Category "Photographers"

Michael Crouser Interview

- - Photographers

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

Michael Crouser: That is correct.

JB: What were you doing up there?

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

JB: Wow. Had you been there before?

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

JB: How big of an area were you ranging?

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

JB: Can you translate that into the lower 48?

MC: Miles?

JB: Yeah. How far were you rolling?

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

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

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

JB: You were in a pretty remote locale.

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

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

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

JB: Where will these photographs end up? Were you shooting digitally or film?

MC: For this type of job I always shoot digitally. I never shoot digital for my personal work, but commercial clients really don’t want to deal with film and prints anymore, for the most part. This client will use the pictures for a number of different things, as they’re trying to build a library of portraits of Alaska fishermen. They’re trying to promote the human aspect of this industry.

JB: You were shooting some pretty burly dudes, for sure. And you’ve photographed biker dudes as well, no?

MC: Yes, I’ve photographed members of a certain motorcycle club that operates out of Brooklyn. I’ve gotten to know some of these guys, and hung out with them, and done some portraits of those guys.

JB: And even though you’re a nice, soft-spoken guy from Minnesota, when you were shooting those big fishermen, do you ever slide into character and start dropping F-bombs?

MC: I do find myself shooting in a lot of different kinds of cultures and sub-cultures, and I never really try to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. Whether it’s ranchers in Colorado, or bikers or fishermen, I can pretty easily join in. I don’t pretend I’m one of them, but they don’t seem to mind having me around, just being myself.

JB: How do you split your time between commercial and personal work?

MC: It’s a tough question, because it changes with the different phases your life goes through. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re in the phase. It used to almost all commercial, and a bit of what I would have called personal work.

I didn’t have an outlet for it as fine art, so I never thought of it as such. Now, I’m more involved in book publishing, gallery exhibitions, and selling my work. So personal work becomes fine art, with that label.

I spent a lot more time on that, these days, than I do on commercial work, but that’s not by any personal rule. I’m always open to whatever happens.

JB: Well, the impetus for this interview was that you and I met last year, when you had a show at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe.

MC: Right.

JB: I was really taken with the project, “Sin Tiempo.” I saw some really exquisite black and white photographs, that I recall being gelatin silver prints. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.

MC: They are.

JB: And they were photographs taken in Europe that had the feel and emotional tenor of fifty, sixty, seventy year old pictures. You look at them sideways, and you can easily imagine some of the pictures being made by Cartier-Bresson, or Willy Ronis, or somebody of that age. Then, I looked at the title card, and they were dated as being 2011, 2010, 2012.

MC: Right.

JB: I was taken aback by your ability to channel a sense of time dislocation. The experience of the art was very different from the literal time in which it was made. And when I mentioned that, you told me that was very much your intention.

MC: It is very much the goal. I don’t claim that I’m trying to make old-looking photographs, but I am attracted to scenes that don’t give away a sense of popular culture today. I’m not very interested in reflecting or commenting upon our popular culture, and a huge percentage of photographers today are interested in that.

It just doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. A lot of times, photographers are trying to make a critical commentary, or some kind of an ironic statement about the world in which we live, and I find myself looking for something that’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. A timeless aesthetic.

I call the project “Sin Tiempo,” which is “Without Time” in Spanish, because I prefer that to timeless, which is an overused and generic term. I’m trying to make pictures that are without time. I’m not conscious of trying to make pictures that look like they’re from the 40’s or 50’s, but I am conscious of eliminating elements that label it as now, or five years ago. Any specific time.

So there’s no particular hair styles or graphics that are shown. No cars. No fashion that would be able to be labeled as any particular time. And what you get are photographs that do look like images of another time. Fashion changes by the minute, as does typography.

JB: I’m about to throw a word at you, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to embrace it, or reject it strongly.

MC: (laughing.) All right.

JB: And I bet you could even predict it, if you tried really hard.

MC: (pause.) You already used Cartier-Bresson, and timeless, so…I’m not sure.

JB: Romantic.

MC: I think it’s great. I’m interested in an aesthetically pleasing, Romantic, perhaps even dream-like settings. I really am drawn to that. The compositions are rather formal, but the feeling is whimsical. Even the photographs that have some tension to them, there’s always still a Romantic feel. Or a calm feel.

Romance is a good word.

JB: I didn’t know which way you’d go on that. You’ve photographed bull fighters, and working cattle ranches in Colorado. You were talking about timeless, and of course that’s impossible, given that photography requires time, which our readers will know.

But it seems like there is an absolute sense of of longing for a simpler time. What is the attraction for you? What is the commonality of the things you’re choosing to focus on?

MC: Tell me if I go off-the-rails here, but there’s an aesthetic commonality in the photographs. I would hope, anyway. I can’t speak for the viewers, but for me, I am attracted to ways of life that are simpler. But also a little more dangerous. A little rougher. A little of the Earth. More to do with life and death. And the involvement of animals, and physical labor.

I find those things attractive/romantic, both sociologically and photographically. I always suggest to students that if they go after a long-term project, they go after something that interests them outside of the photographic interest. That they find something that they are attracted to, because then they’ll stay with it and explore it more deeply.

With regard to bullfighters and cowboys, we really are looking at at way of life that extends backward to before there were even cameras. This way of life existed before there was anybody to take pictures of it. And there are elements if it that have remained unchanged.

The series I call “Mountain Ranch,” which is about ranchers in the mountains of Colorado, concentrates on the traditional elements of traditional lives. It’s not the story of the modern cowboy. I’m not trying to hold up some juxtaposition between four-wheelers and horses, or baseball hats and cowboy hats.

It’s just that these things are fascinating to me, and they’re going away, as is their lifestyle. Part of it is, I just want to look at it. I love being around it. It looks to me like something that I, Michael Crouser, should be making photographs of because it appeals to me so strongly.

I don’t really know what to say when people say “It’s great that you’re documenting this for posterity.” I agree, but it’s not necessarily the full motivation. It’s interesting to me to be documenting for that purpose, but I think the motivation is mostly an aesthetic one.

These things grow. It starts off as something you might like to go take a picture of, but then you meet people, and start becoming interested in their lives, and families, and the way they work. And the fact that their grandparents lived on that land as well.

I’m not photographing everything about their lives. I’m photographing the traditional elements of their lives.

JB: You mentioned your students at the beginning of that answer, so that seems like a great place to segue a bit. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, because you’re going to be teaching a worksop with them called “Finding Your Voice as a Photographer.”

MC: Right.

JB: We just heard, at length, about how you have learned to trust your own instincts. And that’s lead to your voice, aesthetically speaking. But all workshops need titles, so why did you choose that one? What do students come to you to learn?

MC: Before I started teaching, I was doing some self-exploration, as a photographer. Just wondering to myself what it is that makes my pictures personal. Why are they mine, as opposed to someone else’s? I became fascinated by this idea that by a series of decisions, or factors, or elements in a photograph, you start to hone your aesthetic voice.

The choices that you make with regard to light, medium, equipment, composition, perspective, subject matter, etc. As you work through those things, and experiment, your photographs become something more personal. More unique to you than they would be without the consideration of those things.

A lot of students that I have in my workshops are really interested in taking another step in their photography. That’s kind of a general way that people express the fact that they want to grow and learn and expand.

It’s often difficult for people to know where to go. How do you open up the door if you don’t know where the door is? So this class looks at a number of doors that are there for the opening. When you start to explore these things, and consider the work of established photographers, and how they use these elements, they get exposure to choices that they can make.

A lot of photographers who take these classes have never thought of these things before. Maybe they like to take pictures of their kids, or horse races, or maybe they’ve never thought about the qualities of light that appeal to them the most. Once you start experimenting with your own preferences, I feel like your own voice gets sharper. More articulate.

JB: How about group dynamics in workshops? What are some of your tricks for getting people to engage with each other?

MC: I’ve found I like teaching more in a group setting, than working with individuals, because there’s more discussion. It becomes more apparent to the students that there are differences of opinion, and different aesthetic tastes. It happens all the time where one student will be very attracted to garish color, and the student sitting next to them will say “That’s ridiculous.”

There are two vastly different opinions about the same photograph. I think that is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows them that taste is personal, that there is no right or wrong. That’s an important piece of this class, because I don’t teach people that there’s a correct way to take photographs.

I teach people to explore what is they like about photographs, and what they like about taking pictures, and to run with it. Explore it.

JB: Do you find people are attracted to your way of making work? Is there a Romantic vibe in the air, when your students come together? Or are they more attracted to the fact that you’re confident in your personal vision, and they want you to bring that out in them?

MC: I think that some people end up taking a class because they like the instructor’s work, but I wouldn’t say that’s universal.
There are a few classes in which I ask people, just as an exercise, to emulate one of the photographer’s whose work we’ve seen. And there are a lot of things we do as exercises that don’t necessarily correspond to the work they’re going to do for the rest of their life.

But some people do choose to emulate my photographs, which is incredibly flattering, because it never occurs to me that people are there because of my aesthetic. But I am also aware of the fact that there are a lot of reasons to choose a certain workshop instead of another one.

JB: You mentioned that you show other photographer’s work in you workshop. Who are some of the artists whose work you like to use as examples?

MC: I like to show extremes. I try not to just be limited to the people that influence or inspire me. There are people that I find to be controversial, whose work I show.

Are you looking for names?

JB: Of course. We’re always looking for names. People love names.

MC: There is a lot of the aesthetic that appeals to me, like Edward Curtis, and of course Cartier-Bresson, and Willy Ronis, and Robert Doisneau, and Lartigue. I call it the French Mt. Rushmore. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Lartigue and Brassai. It’s an era that speaks to me so strongly.

But I also like people to see David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, and Albert Watson and Herb Ritts. (pause.) I’m trying to think of more contemporary photographers…Susan Burnstine…

JB: I demanded names, and you gave us some. Now we know you’re also intrigued by editorial masters, as it were. I just wanted to give people a sense of what inspires you.

MC: I might add that I’m inspired by people who are inspired. I’m inspired by certain photographers, but I’m also inspired by teaching; by people learning and growing. It really gets me going.

JB: Do you enjoy getting to come down to New Mexico? It sounds like you get to travel quite a bit. Do you think that Santa Fe offers anything special, compared to other locations?

MC: It’s a great atmosphere in which to learn. The people are so nice in Santa Fe, and at the Workshops. They’re so helpful and positive. They make available a lot of locations that the students can utilize, apart from classroom learning. There’s a lot at hand, as far as landscape and setting.

When you go to Santa Fe, you know you’re not in California, or Minnesota, or New York. People get a uniquely Santa Fe experience when they’re there, from the light to the farmers market. It’s a great place to be. Very comfortable and positive from start to finish.

JB: As far as travel goes, we started this conversation mentioning that you were on a long layover in Seattle on your way to China.

MC: I’m going to Beijing. It will be my first time to Asia. I’m going to speak to the organizers of an upcoming exhibition, to help them plan it from the photographer’s perspective. I do a lot of work for and with Kodak, and they’ve been so very supportive of my projects with Tri-X film and darkroom chemicals. They’re sponsoring it.

JB: If when you’re walking along the road, you see knock-offs of your own photographs, what are you going to do?

MC: It’s interesting that you mention that. I recently found some different examples of knock-offs of my pictures online. People selling paintings of my work, and things like that.

JB: I have an idea. You could just bring in the biker dudes.

MC: Right. I could mix projects for protection.

JB: You gotta call in backup.

MC: (laughing) I like it. They’d probably love it. Riding their Harleys around Beijing.

Jock Sturges Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: How did you come to photography as a method of expression?

Jock Sturges: It’s an important question, because the answer sets the groundwork for my whole life’s work. At age eight, I was sent away to summer camp. And, from eight on, I was in boarding schools or summer camp right until I joined the Navy in 1966.

That’s pretty young to be away from home. These were all boys boarding schools and all boys camps. I had as well four brothers, all of whom were similarly sent away. No sisters.

So, as circumstance dictated it was in these schools and camps where I was obliged to find what family I could – amongst the other boys. And right from the beginning I had an appetite for beauty. Due to a chain of circumstances that involved several broken arms, I wasn’t allowed to do sports for several years, and ended up swiping a camera from one of my roommates who had in turn swiped it from his dad. I was eventually able to make prints from the work I was doing. My roommate’s mother came up for a visit and saw some of the prints of her son on the wall and took them down and kept them. 

JB: (laughing.) For real?

JS: But she paid me for them!

JB: OK. 

JS: What was then a small fortune.

JB: How old were you?

JS: I was about eleven at that point.

JB: You sold your first work at eleven? I haven’t heard that before.

JS: Right away, I discovered that many of my friends’ parents suffered from guilt for having sent their children away to school so young, so, as it happened, there was a nice market there for me. Some of my friends in turn figured out that they were a kind of cash register, and wanted a cut of course 

JB: I sold lanyards. I had a friend making them, and I was basically the middle man, selling lanyards around the lunchroom in what was probably seventh grade. I think you have me beat, for an early understanding of capitalism. 

JS: The capitalism was a side affect for me. It was certainly very much enjoyed, because we had no spending money. But really I was keeping the images of my friends because at the end of the school year, or the end of summer, many kids would disappear. You’d never see them again. Their parents would be transferred to Europe, or wherever.

It was a way of keeping family. And beauty was also a big part of that for me. Boys can be very beautiful, and I was drawn to it, right from the beginning. Long before that, when I was five, my parents moved into a house in Providence that belonged to my great uncle Howard Sturges – a legendary bon-vivant who was Cole Porter’s partner for much of his life. Anyway, there was a big set of US Camera Annuals, in the bookshelves of that house, which I just loved. There, inexplicably, I fell in love with Grace Kelly because of two images of her swimming in Lake Como. I had a massive crush on her. I was five or six.

I don’t have any particular explanation for why that aesthetic appetite exists in Homo Sapiens, even in young children, but there it is. 

JB: I was going to ask if you were coming from the North East. Was your family part of the cultural tradition of boarding school? 

JS: In fairness to him, my father had been sent away at the same age himself. It was just how it was done. The English pattern. My family came from money, but several generations before them. I like to describe them as camped in the ashes of a great fortune. 

So I grew up with the trappings of privilege, but almost none of the economic leverage. The good schools, etc, were actually paid for by a relation. I came out of that, making photographs all the time, but mostly just of the other boys, because that’s who I was around. It wasn’t until after four years in the military, where I was a Russian interpreter living in Japan for three years, that I found myself finally in a context that included women.

This was Marlboro College in southern Vermont. It was very small, 200 students, and I arrived right at the height of the sexual revolution. The school’s only rule was, whatever you’re doing, just please close your door. 

That was paradise for me. I was finally in the context of women, and finally really happy socially because the truth was, I’d never much liked talking about cars and…

JB: Sports? 

JS: About cars and sports. Exactly. The conversation with women was instantly more interesting to me than any conversations I’d had before. The critic, AD Coleman, has since described me as having a strong feminine aspect, and I really appreciated that clear perception of who I am. It realys fit with my own sense of self.

From that point on, I only really photographed girls and women.

JB: But your first experience, based upon your age, and the age group of the kids with whom you were billeted, was in photographing young boys.

JS: Very much so.  My cofrères.

JB: Is that something you think people are familiar with?

JS: It’s been in an interview here or there, but it’s kind of the bedrock of where it all comes from.

JB: At what point in your evolution as a photographer did you start working with nudes?

JS: Not for a long time. When I was at Marlboro, in Vermont, I did some. But the work then was really fueled more by hormones than intelligence. I was 22 or 23 years old, and new to the game of sex and relationships. Making pictures of naked women struck me as an enjoyable endeavor. But it left me feeling hollow, somehow dishonest, so I stopped pretty quickly

Then in 1973 I took a feminist workshop in Minneapolis/St Paul as part of a larger workshop I was doing on alternative education. It changed my life significantly, because, for the first time, I started to really appreciate the problem with objectification in nude photography — and how much of traditional photography of women was hard on them as a group. Abrasive, even.

I came away from that deciding I didn’t want to make photographs like that, and I actually stopped doing nudes for almost ten years. But then, almost accidentally, I stumbled upon the fact that making portraits of people over a long period of time transitioned the work from being about the body to being about relationship. In the same time frame I found myself in a counter-culture context in California where nudity was commonplace and shame absent. This was an epiphany for me!

This encounter with people who had no complex about simply being naked combined with my experience with feminism in the early 70’s and set me on a completely different path from where I started. Very happily so, because, since then, I have not photographed a great many people, but I have photographed the people I do photograph a great many times.

JB: So what led to photographing younger girls was that starting earlier enabled you to potentially open up a lengthy, multi-decade process?

JS: That’s exactly right. In fact, as time went on, I got more and more interested in even starting with pregnancies, when possible — starting as early as possible so that I felt like, when I’d been photographing for a number of years, that I really knew something. 

Now, I’m photographing a third generation. You begin to have something on the order of a significant understanding of who a person is when you’ve known her parents, and then their parents before that, most of their lives.

The first two Aperture books did me a real disservice, in that respect. Michael Hoffman refused to allow me to edit them chronologically, as I wanted to. I had edited my first book, “The Last Day of Summer,” with a great editor from Aperture, and we had worked it out together as a chronology to our mutual satisfaction. With each of the models depicted, you’d see them getting older image by image, and that painted the picture of a relationship.

That didn’t suit Hoffman at all. He wanted to edit it graphically, so he ditched our chronology as not interesting, and basically did it as an exercise in graphics. His mantra was, “You don’t know anything about making books. I do. Shut up.”

JB: Had you gotten your way, it sounds like you would have created something within the realm of what Nicholas Nixon did with “The Brown Sisters,” which, of course, drew him massive acclaim.

JS: Exactly right. I’d been doing lifetime studies for a long time at that point. I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just pictures of pretty girls, it was a long-term relationship with a huge amount of respect as the engine, and that the project was open-ended and continuing.

All my subsequent books with Scalo and Steidl, etc, and, after Hoffman was gone, even with Aperture were in fact edited chronologically.

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1990

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1996

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 2011

JB: It seems like a great opportunity to talk a bit about the way your vision of your own process, your motivations and intellectual curiosity, have led you in one direction. Clearly, the elephant in the room here is the way an audience, critics, and other people have responded to what you’re doing.

It’s not edgy here to say your work is among the more controversial that’s come around in the last three or four decades. 

Can we start with the way you react to other peoples’ reactions? What’s it like for you, when you feel your own actions are coming from one place, and other people are responding from such a massively different set of assumptions?

JS: The Aperture book set off a certain amount of reaction that was conservative, as you depict. I think, if it had been edited chronologically, that wouldn’t have necessarily been the case, as much as it turned out to be. Subsequently, most of those critical voices have gradually been stilled, by seeing the chronologically edited books, and the long, long timespans.

And then came the Aperture book, with Misty Dawn which described a quarter of a century of her life. That kind of calmed people down. It became impossible not to realize that there had to be a profound level of trust between a model, who was letting herself be photographed for that many years, and who then entered her own child into the process. There’s no harm being done there. Just the opposite, in fact.

In fact, the work is reifying, and re-enforcing in a very positive way for the models. Simply put, the people whom I photograph love both the process and the work. People who are too conservative to appreciate that, frankly, just don’t interest me that much. I’m fine with how the work is made. I know that it’s a great joy for me to make it, and it’s a huge pleasure for the models to be in it.

Finally there are only two entities that I answer to: myself, and the models. What the rest of the world makes of it is, frankly, just not that interesting or relevant for me.

JB: Context is key. It’s hard to have any kind of art conversation in the 21st Century without bringing it up. 

I’ll speak plainly here. I saw one print, decontextualized on the wall at Aperture a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been face-to-face with the work before, and it threw me. I had a very powerful, negative, visceral reaction to it. And I wrote that as well.

It was just one print, a slice pulled out of the narrative that you’re describing. I have to say, I think it did you a disservice in that regard.

JS: We’re not there to protect the work and make sure that doesn’t happen. 

To advance my notion of it, the most important thing in my work is an absence: the absence of shame. The people that I photograph are basically living a lifestyle without clothes because that’s the lifestyle they choose. They’re not taking their clothes off for me. They live that way.

That’s one of the things I discovered at Marlboro, was that getting people to take their clothes off for you is something that’s been done rather too much. It’s essentially artificial; kind of understandably hormone induced. 

I have this visual curiosity, and became fascinated, later in the 70’s, when I finally started on the body of work that I’m doing now, by the reality that I encountered in the counter-culture in Northern California. Dress or undress was dictated only by weather – not social convention. A new world.

There I found the nude, per say, as something that was organic to the being of the people. They were completely unashamed of themselves. Coming from the East Coast, an absence of shame was a little startling, because I was raised on it. 

That absence, even in an individual picture, can be breathtaking for people who’ve been raised in a context where it doesn’t exist. Where the body is hidden, and where nudity is routinely conflated with sexuality. That’s really not my problem, and it’s not the model’s problem. It’s the viewer’s problem.

JB: That’s why the work creates such powerful conversations, and can so easily end up in the political crosshairs. Given the times, and the decades we’re talking about, did you ever find yourself in a room, sharing a conversation with Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano? 

JS: No. I never met either of those two artists. I wish I had done, and I would have been intrigued to speak with them.

My roll as a test case, as it were, was not a role that I enjoyed or embraced in any way. I wish that it had never happened. But, culturally, it was more or less inevitable. The fact that I was unaware of that, and hadn’t thought to predict it, is evidence, once again, as AD Coleman points out, of my naiveté.

As we record this interview, you’re in New Mexico and I am in France in a naturist resort with a summer population of 29,000 people on the Atlantic Coast. There are many other such resorts up and down this coast and elsewhere in Europe. I’ve been coming here for thirty years. Nudity means nothing to anybody here. People come here to exist wearing whatever they want. When the weather is cool, people wear something. If women have their period, they usually wear bottoms. People wear whatever’s relevant or nothing – as they please.

Children, especially, are rarely clothed here, because they enjoy so much not having clothes on. If you exist in that context for a while, it gives you an artificial notion of what’s reasonable behavior as regards the rest of the world. This is such a comfortable place to be. 

JB: It’s great to learn more about the roots of your process, especially as one who was so offended by the work out of context.

Given that we’ve been talking about nudity, that seems like a good segue to discuss your upcoming workshop with the Santa Fe Workshops. It’s called “The Portrait and the Nude.” 

How long have you been teaching? 

JS: Pretty much my whole life. I’m kind of a natural teacher, if I can say that without sounding self-aggrandizing. It’s probably the thing I do best in life. I love it.

It is an abiding sadness for me that, given the political take on my work, probably no major University would dare hire me. But I’m brought in as a lecturer from time to time and I love doing it. I particularly like looking at people’s work, and then trying to help them figure out how to do it better. 

JB: What do you think are the advantages of working in small groups? What is it like for you as an instructor, and what do you think your students tend to get out of the environment?

JS: Every student is a different person, and it’s my job as a teacher to try to figure out who they are, and then turn the key in their lock to help them be better. Help them manifest themselves in the work. 

In a small group, I have time to spend with individuals, to try to get my head around who they are, what skill set they have, and what skills they could use to go further. Sometimes, that’s a manner of looking at what equipment they’re using, and then figuring out if they’re frustrating themselves unnecessarily by using equipment that’s not appropriate for what they need and want to do. You’d be surprised by how often that is the case.

Other times, it’s talking about the larger philosophies that are behind making pictures; understanding them, and how they relate to what they might have been born to do. I’m not much fond of art schools, where people are often taught to think in parallel as it were — where political cant has a large place, and political correctness often holds sway. This can result in students manifesting popular schools of thought as opposed to the individuals they were born to be.

My assistants during the summer come from The Norsk Fotofagskole in Trondeheim, Norway. Five years ago I had occasion during the Nordic Light Foto Festival to review the school’s entire student body’s work during one long day. No student had work that was anything like anybody else’s! Every student was doing completely original work and all of it was extremely well-made. That’s a terrific photographic education.

That’s my ideal. I’m trying to help the students be individuals. I don’t want them to be me by any stretch of the imagination. I give a gentle hard time to those people who think they’re flattering me by resembling me.

JB: A gentle hard time? I haven’t sorted that out yet. I’m more accustomed to a hard hard time. 

JS: I really believe in blowing on sparks and encouraging people. Figuring out what it is that they do well, complimenting them for it, making them feel good about themselves, and then getting in a little medicine by saying, “And you could do this even better if…” I never want to do anything but encourage students.

JB: In something like this, where the purpose of the workshop touches so closely on your own process, do you ever encourage students to photograph people with clothes on? Does it always stick to the nude? 

JS: Absolutely. What I like best to do, if it’s a two day workshop, the first day we’ll shoot kids who are dressed. Working with young people obliges the students to be decent people, because kids won’t pose for them if they’re not. 

Kids simply won’t accept a person who’s being mean to them, or being officious, bossy, or pushy. You’ll get nothing from them, under those circumstances.

Then, for the second day, we transition to the figure, which a lot of people come to study. I still emphasize, of course, that you need to be treating this person as a person, not a model. It’s vastly better if you accept from them what they have to give, and not tell them what to do. The set of ideas we have when we instruct a model to pose is tiny, compared to what people do naturally.

There is far more beauty in the awkward grace of a natural position than there is in any sort of Neo-Greco-Roman pose. If I never saw another one, it would be too soon. I’m sick to death of all the arms behind the head and everything. No thank you!

For a five day workshop we do two or three days of younger models followed by the days of figure models. I let the group decide on the balance of what they want to do.

JB: What about San Miguel de Allende, where the workshop is taking place? Have you been there before?

JS: I’ve taught there I think as much as a half a dozen times. It’s a terrific location. My first workshop there was a real eye-opener, and was actually my first time in Mexico. San Miguel is at altitude, and has enormous charm. As a photographer, it is a paradise of brilliant locations and amazing light.

The model population is surprising too, because they’re not the kind of over-tired, worn-out models that I sometimes associate with workshops. They tend to be relatively new to it, and quite beautiful. They’re interesting people, and the workshop students become enamored of them. They develop a relationship and of course that for me is the holy grail.

JB: I’ve been through that part of Mexico. It’s lovely. There are some cool, smaller cities around there, like Guanajuato and Queretaro. Do you get out of San Miguel at all? Are there outdoor shoots?

JS: They’re all outdoor shoots, and we go all over. We go to people’s ranches. We spend a day up at an abandoned silver mine, which is a bit higher. It’s a long trip up there, but it’s a stunning location.

We definitely get into the real Mexico doing this. It’s as rich a workshop experience as anyone could ever hope to have. At the end of the week, we are all pretty beat, because we do so much. Tired but happy.

The Santa Fe Workshops does a great final evening, where everyone’s work is seen. There are slide projections. It’s a terrific experience for people. It’s my favorite workshop that I’ve taught. 

JB: That’s great to hear. I’m glad we got a chance to talk about it, as the Santa Fe Workshops are sponsoring this interview series. We all know each other here in New Mexico, and I’m a big fan of how they promote education and creative practice.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on right now?

JS: This evening I’m shooting Flore, whom I have known for more than 25 years. With her kids. So I’m doing a mother and daughter portrait there. 

At a greater distance I am leaving for China in a few weeks where I have a series of museum openings of my work to attend. I then come back to Europe to print a new book of 25 years in the life of my goddaughter, Fanny, with Steidl. And then I get to finally fly home.

JB: What’s the light quality like on the Atlantic Coast this time of year?

JS: The light quality is staggering. The first time I walked onto this beach, 30 years ago, I suddenly understood the Impressionists in a new way. The light here is stupefying. It has a lot of moisture in it, and in the evening, it fluoresces. Things are lit from all directions when you’re on the beach. 

Shadows have an enormous amount of information in them. The highlights are soft, with beautiful, beautiful scale. The light saturations here are just so richly appealing. 

JB: Do you get to travel around and hit the museums, or do you mostly stick to your beach?

JS: I tend to be doing just one thing. I’m either with my family here, or I’m shooting. I’m also in Europe a lot during the winter. That’s when I hit museums and shows, because I’m omnivorous. I’m much more influenced by paint, in fact, than I am by photography.

I love ingesting new art. It’s one of the reasons why I love teaching so much because I see things I would never have thought to do myself. I hope that I’m learning permanently.

JB: I try to use this platform to encourage people to go look at work as much as possible. I find, anecdotally, when you talk to photographers, they often say they’re too busy. But I believe, without good input, there’s very little chance of great output.

JS: I couldn’t agree more. You are what you eat. Period.

Occasionally, I’ll teach someone over the age of 60, and they’re often a lot harder to teach. Very often, they’ve made up their minds, and they’re not taking on new ideas. Because I am 66 now, I’m terrified of that ossification.

I’m always trying to push myself, and at least once every couple of days, I’ll make a picture that breaks some or even all of the personal rules I have for making pictures. I don’t want to live in a cage of my own habit and practice. Often those experiments fail – but not always. The only truly bad picture one can take is the one that one does not take at all. We learn from all the rest.

Alec Soth Interview – Part 2

[Part 1 is here]

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: You’ve got a publishing company, LBM, that you started in 2008. Is that right?

Alec Soth: Correct.

JB: It’s based in Minneapolis. You built a team of collaborators, and a print studio. How did that come about, and where is it going?

AS: It’s related to how my blogging activity came about. I started the blog around 2006, and did it because I wanted to have these conversations with people. I was hungry for art talk, and there was a new way to do that. One person could just do it.

It was a blast, but it became all-consuming. I felt like I needed to keep feeding this machine. So I quit.

Then, in 2008, I was having a show of work that was basically produced in the previous eight years: “The Last Days of W.” It was election time, and I wanted to mark this moment in time, so I self-published this newspaper. I made 10,000 copies, so I could make it as cheaply as possible. Like so many people do, I found that experience of self-publishing to be thrilling.

I threw this little name of Little Brown Mushroom on it, which has some special meaning attached to some other stuff. I didn’t really know that I was going forward with it.

JB: Is that a little nod to your psychedelic phase?

AS: Not at all.

JB: Truffles, porcinis? Where are we going with this?

AS: None of the above. I never had a psychedelic phase. Like I said, I’m of a pretty conservative background. The name comes from different things. There’s this character in my life, Lester B. Morrison, and his initials are LBM, so I was looking for LBM.

In researching different LBM’s out there, LBM is a mushroom hunter’s term for a Little Brown Mushroom, which is mushroom that is incredibly common, but you can’t identify it because it’s so common. I liked that meaning: making these little average things that are unidentifiable.

JB: Is that Mid-Western humility?

AS: Honest to god, it’s not true any more, but as a kid, I used to say my favorite color was brown. Is that humble, or is that just pathetic? (laughing.) I don’t know.

JB: Peculiar. We’ll go with peculiar instead of pathetic. I’m not going to be the guy to call you pathetic in print. It won’t be me. Idiosyncratic? How about that?

AS: Idiosyncratic. That works. More important was Lester B. Morrison, at the time that I was doing this. I created this name, Little Brown Mushroom, and I thought, that’s fun, I’ll do some more stuff, and get some other little ‘zines. This was all just me doing it myself: my own design, everything.

Then, I got interested in story-telling, and thinking about how children’s’ books are such a great way of combining text and image. I wanted to use that format, so I ended up finding this designer named Hans Seeger, who was excited to work with me on this. I had the idea of using the Little Golden Book structure.

We did one of these with the Australian photographer Trent Parke, and that was hugely successful. It sold out in five days, and was just a thrill. The act of creating a website, and selling this thing… it only cost $18, but it was not my own. It was another artist, and another designer. To be involved with that, and to sell that was just exhilarating. As exhilarating as making my own work.

I wanted to have a place to play with that stuff, but I was really adamant that I didn’t want it to be a grown-up business. I didn’t want the success of the first book to become intoxicating. Like, for the next one, we have to get a bigger name artist, and sell more copies.

The goal has always been to break even; to not lose money. And to have this experimental, fun place. I can try out new stuff, and the stakes aren’t so high.

JB: I noticed that a lot of the things you’re offering through LBM have sold out, including the tote bags and baseball caps. Have you ever considered giving people what they want? If they want more, sell them more? Or is it too much extra work to reproduce things? Have you thought about that? Being able to make money because people want to buy your stuff?

AS: I’ve thought about it a lot. We re-printed one thing, which is “House of Coates,” because Brad, who was the writer on that, really wanted it out there. He wanted more people to have the opportunity to read it. So I did it.

Generally, I have not wanted to do it. The primary reason is that it’s a pain in the ass. Like I said, there’s this enormous thrill about getting together with an artist and designer and making this thing. It is not thrilling, however, to receive the boxes, to put them in little containers, to put them in the mail. It’s full of problems and returns and hassles.

Re-printing an old thing, and trying to promote an old thing, it’s just not exciting. Very simply. With my limited time, I’m not that excited about spending it that way.

JB: We’re talking about Little Brown Mushroom at present, but the initial question reflected the fact that you’re a highly successful artist, and you’re lecturing around the country, constantly. It sounds like it would be enough of a job for anybody.

Are most or all of the folks at LBM based there with you in Minneapolis? I’ve heard a lot of great things about the photo community there. Did you always plan to stay there, or did you ever consider moving to New York or LA?

AS: First of all, not everyone is here. The main designer is in Milwaukee, which is not at all close to here. Another designer is based in Philadelphia, and one in New York. But most of us are here.

In terms of being here, it is a great photo community. It always has been, based largely on good support for the arts in Minnesota.

JB: Some folks actually move there to be able to qualify for the McKnight Fellowship?

AS: Yeah. That is true. I always thought I was going to live in the Bay Area, because it’s…

JB: Insanely nice?

AS: Yeah, it’s insanely nice. And there’s a great photo community.

JB: They’re pretty hot right now, too.

AS: I have a lot of friends out there. I thought that was going to be the case, but real life circumstances kept me here for a variety of reasons. When I had some art world success, I confess that I flirted with the idea of New York. And then, I came to my senses on that one. For a moment I thought about it, and I’m so grateful I didn’t do that.

In terms of staying here, it’s not Paradise. I don’t want to over-romanticize it, at all. It’s freaking April 17th, and I’m looking at snow right now. So it’s ridiculous. But as I travel around, it’s a pretty good place.

JB: And you guys have Kirby Puckett. (pause.) No, that’s right. He died.

AS: (laughing.) Yeah, we no longer have Kirby Puckett.

JB: See that. Even my attempt at topical sports humor crashed because I remembered Kirby Puckett died a while ago.

AS: Not only did he die, there was a big sex scandal before he died, so it’s even more depressing.

JB: Oh my god. I didn’t know that. I read an article a couple of years ago in Sports Illustrated that rattled off the litany of Walter Payton’s indiscretions. He shot some guy. That one crushed any of my childhood sports idealism that was left. If Sweetness was a prick, there’s nobody left to respect.

AS: (laughing) One quick thing, though, I’m not super-engaged with the local community. I don’t want to give that impression. We have a lot of interns from the local schools, but I travel all the time.

When I’m here in Minnesota, I’m either at the studio, or I’m with my family. There’s not much else. But it’s a good place for that, because I don’t have to socialize all the time. If I lived in New York, I’d have to go to a freaking opening every weekend.

JB: We’re clear. If people move to Minnesota to get a McKnight, they should not plan to hang out with Alec Soth all the time.

But as far as bringing people to town, you’re having a camp for introverted storytellers?

AS: Socially awkward. Introverted is your word. If that’s your definition of socially awkward.

JB: I totally pulled that word off the website description. Don’t make me Google it right now.

AS: (laughing) OK.

JB: I know the deadline for submission will have passed by the time this is published, but where did you get the idea to set up a camp?

AS: In the last year, I’ve been doing this project with Brad Zellar, and he and I are doing these road trips. For every one of these, we work with a student assistant. They’ve been incredible encounters. And I like to think we have potentially changed people’s lives.

As I told you at the beginning, I had a teacher who changed my life. So I really want to be a part of that experience. I feel like the traditional educational structure is a way to do that, but it doesn’t have to be the only way to do that.

JB: That structure is in massive flux in 2013 anyway.

AS: Yeah. There are things that can be done with it. I am outside of that structure, but I’m hungry to have that be a part of my life. Doug DuBois is a good friend of mine. He and I teach together one week out of the year in Hartford.

JB: They have a low-residency MFA program there. Is that the term?

AS: Limited residency. Doug teaches at Syracuse, full time, and goes to Hartford for a week. He is clearly one of the great educators. A couple of years ago, Doug was awarded the SPE educator of the year. This parade of students came on stage, one by one, talking about his influence in their life. It was so powerful.

Wow, I thought. It’s such a meaningful thing to do. I want a piece of that. I want to engage with people in that way. So, how to do that?

I thought, why not do something here? I’m invited to do workshops all the time, but it’s always a pain for me, because I travel too much. It’s hard to justify it to my family, to go away, again, for something else.

I thought, why not have people come here, and do it entirely on my own terms, so I can make it what I want to make it. The fact that it’s free was a big part of that, for a number of reasons. One is I didn’t want the expectation of anything. I feel like if you charge $2000 for a workshop, it needs to be officially certified in some way.

JB: You start judging yourself by value added.

AS: Yeah. And it’s also going to attract different people. This is just a big experiment. It’s hard to talk about, since I haven’t done it yet. But I’m really excited about it.

And I continue to be excited about working with these students on the various “Dispatch” trips.

JB: Good luck with it. It sounds exciting.

AS: Thanks.

JB: But we’re deep into this interview, and I realize we haven’t been able to talk about your big career news, that is relatively hot off the presses. By the time we publish this, it will be slightly less fresh. But you were just given your first Guggenheim Fellowship.

AS: Yeah. And last, because I think you can only get it one time now.

JB: Congrats, on behalf of our disparate global band of photo geeks. What project did you propose?

AS: I’m really committed to this “Dispatch” project. To explain what that is, it’s a collaborative, self-published newspaper. Brad Zellar and I do a two-week road trip, in a certain geographical location; usually a state. We tackle whatever issues and topics we feel are pertinent to that area. We’ve done four so far: Ohio, Upstate, (which is Upstate New York,) Michigan, and Three Valleys. (Which is in California.)

JB: San Joaquin, Death Valley, and Silicon Valley?

AS: Right. And then next month, we’re doing Colorado.

JB: Just up the way from here.

AS: We considered doing the Four Corners, but ended up doing Colorado.

JB: I just drove across the state yesterday. I left Jersey, where it was 65 degrees and sunny, and I landed in an actual blizzard in Denver. It was pretty horrendous. Back to the topic though…

AS: We’re continuing that project, and we’re using the Guggenheim funds to expand it in difficult-to-fund regions. We’re doing Texas, and it’s easier to get funding there, than some place like Idaho. It’s a very expensive project because there are three of us traveling, and I pay Brad. Then we produce the newspaper.

It’s a pretty epic project, and the Guggenheim is going towards that. I’m also fund-raising in other ways, for the project, which I’ve never really done before. I just believe in it really strongly.

JB: I can’t wait to see how it evolves. You’ve been so generous with your time, so I know we have to wrap this up. Are there any exhibitions coming up that some of our readers might be able to see?

AS: No.

JB: (laughing) I try to end this with the most average, softball question anyone could ever ask, and I get a one word answer that totally subverts my intentions. That’s awesome. It’s a great ending right there, unless you want to say “Goodnight, Gracie.”

AS: This new work that I’m doing, I talked it over with my galleries, and I’m not selling any of it right now. I want to wait. That’s part of the Guggenheim, and other funding that I’m getting as well.

I’m using it to give myself some space to produce this work without showing it, and selling it, and doing all of those things, until it’s done. It’s like the way one would do with a movie. I’ll release it when it’s time to be released in its entirety. Happily, I don’t have any big shows on the schedule.

Billy. Ironwood

Cade and Cody. Au Gres-Sims High School Wolverines. Au Gres

Facebook main campus. Menlo Park

Highway 15, near Daggett.

Jesse Reese. American Legion Post 205. Dover Burial Park. Dover, Ohio

Martin Etchamendy, Basque shepherd. Outside Bakersfield

Miguel, ten months old. Woodville Farm Labor Camp. San Joaquin Valley

Near Kaaterskill Falls

Alec Soth Interview – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: When did you first start taking photographs? When did it all begin?

Alec Soth: In high school, I had this experience that a lot of people have. I had a great teacher that woke me up. In that case, he was a painting teacher. He did a little session, once, on photography, and I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. But I knew that I wasn’t a painter, deep down.

So I did other things. I made sculptures outdoors, and stuff like that. I went to school thinking I’d be some sort of painter or installation artist. While I was in school, I discovered photography in a new way, partly through photographing these sculptures I was making outdoors.

JB: This is at Sarah Lawrence?

AS: Sarah Lawrence. Correct.

JB: You studied with Joel Sternfeld?

AS: Yes. Joel taught there, but it was impossible to get a class with him. He was too popular. So I took two different summer courses in photography, while I was home in Minnesota. One was at the University of Minnesota, and the other was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

I got excited about photography, and then finally got into Joel’s classes. I took two classes with him, and it was amazing and fantastic.

JB: What were some of the core concepts that embedded in your young artist consciousness when you worked with him?

AS: It’s curious. At that time, when I fell in love with photography, I was a typical American who was influenced by American things. I was really influenced by that American tradition of photography, in which Joel was a major player.

You know, that whole MoMA, Stephen Shore, Eggleston to Walker Evans trajectory. And I was in love with that. Road photography. The standard stuff.

The curious thing about Joel, as a teacher, he was adamant that people not mimic him. He’s interested in a lot of different things. This was, at the time, 1990 or so. Post-modern, Cindy Sherman, staged photography was the rage. He really encouraged that.

The truth is that I did that sort of work back then. And I didn’t do work like him, or straight photography much at all, at that time. But I wanted to. I just felt that it wasn’t right to.

His influence is a peculiar one. I loved his work, I loved him, but almost out of respect, I didn’t want to work like him. It was only when I was away from school that I started dealing with his influence, and the influence of that generation of photographers.

JB: Do you now feel comfortable seeing your work in that continuum? It’s funny that you mention MoMA, because I was just there, and there was one wall in the permanent collection installation that was totally insane. It has one of Joel’s pictures, and then the Bechers, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Eggleston, and then below it were all the Ed Ruscha artist books. It was like 200 square feet of real estate that captured the fantasies and wet dreams of tens of thousands of American photographers.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: So next time MoMA hangs something like that, if one of your pictures is up there next to those guys, what does that do to your head?

AS: (pause.) I don’t know. First of all, with all respect to MoMA, it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It’s a different world. Without a doubt, my work, whatever its quality, falls in that historical lineage. There’s no getting away from it. That’s cool. I’m an American photographer.

I don’t want to be limited strictly to that. Hopefully I’m not just covering old ground. But I’m fine with that comparison.

JB: You dodged the whole ego question, about people putting your work in that pantheon, which is cool. But I think it’s easy to differentiate you, as it’s easy to differentiate the time in which we’re living. One of my little catchphrases, because as a blogger, it never hurts to have a catchphrase, is I love to talk about the 21st Century Hustle. I’ve got to trademark it one of these days.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: The idea is that today, the old traditions and the old business-models are gone. It seems like most everyone who’s having any success is hybridizing, these days. I’m mostly familiar with your photography, as is everyone. But in addition to being a photographer, you’re a writer, a professor, a publisher, a lecturer, and a camp counselor, if the LBM blog is to be believed. That is the 21st Century hustle, dude.

Was that the plan? Did you build it piecemeal, or did you have a vision to do as many things as possible, both for your creativity, and to pay your bills?

AS: No. It was not a vision. Going back, when I left college, I had a general Bachelor’s degree. No speciality. But I had photographic skills, which were somewhat marketable. I worked in darkrooms, did different things, and ended up working in an art museum. Et cetera.

But the notion of making a living as an artist seemed very unrealistic, particularly living in Minnesota. At a certain point, I thought, it’s just not going to happen. It’s important to tell you, also, that despite going to Sarah Lawrence, I was never a bohemian wild-child type.

I thought it’s always important to have a job. I always feel a sort of responsibility to do the things that Middle-Americans are supposed to do. So I was living a fairly, (not politically conservative,) but conservative lifestyle.

JB: Except for the fact that you were sneaking prints from your job out the back door inside your pants.

AS: (laughing) Exactly. OK. But that’s fairly normal as well.

JB: So that was the exception? No late-night drunken brawls? Just a bit of mild theft that we’re only discussing now because the statute of limitations is up.

AS: Exactly. Mild theft. And there was definitely drunkenness, but it was lonely drunkenness. Not angry drunkenness. Just sad, blubbering-by-myself drunkenness.

The point is that I really didn’t know how to make a living outside of conventional means. Now, I know many other things. If I was twenty again, I’d do things very differently.

JB: You’re actually stealing questions from down my list. I’m trying to be polite, and I don’t want to interrupt your thoughtful responses, but that one’s not supposed to come up until later. But what the hell, I’ll just cross it off the list. What advice would you give your younger self? What are the do-overs?

AS: I’ll get to that.

JB: All right. We’ll keep it going in a natural way. Please continue.

AS: What I’m getting at is, this diversification, I didn’t have a vision for that. My vision was, you need to have an employer, and you have a job, and you go forward. Like that. And I would do my work on the side. So then, once my life changed, (and we can talk about that later,) and I had all sorts of opportunities in the art world, I felt distrustful that that could sustain itself.

I felt a need to have a backup plan. Since I didn’t have a Master’s Degree, and teaching didn’t seem like a real possibility at the time, I started doing editorial photography. And then I started doing blogging. That was not as a commercial activity at all.

I didn’t have a real art community, and I was dealing with the art world mainly through the economics of the art world. I wasn’t having art conversations, so I used blogging to do that. These pieces have been added on over time pretty organically. It wasn’t planned out at all.

How that relates to when I was twenty, and what I’d do over again? I just feel really strongly now that being a creative person means being creative with your life. It doesn’t mean being creative with this one particular activity that you do. Now I see that running a business is a creative activity. How you organize your daily schedule is a creative activity. You can be creative and entrepreneurial in all sorts of different ways.

I think art students should be thinking about that. It’s not just that I go to graduate school, become a teacher, and there’s this formulaic pattern. Be creative.

JB: I like that we went non-linear there, because it’s gorgeous advice. I’m really curious how you’ve done it, because, unlike most of our readers, I wasn’t really familiar with all the different aspects of what you do.

AS: I don’t think most people are familiar with it. We’re in a tiny bubble. Most people, if they’re aware of you, they’re aware of one thing. Sometimes, people that really know my work only know one thing.

It’s a real struggle to communicate Little Brown Mushroom, and what that means.

[Part 2 tomorrow]

Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel) Port Gibson, Mississippi 2000

Harbor Marina Memphis,Tennessee 2002

Frankie Ferriday Louisiana 2002

Sunshine Memphis,Tennessee 2000

Charles Lindbergh's boyhood bed Little Falls, Minnesota 1999

Roger Ballen Interview

by Jonathan Blaustein

Roger Ballen is among the most talented and successful photographic artists in the world today. He was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview last month, and is also allowing us to publish images from two forthcoming books.

JB: Why did you choose to move to South Africa from the United States?

RB: When I was a young man in my early twenties, in 1973, it was a time of cultural revolution. I guess I was swept up with that. I graduated from University of California, Berkeley, and was quite restless. Previous to traveling from Cairo to Capetown in 1974, two important things happened. One is I got interested in painting for about six months, and the second thing my mother died in early ’73.

My mother had worked in Magnum photos, and also started one of the first photo galleries in the United States, with people like Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. I’d gotten a real introduction to photography, and had a passion towards the field by the time I was 23. Although at that time, I had a degree in psychology.

Then my mother died in January of ’73, and I began this trip that would take me four and half years, an overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. I got to South Africa, and spent some time here. Then I made an overland trip from Istanbul to New Guinea, and that was about a two and half year trip. During that time, I did
my first photo book, which was called “Boyhood.”

I got to South Africa that way, and then when I got back to America, in ’77 or so, I did a PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. Then, I came back to South Africa in ’82. This is an ideal place to practice the business of mining exploration, and anything related to the mineral business. South Africa and the surrounding countries are well-endowed with minerals.

Despite the political problems, I’d liked being here for the first time, and then married a South African lady and stayed here. I’ve been here permanently since 1982.

JB: I imagined it might have something to do with the natural resources. I was raised in New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City, and ended up living in a horse pasture, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in an old Spanish village, because I married a local. So I can relate.

But as far as South Africa goes, co-incidental to this impending interview, I recently came across some information about the place, and thought we could continue to talk about it for a few minutes. Some of the statistics are kind of crazy. According to The Economist, South Africa has the highest rate of income equality in the world, even all these years past Apartheid. I wondered if you might share what that’s like, on the ground level?

RB: South Africa, as you mentioned, is a First World and Third World country. You’re living in this schizoid environment. Where I am right now, speaking to you, could be suburban St. Louis, or Des Moines, or Chicago. With suburbs, shopping centers, and reasonable, suburban houses.

A mile away could be Zimbabwe, or Mozambique. People there are living in poverty and crowded urban conditions. Lots of immigrants from Nigeria and other African countries, mixed up. You hardly would ever see a white person in those places. You have this divided culture, which has been inherent here for two or three hundred years. It’s nothing new. I guess the only difference is, over the last fifteen years, you have a greater amount of very wealthy black people, as well as more middle class black people. But the population is increasing, so there’s still no substantial difference in the unemployment rates, which are still at 40 or 50%.

The gap is not something that’s closed because the government changed. It just hasn’t happened. It was the same before. Or worse before. Or maybe it was even better before? I don’t know.

JB: Do communities build up gates and walls and guard towers? Are places physically cut off from one another, then? Because the violence is pretty horrific, I’ve read.

RB: I guess so. I think most of the violence occurs in these areas that people like myself don’t go into on a regular basis. It’s the violence of people living in poverty, under stressful conditions. You know, you have this in America. You go to urban America and you find the same problems.

It’s really no different. These things are always exaggerated by the media. It’s not a War zone here by any means. You can live your life. There are walls around your house, and you deal with the problem of security. Johannesburg and the other cities have the same problems that any other Third World country might have. A lot of poverty, and a lot of people desperate to survive in one way or another.

I would say, the problems here, they certainly exist, but if you look at the rest of the continent, there are a lot of things that are more positive and dynamic than most of the places in Africa. I am in Africa, not in Europe. It’s relative. What happens here shouldn’t necessarily be seen in relationship to Europe or America. It should be seen in relation to the rest of the continent, which also has significant challenges.

JB: I was curious, because I’ve never been to Africa before. One of the things that I’d read that I thought was hard to fathom, and starts to tie into your work, is that there’s a murder rate of 99 people per 100,000 in the farming communities, in the rural areas, numbers that were off the charts.

I was thinking about the work you’d done in the “Platteland” series, where you were meeting people in the rural communities. I know it was a while ago. I wondered if anything had filtered back to you about people that you knew, of if these communities were now less accessible? If the people that you’d photographed had become victims to crime?

RB: Not really. The countryside is like America. You go down to the South, in the countryside, and things seem relaxed in their own way. The real violence occurs mostly in the urban environments. There are farm murders, but it’s nothing like what goes on in the cities.

Most of the violence here is in the townships, where people are living in difficult conditions. Probably eight out of ten of these murders here occur in these township environments, and most of it is probably related to drinking, and squabbles over women, and money and tribal issues. I’m no expert, but a lot of them have to do with tribal issues.

JB: Why don’t we move along…

RB: I think so, because the media has its own reasons for concentrating on certain places in the world. Somebody’s pushed down the stairs in Tel Aviv, and it will be on the headlines on CNN and the BBC. And if twenty five people are killed in the Congo, it won’t be on TV. It’s where the media is, and how they fabricate the world and create their own political dynamics based on their own ideology, which is based on maximizing their viewer network.

JB: Absolutely. But let’s move, and talk more about art.

I studied Economics in college, before becoming an artist. It’s easy to see the influences in your work, but I didn’t know until I did some research that you had been trained in geology, and worked in the resource extraction industry. I wondered, as you transitioned from that industry to your art career, if you had ever thought about the comparison between the market for precious metals, the way value is constructed for things like platinum and gold and diamonds, relative to the way the market has evolved for contemporary art?

RB: The value is like night and day, trying to compare those two. The value for commodities is very much derived from physical demand, and physical supply. It’s very much a proper market based on actual usage and material consumption. There’s not a huge aspect of subjectivity involved, like there is in contemporary art.

Really, the business of mining, and selling minerals is a much more clearly defined business, a much easier business in nearly every way than being involved in the art market.

JB: At what point in your career did you segue from having a day job to being able to focus exclusively on your art career?

RB: I never really sold any pictures, or offered any pictures in any real way until about 2000, 2001, when my “Outland” book came out. There wasn’t much of a photo market up until the early 90’s anyway. The thing that got the photo market to boil was the technology of large color prints.

The black and white business plodded on. There were some specific collectors who would buy vintage work, historical work, but the average person who wanted to put money into art really wasn’t so interested in photography. And then, somewhere in the mid-90’s, the technology developed to enable people to make larger scale color prints on a fairly regular basis.

Artists could find labs, and get them to produce this type of larger sized work with ease. This equipment started to proliferate, to the point where you can now buy printers, and learn how to print digital photographs in a short period of time.
As a result of this technological shift, large scale color prints then became available to the art market.

I did this purely as a hobby until about 2000. When my “Platteland” book came out in ’94, it caused a lot of controversy, and became a famous book. That gave me the initiative to continue, and from ’94 to 2000, I put a lot more time into photography, but it was still sort of a hobby; a half-profession. When “Outland” was published, it also became a renown book, and I started to sell a lot of photographs. I began to put a lot more of my time into photography, and to see it as a profession rather than a hobby.

JB: Before you were focused on selling prints, books were the final output of your photographic narrative?

RB: Yes, and they still are to this day. I’m much more focused on books. That’s really what interests me. Selling pictures is OK, it’s part of the business, but it’s not a goal in itself. The real goal in my career has always been geared towards making books. Most of these projects take about five or six years to do. I work on them that long, and try to define the aesthetic that comes to mind.

Now, I’m just about finished with a book called “Asylum,” that’s going to be produced by Thames & Hudson early next year. It deals with birds in a Roger Ballen world.

JB: What is it about the book form that is so fascinating to you?

RB: It’s a permanent thing. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain. You’ve actually taken the process through from beginning to end. You’ve made a statement that has a sense of permanency to it. An exhibition comes and goes. Living down here, I don’t spend much time at the shows, if any at all. I get a few newspaper clippings back, but I can’t read half of the newspaper clippings anyway.

And that’s all I get. You think you make a lot of friends during the show, and nine times out of ten, you never see the people again. A book, in a way, is part of you, like your own children.

JB: Of course. That makes plenty of sense. Last week, I was in Texas, and driving home from the airport, which is three hours away, I happened to listen to a Public Radio program called “Afro-pop.” They were focusing on Punk music in South Africa in the 70’s, during the Apartheid era. I didn’t know much about the disappearances, the murders, and the censorship.

The show talked about how Punk came along, and the musicians themselves would challenge the conventional notions, break the laws, and inspire change. Then I also saw that you have a foundation, promoting photography in South Africa, if that’s correct.

RB: Yes, that’s correct.

JB: I was wondering what you thought about the role of art in the 21st Century, and the place of art within culture? I’m not necessarily talking about political or social change, but certainly here in the US, visual art is marginalized compared to cinema and music, and other types of expression.

RB: It’s a good point. I think about it quite often, because I’m quite shocked what I see in the contemporary art market, whether it’s art fairs, or exhibitions. I really scratch my head in disillusionment at people’s choices. Most of the art that I see merely re-enforces what people already know.

I do the art only for myself. I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. If it weren’t that purpose, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather stick to mining, because then it’s just another business.

It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.

Unfortunately, most contemporary art doesn’t do this in any way. The purpose of art is to expand the consciousness of oneself. It’s only through expanding the consciousness of the self that art can have any ultimate effect on a person’s condition.

If we look at art as a political tool, what should art be doing? Art should be liberating the self from the self. It should be helping the person break through his or her repression. I’m a Freudian in some sense. It’s only through liberating our repression do we have any chance of improvement in the world. I’m certainly not optimistic about that happening.

It’s a Freudian interpretation in so many ways. There’s so little art that deals with this. And 99% of the art I see is stuff I’ve seen endlessly before. I might as well go watch a Mickey Mouse film.

JB: I was just about to accuse you of being a Jungian, frankly.

RB: Jungian also. It’s the same sort of stuff. A psycho-analytic interpretation of the mind. It could be like Joseph Campbell. It’s an attitude; a way of life.

JB: It seems like that’s the root of a lot of the symbolic resonance in your work. I read some of Jung’s writings in graduate school, and of course at the time was very impacted by this idea that the Shadow, the dark side, obviously exists within the human condition. Cain killed Abel. Saturn ate his kids.

Jung theorized that when you deny the Shadow, when you repress it, that’s when it comes out in negative and destructive ways, like violence. I suppose others have put this forth to you, but it does seem like your work is a visual manifestation of that idea. Would you agree?

RB: I’m trying to delve into my interior, to mirror the dynamics of that, visually, in some way or another, through a photograph. It’s a process of going down to one’s own shadow zone with a camera and a flash, and once in that place, taking pictures.

I always tell students, on their first assignment, to close their eyes, turn their eyeballs around, and go out and take pictures that reflect what they’ve seen. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in. These relationships are very complex; very hard to define in words. We’re so obsessed with words, but the better the picture, the harder it is to put a word to it.

JB: Indeed.

RB: To go back into contemporary art again, most of the stuff you can put some silly word to it. I think with my most recent photographs, it’s almost impossible to put a word to it. There are contradictory meanings, there are meanings that there is no word for in the dictionary. The work stands on its own, and has its own essence that is unlike any other essence.

JB: Do you ever censor yourself? Are there things that pop into your mind, and you think, no that’s too hardcore. That’s too dark.

RB: No. My conclusion is the dark is the light. So to me, the darker it is, the more light shines. It means I got down further.

JB: You’ve been able to create the visions you have because, if it’s a part of your psyche, it’s OK?

RB: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a part of my psyche, or a part of anything else. What you see is what’s there. If it’s there, it’s there. If you walk across a dead person in the street, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s dead, it’s dead. That’s the reality that I come across. It’s not good or bad. It’s reality as you deal with it, like death.

What is death? Is it good or bad? Is it dark? You die. That’s life. It’s not good, bad or anything. It just exists. I just come across things and take them for what they are. I don’t try make value judgements. I just deal with things in front of me, in my own emotional way. Sometimes it has a big impact, sometimes it doesn’t.

But I’m not trying to make political judgements. I feel I need to go further. There’s more to life than having to try to deal with the issue of morality. Life’s a little short for that. I’m not going to solve what’s right or wrong in this world, I can tell you that.

JB: Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wondering these things myself in my growth as an artist. Most readers would probably agree with you about the dearth of quality visions within the world of contemporary art. But whose work, what type of work, which media do you look to, beyond your own experience, for inspiration? Do you have any favorites?

RB: I don’t really work with inspiration. I’ve been working for fifty years, nonstop. I just keep working. It’s like brushing my teeth. If I had to say anything, the thing that inspires me most, by far, is the natural world. Whether it’s looking at the sky right in front of me, watching the sun go down, or looking at a rock in the distance, watching flowers and animals.

That’s why I love geology, because I experience the mystery of the planet and the Universe. To me, that has always been a tremendous inspiration; something that is beyond my own ability to comprehend. It always challenges me. I’d say what inspires me has always been nature.

To go back to art itself, I’m inspired by anything from cave art to the traditional art in New Guinea. And traditional African art is tremendously inspiring to me. But I like artists like Picasso, and some of the Abstract Expressionists. I have a full range of things that I like, and that have had some influence on me. I just take it one by one. If I like it, that’s fine, and it goes in my head somewhere. Maybe it stays there, maybe it falls out. Then I go on to the next thing.

But you know, when I try to make a picture, the key to making the picture can come from a memory I had when I was six years old, or something that happened today. My photographs are made up of thousands of little points. It doesn’t matter, really, that I’m inspired by this or that. I still have to go back to the camera and say, yeah, this picture’s about to come together.

JB: I know inspiration can be a bit of a cliché term, but mostly, I’m asking questions that I want to know. I was curious to see what, within the realm of Art History, resonated with you. I can make assumptions, based upon your work, but the benefit to this conversation is that I get to ask.

For instance, I was at the Menil Collection in Houston last week, and they have a room filled with artifacts from African and Native American art traditions that directly inspired the Surrealists. It was this dark room, all compressed. I was thrilled, as that type of work has had a big influence on me as well. Right outside that room was this incredible exhibition of Surrealist Art, with Max Ernst and others. It was fascinating to get to see the connection between one influence and the other.

RB: You get the jolt, which is what I’m talking about. The things that jolt you are what’s important. You can be inspired, like you said, but then you’re back to square one when it comes to creation. You have to filter what you see, and build on what you’ve done, and something else comes out of it. It’s really hard to know where all this stuff connects. Every time one creates a photograph, one starts from the beginning, like a painter with a barren canvas.

JB: You recently directed a music video for the band Die Antwood. What was it like for you, as an artist, shifting media like that, and collaborating with other artists? What did you learn from the experience?

RB: It was another challenge. It was interesting, I made these installations like I normally do every day. And then I integrated their music within the realm of the installations that I created. So it was a different experience. What I do in a lot of my exhibitions, I just had one in Durban yesterday, I try to make an installation as well as a photo show. I’m expressing my vision in other ways. When people go to my shows, there are not just photos on the wall, there’s an installation that mirrors the place of the photographs.

I think the music video, more than anything else, opened my mind to the size of that market, compared to the size of the photo market. We got 25 million hits on Youtube on this thing. Can you imagine 25 million people seeing a video? Compared to an exhibition, where in a month or two or three, you might have 25 or 30 thousand. But it’s nothing like 25 million.

It was an amazing thing to see the power of music. If you can integrate your work with other fields like that, it’s great, because it propelled what I did into 25 million people’s heads, most of whom would have never seen my work.

JB: That’s why I asked that earlier question. Speaking as a younger photographic artist, I often wonder what we can do to expand the potential audience for our work. I have a belief, as I’m sure you do, that when people experience art objects, that they have the same ability to create a powerful impression in the way that music or cinema does. But our audience has thus far been restricted.

You mentioned your practice earlier, and the rigorous manner in which you work. I was always struck by a quote from Andy Warhol that I once heard in a documentary film. To paraphrase, he said make as much art as you can, as often as you can, as many ways as you can.

I’m attracted to that idea that practice and execution, game-time, if you will, is how you grow. Is that how you came to work as often as you do? To keep the skills sharp and the mind open?

RB: It’s a good question. The first thing is a practical thing. I was fortunate I had another profession, because I never would have survived in this without another profession. That’s the first issue. In fifty years I hardly sold one picture. I had another profession, so I was able to support what I was doing.

If I talk to young people, they have to find the right balance. Because you can’t be expecting to become another Andy Warhol overnight. Your chances of success in this business are much less than almost any other profession as far as making any money. There’s not much of a middle in this business. That’s the first point.

The second point is that, like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you’re an athlete, or a lawyer or a dentist, the more you do it, the better you become at it. I gave a lecture yesterday, and said “What’s the best way of learning about photography? It’s just to do photography. You learn through doing. Furthermore, one needs to rigorously look at your own work and find the holes in it, and close the gaps.”

I don’t think this is any different than any other field. Unfortunately, probably more to do with the economics, a lot of artists can’t do it all the time, because they can’t survive in the business. They have to do other work. It’s not like being a dentist, and being able to get jobs all the time. This is the problem.

Also, it requires a focus on what you’re doing to find new areas to develop into. It’s really difficult. You’re really trying to extend who you are, and find new ways of expressing it. It’s not easy to get on the road and find the path…and stay on the path and disappear into the forest.

JB: Wow. I hate to shift from the metaphorical to the prosaic, but as I know we need to wrap this up, do you have any upcoming projects we can tell the audience about?

RB: The first thing is I’m giving a Master Class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival at the end of April. So maybe some people might be interested in that. And the second thing is I have a show at the Smithsonian Museum that opens on June 19th. It deals with the evolution of drawing and painting in my photography for the last fifty years. It will be up in Washington DC until February of 2014.

Prestel will be publishing a new book of mine in the Summer of 2013, titled “Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky,” and in early 2014, Thames and Hudson will be publishing my latest body of images, titled “Asylum,” that I have worked on for the past six years.

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"

From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"

 

Calling All Architectural Photographers

- - Photographers

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.

Photographer Docs Make The Cut for Sundance and Possibly Oscars

- - Photographers

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.

How David Friedman’s Inventor Project Became A PBS Series

- - Photographers

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

Ben Lowy Interview – Part 2

- - Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

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.

BL: OK.

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.

JB: Yeah.

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.

Ben Lowy Interview – Part 1

- - Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

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.

JB: No.

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?

JB: No.

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.

JB: Right.

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

 


Capture Episode 4 – Bob Gruen and Kevin Bacon with Mark Seliger

- - Photographers

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.