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?
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.
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?
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.