roe Ethridge. He’s a really, really interesting photographer. When I met the students at Yale a few years ago, basically, everybody wanted to be Roe, as far as I could tell. They sort-of admitted to it.

It’s unsolvable, what he does. It’s a mixture of everything. Commercial, un-commercial. We did a talk together in Paris, and he said, many years ago, he showed my book, “The Pond,” to his teacher Ron Jude, who told Roe that I said I made pictures to annoy people. He said he took that as the best gospel he’d ever heard.

I think Roe makes pictures to annoy people, but they’re brilliant. Just wonderful. They have nothing to do with the way I think about books, or sequencing. I enjoy seeing that. His is a unique, original voice.

Art is made by individuals; it’s not made in theory. It’s not made by being reasonable at all. It’s made by being obsessed. And you can’t teach obsession. You can’t teach obsession that’s intelligent and inviting.

People just come up in spite of all this stuff.

[Part 2 Tomorrow]

Canon city CO 2013

Canon City Fires 2013

Trinidad, CO 2013

Young Artists Syracuse NY 2012

Young Artist Syracuse, NY 2012

Zack Arias Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: What’s the story with the beard? How long have you had that not-quite-quasi-ZZ-Top-looking thing?

Zack Arias: I have not seen my chin in sixteen years. I had a goatee after high school, and then in ’95, I went on a trip around the US, and I decided not to shave. It’s a really good device to cover up double-chins.

So I’ve just stuck with it. I had to cut it off once for a part-time job delivering pizzas. Other than that, I’ve had this stupid monster on my chin for a long time. One reason I keep it is it’s a reminder that I can’t go back to a normal day job. I have to make photography work for me.

It’s lost all its color, though, after four kids. It’s all gray and white. Part of me is ready to lose it, but none of my kids know me without it.

JB: I’ve had mine about as long as you’ve had yours. I can’t really imagine going back, they do become a part of our personality, no?

ZA: They do. I would not be able to think about things without it. Whenever I’m thinking, I twirl and pull on it. If I cut it off, I would be so lost.

JB: It’s a good point. It definitely is an advantage for guys like us. It makes us appear smarter…

ZA: Yes.

JB: …and it gives us that extra beat. That extra two seconds to figure something out. You touch it, and look pensive, but really you’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say, and I need to come up with something quickly.” Is that about right?

ZA: (laughing) That is exactly it.

JB: Our secrets have now been divulged to the cyber-sphere.

ZA: Awesome.

JB: Isn’t it safe to say you don’t have any secrets from the cyber-sphere?

ZA: Not too many. I try to be a fairly open book, wherever I am in life. I used to operate differently. I would play my cards close to the chest, and embellish whatever I was working on so people would believe I was working on more important things than I was. The whole fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude.

That didn’t go well for me, and my whole life fell apart. I’ve always been active on forums, or some sort of water-cooler-esque type of thing where photographers commune and get together. I just decided that when I came back to photography, I would be truthful with myself, and my colleagues. For better or worse.

And it’s been a lot better. I don’t feel like I have to position myself with anyone any longer.

JB: And yet so many people are nervous and afraid to speak their mind. Wouldn’t you say?

ZA: Yes. I think so. Some people are nervous about sharing where they are in their life or career, because maybe they have to keep up the persona that “Hey, I’m busy, and things are going great.”

In a world where we all need to be nice, and professional, and everybody’s worried about sticking their neck out, or saying anything that isn’t nice…if you have a problem about something in your industry, you keep your mouth shut.

There are fantastic arguments to be made for that. I do bite my tongue a lot. But then there are times that I let it loose. I’m going to say what I think, and try to be professional, and hope that works out well.

JB: I can relate. When I started writing for Rob, almost 3.5 years ago now, he encouraged that type of honesty. I remember being really uncomfortable the first few times I let it fly. His advice, which I took very seriously, was that people respect honesty.

In my research, looking at the way people respond to you online, where you have a huge presence, it seems like there’s been a correlation with your success. Or am I assuming too much here?

ZA: I would agree with you. My goal is not to build a community, or build numbers, or get people to follow me or read my stuff. My goal is to interact with my industry, my peers and colleagues, and help out where I can.

But I am going to say what I think. The people I interact with, I want them to be the kind of people that understand that. They don’t have to always agree with me, but there has to be a mutual respect.

I don’t want to make everything sugar-coated and happy, trying to bring in as many people as possible without ever stepping on toes. I think people do react to people who are genuine. People who are honest.

You can tell that about someone by just going through their twitter feed, or reading a few blog posts. I think my number one hero in this industry today is Joe McNally, and he is the most genuine, humble, truthful, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy.

He’s very helpful, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s honest with his success, and his failures. I love that man, as a photographer, as well as a person. There’s not many people I look up to more than McNally.

We’ve all met the divas and the rockstars, and their ego enters the room before they do. I don’t want to associate with that, really.

JB: As a photographer, have you found that working in such close quarters with people, under pressure-packed environments for years, that you can kind of smell that ego and attitude as soon as it walks in the door? How are you at getting quick reads on people? Is that a skill you think has evolved?

ZA: Absolutely. Maybe it’s a personal skill that you just bring to photography, or to life. But being a photographer, especially working in editorial or commercial fields, you never know who you’re going to be in front of, and who you’re going to be interacting with, day to day.

You get an email that says you’re assigned to go shoot Mr. Jones, over at ACME company, and when you walk through the front door, you have no idea who you’re going to meet. It is a good skill to be able to size people up quickly.

In photography, you don’t have very much time to interact. If I feel like this person is puffing themselves up, that lets me know how to deal, and get the best picture out of them. Sometimes, I’ll play into that, if it lets me make the best portrait I can.

Other times, I feel like I need to bust through the veneer, and I understand the veneer, because I too had that myself. But I want to bust through that, and get something different.

It’s a good skill to have, but I can’t say if photography has taught me that, or not. You get that gut feeling about someone, when you meet them.

JB: Speaking for myself, it’s definitely a skill that I’ve learned over time.

ZA: Yes.

JB: I know I was naive and worthless for some time. But pushing 40, I feel like I’ve begun to figure it out. It’s funny, because in a youth-obsessed culture, we often under-value these skills that you can only learn from taking your knocks.

ZA: Have you seen Craig Ferguson’s rant on youth?

JB: No.

ZA: It was one of his opening monologues. Fantastic. He comes out and says, “I’ve figured out what all the problems are.” He talked about the fact that society used to appreciate experience, wisdom and age, and then it turned to celebrating youth, and became stupid. That kind of thing.

I just hit 40, and I start to worry, am I going to be as relevant? Every art buyer I meet is fresh out of school, and twenty-something, and here comes the gray-haired old guy. But the reason that I really appreciate where I am in life now, though I know I still have a long way to go, is that I bring experience to things that don’t have anything to do with lenses, cameras and lights.

I can walk in a CEO’s office, or a hip-hop studio that’s filled with weed smoke, and I can do my job. Experience is invaluable.

JB: We’re all looking for that sweet spot. Because we’ve all seen work by older photographers, and we scratch our heads and say “when did he lose it?” So a lot of people are wondering “how do you keep it?”

ZA: I hope that the hunger to evolve always stays with me. This October marks the ten year anniversary that I left my day-job, and put a stake in the ground. I said, “I’m gonna be a photographer, dammit.” I had failed before at this venture, and this was my second chance to make it.

I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last ten years, but I want the next ten years to look different. When I hit 50, I want to change it up again. I don’t want to settle in.

JB: But for you, it’s not just shooting, of course. I think a lot of people are familiar with you through your web presence. You’ve got a popular tumblr in which you answer people’s questions, and you just turned that into a book.

You make yourself accessible to others, and you teach workshops, sell T-shirts. Do you see teaching as much a part of who you are as clicking the shutter?

ZA: I do. I actually had to back off on teaching, because I’m a photographer. I’d been asked to do some workshops, and I really enjoyed it, so I did some more. Then, a lot of my regular music-industry client work fell out from under my feet.

Teaching kind of caught me, so I started doing it more. But then, all of the favorite pictures I was creating, at that point, were at workshops. Not personal projects, or going out and getting steady client work.

I was becoming miserable as a photographer. I’ve watched photographers become popular with their web presence, start teaching, and stop shooting. We don’t really see them take pictures anymore. Yet they’re constantly out there saying, “Come on photographers, I’m going to help you out…to do the thing that I don’t do anymore.”

I love teaching, and I’ll continue to do it, but I want you to find me with a camera in my hand. I don’t want to just set up at the end of the dock and sell bait. I want you to find me with a hook in the water, and if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m going to tell you, and share my experience.

I don’t think I can be a relevant teacher, if I’m not out there shooting, and working with new technology. If all of your stories are, “Well, ten years ago, I was on this job…” I’d rather say “Ten days ago, I was on this job, and this is how I dealt with it.”

JB: I want to talk to you about Cuba, because the Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and a little birdie told me that you did a workshop with those guys in Cuba. Then I saw on your blog that you made some images down there as well. So I thought maybe we could consider you our resident Cuba expert for the day.

ZA: For the day, yes.

JB: Are you comfortable with that moniker?

ZA: I’ve only been one time, with the folks from Santa Fe. They brought me in to lead a group of photographers through Havana.

JB: So what did you think?

ZA: It’s an Un-Believable place. And the people are so amazing. Cuba is just an unreal, fantastic place. The thing I tell people, when I start talking about it is, get your ass to Cuba. Get there now, before it opens up. Before the casinos come back, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner.

It’s a remarkable place that is just on our back door.

JB: What were some of the things that were most appealing to you?

ZA: The people were the most appealing, number 1. Number 2, it was meeting fellow photographers, Cuban photographers and artists.

They have done so much with so little for so long that they can do anything with nothing. Some of the best photography that I’ve seen in a long time was done by Cuban nationals that are down there.

The stories that they tell, like when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was the red-headed step child, and they got dropped. “Sorry, you’re on your own.” One photographer was telling me that during that time, there was no film. But he had gotten his hands on some expired, 35mm movie film, and he and a buddy of his cut it up, and put it into canisters. But they didn’t have any chemistry. So they went hospitals and doctor’s offices, and got the expired chemistry that they used for making X-rays.

With vinegar and water and such, they built their developer, stop and fix, and it was super-contrasty, but it worked. So they kept shooting.

I met another photographer who had gotten hold of an old Nikon D40, or something like that, and he had an old Minolta lens. Of course, the lens didn’t fit on the body, and there were no adapters. So he would take pictures by holding the lens in front of the body, and focusing it, and he made it work.

As far as other forms of art, it’s like, I’ve got some phone books, and a cardboard box, a broom, and someone’s going to make prints. It’s a purity, and I walked away from that experience in Cuba looking at all of us photographers in the West, in the developed world, and we have everything, and we’re not doing anything with it.

They have nothing, and they are pouring out their heart into the craft. They are so sincere about photography, and art in general. We went to a ballet school, and a boxing school, and the kids are so passionate.

It blew me away, and showed me how fat and rich and spoiled we all are. I left half my gear in Cuba. I dispersed it to people who needed it, and the next time I go, I’m going to buy some used stuff, or things I’m not using much, and leave all the gear there.

“You need a camera? Here you go. You need a flash, here you go.” You take down some AA batteries with a recharging unit, and you’ve made a friend for life.

JB: It sounds like the experience offers the photographers who come down to the workshop more than just the chance to photograph old cars and beaten up doors and windows.

ZA: Absolutely.

JB: It seems like degraded, weathered old Cuban things are images that we’ve seen so many times. How are you able to guide people away from just clicking the shutter at cliché?

ZA: You’ve got to remember, some people just enjoy photography for the sake of photography. They’re not trying to cure cancer with their camera. They’re not trying to be the next Richard Avedon, or Mary Ellen Mark. They go to Cuba, and they cannot wait to shoot an HDR picture of an old Chevy.

That is their dream, and they’re going to go home, and make a big print of it, and put it on their wall. Then, they’re going to sit back with a huge smile, because they’re going to remember going to Cuba, and getting their HDR picture of an old Chevrolet on the side of the street. And they’re going to love that.

You and I will scoff, and gag, and say “NO!” and tear at our clothes, but you’ve got to let people just enjoy it. Sometimes, I’m jealous, because there’s a lot of pictures I never take because everyone takes that picture, and I’ve seen it a million times.

What I tell people, especially on something like going to Cuba, is let photography be secondary. Your camera is your passport into experiences. There’s an old Jay Maisel quote that I harp on all the time: “If you want to become a more interesting photographer, become a more interesting person.”

You do that through increasing your experiences in this life, with the people you meet, and the things that you see. Going to Cuba will definitely make you a more interesting person. It opens your eyes to things, socially, politically and economically. You come back different, with a new perspective on life.

The pictures are good and fun, and of course you want to go down there and make photos. My thing is portraits, so I wanted to get some of those, and street photography and such. But when I think of Cuba, it’s not about the photography. I think about the people, and the music and the food and the art. Sitting out by the ocean, watching the young kids jump in the water. And the rum, and the cigars.

And the stomach bug I had for two weeks after the trip…

JB: OOOOOH.

ZA: All of that. I don’t think about the pictures, but the camera is what took me there. It allowed me into the doors of people’s homes, places I couldn’t have entered otherwise. The camera was the excuse to share a coffee with someone, which was far more valuable than whatever picture I took.

Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. It’a heck of an answer. So good that I’m going to spin it on you. Given how well you just described Cuba, now I’m a little curious about where you’re based.

I’ve only been through Atlanta, the ATL, one time. It was very brief, many years ago, and let’s just say my memories were clouded. We’ll leave it at that.

What’s it like down there in Hotlanta? You’re from Georgia, right, so this is home turf?

ZA: Home turf. Yes. I wasn’t born here, but I moved here when I was three, so close enough.

JB: That will qualify. Is everyone hangin’ out with Ludacris, smokin’ blunts and going to Braves games? Or what?

ZA: That’s just our life. No, Atlanta a great, big city that allows you to do whatever you want to do with your life. It’s got a big enough population, 5 million and growing, that it can handle that, but it’s still a small town kind of feel. The life in Atlanta is all about the neighborhoods.

Our downtown kind of sucks. Don’t bother going there. The life is in the neighborhoods. We’re a networking city, so we love to connect people with other people. Whenever I’m out talking to someone, very often I’ll say, “You know what, you need to meet this other guy I know, because he’s working on something you could connect with. I’ll put the two of you together, because I think y’all could do something with that.”

I get a lot of work in Atlanta like that. Two people are having a conversation, and then my name will get dropped into there, and then I get an email connecting me to someone else.

We’re a great hub. I love our airport, because I can go anywhere in the world I need to be.

And I would say we rival New York in food. If you want to come and eat amazing food in Atlanta, I will send you home fat, happy, and bloated out of your mind.

JB: Something tells me New York wouldn’t necessarily compete with you guys on the biscuit and gravy front. I would think you have that all wrapped up.

ZA: I’m talking international cuisine. Not just southern food. One of our favorite places to go eat is this little dive called Hankook Taqueria. It’s a Korean taqueria with a little Southern flair to it. It’s unreal.

We have the best pizza you’ll ever put in you mouth, in this town. And I’ll say that to any New Yorker.

JB: Are you intentionally trying to provoke controversy here? I feel like you are. If you’re going after pizza…

ZA: It’s hip hop. You’ve got to have some rivalry. We got to talk crap about other places and people.

JB: (laughing.) So this is now the pizza version of Dirty South claiming supremacy over NYC-style hip hop? Is that where we’re at?

ZA: That’s where it’s at.

JB: It’s hard out here for a pimp. Is that what you’re telling us?

ZA: (laughing) One of my top three favorite movies ever, right there. Hustle and Flow.

JB: It’s a great, great film. I actually found that out by reading an interview you recently did in which you claimed that those interviewers were the most prepared and excellent that you’ve ever interacted with. So I felt that, given I was guaranteed to not be number 1, I could just be lazy. I didn’t have to do any prep.

I really felt empowered by the fact that someone else was automatically better than me.

ZA: (laughing) Well you should. Because Tina and Ryan at The Great Discontent are…

JB: They’re better than me.

ZA: They’re blog gods.

JB: I hear you. I’m not even being sarcastic. I accept the fact that I am a blog human, and not a blog god. I’m empowered by it. You’ve done me a favor.

ZA: Come on? Don’t you want to rise up to the occasion?

JB: Nope. Nope. I’m a lazy, GenX slacker, man. You’ve been generous with your time. Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know about? When did your new book come out?

ZA: It’s been out a month or two. I can’t even remember.

JB: Where can people find that? Amazon?

ZA: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, things like that. But I don’t want to toot my own horn here. I do want to give a shout out to you, and Rob, and everyone working with A Photo Editor. You’re my number 1 photography-related blog that I follow.

There are a lot of good photography blogs, but about the industry, and working, and the people that you profile, everything Rob’s built has been fantastic.

And a shout out to the Santa Fe Workshops too. They took a chance on me, doing this trip to Cuba, and I appreciate that. Get your ass to Cuba. That should be the name of this article.

JB: Get your ass to Cuba. That’s the un-official title. And that was very classy of you. In all of my interviews, you’re the first person who’s ever turned it around with a reverse shout out to us. Good on ya.


Sam Abell Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Are you still in love with photography, or has it gotten boring after all these years?

Sam Abell: That’s a good question. I was asked by a student what my most significant accomplishment was at National Geographic, after thirty years, and I said that my career came to an appropriate close, and I still loved photography. Not everybody who spends their career at anything ends up fascinated and involved with it.

I think that it’s workshops, honestly, that have kept me keen about photography, and about my photography. My career as a workshop photographer came while I was at the Geographic in the late 70’s, and has continued consistently since then.

It actually has transcended my career at the Geographic, so that when my career there ended, I had momentum as a teacher, and a belief in photographic education at the workshop level.

JB: Forgive my ignorance, but you speak of your role as a photographer in the past tense. How and when did that come about? Do photographers retire?

SA: (laughing.) Well, I can’t speak for other photographers, but the photographers who went forward strongly when the so-called “official” part of their career ended, to me, were those who had taught. Teaching enriches and enlivens one’s work.

When assignments were over, photography continued. One of the primary reasons it did was that I wanted and needed to have fresh work. Also, it’s very stimulating to be around non-professional photographers. They’re the ones with the purest flame burning about their photography. I appreciate that.

My Dad took a workshop from a photographer who worked at the Toledo Blade, a newspaper I delivered. I knew this photographer’s work. My Dad took a night class from him at the University of Toledo. Without that class, I wouldn’t have become a photographer, because my Dad came home and taught me what he learned in class.

People say to me, “Who’s your favorite kind of photographer?” Or “Who would be your favorite photographer to have in a workshop?”
And I always say, “My Dad.”

My least favorite photographer to have would be myself. Someone who wanted a career at National Geographic. Because it’s almost mathematically impossible to achieve that. It’s more difficult now, to be a Geographic photographer, than it was when I came along. And it wasn’t easy at that time.

JB: That’s the assumption that a lot of people are making these days. I often find myself talking about the literal tens of thousands of photographers who’ve come through art schools and educational programs in the last few decades. To speak nothing of the everyday hobbyists and enthusiasts.

If I was able to travel back in time, and tell you in 1974 that there would be 5 billion camera-phone wielding photographers in a few decades, what would you have said to something like that?

SA: That would astonish me, of course. For example, in my dorm, at the University of Kentucky, I had the only camera. I don’t think anyone came to college with a camera, other than me.

JB: People are constantly trying to parse what it all means. It seems like some people are astonished and excited about the fact that the world has become obsessed with our particular passion. Then you see a camp that’s almost resentful, because citizens are undercutting a lot of people’s jobs. The entire landscape seems as if it’s built upon earthquake territory, at this point.

How do you view this incredible shake-up that we’ve seen in a pretty short span of time?

SA: I’m in the first camp. I’m glad about it. I welcome it. I’m keenly interested and excited for this moment in photography, and am glad to have seen the evolution of it.

It was unexpected, of course, although I was a consultant for Kodak back in the late 80’s. There were engineers there who told me that in the future, most photographs would be taken on telephones. They weren’t able to do anything with that. They were engineers, not management.

But that’s the first time I heard about that astonishing idea. And now I’ve been watching the tsunami of images.

The class that I teach is called “The Life of a Photograph.” It takes up the question, of the billion photographs that were taken today, how many will have a life, and why? So the new reality has made the question more pertinent, not less pertinent.

JB: Anything that has any potential to stand out, one in a billion, needs to have something special about it. That seems like an obvious assumption. As a teacher, how has your approach to people’s expectations shifted?

SA: It’s shifted in a good way, away from what you might call the singular successful image, to the sustained body of work. Yes, there are billions more photographers, and billions more photographs every day, but who’s building up a point of view? Who’s photographing with intention, and whose body of work will sustain itself and survive?

This might seem off the track, but an interesting thing to me that others could talk about better than I, but one of the growth areas in photographic education has been the so-called slow photography. The tin types, daguerrotypes, collodion process…old processes, in short. Old, time-consuming, craftsman processes in photography.

The thing with my workshops is, photography is a thoughtful process. In an atmosphere of fast photography, and generally thoughtless, quick, automatic photography, I think that there is an interest in the slowed down, thoughtful approach. Even though I teach with 35mm, my method takes people by surprise, because it isn’t fast, and it isn’t about hardware or software, or even great results. It’s about great process.

JB: You’ve been teaching at the Santa Fe workshops, the sponsor of this interview, for a really long time now. How did you originally get involved with Reid and the crew?

SA: I met Reid at the Maine Photo Workshop, where he was #2. I saw him in action there, and when he went out to Santa Fe, I wanted to help him succeed. So my connection to Santa Fe is very closely, and continuously a connection with Reid. I believe in him and his philosophy of photographic education.

I teach at a couple of other workshops too, but I’m most loyal to Reid, and he’s been very loyal to his teachers, and to me personally.

JB: Do people come to study with you with the secret hope that you’ll help them launch the one in a million shot at National Geographic? Or do you mostly get students who appreciate your vision, and your understanding of color and light?

SA: Increasingly, it’s people not interested in National Geographic. In the last workshop I taught, a woman flew in from Thailand. She’s a medical doctor in Bangkok. I asked her in her one-on-one session where she wanted photography to be in her life.

Did she want a second career? Was it about earning money? Or was it art? And she said “None of those. I want photography to be serious in my life.” It would be like someone wanting music, like piano playing, to be a richer, deeper, and maybe even harder experience.

That’s who comes to my workshops. I jokingly tell my students that the class could be called “Your photographs: Better.”

JB: Well I’m sitting here, and it’s probably morbid, twisted professional curiosity as much as anything else, but I’m looking at “Stay This Moment,” one of your monographs, that I got at the Taos Public Library.

I’ve got the book open to a photograph of some cowboys castrating cows. This one guy actually has a surgical blade, covered with blood, jutting out of his teeth, while he’s getting ready to do some business.

SA: Right.

JB: It says something about me that I’d choose to leave that page open…

SA: (laughing)

JB: …but it seems as if you’ve seen quite a few crazy things in your days of traveling around the world taking pictures. Is that a safe assumption?

SA: That’s safe. But the picture that you chose is a singular picture for me. Probably the most singular. It’s on the spine of an upcoming publication of mine, in four sections. In other words, there’s four boxes, and each box has a section of that picture.

JB: And that’s a Radius publication?

SA: Yeah, that’s right. Though Geographic didn’t publish that photo in the story that it was done for, “The Life of Charlie Russell,” a cowboy artist in Montana. But later, maybe a year and a half ago, they named it one of the 50 greatest pictures ever made at National Geographic.

The picture has had a life, and after Geographic didn’t publish it, I got busy and published it in the book that you have, and wherever I could publish it. It’s a photograph that has gone on to have a life.

It’s also a good example of how I teach the composition of photographs: from the back to the front. Even though the picture is dominated by the cowboy in the foreground with the surgical knife in his mouth, the composition begins with the landscape, which was the first thing I saw.

Then it jumps forward to the cowboy, and everything in between is what I’m looking at. The last thing I’m looking at is the red bucket, as it exits the frame.

But the picture wouldn’t exist if the cowboy on his horse in the distance weren’t above the horizon. If the horizon were going through the head of that horse, I wouldn’t exhibit or publish that picture.

There are things that I teach, about building photographs, and that’s why people come to my workshops. Word has gotten out: Sam Abell has a way to take pictures. When people come to the workshops, they’re consumed with seeking the subject, and I teach seeking the setting.

JB: It’s kind of you to share that with the audience. I’m looking at these cowboy pictures, and they’re so iconic, I can’t help but segue to the fact that you were, at one point, the photographer entrusted with creating the massively important 20th Century archetype of the Marlboro Man.

As a National Geographic photographer, and an editorial guy, how did you come to work on that campaign?

SA: Well, I did it once, and they recruited me. I did it primarily out of curiosity. A lot of legendary photographers had worked on that campaign. Ernst Haas had done the early photography, and I knew him. There’s a lore in photography about that campaign, and I was curious.

So I did it once, and they asked me to do it again, and I declined, because my curiosity had been satisfied. It was enjoyable, interesting, and an insight into Americana on several levels that I couldn’t get any other place. Insights into advertising, and big production photography, which is the opposite of what I usually do, operating as a single person.

It was interesting to see the spectacle of a shoot like this, but it only occupied three or four days out of my life.

JB: Wow. Where were you guys shooting?

SA: New Mexico. Over where the Philmont Scout Ranch is located. The other side of the mountain from you.

JB: Up by Cimarron?

SA: Exactly.

JB: Who knew? I don’t like to be predictable, but given that our audience has risen up in anger many times about what Richard Prince did to you, or to your picture, I’d be a fool if I didn’t at least bring it up.

We all know the circumstances through which appropriation got hot in the Art World, and came to represent Post-Modernism. I would guess almost all of our audience will sympathize with you, as opposed to Mr. Prince. But would you mind if we briefly discussed your reaction to the way your Marlboro Man photo was appropriated?

SA: Let’s put this way: Richard Prince’s most famous photograph was made by me.

JB: Right. What does it feel like to be in that position?

SA: I will just say, appropriation is an intellectual idea until it happens to you. It’s a philosophy, and it’s got its own intellectual framework. Then there’s what happens when it’s your photograph. Then it’s personal, and that’s all I’ll say.

The reason I don’t want to say anything about it is it has a strange power to take over the conversation. Just like it’s doing with us. I was asked to participate in a documentary about Richard Prince, and be the voice of someone who was appropriated, and I declined. The reason I did is I don’t want it to be the subject of the discussion of my work.

It has that power.

JB: I appreciate that, and I will honor you and move off topic as we speak. I brought up the cowboy images, because they’re so powerful in this particular book. Clearly, through your work, you’ve been able to travel quite a bit. Now, I’m looking at a picture of Lake Como, and there are also pictures here from Japan.

Is there anywhere in the world that you always wanted to go, and haven’t yet had the chance? Or have you scratched all of your curiosity itches?

SA: I would like to go to Antarctica. That’s about all. I’m very involved in photographing America now, so I don’t think of faraway places, as I did when I was young. As I said in the Radius book, I now want to be a photographer of my time, and our common culture.

It’s what I’m photographing, and I’m very involved with that.

JB: Where have you been photographing lately?

SA: Wherever I am. I’m never not on assignment. What I’m interested in is modern American history. I’m taken with the changes that have occurred in America in my lifetime.

I’m interested in smokers standing on ledges, and big box stores, the rise of the suburbs, and the hollowing out of small towns. Self-storage. Things that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Our common culture. What we have agreed is OK to live with.

In my first class at the University of Kentucky, my American Literature professor came in, and the first sentence out of his mouth was “The central theme of American Literature is an attempt to reconcile what we’ve done to the New World.”

I wrote that down in my notebook, and thought, “What is he talking about?” But that’s what I think about now. The New World and what we’ve done to it.

I did a story for the Geographic on Lewis and Clark, and Stephen Ambrose was the writer. He said, “I’ve got the easiest job in the world. I just have to re-tell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job, which is, pretend like nothing has happened in the last 200 years.

That statement woke me up to the fact that the landscape that Lewis and Clark came across was greater than the Serengeti. And it’s gone. It’s been replaced by agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and cities and towns, and networks of transportation. If that happened to Africa, there would be a world-wide outcry.

But it happened here.

 

Michael Crouser Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Right now, you’re in the Seattle airport, having just come from Alaska. Is that right?

Michael Crouser: That is correct.

JB: What were you doing up there?

MC: I was working on a job for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, shooting portraits of Alaska fisherman. Both subsistence and commercial fisherman, all along the Southeast and Southwest of Alaska.

JB: Wow. Had you been there before?

MC: Yeah, I’ve been to Alaska quite a few times, working for different clients. I also have worked on a personal project there.

JB: How big of an area were you ranging?

MC: I started in Juneau, which is in the extreme Southeast, and I ended up near Bethel, which is in the Southwest of the main body of the State.

JB: Can you translate that into the lower 48?

MC: Miles?

JB: Yeah. How far were you rolling?

MC: Boy, that is a good question. I just don’t have any idea. I’ve never sat down and calculated how far it is from Juneau to Bethel. But while I was near Bethel, I was going up and down the Kuskokwim River, photographing the fishermen in the different villages.

JB: Well, you and I have had a bit of a difficult time hooking up to do this interview. It occurred to me only last night that your lack of Internet might have something to do with you traipsing around the bush and the backcountry.

MC: It has everything to do with that. Occasionally, I could go to a tribal council office, where they would have Internet service, but it wasn’t available in most of the places where I was.

JB: You were in a pretty remote locale.

MC: Absolutely. But I like that. I’m very interested in these kinds of experiences and circumstances. It’s nice to see how other people live in the world.

JB: Did you get to eat some really killer fresh fish? What was the cuisine like?

MC: The most interesting thing I ate was walrus. They also have a dish that is made with seal blubber or shortening with sugar and berries. They call that Eskimo ice cream, so I had some of that as well. And I tried some moose meat. When you are in the villages, they really do live a traditional, subsistence life.

JB: Where will these photographs end up? Were you shooting digitally or film?

MC: For this type of job I always shoot digitally. I never shoot digital for my personal work, but commercial clients really don’t want to deal with film and prints anymore, for the most part. This client will use the pictures for a number of different things, as they’re trying to build a library of portraits of Alaska fishermen. They’re trying to promote the human aspect of this industry.

JB: You were shooting some pretty burly dudes, for sure. And you’ve photographed biker dudes as well, no?

MC: Yes, I’ve photographed members of a certain motorcycle club that operates out of Brooklyn. I’ve gotten to know some of these guys, and hung out with them, and done some portraits of those guys.

JB: And even though you’re a nice, soft-spoken guy from Minnesota, when you were shooting those big fishermen, do you ever slide into character and start dropping F-bombs?

MC: I do find myself shooting in a lot of different kinds of cultures and sub-cultures, and I never really try to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. Whether it’s ranchers in Colorado, or bikers or fishermen, I can pretty easily join in. I don’t pretend I’m one of them, but they don’t seem to mind having me around, just being myself.

JB: How do you split your time between commercial and personal work?

MC: It’s a tough question, because it changes with the different phases your life goes through. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re in the phase. It used to almost all commercial, and a bit of what I would have called personal work.

I didn’t have an outlet for it as fine art, so I never thought of it as such. Now, I’m more involved in book publishing, gallery exhibitions, and selling my work. So personal work becomes fine art, with that label.

I spent a lot more time on that, these days, than I do on commercial work, but that’s not by any personal rule. I’m always open to whatever happens.

JB: Well, the impetus for this interview was that you and I met last year, when you had a show at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe.

MC: Right.

JB: I was really taken with the project, “Sin Tiempo.” I saw some really exquisite black and white photographs, that I recall being gelatin silver prints. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.

MC: They are.

JB: And they were photographs taken in Europe that had the feel and emotional tenor of fifty, sixty, seventy year old pictures. You look at them sideways, and you can easily imagine some of the pictures being made by Cartier-Bresson, or Willy Ronis, or somebody of that age. Then, I looked at the title card, and they were dated as being 2011, 2010, 2012.

MC: Right.

JB: I was taken aback by your ability to channel a sense of time dislocation. The experience of the art was very different from the literal time in which it was made. And when I mentioned that, you told me that was very much your intention.

MC: It is very much the goal. I don’t claim that I’m trying to make old-looking photographs, but I am attracted to scenes that don’t give away a sense of popular culture today. I’m not very interested in reflecting or commenting upon our popular culture, and a huge percentage of photographers today are interested in that.

It just doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. A lot of times, photographers are trying to make a critical commentary, or some kind of an ironic statement about the world in which we live, and I find myself looking for something that’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. A timeless aesthetic.

I call the project “Sin Tiempo,” which is “Without Time” in Spanish, because I prefer that to timeless, which is an overused and generic term. I’m trying to make pictures that are without time. I’m not conscious of trying to make pictures that look like they’re from the 40’s or 50’s, but I am conscious of eliminating elements that label it as now, or five years ago. Any specific time.

So there’s no particular hair styles or graphics that are shown. No cars. No fashion that would be able to be labeled as any particular time. And what you get are photographs that do look like images of another time. Fashion changes by the minute, as does typography.

JB: I’m about to throw a word at you, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to embrace it, or reject it strongly.

MC: (laughing.) All right.

JB: And I bet you could even predict it, if you tried really hard.

MC: (pause.) You already used Cartier-Bresson, and timeless, so…I’m not sure.

JB: Romantic.

MC: I think it’s great. I’m interested in an aesthetically pleasing, Romantic, perhaps even dream-like settings. I really am drawn to that. The compositions are rather formal, but the feeling is whimsical. Even the photographs that have some tension to them, there’s always still a Romantic feel. Or a calm feel.

Romance is a good word.

JB: I didn’t know which way you’d go on that. You’ve photographed bull fighters, and working cattle ranches in Colorado. You were talking about timeless, and of course that’s impossible, given that photography requires time, which our readers will know.

But it seems like there is an absolute sense of of longing for a simpler time. What is the attraction for you? What is the commonality of the things you’re choosing to focus on?

MC: Tell me if I go off-the-rails here, but there’s an aesthetic commonality in the photographs. I would hope, anyway. I can’t speak for the viewers, but for me, I am attracted to ways of life that are simpler. But also a little more dangerous. A little rougher. A little of the Earth. More to do with life and death. And the involvement of animals, and physical labor.

I find those things attractive/romantic, both sociologically and photographically. I always suggest to students that if they go after a long-term project, they go after something that interests them outside of the photographic interest. That they find something that they are attracted to, because then they’ll stay with it and explore it more deeply.

With regard to bullfighters and cowboys, we really are looking at at way of life that extends backward to before there were even cameras. This way of life existed before there was anybody to take pictures of it. And there are elements if it that have remained unchanged.

The series I call “Mountain Ranch,” which is about ranchers in the mountains of Colorado, concentrates on the traditional elements of traditional lives. It’s not the story of the modern cowboy. I’m not trying to hold up some juxtaposition between four-wheelers and horses, or baseball hats and cowboy hats.

It’s just that these things are fascinating to me, and they’re going away, as is their lifestyle. Part of it is, I just want to look at it. I love being around it. It looks to me like something that I, Michael Crouser, should be making photographs of because it appeals to me so strongly.

I don’t really know what to say when people say “It’s great that you’re documenting this for posterity.” I agree, but it’s not necessarily the full motivation. It’s interesting to me to be documenting for that purpose, but I think the motivation is mostly an aesthetic one.

These things grow. It starts off as something you might like to go take a picture of, but then you meet people, and start becoming interested in their lives, and families, and the way they work. And the fact that their grandparents lived on that land as well.

I’m not photographing everything about their lives. I’m photographing the traditional elements of their lives.

JB: You mentioned your students at the beginning of that answer, so that seems like a great place to segue a bit. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, because you’re going to be teaching a worksop with them called “Finding Your Voice as a Photographer.”

MC: Right.

JB: We just heard, at length, about how you have learned to trust your own instincts. And that’s lead to your voice, aesthetically speaking. But all workshops need titles, so why did you choose that one? What do students come to you to learn?

MC: Before I started teaching, I was doing some self-exploration, as a photographer. Just wondering to myself what it is that makes my pictures personal. Why are they mine, as opposed to someone else’s? I became fascinated by this idea that by a series of decisions, or factors, or elements in a photograph, you start to hone your aesthetic voice.

The choices that you make with regard to light, medium, equipment, composition, perspective, subject matter, etc. As you work through those things, and experiment, your photographs become something more personal. More unique to you than they would be without the consideration of those things.

A lot of students that I have in my workshops are really interested in taking another step in their photography. That’s kind of a general way that people express the fact that they want to grow and learn and expand.

It’s often difficult for people to know where to go. How do you open up the door if you don’t know where the door is? So this class looks at a number of doors that are there for the opening. When you start to explore these things, and consider the work of established photographers, and how they use these elements, they get exposure to choices that they can make.

A lot of photographers who take these classes have never thought of these things before. Maybe they like to take pictures of their kids, or horse races, or maybe they’ve never thought about the qualities of light that appeal to them the most. Once you start experimenting with your own preferences, I feel like your own voice gets sharper. More articulate.

JB: How about group dynamics in workshops? What are some of your tricks for getting people to engage with each other?

MC: I’ve found I like teaching more in a group setting, than working with individuals, because there’s more discussion. It becomes more apparent to the students that there are differences of opinion, and different aesthetic tastes. It happens all the time where one student will be very attracted to garish color, and the student sitting next to them will say “That’s ridiculous.”

There are two vastly different opinions about the same photograph. I think that is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows them that taste is personal, that there is no right or wrong. That’s an important piece of this class, because I don’t teach people that there’s a correct way to take photographs.

I teach people to explore what is they like about photographs, and what they like about taking pictures, and to run with it. Explore it.

JB: Do you find people are attracted to your way of making work? Is there a Romantic vibe in the air, when your students come together? Or are they more attracted to the fact that you’re confident in your personal vision, and they want you to bring that out in them?

MC: I think that some people end up taking a class because they like the instructor’s work, but I wouldn’t say that’s universal.
There are a few classes in which I ask people, just as an exercise, to emulate one of the photographer’s whose work we’ve seen. And there are a lot of things we do as exercises that don’t necessarily correspond to the work they’re going to do for the rest of their life.

But some people do choose to emulate my photographs, which is incredibly flattering, because it never occurs to me that people are there because of my aesthetic. But I am also aware of the fact that there are a lot of reasons to choose a certain workshop instead of another one.

JB: You mentioned that you show other photographer’s work in you workshop. Who are some of the artists whose work you like to use as examples?

MC: I like to show extremes. I try not to just be limited to the people that influence or inspire me. There are people that I find to be controversial, whose work I show.

Are you looking for names?

JB: Of course. We’re always looking for names. People love names.

MC: There is a lot of the aesthetic that appeals to me, like Edward Curtis, and of course Cartier-Bresson, and Willy Ronis, and Robert Doisneau, and Lartigue. I call it the French Mt. Rushmore. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Lartigue and Brassai. It’s an era that speaks to me so strongly.

But I also like people to see David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, and Albert Watson and Herb Ritts. (pause.) I’m trying to think of more contemporary photographers…Susan Burnstine…

JB: I demanded names, and you gave us some. Now we know you’re also intrigued by editorial masters, as it were. I just wanted to give people a sense of what inspires you.

MC: I might add that I’m inspired by people who are inspired. I’m inspired by certain photographers, but I’m also inspired by teaching; by people learning and growing. It really gets me going.

JB: Do you enjoy getting to come down to New Mexico? It sounds like you get to travel quite a bit. Do you think that Santa Fe offers anything special, compared to other locations?

MC: It’s a great atmosphere in which to learn. The people are so nice in Santa Fe, and at the Workshops. They’re so helpful and positive. They make available a lot of locations that the students can utilize, apart from classroom learning. There’s a lot at hand, as far as landscape and setting.

When you go to Santa Fe, you know you’re not in California, or Minnesota, or New York. People get a uniquely Santa Fe experience when they’re there, from the light to the farmers market. It’s a great place to be. Very comfortable and positive from start to finish.

JB: As far as travel goes, we started this conversation mentioning that you were on a long layover in Seattle on your way to China.

MC: I’m going to Beijing. It will be my first time to Asia. I’m going to speak to the organizers of an upcoming exhibition, to help them plan it from the photographer’s perspective. I do a lot of work for and with Kodak, and they’ve been so very supportive of my projects with Tri-X film and darkroom chemicals. They’re sponsoring it.

JB: If when you’re walking along the road, you see knock-offs of your own photographs, what are you going to do?

MC: It’s interesting that you mention that. I recently found some different examples of knock-offs of my pictures online. People selling paintings of my work, and things like that.

JB: I have an idea. You could just bring in the biker dudes.

MC: Right. I could mix projects for protection.

JB: You gotta call in backup.

MC: (laughing) I like it. They’d probably love it. Riding their Harleys around Beijing.

Jock Sturges Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: How did you come to photography as a method of expression?

Jock Sturges: It’s an important question, because the answer sets the groundwork for my whole life’s work. At age eight, I was sent away to summer camp. And, from eight on, I was in boarding schools or summer camp right until I joined the Navy in 1966.

That’s pretty young to be away from home. These were all boys boarding schools and all boys camps. I had as well four brothers, all of whom were similarly sent away. No sisters.

So, as circumstance dictated it was in these schools and camps where I was obliged to find what family I could – amongst the other boys. And right from the beginning I had an appetite for beauty. Due to a chain of circumstances that involved several broken arms, I wasn’t allowed to do sports for several years, and ended up swiping a camera from one of my roommates who had in turn swiped it from his dad. I was eventually able to make prints from the work I was doing. My roommate’s mother came up for a visit and saw some of the prints of her son on the wall and took them down and kept them. 

JB: (laughing.) For real?

JS: But she paid me for them!

JB: OK. 

JS: What was then a small fortune.

JB: How old were you?

JS: I was about eleven at that point.

JB: You sold your first work at eleven? I haven’t heard that before.

JS: Right away, I discovered that many of my friends’ parents suffered from guilt for having sent their children away to school so young, so, as it happened, there was a nice market there for me. Some of my friends in turn figured out that they were a kind of cash register, and wanted a cut of course 

JB: I sold lanyards. I had a friend making them, and I was basically the middle man, selling lanyards around the lunchroom in what was probably seventh grade. I think you have me beat, for an early understanding of capitalism. 

JS: The capitalism was a side affect for me. It was certainly very much enjoyed, because we had no spending money. But really I was keeping the images of my friends because at the end of the school year, or the end of summer, many kids would disappear. You’d never see them again. Their parents would be transferred to Europe, or wherever.

It was a way of keeping family. And beauty was also a big part of that for me. Boys can be very beautiful, and I was drawn to it, right from the beginning. Long before that, when I was five, my parents moved into a house in Providence that belonged to my great uncle Howard Sturges – a legendary bon-vivant who was Cole Porter’s partner for much of his life. Anyway, there was a big set of US Camera Annuals, in the bookshelves of that house, which I just loved. There, inexplicably, I fell in love with Grace Kelly because of two images of her swimming in Lake Como. I had a massive crush on her. I was five or six.

I don’t have any particular explanation for why that aesthetic appetite exists in Homo Sapiens, even in young children, but there it is. 

JB: I was going to ask if you were coming from the North East. Was your family part of the cultural tradition of boarding school? 

JS: In fairness to him, my father had been sent away at the same age himself. It was just how it was done. The English pattern. My family came from money, but several generations before them. I like to describe them as camped in the ashes of a great fortune. 

So I grew up with the trappings of privilege, but almost none of the economic leverage. The good schools, etc, were actually paid for by a relation. I came out of that, making photographs all the time, but mostly just of the other boys, because that’s who I was around. It wasn’t until after four years in the military, where I was a Russian interpreter living in Japan for three years, that I found myself finally in a context that included women.

This was Marlboro College in southern Vermont. It was very small, 200 students, and I arrived right at the height of the sexual revolution. The school’s only rule was, whatever you’re doing, just please close your door. 

That was paradise for me. I was finally in the context of women, and finally really happy socially because the truth was, I’d never much liked talking about cars and…

JB: Sports? 

JS: About cars and sports. Exactly. The conversation with women was instantly more interesting to me than any conversations I’d had before. The critic, AD Coleman, has since described me as having a strong feminine aspect, and I really appreciated that clear perception of who I am. It realys fit with my own sense of self.

From that point on, I only really photographed girls and women.

JB: But your first experience, based upon your age, and the age group of the kids with whom you were billeted, was in photographing young boys.

JS: Very much so.  My cofrères.

JB: Is that something you think people are familiar with?

JS: It’s been in an interview here or there, but it’s kind of the bedrock of where it all comes from.

JB: At what point in your evolution as a photographer did you start working with nudes?

JS: Not for a long time. When I was at Marlboro, in Vermont, I did some. But the work then was really fueled more by hormones than intelligence. I was 22 or 23 years old, and new to the game of sex and relationships. Making pictures of naked women struck me as an enjoyable endeavor. But it left me feeling hollow, somehow dishonest, so I stopped pretty quickly

Then in 1973 I took a feminist workshop in Minneapolis/St Paul as part of a larger workshop I was doing on alternative education. It changed my life significantly, because, for the first time, I started to really appreciate the problem with objectification in nude photography — and how much of traditional photography of women was hard on them as a group. Abrasive, even.

I came away from that deciding I didn’t want to make photographs like that, and I actually stopped doing nudes for almost ten years. But then, almost accidentally, I stumbled upon the fact that making portraits of people over a long period of time transitioned the work from being about the body to being about relationship. In the same time frame I found myself in a counter-culture context in California where nudity was commonplace and shame absent. This was an epiphany for me!

This encounter with people who had no complex about simply being naked combined with my experience with feminism in the early 70’s and set me on a completely different path from where I started. Very happily so, because, since then, I have not photographed a great many people, but I have photographed the people I do photograph a great many times.

JB: So what led to photographing younger girls was that starting earlier enabled you to potentially open up a lengthy, multi-decade process?

JS: That’s exactly right. In fact, as time went on, I got more and more interested in even starting with pregnancies, when possible — starting as early as possible so that I felt like, when I’d been photographing for a number of years, that I really knew something. 

Now, I’m photographing a third generation. You begin to have something on the order of a significant understanding of who a person is when you’ve known her parents, and then their parents before that, most of their lives.

The first two Aperture books did me a real disservice, in that respect. Michael Hoffman refused to allow me to edit them chronologically, as I wanted to. I had edited my first book, “The Last Day of Summer,” with a great editor from Aperture, and we had worked it out together as a chronology to our mutual satisfaction. With each of the models depicted, you’d see them getting older image by image, and that painted the picture of a relationship.

That didn’t suit Hoffman at all. He wanted to edit it graphically, so he ditched our chronology as not interesting, and basically did it as an exercise in graphics. His mantra was, “You don’t know anything about making books. I do. Shut up.”

JB: Had you gotten your way, it sounds like you would have created something within the realm of what Nicholas Nixon did with “The Brown Sisters,” which, of course, drew him massive acclaim.

JS: Exactly right. I’d been doing lifetime studies for a long time at that point. I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just pictures of pretty girls, it was a long-term relationship with a huge amount of respect as the engine, and that the project was open-ended and continuing.

All my subsequent books with Scalo and Steidl, etc, and, after Hoffman was gone, even with Aperture were in fact edited chronologically.

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1990

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1996

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 2011

JB: It seems like a great opportunity to talk a bit about the way your vision of your own process, your motivations and intellectual curiosity, have led you in one direction. Clearly, the elephant in the room here is the way an audience, critics, and other people have responded to what you’re doing.

It’s not edgy here to say your work is among the more controversial that’s come around in the last three or four decades. 

Can we start with the way you react to other peoples’ reactions? What’s it like for you, when you feel your own actions are coming from one place, and other people are responding from such a massively different set of assumptions?

JS: The Aperture book set off a certain amount of reaction that was conservative, as you depict. I think, if it had been edited chronologically, that wouldn’t have necessarily been the case, as much as it turned out to be. Subsequently, most of those critical voices have gradually been stilled, by seeing the chronologically edited books, and the long, long timespans.

And then came the Aperture book, with Misty Dawn which described a quarter of a century of her life. That kind of calmed people down. It became impossible not to realize that there had to be a profound level of trust between a model, who was letting herself be photographed for that many years, and who then entered her own child into the process. There’s no harm being done there. Just the opposite, in fact.

In fact, the work is reifying, and re-enforcing in a very positive way for the models. Simply put, the people whom I photograph love both the process and the work. People who are too conservative to appreciate that, frankly, just don’t interest me that much. I’m fine with how the work is made. I know that it’s a great joy for me to make it, and it’s a huge pleasure for the models to be in it.

Finally there are only two entities that I answer to: myself, and the models. What the rest of the world makes of it is, frankly, just not that interesting or relevant for me.

JB: Context is key. It’s hard to have any kind of art conversation in the 21st Century without bringing it up. 

I’ll speak plainly here. I saw one print, decontextualized on the wall at Aperture a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been face-to-face with the work before, and it threw me. I had a very powerful, negative, visceral reaction to it. And I wrote that as well.

It was just one print, a slice pulled out of the narrative that you’re describing. I have to say, I think it did you a disservice in that regard.

JS: We’re not there to protect the work and make sure that doesn’t happen. 

To advance my notion of it, the most important thing in my work is an absence: the absence of shame. The people that I photograph are basically living a lifestyle without clothes because that’s the lifestyle they choose. They’re not taking their clothes off for me. They live that way.

That’s one of the things I discovered at Marlboro, was that getting people to take their clothes off for you is something that’s been done rather too much. It’s essentially artificial; kind of understandably hormone induced. 

I have this visual curiosity, and became fascinated, later in the 70’s, when I finally started on the body of work that I’m doing now, by the reality that I encountered in the counter-culture in Northern California. Dress or undress was dictated only by weather – not social convention. A new world.

There I found the nude, per say, as something that was organic to the being of the people. They were completely unashamed of themselves. Coming from the East Coast, an absence of shame was a little startling, because I was raised on it. 

That absence, even in an individual picture, can be breathtaking for people who’ve been raised in a context where it doesn’t exist. Where the body is hidden, and where nudity is routinely conflated with sexuality. That’s really not my problem, and it’s not the model’s problem. It’s the viewer’s problem.

JB: That’s why the work creates such powerful conversations, and can so easily end up in the political crosshairs. Given the times, and the decades we’re talking about, did you ever find yourself in a room, sharing a conversation with Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano? 

JS: No. I never met either of those two artists. I wish I had done, and I would have been intrigued to speak with them.

My roll as a test case, as it were, was not a role that I enjoyed or embraced in any way. I wish that it had never happened. But, culturally, it was more or less inevitable. The fact that I was unaware of that, and hadn’t thought to predict it, is evidence, once again, as AD Coleman points out, of my naiveté.

As we record this interview, you’re in New Mexico and I am in France in a naturist resort with a summer population of 29,000 people on the Atlantic Coast. There are many other such resorts up and down this coast and elsewhere in Europe. I’ve been coming here for thirty years. Nudity means nothing to anybody here. People come here to exist wearing whatever they want. When the weather is cool, people wear something. If women have their period, they usually wear bottoms. People wear whatever’s relevant or nothing – as they please.

Children, especially, are rarely clothed here, because they enjoy so much not having clothes on. If you exist in that context for a while, it gives you an artificial notion of what’s reasonable behavior as regards the rest of the world. This is such a comfortable place to be. 

JB: It’s great to learn more about the roots of your process, especially as one who was so offended by the work out of context.

Given that we’ve been talking about nudity, that seems like a good segue to discuss your upcoming workshop with the Santa Fe Workshops. It’s called “The Portrait and the Nude.” 

How long have you been teaching? 

JS: Pretty much my whole life. I’m kind of a natural teacher, if I can say that without sounding self-aggrandizing. It’s probably the thing I do best in life. I love it.

It is an abiding sadness for me that, given the political take on my work, probably no major University would dare hire me. But I’m brought in as a lecturer from time to time and I love doing it. I particularly like looking at people’s work, and then trying to help them figure out how to do it better. 

JB: What do you think are the advantages of working in small groups? What is it like for you as an instructor, and what do you think your students tend to get out of the environment?

JS: Every student is a different person, and it’s my job as a teacher to try to figure out who they are, and then turn the key in their lock to help them be better. Help them manifest themselves in the work. 

In a small group, I have time to spend with individuals, to try to get my head around who they are, what skill set they have, and what skills they could use to go further. Sometimes, that’s a manner of looking at what equipment they’re using, and then figuring out if they’re frustrating themselves unnecessarily by using equipment that’s not appropriate for what they need and want to do. You’d be surprised by how often that is the case.

Other times, it’s talking about the larger philosophies that are behind making pictures; understanding them, and how they relate to what they might have been born to do. I’m not much fond of art schools, where people are often taught to think in parallel as it were — where political cant has a large place, and political correctness often holds sway. This can result in students manifesting popular schools of thought as opposed to the individuals they were born to be.

My assistants during the summer come from The Norsk Fotofagskole in Trondeheim, Norway. Five years ago I had occasion during the Nordic Light Foto Festival to review the school’s entire student body’s work during one long day. No student had work that was anything like anybody else’s! Every student was doing completely original work and all of it was extremely well-made. That’s a terrific photographic education.

That’s my ideal. I’m trying to help the students be individuals. I don’t want them to be me by any stretch of the imagination. I give a gentle hard time to those people who think they’re flattering me by resembling me.

JB: A gentle hard time? I haven’t sorted that out yet. I’m more accustomed to a hard hard time. 

JS: I really believe in blowing on sparks and encouraging people. Figuring out what it is that they do well, complimenting them for it, making them feel good about themselves, and then getting in a little medicine by saying, “And you could do this even better if…” I never want to do anything but encourage students.

JB: In something like this, where the purpose of the workshop touches so closely on your own process, do you ever encourage students to photograph people with clothes on? Does it always stick to the nude? 

JS: Absolutely. What I like best to do, if it’s a two day workshop, the first day we’ll shoot kids who are dressed. Working with young people obliges the students to be decent people, because kids won’t pose for them if they’re not. 

Kids simply won’t accept a person who’s being mean to them, or being officious, bossy, or pushy. You’ll get nothing from them, under those circumstances.

Then, for the second day, we transition to the figure, which a lot of people come to study. I still emphasize, of course, that you need to be treating this person as a person, not a model. It’s vastly better if you accept from them what they have to give, and not tell them what to do. The set of ideas we have when we instruct a model to pose is tiny, compared to what people do naturally.

There is far more beauty in the awkward grace of a natural position than there is in any sort of Neo-Greco-Roman pose. If I never saw another one, it would be too soon. I’m sick to death of all the arms behind the head and everything. No thank you!

For a five day workshop we do two or three days of younger models followed by the days of figure models. I let the group decide on the balance of what they want to do.

JB: What about San Miguel de Allende, where the workshop is taking place? Have you been there before?

JS: I’ve taught there I think as much as a half a dozen times. It’s a terrific location. My first workshop there was a real eye-opener, and was actually my first time in Mexico. San Miguel is at altitude, and has enormous charm. As a photographer, it is a paradise of brilliant locations and amazing light.

The model population is surprising too, because they’re not the kind of over-tired, worn-out models that I sometimes associate with workshops. They tend to be relatively new to it, and quite beautiful. They’re interesting people, and the workshop students become enamored of them. They develop a relationship and of course that for me is the holy grail.

JB: I’ve been through that part of Mexico. It’s lovely. There are some cool, smaller cities around there, like Guanajuato and Queretaro. Do you get out of San Miguel at all? Are there outdoor shoots?

JS: They’re all outdoor shoots, and we go all over. We go to people’s ranches. We spend a day up at an abandoned silver mine, which is a bit higher. It’s a long trip up there, but it’s a stunning location.

We definitely get into the real Mexico doing this. It’s as rich a workshop experience as anyone could ever hope to have. At the end of the week, we are all pretty beat, because we do so much. Tired but happy.

The Santa Fe Workshops does a great final evening, where everyone’s work is seen. There are slide projections. It’s a terrific experience for people. It’s my favorite workshop that I’ve taught. 

JB: That’s great to hear. I’m glad we got a chance to talk about it, as the Santa Fe Workshops are sponsoring this interview series. We all know each other here in New Mexico, and I’m a big fan of how they promote education and creative practice.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on right now?

JS: This evening I’m shooting Flore, whom I have known for more than 25 years. With her kids. So I’m doing a mother and daughter portrait there. 

At a greater distance I am leaving for China in a few weeks where I have a series of museum openings of my work to attend. I then come back to Europe to print a new book of 25 years in the life of my goddaughter, Fanny, with Steidl. And then I get to finally fly home.

JB: What’s the light quality like on the Atlantic Coast this time of year?

JS: The light quality is staggering. The first time I walked onto this beach, 30 years ago, I suddenly understood the Impressionists in a new way. The light here is stupefying. It has a lot of moisture in it, and in the evening, it fluoresces. Things are lit from all directions when you’re on the beach. 

Shadows have an enormous amount of information in them. The highlights are soft, with beautiful, beautiful scale. The light saturations here are just so richly appealing. 

JB: Do you get to travel around and hit the museums, or do you mostly stick to your beach?

JS: I tend to be doing just one thing. I’m either with my family here, or I’m shooting. I’m also in Europe a lot during the winter. That’s when I hit museums and shows, because I’m omnivorous. I’m much more influenced by paint, in fact, than I am by photography.

I love ingesting new art. It’s one of the reasons why I love teaching so much because I see things I would never have thought to do myself. I hope that I’m learning permanently.

JB: I try to use this platform to encourage people to go look at work as much as possible. I find, anecdotally, when you talk to photographers, they often say they’re too busy. But I believe, without good input, there’s very little chance of great output.

JS: I couldn’t agree more. You are what you eat. Period.

Occasionally, I’ll teach someone over the age of 60, and they’re often a lot harder to teach. Very often, they’ve made up their minds, and they’re not taking on new ideas. Because I am 66 now, I’m terrified of that ossification.

I’m always trying to push myself, and at least once every couple of days, I’ll make a picture that breaks some or even all of the personal rules I have for making pictures. I don’t want to live in a cage of my own habit and practice. Often those experiments fail – but not always. The only truly bad picture one can take is the one that one does not take at all. We learn from all the rest.

Alec Soth Interview – Part 2

[Part 1 is here]

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: You’ve got a publishing company, LBM, that you started in 2008. Is that right?

Alec Soth: Correct.

JB: It’s based in Minneapolis. You built a team of collaborators, and a print studio. How did that come about, and where is it going?

AS: It’s related to how my blogging activity came about. I started the blog around 2006, and did it because I wanted to have these conversations with people. I was hungry for art talk, and there was a new way to do that. One person could just do it.

It was a blast, but it became all-consuming. I felt like I needed to keep feeding this machine. So I quit.

Then, in 2008, I was having a show of work that was basically produced in the previous eight years: “The Last Days of W.” It was election time, and I wanted to mark this moment in time, so I self-published this newspaper. I made 10,000 copies, so I could make it as cheaply as possible. Like so many people do, I found that experience of self-publishing to be thrilling.

I threw this little name of Little Brown Mushroom on it, which has some special meaning attached to some other stuff. I didn’t really know that I was going forward with it.

JB: Is that a little nod to your psychedelic phase?

AS: Not at all.

JB: Truffles, porcinis? Where are we going with this?

AS: None of the above. I never had a psychedelic phase. Like I said, I’m of a pretty conservative background. The name comes from different things. There’s this character in my life, Lester B. Morrison, and his initials are LBM, so I was looking for LBM.

In researching different LBM’s out there, LBM is a mushroom hunter’s term for a Little Brown Mushroom, which is mushroom that is incredibly common, but you can’t identify it because it’s so common. I liked that meaning: making these little average things that are unidentifiable.

JB: Is that Mid-Western humility?

AS: Honest to god, it’s not true any more, but as a kid, I used to say my favorite color was brown. Is that humble, or is that just pathetic? (laughing.) I don’t know.

JB: Peculiar. We’ll go with peculiar instead of pathetic. I’m not going to be the guy to call you pathetic in print. It won’t be me. Idiosyncratic? How about that?

AS: Idiosyncratic. That works. More important was Lester B. Morrison, at the time that I was doing this. I created this name, Little Brown Mushroom, and I thought, that’s fun, I’ll do some more stuff, and get some other little ‘zines. This was all just me doing it myself: my own design, everything.

Then, I got interested in story-telling, and thinking about how children’s’ books are such a great way of combining text and image. I wanted to use that format, so I ended up finding this designer named Hans Seeger, who was excited to work with me on this. I had the idea of using the Little Golden Book structure.

We did one of these with the Australian photographer Trent Parke, and that was hugely successful. It sold out in five days, and was just a thrill. The act of creating a website, and selling this thing… it only cost $18, but it was not my own. It was another artist, and another designer. To be involved with that, and to sell that was just exhilarating. As exhilarating as making my own work.

I wanted to have a place to play with that stuff, but I was really adamant that I didn’t want it to be a grown-up business. I didn’t want the success of the first book to become intoxicating. Like, for the next one, we have to get a bigger name artist, and sell more copies.

The goal has always been to break even; to not lose money. And to have this experimental, fun place. I can try out new stuff, and the stakes aren’t so high.

JB: I noticed that a lot of the things you’re offering through LBM have sold out, including the tote bags and baseball caps. Have you ever considered giving people what they want? If they want more, sell them more? Or is it too much extra work to reproduce things? Have you thought about that? Being able to make money because people want to buy your stuff?

AS: I’ve thought about it a lot. We re-printed one thing, which is “House of Coates,” because Brad, who was the writer on that, really wanted it out there. He wanted more people to have the opportunity to read it. So I did it.

Generally, I have not wanted to do it. The primary reason is that it’s a pain in the ass. Like I said, there’s this enormous thrill about getting together with an artist and designer and making this thing. It is not thrilling, however, to receive the boxes, to put them in little containers, to put them in the mail. It’s full of problems and returns and hassles.

Re-printing an old thing, and trying to promote an old thing, it’s just not exciting. Very simply. With my limited time, I’m not that excited about spending it that way.

JB: We’re talking about Little Brown Mushroom at present, but the initial question reflected the fact that you’re a highly successful artist, and you’re lecturing around the country, constantly. It sounds like it would be enough of a job for anybody.

Are most or all of the folks at LBM based there with you in Minneapolis? I’ve heard a lot of great things about the photo community there. Did you always plan to stay there, or did you ever consider moving to New York or LA?

AS: First of all, not everyone is here. The main designer is in Milwaukee, which is not at all close to here. Another designer is based in Philadelphia, and one in New York. But most of us are here.

In terms of being here, it is a great photo community. It always has been, based largely on good support for the arts in Minnesota.

JB: Some folks actually move there to be able to qualify for the McKnight Fellowship?

AS: Yeah. That is true. I always thought I was going to live in the Bay Area, because it’s…

JB: Insanely nice?

AS: Yeah, it’s insanely nice. And there’s a great photo community.

JB: They’re pretty hot right now, too.

AS: I have a lot of friends out there. I thought that was going to be the case, but real life circumstances kept me here for a variety of reasons. When I had some art world success, I confess that I flirted with the idea of New York. And then, I came to my senses on that one. For a moment I thought about it, and I’m so grateful I didn’t do that.

In terms of staying here, it’s not Paradise. I don’t want to over-romanticize it, at all. It’s freaking April 17th, and I’m looking at snow right now. So it’s ridiculous. But as I travel around, it’s a pretty good place.

JB: And you guys have Kirby Puckett. (pause.) No, that’s right. He died.

AS: (laughing.) Yeah, we no longer have Kirby Puckett.

JB: See that. Even my attempt at topical sports humor crashed because I remembered Kirby Puckett died a while ago.

AS: Not only did he die, there was a big sex scandal before he died, so it’s even more depressing.

JB: Oh my god. I didn’t know that. I read an article a couple of years ago in Sports Illustrated that rattled off the litany of Walter Payton’s indiscretions. He shot some guy. That one crushed any of my childhood sports idealism that was left. If Sweetness was a prick, there’s nobody left to respect.

AS: (laughing) One quick thing, though, I’m not super-engaged with the local community. I don’t want to give that impression. We have a lot of interns from the local schools, but I travel all the time.

When I’m here in Minnesota, I’m either at the studio, or I’m with my family. There’s not much else. But it’s a good place for that, because I don’t have to socialize all the time. If I lived in New York, I’d have to go to a freaking opening every weekend.

JB: We’re clear. If people move to Minnesota to get a McKnight, they should not plan to hang out with Alec Soth all the time.

But as far as bringing people to town, you’re having a camp for introverted storytellers?

AS: Socially awkward. Introverted is your word. If that’s your definition of socially awkward.

JB: I totally pulled that word off the website description. Don’t make me Google it right now.

AS: (laughing) OK.

JB: I know the deadline for submission will have passed by the time this is published, but where did you get the idea to set up a camp?

AS: In the last year, I’ve been doing this project with Brad Zellar, and he and I are doing these road trips. For every one of these, we work with a student assistant. They’ve been incredible encounters. And I like to think we have potentially changed people’s lives.

As I told you at the beginning, I had a teacher who changed my life. So I really want to be a part of that experience. I feel like the traditional educational structure is a way to do that, but it doesn’t have to be the only way to do that.

JB: That structure is in massive flux in 2013 anyway.

AS: Yeah. There are things that can be done with it. I am outside of that structure, but I’m hungry to have that be a part of my life. Doug DuBois is a good friend of mine. He and I teach together one week out of the year in Hartford.

JB: They have a low-residency MFA program there. Is that the term?

AS: Limited residency. Doug teaches at Syracuse, full time, and goes to Hartford for a week. He is clearly one of the great educators. A couple of years ago, Doug was awarded the SPE educator of the year. This parade of students came on stage, one by one, talking about his influence in their life. It was so powerful.

Wow, I thought. It’s such a meaningful thing to do. I want a piece of that. I want to engage with people in that way. So, how to do that?

I thought, why not do something here? I’m invited to do workshops all the time, but it’s always a pain for me, because I travel too much. It’s hard to justify it to my family, to go away, again, for something else.

I thought, why not have people come here, and do it entirely on my own terms, so I can make it what I want to make it. The fact that it’s free was a big part of that, for a number of reasons. One is I didn’t want the expectation of anything. I feel like if you charge $2000 for a workshop, it needs to be officially certified in some way.

JB: You start judging yourself by value added.

AS: Yeah. And it’s also going to attract different people. This is just a big experiment. It’s hard to talk about, since I haven’t done it yet. But I’m really excited about it.

And I continue to be excited about working with these students on the various “Dispatch” trips.

JB: Good luck with it. It sounds exciting.

AS: Thanks.

JB: But we’re deep into this interview, and I realize we haven’t been able to talk about your big career news, that is relatively hot off the presses. By the time we publish this, it will be slightly less fresh. But you were just given your first Guggenheim Fellowship.

AS: Yeah. And last, because I think you can only get it one time now.

JB: Congrats, on behalf of our disparate global band of photo geeks. What project did you propose?

AS: I’m really committed to this “Dispatch” project. To explain what that is, it’s a collaborative, self-published newspaper. Brad Zellar and I do a two-week road trip, in a certain geographical location; usually a state. We tackle whatever issues and topics we feel are pertinent to that area. We’ve done four so far: Ohio, Upstate, (which is Upstate New York,) Michigan, and Three Valleys. (Which is in California.)

JB: San Joaquin, Death Valley, and Silicon Valley?

AS: Right. And then next month, we’re doing Colorado.

JB: Just up the way from here.

AS: We considered doing the Four Corners, but ended up doing Colorado.

JB: I just drove across the state yesterday. I left Jersey, where it was 65 degrees and sunny, and I landed in an actual blizzard in Denver. It was pretty horrendous. Back to the topic though…

AS: We’re continuing that project, and we’re using the Guggenheim funds to expand it in difficult-to-fund regions. We’re doing Texas, and it’s easier to get funding there, than some place like Idaho. It’s a very expensive project because there are three of us traveling, and I pay Brad. Then we produce the newspaper.

It’s a pretty epic project, and the Guggenheim is going towards that. I’m also fund-raising in other ways, for the project, which I’ve never really done before. I just believe in it really strongly.

JB: I can’t wait to see how it evolves. You’ve been so generous with your time, so I know we have to wrap this up. Are there any exhibitions coming up that some of our readers might be able to see?

AS: No.

JB: (laughing) I try to end this with the most average, softball question anyone could ever ask, and I get a one word answer that totally subverts my intentions. That’s awesome. It’s a great ending right there, unless you want to say “Goodnight, Gracie.”

AS: This new work that I’m doing, I talked it over with my galleries, and I’m not selling any of it right now. I want to wait. That’s part of the Guggenheim, and other funding that I’m getting as well.

I’m using it to give myself some space to produce this work without showing it, and selling it, and doing all of those things, until it’s done. It’s like the way one would do with a movie. I’ll release it when it’s time to be released in its entirety. Happily, I don’t have any big shows on the schedule.

Billy. Ironwood

Cade and Cody. Au Gres-Sims High School Wolverines. Au Gres

Facebook main campus. Menlo Park

Highway 15, near Daggett.

Jesse Reese. American Legion Post 205. Dover Burial Park. Dover, Ohio

Martin Etchamendy, Basque shepherd. Outside Bakersfield

Miguel, ten months old. Woodville Farm Labor Camp. San Joaquin Valley

Near Kaaterskill Falls

Alec Soth Interview – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: When did you first start taking photographs? When did it all begin?

Alec Soth: In high school, I had this experience that a lot of people have. I had a great teacher that woke me up. In that case, he was a painting teacher. He did a little session, once, on photography, and I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. But I knew that I wasn’t a painter, deep down.

So I did other things. I made sculptures outdoors, and stuff like that. I went to school thinking I’d be some sort of painter or installation artist. While I was in school, I discovered photography in a new way, partly through photographing these sculptures I was making outdoors.

JB: This is at Sarah Lawrence?

AS: Sarah Lawrence. Correct.

JB: You studied with Joel Sternfeld?

AS: Yes. Joel taught there, but it was impossible to get a class with him. He was too popular. So I took two different summer courses in photography, while I was home in Minnesota. One was at the University of Minnesota, and the other was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

I got excited about photography, and then finally got into Joel’s classes. I took two classes with him, and it was amazing and fantastic.

JB: What were some of the core concepts that embedded in your young artist consciousness when you worked with him?

AS: It’s curious. At that time, when I fell in love with photography, I was a typical American who was influenced by American things. I was really influenced by that American tradition of photography, in which Joel was a major player.

You know, that whole MoMA, Stephen Shore, Eggleston to Walker Evans trajectory. And I was in love with that. Road photography. The standard stuff.

The curious thing about Joel, as a teacher, he was adamant that people not mimic him. He’s interested in a lot of different things. This was, at the time, 1990 or so. Post-modern, Cindy Sherman, staged photography was the rage. He really encouraged that.

The truth is that I did that sort of work back then. And I didn’t do work like him, or straight photography much at all, at that time. But I wanted to. I just felt that it wasn’t right to.

His influence is a peculiar one. I loved his work, I loved him, but almost out of respect, I didn’t want to work like him. It was only when I was away from school that I started dealing with his influence, and the influence of that generation of photographers.

JB: Do you now feel comfortable seeing your work in that continuum? It’s funny that you mention MoMA, because I was just there, and there was one wall in the permanent collection installation that was totally insane. It has one of Joel’s pictures, and then the Bechers, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Eggleston, and then below it were all the Ed Ruscha artist books. It was like 200 square feet of real estate that captured the fantasies and wet dreams of tens of thousands of American photographers.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: So next time MoMA hangs something like that, if one of your pictures is up there next to those guys, what does that do to your head?

AS: (pause.) I don’t know. First of all, with all respect to MoMA, it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It’s a different world. Without a doubt, my work, whatever its quality, falls in that historical lineage. There’s no getting away from it. That’s cool. I’m an American photographer.

I don’t want to be limited strictly to that. Hopefully I’m not just covering old ground. But I’m fine with that comparison.

JB: You dodged the whole ego question, about people putting your work in that pantheon, which is cool. But I think it’s easy to differentiate you, as it’s easy to differentiate the time in which we’re living. One of my little catchphrases, because as a blogger, it never hurts to have a catchphrase, is I love to talk about the 21st Century Hustle. I’ve got to trademark it one of these days.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: The idea is that today, the old traditions and the old business-models are gone. It seems like most everyone who’s having any success is hybridizing, these days. I’m mostly familiar with your photography, as is everyone. But in addition to being a photographer, you’re a writer, a professor, a publisher, a lecturer, and a camp counselor, if the LBM blog is to be believed. That is the 21st Century hustle, dude.

Was that the plan? Did you build it piecemeal, or did you have a vision to do as many things as possible, both for your creativity, and to pay your bills?

AS: No. It was not a vision. Going back, when I left college, I had a general Bachelor’s degree. No speciality. But I had photographic skills, which were somewhat marketable. I worked in darkrooms, did different things, and ended up working in an art museum. Et cetera.

But the notion of making a living as an artist seemed very unrealistic, particularly living in Minnesota. At a certain point, I thought, it’s just not going to happen. It’s important to tell you, also, that despite going to Sarah Lawrence, I was never a bohemian wild-child type.

I thought it’s always important to have a job. I always feel a sort of responsibility to do the things that Middle-Americans are supposed to do. So I was living a fairly, (not politically conservative,) but conservative lifestyle.

JB: Except for the fact that you were sneaking prints from your job out the back door inside your pants.

AS: (laughing) Exactly. OK. But that’s fairly normal as well.

JB: So that was the exception? No late-night drunken brawls? Just a bit of mild theft that we’re only discussing now because the statute of limitations is up.

AS: Exactly. Mild theft. And there was definitely drunkenness, but it was lonely drunkenness. Not angry drunkenness. Just sad, blubbering-by-myself drunkenness.

The point is that I really didn’t know how to make a living outside of conventional means. Now, I know many other things. If I was twenty again, I’d do things very differently.

JB: You’re actually stealing questions from down my list. I’m trying to be polite, and I don’t want to interrupt your thoughtful responses, but that one’s not supposed to come up until later. But what the hell, I’ll just cross it off the list. What advice would you give your younger self? What are the do-overs?

AS: I’ll get to that.

JB: All right. We’ll keep it going in a natural way. Please continue.

AS: What I’m getting at is, this diversification, I didn’t have a vision for that. My vision was, you need to have an employer, and you have a job, and you go forward. Like that. And I would do my work on the side. So then, once my life changed, (and we can talk about that later,) and I had all sorts of opportunities in the art world, I felt distrustful that that could sustain itself.

I felt a need to have a backup plan. Since I didn’t have a Master’s Degree, and teaching didn’t seem like a real possibility at the time, I started doing editorial photography. And then I started doing blogging. That was not as a commercial activity at all.

I didn’t have a real art community, and I was dealing with the art world mainly through the economics of the art world. I wasn’t having art conversations, so I used blogging to do that. These pieces have been added on over time pretty organically. It wasn’t planned out at all.

How that relates to when I was twenty, and what I’d do over again? I just feel really strongly now that being a creative person means being creative with your life. It doesn’t mean being creative with this one particular activity that you do. Now I see that running a business is a creative activity. How you organize your daily schedule is a creative activity. You can be creative and entrepreneurial in all sorts of different ways.

I think art students should be thinking about that. It’s not just that I go to graduate school, become a teacher, and there’s this formulaic pattern. Be creative.

JB: I like that we went non-linear there, because it’s gorgeous advice. I’m really curious how you’ve done it, because, unlike most of our readers, I wasn’t really familiar with all the different aspects of what you do.

AS: I don’t think most people are familiar with it. We’re in a tiny bubble. Most people, if they’re aware of you, they’re aware of one thing. Sometimes, people that really know my work only know one thing.

It’s a real struggle to communicate Little Brown Mushroom, and what that means.

[Part 2 tomorrow]

Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel) Port Gibson, Mississippi 2000

Harbor Marina Memphis,Tennessee 2002

Frankie Ferriday Louisiana 2002

Sunshine Memphis,Tennessee 2000

Charles Lindbergh's boyhood bed Little Falls, Minnesota 1999

Roger Ballen Interview

by Jonathan Blaustein

Roger Ballen is among the most talented and successful photographic artists in the world today. He was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview last month, and is also allowing us to publish images from two forthcoming books.

JB: Why did you choose to move to South Africa from the United States?

RB: When I was a young man in my early twenties, in 1973, it was a time of cultural revolution. I guess I was swept up with that. I graduated from University of California, Berkeley, and was quite restless. Previous to traveling from Cairo to Capetown in 1974, two important things happened. One is I got interested in painting for about six months, and the second thing my mother died in early ’73.

My mother had worked in Magnum photos, and also started one of the first photo galleries in the United States, with people like Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. I’d gotten a real introduction to photography, and had a passion towards the field by the time I was 23. Although at that time, I had a degree in psychology.

Then my mother died in January of ’73, and I began this trip that would take me four and half years, an overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. I got to South Africa, and spent some time here. Then I made an overland trip from Istanbul to New Guinea, and that was about a two and half year trip. During that time, I did
my first photo book, which was called “Boyhood.”

I got to South Africa that way, and then when I got back to America, in ’77 or so, I did a PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. Then, I came back to South Africa in ’82. This is an ideal place to practice the business of mining exploration, and anything related to the mineral business. South Africa and the surrounding countries are well-endowed with minerals.

Despite the political problems, I’d liked being here for the first time, and then married a South African lady and stayed here. I’ve been here permanently since 1982.

JB: I imagined it might have something to do with the natural resources. I was raised in New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City, and ended up living in a horse pasture, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in an old Spanish village, because I married a local. So I can relate.

But as far as South Africa goes, co-incidental to this impending interview, I recently came across some information about the place, and thought we could continue to talk about it for a few minutes. Some of the statistics are kind of crazy. According to The Economist, South Africa has the highest rate of income equality in the world, even all these years past Apartheid. I wondered if you might share what that’s like, on the ground level?

RB: South Africa, as you mentioned, is a First World and Third World country. You’re living in this schizoid environment. Where I am right now, speaking to you, could be suburban St. Louis, or Des Moines, or Chicago. With suburbs, shopping centers, and reasonable, suburban houses.

A mile away could be Zimbabwe, or Mozambique. People there are living in poverty and crowded urban conditions. Lots of immigrants from Nigeria and other African countries, mixed up. You hardly would ever see a white person in those places. You have this divided culture, which has been inherent here for two or three hundred years. It’s nothing new. I guess the only difference is, over the last fifteen years, you have a greater amount of very wealthy black people, as well as more middle class black people. But the population is increasing, so there’s still no substantial difference in the unemployment rates, which are still at 40 or 50%.

The gap is not something that’s closed because the government changed. It just hasn’t happened. It was the same before. Or worse before. Or maybe it was even better before? I don’t know.

JB: Do communities build up gates and walls and guard towers? Are places physically cut off from one another, then? Because the violence is pretty horrific, I’ve read.

RB: I guess so. I think most of the violence occurs in these areas that people like myself don’t go into on a regular basis. It’s the violence of people living in poverty, under stressful conditions. You know, you have this in America. You go to urban America and you find the same problems.

It’s really no different. These things are always exaggerated by the media. It’s not a War zone here by any means. You can live your life. There are walls around your house, and you deal with the problem of security. Johannesburg and the other cities have the same problems that any other Third World country might have. A lot of poverty, and a lot of people desperate to survive in one way or another.

I would say, the problems here, they certainly exist, but if you look at the rest of the continent, there are a lot of things that are more positive and dynamic than most of the places in Africa. I am in Africa, not in Europe. It’s relative. What happens here shouldn’t necessarily be seen in relationship to Europe or America. It should be seen in relation to the rest of the continent, which also has significant challenges.

JB: I was curious, because I’ve never been to Africa before. One of the things that I’d read that I thought was hard to fathom, and starts to tie into your work, is that there’s a murder rate of 99 people per 100,000 in the farming communities, in the rural areas, numbers that were off the charts.

I was thinking about the work you’d done in the “Platteland” series, where you were meeting people in the rural communities. I know it was a while ago. I wondered if anything had filtered back to you about people that you knew, of if these communities were now less accessible? If the people that you’d photographed had become victims to crime?

RB: Not really. The countryside is like America. You go down to the South, in the countryside, and things seem relaxed in their own way. The real violence occurs mostly in the urban environments. There are farm murders, but it’s nothing like what goes on in the cities.

Most of the violence here is in the townships, where people are living in difficult conditions. Probably eight out of ten of these murders here occur in these township environments, and most of it is probably related to drinking, and squabbles over women, and money and tribal issues. I’m no expert, but a lot of them have to do with tribal issues.

JB: Why don’t we move along…

RB: I think so, because the media has its own reasons for concentrating on certain places in the world. Somebody’s pushed down the stairs in Tel Aviv, and it will be on the headlines on CNN and the BBC. And if twenty five people are killed in the Congo, it won’t be on TV. It’s where the media is, and how they fabricate the world and create their own political dynamics based on their own ideology, which is based on maximizing their viewer network.

JB: Absolutely. But let’s move, and talk more about art.

I studied Economics in college, before becoming an artist. It’s easy to see the influences in your work, but I didn’t know until I did some research that you had been trained in geology, and worked in the resource extraction industry. I wondered, as you transitioned from that industry to your art career, if you had ever thought about the comparison between the market for precious metals, the way value is constructed for things like platinum and gold and diamonds, relative to the way the market has evolved for contemporary art?

RB: The value is like night and day, trying to compare those two. The value for commodities is very much derived from physical demand, and physical supply. It’s very much a proper market based on actual usage and material consumption. There’s not a huge aspect of subjectivity involved, like there is in contemporary art.

Really, the business of mining, and selling minerals is a much more clearly defined business, a much easier business in nearly every way than being involved in the art market.

JB: At what point in your career did you segue from having a day job to being able to focus exclusively on your art career?

RB: I never really sold any pictures, or offered any pictures in any real way until about 2000, 2001, when my “Outland” book came out. There wasn’t much of a photo market up until the early 90’s anyway. The thing that got the photo market to boil was the technology of large color prints.

The black and white business plodded on. There were some specific collectors who would buy vintage work, historical work, but the average person who wanted to put money into art really wasn’t so interested in photography. And then, somewhere in the mid-90’s, the technology developed to enable people to make larger scale color prints on a fairly regular basis.

Artists could find labs, and get them to produce this type of larger sized work with ease. This equipment started to proliferate, to the point where you can now buy printers, and learn how to print digital photographs in a short period of time.
As a result of this technological shift, large scale color prints then became available to the art market.

I did this purely as a hobby until about 2000. When my “Platteland” book came out in ’94, it caused a lot of controversy, and became a famous book. That gave me the initiative to continue, and from ’94 to 2000, I put a lot more time into photography, but it was still sort of a hobby; a half-profession. When “Outland” was published, it also became a renown book, and I started to sell a lot of photographs. I began to put a lot more of my time into photography, and to see it as a profession rather than a hobby.

JB: Before you were focused on selling prints, books were the final output of your photographic narrative?

RB: Yes, and they still are to this day. I’m much more focused on books. That’s really what interests me. Selling pictures is OK, it’s part of the business, but it’s not a goal in itself. The real goal in my career has always been geared towards making books. Most of these projects take about five or six years to do. I work on them that long, and try to define the aesthetic that comes to mind.

Now, I’m just about finished with a book called “Asylum,” that’s going to be produced by Thames & Hudson early next year. It deals with birds in a Roger Ballen world.

JB: What is it about the book form that is so fascinating to you?

RB: It’s a permanent thing. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain. You’ve actually taken the process through from beginning to end. You’ve made a statement that has a sense of permanency to it. An exhibition comes and goes. Living down here, I don’t spend much time at the shows, if any at all. I get a few newspaper clippings back, but I can’t read half of the newspaper clippings anyway.

And that’s all I get. You think you make a lot of friends during the show, and nine times out of ten, you never see the people again. A book, in a way, is part of you, like your own children.

JB: Of course. That makes plenty of sense. Last week, I was in Texas, and driving home from the airport, which is three hours away, I happened to listen to a Public Radio program called “Afro-pop.” They were focusing on Punk music in South Africa in the 70’s, during the Apartheid era. I didn’t know much about the disappearances, the murders, and the censorship.

The show talked about how Punk came along, and the musicians themselves would challenge the conventional notions, break the laws, and inspire change. Then I also saw that you have a foundation, promoting photography in South Africa, if that’s correct.

RB: Yes, that’s correct.

JB: I was wondering what you thought about the role of art in the 21st Century, and the place of art within culture? I’m not necessarily talking about political or social change, but certainly here in the US, visual art is marginalized compared to cinema and music, and other types of expression.

RB: It’s a good point. I think about it quite often, because I’m quite shocked what I see in the contemporary art market, whether it’s art fairs, or exhibitions. I really scratch my head in disillusionment at people’s choices. Most of the art that I see merely re-enforces what people already know.

I do the art only for myself. I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. If it weren’t that purpose, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather stick to mining, because then it’s just another business.

It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.

Unfortunately, most contemporary art doesn’t do this in any way. The purpose of art is to expand the consciousness of oneself. It’s only through expanding the consciousness of the self that art can have any ultimate effect on a person’s condition.

If we look at art as a political tool, what should art be doing? Art should be liberating the self from the self. It should be helping the person break through his or her repression. I’m a Freudian in some sense. It’s only through liberating our repression do we have any chance of improvement in the world. I’m certainly not optimistic about that happening.

It’s a Freudian interpretation in so many ways. There’s so little art that deals with this. And 99% of the art I see is stuff I’ve seen endlessly before. I might as well go watch a Mickey Mouse film.

JB: I was just about to accuse you of being a Jungian, frankly.

RB: Jungian also. It’s the same sort of stuff. A psycho-analytic interpretation of the mind. It could be like Joseph Campbell. It’s an attitude; a way of life.

JB: It seems like that’s the root of a lot of the symbolic resonance in your work. I read some of Jung’s writings in graduate school, and of course at the time was very impacted by this idea that the Shadow, the dark side, obviously exists within the human condition. Cain killed Abel. Saturn ate his kids.

Jung theorized that when you deny the Shadow, when you repress it, that’s when it comes out in negative and destructive ways, like violence. I suppose others have put this forth to you, but it does seem like your work is a visual manifestation of that idea. Would you agree?

RB: I’m trying to delve into my interior, to mirror the dynamics of that, visually, in some way or another, through a photograph. It’s a process of going down to one’s own shadow zone with a camera and a flash, and once in that place, taking pictures.

I always tell students, on their first assignment, to close their eyes, turn their eyeballs around, and go out and take pictures that reflect what they’ve seen. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in. These relationships are very complex; very hard to define in words. We’re so obsessed with words, but the better the picture, the harder it is to put a word to it.

JB: Indeed.

RB: To go back into contemporary art again, most of the stuff you can put some silly word to it. I think with my most recent photographs, it’s almost impossible to put a word to it. There are contradictory meanings, there are meanings that there is no word for in the dictionary. The work stands on its own, and has its own essence that is unlike any other essence.

JB: Do you ever censor yourself? Are there things that pop into your mind, and you think, no that’s too hardcore. That’s too dark.

RB: No. My conclusion is the dark is the light. So to me, the darker it is, the more light shines. It means I got down further.

JB: You’ve been able to create the visions you have because, if it’s a part of your psyche, it’s OK?

RB: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a part of my psyche, or a part of anything else. What you see is what’s there. If it’s there, it’s there. If you walk across a dead person in the street, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s dead, it’s dead. That’s the reality that I come across. It’s not good or bad. It’s reality as you deal with it, like death.

What is death? Is it good or bad? Is it dark? You die. That’s life. It’s not good, bad or anything. It just exists. I just come across things and take them for what they are. I don’t try make value judgements. I just deal with things in front of me, in my own emotional way. Sometimes it has a big impact, sometimes it doesn’t.

But I’m not trying to make political judgements. I feel I need to go further. There’s more to life than having to try to deal with the issue of morality. Life’s a little short for that. I’m not going to solve what’s right or wrong in this world, I can tell you that.

JB: Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wondering these things myself in my growth as an artist. Most readers would probably agree with you about the dearth of quality visions within the world of contemporary art. But whose work, what type of work, which media do you look to, beyond your own experience, for inspiration? Do you have any favorites?

RB: I don’t really work with inspiration. I’ve been working for fifty years, nonstop. I just keep working. It’s like brushing my teeth. If I had to say anything, the thing that inspires me most, by far, is the natural world. Whether it’s looking at the sky right in front of me, watching the sun go down, or looking at a rock in the distance, watching flowers and animals.

That’s why I love geology, because I experience the mystery of the planet and the Universe. To me, that has always been a tremendous inspiration; something that is beyond my own ability to comprehend. It always challenges me. I’d say what inspires me has always been nature.

To go back to art itself, I’m inspired by anything from cave art to the traditional art in New Guinea. And traditional African art is tremendously inspiring to me. But I like artists like Picasso, and some of the Abstract Expressionists. I have a full range of things that I like, and that have had some influence on me. I just take it one by one. If I like it, that’s fine, and it goes in my head somewhere. Maybe it stays there, maybe it falls out. Then I go on to the next thing.

But you know, when I try to make a picture, the key to making the picture can come from a memory I had when I was six years old, or something that happened today. My photographs are made up of thousands of little points. It doesn’t matter, really, that I’m inspired by this or that. I still have to go back to the camera and say, yeah, this picture’s about to come together.

JB: I know inspiration can be a bit of a cliché term, but mostly, I’m asking questions that I want to know. I was curious to see what, within the realm of Art History, resonated with you. I can make assumptions, based upon your work, but the benefit to this conversation is that I get to ask.

For instance, I was at the Menil Collection in Houston last week, and they have a room filled with artifacts from African and Native American art traditions that directly inspired the Surrealists. It was this dark room, all compressed. I was thrilled, as that type of work has had a big influence on me as well. Right outside that room was this incredible exhibition of Surrealist Art, with Max Ernst and others. It was fascinating to get to see the connection between one influence and the other.

RB: You get the jolt, which is what I’m talking about. The things that jolt you are what’s important. You can be inspired, like you said, but then you’re back to square one when it comes to creation. You have to filter what you see, and build on what you’ve done, and something else comes out of it. It’s really hard to know where all this stuff connects. Every time one creates a photograph, one starts from the beginning, like a painter with a barren canvas.

JB: You recently directed a music video for the band Die Antwood. What was it like for you, as an artist, shifting media like that, and collaborating with other artists? What did you learn from the experience?

RB: It was another challenge. It was interesting, I made these installations like I normally do every day. And then I integrated their music within the realm of the installations that I created. So it was a different experience. What I do in a lot of my exhibitions, I just had one in Durban yesterday, I try to make an installation as well as a photo show. I’m expressing my vision in other ways. When people go to my shows, there are not just photos on the wall, there’s an installation that mirrors the place of the photographs.

I think the music video, more than anything else, opened my mind to the size of that market, compared to the size of the photo market. We got 25 million hits on Youtube on this thing. Can you imagine 25 million people seeing a video? Compared to an exhibition, where in a month or two or three, you might have 25 or 30 thousand. But it’s nothing like 25 million.

It was an amazing thing to see the power of music. If you can integrate your work with other fields like that, it’s great, because it propelled what I did into 25 million people’s heads, most of whom would have never seen my work.

JB: That’s why I asked that earlier question. Speaking as a younger photographic artist, I often wonder what we can do to expand the potential audience for our work. I have a belief, as I’m sure you do, that when people experience art objects, that they have the same ability to create a powerful impression in the way that music or cinema does. But our audience has thus far been restricted.

You mentioned your practice earlier, and the rigorous manner in which you work. I was always struck by a quote from Andy Warhol that I once heard in a documentary film. To paraphrase, he said make as much art as you can, as often as you can, as many ways as you can.

I’m attracted to that idea that practice and execution, game-time, if you will, is how you grow. Is that how you came to work as often as you do? To keep the skills sharp and the mind open?

RB: It’s a good question. The first thing is a practical thing. I was fortunate I had another profession, because I never would have survived in this without another profession. That’s the first issue. In fifty years I hardly sold one picture. I had another profession, so I was able to support what I was doing.

If I talk to young people, they have to find the right balance. Because you can’t be expecting to become another Andy Warhol overnight. Your chances of success in this business are much less than almost any other profession as far as making any money. There’s not much of a middle in this business. That’s the first point.

The second point is that, like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you’re an athlete, or a lawyer or a dentist, the more you do it, the better you become at it. I gave a lecture yesterday, and said “What’s the best way of learning about photography? It’s just to do photography. You learn through doing. Furthermore, one needs to rigorously look at your own work and find the holes in it, and close the gaps.”

I don’t think this is any different than any other field. Unfortunately, probably more to do with the economics, a lot of artists can’t do it all the time, because they can’t survive in the business. They have to do other work. It’s not like being a dentist, and being able to get jobs all the time. This is the problem.

Also, it requires a focus on what you’re doing to find new areas to develop into. It’s really difficult. You’re really trying to extend who you are, and find new ways of expressing it. It’s not easy to get on the road and find the path…and stay on the path and disappear into the forest.

JB: Wow. I hate to shift from the metaphorical to the prosaic, but as I know we need to wrap this up, do you have any upcoming projects we can tell the audience about?

RB: The first thing is I’m giving a Master Class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival at the end of April. So maybe some people might be interested in that. And the second thing is I have a show at the Smithsonian Museum that opens on June 19th. It deals with the evolution of drawing and painting in my photography for the last fifty years. It will be up in Washington DC until February of 2014.

Prestel will be publishing a new book of mine in the Summer of 2013, titled “Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky,” and in early 2014, Thames and Hudson will be publishing my latest body of images, titled “Asylum,” that I have worked on for the past six years.

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"

From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"