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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
You should never use camera to make your pictures.
You use yourself, your experience, to make the pictures with the camera.
Not the other way around.
— Antonin Kratochvil
We’re launching a new list today based off our popular Agent List: theagentlist.com which has nearly 700 agents worldwide categorized by location and genre. This time we’re going for a smaller segment of the industry: Architectural Photographers. And we’re hoping anyone who shoots architecture and/or interiors will go here: http://photographyandarchitecture.com and sign up so we don’t have to put all the listings in by ourselves (any who specialize in renderings too). Brittain Stone is managing the list again and will look at each submission to verify that you do have a gallery on your website dedicated to architectural photography. He will also add the genre tags based on his assessment of the style you shoot.
Once we have a healthy list we’re going to market it to the architect clients who’ve become a part of my website business. They’ve expressed interest in more resources for finding photographers and we figured we could provide that service with a nice curated list and expert advice. If you have any questions send Brittain an email (under the help section of the site). Should be beneficial for everyone.
Honest and entertaining talk given by Peter Yang at the Photoshelter event this fall. 26 minutes of your time well spent.
I noticed two photographer documentaries making the cut for the Academy Awards (shortlisted… so not quite there) and Sundance:
Shortlisted for the Academy Awards:
Chasing Ice (Directed and Produced by JEFF ORLOWSKI)
In the spring of 2005, acclaimed environmental photographer James Balog headed to the Arctic on a tricky assignment for National Geographic: to capture images to help tell the story of the Earth’s changing climate. Even with a scientific upbringing, Balog had been a skeptic about climate change. But that first trip north opened his eyes to the biggest story in human history and sparked a challenge within him that would put his career and his very well-being at risk.
Premiering at Sundance:
Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington (Director: Sebastian Junger)
Shortly after the release of his documentary “Restrepo,” the photographer Tim Hetherington was killed in Libya. His colleague Sebastian Junger traces Hetherington’s work across the world’s battlefields to reveal how he transcended the boundaries of image-making to become a luminary in his profession.
This is a fantastic success story of a personal project that turned into a web series for PBS and it has some hallmarks I notice all the time in successful personal projects:
- The project starts as something intimate, a story only you can tell
- Social media allows you to test the response to see if it has legs
- Someone sends you in a direction you hadn’t anticipated when the project started
- The project gives you an excuse to connect with important people
- Someone discovers your project through social media channels
Here’s David to tell us what happened:
A few years ago I quit a staff photographer position that was a pretty good job but wasn’t quite what I really wanted to do creatively. When I left, I decided I needed a new body of work that both represented my personal interests and my work as a photographer. I’m a big fan of creative ideas and as a side project I’d written a semi-popular blog about my own invention ideas (mostly silly rather than practical). With that in mind, I decided my new body of work would explore who other inventors are, and see what separates people like me — who get creative ideas for inventions but don’t actually pursue them — from people who actually do something with those ideas.
When I started, I didn’t know any inventors. So I went to local inventor support meetups (where successful inventors help aspiring inventors), talked about my project, and asked for volunteers. After I shot a few inventors this way, and it became clear the project had legs, I realized I’d need to travel so it doesn’t just turn into “Inventors of the Tri-State Area”. So when I was shooting jobs out of town, I’d reach out in advance to inventor groups in those areas and get their help coordinating area inventors who might be interested. Then I’d tack an extra day or two onto a trip I was already taking and shoot for this project.
For the first half dozen inventors, I was only shooting stills. But around that time I met Brian Storm of MediaStorm, and he said “You really should be shooting video of these people” and it was like a lightbulb went off. I hadn’t yet incorporated video into my repertoire, and had only imagined the project being a book, but video was such an obvious way to go. So I added that component with the idea that the video would be great for promoting the project, and for including in an iPad version of the book. Plus, it would be a great way for me to learn to shoot and edit video.
As the project grew, I made connections in the inventing community, and was introduced to more prominent inventors, and began traveling just for these shoots. And once I had a few recognizable names in the project, it became easier to cold call other notable inventors and persuade them to participate. Now that it’s a serious body of work, I’ve had incredible cooperation from places I wouldn’t have dreamed about approaching earlier. Just a couple weeks ago I photographed a military inventor on a Navy battleship, which is the most complicated location I’ve arranged for a self-produced shoot, and I couldn’t have pulled that off a few years ago.
I’ve done forty-something of these shoots so far. They range from people who just tinker in their garage all the way up to Nobel Prize and National Medal of Technology winners. Their inventions include the Post-it Note, the cell phone, the first video game system, first digital camera, the computer mouse, the Segway, and more humble inventions like a better sewing needle, wheelchair brake, an ice fishing vehicle, etc.
As I’ve worked on the project, I occasionally released a few of the videos on Vimeo. I posted them on both my photography blog and the “ideas” blog, which reaches a much different audience. I got great feedback, but a few of the videos really took off. Two of them each reached six-figure views within 24 hours, and were featured on prominent websites. I’ve talked about the project on various blogs, on public radio, and Wired ran this interview with me.
Someone at PBS Digital Studios found my videos on Vimeo while researching new talent and felt it would be a good fit for their network. They approached me about turning it into a series for their YouTube channel. After a bit of surprisingly pleasant negotiation, we reached a deal to produce 20 episodes to be released every other Tuesday. Some of those episodes will be existing videos I’d previously put online, but the majority will be new, culled from inventors I’ve already shot but not released, and some I’ve not yet shot.
This is a good example of a nice aspect of this particular project: while self-producing a project of this scope has been expensive, it has also managed to generate at least a little money along the way. Since a lot of my subjects are occasionally written about editorially, I’ve licensed photos and footage from the project to The History Channel, Time Magazine, science magazines, museums, and text books.
I think the very best thing about this project, though, is that I get to meet and talk to all these incredible people (many of whom are older and won’t be around for much longer). Being able to sit down and talk with Steve Sasson, inventor of the digital camera, and geek out over the tools of my trade, was a great moment. I talked to Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway but also the portable insulin pump and so much more, about the roles of art versus science in education (his father was comic book illustrator Jack Kamen). And I asked chemical engineer Esther Takeuchi, who has more patents than any other woman, why she has no female students in her University classes, and we had a great conversation about that. Even the unknown and struggling inventors are smart people with incredible stories to tell.
See more of Davids work here: http://www.davidfriedmanphoto.com
This four-part documentary series from executive producers Michael Mann and David Frankham follows combat photographers Eros Hoagland in Juarez and Rio de Janeiro, Veronique de Viguerie in South Sudan, and Michael Christopher Brown in Libya.
Read more here: http://www.fastcocreate.com
I caught up with Ben Lowy in August. He’s a busy man, juggling family and personal projects with a super-charged career. In the last year alone, he was in Libya, on Jon Stewart, won the photojournalist of the year award from the ICP, and had his book, “Iraq Perspectives” published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. This is Part 2 of my interview, part 1 is (here).
Jonathan Blaustein: We met in 2009, a little bit before you were king of the world. You were probably prince, but not yet king.
Ben Lowy: Whatever. I’m not king of the world.
JB: All right, I’m exaggerating a little. You get the point. You don’t have to be humble, you’re being interviewed.
JB:You said to me, “I’m about to have my first kid, and I need to transition my career. I’m done with the war stuff because I’m going to have a family, and I need to figure out a way to be based more in New York.”
BL: As with any type of specialized job, where people excel to be part of a niche, a lot of it is ego. I couldn’t, and I still can’t put my ego aside. I worked really hard to be this war photographer. That started when I was 23, where my first assignment was the Iraq War. I was really ambitious.
JB: Did I read that you took Saul Schwarz’s place on your first job? Is that right? As a 23 year old kid?
BL: Yeah. There are no hard feelings between us about that. But I couldn’t give it up. Even now, when I see my friends who are in Syria, I feel a twinge. Not just because I want to cover that story. It’s what your contemporaries are doing. There’s a certain keeping up with the Joneses of every industry. That’s the only way you keep going, is to have somewhat of an ego.
Photography, regardless if it’s photojournalism, or some sort of esoteric contemporary art, you’re putting a bit of your soul in it. That soul is what makes you take a picture at that instant. It’s what makes you compose, to wait for things to happen. For serendipity.
Every photograph is a product of the photographer’s experiences in their entire life. It’s everything that comes together that makes them want to take that picture at that instant. Otherwise, we would all be robots.
When I had kids, I fought the idea that I have to give this up. Am I being an irresponsible parent to go back and do this? And I think what was really hard, especially after my second son, Kaleb, was my wife went into labor an hour after Tim Hetherington’s memorial. And Kaleb was born on May 25th, which was the day Robert Capa died.
Two months later, Tripoli was falling, and I wanted to go back. My wife had a big problem with me doing that. So I promised her, look at Joachim Ladefoged’s book on Albanians. It’s an amazing book, and there are no violent situations in there. So I can go back and cover Libya without getting into any violence. And she was like, “Sure.”
And then I went, and me, Ron Haviv, and Yuri Korzyev shared a car together. Of course, those dudes are just looking for violence. I ended up grabbing this picture of this guy getting his head blown off like 5 feet in front of me. Literally, he got his head blown off in front of me.
It was in a stairwell of an apartment building. I watched as the blood started cascading down the stairs. I took several pictures of it. And then, I was standing next to Ron, and we were like, “We need to get the fuck out of here,” because the rebels had just left. As we were running out of the building, someone chucked a grenade over our head. Ron has a video of this, as we were running down the stairs.
I sat on those pictures for weeks. And I didn’t move them. The minute I moved them, my wife was going to know. Actually that’s what happened. Within an hour of transferring them, my wife had seen them on the Getty site, and she was furious.
She said, “It’s basically like you cheated on me.”
JB: Wow. You cheated on her with War.
BL: Yeah. She was almost going to leave me. When I left Libya last year, I went to Afghanistan for an assignment, and I was there for about 6 weeks. My American phone bill must have been $5000, because I was constantly on the phone with my wife, begging her not to leave me.
One of the things that I had to recognize, which was really hard, was that I’m selfish. I had to man up and acknowledge that, for this job to work. Even yesterday, when I walk out of the door to come here, my son was crying. Standing by the door, crying. And I just took my camera bag, and I left.
I’m sure that happens to everyone with children, but to do this job, to be on the road, and then to risk your life when you have a child waiting for you is selfish. Is it any different than being a soldier or a police officer? No one has to do these jobs. We choose to do them because we feel like we bring something to the table.
A soldier protects his country, a police officer protects his community, and as a journalist, I’m trying to educate my community. We all make these sacrifices of our home, our friendships, or our family. There has to be an awareness that to do this, I was being a little selfish. Or a lot selfish. To put myself in danger, to say, “I might die and my kids might grow up without a parent because I want to take these pictures.”
Why do we as photographers always go straight to the worst parts? The first pictures any student takes are of homeless dudes. It’s easy, it’s grimy. We’re taught that it’s the epitome of photography, the off-center, because the normal photo of Billy on Main Street holding a balloon is not enough. He has to be holding a grenade like Diane Arbus.
JB: It’s the drama. It’s innate human nature, to look at or hear or read something that takes you out of your head. The drama of someone’s tragedy is what drives people to want to look at the pictures that you make.
I was looking at your most recent work on your website, “The Fall of Tripoli.” First of all, the work is so present. It seems like you’re growing, which I’m sure was your goal. I could almost smell the pictures. There were a lot of photographs of char, and burning. They bring you into the moment, and I was almost having phantom smells.
That’s interesting to me, because photography is clearly a visual medium. Beyond the smells, even sounds were popping in my head, like wailing sirens.
What sensory impressions do you have from your time there? Is it sounds, or smells, or what?
BL: Smell is amazing. Cordite, and explosions, and burning have really unique smells that you don’t smell in the West. The smell of death is really intense. It’s one of those things where if you smell it, even if you’re uninitiated, you will know that something is dead. The smell is that strong, that pungent, and biologically, you will recognize it.
When you’re on the front lines, you can smell burning gunpowder, the dust in the wind. There is something very visceral about that.
Sound is very difficult. We are ruined by Jerry Bruckheimer movies. We are ruined by Hollywood. When you see an explosion in a movie, you hear it. But in real life, you see it way before you hear it. The speed of light and the speed of sound are two different things. It’s very disconcerting. Not how we expect it to work out.
The closest thing is like a David Mamet movie. There’s no soundtrack. Have you seen “Haywire?” It’s by…
JB: Stephen Soderbergh? No, I haven’t seen it.
BL: If you look at “Haywire,” all the fight scenes have no soundtrack. And the gunfire was real. It was real sounds.
JB: Is that the one that featured the female MMA star?
BL: Yeah. Gunfire doesn’t sound like what it does in the movies. Silencers don’t work like you think they do. Explosions are…you only learn this stuff from being in the field. I guess it’s weird that I know that.
There’s no way to accurately portray what it’s like being there. We’re trying to do it in the most efficient way possible. But there’s no way to record smell. Yet. And I’m not sure that would really jive with the crowd who eats their breakfast and watches the news in the morning.
JB: Do you think it’s interesting that I thought your pictures were implying it?
BL: I do. But I have to say that’s not something that I was consciously trying to do.
JB: Your new work is some of your best work. You know, my training is in Art. That’s the way I make my work, how I express myself. And with these images, the sense of presence, of someone actually being there, combined with some formal compositions, there was a bit of transformation.
I look at a lot of pictures, as you can imagine, and looking at that particular batch, it wasn’t so much the thrill of the chase…
BL: I’m just maturing as a photographer. Earlier in my career, I was making images because I thought I had to make them. Or because this was what an image was supposed to be like. Now I’m making images purely based upon my experiences. This is something visceral to me, so I’m photographing it.
That’s where you’re getting more information, because I’m reacting to those sounds and those smells, and now, my eye has matured enough where I’m able to construct an image that implies all these things.
BL: I’m there more in these images than in the past.
JB: That’s what I’m getting out of it. How do you gauge your improvement as a photographer?
BL: To be honest, I feel like I hit this plateau in the last few years. There was a point in 2007-8 where I was constantly working. I had a client at the time who really championed me, kept me busy. Because I was working so much, it was like I was practicing so much. I was able to really grow.
In the last two years, because of the downturn in the economy, it’s been very hard, and there hasn’t been a lot of work. And then, having kids, I haven’t been doing anything on spec, because I’m not allowed to raid the diaper fund. It’s been a little hard to grow my eye.
That being said, I’m definitely seeing the world more in a way that I want to see it, rather than the way I thought I should see it. I think when we all start, we look at the photographers that we enjoy, and we try to construct images based on those archetypes.
How many students have recreated that eyes cut off on the bottom of the frame picture that we’ve seen 1000 times? Or the foreground crazy out of focus head, and then something in the background, for easy layering? These are tropes of compositional photography that we use as crutches, and once you get through them, and you understand the language of photography, as you grow, you move past those. And you start creating your own tropes.
JB: OK. In the beginning of the interview, you mentioned that with your busy life, you don’t have time to do go see any shows or anything. Outside of looking at your colleagues’ photography, what do you look to for inspiration? How do you feed your brain?
BL: That’s a problem. There hasn’t been a lot of that of late. I read a lot.
JB: Anything interesting lately?
BL: I’m just finishing up my last Haruki Murakami book.
JB: The master.
BL: I wish I could photograph like that. I wish I could take his literary vision and photograph it.
JB: You and everybody else, dude.
I caught up with Ben Lowy in August. He’s a busy man, juggling family and personal projects with a super-charged career. In the last year alone, he was in Libya, on Jon Stewart, won the photojournalist of the year award from the ICP, and had his book, “Iraq Perspectives” published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.
Jonathan Blaustein: Forgive me if I’m a bit slow today, but we’re about to have a kid, so my mind is frazzled.
Ben Lowy: I absolutely love being a Dad. I love having two kids. They’re both in the tantrum stage right now.
JB: Because you bunched them up, right?
BL: Yeah, the oldest one’s about to turn three. And the youngest one is about 15 months.
JB: Oh my goodness.
BL: Yeah, they’re right together there. I love it. The thing is, I have no social life. By the time we put them to bed, at 7:30 or 8pm, we don’t want to go out or do anything. We’d have to do it separately anyway.
Whatever free time we have is either with the kids, or working on the evaporating work environment of photography. You’re holding on by this much. There’s no time to go to museums, or go to a movie. There’s nothing coming in to inspire you.
JB: That was one of my questions for later on, so we can touch back in on that. It might be really interesting to talk about it in depth, because I’m a big believer that input is really necessary to make us grow.
Let’s start with the obvious. You’re in Denver right now. What are you working on?
BL: I am shooting a UFC fight. A cage fight.
JB: When you said Denver, I assumed you were there for the aftermath of the latest psychopathic episode.
BL: I think that was covered right away. And the follow up is just the memorial. I think the American news cycle has moved away from things like that. There’s so much content on the wire services, and people who are out there. It’s sort of like the death of spot news.
JB: So they hire Ben Lowy for the action, not the reaction.
BL: I’ve been here twice, and neither time was for Aurora. I was here last week to shoot Broncos practice for Peyton Manning.
JB: You got to hang out with Peyton?
BL: No, no. I was working for ESPN, and the Broncos blew off ESPN. I got 20 minutes on the training field. That’s how high brow they think they are.
JB: You know why? Because John Elway is John Elway. He doesn’t even need ESPN.
BL: (Pause) C’est la vie.
JB: That was a big pause. Clearly, my amateur response was not quite it. There are more details there, and you’re not saying them.
BL: I wish there was more to it. You know, I’ve been shooting cage fighting on and off for the last 5 years.
JB: I didn’t know that. Is that a personal project for you?
BL: Yeah. I had really bad PTSD after a bomb in Iraq in 2007. And I had no one to talk to about it. My wife was going through her own battles with depression at the time, and was hospitalized. I don’t know if you saw the project she had done on it.
BL: She was in the hospital, and I really didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was starting to feel really guilty about surviving. And then also taking care of my wife. I started, at night, going around the city of New York picking fights. Because I wanted to get beaten up because I felt so guilty.
JB: I wanted to talk to you about how you protect and deal with your psyche. Before I could ask, you started talking about it in ways that are pretty extreme.
BL: I’m an open book. I’ve got nothing to hide. I was pretty fucked up by things that happened in 2007. And I felt really guilty about surviving.
JB: A bomb attack?
BL: A bomb attack. When I came back, I had no way to process it. I tried to work through it, but it just kept getting worse. I used to be a man of infinite patience, and found myself losing it. Little mundane things. Like if I dropped a glass while washing dishes, it would send me on a rant, and I’d end up punching the walls of my apartment. I was so angry.
A lot of it was feeling guilty for surviving, and feeling angry for being out of control. One of the leftover effects, after going through therapy, is that I can’t drink or do drugs. I just can’t do it. And it’s not because of a moral choice.
This bombing happened. This series of IED’s, that destroyed five of the ten car convoy. The last car I got in, I was sitting behind the driver, and was watching how he was driving. Turning the steering wheel here and there. He could have driven over any IED. I had no control over whether I lived or died. My life was in that guy’s hands.
JB: So we’re talking about a convoy of multiple humvees, five of which exploded, and everyone died, and you survived.
BL: A lot of people died, and were injured. Yeah.
JB: And you were there by choice.
BL: Yeah. Yeah. I had just gotten out of a vehicle that I didn’t want to be in. I wanted to be a bit further up to the front, where I thought I’d be able to make better pictures. The vehicle I’d just gotten out of was actually destroyed. Five minutes after I’d gotten out.
JB: For your photography, your method of expression, you’re putting yourself in situations that 99% of our readership are not going to understand. Myself included. But I don’t necessarily want to ask you why you do that, because that stuff has been covered. Do you ever get tired of trying to explain yourself?
BL: (Pause) You know, right now, I’m staying in a hotel. I’ll sit at breakfast with a bunch of other businesspeople. We’ll all be schmoozing, and I’ll tell them what I do. They’ll say, “You were in Iraq?” and I’m like, “Yeah,” and they’ll say, “What was that like?”
JB: That’s what people are going to say.
BL: That question is annoying after a while, but at the same time, how can you blame someone for asking that? You want people to be genuinely interested. You want them to look at your pictures and read the stories.
The one thing I would never ask a soldier is what it’s like to kill someone. That’s a very private thing. Everyone asks me what it’s like to photograph dead babies, or to see people being killed. It’s a very hard question to answer, because we’re all sensitive and empathetic in our own way to different things.
I always knew I was going to be a war photographer, when I first got into photography. I picked up a copy of “Inferno” by Nachtwey, and I thought, this is what I’m doing. I don’t know what it is inside me that let’s me operate. I feel a certain contentedness in doing this work.
Not all combat photographers or photojournalists are close friends. Definitely there’s animosity and rancor and jealousy and envy between a lot of us. It’s a very competitive field. But when you’re in the field, and you’re under fire… I don’t know if you read Sebastian Junger’s book on War?
BL: He talked about the brotherhood of soldiers. Regardless of where you’re from, when you’re under fire, there’s an intense brotherhood. Definitely with photographers, when you’re in the field, and you’re working, there is an intense comradeship. Is that a word?
JB: Dude, it’s the 21st Century. You can make a word just by saying it. Ready? Blart. To blart means…
BL: We’re blarting right now.
BL: But there’s an intense comradeship. You’re part of this organic group, covering something very dangerous.
JB: To be honest, I am less interested in asking you why you do it, and more interested in the effect upon you, which is where you started.
BL: I was picking fights, and ended up joining a fight club. Then a friend of mine introduced me to cage fighting. I started fighting in it myself, but I’m not much of an athlete, and was getting my ass kicked. Which is what I wanted.
Then, I just started photographing it, and it’s been a catharsis for me. Not really the professional level, where it’s more of a sport. But the amateur level, where it’s more of anger. More of an explosive pride and frustration that builds inside the fighters’ hearts. Being around that helped me tremendously.
JB: It sounds like it puts together two different incredibly powerful aspects of your life. One is the anger and aggression that you’re talking about feeling, and the other is raw, primal nature of what they’re doing, which is gotta be what’s driving you to make a living the way you are.
You’re a very bright guy. You know there are a lot of things you could do. It’s not just that you’re capable of doing what you are, but it must be answering some sort of compulsion, no? There are a lot of things you could do, and yet you keep going back.
BL: I know. Much to my wife’s annoyance.
Part 2 tomorrow
Kevin Bacon and Bob Gruen talk music photography, shoot backs, cameras, John Lennon and more on Episode 4 of Capture.
A fresh and informative look at the art of photography and the stories behind the images. In each episode, renowned celebrity lensman Mark Seliger invites a fellow photographer and celebrity photography-buff into his NYC studio to share the story behind their images and discuss their common passion.
Jake Chessum is a photographer you will find near the top of all photo editor lists and that’s why I’m so excited he will be joining me Fri, Oct 26, 2012 from 1:30 PM to 3:30 PM for a panel discussion on “Making a Career in Editorial Photography” at the Photo Plus Expo in NYC. I had the opportunity recently to sit down with him at his studio and discuss his career.
Jake Chessum: I was 17 years old and I went to see an exhibition by the British photographer John French. I clearly remember going home and saying to my mum, “I want to a photographer.” I had been taking my own pictures for about a year before that, but this was the first time I clearly remember deciding on a career.
But before that, my dad worked for this company that would hire photographers and he used to work with this guy, Chris Morris. This guy always seemed glamorous. He had a sports car and he lived in Holland Park, which is super fancy West London.
Because of this my dad had access to photography. He’d always had an old Pentax 35mm camera when we went on family holidays, and he would shoot black and white and come home with enlarged 16 by 20 contact sheets and massive fiber based prints of all our holiday snaps and our personal photos. This was from when I was about 6 or 7 years old onwards.
APE: You’re kidding. He would make enlarged contact sheets? Why would he do that?
Jake: He enjoyed taking pictures, and because he could. He worked for Wates, which was a home building company and they had a photography budget to shoot an internal magazine, and pictures of the new developments.
APE: So, he’d take in the vacation film as well?
Jake: They were really good photographs. And it was mostly black and white. That’s what probably sparked it. I liked to see prints and see photography.
At the time I was at an all boys private school in Croydon where art wasn’t considered a career path, but when I was 16 I moved to another school where art education was taken more seriously. There were a couple of art teachers there who were really enthusiastic and really encouraging and made it seem like it was a real proposition to make a career out of it. They’d been to art school in Central London.
APE: So, you decided to go to art school in London?
Jake: There was an art school in our town but it was rubbish so we all realized that we didn’t want to go there, so had to put a terrible portfolio in or concoct an excuse why you had to go to one of the London art schools.
APE: How does that work? I don’t understand. Do you automatically get to go to school?
Jake: No your portfolio had to be accepted.
APE: So you would give the local school a crap portfolio?
Jake: That is what the smart people did but I went by the rules. I put in a good portfolio and got in but then I wrote to the local council and explained that they didn’t have a good textile department and I wanted to be a textile designer and this school was not going to give me the opportunities. Miraculously they believed me, as it was a lie. So I was able to attend The Central School of Art and Design (now Central St. Martins) for my Foundation Course.
APE: Did you know that you had a talent for photography? Was it evident then?
Jake: I guess. A decent part of my portfolio was photography. I did this project where I went day and night taking photographs on Chelsea Bridge, and I showed this work to my tutor and she told me, it’s very difficult to define what makes a good photograph, but you know what it is, you can do it. And I thought wow, really? [laughs]
That was ’86 and I remember I started buying The Face and Vogue when I was 16, because I was really into magazine design. So, when it came to choosing a degree, I’d looked at photography courses, but they were all kind of ridiculous, because to make it a valid educational qualification, they had to give it this kind of bogus scientific basis or some kind of quantifiable, gradable quality.
It was all based on technique and technical stuff, and I knew I wasn’t particularly interested in that side of it. I was more interested in the images, making the images. I didn’t really care to be graded on black-and-white printing or that aspect of it. So, I thought the next best thing was the graphic design course at St. Martin’s which had a photography unit, so that’s what I went for.
APE: So, you went into graphic design.
Jake: Yes, I did a graphic design degree kind of knowing that I wanted to do photography. But the great thing about St. Martin’s at that time was it was kind of a free-for-all, do you know what I mean? After the first year I was really unhappy because I was following the course, trying to do the projects and failing miserably. But by the second year a couple of friends and I worked out that if we just went down to the basement darkroom and printed, no one would bother us.
Jake: I mean, it was very vague. They would set a project, and you would either do it or not, and I decided not to [laughs].
APE: But, if you didn’t do the project didn’t you fail?
Jake: You didn’t really get into trouble. I don’t know how I didn’t get into trouble, really. But everything was judged on the end of year show, and I always had a lot of work to show. At my second year show I put up photographs and some type designs. One of my fellow students, Graham Wood (now of Tomato) told me he thought I should ditch the typography and stick to photography. Good advice.
But it was definitely laissez-faire. And I remember people thought that I didn’t do any work all year, but it was because they never saw me because I was in the darkroom all year. I was just standing in the darkroom after taking pictures of whatever on the street, or portraits. I cast a few people in the school that I’d seen around just to try and just get together a portfolio. I also did tests with models as St. Martin’s was in Covent Garden where all the model agencies were.
APE: So school gave you an opportunity to just take pictures?
Jake: It was an amazing time. Now I’ll get calls from people once in awhile saying “What should I do, Should I stay in college or should I get a job?” It’s difficult to advise them to do what I did, because college was free then. I left college in London with a debt of 800 pounds. It’s nothing. So for me…
APE: And three years of taking pictures…
Jake: Yeah, three years of freedom and it was free. It was paid for by the government.
APE: Amazing. That still happens?
Jake: No, now I think you have to pay 9,000 pounds a year. But even that’s nothing compared to here in America.
APE: Do they produce a lot of photographers, is your country just swarming with photographers?
Jake: No, no, and again, it was so long ago, this is 1990 and there were a lot of magazines, like the Face, Arena, ID and Blitz. They had no budget and they attracted up and coming people who were willing to work for pictures because they gave you creative freedom.
Jake: It was a great era. There we so many photographers starting out at that time who are still really successful: Craig McDean, Richard Burbridge, Glen Luchford, David Sims, Juergen Teller, the late Corrine Day. It was an amazing era to be a young photographer shooting in London. It really was a very creative period.
APE: Tell me about your first job?
Jake: I put together a degree show in June of 1990 but I had worked for a few people before that because St. Martin’s was in the center of London and there were a lot of people who had studied there and had good jobs so they would come back and throw a couple of bones to the kids at school.
So I did a few shoots for short-lived magazines. Actually, the day the degree show opened, Phil Bicker gave me my first “real” job for The Face, which was to take a train to Macclesfield, which is a kind of grim, northern town and take a picture of a young rapper. I had to get up there as early as possible, shoot the picture and come back to London for the opening of the degree show. I went on my own with a borrowed Pentax 6×7, a 90mm lens, a 135mm lens, a homemade reflector and a few rolls of tri-x.
And The Face actually wrote a piece about me. They did a double-page spread about six graduates from London art schools and they featured me. Which at the time I was completely blase about. Which is funny because now I’d be super-psyched
APE: So, that was your first job. You graduated from school, got a job and got written up.
Jake: And then I’d go and see people with my portfolio, and I got a few calls from that for jobs. And basically, for the first two years I was green as hell. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to run a business, we never had any lessons on running a business, invoicing, nothing.
APE: You just spent all your time in the darkroom.
Jake: Yes, so suddenly you’re like, shit, what do I do? But the amazing thing was, suddenly someone’s saying, oh, can you do this job, it’s 400 pounds a day. That’s still decent money, do you know what I mean?
APE: That was a ton of money for you at the time.
Jake: Then I scored my first ad job off the back of my show, which is bizarre. I got a job for Neutrogena shooting four ads.
APE: Why would they pick somebody who just graduated?
Jake: God bless them, I’ve got no idea. I mean, I think they wanted to use a young photographer. They’d got in a load of books and they got me to do it, and paid me 1500 pounds a day.
APE: Was your work that good back then? If you looked at it now, would you think, OK, there’s some good stuff in there?
Jake: Yes, there are some good pictures. But I didn’t know what I was doing…
APE: As far as running a business…
Jake: Yes, exactly. And running a set, dealing with hair and make up artists, stylists, clients…
APE: You just knew the picture part.
Jake: I’d done a bunch of nudes and portraits of friends, and they were all natural light. But, Jesus. [laughs] I wouldn’t have hired me. I was 23 and green as hell, but I was very enthusiastic.
APE: That was big money.
Jake: Yes, it was 1500 pounds a day for four days at a time when I’d never earned anything. But the funny thing was, they kept saying, we want to do really natural girls, we don’t want these supermodels. So, we did the casting and we cast a 16 year old Kate Moss.
APE: [laughs] No way. That was your first ad job? Kate Moss. Ok, I think there’s some stars aligned for you.
Jake: Yes, maybe.
APE: Something’s going on.
Jake: She was so amazing, she was so charismatic and beautiful. And I remember the casting, because I’d met her like, three or four times. She lived in Croydon where I lived, so I’d bump into her on the train once in a while, although I’m absolutely certain she has no recollection of this. I remember talking to her on the tube platform at Victoria Station one day, I bumped into her and she said, “I’m sick of this, I’m going to give up, I’m getting nowhere,” which is deeply ironic.
So, at the casting, she came in and saw me and said hello and came over and kissed me on the cheek. And the art director’s like, “Who’s that girl, how do you know that girl? She’s amazing, how do you know her?” She was obviously something pretty amazing.
So I did that and I was a living at home so I had no rent to pay and I think in my first year I made 25,000 quid, so for the first year out of college, that’s not bad 20 years ago.
APE: What’s that in US dollars?
Another big break was in December of 1990. I got a call from Dylan Jones who was the editor of Arena. He said, “Do you want to shoot Gary Oldman?” I was like “yeah” until I found out it was at a restaurant and it was lunch with Gary Oldman. He would be sitting there eating his lunch being interviewed.
I said, “Oh, all right, yeah, yeah.” It’s tough. At a restaurant. I didn’t know how to use light or anything. I had no system. So I turned up at this job to meet Gary at the restaurant.
I was first there, and when he walked in I introduced myself: “Hey Gary, I’m Jake. I’m here to take your picture.” He said, “What do you mean? They didn’t tell me there was a photographer. I was like, “Oh, OK.” I said, “OK, I totally understand. Can I just tell you something? I just left college three months ago. This is one of my first jobs, and I know that they told me they want to put you on the cover, but they don’t have a cover shoot. Will you do a cover shoot with me?” He said, “Yeah, call me next week. Come to my flat and we’ll do it. I’ll give you half an hour.”
APE: You talked him into it?
Jake: Yeah. I met him in Chelsea. It was a shitty day. I took my friend, not an assistant and we put a piece of white cardboard up on a children’s playground in Chelsea. No groomer, no stylist, shot a head shot of Gary Oldman, and they put it on the cover. [laughs]
Jake: That was a huge deal for me, first of all that I talked him into it, second that he was an actor who I thought was fantastic. I loved “Sid and Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears” and it was the cover of Arena. The main magazines I wanted to work for at the time were Face and Arena.
APE: That’s great. You never assisted anyone?
Jake: I did one day with Kevin Davies. He said to me, “Why do you want to do this? You are already shooting.” I remember, I assisted him on a test and I had to go to do a job in the afternoon so I had to leave to shoot Gabriel Byrne [laughs]. But he was cool about it.
APE: One day of assisting your entire career?
Jake: Yeah, that was it. I went to see another photographer who was well known and I remember, I said, can I assist you? He said, “Fuck off, you’re a rival now.” Those are his exact words to me.
Jake: I’d done one job so I didn’t consider myself a rival. I thought he was amazing.
APE: You’ve probably met a lot of assistants and young aspiring photographers who go to school here. It’s completely different.
Jake: I dread to think what it’s like now to try and start. It must be so hard.
APE: Do you feel like back then the industry was tighter?
Jake: London was kind of small. I think there were a group of magazines that were looking at younger photographers and I think the fact that there weren’t that many photo studios and everybody used to shoot at Click Studios meant there was a sort of camaraderie.
I remember hanging out in the office at Click and Glen Luchford was there and he said, “I sent in one print.” and I was like “What do you mean one print?” I would send in the whole shoot. I had no idea that you should send in an edit. I was completely clueless. I thought, “What are you talking about? That’s ridiculous. How arrogant to suppose that you know more than the art director”. But of course he was right.
APE: So you just picked up little pieces here and there. How to run your business and how to do an edit?
Jake: Yeah, it was a very gradual process. I think in those first few years I was very fortunate that I got to shoot a lot of people who were about to become very famous. Quentin Tarantino, Beck, kd lang, Tricky, for example. So I quite quickly had a celebrity book going. Being trusted to shoot big names, and getting publicist approval is a huge hurdle to jump for any new photographer. But there was also a time where I would shoot anything that was offered to me. I was shooting some terrible pictures, and taking terrible commissions. Because first of all, I didn’t know how to say no. I didn’t have a cell phone and there was no email. If they called you and you picked up the phone…
APE: You had to have an excuse if you didn’t want to shoot.
Jake: Yeah, it was really hard to say no, plus the money was good. I was happy to be asked to do stuff. After a couple of years, I had a conversation with somebody at Arena. I think it was one of the fashion editors I worked with on a job. She’s said, “Why are you doing all these shit jobs, because you’re watering down what you’re good at.”
Then I got to know Grant Scott, who was a great mentor to me, and the Art Director at British Elle. I went into see him after I’d been working maybe two years. He said, “You’re at the point now you’ve got to decide. Do you want to be a working photographer or a good photographer? A working photographer does what they’re offered, a good photographer picks and chooses.”
That was a real big moment for me, because I was only 25.
APE: Then you start turning down jobs?
Jake: Literally that week, I had accepted a job shooting some corny feature for a Women’s magazine, about women who have affairs with their personal trainers or something. The guy called me to talk about the shoot and I said, “Look, I can’t do that job for you.” I had to make a decision and not do this shit anymore, and stick to it. So I said no to that. It was the end of 1992. The economy went to shit and literally I didn’t work for six months. [laughs]
APE: Oh my God. Did you freak out?
Jake: Yeah, I was really freaked out.
APE: You were thinking that was horrible advice.
Jake: No, I thought it was good advice but I was still freaking out.
APE: You didn’t know if you could make a career turning down bad jobs.
Jake: Yeah, yeah.
APE: So what happened? Six months, hardly any work?
Jake: I was making like three, four hundred a month.
APE: Still living at home?
Jake: Yeah, I was fortunate to be still living at home, thank God. Gradually it started to pick up again and I found new routes into different clients, being a bit more picky.
Then Lee Swillingham became art director at The Face and he started to call me fairly regularly to shoot portraits.
In late 93 he called and said, “Do you want to go to the worst area of Los Angeles to shoot Ice Cube?” “Yes.” [laughs] I had been to America twice on holiday. Suddenly I was flying to LA to shoot Ice Cube. I went with the writer to South Central and we had a 20-minute shoot with Ice Cube on the street.
APE: How was it?
Jake: It was incredible. I’d never been to L.A. and we sat with him and he kind of started doing the hip-hop gangster poses. And I said, oh no, I don’t really want to do that, can we do something a bit more…And he went, “you mean, a bit more reflective.” I was like, yes, exactly. So, he sat on the curb and he just hung out.
APE: And you made great pictures.
Jake: Yes, they were good pictures, and then about three or four months later they asked me to shoot The Beastie Boys again in L.A., so I went out with a writer and we went to Mike D’s house. And actually, that’s one of the pictures [pointing to a picture on the studio wall] and that’s the print that The Face ran. I think in that period I shot for The Face literally every month for about three years.
APE: You already have your style here. It’s in that picture.
Jake: I guess it’s a kind of very loose, not overly directed. You kind of work with them just to let their personality do the talking. And they were really funny guys. They were into it, just pissing around for an hour or two.
APE: So, you just kind of fell into that style?
Jake: I think, yes.
APE: It just happened, there was nothing planned about it?
Jake: In the beginning I would look at a book of photographs I liked the night before a shoot, going, what am I going to do, what am I going to do? But that didn’t really work on the day, as all my preconceived ideas went out the window. So I just think, not consciously, that I would go in and suss out the location, then meet and chat to who I was shooting and see where it went. But I talk too much and I’d start talking and kind of see what happens; try and get into a situation where something might happen.
APE: You talk too much, that’s part of your style.
Jake: That’s funny you should say that, because my wife just said, oh, you’re doing the interview today, don’t ramble.
Jake: You know, I just talk and talk and talk.
APE: Every single shoot?
Jake: Yes, if they respond. [laughs]
APE: What happens if they don’t?
Jake: It’s harder. I mean, you can work in silence, but it’s easier if they respond or start talking back. But I remember reading a David Bailey quote where he said he maintained a constant stream of encouragement and I think I do try to do that.
APE: I’ve never been on set with you, but now your pictures make a lot more sense now that you say that. Is that nervous energy, the talking?
Jake: When I do a shoot, the hour before the shoot is the worst hour of my life. I don’t want to be there. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to be on the other side of it. So I think it’s partly nervous energy.
Then suddenly you’re confronted with for example Robert De Niro. He’s walking into the room and you?ve got to do something to get the shot. I’ve shot him a couple of times. It’s intimidating.
APE: He’s not a talkative guy?
Jake: He’s not a very talkative guy.
APE: You’re just talking to him the whole time?
Jake: Talking at him. I’m trying to get something out of him. But what I’ve realized with he doesn’t want to hear how great of an actor he is. He knows how fucking good of an actor he is like all these guys. You don’t want to go in there — although it’s difficult sometimes if you’re a fan — and say, “Oh my god. I love you.” But I think the bigger the star, the smaller the talk. Talk about the weather, or what movie you saw last night, or what you’re doing for the holidays.
APE: You’ve done this for a long time but when you started, did you have some things in your head that you knew you were going to talk about? Or do you just read the newspaper and you know what’s going on?
Jake: Sometimes it’s just current affairs. If they talked to the editor or stylist beforehand, you just gauge what they were talking about and what their level of interest is, how talkative they are. Often I ask the PR, “What’s a good thing to talk about? What does he not want to talk about?”
I don’t overly research the people I’m shooting, but obviously I’ll read and find out something.
It’s funny. Since I’ve had kids, I talk endlessly about them. I’m boring. I’m the fucking worst dad bore. I love talking about other people’s kids because it’s a human thing. It’s not about work.
APE: So if they have kids, you’re talking about kids for hours?
Jake: And then if they want to talk about their kids, I love to hear about what their kids do and we can compare notes.
I say, “What have you got?” And they say, “I’ve got two girls.”
“How old are they?”
“13 and 17.”
I’m like, “Oh my god. I’ve got two girls. They’re seven and ten.” And they’re like, “Oh geez. You’re in trouble.”
If they’re willing to be personal, great. If they’re not…
APE: Does that make better pictures or does it matter?
Jake: I don’t think it really matters. I think it makes the session easier. I shot a big job last week for Sony, and I was editing with the client and he said to me that he noticed as the shoot went on, I just wear them down. You just keep going and talking until they drop and give in, which I had never analyzed as a reality.
APE: That always happens? Do you get your best pictures after you’ve worn them down? They don’t happen at the beginning of the shoot? Is that pretty common with you?
Jake: Sometimes at the beginning of the shoot and sometimes it’s five minutes from the end of the shoot. I haven’t really looked at the flow. But sometimes the shoot is only minutes long, so there’s not much time.
APE: That was just something that occurred to you recently?
Jake: It occurred to me that it was a possibility, but I hadn’t really thought about it until this guy said it last week. Maybe it’s true. I don’t know.
APE: We’ve jumped ahead to your style which I really like. I want to talk more about it, but how do you get from London to here?
Jake: I started coming out here to work and then I had two friends who lived in the West Village. They’re from England. They’d gone out to get jobs in New York and so I started coming out and staying with them to do appointments, to try and get work here with varying degrees of success because it was really hard as a foreigner. You come into this new market and you’re all excited. “I’m going to get loads of work.” And of course you go back to London and they forget about you immediately. This was in 1995. It was pre-Internet and pre-email.
I think the big break was when I had been coming and going for a year or two and then Matt Berman and John Kennedy Jr. started “George” magazine. Matt Berman was his creative director. He hired Bridget Cox, who was his photo director and then Matt and Bridget picked up every English magazine. They went through The Face, ID and Arena with a fine toothed comb and picked the photographers from England that they wanted to work with.
APE: Why would they pick only photographers in England?
Jake: I don’t know. It was just a thing. I think they thought it would maybe bring in a sensibility and those magazines were at their peak. They used American photographers as well. Of course there are really good photographers here, but they decided to get a little school of London based photographers they’d fly out to shoot.
APE: They’d fly you into the States?
Jake: It was incredible. Before the magazine launched, Matt called me up and said, “Do you want to come out and shoot for us?” He flew me out. I stayed with friends. In fact, they may have put me in a hotel for the week. I hung out with Matt in his office and we’d shoot the shit, chat about photography, design, art. He’s a great guy.
And then he sent me to Colorado to shoot a senator. I shot some portraits in New York and then I flew back to London. And then he’d fly me out again. I did Kofi Annan. Newt Gingrich with a lion. I did a bunch of people. They did these themed issues. I did like the ten top men in politics or something like that. They’d fly me all over the country and it was a real education.
So suddenly I was getting a ton of shoots here and I was getting a bit more exposure. And gradually over the period from the beginning of 1996 to 1999, I came here more and more until I was here for three or four months a year. I was picking up interesting portraits in London for magazines like W, and I got a great break when Kathy Ryan at The New York Times Magazine hired me to shoot a cover of Tom Hanks and Ben Affleck. I shot a series of covers for them from 1998 onwards. It was starting to get stupid because I was constantly away. I would literally get home, get a phone call and get back on an airplane. It wasn’t making my personal life particularly easy.
My wife and I had been talking about moving to New York so in the middle of 1998 we thought, “Fuck it. We’ll move to New York.” She’s a really talented designer and got a job working for The Gap. We got married on March 27, 1999. We went to Saint Lucia for a week for our honeymoon we flew back on the third of April and on the fourth of April, we moved to New York.
APE: Big life change.
Jake: We literally left everything.
APE: You felt you needed to move to New York to have a successful career?
Jake: I think my experience in being here and then going back and not getting any phone calls was like that Andy Warhol saying, “Success is a job in New York.” And I thought that was where it was at and if I wanted to shoot big names for big clients that is where I needed to be. I wasn’t a fashion photographer. I wasn’t a product photographer or a car photographer and in England that’s a big market. I wasn’t particularly technical and a lot of the advertising imagery in the UK was very precise and that’s not me. I thought there was a lot of personality based stuff for me to shoot here.
And it was financial. My first big job in New York was in the end of 1998. I got a big job for IBM where we shot here, in London and in Tokyo. It was just before we moved. I got that ad job which paid a lot.
APE: So you saw that most of your potential clients were here.
Jake: It was a leap of faith. It was partly financial, but partly opportunity. All the celebs are here. If you shot a celeb in London, it was in a hotel room for 20 minutes on a press junket.
One of the first jobs I did here after moving and I suddenly thought, “OK. This is working out.” It was for Nancy Iacoi at “Premiere” who called me and asked me to shoot Johnny Depp for a cover, so we flew out to Frank Lloyd Wright House in LA. Now, that’s a shoot. [laughs]
APE: That’s an amazing shoot.
Jake: It’s not 20 minutes tucked in somewhere. It was amazing to suddenly be here doing all that stuff.
APE: And you were shooting big time editorials, shooting for tons of magazines?
Jake: I was shooting for “The New York Times Magazine”, “Premiere,” “Newsweek,” “Esquire,” “Entertainment Weekly”, “Details” a lot of editorial.
APE: I want to get into the promo stuff and the custom portfolio books because these are really interesting. Let’s get into these books. When did you first start making the books?
Jake: ’97 was the first one.
APE: Describe the process. Why did you start making them like this with the color photocopies?
Jake: When I started working for foreign magazines from London, it was pre-email, pre-Internet. You would FedEx off the edit, so I was cutting out these pictures realizing that as I didn’t have two sets of contacts necessarily, that I would never see them again, and to have a record of what the hell I had sent them I made color copies and they were sitting around in a pile.
Then I said, “Hmm. I’ll stick them in a book.” So I started cutting them out and making these collages and arrangements which I think because I’d been to art school and done a lot of painting, drawing stuff that it was second nature to have a sketch book. It was kind of the first photographic manifestation of a sketchbook.
And within a few weeks, I started to get a thick little set of pictures. There were pages and pages of this stuff. I had always been frustrated with my portfolios because they were one or two prints from each sessions and it didn’t really reflect the shoot.
APE: You wanted to show the whole take?
Jake: Yes because I was confident at this point. It was following off my conversation with Grant Scott who said, “Do you want to be a working photographer or a good photographer?” He showed me a shoot that one of the guys who worked he’d with, I can’t remember who it was, had done with Antonio Banderas and this guy had everything. He had close ups, wide shots, back and white, color, different outfits.
And he said, “How long do you think they had to do this shoot?” I said, “It looks like all day.” And he said, “No. They had two hours.” He said, “You’ve got to cover more than one shot because what if you submit a color headshot and the magazine has already got 20 color headshots in this issue and they want a black and white wide shot? You’ve got to think about that.”
And I had never considered it. I was too dumb. This was early on in my career. I was like, “Shit. He’s absolutely right.” So I started shooting around and trying really to explore and shoot how he told me to, for him particularly. So I had all these shots that never saw the light of day.
APE: And that is also a signature thing for you is how many setups you do.
Jake: I guess it became that way just trying to give a variety.
APE: And is part of that you just wearing them out? Or are you just trying to find something?
Jake: It’s like, “I’ve got that. Let’s do something different.” I’m always thinking that there’s a better shot here that I haven’t seen yet.
APE: Back to the books.
Jake: I’d put these together and suddenly it became a tool. Not just for reviewing the work but for getting work. Art directors seemed to respond very well to it. They loved to see the variety, to see the outtakes, to feel it’s something that’s personal, which it is.
APE: It’s very unusual. I don’t think I know anyone who does it this way but again it just fits with your personality so well. And you did it out of necessity.
Jake: Yes. I had wound up the first one and then I think — “We need two of these,” so I’d do two. It got to a point where I think on one round we did six of them. It took weeks. It’s really labor intensive.
APE: And you’ve done one of these every year.
Jake: Yeah, pretty much.
APE: It’s amazing. That’s amazing just to have that record of your career.
Jake: It’s a good review. It’s good to look back just to try and find stuff. I’ve got a client that I am about to shoot for, and they’re looking for pictures of night views of cities so I just went through them last night and pulled out a couple. It’s good to review and find stuff.
APE: Night views of cities?
Jake: Yeah, it’s for a vodka client.
APE: Oh, to go in with your other shots?
Jake: Yes, so that we don’t have to shoot it because we’ve only got two days to shoot this thing.
APE: What about as far as promos and stuff? Did you just do the normal kind of promo cards?
Jake: Yeah, I did promo cards, although I think they’re of somewhat limited value. But, you’d hope to go into someone’s office and see one pinned up on the wall.
Jake: It was brutal back then. It’s so much easier now to get pictures out there because you either have a website, blog, or send them in an email and people are hopefully interested to get them.
APE: Right. Yeah, let’s talk about that next, that evolution into The Daily Chessum. It makes a lot more sense to me now, meeting you and seeing and remembering the proliferation of images that you produce. Doing something daily, that makes a lot of sense now.
Jake: There are a hundred pages in each of these books. So that became an end in itself and a promotional tool that came out of nowhere and seemed to pay off. But then getting a website took a while and once you’ve got it up and running it’s hard to update, it takes a real commitment. I was talking to my agent and she was saying “Maybe you should do a blog.” I thought “Yeah, that’s great, but no writing.”
Jake: I’m not disparaging any blogs where people write about their experiences, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to demystify the process. There’s a lot of stuff out there that you shouldn’t tell anybody. You know what I mean?
APE: Yeah. If you want to reach photo editors and art directors and art buyers, then you need to be showing pictures and not talking about the process.
Jake: Yeah as a consumer of some of those blogs, it’s interesting to read that stuff because it creates a kind of kinship and it’s good to know you’re not the only one dealing with that crap. But yeah, I don’t want to divulge that information. I just wanted to put pictures out there regularly to show what I was up to. It’s easy to do, look at, immediate. It’s my visual diary.
APE: It’s just another promotional vehicle.
Jake: Yes, and I was really happy that Tumblr sent me a little email saying, oh, we love your blog, we want to put it on our spotlight page. Which overnight, I went from, 500 followers to like, 3,000, and then the next month it was 5,000, and up to 22,000 followers.
APE: I talked to you a year or longer ago about it, and you were saying “I don’t know where this is going to go, but I feel like I need to participate.”
APE: And you said you’re making a mistake not trying some of these new tools out.
Jake; True, and I’m not an innovator in that sense because I waited so long to jump on the blog bandwagon.
APE: No, but you took the time to see all the other blogs and make a decision, how you wanted yours to work.
Jake: Yes, and I thought, if you don’t update, you lose traffic so, I thought every day I’d put up one image, because putting up more would be a sheer burden to come up with more good pictures. Do you know what I mean? I didn’t want to dip into the archive too much. I wanted it to be something current. I want it to reflect what I was up to within that time frame. And obviously, it’s a kind of a cheat, because when you know you’re going to be busy, I queue up my 10 ahead or sometimes 20 ahead if I know I’m going to be crazed.
APE: And it’ll do it automatically.
Jake: Yes, it updates once a day, every day.
APE: Right, that’s perfect.
Jake: And then yesterday I got a bunch of PDFs of something that just came out, so I pushed everything back a few days and dropped those in to come in sooner.
APE: And, the other thing that you told me was with your shoots there’s all these outtakes that don’t make it in the magazine.
Jake: You have to be careful with that because you can diminish the value of the outtakes. Or upset a publicist. Clients want to pay for exclusives.
APE: Well, I think it’s brilliant.
Jake: Thanks. But, yes, it’s just a really cool way of making you work as well and making you take pictures. If you haven’t shot a job for a couple of days and you need to post, then it’s time to go out and shoot some pictures.
APE: I want to talk just really quick about the transition to digital. Obviously, you’re not shooting very much film anymore.
APE: But then you were saying how much you like digital.
Jake: Yes, I’m psyched about it.
APE: When did you finally embrace?
Jake: I haven’t shot an ad job on film for five years. And I haven’t seen a reason why I would have to. So in the last four years.
APE: Once you embraced it you felt like, “This is amazing.”
Jake: It’s like a revelation. I’d read yesterday some photographer who went fully digital in 2001. I went, “Fucking hell. That was pretty early to really go 100 percent digital.”
APE: Some people don’t love the film and the printing. They never got into that. Obviously all that time in the darkroom, you love that process.
Jake: Years of printing black and white and processing film. Seeing it, holding it up in the darkroom for the first time. There’s a huge thrill. There always was in seeing the print come up, and actually going through the craft of washing it, drying it. All that stuff.
Letting that go took a while. But I think I went through a transitional period. I had a darkroom in London, but I never had one here, and as I got busier I let it go. I was also shooting a lot of color and I never printed my own color. Plus the printers I used were better at it than I was. But I’ll admit I was one of those sanctimonious douchebags back in the day who was like, “Oh my God, they never print. How can you call yourself a photographer? How disgusting.” When I had the kids, I didn’t want to spend a night in the darkroom. I wanted to go home.
APE: What was the revelation once you really got into it?
Jake: I had let control go to an extent with the printing and retouching when I was all film. But when I started shooting digital I felt I claimed it back. Getting the images to where I wanted them, even something as simple as making something black and white, felt like giving me a creative outlet within the medium that I kind of lost track of. I’d let that go for a bit and it was a revelation to get it back. Do you know what I mean?
APE: Yeah. I think that completes the circle. Thanks for your time.
Jake: No problem.
via, Time Lightbox