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.
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]