I’ve been told by several photographers that this Bill Cunningham movie is fantastic:
Go (here) to see where it’s playing.
I’ve been told by several photographers that this Bill Cunningham movie is fantastic:
Go (here) to see where it’s playing.
From Creative Review (here):
Fred & Farid ad agency in Paris has created a striking series of images featuring stunt men and women in its latest campaign for Wrangler.
The ads feature Hollywood stunt people performing daredevil acts including jumping from windows, being set on fire, and falling through panes of glass. The performances were all captured by photographer Cass Bird, and together form a striking set of advertising images.
Cass has a great sense of humor and you can see in that video why everyone loves working with her. That along with a great body of work is solid gold.
UPDATE: Four New York Times journalists missing in Libya since Tuesday were captured by forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and will be released Friday, his son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, told Christiane Amanpour in an ABC News interview. (story here)
The New York Times is reporting that 4 of their journalists are missing in Libya. Photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario along with Anthony Shadid, the Beirut bureau chief and Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer. Bill Keller, excutive editor of The Times says, “We have talked with officials of the Libyan government in Tripoli, and they tell us they are attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of our journalists.” You can read the story on the Media Decoder blog (here). On March 9th Tyler told the NYTimes Lens blog that he had witnessed the “thickest fighting in a single day that he has ever experienced, with the most firepower — coming and going.” That’s pretty serious coming from a man who covers conflict for a living. Hopefully they’re fine and unable to make contact temporarily and will be found soon.
Here’s the last known photo of the two (confirmed here).
Jonathan Blaustein interviews Nina Berman for us:
JB: I was in New York in June, and I had a meeting at the Whitney with a curator and I had about 15 minutes to kill, so they let me go upstairs to the exhibitions. There was one section of the Biennial that was still up, so I headed right for it.
I looked at your pictures, and it’s hard to put words to the experience. But it was a gut punch for me. I was so amazed and touched and blown away that I ended up walking out of that room sure that I had a long way to go. I was very humbled. So I went from being, not cocky, but very happy with myself to realizing how much work I needed to do in a span of 10 minutes. As an artist, and a human being, I was very inspired by what you created, and I thought that it was incredibly brave and fearless work. So the seed was planted in my mind, at that point, of what you were able to communicate.
NB: So, let me ask you a question, if you don’t mind. Clearly, people think the subjects are brave. But why did you see the photography as brave? I think this might be a very interesting path to go down in this conversation, for a moment, if you’ll go there with me.
JB: OK. Well, that’s easy for me to answer, actually, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. I put myself in the position that, what if I saw Ty, and at the time I didn’t know his name, walking down the street. And the answer is, if I saw him walking down the street, I would look away. Because, as people, we’re conditioned out of respect or shame or what-have-you, to look away when we see someone who’s been hurt like that, or altered like that. I mean, it’s hard to even come up with a verb. I would look away, and I think almost anyone would. To stare at someone like that is rude and disrespectful. So as an artist, I felt like you were pulling a complete 180, by putting me in a situation in which I was forced to look. The appropriate response when one is looking at pictures on a wall, certainly in a museum, is you’re supposed to look.
The ideas in the images are being offered up to the viewer to focus on. I felt like, immediately, you had spun a social convention in a very powerful way, and created a scenario in which I was meant to look at something and meant to see something that almost everyone prefers not to see. I thought that that was a brave idea, in and of itself. At the same time, the process of engaging with these soldiers, in a position of power with the camera, I think it’s brave to put yourself in a position where you’re going to be uncomfortable in a very edgy place. I didn’t just look at the subjects as brave, I thought the process was as well, and I felt like I a got a lot of information about your process through your pictures, because I hadn’t seen much of your work before.
JB: You don’t hear that often?
NB: I see it differently, of course. By the time I met Ty, I had been immersed for years already in photographing severely wounded veterans. I had seen very bad injuries, and had decided not to turn away from these injuries, and to try to photograph them in a way that wouldn’t so much highlight the goriness, or the gruesomeness of the physical injury, but to try to get past that and to look into the psychological and emotional makeup of the subject. So when I met Ty, even though there was a brief sort of sense of recoiling, because I hadn’t seen someone quite that bad, it blew by me really quickly, and I think that’s because I’d already been so immersed in it.
For me, if I can call the series brave at all, it’s because I took a somewhat dispassionate approach. Clearly there’s empathy there, because I’m sticking with it, and I’m looking at all of these moments, but I didn’t try to romanticize the situation, or to urge on a more beautiful look. Right? Which could easily have been done. If there’s anything that’s brave about the work, in my point of view, it would be that. It would be not falling into a trap of trying to either romanticize it or to make it more profound. The thing about the pictures that I find interesting, and I hope other people do, is that in some ways they’re quite mundane. You see these very every day moments, that are shocking maybe because…
JB: I hear you. They’re not glamorized, by any means. I understand that when we make work, when we immerse ourselves in a subject, at some point it begins to feel real and natural. I was introduced to your work through “Marine Wedding”, but now that I’ve done some research and prepared myself, I’ve seen the “Purple Hearts” work and I know that you’ve had a long history of working in dangerous places, and you’ve seen a lot. Of course that comes through in this body of work. So it makes perfect sense to me that as an artist, you would feel somewhat matter-of-fact about the situation you were in. But these pictures were decontextualized and put in the Whitney Biennial. I now know, from my research, that you were commissioned to make these photographs by People Magazine. Is that correct?
NB: The first batch, yes, which I’m sure gave a lot of high-end art people a big laugh.
JB: I would imagine. I’m wondering if the leap has ever been made before, from People to the Biennial? I’ve got to figure that you’re blazing trails on that one, wouldn’t you say?
NB: Well, I think that in some ways it shows a lack of understanding of how someone like me, who comes from an editorial tradition, works. And also how a photographers “take” and what’s published can often be very different things. Very few of my favorite photographs from the series were published editorially. I had to wait for an art exhibition to show the series in the way I wanted. To this day, editorial publications want to push the work in a direction I can’t condone. For example, I had an amazing experience recently where the “Marine Wedding” portrait was shown at the Milano Triennale with some “Purple Hearts” work and an Italian editorial publication similar in style to People wanted to do a feature with the images. I asked first to see the text that would go with it, and what they wrote was so over the top, so dripping in melodramatic fantasies, almost high camp. I couldn’t let the publication proceed and pulled the pictures. So for me going to the Whitney was great because I finally got to show the series the way I wanted, without any text, but I also went in with this uneasy feeling that some might dismiss the work because it originated at a mass market publication.
In some ways, I have a hard time talking about that aspect of it. No one quite raised it directly. In some people’s minds it sort of limits the power of the work because initially it was commissioned by such a mass-market magazine. Whereas I’ve spent my entire career taking assignments and doing with them what I wanted, and I think that I’m hired for that. I remember, when I was starting out early as a photographer, my agents would say, “Maybe you should make a portfolio that shows all of these varieties of styles, kinds of works that you can do,” and I thought, that’s the opposite way that I should go, because I can’t pretend I’m this great studio photographer, or I can’t pretend I’m this great, celebrity portrait photographer, or business photographer, so why should I even throw it out there as though I’m capable at it when I’m not terrific at it. I should just show what I think I can do that no one else can do, or no one else can do like me.
JB: It’s a great back-story and is a great lead-in to one of the things that I want to talk about. The 21st Century is a mash-up culture at this point. So many boundaries that have existed in photography and beyond are coming down or already have. And one of the things that I find interesting is that the distinctions between the terms photojournalist, editorial photographer, and artist seem somewhat arbitrary right now. I noticed that you refer to yourself as a documentary photographer. I come from an art background, so I never heard the term “personal project” until a couple of years ago (NB laughs…). Right, I laughed. I was like, “What could that possibly mean?” It sounded like a riff on something absurd, like your pet rock is your personal project.
NB: Well, you know it’s kind of funny, because I first used to describe myself as a photojournalist, but then I realized that the public’s conception of a photojournalist was a guy with 8 cameras around his neck, running, with a bandana around his neck… I was clearly not that, in any way, shape or form, and there was a hard-news vibe that went to it. This wasn’t really who I was, so I started searching for different words to label myself. Often, I just say I’m a photographer. So this idea of documentary photographer is kind of me. I don’t create scenes to photograph them. I don’t think you could call someone who does that a documentary photographer. So I just use it, but I could also use any other term. A woman with a camera, or a few cameras, or an artist, or a journalist, or whatever.
JB: So do you think that the distinctions really matter anymore?
NB: I don’t think they really matter to anyone except maybe a few collectors or gallerists, who don’t like photojournalism, or don’t like this or that. But in terms of the actual practice? It doesn’t matter to me. If you call yourself an artist, and you’re coming from a photojournalism tradition, and you start calling yourself an artist, maybe it can liberate you from some of the constraints of the tradition. But it also then makes you suspect in some of the more important values of that tradition.
JB: Like what?
NB: For instance, the famous picture from the Ty Ziegel series (Marine Wedding) is this wedding portrait. When that picture first appeared, many people thought that I had gotten a backdrop, brought them in, positioned them, taught them how to look, and took the frame. And I didn’t do any of those things. A printer of mine thought I did, and I told him, “No, I didn’t,” and he said you shouldn’t tell people you didn’t, because it’s better for them to think that you did. Does that change the meaning for some people? Working from a journalism tradition, OK, I wouldn’t do that. However, maybe once you see the potential of art, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to do that.
JB: Well, I read a piece by Paul Graham at some point in the last couple of years about the fact that in the art world, perhaps there’s a bias against taking versus making. Finding images versus constructing. I think most of these biases are outdated. And some times it takes time for people to catch up with reality. It has to do with context. That’s why I think it’s brilliant that your photos were in People and the Biennial, because the audience is so different. The way people react to images is so different. You take something and you put it on a white wall in a frame and people are going to ask questions of themselves. They’re going to try to deconstruct your methodology in a way that of course isn’t going to happen in a magazine, but that just expands the reach of the work, I think. I think it’s a credit to the work.
NB: That’s my view. For me, I’m happy to show pictures in a high school library that were hanging in the Whitney, or any other sort of high-art world. I don’t see why I should have to constrain myself to one kind of venue or another. And there are people who disagree with that, right?
JB: Sure. It’s a good point, because one of the things that I find interesting, something I talked to Phil Toledano about in the last interview is the idea of fearlessness. All people have fear and the idea of fearless, to me, is people who can understand their fear, understand preconceived limitations, and choose to shake things up. Choose to step beyond and not let fear limit their abilities or decision-making.
So I find it interesting that in looking at your biography, I saw two points in which it appears that you made big decisions that then led to major changes in your career and presumably your life. The first, when you were a print journalist and then decided to embrace photography, and the second, which I find really fascinating is that, as an established, successful professional, you applied to Jen Bekman’s Hey Hotshot competition. I know they’re decisions that were separated by decades, but I thought you might speak to what it was that made you shake things up and take chances, and how that led to the rest of your career?
NB: Those are really good questions. I grew up wanting to be a writer. It was kind of my dream. I was an early, avid almost obsessive reader and most readers want to be writers. But I also watched lots of film. Eventually, I had kind of a parallel life. Writer. Photographer. Career-wise, I went to graduate school in journalism at Columbia, which had a very limited program in photography, but they did have one and I spent most of my time on that. I got a job as a reporter out of school and I hated it, and that’s when I made the change.
I hated having people pick through my words. I did a very long, well-respected project on Vietnam vets returning to Vietnam in 1987, when the Soviets were still in power. And there were very few Americans that had gone back. I wrote it and shot it, and I liked the pictures very much. I just couldn’t stand having editors pick through my text, and it was around that time that I decided to leave the newspaper world. I figured, well, all they can do with a picture is maybe not use it, or crop it, but they can’t chop it up and spit it out. So I started freelancing as a photographer, and had this successful career shooting many different stories in different parts of the world editorially.
I applied to Hey Hotshot because once I started doing this veterans work from the Iraq War, I became completely and utterly obsessed with getting these pictures out. Nonstop. And I think a lot of that was because I had such a negative reaction from magazines early on with the work. They did not want to publish it. They didn’t see it as an interesting story. It so infuriated me on so many levels that I became a one person obsessive machine in trying to get it out. So I saw the Hey Hotshot competition, probably at 3 in the morning one night, and thought, this is easy to submit. You can only submit a couple of pictures, let me give it a go and see where it takes me.
Also, from the “Purple Hearts” work, I started having people reach out to me from different walks of life that I had never really communicated with. I developed a pretty open attitude to this. And decided, that rather than have a default reaction to scrutinize every approach that people made towards me, or take a look at every opportunity, to be very open about things and see where that goes, and not make a judgement until it’s followed through. And so on the Hotshot, I just said it’s another competition, let me put in a few pictures.
JB: It’s good to hear that, because I’ve found something similar myself, in that I try to stay open to possibilities. I read a quote recently by someone that codified it, “Always say yes,” whenever possible. Trying not to see the outcome of opportunities, but being open to possibilities can be a great strategy for transitioning and having new things come into one’s life. I talked about it explicitly in the last interview, just because the Industry itself has been shaken to it’s core in so many ways. I don’t really know that from the inside, just from reading, and from my own experiences here in Taos. But it’s nice to hear from you. So it was less about that particular opportunity (Hey Hotshot) so much as a real desire to have as many people see the work as possible and try to find what those avenues were going to be by going after all of them? Is that a fair synopsis?
NB: Exactly. I didn’t even know much about Jen, or about Hey Hotshot. Now that I’m sort of stepping back, remembering how it happened,I know this woman Swanee, Mary Virgnia Swanson who I’ve known for years through a mutual friend. And occasionally I’d go on her blog and she would let people know, there’s this competition or there’s this thing happening, so I think I found it there. But I didn’t really know much about it.
JB: It’s been a great relationship for you, working with Jen Bekman, I’d imagine?
NB: Well, Hey Hotshot led to the “Purple Hearts” show at Jen’s gallery. And that was all very spontaneous. Jen was like, “I have this space in August, and no one is slotted, and I would have wanted to show more of your work than what was up in Hotshot, so let’s do it.” So I said “OK, let’s just do it.” It was so spur-of-the-moment, last-minute, and I had these prints that were already a bit banged up, and we just put it up. And that work, for whatever reason, just blows people away, or at least it certainly did back then. It was kind of surprising and shocking. It would be nice for me to think that it speaks entirely to the strength of the pictures, but I think it speaks to the hunger people had to see some kind of authentic depiction of this war, and I don’t think people felt they were getting that from the traditional outlets. Magazines, TV, blah, blah, blah. So when they saw this work, paired with narratives from the subjects themselves, rather than it being a completely mediated experience, I think that people were kind of, “Wow. I want this. I need to see this, because I feel a little bit duped about what’s going on in the war.” That’s why I started the project, because I felt I’d been lied to.
JB: I read somewhere that you said you realized that you weren’t seeing images (of the war) and you wondered why. That was something that I wanted to ask you. Is that where your ideas often come from? From a standpoint of questioning accepted sources of information, or questioning reality, or questioning perceptions? Is that how you typically begin?
NB: Yeah, I think that my best work comes from that. And if you want to go back to the art versus journalism divide, or synergy, or whatever word you want to use, rather than saying, “I’m interested in this place, I’m just going to drop myself here and check it out.” I start from a stand point of, “I don’t understand this, or I disagree with this, or very often, I feel lied to or manipulated, so I want to investigate that.” And I think that can be an investigative photographic process, I’m not sure. But I think that’s where my best, most original work comes from.
JB: It makes sense. I culled through a lot of your projects and the parallel that I came up with, it made me think a lot about David Simon. He was a print journalist, first, as well, at the Baltimore Sun. There was one line, I think it was either in the fourth or fifth season of “The Wire,” where a character says the words, “You’re here to speak truth to power.” And I know that the term has caught on, but it’s something that I felt was a theme in your work. Given the variety of issues that you’re poking at, between Wall Street and the financial industry, and religion, and violence and war and sexism. You used the term investigative. Is that something that you agree with? That you’re trying to speak truth to power?
NB: Yeah. I think I’m definitely a political animal. I actually worked as a political organizer for a few years in my 20’s, when I lived in Chicago. I definitely see the role of a member of society as ultimately a very political one. You lead a political life, whether you think you are or not. Either by your action or inaction. I definitely hope that my themes and images come from some conversation with political power, and with the power of ideologies. I think a lot of my work has to do with ideology and belief systems. How these are mapped onto people. In the case of the soldiers, physically mapped onto people, through war. The “Homeland” work is very much a look at ideology and spectacle and manipulation and American mythologies, and ideas of security and all the rest. So that is a component in my work, and actually, right now, I’m in this kind of limbo, because the Obama victory threw me for a bit of a loop. Not that I feel as though America has changed radically under Obama, but I had such great material to pull from in the Bush years. I had very clear personal reactions to things.
JB: That was very clear to me. The folks at photo-eye in Santa Fe actually lent me a copy of “Homeland,” so I got to look at the book itself. And far be it for me to be critical, but that was the only work that felt different to me. It felt, especially when I looked at the piece that you wrote, and dated it as 2001-8…I almost felt like it was a personal response from you to George W. Like a reactive agenda. And I liked the work a lot, because I thought it was funny, ironic and surreal. So much of the other work that I saw is very, very serious, as well it should be, but I liked the humor and the irony, and yet it felt like a very different tone. I felt like, rather than your typical, dispassionate style, you experimented with something new that came from a place of anger or challenge. But then it opened up humor and absurdity, which I found very interesting.
NB: Yeah, I think that the “Homeland” stuff is closest to who I am. And I was doing that and the soldier work simultaneously, and they’re like two sides of the coin. I’d started the “Homeland” work first, and then when the war came about, I stopped it for a while, because I didn’t want the humor. I wanted something totally serious, and very personal.
JB: Well, you accomplished it. The serious work is very touching, but the absurdity…it felt different. I enjoyed seeing the perspective. The lack of nuance felt very different. I could feel the judgement, but at the same time, the pictures are straight. And it’s not like you were creating these scenarios. Why on Earth did the lady at the Church in C-Springs put on a burqa? I have to ask. That was Ted Haggard’s church, right? New Life?
NB: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.
JB: I drove through the Springs on Sunday, and that place is strange. I’ll go on record, that place is really strange. But you were there…
NB: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was there twice, and I kept saying to myself…I mean, I kind of liked it. And I said to myself that if I lived in Colorado Springs, I’d probably be a member of the Church. I mean, it’s absolutely true. All of these trips through these Mega-Churches, I kept thinking to myself, “When am I going to walk down that aisle and give myself up to Jesus Christ?”
JB: That’s awesome. I’m sorry, that’s awesome.
NB: No, it’s totally true.
JB: I believe you. I do.
NB: No, the pictures may have this detached, sharply analytical feel…
JB: They do.
NB: However, the compulsion…I mean, I keep going in there. Absolutely, just completely mesmerized by people who have faith. I’m actually trying to continue this work in April in a new place I’ve discovered. I want to know how people can believe so strongly in something. I just don’t get it myself, so I’m always looking to see, and that runs through my work. But the burkah, so what happened was, and it was totally by luck, it wasn’t planned out, it happened to be missionary day at the Church. So you had all through the lobby of the Church, people dressed up in the outfits from countries they hoped to evangelize. So there was a teenager in a burqa serving peanuts, and you had people dressed as Saudis…
JB: You can’t make that up.
NB: No, you can’t make that up. They even had a camel. And I never made a great picture of the camel. They had a camel with the mountains, and a guy with a cowboy hat on, and it was just so whacked. And sometimes, I’m so overcome by how amazing the thing is that I’m looking at that I screw up the picture. To be honest. I’m like, “Whoa, man,” and forget to make a really stunning picture.
JB: Well, that’s just a part of living life, right?
NB: Yes, a part of living life, but the New Life Church is incredible.
JB: With respect to the book, there are so many photographers out there obsessed with books that I have to bring it up. I got to look at the book, and the printing was really, really saturated. The colors were really saturated to the point that the they were flattening out, and it felt like it was pushing towards a hyper-real aesthetic. And I read in the back of the book that you used the term, “state-sponsored performance art,” so my first thought with a production like that is that I’m going to assume it was intentional. That the color palette, that sense of hyper-real and surreal, was matching up with that concept that you had of “state-sponsored performance art.” Is that correct? Is it safe to assume that it wasn’t a function of the printing?
NB: Oh, no. It wasn’t a function of the printing. The project started with shooting 50 and 100 ASA Fujichrome, slightly under-exposed, with external flash. So they were boom-boom, saturated pictures from the get-go. And it was the colors that I saw. The aesthetic began with a picture I shot on Fifth Avenue, with the Columbus Day Parade in October 2001. The bombing of Afghanistan had just begun, and there was the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York. So I went to check it out, feeling like it was in bad taste, but also curious to see if it had more of a militarized feel to it. They had laid this red carpet out, for people to march past at the reviewing stand. So because of the sun that day, and the weather, for me it seemed so surreal, and I made series of pictures of these shadows, and it felt very much like a mechanized, almost Soviet look. It was that image that led me to this kind of aesthetic on how to shoot this project. And wherever I’d go, you’d see these colors. I’d go to Florida and you’d see a blue sky and a bright sun, and I’d just latch on to these colors.
And then I started lighting these things, because the way it transpired, is that I would go to these security events, and search for a moment of truth within these events. Like, where is this narrative going in these events I was watching, and often, I couldn’t really look at them seriously, because some of them, in my view, were so absurd. So I saw them as almost advertising, and started to light some of the scenes. Not with lots of assistants and lots of lights, but one or two external strobes on a stand. And I had this idea to shoot it more like a commercial look, with very saturated colors.
JB: I imagined, looking at the pictures, that there had to be added light, and it works. It’s a great look. And again, holding the book was nice, because I could see the through line. On the NOOR site (her agency), they break the project down into different bits, but seeing it cohesively, I took note of the themes, how you move from the terrorist prep to the megachurches to the war games, the kids with guns, the SWAT camp, the border photos, I could just feel you moving through these themes of the Bush era. It seems like a nice, book-ended view of a certain aspect of American culture in a very edgy time.
NB: In a very particular time. And I think if I were to go back and try to revisit these places, and revisit some of these scenes now, I would probably shoot it differently. It would probably appear to me quite differently. There would be a few more cracks in the seams. Maybe less ironic and more pathetic.
JB: A lot of the work that you do, and I don’t want this word to have a negative connotation, but there are a lot of bleak photographs, and a lot of the misery of the human condition and the social condition. So the “Homeland” set of images was so poppy and surreal, and funny and absurd, it definitely seemed like you were expressing a different part of your psyche.
NB: Actually, the book, to be quite honest, it started out as another incarnation that started in the 90’s and ended in 2002-3. I had a dummy for this book and for many years, I’ve sort of explored these frenzied subcultures of consumer society and mixed that with the political. So I had this dummy, and it was all kind of shot in this style, and I liked it, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. And then when 9/11 happened, and I started seeing it taken to a whole new level. So I threw out all the stuff, pre-9/11, and began anew. I actually had an exhibition, in Perpignan, in 1997, of the early foundations of this work, and Photo District News also did a fairly sizable feature about my work, and about the exhibition at the time. I haven’t put the stuff up on my website, mainly because I still haven’t scanned much of my analog images. But perhaps one day I will.
JB: It’s a nice point to make, because, on the subject of taking risks, I try to be as ruthless as I can when I’m editing, because I think the difference between a good image, a very good image, and THE image is pretty sizable. The difference between good and very good is not that wide, but the difference between very good and great is vast, so the fact that you tore it down and built it up again to get it right is something that people will have interest in hearing about.
There are a couple of other points that I want to touch on, because in one, I’m personally curious, and in the other, the timing of global events is such that I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk to you about it. I know from your history that you’ve taken photographs in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and you’ve traveled in some pretty dangerous places. The idea of fearlessness was as much metaphorical as anything, but given the opportunity to talk about it literally, I want to ask…Do you feel like the phenomenon we’ve been seeing of journalists and photojournalists being attacked and killed in the line of duty, doing the job, certainly it’s been getting a lot of attention in the last few years. Is that something that you feel was always a really dire risk? Or do you think that we’re living in a time in which the rules have changed?
NB: Oh, I think the rules have changed a lot. I think journalists are at far greater risk because information moves so quickly. Because things are so much more interconnected. I think journalists are frequently targets now, as opposed to maybe just innocent bystanders in a dangerous place.
JB: So when you say the speed of information, you mean that the act of the information getting published or put out into the world means that the people being written about have the time to react in “real-time?” Their identity as a journalist and the source of the story becomes obvious, and then they can be put in harms way? So that’s the impact of the Internet?
NB: Well, a picture can very quickly have a huge life, whereas in the past, it was contained and confined to particular countries. For instance, if you’d photographed the secret police in Tehran killing people, if you’re able to make this picture, and put it on the Internet, it becomes an international issue. It can affect sanctions, it can affect all of these things. It doesn’t go away when the magazine is thrown in the garbage. So for governments and powerful institutions that have a lot at stake, it’s the messenger who’s the dangerous person.
JB: So journalists become a far bigger threat to power.
NB: Journalists are a big threat. And I think that what you saw in Egypt, with all of the equipment being confiscated, it was flash cards. “Give me your flash cards.” That’s what was happening. I’m with NOOR images, where there’s some very brave, heavy-duty, conflict photographers in this agency, and one of our photographers who was there, his whole day’s work was gone because it was confiscated. And then you’ve had situations of people being attacked this is going to happen more and more. What you’re going to find is journalists figuring out strategies. Different kind of strategies to either conceal their gear, or work more with I-phones, or things like this.
JB: Well, we all know that the power of information has grown exponentially because the Internet is really the perfect information dissemination vehicle. So you’re saying with the growth in the power of information, there’s a commensurate growth in the power of the journalist, of the person reporting that information. And therefore, the risk undertaken in doing that job is exponentially higher.
NB: Yeah, I think so. I don’t see myself in the same category. When I did work in Bosnia and Afghanistan, even though it was during times of war, I was never what’s known as a “bang-bang” shooter. Where I’m looking at the moment of super high drama and conflict, I’m always more on the edges and the aftermath, looking at how the civilian population is affected. So the stories come from a different place. I never thought I would be very good at that kind of hard-core combat photography.
JB: You’ve been so generous with your time. There’s one last question I’d like to ask, if you don’t mind. There are certain symbolic benchmarks in a career that I think have an almost mythic sense of power. Within the art and photo world, the show you were just in, the Whitney Biennial, is one of those events that can set off a chain reaction, where the world is your oyster. Since it just happened to you, has it been all that and more, or is it just another step in a life?
NB: I’m not sure if all creative people struggle with this, I suspect not, but sometimes I have a difficult time taking myself seriously. As seriously as maybe I should.
JB: But the work is so serious. That’s the last thing I would have expected you to say.
NB: The work is so serious, but that’s different. So let me finish what I’m talking about. It comes, from a place of insecurity and also a bit of impatience and nervous agitation. For instance, there are people who do a body of work and then step back and very intelligently, calculatingly assess its trajectory. Where they want it. Who they want to see it. How they want to get it out. And move through that list. That’s not me. And I think that that kind of organization and singularity of purpose speaks to a person who takes themselves and the work seriously, and has a tremendous amount of ambition.
I really like taking pictures. I like being in the moment, doing it. I like exploring it, I like looking at the pictures. I don’t like all the other stuff. I’m not this person who’s like, “Man, I’m going to this gallery, and then move on up the rung to that one. And I’m going to this museum, and then I’m going to move to that one.” That’s not me. I kind of wish I had a bit more of that career shaping shark in me, but it’s not who I am, and I suspect it will never be who I am. So the Whitney moment, as I think it’s called, was not something I sought. I was enormously pleased at the respect they paid the work: the curators, and the institution. And the fact that people were really, really moved by it. The room was very busy, and people wanted to see it, and went back to see it.
Has it made the world my oyster, in the sense that I have no financial difficulties, or I can do any project I want, or I have all of these amazing offers just dropping in my lap every day? No. It has not done that for me. Has it opened some doors? I think. I think, also, that the effect of the Biennial will be something maybe felt for quite a while, for me. It has given me a bit more confidence in the choices I’ve made and what I do. And so for all of those reasons, it was a beautiful experience.
My work is still very difficult to look at. It’s very political work. If you look at what’s in museums these days, in the art world these days, it is not of such a direct political nature. At least, I haven’t found it.
JB: One of the things I find very interesting about your response is that you talked very specifically about who you are, and your way in the world, and the way you relate to the world. To me, a large part of the process as an artist is learning more about oneself and developing a sense of self-criticality. But also understanding one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses. It sounds like you’re keepin’ it real, and as such, it led to these outcomes because you’re doing what you need to do, from a sense of passion and mission. The idea of mission came to me a few times as I was looking at your work. That’s there is a sense of mission and purpose. And I would agree with you that that is lacking in much of contemporary art, perhaps to the detriment of art viewers. But I think people probably responded to your work to the degree they did because there is a hunger for experiences that push people out of their comfort zone, and that share powerful information that is not easily accessible.
NB: I think that’s true. I say I’m a political person, and that my work is political, although I’m not saying what that politics is. I’m just saying that it lives in a political world. Or it can live in a political world, if people want to take it that way. However, I think one of the strengths of both the “Marine Wedding” pictures and the “Purple Hearts” pictures is you don’t know where I’m coming from in the political spectrum. I present the work at many different kinds of venues, some of them military venues, some of them not. People, early on, wanted to know what my personal politics were regarding the war. And I wouldn’t tell them, and I’m still very reluctant to share that because I feel as though it will destroy the pictures. Because then, whatever people are feeling about the pictures, as they consider the pictures, they can say, “Oh, well, I’m just being manipulated one way or another, because this is really her intention.”
So I learned a very good lesson, and I learned this lesson not because somebody told me to do this, or because I learned it from people before me. I learned it the best way, which is through my own experience. And so when I started this work, I had certain ideas of course, and then when I met the soldiers, all my ideas just exploded. I didn’t know where I was, or what kind of ground I was standing on, and where this project was going. I was open to everything. I think that not forcing a partisan point of view, in the pictures, makes them much more volatile to look at, and much more interesting to look at.
Nina Berman is a documentary photographer based in New York, NY. She’ll be lecturing about her work at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, NC on March 18, 2011.
PDN’s annual “30 photographers to watch” is now live on their site. Always a favorite of mine because of the high quality and there are inevitably people who’s work I’m unfamiliar with. For the photographers on the list it’s a good opportunity to get some exposure and do a little marketing. Congratulations to this years class:
Rachel Barrett [Fine Art, Rich Colors]
David Black [Fine Art influenced portrait, light leaked color]
Bartholomew Cooke [still-Life, German Influence]
Philip Cheung [Documentary, war]
Nicholas Alan Cope [Still-Life, Dutch Light to monotone]
Katrina d’Autremont [Fine Art, Family]
Adam Dean [Photojournalism, war]
Nicolò Degiorgis [Documentary, living on the fringe]
Giulio di Sturco [Photojournalism, Art Influenced]
Rebecca Drobis [Kids Lifestyle, Rich Color]
Pari Dukovic [Documentary, Street]
Dyad Photography [Still-Life, Dutch Light]
Justin Fantl [Still-Life and Fine Art]
Dima Gavrysh [Photojournalism, Art Influenced]
Nick Hall [Active, Outdoor]
Erik Madigan Heck [Abstract Fine Art, Art Influenced Fashion]
Ryan Heffernan [Environmental Portrait, Active Outdoors]
Liz Hingley [Documentary, Fine Art]
Therese + Joel [Cinematic Environmental Portrait]
Matthew Kristall [Youth culture and lifestyle]
Spencer Lowell [Environmental Still-Life, Art influenced Landscape]
Silja Magg [Fashion, Rich Color, Dutch Light]
Joel Micah Miller [Commercial, Car, People]
Ivor Prickett [Documentary, Art Influenced]
Justine Reyes [Fine Art Still and Family, Dutch Light]
Jody Rogac [Contemporary Fashion]
Will Steacy [Environmental Fine Art]
Judith Stenneken [Fine Art, Abstract]
Daro Sulakauri [Documentary, Dutch Light]
Susan Worsham [Fine Art, Family]
Note: I added some descriptive tags that represent my internal way of cataloging. I’m a bit rusty at it, so I can remove if you think it’s a distraction.
Prime Collective is a brand new photographic cooperative that I stumbled upon recently. I like the idea of photographers banding together and Luceo Images has proven that it can work well for marketing and potentially for business as well. They’ve got a nice professional group site set up and I know photo editors will like the one stop shopping of it all. With all the social networking that needs to happen and the potential to use twitter, facebook and blogging to market yourself it makes a lot of sense to me to share those tasks among a group of photographers. Good luck to Prime.
Prime is a photographic cooperative founded in 2011. Our six founding members – Dominic Bracco II, Melanie Burford, Brendan Hoffman, Charlie Mahoney, Lance Rosenfield, and Max Whittaker – are united by our firm belief in the power of the image, the importance of pursuing self-directed projects and stories we believe in, and our commitment to journalistic integrity. By working in cooperation, we hope to further several goals: to reinforce the importance of, and market for, photography; to use economies of scale to increase the financial viability of our own careers; and to share information and motivation between ourselves to constantly improve our photographic abilities.
We are devoted to the idea that while truth is not absolute, experience never total, and perception invariably colors reality, the world can be most universally understood and related through images. By applying our own studied judgment, we believe that we can produce narratives that shine a light on the human condition. We may further human understanding, though it is just as likely that the stories we produce will serve only to highlight the complexities of mankind. Either way, we hope our work enriches the lives of our viewers, our subjects, and ourselves.
JB: I wanted to talk to you because I’m interested in looking at photographers who innovate by connecting their work to their ideas to their style to their individuality to their fearlessness. And that doesn’t happen by accident. I believe individuality is the key to our future success.
PT: I couldn’t agree with you more. The only thing that makes us different is the quality of our ideas or the individuality of our ideas.
JB: There are so many people who are afraid right now, who’ve seen their incomes evaporate, who’ve seen their lifestyles evaporate. I’ve read, but could not of course substantiate, that there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of working photographers who’ve lost their livings. I talked to a lot of people this Fall and I solicited a lot of opinions and people heaped them upon me and there is so much fear right now. I don’t know if people have caught their breath coming into the New Year or not or if people are buying cameras again, but clearly we’re living through, and have lived through, a fairly unique time, in which the radical shift was so great that people were just adrift. And watching one’s livelihood disappear is not something I would wish on anybody. So, lets talk about fearlessness. To me, it’s not that people don’t have fear, the people that we might call “Fearless,” it’s more that they’re willing to acknowledge the fear, talk to it, understand it, and then surmount it.
PT: Or you could just be idiotic enough…
Actually, this is interesting, because I’m working on a project right now and I think about this all the time. What drives me to be an artist, to make the work I do and I think that a large part of being an artist is being delusional. You have to be totally delusional and slightly narcissistic. You have to be delusional to think that you’re going to think up stuff and people are going to be interested in it.
JB: Well, I wouldn’t use that word, delusional, personally.
PT: I use it for me.
JB: I would say “ego.” Clearly, it has to be there. Anyone who, chooses to take it out of the shoebox and put it on the wall, and say, yeah, you ought to look at that, there’s a confidence and an ego, and perhaps a sense of delusion.
PT: The parallel I draw is it’s like being a dictator. You’re an artistic dictator. You create ideas, you create themes, you create concepts. You create this world, and then you have to populate that world with believers. Much like a dictator does. For me, it’s delusion, because you have to believe, you have to delude yourself into believing that what you’re saying is of importance, not only to you because you’re interested in it, but it’s of interest to the world at large. That, for me, is delusional because I don’t have any fucking idea if people are interested in what I have to say. I’m interested, and I’m just going to assume that somehow, other people will be interested. That may not happen.
JB: But you don’t make it for your audience, you make it for yourself.
PT: You’re right, but for me, part of being an artist is understanding that at some point, there’s going to be an audience. I’m not interested in doing stuff only for myself, if it would end up only in my closet. I have to make the art that I make, but the second part of the equation is that there are going to be people who want to look at it. For me, I’ve always wanted to do stuff that speaks to people, that addresses issues, that talks about the world we live in, that makes people feel things. I remember saying, even when I was a kid, that if I could just make stuff that made people think differently about stuff, then I would feel happy.
JB: I read that and I’d like to dig a little deeper into it. What I’m curious about, is the decision that you made and correct me if I’m wrong, but you worked in advertising as an art director/creative director for about a decade, right?
JB: One can imagine that you were well compensated. It’s not a chump change industry. I don’t need to see your bank book, but can we assume that it was at least somewhat lucrative in a way that it created a lifestyle for you?
PT: Yes, a lot more lucrative than being a photographer.
JB: Well, that didn’t just happen by accident.
PT: Fuck, you’re making like 200, 300, $400,000 a year when you’re doing that. Here’s what drove me out of that. I realized that I had, at best, a mediocre career in advertising. And I wasn’t interested in that idea. I think about that a lot, particularly in light of my parents dying, that we only have one go at the whole thing. You’ve just got to lunge at whatever it is that you think you might be good at. If it doesn’t work out… I mean it’s sad, because as you get older, you realize that everything is a cliché, and that all the clichés are true.
JB: Thank you, because there’s my money quote. That’s what I wanted to hear you say. That’s what I’ve come to believe myself. And the more I’ve embraced the idea of risk-taking, and having confidence in my own ability, and digging deeper into what I need to know about myself, it has translated into people taking notice.
PT: It’s a good question, man. Here’s the thing. I remember, when I started being a photographer, I remember thinking this very clearly, I was going to put together a portfolio of stuff that interested me and only me, and if people were interested in it, then that would be some kind of divine sign that I was on to something. I talk to people all the time, particularly when I go and talk to students, and it’s amazing to me how many kids and people feel that they have to create work… they’ll look at the market and create work that fits for that market, and I think that’s a terrible, terrible mistake. And what happens then is what you just said, hundreds of thousands of people lose their job. Because what happens is they’re not being original thinkers, they’re just providing content that already exists in a slightly different form. You can’t do that.
JB: Well, certainly not anymore, no…
PT: I don’t think you can ever do that, if you want to be…well, I guess it depends on what you want to be. For me, I just like to make art, so…even if you want to be a photographer that’s surprising and have a long career, you have to have something new, you’ve got to say something new, and it can’t be a technique, it can’t be cross-processing or desaturation, or whatever the fuck it is. You know what I mean? It has to be something inside your noggin. It has to be an interesting idea.
That’s my advice. Do exactly the thing you want to do. It’s really hard, to separate yourself from the gravitational pull of the norm, and the gravitational pull of what sells. For me, that’s the only way that you’re ever going to be successful.
JB: OK, but when I look at your work sequentially, on Mr. Toledano, with “Bankrupt” and the early work, I see work that is really stylish and graphically interesting, but I didn’t see a lot of YOU. I didn’t see a lot of soul or emotion or personality, I saw, “Hey, this looks like art and the subject matters are interesting.” I mean, empty buildings sure, but I didn’t see you… they’re very commercial. And then, all of a sudden, we hit the thing that everyone wants to talk about, the “Days with my Father” project, and it’s like, BOOM. GUT PUNCH. THERE HE IS. There was something in the early pictures that was lacking. To me, pictures can’t be visceral, can’t communicate emotion if they’re not embedded with emotion.
PT: It’s interesting, I was talking about that yesterday, with a friend of mine. I think, certainly, that since “Days with my Father,”… well, you see all of those ideas, like “Bankrupt”, or video gamers, you’re right in the sense that there’s not a lot of me in them, but it’s a cerebral kind of me. There are different volumes of Phil, so there are ideas that I find really intellectually interesting, and there are things that are like, my soul, nakedly exposed, right? Like “Days with my Father,” or “America, the Gift Shop” is also very me. I mean, did you see that project? (An installation series that showed at Hous Projects in NYC)
JB: Yeah, I saw the pictures of it, sure.
PT: That’s also very me. They’re all aspects of me, it’s just that it depends on what you respond to as a person. Some people find the intellectual aspect more interesting than the emotional aspect.
JB: What I respond to and what I consider the best work is that which marries both. There was a lack of humanism in the early pictures. In the Gamers I thought the pictures were kind of cruel. You’re looking down on these people, literally, and they look really bad. They’re unflattering photographs, and of course I understand the idea, and I don’t want to nitpick here, because they were nice pictures. The difference is, and this comes back to fearlessness, that you made a decision, as an artist, to take a big risk and you decided to bring yourself, your family and your life into the work. I’m a big fan of the plastic surgery photos, “A New Kind of Beauty.” I saw them in Fraction, and I love them. To me, they’re a marriage of the idea and the execution. There is a humanism in the way you’re relating to these people, a dignity that is there, despite the fact that there is an overt sense of criticality for the phenomenon. There’s restraint.
PT: I would say, there’s never been any sense of trying to criticize what’s happening. I’m just interested in what’s happening, and the direction we’re going as a race, evolutionarily speaking. Look, you can’t look at that work and not expect people to feel emotion or repugnance. That’s not my intention at all. I just want to make that clear. It’s too easy to criticize that stuff in the same way that with the “Phonesex” work it would have been to easy to make that a joke.
JB: Of course. But you can’t fake dignity.
PT: I’m with you on that.
JB: Most people are going to say, “Hey, look at the freaks.”
JB: And you know that, but you didn’t. And to me, that’s why the work is great. So what I’m suggesting is that in looking at the trajectory of the work, what I saw was there was a moment in which you decided to take a chance as an artist.
PT: I don’t think you’re wrong on that. I mean,”A New Kind of Beauty,” was done as the same time as the stuff with my Father.
JB: They were concurrent? I didn’t know that.
PT: Yeah, they’re very connected really. Because in those pictures with my Dad, I was essentially waiting for him to die and I was thinking about mortality all the time. And so of course I started thinking about ‘What is plastic surgery if not the denial of death and aging?’ And then I started thinking about evolution, and where we’re going as a human race, and the things we’re doing to ourselves.
JB: Let me come back to that. I’m hoping with this conversation that we can encourage a bunch of people to figure out how connect to their inner abilities, to their inner risk-taking, so that they can shift. What happens in recessions, the end result of shakeouts like this is that people lose their jobs, they lose their livelihoods, and then out of necessity, out of desperation, they scratch their heads and say, OK, I’ve got no choice, there’s no job being offered to me, how can I make a job, what am I good at, what do I care about, where is my passion?
PT: You know what I say to that, man, is you make a job by surprising people. I know that sounds simplistic, but ultimately, the reason, that “Days with my Father” and “A New Kind of Beauty” are interesting to people is that they’re surprising. They happen to relate to people in a particular way that I never thought they would. It’s originality that surprises people. The last four projects were totally inward facing, and are much more interesting for me to do.
JB: What I saw was a guy who’s making interesting enough pictures with smart ideas and then all of a sudden, they became great. That’s part of an evolution as an artist and as a person. But when I went into the backstory, I saw that you had in fact been in the advertising industry, you knew it in and out, and the fact that the work was graphic and somewhat easy. It almost seemed to me that you were doing what you knew how to do, making it look good, and then you committed to the process, you had that ah, ha moment where it just kicked into gear, and it’s all came together.
PT: What you were saying about the pictures being graphic and all that stuff doesn’t have anything to do with advertising, ever since I was 12 or 13, I’ve been taking black and white photographs of buildings. They were very graphic, and very architectural and that’s all I took pictures of. I was just obsessed with that for 15 years. I never liked pictures of people because I found them uninteresting. And, generally speaking, I still find that without an umbrella idea over a portrait series, I don’t find it that fascinating. That’s why “Phonesex” is interesting to me, because they’re phonesex operators, or people who’ve had plastic surgery. But I’ve never been very interested in random portraits of people, you know, like the old guy with the wrinkly face, and it’s black and white, super contrast.
Beauty is not enough for me it’s interesting for 10 minutes and I need more than that. If those pictures of my father were not a whole body of work and part of a thing I wanted to do to remember my Dad, to say goodbye in my own way, it would not be so fascinating.
JB: Of course. It’s about ideas. Let’s shift gears for a minute. You just showed these photographs, “A New Kind of Beauty,” at Klompching and you had a solo show in New York for the Fall season and you actually debuted the work on the Internet. You have just lived through what is the lifetime goal for many people. I can’t speak for everybody, but if you ask many, many photographers, the idea of the big, gleaming, New York City solo show, in the Fall season, is it. And clearly, though, for you it isn’t it, because your life didn’t end. You didn’t punch the clock and say, “All right. I’m out. I’m going to Tahiti, bitches. WooHoo.”
PT: I’ll just order some fucking donuts, watch TV, I’m done.
JB: Let’s talk about how your vision and your goals evolve when you’ve done something grand like “Days with my Father.” I’ve heard the number 1 million people? Right?
PT: A million and a half, actually.
JB: A million and a half? Well, Mazel Tov. OK. Now, I read a lot of your interviews, and you’re constantly defending the idea of intuitive. You’re like, “Don’t roll your eyes, but, it’s intuitive.” Or, “I know this sounds silly, but…I made something that spoke to people.” And then I read something where you said, “I want to get people thinking. I want to impact culture in a mass way.”
PT: But I haven’t done any of that.
JB: That’s where I’m headed. So I want to know how you want to use this platform, what do you think of the artist’s responsibility and ability to enact change? What aspect of culture would you want to change?
PT: I might be naive, or I might have misconstrued the idea of art, but I always assumed the idea of art was to make the world better and to be an accessible, interesting thing for everyone. Exactly why a project like “Days with my Father,” had a million and a half people look at it, and the reason why it turned into a book, and the reason why it’s going to be a movie now, which is kind of insane…
JB: Oh my god. A movie? Am I breaking that? Is that an exclusive?
PT: You can break that.
JB: Well, I think your work reached an incredibly cohesive and gorgeous level when you allowed the humanism and optimism in, and it married with the conceptualism. So how can you encourage others. Do you even have to? Is your story enough? Will people say, what can I make work about that matters?
PT: Listen, there’s two different things. It’s tough. I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, about the first half of my work versus the second. When I first did Bankrupt, I really thought that work mattered. What those pictures were supposed to be talking about were the human cost of economic collapse, and I thought they were portraits of people without the people in them. But I understand the the emotional reaction to them is going to be totally different from the emotional reaction to “Days with my Father.” Or the series about my kid, or the plastic surgery stuff. You know, for me, I feel like I’m not going far enough out. I think to myself, I am just so reigned in. I am just not far enough out. I’m not on the edge enough. I’m not pushing myself far enough. I’m constrained in my work. But I have made some progress. It’s all about releasing. And that’s why the delusional part is so important, because you just can’t give a shit. The moment you start caring, that’s when your work gets shit. Caring about other people. Caring about the reaction. Any of that stuff.
JB: But almost everybody in the world cares deeply about what other people think of them.
PT: Yeah, but that’s the problem, because I care enormously. My wife is always abusing me, because if someone writes something good about my work, I’ll read it and re-read it, because it makes me feel great. If some geezer in Shanghai who I’ve never met likes my pictures, fantastic. But at the same time, I’m incredibly driven to do work that I’m interested in, even though I feel like I don’t make work that sells very much. I mean, plastic surgery, it’s very hard to buy that work and the stuff with my father, it sold very well as a book, but as a gallery show that’s very hard to buy. And the project I’m just about to finish, the stuff about self-delusion, nobody’s going to buy that fucking stuff. It’s all oil paintings and bronze sculpture.
JB: It’s interesting. I don’t exactly know where to go with that, because I’ve said some things critical of the gallery industry in New York, despite the fact that like anybody else, I’d love to have the work on the wall. I’m no hippocrite… we like the white walls, we like the acclaim, we want the respect, but we want the income as well. It’s a hard mix. The commodification versus the purity of the ideas and the objects. I’ve got a heap of questions about that. I know Rob’s audience skews heavily towards working, commercial photographers. I’m curious about how you balance the two.
PT: The commercial work is not that different from my art. In the sense that they’re all ideas. It’s like I said before, it’s just a question of volume. Doing editorial work is fantastic, because it’s kind of like going to the gym. I’m exercising my mind. There are doors that have been opened to me into subject matter and thoughts that I might not have had if someone hadn’t said, “Hey, can you just take a picture of this thing for us.” It’s interesting. Like that plastic surgery thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I shot a photograph of a guy who’d had a lot of work done for a magazine in England. And when I took his picture, I thought, Fuck, this is fascinating, I’m really mesmerized. I find the editorial stuff really valuable, because it keeps me alive, in a way.
PT: No, I’m talking mentally, but yes, also financially. But mentally it does too.
JB: I don’t know that we can do justice to it at this point, but the competing motivations of having to pay bills and commodify our ideas, versus trying to get them out there in the purest way possible as art…
PT: But I don’t think they’re competing. I think that’s where the problem lies. I think that’s where people make mistakes. The only reason I have any career in editorial at all is because when magazines see that I can conceptualize stuff in a very peculiar kind of way, and that’s a very valuable commodity. But that’s exactly the way my art is. The root of what I do is exactly the same. It’s just the way it manifests itself, whether it’s art or editorial may be slightly different, but the root is the same. I think that’s the problem. People feel that their art and their commercial stuff should be different. I think they should be the same. And when you make that realization, then you can be successful, I think.
JB: I noticed that both the “Bankrupt” and “Hope and Fear” projects were both used as advertising campaigns. Right?
PT: No. What has happened with my art is that often agencies will say, “Well, that would be a good ad campaign.” So for “Bankrupt,” people had me shoot stuff that was like it. Or with the “Hope and Fear” stuff, it’s not that they used those particular images for advertising, but they were inspired by that stuff to do ads that were similar to the work.
JB: I think it’s interesting how the two do dance back and forth.
JB: I’m interested in the evolution of your work, because I saw the switch get flipped. When I looked at the “Hope and Fear” work, and to and extent the “America’s Gift Shop” work, the symbology was just very direct and very simple. And to me, I think ambiguity is a really important part of great work.
PT: I’ve always said that I always want everything to be like an unfinished sentence, and yet when I look at a lot of my work, it’s just all very straight forward. Like this new project, do you know who Kim Jong-Il is?
JB: Did you say who I think you said?
JB: Our dear leader? Don’t we all know who he is?
PT: Well, I’m doing a project called “Kim Jong-Phil.” It’s also straightforward. (PT now sends me a photo from the project via Skype.)
That was a revelation for me, was this parallel between artistic self-delusion and narcissism, and how a dictator is fueled by the same kinds of desires and urges. So what I did was I found paintings and murals from North Korea, photographs of them, and I had them copied in China into 30×40 oil paintings, and they replaced the dear leader with me. So this is a project about me, again, because since “Days with my Father,” everything has been inward facing. Did you see that? (the photo he sent.)
JB: Yeah, I got it.
PT: So there’s a whole series of these oil paintings, and also bronze sculptures of other assorted dictators. What do you think of that thing?
JB: It’s pretty funny. So it’s going to be shown as a painting, right?
PT: Yeah, they’re all paintings.
JB: It’s actually a nice little opportunity for a segue. I think it’s clear that for the folks in this industry who are going to rebuild things, that clicking a shutter, only by itself, is not enough for most people. That there has to be some sense of being capable or literate in multiple media, or combining knowledge bases into the photography. Video is the obvious connection for a lot of people, but I think that a lot of people are going to have to figure out where their talents lie beyond just clicking the shutte,r so that it can become a gestalt thing with other abilities. You are already working, as an artist, with sculpture and installation and painting. As an artist, how would you suggest people surmount the fear of not knowing what to do? Do you have any ideas on that?
PT: It all comes back to the same thing, man, which is listening to yourself. The reason why I make things like sculpture or painting or have other people make them for “America the Gift Shop” is that I’ve always said that the idea determines the execution. And I really believe that. So those ideas were better as oil paintings or sculpture. Actually, I’ve got to send you one of the sculptures, because they’re mental. Hold on…(PT sends me another photo.)
JB: There it is. Time travel now exists for information. You just clicked a button, and here it is. And I’m 2000 miles away. That’s instantaneous. (Laughs.) It is interesting. I think that by working so much, it brings out different sides of yourself. There’s obviously a humor and a directness in some things that are obviously a part of you, and then there’s the subtlety and the emotionality and the ideas. I’m a big fan of Caravaggio, and I spent a lot of time in Rome at one point and got to live with the work directly…you use the word restraint before, and I used that word in my notes before, because as over the top as “A New Kind of Beauty,” is, there is a kind of restraint. You’re using chiaroscuro properly, and that’s what makes the photos as great as they are. They should be better than what you did ten years ago. We won’t always get it right, but if we aren’t growing then what the fuck are we doing?
PT: That’s exactly right. But you talk about this fear thing, and what should people do, and I think, you can’t say “Don’t be afraid,” because that doesn’t work. No one’s not afraid.
JB: I think we all have fear.
PT: You have to just say “Fuck it.” That’s the best advice I can give to people is to just say “Fuck it.” Just do the thing you want to do. If you want to take pictures of your balls, then take pictures of your balls. I’m serious. I know that’s not the kind of advice that Rob can probably publish, or you can write, but I really mean it. Because the world is composed of millions of people always telling you things you can’t do or shouldn’t do. There’s always a reason “why not” for everything. So that’s why I find this Kim Jong-Phil thing so resonant with me as a person, is because I spent my entire life being a pathological contrarian. It’s a reflex, it’s in who I am. I have to do the thing that I want to do. I just have to do it. And the more people tell me I shouldn’t do it, the more I want to do it. The more wrong it seems like it might be, the more I’m interested in it. So that’s the thing. People don’t do stuff because fear is immobility. So you just have to be moving at all times. Which is why I’m terrified right now because I have no projects in front of me. “Kim Jong Phil” is done, “A New Kind of Beauty” is done, “The Reluctant Father” is kind of done, so I have nothing in front of me so that terrifies me because I feel like I’m going to start slowing down and I’m going to sink to the seabed.
JB: Well we both know we never make our best work in our comfort zone, so it sounds to me like you just figured out what you need to do, which is to dive into that. If your biggest fear is not working on something, then there you go.
PT: I know, you’ve got to be reckless, because that’s the only way that all that interesting shit happens. I see stuff online all the time, and think, “Why didn’t I think of that.” I think the best ideas are the ones that are right in front of you. The most obvious things are the most interesting, most of the time. I have a secret formula, which won’t be a secret any longer when I tell you, which is that stupidity and genius are neighbors. So you can do an idea that is so fucking stupid that it’s genius.
This guest post is written by Elizabeth Fleming.
Last month I had the pleasure of joining friend and fellow photographer Jonathan Blaustein on a tour of the Chelsea gallery scene as he conducted research for an APE article, which can be read in its entirety (here). We decided to stop by Aperture and wandered into their back room where, tucked into what was essentially a chink in the wall, several photographs by the controversial Jock Sturges were on display. Before I had my own children I never cared much about him one way or the other, but now his images struck me as distressingly sexualized and, frankly, unsettling. Jonathan puts it best in his piece when he says that: “even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo.”
I didn’t trust the work at face value, and I wanted to examine why: I began thinking in particular about the delicate relationship between creator and subject when a certain intimacy is involved; the questions brought about by the dissemination of such work in the internet age; and the fact that Sturges’ models are almost uniformly beautiful, raising issues about preoccupations with appearance. I soon discovered that my uneasy feelings were not groundless: I found Sturges to be strangely silent on the topic of how he feels his work functions in a contemporary setting, and I learned that he had at one point had an affair with an underage girl, making the question of age and beauty that much more suspect.
So with all that in mind I’ll throw out the following question: is it fair to expect any artist to recontextualize his or her work if the original frames of reference have changed due to technological advances and/or societal shifts? Is it fair to take into account an artist’s persona in general and, if there is a model involved, the specificities of the artist/subject relationship? Certainly images must first be viewed on their own merit, but after we have detached ourselves from preconceived notions about the meaning of the work based on the fame or notoriety (or lack thereof) of the maker and the particulars of place and time in which the work was made, there is always an underlying context. Ultimately art does not exist in a vacuum, otherwise typing “Shakespeare biography” into the search bar on Amazon would not return thousands of results.
Sturges is a photographer who is nothing if not notorious. Rather than join the already beaten-to-death dispute over whether his work is art or pornography or neither, I’ll try my best to stick to the issues noted above and ask again, as it pertains to Sturges individually, whether it matters that when he began exhibiting in the early 1990s, his pictures of preadolescent and teenaged girls would almost exclusively be seen by a selective crowd. Those who wished to view his images had to seek out gallery exhibitions or purchase one of his books or prints, which created a controlled system of distribution. Today things are very different, as we all know—any image that is put online will be around the world and back in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
According to Sturges, the dignity of his models is his highest priority, and part of his way of preventing them from potentially feeling debased has been to give them final say over where their likenesses will end up, ad infinitum. In a 1994 interview he stated: “It’s not inconceivable that at some point in the future [the models] might decide that these pictures embarrass them; the control, the power to decide whether that happens or not, shouldn’t be mine—it should be the kids’, and that’s where it stays. It creates a very complex life for me, I promise you. When I want to use a picture in a book, I have got to call foreign countries, find people, explain the context.”
That is all well and good, but the establishment of the internet has fundamentally changed the conversation. The discussions we are having in 2010 are not the same ones we were having in 1994, and the idea of jurisdiction over one’s likeness is now a fallacy. (Quick note: Aperture itself does not show the photographs I saw in its gallery online, requiring any interested party to email them directly, but a quick internet search easily found pictures of the girl shown in the images elsewhere.) If a child grows up and decides she is uncomfortable with naked photographs of herself being shown it is already too late—her request exists in an entirely different world. If Sturges’ definition of dignity is synonymous with control, then dignity is stripped every time that girl’s image is propagated on websites far and wide, and once out there, there’s no taking it back. Despite much searching, I couldn’t find any reference by Sturges himself to a change of attitude in how he views the circulation of his images in the 21st century versus the 20th.
Then there is the question of recontextualization. While search returns for Sturges mostly directed me to fine art websites, inevitably there was some usage on erotica blogs and alongside pop-up ads for teen chat rooms and the like; a handful had once been displayed on actual pornography sites but had since been removed. Whether due to copyright infringement or because Sturges is being careful to try to keep his images out of such places is unclear, but this detail is at least heartening. Still, I would surmise that there are doubtless more than a few instances of his work appearing uncredited on pornography sites, particularly since, chillingly, they would be categorized as pedophilia which—being illegal—is underground. Should Sturges be concerned about this? I believe so, or I believe he should at least engage in a dialog about all of the facets of internet use. And yet he seems determined to stick firmly to platitudes about nudists’ lack of shame, about people’s general prudishness, and about how, while there may be some who will look at his work and have “impure thoughts” (his term), there are also people out there who, quote, “buy shoe ads, Saran Wrap, and all manner of things who have impure thoughts. I can’t really do anything about those people.”
What he fails to address is the fact that shame or not, “impure thoughts” or not, any young model Sturges photographs should be aware of where her likeness might end up. There is a difference between someone looking at a picture in a “neutral” environment versus on a site amidst images whose sole purpose is to arouse. Whether the responsibility ultimately falls firmly on the shoulders of an offending viewer is somewhat beside the point—yes, one can’t control every off-the-books (mis)use of one’s images, but in Sturges’ case it’s inescapable that the scope of the misuse is potentially wide. I can’t help but wonder if a 10 or 11-year-old girl, no matter how emotionally mature, can fully grasp all of the issues involved.
Interestingly, in 2006 Sturges became a member of the site photo.net and soon after was (in my opinion, respectfully) asked by the administrator to remove images of anyone under 18. Here is his response: “Well, I will pack up and go. I am an all-or-nothing sort as I never censor my work in any part myself nor condone others doing so on my behalf. Your rules are what they are I suppose. I was naive in imaging [sic] that my work which is published and available world wide would not be problematic in your forum. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it would be. Silly of me. I leave with regret because I love writing about photography…So it goes.” When some commenters then raised the issue of context he never responded.
More than once Sturges refers to the naïveté expressed above—here is another quote from his 1994 interview: “I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that…It never occurred to me that anybody could find anything about that perverse. It was a total surprise to me, which is obviously evidence of my having been pretty profoundly naive about the American context. But over the course of my life I’ve spent so much time in this context that I’d forgotten that Homo sapiens isn’t always like that, which is indeed naive of me. I’m guilty of extraordinary naiveté, I suppose. But it’s a naiveté that I really don’t want to abandon, not even now.” He truly seems not to have abandoned said naïveté, given that 16 years after the previous paragraph was spoken he was on photo.net stating anew that it had never occurred to him that his images might be deemed problematic. Again, I am not speaking about people placing their own analyses onto his pictures, but rather am attempting to draw attention to Sturges’ personal reaction to the questions surrounding his work.
In my opinion it feels somewhat disingenuous for Sturges to cite his astonishment over the reception of his photographs in light of his own past predilections, which brings me around to the tricky matter of whether an artist’s history and persona should have any bearing on the interpretation of his or her work. In 1998 it was revealed—through the release of a semi-autobiographical film by a woman named Jennifer Montgomery called “Art for Teachers of Children”—that she and Sturges had had an affair when she was 14 and he was 28. Admittedly, we can dig through practically anyone’s past and turn up plenty of dirty laundry, but Sturges’ liaison with a minor applies so specifically to the nucleus of his continuing thematic motifs that for him to claim he is surprised when people view the children in his images through a primarily sexual lens seems suspect. I believe it is pertinent to mention that his current wife was also once one of his models, whom he began photographing when she was 11.
If we wish to hear Sturges defend his actions regarding his relationship with Montgomery there’s not much to go on—the only reference I could find was the following, from a 1998 LA Times article: “I’m not a philanderer. I’ve had four relationships in my life. That’s it. Period. She was the second. And it was at a point in time when I was getting divorced from my wife. I was vulnerable and making bad decisions. That’s obviously embarrassing now, but in light of my regard for her intelligence and the stature of her intellect—I’m human.” I would say that whether he’s had four relationships or forty is beside the point, the fundamental issue being Montgomery’s age at the time of the affair. Regardless, gleaning solid factual information via the internet is admittedly risky business (I can practically hear the stampeding horses of angry commenters approaching) so I won’t claim to know for certain what did or did not happen and instead say this: in the many hours spent researching this article and mulling over Sturges’ words I have come away with the overall impression that he does not fully address the scope and breadth of the origins of, and reaction to, his work.
In particular, he fails to acknowledge that the societal structures that exist alongside his imagery might be something other than simply “repressive” or overly politically correct. Putting the blame back onto society is an easy way out, akin to ending a heated argument with a defiant “it’s a free country.” Tellingly, his exchanges about certain issues—such as Puritanical attitudes, American prudishness, and how the people pointing fingers should look back at themselves—are vehement and precise, e.g., “if you read sexuality into my pictures, beyond what’s inherent to a human being, then the work is acting as a Rorschach, and you’re evincing sexual immaturity or sexual malaise in your own life. I have to tell you, I am sometimes deeply suspicious of the sexual mental health of some of the people who point their wavering fingers at the morality, the art, of others.”
In contrast, his opinions about other areas just mentioned (the internet, his sexual past, the fact that not all of clothed society is necessarily inhibited) are generalized or nonexistent. In examining the following quote, which is the closest he really comes to delving into the controversy, I find him to be rather vague: “As soon as somebody says that you might be x, you have to immediately say, ‘Oh no, I’m y,’ even if in fact the truth is probably somewhere in the middle…[I’ve had] to pretend to be something that, quite frankly, I’m probably not, which is a lily-white, absolutely artistically pure human being. In fact, I don’t believe I’m guilty of any crimes, but I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual, and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that. It would be disingenuous of me to say there wasn’t. There it is; so what? That fascination pervades the species from the beginning of time; people just admit to it to varying degrees.” I’m sure given how often he has had to defend his methods over the years he is loath to delve too deeply into multilayered philosophical discussions about his themes, but if he wants to rail against the established system, he must also take into account all facets of that system without for the most part dismissing it outright or accusing his viewers of sexual immaturity when they dare question his work.
Larry Towell seems to be the perfect candidate for a kickstarter project. As a highly regarded photographer with a track record of producing excellent work and well crafted books it would be a no-brainer for one of his legions of fans to advance him $250 for signed copies of two of his books or $350 for a limited edition 4.5×5 Mennonite print or $500 for an 8 x 10 from the current Afghanistan project or $1000 for an 11 x 14 plus a copy of the book with your name listed as a sponsor.
But, Larry’s a little off-the-back on cultivating his online audience. Currently and traditionally, the book publishers, galleries and magazines hold all the names, addresses, phone numbers and emails for the people who love his work and want to know when he does something new. The new way of doing business is that you keep those lists and collect those names by setting up a blog, facebook, twitter and email subscription accounts. That way your fans can find out when you’ve got something exciting cooking like this. Larry does have a facebook account (here) with 845 people on it and who knows how many are true fans but following the 1000 true fans rule, he would only need them to each pledge $12 to reach his $12,000 goal.
I think this is the business model for these types of projects because as Larry says “since the traditional venues for funding photojournalism have disappeared, I am appealing to you for help.” And, we only need to look to fellow Magnum photographer Alec Soth who is the gold standard for alerting your audience to your activities with his old blog and new Little Brown Mushroom Blog where books he publishes for sale are quickly sold out.
[I swear this is my last kickstarter post… these things come in 3’s]
The story of Chicago nanny Vivian Maier is on the front pages of the blogs again because of a show at the Chicago Cultural Center, January 7 – April 3.
For further reading I recommend Blake Andrews’ (AKA, B) stories The Flame of Recognition
Assessing the field of photography is as self selecting as measuring the unemployment rate. Only those actively looking for work are included in unemployment statistics, and those who’ve given up aren’t counted. The fine art photo world operates in a similar way. It’s very good at monitoring the progress of motivated self-promoters, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. Quietly obsessive folks like Vivian Maier are not included in the equation.
and Thoughts on Maier.
While the basic outline of her life life is now fairly well established, Maier still remains something of a mystery. For me the most intriguing questions center on her photographic skill. How did she gain such a sharp eye? What training did she have? Which photographers or photographs did she come in contact with? Who if anyone helped her develop? Or was she a pure autodidact?
There’s also a kickstarter for a feature length doc:
Surf photographer Jeff Flindt shows us what its like to be in the thick of it. Just like Capa said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” which has nothing to do with proximity and everything to do with connecting with your subject.
Clint Clemens is a pioneer in the world of commercial photography. His book is a who’s who of high end automotive and commercial clients containing many memorable campaigns from the 80’s and 90’s. I had the chance to interview him a few weeks back and I think you will find his thoughts on the state of the industry fascinating.
APE: Let’s talk about the current state of photography. What do you think has happened to the industry recently?
Clint: The photography space, as you know, has been flooded with imagery because the barrier to entry for photography has dropped so dramatically. Previously, you had to know how to focus, you had to know how to expose, you had to know how to color correct. All that’s now gone, and it’s largely an automatic function. And, I think that there is an iTunes effect that’s happening in the market place. What iTunes did is they said, “Look, we’re going to sell data for a very small amount of money to a very large number of people.” And what that has done, is dropped the value of data in general. So if you’re selling photographs, which are generally in the form of data, the value is dropping because everybody’s expecting it to be less expensive.
APE: Ok, but in the high end commercial market that you are involved in, do you still see that sort of trend? I understand with stock photography that maybe the value was artificially inflated, because of the technical aspects of photography and I can see that dropping off a cliff. But with the higher end stuff, it seems that there’s so much more involved and there’s the need for some level of originality.
Clint: Well, yes there’s always going to be that but if you look at photography as a spectrum, it’s stock on one end and high end work on the other and there can’t be a complete disconnect between the two. One’s white and one’s black and there has to be shades of grey in the middle. So which is more dominant in forcing the shade? Is it the white area, which would be stock? Or is the black area that would be the high end photography?
My sense is that there’s always going to be a need for high end photography. High end marketing will always have a look and a desire and there will always be a drive to figure out what’s new. But what’s happening is the… how do you say this? The goal line is moving faster.
APE: Is it a trickle up effect?
Clint: Yeah, I would say it’s a bit of a trickle up effect. In the world of print publication, they were very planned and periodic events that took place. But what you’re seeing now is the change in the rapidity at which you need to be able to replace your imagery. When everyone has a camera and everyone is able to rapidly change and create new looks and companies need photography and they need to change more often due to the influence of the web, does that lead to an increase in value or a decrease in value of the imagery? My sense is that probably it leads to decrease in value of the imagery. Because the shelf life is, out of necessity, shorter.
APE: How did that effect your thinking on what you’re doing with your career?
Clint: In 2004, I saw a lot of this stuff coming and so I got involved in High Dynamic Range Imaging. But not so much for the pictorial display of the imaging, but its ability to do image based lighting and rendering. I was trying to figure out what was going to be the next great change in photography or imaging. And, with movement towards the web, people more and more, want their information interactively. So if you’re a photographer you need to understand how your component becomes interactive, because the still image, while it may have impact, has a lot shorter shelf live, if only because there’s more imagery out in the world.
So, I thought, “where is the next threshold of imaging?” And my sense was that it’s a combination of interactivity and CGI.
APE: You were shooting some location car photography weren’t you and CGI has revolutionized that industry hasn’t it?
Clint: Yes, exactly. So, in ’04 we started a company called goodstock.eu. And what that is, is back plates with the accompanying sphere High Dynamic Range Image.
So in other words, I looked at the world and said, “Everybody’s got a lot of back plates, but they can’t use any of it for rendering because you need to be able to use image based lighting with a wire frame.”
APE: So you started Good Stock, how’s that working out for you?
Clint: Oh, it’s great, we got into that and then started another company that’s connected to a real high end post-production house on the CGI end. And so that company then does the post-production of it. We take the High Dynamic Range Image with the client’s wire frame and render it.
Clint: Now, going beyond that I tried to figure out how to create a three-dimensional photograph? If you go to a website called modelsfrommars.com, that’s where we get into a lot of three-dimensional imaging.
APE: Is this scanning the environment?
Clint: Well, it’s scanning but also product visualization of which car photography with CGI is a branch of. So what’s happening is clients are demanding the more rapid pictorial representation of their product. In the case of a car client, for instance, they want to be able to visualize their car during the design phase. And then they also want to be able to have the brochure of images ready when the first car rolls off the production line.
Clint: So how do you speed up the production process and then how do you wring cost out of the production process of photography? The only answer to that is CGI.
APE: So, is this only happening in car photography because of the cost?
Clint: Yes, because of the cost. We also do visualization in the marine industries. A boat is really expensive to build. But the true, accurate visualization of it for a client is really important. You get into textures of interiors, and some of the interiors of these high-end yachts, really, they’re quite elaborate.
But let’s back up to the bigger picture here. So what’s happening is that you have a world in which the supply of photography is much, much greater than it ever was. You’ve got the concept that data, because it’s ones and zeros and it’s not a physical asset, has less value. And that’s driven by what I call the iTunes blow-back effect. How do you sit at home and download music for 99 cents and then go to work and pay $5,000 for a data set?
APE: Yeah. I get it, it’s the same with newspapers, obviously. The written word, it’s all been rendered electronically now, virtually worthless. And the distribution is nearing zero as far as moving this stuff around or making copies.
Clint: Yeah, it is.
APE: So, basically, you looked at the world of photography and you thought, “What’s going to be the highest end?” or “What’s going to be the most technical?” and you went for it. You created these companies that can provide these services for car companies and anybody who can afford it. But it’s very much the tip of the spear, right? This is high-end stuff.
Clint: Here’s the overall concept. When you look at a marketplace and when you look at your business, you have to figure out, “How can I maintain a barrier to entry?” Barriers to entry can be cost, they can be complexity they can be access. I can’t photograph the president of the United States but some people can.
So, how do you build a wall around yourself? It used to be your ability to focus, process, expose, etc. and that whole wall has completely fallen down. So, that’s what everybody’s trying to figure out, and that’s why I went in this direction, because the barrier to entry is so high.
APE: Is this your main focus with the photography now? CGI and creating companies that can service the high end aspect of that.
Clint: Yeah. To the extent that I stay involved with them is lesser or greater depending on what it is. One of them requires hourly maintenance. I’ve done so many things in my life and my career and the fun part of it is to try to figure out, what’s happening next, because you see patterns from perspective. The longer you’re in an industry you begin to recognize that things are going to move in a certain direction.
Here’s the other thing that happens, and anybody in the high-end spectrum will tell you this, that an economy is not a constant, it moves up and down. I’ve probably been through seven or eight recessions now in my career and you always see cycles and you begin to see patterns that emerge from those. So the point of a recession is to wring inefficiency out of the system. OK now, it’s a blunt instrument, no doubt about it, but that’s the point of a recession. In a capitalist economy, it treats it like a wet towel and it wrings it as tight as it possibly can.
So every time you go into a recession, the business that comes out of it is much more efficient than it ever was. And the other thing that you notice is it never goes back to what it was. It never reverts back, it always moves forward.
What we’re seeing now in this recession are two major effects, we’re seeing inefficiency getting wrung out of the system. And we’re also seeing a fundamental transformation of imagery itself, which is the digital image. We’re starting to see the full impact of what’s going to happen here. When digital first came out, it was like, “Oh, this is great. We can make all kinds of stock pictures.” Well, now, guess what happened: stock is now worthless.
The other thing that happens, in an economy like this that all the high-end manufacturers get the rug pulled out from underneath them. They’re the first ones on the chopping block, all the high-end clients. And those are the only people that really had money to pay. So you’ve got to ask yourself, where is the profit in photography? And my sense is that the real profit in photography is coming through people that are essentially teaching.
It’s the blog posts, the people that are blogging constantly, who are able to sell space on their blog and all the rest of the sort of stuff that goes on. And that’s really where it is. Yes, there is occasional work that’s out there, but it’s never going to return to the real, high-end numbers that you saw before.
APE: I’m looking at some of your advertising work here. There’s still a barrier to entry to the work that you were doing. But now, are you telling me that you’re not taking pictures anymore?
Clint: No, no, no. I go out and shoot.
APE: For clients or just for pleasure?
Clint: Well, both. The client work has definitely slowed down. When you’re shooting for Chris Craft, Net Jets, Indian Motorcycle, all these guys got hammered. If that’s your client base, instead of shooting for them two, three times a year, you’re doing it once every 18 months or something.
But that’s fine. I have no problem with that. I’m having a really good time figuring out what’s coming next and working in the 3D space.
APE: I want to talk to you about China, because the email that you sent, one thing that really stood out is how they honor photography culturally, it’s a big deal. And they have the status of a doctor there. Can you go into that a little bit?
Clint: Sure. You saw the photographs, right?
Clint: Yeah. I mean, where in the Western world are you greeted like that as a photographer?
APE: [laughs] It’s pretty awesome, right?
Clint: It’s crazy, it’s a complete cultural 180 from what we see here.
APE: And why is that?
Clint: My sense is that there’s a cultural bias towards imagery, pictograms, murals, translation of heritage and culture through drawings, very detailed drawings, a sense of artistry in the line. There is a very high level honor of the photographic process way up into the cultural ministries.
Now, here’s the flip side of the equation. China, like everyone else, has a million people taking pictures. So, back to that same argument. If everybody has a camera or everybody has a pen and can write, where do you find the value?
APE: That’s interesting because they’re able to maintain this respect for photographers at the same time many of them are able to, you know, take pictures, take probably pretty decent photographs anymore.
Clint: Well, you know, taking a decent photograph is a moving definition. I mean, who’s to say what’s good and what’s bad? And what happens is with photographs is that the idea of what is current and communicates is always changing. It’s never really a static goal line. So, if somebody takes a bad picture in our eyes, is it really a bad picture if it communicates?
APE: Oh, boy that’s a whole conversation in itself.
Clint: The Chinese love taking pictures and the way they in which they view photographers is a very high art form. Whether you can sell it is another issue. Because the sale of an image is really a function of all those global forces, everybody’s got a camera, a million photographers in the world, and imagery is distributed electronically around the world in a heartbeat.
APE: So, if you already have the status, in the west, in China you’re somewhat of a superstar.
Clint: Absolutely. And some of that is due to the access to the money to buy the camera. There were probably 50,000 students from this art and design college and so, you know, there’s always a “college town” that’s attached to a school, right. So I’m walking around. First of all, everybody’s staring at me because I’m over six feet tall. And I’ve got light hair. But the other thing is, I said to my interpreter, “Why is everybody staring at me?” and she said, “You have a very expensive camera.” So, the mass of people, still haven’t seen really high end cameras when you get out into the country.
APE: It was like you’re driving a Ferrari around town or something.
Clint: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s like you’re on another planet.
So, China’s interesting, you really palpably feel the desire to get with the Western world in terms of capitalism and commerce. OK. Ten years ago, it was a very different place. And it’s moving dramatically, very quickly. And they want what we have. I mean, it’s plain and simple. And part of that is the gadgetry that they see all over the Internet. The kids see this stuff constantly, anytime they’re on the Internet. They’re rapidly moving into a consumer conscious society. And one of those things is the camera. So, you’re looking at a confluence of wanting to have a really, highly advanced technical object, and at the same time, a very high honor for the art form. So, it’s the second one that distinguishes China.
Every time you lift your camera to shoot something, there are people taking pictures of you.
APE: [laughs] Of you taking a picture?
Clint: Yeah. Go figure. It’s really weird. [laughs]
APE: This has just happened in the last few years, right? You are seeing a lot of your fellow photographers going over on the speaking circuit in China now?
Clint: Not too many, not too many. It all happens through the Culture Ministry.
APE: So they arrange everything, the Culture Ministry?
Clint: Yeah, and they pay for everything.
APE: And what about the language barrier? Do you just have a translator with you?
Clint: Yeah, you have a translator with you at all times. So what happens is I’ll speak for three hours. An hour and a half of that is content, the other half of that is translation. But it happens really well. The other thing is a lot of them speak English. Or they really want to speak English, and they’re learning it. This is a country that is bound and determined to catch up with the Western world. That’s what you really notice when you’re over there.
APE: And they will.
Clint: Yeah. The other thing that’s going to happen is, if we think there are a lot of people competing for photography space now, what’s going to happen when the Chinese enter the market and it’s a free-for-all? So what they’re doing is they’re building photographers, if you will. They’re educating photographers.
APE: Ok, wow that doesn’t sound good.
Clint: Well, it just gets more competitive. It gets more interesting. So we’re seeing a world that is devouring photography.
APE: Can’t get enough, yeah. And like you were saying, the people who are teaching or blogging about photography, they are going to see great success. There’s a lot of money to be made off of people who are just interested in the process, not necessarily buying photographs, right?
Clint: Bingo. So in other words, you will have great photographers out there. For instance, I looked at [redacted]’s site, excellent photography. There is no reason why 15 years ago he couldn’t have made a really good living as a photographer. Maybe he did, I don’t know. But you have to ask yourself, why is it that somebody of that caliber can’t or doesn’t choose to go into a lucrative career in photography.
APE: Yeah. Because it’s a pain in the ass. [laughs]
Clint: It’s a pain in the ass. It’s a hit-and-miss, you’re hanging by a thread all your life. There’s a lot of stuff going on. Now the competition I’m talking… I’m not sure the demand is there to satisfy the competition. So think about it. What’s happening is the world wants a lot of photography, but it doesn’t want to pay a lot of money for it. And you have this endless supply of photographers and as the quality of cameras has gone up, the resolution needed to reproduce photographs has gone down. So virtually every single camera is capable of taking that kind of image.
APE: Right, but you have seen seven different ups and downs in the world of photography and the economy and each one didn’t destroy the industry. It changed it. It changed the role of the photographer, it changed how they could make a living with photography but didn’t destroy it.
Clint: Each one introduced some level of greater efficiency into the system. So it’s the introduction of efficiency. Think of the economy that goes into its inflationary cycle, or into its expansion cycle, and you end up with a lot of bloated processes out there. Inefficiency. If all of a sudden the economy crashes, businesses still have to do business, but they need to get it done really efficiently. So instead of hiring a photographer, for instance, they’ll say, “Oh, this guy Joe Schmoe that works in the marketing department, he has a camera, he can go shoot it for us.” Or they say, “We’ve got this product that we’ve been designing in CAD. Why do we actually have to shoot it. Why don’t we just render it out?”
APE: Obviously there are new opportunities for photographers in teaching and writing about photography, but what about motion. I see that as photographers moving into a space that exists and being able to do it cheaper than other motion crews are able to.
Clint: That’s exactly what’s going to go on. So it’s the democratization of motion. What’s going to happen is exactly what happened to stock photography. But Motion has another layer that I don’t think you’re going to be able to automate. Essentially what we’re seeing is the automation of photography with all these new cameras. So Motion has two other layers. It has editing and it has the sound component. And, you can’t cut perfectly to a sound beat the way a human can.
APE: So there’s that nice barrier to entry you’re talking about that exists in Motion.
APE: So, it’s good for photographers to move into that.
Clint: Ah. Only if you edit and you know sound. You need to have all three, because shooting Motion in itself is going to be just like photography; it gets cheaper and cheaper and everybody’s got one. So it’s the other two components that are very important. Photographers need to look for those barriers to entry, it’s their only hope.
This exclusive audio slideshow interview featuring Michael Kamber is from BagNews. If you haven’t visited Michael’s site, where he provides analysis of prominent news pictures, take a look, it’s a daily read for me.
Greenville, SC photographer Clint Davis used to be an Art Director at a national magazine and having been on the receiving end of photographer promos figured he needed to create something that would stand out. His budget was $800 for 40 pieces. Here’s what he came up with:
“Without advertising, something terrible happens… nothing.” Once this famous statement became rooted into my brain I started my project. Creativity, personalization, and budget-friendly were key in building these mailers. Each mailer has a different message along with a different set of cards to view. A small idea turned into a 3-month long project. Now I feel confident with what I’ve sent out to my prospective clients, and hopefully, they give me a shot!