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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.