Have I ever told you that I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains? Of course I have. Like, a million times. I say it constantly.
Is it a nefarious part of my personal branding? (That Blaustein. Always makes it about him.) I suppose it’s possible, if you believe me that much of a cynic. But I think it’s something else.
Writing for the global Internet is a strange job. Technically, you know you’re reaching a lot of people. But that reality is abstract, like a cloud that looks like the European Continent. Knowing readers are out there is nice, but it has no bearing on my daily life.
It’s very remote here, which is why I bring it up so often. Most of you are living in the urban world, where things run smoothly, and you can get decent takeout almost anywhere. Never before, in the history of time, could we have this sort of asymmetrical dialogue. Without the Internet, I wouldn’t be able to live the way I do. (Which includes having to fire up the wood stove on this, the first un-official day of winter. Snow outside already?)
That I can remain connected and removed enables me to have the perspective that I do. Sometimes, things work out perfectly. Take this morning, for instance. I just swiped through Twitter, and saw a few people saying that the Lori Nix exhibition at ClampArt was a must see. Cool, I thought. Good for her. But what the f-ck does that have to do with me?
Good question. Because not three minutes later, I reached into my book stack, and “Voila!” There it was. A new monograph, “The City,” by Lori Nix, just published by Decode Books in Seattle. (I love that the credits mention the color correction was done domestically, before the printing transpired in China. Lest we be confused…)
I’ll say it straight off. Totally fantastic book. Amazing work, beautifully printed, and I even like the way they constructed the narrative. (A few photos, for the uninitiated, then an essay to explain and contextualize the project, and then all the gorgeous plates, with a few detail shots thrown in to make sure you realize the labor involved.)
Are we done now? Of course not. I forgot to tell you what Ms. Nix’s work is all about. I think my cold bones are clouding my intelligence. Is it possible to lose IQ points when it’s cold outside?
The photographs in “The City,” and presumably on the wall in NYC, are supremely intricate dioramas of interior scenes in a post-apocalyptic world. (Thank god for spell-check. I butcher post-apocalyptic every time I type it.)
Whether it’s the zombie fetishists, the nuclear war junkies, the climate change fantasists, or the Jesus freaks, there are lots of people out there convinced we’re going to end ourselves shortly.
We certainly possess the means to do it. Personally, I think our survival instinct is such that it would be very difficult to eradicate humans off the face of the earth. Terry Gilliam’s underground fantasy from “12 Monkeys” is far more likely, if the shit hits the fan.
The photographs owe a debt to James Casebere, whose brilliant work I saw in Washington DC a few weeks ago. (A description of which will have to wait for a subsequent article.) The craftsmanship of the scenes is mind-boggling, as is the photographic construction. Great color, great light.
The sad beauty is melodic, in that you enjoy it, while still understanding that it’s prophesying your own doom. (Or that of your grandkids. Hard to say.) The dead mall photo, which was like a Play-Do version of Brian Ulrich’s “reality” picture, was superb. As was the control room image, which I preferred to Thomas Demand’s Teutonic version. That there is a conversation with contemporary art Easter egg-ed inside is just a bonus treat.
I hate to give away surprises, but there is a photo of a Natural History Museum late in the book, (Sugimoto reference) and the roof has been blown off. I had to look several times, but up in the sky, one can clearly make out a Pterodactyl. (Or is is a Pteranodon. Given that I have a six-year-old, I ought to know the difference by now.) So what does that mean? Do the Dinosaurs come back? You’ll have to ask Ms. Nix.
OK. Now we’re done. Fantastic book. You should buy it if, like me, you’re far away from NYC, and can’t see the prints for yourself.
Bottom Line: Brilliantly constructed scenes of what it looks like when we’re all gone.
For the first time ever, I ran out of books. It’s been a while since I’ve been to photo-eye, and I’m due there tomorrow. But that doesn’t help me today.
Frankly, I wrote a column yesterday based upon a book I’d previously rejected four times already. It was all I had, and the resulting effort was tepid at best. What to do?
Fortunately, earlier this morning, my wife rustled up a package from our overly-messy mail pile, and showed me that someone had sent us a book. It’s begun to happen more often, lately, as the word has gotten out that I review photo books. So I slit the cardboard, and took a quick look at what was inside.
Really, the only reason I’d choose to write an entirely new article is that good books prod good writing. And boring books bring you the kind of reviews that make you wonder if there isn’t someone better for the job. (The line forms in the rear…) Mr. Gaffney has put his soul into this book, and I’ll aim to do it justice.
The delicate, gray, soft-cover book is slipped into a colorful, pink and yellow half-cover. It sends the message right off that muted colors and vivacity can co-exist. It’s not an easy pairing, or more would attempt it, but it works well here.
Begin to leaf through, and immediately we notice the beauty of the color and light. I suspect it’s Ireland, given the artist’s provenance, but eventually it doesn’t matter. The title is instructive, so we take it for what it is. Each photo gives us the sense of a flaneur out and about, albeit one with Zen sensibilities.
If an artist is going to make one more book about lonely wandering, the maker ought to have a pretty interesting perspective on the whole venture. No worries here. Again and again, the misty light seduces, or the pop of earthy color, the luxurious nature of green, or a depression made by a sleeping animal.
Natural structures in the woods are paired off with animal burrows, and man-made over-passes that look like large-scale sculptures leading to nowhere. I busted out the nature walk just yesterday, to clear my mind for writing, and yet these photos make me long for a more humidified environment. No wonder why all those Irish folks have un-wrinkled skin.
Finally, we reach a beautiful poem by Antonio Machado, in Spanish and English, which tells us nothing the photos don’t. (But it does class up the joint a bit.) Only in an accompanying PR postcard did I learn that Mr. Gaffney spent a year walking 3,500 km to make the pictures.
It was the rare case of that extra info being purely extraneous. The photographs communicated the practice, and its purpose. How often does that happen?
Bottom Line: Very beautiful, thoughtful, self-published book
I almost wrote about a different book today. I thought about it, but decided not to. The putative subject was an area in Central Asia dominated by countries that end in “stan.” Flipping through the pages, I was taken by the generic-ness of it all.
People don’t like it when I use this space to be critical. For book reviews, I’ve learned to keep the gloves on. (And take the brass knuckles off.) So I chose not to write about that book, even though it was interesting, in the manner in which it looked like so many other projects I’ve seen before.
If you look at photo books (partly) for a living, eventually you’ll see just about every place on Earth. That I’m doing this in one of the more remote locations in the US is at least a little bit ironic. I look out my window, and I see horses, hills and mountains. I look down into the illusionistic space of a book, and I can tell that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are more than a little similar.
So when I opened up “Semicircle Law,” a new book by Tomoki Imai, (published by M.27,) that was my state of mind. The desire to suss out a locale, as quickly as I can, is something of a game these days. Given the artist’s name, my first thought, obviously, was Japan.
But there was no way to know for sure. The mountainscapes were as generic as landscapes can be. No Himalayas, these. The scrubby jutting land could be anywhere. Keep turning the pages, and no real hints emerge. When the snow comes, I feel better about the obvious guess: Japan. I close my eyes and see the snow monkeys sitting in their natural hot springs.
Are we in Hokkaido? That is my guess, now. And then I wonder if people ever get into the springs with the monkeys. Can’t you just imagine some dumb tourist getting his willy torn off by a savage monkey? That would be horrible.
Eventually, the pictures stop. Your guess is as good as mine. And then the text starts. The very first page, post-photos, shows a map of the area surrounding the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. BOOM. We’re going there.
Yes, this is one of those books that doesn’t tell you what the f-ck is going on until the end. An essay by Charlotte Cotton divulges the details. The photographer repeatedly penetrated the 20km forbidden zone set up around the disaster site. Not unlike the better known Trevor Paglen, he skulked into the hills to bring back secret photos for the rest of us. (And likely braved some serious radiation. Crazy bastard.)
So this book becomes a bit like a new-fangled version of “The Usual Suspects.” You can’t know what’s going on until you do. And then it changes everything about your perceptions of what you just saw. The two written pieces focus on the brilliance of the post-post-post modern, post-human nature of the project. It’s genius, they imply.
I’m not sure I agree. The pictures are graceful, but boring, in a way, and meant to be. It’s a smart project, and perhaps an important one. But to me, it says more about our own expectations of the drama linked to disaster. Banality is probably a better way to go about telling these stories. Because those of us who live in safe places would likely be shocked at how commonplace horror can become.
Bottom Line: A very smart, brave, and probably dangerous project
Jonathan Blaustein: Photography is a crazy thing to do with one’s time. And a crazy thing to devote one’s life to. It’s obvious that you’ve given almost everything a lot of thought. What do you think it is about this particular method of expression, as opposed to chipping in marble, that hooked into you and never let go?
John Gossage: Simple, practical things. It keeps me amused. It keeps engaging me. I make pictures for myself. I’m not an entertainer. I don’t make work for an audience.
I try to make it clear, and present it to others, because I really enjoy when other people value what I do. But they have to come to me, more than anything. That’s the difference between art and entertainment.
I played music for a while, and the idea is that you play for an audience. There’s an interaction there, and playing music is entertaining. What I do isn’t.
I suppose it’s serendipity, but it’s kept me amused, so it’s kept my audience amused. Around 1980, or ’84, I realized I wanted to make books, as I’d thought for a long time that artist-controlled books are the major leagues of photography. Books have the greatest impact on me, from other photographers. So I had faith that my work would make the most sense to people that way.
It stays out in the world. The first commercial book I did was “The Pond,” with Aperture. They set up a book signing at ICP, and one person came. Nobody knew what the hell it was. It got reviewed, positively in “People” magazine too, which is one of the most bizarre things of all time. Unfortunately, “People” has absolutely no cross-over with the audience that buys photo books, which I tried to explain to Aperture, so it made no difference.
Now, Aperture has re-printed it, and it’s one of the classics. Everybody I meet says they bought an original edition, and it changed their lives. But there could only have been twelve of them.
You have to have faith that if the work engages you, it will engage others. It’s about taking that bet. And sometimes, you can be wrong.
JB: Under that philosophy, if it doesn’t engage others, it doesn’t matter, as long as it engages the maker. Right?
JG: Oh yeah. I’m interested in continuing to be amused.
JB: You’ve made many, many books over the years.
JG: Unfortunately, yes.
JB: And in non-traditional ways, using non-traditional materials. Oversized books. Wooden books. And according to your Wikipedia page, and congrats for having one…
JG: I don’t know who did that. Not me.
JB: I don’t doubt that. But as I was saying, did you really make a book called “Hey Fuckface”?
JG: Oh sure. It was a box, actually.
JB: A box?
JG: I got interested in the space in between the wall and your lap. Pictures hang on the wall, and books sit on your lap. There’s that space in-between. So I made these boxes that can’t hang on the wall, because the back comes off. If you try to hang it, it falls to the floor.
It was called “The Things that Animals Care About, and” and “Hey Fuckface,” which is a book about curses. Or maybe it’s a publication.
Basically, you get a box with a Plexiglas front, and wood around it. You put one photograph in, and look at it for a while, and then you move it and put another photograph in it for a while. They have to lean against a wall, or sit on a book case, or something like that. Somewhere in between the two.
JB: Have they been exhibited as sculpture? How did that work? Did they make their way into individual collections?
JG: “Hey Fuckface” is actually original prints on boards with hand-written curses with each of them.
JB: (pause) You don’t know me well enough to know that I’m rarely speechless. But I don’t know what to say. As a formerly-foulmouthed Jersey Boy, I have to see that. Where could an average person see that? Is it possible?
JG: I don’t know what collections have it. Currently, they’re going for $7000 now, even though I sold them for $150 to begin with. That happens with photobooks too. But what they are is pictures of some of the most polluted places in New York State.
The interest is the nature of curses. If you’re not religious or superstitious, what is a contemporary curse? And also, curses never mean what they say.
It started by taking one photograph of this, up in Syracuse. I was taking a portrait of a young boy, and next to him was a telephone pole. Scratched into the pole was the mis-spelled curse “Dickless pigfucker.” Luckily, I wrote it down.
JG: I thought, what a wonderful curse. Anatomically impossible, and aesthetically unpleasant. What more can you ask? It’s done to annoy people. I guess Roe was right.
JB: I was just thinking about that, as I recently reviewed a book by Dash Snow. It’s a interesting idea, how we offend people. Like it’s an action that you’re doing to somebody else.
I read that you got some NEA grants back in the day. Is that right?
JB: That was before everything shifted, because Serrano and Mapplethorpe “offended” or perhaps “annoyed” the wrong people. As an artist, I think it’s kind of interesting to think about how personally people can take their own emotional reaction to somebody else’s ideas.
JG: I see it here in Washington. I saw a wonderful thing at the National Gallery, about six months ago. The National Gallery is free, and it’s on the mall, so it’s often the first museum experience for people. They’re going down the mall, and they end up in an art museum.
Anyway, there was a guy, almost totally cliché as a non-art person, and he asked the guard “Did my tax dollars pay for that?” He was pointing at an Elsworth Kelly painting of two colors.
I found out later that the guards are trained to say this, because he replied, “No. Mr. Andrew Mellon paid for that, Sir.”
He was offended. He wasn’t going to engage it. He was offended by the lack of understanding of what might be going on here. He didn’t speak the language.
It’s like being offended by Bulgarian poetry, if you don’t speak Bulgarian. People don’t do that, but with art, they do. Art can really get people worked up, which is one of the reasons, I guess, that we do it ourselves, and hope others get engaged with it. It still has that power, amazingly.
JB: Especially in a world where most people are so well-trained to tune out information that doesn’t coincide with their worldview.
JG: Its presence is offensive, if you don’t understand it. In America, most of the news about art has to do with how much it’s worth, not what it’s about.
JB: I made the local TV news at some point, for that reason. They got their hands on some documents about what the State of New Mexico paid for my work.
Thankfully, they didn’t kick up the outrage they were hoping to. The only person they interviewed was some un-important conservative political activist, and they didn’t rile anyone enough.
JG: (laughing.) I’m sorry they didn’t rile sufficiently. Maybe next time.
JB: Next time, I suppose they need to pick a more intelligent critic. It was just some guy who owned a pet store, or something, and was a Republican on the weekends.
JG: (laughing.) I’m willing to rile up a guy who runs a pet store. That should be worth doing for an afternoon.
JB: One of the things that I intentionally put into that project, “The Value of a Dollar,” and I continue to think it’s funny, is that anyone who wants to can spend a dollar on a McDonalds doublecheeseburger, and put it on a pedestal in their room. Or you can go spend a dollar for a pack of candy necklaces, and thumbtack it on your wall, for a dollar, or you can buy my picture of those same candy necklaces, on a piece of paper, for $1000.
JB: I don’t often hear people recite that absurdity back to me, but I think those inherent contradictions are often what makes people respond subconsciously.
To me, what could be more obvious about pointing out the economic machinations of art than to say that simply by Two-Dimensionalizing something, I’ve increased its value 1000%.
JG: Sherri Levine was really involved in that in the 70’s. She re-photographed Walker Evans’ pictures exactly, and made them her pictures.
What? Where’s the value? Where does art actually exist in this whole transaction? What’s going on here?
That’s the whole Duchamp question. What’s going on here? What keeps us fascinated? How does this work? There’s no real answers for it. It’s a set of questions that keeps you going.
Why is the original less important than the image made of it? What degree of eloquence comes into play there? Because it is there.
There is a Bill Eggleston picture of little toy animals on a chrome counter-top. From the early 70’s.
JB: OK. I can’t think of it immediately.
JG: It’s one of his famous pictures. I actually have the animals Bill photographed, and the picture. He took them away from his son Bill Jr, he said, “Sure, you can have these.” So I could remake that photograph, any time I could find the right countertop.
JB: You didn’t actually steal candy from a baby, but you stole toys from a child.
JG: No. Bill did. It’s one of those evil Bill Eggleston stories that we all tell. He took them from his son, and his son has never forgiven him, I’m sure.
JB: I’d like to talk about politics, because I know it motivates you to some degree. For the record, I tried to get my hands on some of your books. I was at photo-eye on Friday, and the power went out across the city of Santa Fe.
I was actually holding your books up to the residual window light, just to get a sense of the objects themselves.
JG: I like that.
JB: No one says I don’t work hard.
JG: You could start a small fire at photo-eye with books I hate, and use that light to look at mine. But I won’t name which photographers’ work I hate.
JB: I would ask, if I weren’t so sure it would ultimately get redacted, even if you said so now.
JG: We won’t go there. Don’t pick on the crippled and lame.
JB: Well, I wasn’t able to see many of the books, but I tried. But where I was originally headed with the question was talking about politics. You spent time in Berlin in the 80’s, right?
JB: So you photographed the Berlin Wall, and many years later, you made pictures through the gates of power in Donald Rumsfeld’s neighborhood in DC. When you’re dealing with topics that are so loaded, like heading to Colorado to photograph a town that has three Supermax prisons, or environmental waste sites, to what degree does your personal politics motivate your subject matter choices?
JG: You have to understand, I live in a town where politics is actually a true profession. But I would never make a claim that my photographs have any impact, politically, because I know people in the administration now. You live long enough, and you’ll know people who actually have real power.
I have the ultimate respect for how hard it is to actually do anything politically in this country. For anyone.
So the photographs have political implications. Let’s put it that way. They’re not political, as such, because I don’t have any faith that they change anything directly. It just doesn’t happen. You’re talking mostly to the already committed.
JG: But let’s take it case by case. I was asked to do a show and a workshop in Berlin in 1982. It was interesting to go to a place where the literature of that place is already so pre-established, that I can lean on that, and see what I can do, as opposed to discovering it.
It had WWII, it had the Wall. The absolute dichotomy, right in front of you, between Communism and Capitalism, all laid out in UPPERCASE LETTERS. You could play off of that.
When I got there, I realized it was far more complicated than that. The Wall was incredibly beautiful. It was funny. I was utterly convinced that the guys at the CIA had conned the Russians into building it, because it was the worst PR for Communism you could possibly have in the whole world. And it was evil. Everything I was told. But it had all those other factors.
I got fascinated with photographing in the city, so I spent almost 11 years photographing around Berlin. I had close friends there, and people kept inviting me back to do stuff, so I spent a lot of time back and forth, but never lived there.
The thing with Rumsfeld is, this is my neighborhood. If I move to the other room, I can virtually see his ex-house out of my window. I was interested in the connection between beauty and elegance, and it’s a neighborhood I like a lot. I run through it, and have for many years.
Discovering that Rumsfeld was my neighbor made me convinced that I was at the center of the evil that was going on in the world at that moment. That dichotomy was of interest, so I tried to make very, very beautiful photographs that imply the sensibility that you can’t come from a perfect place. Everyone else wants what you have.
And you have the right to enforce that upon them, which would be an ultimate mistake. It seemed the perfect project to be my first in color. (The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler/ Map of Babylon)
JB: Had you been shooting in color all along, but not showing the work, or was this actually the first time you tried to make pictures that way?
JG: I’ve been friends with Bill Eggleston since 1972. We’re really close. I saw the work before his show at MoMA, from very early on, and thought, this is terrific. This is brilliant.
So I made a couple of dye-transfers, and looked at them, and thought it wasn’t my vision. I didn’t like film color. I didn’t like the color space that you have to manufacture into film products. And I didn’t like the nature of the prints.
They suited Bill perfectly, especially dye-transfer. Dyes and Kodachrome suited Bill perfectly. It was exactly what he wanted. And for me, it wasn’t.
But then digital got good enough. Martin Parr is a close friend of mine, and I would see what he and the Magnum guys were doing. I asked them what was the best camera to get, and they said a Canon this and that.
So I got that, and started fiddling with the RAW files to see if I could get the color I saw. I realized that I could. So then I could do color, because before that, I couldn’t get it to look like what was attracting me, and that was really frustrating.
JB: Ironically, I think that might be the first book of yours that I saw. The pictures are really lovely.
JG: There’s a certain picture in there of a wrought-iron sign. It was made the first day I got the camera, and it convinced me I could do it. I figured if I could make that, I could learn how to make more of them.
JB: Speaking of digital, someone mentioned to me you don’t have a website.
JB: Given that it’s 2013, what’s the reasoning behind that?
JG: I don’t have any interest in people encountering my pictures on a screen, except in the most casual way. Stuff that happens on the web is like conversation. It’s like what we’re having now.
I’m more interested in the form of literature. It’s different.
JB: You used that word with respect to Berlin, but you meant it in a visual way?
JG: Oh yeah. It’s all visual. I’m a terrible writer. Like I told you, we have to talk this through. I’m not going to write any of it.
JB: Don’t you worry. I’m transcribing this stuff. You won’t have to do anything. It’s on me. (ed. note, It took me two and a half months to get to it. My bad.)
With respect to literature, though, that’s not normally the way people use the word. How do you connect the word to the constructed visual experience to which you’re referring?
JG: For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say that photographs look like something, and they’re about something. Those are two things that are totally intertwined. That “looking like” is integral to what they mean. It goes around and around. It’s an unresolvable conundrum.
As a maker of it, it’s a way to think about it. Like, “What are these things about?” And “What have I done to make them look and feel like that?”
You have a photograph in front of you. It’s in your lap, in a book, perfectly reproduced. You can see it absolutely presented. Nothing is hidden. It’s immediate. Every time you turn the page, it’s all there.
If it’s a really remarkable image, you emotionally react to it, you intellectually react to it, and you viscerally, sensually react to it. It all happens at once, in that instant. Similar to the moment of taking it.
This is the end of my Guggenheim Fellowship year, which is on a project that is going to be a book called “The Nicknames of Citizens.” It’s something I started in 2003, thinking about photographing in America, and what the nature of photographing in contemporary America might be.
The only parameters I gave myself were I didn’t want to photograph iconic American cities, in that I didn’t believe America had regionalism anymore. So the places were Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, Rochester, MN, St. Louis, Tucson… just places.
JB: Did you come out of this project continuing to believe there is no longer any regionalism in America? Or did the act of investigating change your mind?
JG: It didn’t change my mind at all. Let’s put it this way: the degree of regionalism that exists is basically irrelevant to what I care about. My pictures, if I do them correctly, will all look like they could have been made in virtually the same place.
There are certain little specific differences, obviously. You can pick out that Tucson doesn’t look like Memphis. But anything that’s to the point of it is all the same. That’s where we’re going.
Walker Evans could go out and shoot Alabama one way, and Bethlehem, PA the other, and he’s stressing the differences. Even Frank’s “The Americans” doesn’t even stress that much anymore. When you decide to do a project on America, you obviously look back.
The bibles of American photography always took that subject on. And it’s interesting to decide to say, “All right. What did they do? What did they achieve? What’s left to do? Is there anything left?”
I’ve made a bet on that, but I’m not quite sure what it is yet.
In the middle of this, out of total happenstance, I wound up photographing kids that want to be artists. 17 year olds. I hadn’t done portraits in years, and I did one day in Rochester, MN, because I had nothing else to do, and it was raining. Every kid I photographed produced a portrait that just stunned me, so I did more of that.
JB: I did see those pictures, in a book at photo-eye. It’s oversized, to say the least. It’s bigger than a coffee table.
JG: It is pretty big. It’s one of those books you put under your bed. Basically, if I come over, you dust it off, you take it out, and then I ask to go to the bathroom, and I can see the square under your bed where the dust had been.
JB: Given how much you’re got going on, are there any upcoming exhibitions we can tell our readers about, or any other new books coming out?
JG: Long-term, in 2015 I have a retrospective show called “Routines” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Book-wise, I have a Steidl book that’s been for sale on Amazon for about six months that we haven’t designed or printed yet. And I’m doing a book with Kominek, the people in Berlin who did Alec Soth’s “Looking for Love 1996.” It’s called “Nothing,” with photographs I took in Saudi Arabia in ’84. Radius is doing a three volume set of color work taken in Italy, with three stories by Marlene Klein.And Aperture is doing a Masters of Photography book, which should be funny.
John Gossage: I was just coming over to answer the phone, and I was thinking, “What if the interview is just all lies?”
Jonathan Blaustein: Lies? I’m just interested in things that read well, and are interesting…
JG: Exactly. There’s more interesting things that I can make up than I’ve actually done.
JB: That may well be true. You have my absolute permission to bullshit to your heart’s content.
JG: This is the assumption that previous interviews by me weren’t all bullshit. And most other photographers as well.
JB: That makes for a great first on-the-record question, doesn’t it? Should I expect what you tell us to actually be true?
JG: Just having fun with this, you know what I think the interesting question is? It’s a question that is sort of unanswerable. But thinking about these photos I just made around Albuquerque and Cañon City, do I think that they’re actually true, or are they just good stories?
You never really get an answer to that, as a photographer. You take what you’re offered, and assume it has some germ of both in it.
JB: It might be generational, but you go to college and art school, and they do whatever they can to rub the value out of that word: true. Thanks to the Post-Modernists, it’s almost like I have a reflex. You hear the word true, and you cringe a little bit. I think that’s sad. It should be a powerful word, but it’s been robbed of some of its weight.
JG: There is a generational difference. I had a whole bunch of people from Yale come by a few years ago. Some graduate students and an undergraduate. Really, really smart people. God, the degree of theory they have honed their way to has made them incredibly confused.
The way I came up, there was nobody to talk. Nothing was theoretical. Everything was practical.
JB: Maybe part of the development of that language was a defense mechanism against photography not being considered a real art for so long?
You started making photographs at 14? And you told me you had your first show at 16? Is that right?
JG: It was about 15, if I remember right. I had my first professional assignment when I was 14.
JB: (laughing.) Who gave you your first assignment as a 14 year old?
JG: The Staten Island Advance. A newspaper. I was born and raised in Staten Island, New York, and a school friend’s father was head of the sports desk at the Advance. They had lost one of their photographers. I’d been doing it for the High School newspaper. They said it was better than what they were getting in the regular newspaper, so they asked if I’d like to do some assignment work, if it didn’t conflict with school hours.
JB: Did you look like a 14 year old, or were you unnaturally old looking?
JG: I’ve never had a good idea of what I look like, to tell you the truth. I have a feeling I looked 14, but I had really good equipment. (laughing.) As we all know, from all of the advertisements, good equipment trumps everything.
JB: Are we not now living in an age where that is more-or-less true? The off-the-shelf digital cameras, for $500, are so good that almost anyone can make a passable image. Given how much of the work that little computer chip does. Isn’t it amazing?
JG: The technical end of it has become phenomenally simple. Photography has always been a simple medium, compared to painting in oil or chipping at marble.
JG: There was never a lot of technical sweat, if you will, because the machines brought you a considerable distance. It was obviously a lot more sweat, back then. When I was in Santa Fe, I was shooting film with a 2 1/4 x 2 3/4 range finder camera, because for black and white, that produces the best results for me. I’m not wedded to technical stuff at all. I just want results.
When I shoot color, I shoot the highest end digital stuff, because I always hated film color. I sort-of stand in both worlds. But you are right, it’s very easy to make technically good images. What’s absolutely clear is that it’s very, very difficult to make images that are memorable in any particular way.
JB: I agree, and that’s a pretty terrific place to jump off from. At Review Santa Fe, you gave a talk, which I wasn’t able to attend. The word on the street was that you were there as the sober voice of reason. Or maybe not sober? It was a Sunday morning, so were there any bloody marys involved?
JG: My lecture was in a church. A few people took Iphone photos of it, and it really looks like we were delivering a sermon to the congregation. It was really funny.
JB: What was the gist?
JG: They asked me to do certain things. I was meant to speak to an audience of photographers who’d come for the review. People pay a lot of money to get there, so they wanted to give them as much take home as they could. Usually, people ask me to come and explain my work. This was more about whether I could tell them, at this point in their career, how things worked for me, when I was coming up. I said it isn’t really applicable anymore, because it’s a whole different world.
So I told stories, if you will. The running joke was that I was the speaker to crush all hopes, dreams and aspirations. But I think by that point, a lot of people had gotten a lot of opinions from people, so they’d already done that.
JB: You took it easy? I was hoping to get some dirt on what you said to crush all hopes and dreams, but it didn’t come to that?
JG: Basically, there were all sorts of photographers with different ambition levels as far as a career goes. I told them, “I’m a fine art photographer. I show in galleries and museums, and I do photography books. I don’t do commercial assignments.” By this point in my life, I would be awful at it, because I don’t take instruction well.
What does that mean? I tried to base it on the simplest business model. You’re selling a piece of paper for thousands of dollars. Why can you justify that business model? What I’m trying to do is make photographs that don’t fully reveal themselves, except after multiple, multiple viewings.
If a collector buys a $5000 photograph of mine, and puts it on their wall, and they have basically gotten from it everything they can get, in a month…I’ve ripped them off.
I’m actually sitting here right now, and there’s an Atget photograph right next to me that I’ve probably had for twenty years. I just turned my attention to it, swiveled in the chair to look. It still utterly amazes me. It’s the greatest bargain I ever spent on a piece of paper. That’s what artwork has to be. It’s not immediate satisfaction, or the whole business model is wrong. We make objects of fascination.
I saw a few people’s photographs in Santa Fe, but not a lot of portfolios, because I didn’t have a lot to offer to the people who were there. They needed concrete results. The few people who had subtler work, who weren’t getting immediate feedback of “I’ll hire you, or I’ll give you a show”…I wanted to talk to them to say that they may well be doing it right.
Somebody asked me once what the perfect reaction to one of my photographs would be, when someone saw it for the first time. I said it should be sort-of-like, “Huh.” That’s about right. “Huh” means “there’s something there…I don’t quite understand it…but there’s something that attracts me…something that I want to look at again.”
That’s what I try to do for me. To keep me interested in what I’m doing.
JB: How do you go about approaching the concept of subtlety like that? Most of the work that you do involves being out there in the world, navigating, and making pictures. What goes through your mind to force you to pull back? You’re talking about aesthetic restraint, in a sense. How does that work?
JG: It isn’t exactly thought about. When I’m out shooting, I’m not thinking. I’m reacting. It’s almost like the photographs are offered to me. That’s sort of an acquisition phase, if you will.
One of my oldest friends in photography is a photographer named Lewis Baltz. We’ve known each other since the early 70’s. Lewis is the ultimate conceptualist in the way he approaches things. Lewis knows what he wishes to do, and then he makes photographs based on those concerns, based on where he thinks he should go to illustrate those concerns most succinctly. I’m the absolute inverse.
I may set some parameters, like I’m going to Italy to photograph, or I’m going to Berlin. But I’m totally open to the world educating me on what the content is.
Having made photographs for a long time, I trust my ability to make photographs. Things almost appear to me. “That looks like that could be a photograph.” And most of the time it’s not.
I came back from this trip to Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Colorado with about 130 rolls of film, because I was really pushing photographs that I didn’t know how to do. Looking at the contact sheets so far has been depressing. So many mistakes and so many stupid photographs.
Slowly I’m beginning to see the ones in there that are interesting. They’re a surprise to me.
JB: As we said, you’ve been making photographs for over 50 years. What were you doing that you didn’t know how to do? What were these challenges? Were they technical, or spiritual?
JG: It was very practical. I wanted to stand back further. I wanted to see how far I could be away from something and make contact with it. I’ve always appreciated tremendously another good friend of mine, Robert Adams. When you go to Colorado, you think of Bob Adams. There’s no way around it.
JB: Indeed. He owns it.
JG: He photographed things at great distances that seem intimate. I always thought, god, I don’t know how he does that. How does he make that work? I’m not shooting mountain ranges and tract homes.
I’m thinking “All right, step back a little further. Try to make the point of what you’re photographing almost hard to discern.” I failed a lot, because composition is like juggling a number of balls. I can only juggle six at once, and I was trying to juggle twelve.
Most of the time I dropped the ball.
The light of the fires and the smoke changed my whole sense of what light I should be photographing in. Very quickly we lost that clear-cutting Western light, for an overall smoke plume. I did a number of things with that that were of interest to me.
Changing the context of what I was doing, I started photographing right on the edge of Cañon City, where, if the fires had come over the hill that was separating the fire from the city, this neighborhood would be the first to go.
It’s not that uncommon in the West, especially these days, to have these fires. For me it was a totally different way of thinking about the anarchy of nature. (ed note, Now those same folks are worried about flooding at the end of the same Summer. Crazy.)
JB: To me, that’s why Mr. Adams’ work was so successful. It’s his emotional connection to the place. It’s almost expressionistic in that regard. You’re so aware that there was a human being, standing there with a piece of technology, capturing light.
Do you feel like maybe we’re entering a phase where it becomes far more about the accrued wisdom, knowledge and personality of the photographer, instead of just the light and texture and tonality? Does that sound reasonable to you?
JG: Everybody thinks their now is an exception to the rule. I thought so in the 70’s, and the 80’s. You think “We’re different.” The more you look, you realize we’re not.
Let’s just say, in the US, though of course it’s a world-wide community of photography, there are 25 serious voices working today that will be kept. It’s true, there’s a lot more to be disposed of now.
Look at photo books. Someone said we’re in “the renaissance of photo books and the dark ages of content.” That was the quote.
JB: That’s not your quote? Because it’s a good one.
JG: It comes from an email from a friend who I shouldn’t credit, because he’ll get in trouble.
JB: Of course you’re right, that everyone thinks their time is exceptional. But from where I stand, it’s hard not to look at the numbers game. Even if the amount of quality practitioners doesn’t vary, we’re living in a time where there are tens of thousands of photographic artists out there who all believe that they’re the ones who have something to say.
So it does seem exceptional, in that the amount of material that is constantly bombarding us is unique, in the history of photography.
JG: When I was coming up in New York City, there was little outside the city. Photographic education consisted of taking Lisette Model’s class, and maybe taking Brodovitch’s workshop. That was photographic education.
On the East Coast, there was also Minor White, whatever he was teaching at MIT, which I was never quite sure about. And at RIT you could learn how to make film with Kodak. That was the end of photographic education.
Then the programs came along. I taught graduate school for 14 years at the University of Maryland. My sense is that it’s one of the greatest educational failures of the American education system.
The College Art Association did a survey once, that I came across in their magazine. They surveyed people who had MFA’s in all fields, not just photography. They asked, five years out of graduate school, how many of them considered themselves working artists.
Five years out of school, it was 13%.
If you taught medical school that way, you’d be thrown out of school. You wouldn’t be able to teach. It’s a phenomenally abysmal statistic. There are no more really interesting voices out there with school than there were before it.
I think people become interesting in spite of it, as opposed to because of it.
JB: Let’s go there for a second. Is that not something that people are missing in general? The need to be interesting as a human being? The need to cultivate interests and passions, and contradictory attitudes? To take risks, and fail?
Where do people go wrong?
JG: Where do people go wrong? (laughing) I’m not the one to say that. With respect to the programs, I can only speak to the places I’ve been: Yale, Bard, Columbia College. People who have asked me to come and speak recently.
People have to defend their work, week after week. That’s brutal. You have talk about it all the time, but that’s stuff you can’t talk about. There’s this incredible pressure on projects, as opposed to sensibility. Most photographic projects do not resolve a subject in any particularly interesting way. Photography subjects do not tend to come to resolution.
They’re a framework in which a sensibility exists. That’s totally misunderstood by most of the younger photographers I meet. They think that projects are inherently interesting. Most projects aren’t.
One of the people I’ve gotten to know recently, and I’m going up to his opening next week, is Roe Ethridge. He’s a really, really interesting photographer. When I met the students at Yale a few years ago, basically, everybody wanted to be Roe, as far as I could tell. They sort-of admitted to it.
It’s unsolvable, what he does. It’s a mixture of everything. Commercial, un-commercial. We did a talk together in Paris, and he said, many years ago, he showed my book, “The Pond,” to his teacher Ron Jude, who told Roe that I said I made pictures to annoy people. He said he took that as the best gospel he’d ever heard.
I think Roe makes pictures to annoy people, but they’re brilliant. Just wonderful. They have nothing to do with the way I think about books, or sequencing. I enjoy seeing that. His is a unique, original voice.
Art is made by individuals; it’s not made in theory. It’s not made by being reasonable at all. It’s made by being obsessed. And you can’t teach obsession. You can’t teach obsession that’s intelligent and inviting.
Without intending to, I suppose I’ve become a real journalist. Were we to go back to my first APE post, in the summer of 2010, I suspect we’d find the writing a good deal less evolved. I was faking it until I made it.
I knew I was doing the job properly when I recently interviewed a slightly addled 94 year old man in his nursing home bedroom. I drove 3 hours to Albuquerque, just to get the story right. (And three hours back, obviously.) The conversation was enlightening, as the man reminisced about his experiences in World War II, seventy years prior.
His son, who followed his footsteps as both a doctor, and a conscientious objector, mentioned how differently we view war in the United States, since the abolition of the draft. When it was the law of the land, almost anyone could be absorbed into the fight for freedom. Everyone knew someone who had suffered.
Now, we have what he referred to as a “warrior class.” People who we pay, (and not well,) to do the fighting for the rest of us. I can’t speak for you, but I don’t personally know anyone who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. I suppose I don’t mix with the warrior class. What I know, I know from the media.
Occasionally, though, one does come across a narrative that cuts through the emotional exhaustion. Dr. Cobb’s tale was one such circumstance. Or the time I talked with Ben Lowy about the way bombs function very differently in real life than they do in the movies. (Light travels so much faster than sound.)
This week’s book is another such example. If you want to feel personally invested in things, if only for a little while, I’d heartily recommend Guillaume Simoneau’s new, aptly titled book, “Love and War,” recently published by Dewi Lewis in England.
I’d heard of this project at Review Santa Fe in 2011, but hadn’t seen so much as a photo. Buzz is a real phenomenon, like momentum, and lots of people were talking about this work at that festival. Still, I never got around to Googling it. (Thankfully. I would certainly not have enjoyed the book as much without the surprise factor.)
Apparently, the artist met a young, beautiful girl at the Maine Photographic Workshops in 2000. It was a different era, as we all know. Nobody gave a shit about Osama Bin Laden, who’s since turned the world upside down, before sinking to the depths of a forgiving sea.
The object of his (and our) affection, Caroline, eventually joined the military, and served in Iraq. She also married someone other than Mr. Simoneau. Eventually, they reunited. It’s implied, though never explicitly stated, that they conducted an affair. I suspect it was a complicated relationship.
The book tells the story in a non-linear fashion. They were together in Goa on 9/11/01, and then another photo shows a newspaper from 9/12/01, photographed ten years later. The headline speaks of George Bush bringing the culprits to the book. Is that a Canadian expression?
Caroline is visually compelling, and all of these photographs are superb. I can see why my colleagues were taken with this tale two years prior. The photos, like the subject, have charisma.
There is an essay at the end, which she wrote, that is like a kick in the gut, by a mule in a foul mood. It hurts, for a little while, but makes the preceding beauty stand out that much more.
I’d bet this is one of those books that will make all the year end “Best Of” lists that will start to pop up before you know it. (Has anyone seen a Christmas tree yet? I wouldn’t be shocked if someone somewhere is trying to kick off the shopping season in September.) It’s a great book, and will deserve the forthcoming accolades.
Most of us will never know what a charred body smells like. Or peek into an exploded tank filled with melted flesh. That’s for the best. Because I now know of at least two people who have nightmares about such things, and I’m glad my psyche was spared.
One last thing, because I forgot to mention it before now. There are photos in the book that show communications, between the lovers, in the form of photographed text messages. I’m sure this has been done before, but it’s unlikely to have been done so well.
Bottom Line: Beautiful photos, innovative story-telling, great book
I’ve made a huge mistake. Of course, you’ll assume I’m quoting Arrested Development. But I’m not. I haven’t even seen the new episodes, as my ass-backwards slow Internet is not good enough for Netflix streaming service.
I’ve actually made a huge mistake. Last week, I told you about my voracious neighbor, who is re-shaping nature to fit his whims. He has the money to do it, and that’s all that matters. But I used that intro a week early. Should have saved it for today.
Such a bummer.
Now, I don’t have an opening rant worthy of the book I’m about to discuss. I already talked about the fact that we manipulate the Earth’s environment at our peril. So what am I supposed to open with today? The Beatles? Chemical weapons in Syria? Why Tony Romo sucks, despite the fact that the Cowboys beat the Giants Sunday night?
F-ck it. I’ll just talk about the book.
“The Line” is a new soft-covered publication by Palíndromo Mészáros, published by the Universidad de Cádiz, in Spain. In case you’re wondering, I’ve always had fantasies of being an old, crinkly retired dude, sipping sherry in Cadiz, staring out at Morocco. Does that have anything to do with the book? Of course not. But since I cut the intro short, my personal narrative is creeping deeper into this week’s book review.
The book includes a tan band that sits snugly across the bottom, like a band-aid covering a bloody wound. Were that the simile were less appropriate. Alas, it is.
Remove the partial-slip-cover, and you’re faced with a photograph of a forest, with the bottom of the trees covered in ochre. (I love that word. Makes anyone who uses it seem smart. A lesser mind would just say red.)
What’s going on here? You’ll have to wait to find out. Next comes a piece of translucent, Rioja colored paper that’s partially blocking a somewhat-cliché photo of a road, receding into the distance. Yes, we’ve all seen that picture before. But at the beginning of a book, it’s obviously being used to lead us into the narrative. Nice device, I say.
Soon, we see a beautiful, flowering tree, covered, to a point, with that same ochre dust from the cover. The architecture screams Europe, but what’s happening here? Has Christo gotten loose with the paint again? Is it a large-scale performance piece that we just haven’t heard of yet?
The line of dust continues, through the eerily empty, mostly bleak landscape. Ominous vibes are building, for sure, but not until we find some text, in the middle of the book, do we know what is going on, and where in the world we are.
Apparently, on October 4, 2010, a horrible industrial accident befell a couple of villages in Hungary. 35 million cubic meters of toxic waste swept through the area, killing some, and ruining the environment. Perhaps forever, but it is not specified. The text is originally presented in Spanish, and the subsequent English translation is a bit Googly for my taste, but I suppose it is kind-of endearing. (And the Roger Fenton, Atget and Bill Owens references are right up my alley.)
From there, the line winds through the rest of the book. The photos are uniformly well-made, and contribute to the overall-very-high-quality-nature of this publication. Really, it’s just so well-thought-out.
It closes with what we assume to be the factory itself, then a big pile of the red stuff, and then a second sheet of the see-through elegant paper. Fantastic, if tragic. (How many times have I echoed that sentiment, as so many photo books deal with difficult subjects?)
The book accompanied an exhibition of the work, and both, presumably, received public financing in Spain. That the brokest country in the world is supporting artistic documentation of an environmental disaster in another European country is enough to get you out of bed in the morning. (That, and good night-dreams about waking up to cafe con leche and churros, before switching to sherry and tapas. Man, those guys have it good, even if they do have 25% unemployment. Not a bad way to spend a job-less day.)
OK. We’re done here. Yes, I’ve shown you most of the photos in the book, because there aren’t that many to begin with. But don’t be a mooch. Buy the thing, and support some Spaniards while you’re at it.
Bottom Line: Exceptional production of a far-too-common occurrence
Jonathan Blaustein: What’s the story with the beard? How long have you had that not-quite-quasi-ZZ-Top-looking thing?
Zack Arias: I have not seen my chin in sixteen years. I had a goatee after high school, and then in ’95, I went on a trip around the US, and I decided not to shave. It’s a really good device to cover up double-chins.
So I’ve just stuck with it. I had to cut it off once for a part-time job delivering pizzas. Other than that, I’ve had this stupid monster on my chin for a long time. One reason I keep it is it’s a reminder that I can’t go back to a normal day job. I have to make photography work for me.
It’s lost all its color, though, after four kids. It’s all gray and white. Part of me is ready to lose it, but none of my kids know me without it.
JB: I’ve had mine about as long as you’ve had yours. I can’t really imagine going back, they do become a part of our personality, no?
ZA: They do. I would not be able to think about things without it. Whenever I’m thinking, I twirl and pull on it. If I cut it off, I would be so lost.
JB: It’s a good point. It definitely is an advantage for guys like us. It makes us appear smarter…
JB: …and it gives us that extra beat. That extra two seconds to figure something out. You touch it, and look pensive, but really you’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say, and I need to come up with something quickly.” Is that about right?
ZA: (laughing) That is exactly it.
JB: Our secrets have now been divulged to the cyber-sphere.
JB: Isn’t it safe to say you don’t have any secrets from the cyber-sphere?
ZA: Not too many. I try to be a fairly open book, wherever I am in life. I used to operate differently. I would play my cards close to the chest, and embellish whatever I was working on so people would believe I was working on more important things than I was. The whole fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude.
That didn’t go well for me, and my whole life fell apart. I’ve always been active on forums, or some sort of water-cooler-esque type of thing where photographers commune and get together. I just decided that when I came back to photography, I would be truthful with myself, and my colleagues. For better or worse.
And it’s been a lot better. I don’t feel like I have to position myself with anyone any longer.
JB: And yet so many people are nervous and afraid to speak their mind. Wouldn’t you say?
ZA: Yes. I think so. Some people are nervous about sharing where they are in their life or career, because maybe they have to keep up the persona that “Hey, I’m busy, and things are going great.”
In a world where we all need to be nice, and professional, and everybody’s worried about sticking their neck out, or saying anything that isn’t nice…if you have a problem about something in your industry, you keep your mouth shut.
There are fantastic arguments to be made for that. I do bite my tongue a lot. But then there are times that I let it loose. I’m going to say what I think, and try to be professional, and hope that works out well.
JB: I can relate. When I started writing for Rob, almost 3.5 years ago now, he encouraged that type of honesty. I remember being really uncomfortable the first few times I let it fly. His advice, which I took very seriously, was that people respect honesty.
In my research, looking at the way people respond to you online, where you have a huge presence, it seems like there’s been a correlation with your success. Or am I assuming too much here?
ZA: I would agree with you. My goal is not to build a community, or build numbers, or get people to follow me or read my stuff. My goal is to interact with my industry, my peers and colleagues, and help out where I can.
But I am going to say what I think. The people I interact with, I want them to be the kind of people that understand that. They don’t have to always agree with me, but there has to be a mutual respect.
I don’t want to make everything sugar-coated and happy, trying to bring in as many people as possible without ever stepping on toes. I think people do react to people who are genuine. People who are honest.
You can tell that about someone by just going through their twitter feed, or reading a few blog posts. I think my number one hero in this industry today is Joe McNally, and he is the most genuine, humble, truthful, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy.
He’s very helpful, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s honest with his success, and his failures. I love that man, as a photographer, as well as a person. There’s not many people I look up to more than McNally.
We’ve all met the divas and the rockstars, and their ego enters the room before they do. I don’t want to associate with that, really.
JB: As a photographer, have you found that working in such close quarters with people, under pressure-packed environments for years, that you can kind of smell that ego and attitude as soon as it walks in the door? How are you at getting quick reads on people? Is that a skill you think has evolved?
ZA: Absolutely. Maybe it’s a personal skill that you just bring to photography, or to life. But being a photographer, especially working in editorial or commercial fields, you never know who you’re going to be in front of, and who you’re going to be interacting with, day to day.
You get an email that says you’re assigned to go shoot Mr. Jones, over at ACME company, and when you walk through the front door, you have no idea who you’re going to meet. It is a good skill to be able to size people up quickly.
In photography, you don’t have very much time to interact. If I feel like this person is puffing themselves up, that lets me know how to deal, and get the best picture out of them. Sometimes, I’ll play into that, if it lets me make the best portrait I can.
Other times, I feel like I need to bust through the veneer, and I understand the veneer, because I too had that myself. But I want to bust through that, and get something different.
It’s a good skill to have, but I can’t say if photography has taught me that, or not. You get that gut feeling about someone, when you meet them.
JB: Speaking for myself, it’s definitely a skill that I’ve learned over time.
JB: I know I was naive and worthless for some time. But pushing 40, I feel like I’ve begun to figure it out. It’s funny, because in a youth-obsessed culture, we often under-value these skills that you can only learn from taking your knocks.
ZA: Have you seen Craig Ferguson’s rant on youth?
ZA: It was one of his opening monologues. Fantastic. He comes out and says, “I’ve figured out what all the problems are.” He talked about the fact that society used to appreciate experience, wisdom and age, and then it turned to celebrating youth, and became stupid. That kind of thing.
I just hit 40, and I start to worry, am I going to be as relevant? Every art buyer I meet is fresh out of school, and twenty-something, and here comes the gray-haired old guy. But the reason that I really appreciate where I am in life now, though I know I still have a long way to go, is that I bring experience to things that don’t have anything to do with lenses, cameras and lights.
I can walk in a CEO’s office, or a hip-hop studio that’s filled with weed smoke, and I can do my job. Experience is invaluable.
JB: We’re all looking for that sweet spot. Because we’ve all seen work by older photographers, and we scratch our heads and say “when did he lose it?” So a lot of people are wondering “how do you keep it?”
ZA: I hope that the hunger to evolve always stays with me. This October marks the ten year anniversary that I left my day-job, and put a stake in the ground. I said, “I’m gonna be a photographer, dammit.” I had failed before at this venture, and this was my second chance to make it.
I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last ten years, but I want the next ten years to look different. When I hit 50, I want to change it up again. I don’t want to settle in.
JB: But for you, it’s not just shooting, of course. I think a lot of people are familiar with you through your web presence. You’ve got a popular tumblr in which you answer people’s questions, and you just turned that into a book.
You make yourself accessible to others, and you teach workshops, sell T-shirts. Do you see teaching as much a part of who you are as clicking the shutter?
ZA: I do. I actually had to back off on teaching, because I’m a photographer. I’d been asked to do some workshops, and I really enjoyed it, so I did some more. Then, a lot of my regular music-industry client work fell out from under my feet.
Teaching kind of caught me, so I started doing it more. But then, all of the favorite pictures I was creating, at that point, were at workshops. Not personal projects, or going out and getting steady client work.
I was becoming miserable as a photographer. I’ve watched photographers become popular with their web presence, start teaching, and stop shooting. We don’t really see them take pictures anymore. Yet they’re constantly out there saying, “Come on photographers, I’m going to help you out…to do the thing that I don’t do anymore.”
I love teaching, and I’ll continue to do it, but I want you to find me with a camera in my hand. I don’t want to just set up at the end of the dock and sell bait. I want you to find me with a hook in the water, and if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m going to tell you, and share my experience.
I don’t think I can be a relevant teacher, if I’m not out there shooting, and working with new technology. If all of your stories are, “Well, ten years ago, I was on this job…” I’d rather say “Ten days ago, I was on this job, and this is how I dealt with it.”
JB: I want to talk to you about Cuba, because the Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and a little birdie told me that you did a workshop with those guys in Cuba. Then I saw on your blog that you made some images down there as well. So I thought maybe we could consider you our resident Cuba expert for the day.
ZA: For the day, yes.
JB: Are you comfortable with that moniker?
ZA: I’ve only been one time, with the folks from Santa Fe. They brought me in to lead a group of photographers through Havana.
JB: So what did you think?
ZA: It’s an Un-Believable place. And the people are so amazing. Cuba is just an unreal, fantastic place. The thing I tell people, when I start talking about it is, get your ass to Cuba. Get there now, before it opens up. Before the casinos come back, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner.
It’s a remarkable place that is just on our back door.
JB: What were some of the things that were most appealing to you?
ZA: The people were the most appealing, number 1. Number 2, it was meeting fellow photographers, Cuban photographers and artists.
They have done so much with so little for so long that they can do anything with nothing. Some of the best photography that I’ve seen in a long time was done by Cuban nationals that are down there.
The stories that they tell, like when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was the red-headed step child, and they got dropped. “Sorry, you’re on your own.” One photographer was telling me that during that time, there was no film. But he had gotten his hands on some expired, 35mm movie film, and he and a buddy of his cut it up, and put it into canisters. But they didn’t have any chemistry. So they went hospitals and doctor’s offices, and got the expired chemistry that they used for making X-rays.
With vinegar and water and such, they built their developer, stop and fix, and it was super-contrasty, but it worked. So they kept shooting.
I met another photographer who had gotten hold of an old Nikon D40, or something like that, and he had an old Minolta lens. Of course, the lens didn’t fit on the body, and there were no adapters. So he would take pictures by holding the lens in front of the body, and focusing it, and he made it work.
As far as other forms of art, it’s like, I’ve got some phone books, and a cardboard box, a broom, and someone’s going to make prints. It’s a purity, and I walked away from that experience in Cuba looking at all of us photographers in the West, in the developed world, and we have everything, and we’re not doing anything with it.
They have nothing, and they are pouring out their heart into the craft. They are so sincere about photography, and art in general. We went to a ballet school, and a boxing school, and the kids are so passionate.
It blew me away, and showed me how fat and rich and spoiled we all are. I left half my gear in Cuba. I dispersed it to people who needed it, and the next time I go, I’m going to buy some used stuff, or things I’m not using much, and leave all the gear there.
“You need a camera? Here you go. You need a flash, here you go.” You take down some AA batteries with a recharging unit, and you’ve made a friend for life.
JB: It sounds like the experience offers the photographers who come down to the workshop more than just the chance to photograph old cars and beaten up doors and windows.
JB: It seems like degraded, weathered old Cuban things are images that we’ve seen so many times. How are you able to guide people away from just clicking the shutter at cliché?
ZA: You’ve got to remember, some people just enjoy photography for the sake of photography. They’re not trying to cure cancer with their camera. They’re not trying to be the next Richard Avedon, or Mary Ellen Mark. They go to Cuba, and they cannot wait to shoot an HDR picture of an old Chevy.
That is their dream, and they’re going to go home, and make a big print of it, and put it on their wall. Then, they’re going to sit back with a huge smile, because they’re going to remember going to Cuba, and getting their HDR picture of an old Chevrolet on the side of the street. And they’re going to love that.
You and I will scoff, and gag, and say “NO!” and tear at our clothes, but you’ve got to let people just enjoy it. Sometimes, I’m jealous, because there’s a lot of pictures I never take because everyone takes that picture, and I’ve seen it a million times.
What I tell people, especially on something like going to Cuba, is let photography be secondary. Your camera is your passport into experiences. There’s an old Jay Maisel quote that I harp on all the time: “If you want to become a more interesting photographer, become a more interesting person.”
You do that through increasing your experiences in this life, with the people you meet, and the things that you see. Going to Cuba will definitely make you a more interesting person. It opens your eyes to things, socially, politically and economically. You come back different, with a new perspective on life.
The pictures are good and fun, and of course you want to go down there and make photos. My thing is portraits, so I wanted to get some of those, and street photography and such. But when I think of Cuba, it’s not about the photography. I think about the people, and the music and the food and the art. Sitting out by the ocean, watching the young kids jump in the water. And the rum, and the cigars.
And the stomach bug I had for two weeks after the trip…
ZA: All of that. I don’t think about the pictures, but the camera is what took me there. It allowed me into the doors of people’s homes, places I couldn’t have entered otherwise. The camera was the excuse to share a coffee with someone, which was far more valuable than whatever picture I took.
Does that make sense?
JB: Of course. It’a heck of an answer. So good that I’m going to spin it on you. Given how well you just described Cuba, now I’m a little curious about where you’re based.
I’ve only been through Atlanta, the ATL, one time. It was very brief, many years ago, and let’s just say my memories were clouded. We’ll leave it at that.
What’s it like down there in Hotlanta? You’re from Georgia, right, so this is home turf?
ZA: Home turf. Yes. I wasn’t born here, but I moved here when I was three, so close enough.
JB: That will qualify. Is everyone hangin’ out with Ludacris, smokin’ blunts and going to Braves games? Or what?
ZA: That’s just our life. No, Atlanta a great, big city that allows you to do whatever you want to do with your life. It’s got a big enough population, 5 million and growing, that it can handle that, but it’s still a small town kind of feel. The life in Atlanta is all about the neighborhoods.
Our downtown kind of sucks. Don’t bother going there. The life is in the neighborhoods. We’re a networking city, so we love to connect people with other people. Whenever I’m out talking to someone, very often I’ll say, “You know what, you need to meet this other guy I know, because he’s working on something you could connect with. I’ll put the two of you together, because I think y’all could do something with that.”
I get a lot of work in Atlanta like that. Two people are having a conversation, and then my name will get dropped into there, and then I get an email connecting me to someone else.
We’re a great hub. I love our airport, because I can go anywhere in the world I need to be.
And I would say we rival New York in food. If you want to come and eat amazing food in Atlanta, I will send you home fat, happy, and bloated out of your mind.
JB: Something tells me New York wouldn’t necessarily compete with you guys on the biscuit and gravy front. I would think you have that all wrapped up.
ZA: I’m talking international cuisine. Not just southern food. One of our favorite places to go eat is this little dive called Hankook Taqueria. It’s a Korean taqueria with a little Southern flair to it. It’s unreal.
We have the best pizza you’ll ever put in you mouth, in this town. And I’ll say that to any New Yorker.
JB: Are you intentionally trying to provoke controversy here? I feel like you are. If you’re going after pizza…
ZA: It’s hip hop. You’ve got to have some rivalry. We got to talk crap about other places and people.
JB: (laughing.) So this is now the pizza version of Dirty South claiming supremacy over NYC-style hip hop? Is that where we’re at?
ZA: That’s where it’s at.
JB: It’s hard out here for a pimp. Is that what you’re telling us?
ZA: (laughing) One of my top three favorite movies ever, right there. Hustle and Flow.
JB: It’s a great, great film. I actually found that out by reading an interview you recently did in which you claimed that those interviewers were the most prepared and excellent that you’ve ever interacted with. So I felt that, given I was guaranteed to not be number 1, I could just be lazy. I didn’t have to do any prep.
I really felt empowered by the fact that someone else was automatically better than me.
ZA: (laughing) Well you should. Because Tina and Ryan at The Great Discontent are…
JB: They’re better than me.
ZA: They’re blog gods.
JB: I hear you. I’m not even being sarcastic. I accept the fact that I am a blog human, and not a blog god. I’m empowered by it. You’ve done me a favor.
ZA: Come on? Don’t you want to rise up to the occasion?
JB: Nope. Nope. I’m a lazy, GenX slacker, man. You’ve been generous with your time. Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know about? When did your new book come out?
ZA: It’s been out a month or two. I can’t even remember.
JB: Where can people find that? Amazon?
ZA: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, things like that. But I don’t want to toot my own horn here. I do want to give a shout out to you, and Rob, and everyone working with A Photo Editor. You’re my number 1 photography-related blog that I follow.
There are a lot of good photography blogs, but about the industry, and working, and the people that you profile, everything Rob’s built has been fantastic.
And a shout out to the Santa Fe Workshops too. They took a chance on me, doing this trip to Cuba, and I appreciate that. Get your ass to Cuba. That should be the name of this article.
JB: Get your ass to Cuba. That’s the un-official title. And that was very classy of you. In all of my interviews, you’re the first person who’s ever turned it around with a reverse shout out to us. Good on ya.
My next-door-neighbor spent most of the summer erasing a hill. Even now, as I sit and type, enormous machines are cranking and clanking away. They dig the dirt, gather the boulders, and then large trucks come and cart the land away.
He’s building a road a few hundred yards up the valley, so the hill has slowly disappeared, while the road takes form. Though humans are at nature’s mercy, we do our best to deny that reality. Foolishly, we think we’re capable of more than we are, simply because we know how to design and build things.
Most of the time, we only scratch the surface of this enormous orb. Occasionally, as we’ve seen in photographs of mining operations, we bore down a bit further. Either way, we rarely consider that the Earth is thousands of miles deep. There are rivers of water, and then lava flows, beneath the concrete on which you tread.
Wherever you live, it is difficult to get a fresh perspective on things; to be reminded our precious turf is a small fraction of the planet. Aerial photography is often used for this purpose, and it works. And we can all conjure the image of Earth taken from space. Close your eyes and try. (It’s not difficult.)
Asako Narahashi has come up with a different methodology: photographing land from the perspective of water. Wade, swim, photograph, and everything will look different. I know this, having just put down “Ever After,” the artist’s new monograph put out by Osiris. It is one beautiful production.
That’s the word that kept popping into my mind: beauty. How often do we dismiss that term as not-significant-enough? How many of you have that as your simple goal; the creation of beautiful, well made things? Were you to read the lengthy interview with Ms. Narahashi at the end of the book, (which I admit I only skimmed,) you’d see that she has loftier ambitions.
But I’m not sure they’re met, and I’m not sure they’re necessary. Looking at the photo of light gleaming off the ocean waves, with Mt. Fuji looming in the background, I wonder whether I could ever want anything more? Wow, is that a gorgeous picture. Though I haven’t complained until now, I’m actually feeling rather crappy, laid up with a cold. That photograph made me forget about my temporary troubles. I could look at it forever, withering to dust.
Flipping through, I briefly considered that the photos represent the view from inside a Tsunami, barreling towards shore. But they lack the sense of violence, so the thought was quickly discarded. And I was surprised when I recognized Amsterdam, seen from the vantage of a canal.
Only then did I realize the book moved beyond Japan’s shores, with photos taken in Dubai, Santa Monica, Brooklyn, and other places. It made for a nice diversion from my virtual Japanese vacation. Less successful was the later interspersing of land-based images. Certainly, though, the artist is free to mix up her pictures as she chooses.
That’s about it for today. I’ve got to go take some cold medicine, and put my sorry ass to bed. But this book is a keeper, and I’d heartily recommend it for your Fall Season Shopping List.
Bottom Line: Gorgeous photos of (mostly) Japan, taken from the sea
Jonathan Blaustein: Are you still in love with photography, or has it gotten boring after all these years?
Sam Abell: That’s a good question. I was asked by a student what my most significant accomplishment was at National Geographic, after thirty years, and I said that my career came to an appropriate close, and I still loved photography. Not everybody who spends their career at anything ends up fascinated and involved with it.
I think that it’s workshops, honestly, that have kept me keen about photography, and about my photography. My career as a workshop photographer came while I was at the Geographic in the late 70’s, and has continued consistently since then.
It actually has transcended my career at the Geographic, so that when my career there ended, I had momentum as a teacher, and a belief in photographic education at the workshop level.
JB: Forgive my ignorance, but you speak of your role as a photographer in the past tense. How and when did that come about? Do photographers retire?
SA: (laughing.) Well, I can’t speak for other photographers, but the photographers who went forward strongly when the so-called “official” part of their career ended, to me, were those who had taught. Teaching enriches and enlivens one’s work.
When assignments were over, photography continued. One of the primary reasons it did was that I wanted and needed to have fresh work. Also, it’s very stimulating to be around non-professional photographers. They’re the ones with the purest flame burning about their photography. I appreciate that.
My Dad took a workshop from a photographer who worked at the Toledo Blade, a newspaper I delivered. I knew this photographer’s work. My Dad took a night class from him at the University of Toledo. Without that class, I wouldn’t have become a photographer, because my Dad came home and taught me what he learned in class.
People say to me, “Who’s your favorite kind of photographer?” Or “Who would be your favorite photographer to have in a workshop?”
And I always say, “My Dad.”
My least favorite photographer to have would be myself. Someone who wanted a career at National Geographic. Because it’s almost mathematically impossible to achieve that. It’s more difficult now, to be a Geographic photographer, than it was when I came along. And it wasn’t easy at that time.
JB: That’s the assumption that a lot of people are making these days. I often find myself talking about the literal tens of thousands of photographers who’ve come through art schools and educational programs in the last few decades. To speak nothing of the everyday hobbyists and enthusiasts.
If I was able to travel back in time, and tell you in 1974 that there would be 5 billion camera-phone wielding photographers in a few decades, what would you have said to something like that?
SA: That would astonish me, of course. For example, in my dorm, at the University of Kentucky, I had the only camera. I don’t think anyone came to college with a camera, other than me.
JB: People are constantly trying to parse what it all means. It seems like some people are astonished and excited about the fact that the world has become obsessed with our particular passion. Then you see a camp that’s almost resentful, because citizens are undercutting a lot of people’s jobs. The entire landscape seems as if it’s built upon earthquake territory, at this point.
How do you view this incredible shake-up that we’ve seen in a pretty short span of time?
SA: I’m in the first camp. I’m glad about it. I welcome it. I’m keenly interested and excited for this moment in photography, and am glad to have seen the evolution of it.
It was unexpected, of course, although I was a consultant for Kodak back in the late 80’s. There were engineers there who told me that in the future, most photographs would be taken on telephones. They weren’t able to do anything with that. They were engineers, not management.
But that’s the first time I heard about that astonishing idea. And now I’ve been watching the tsunami of images.
JB: Anything that has any potential to stand out, one in a billion, needs to have something special about it. That seems like an obvious assumption. As a teacher, how has your approach to people’s expectations shifted?
SA: It’s shifted in a good way, away from what you might call the singular successful image, to the sustained body of work. Yes, there are billions more photographers, and billions more photographs every day, but who’s building up a point of view? Who’s photographing with intention, and whose body of work will sustain itself and survive?
This might seem off the track, but an interesting thing to me that others could talk about better than I, but one of the growth areas in photographic education has been the so-called slow photography. The tin types, daguerrotypes, collodion process…old processes, in short. Old, time-consuming, craftsman processes in photography.
The thing with my workshops is, photography is a thoughtful process. In an atmosphere of fast photography, and generally thoughtless, quick, automatic photography, I think that there is an interest in the slowed down, thoughtful approach. Even though I teach with 35mm, my method takes people by surprise, because it isn’t fast, and it isn’t about hardware or software, or even great results. It’s about great process.
JB: You’ve been teaching at the Santa Fe workshops, the sponsor of this interview, for a really long time now. How did you originally get involved with Reid and the crew?
SA: I met Reid at the Maine Photo Workshop, where he was #2. I saw him in action there, and when he went out to Santa Fe, I wanted to help him succeed. So my connection to Santa Fe is very closely, and continuously a connection with Reid. I believe in him and his philosophy of photographic education.
I teach at a couple of other workshops too, but I’m most loyal to Reid, and he’s been very loyal to his teachers, and to me personally.
JB: Do people come to study with you with the secret hope that you’ll help them launch the one in a million shot at National Geographic? Or do you mostly get students who appreciate your vision, and your understanding of color and light?
SA: Increasingly, it’s people not interested in National Geographic. In the last workshop I taught, a woman flew in from Thailand. She’s a medical doctor in Bangkok. I asked her in her one-on-one session where she wanted photography to be in her life.
Did she want a second career? Was it about earning money? Or was it art? And she said “None of those. I want photography to be serious in my life.” It would be like someone wanting music, like piano playing, to be a richer, deeper, and maybe even harder experience.
That’s who comes to my workshops. I jokingly tell my students that the class could be called “Your photographs: Better.”
JB: Well I’m sitting here, and it’s probably morbid, twisted professional curiosity as much as anything else, but I’m looking at “Stay This Moment,” one of your monographs, that I got at the Taos Public Library.
I’ve got the book open to a photograph of some cowboys castrating cows. This one guy actually has a surgical blade, covered with blood, jutting out of his teeth, while he’s getting ready to do some business.
JB: It says something about me that I’d choose to leave that page open…
JB: …but it seems as if you’ve seen quite a few crazy things in your days of traveling around the world taking pictures. Is that a safe assumption?
SA: That’s safe. But the picture that you chose is a singular picture for me. Probably the most singular. It’s on the spine of an upcoming publication of mine, in four sections. In other words, there’s four boxes, and each box has a section of that picture.
JB: And that’s a Radius publication?
SA: Yeah, that’s right. Though Geographic didn’t publish that photo in the story that it was done for, “The Life of Charlie Russell,” a cowboy artist in Montana. But later, maybe a year and a half ago, they named it one of the 50 greatest pictures ever made at National Geographic.
The picture has had a life, and after Geographic didn’t publish it, I got busy and published it in the book that you have, and wherever I could publish it. It’s a photograph that has gone on to have a life.
It’s also a good example of how I teach the composition of photographs: from the back to the front. Even though the picture is dominated by the cowboy in the foreground with the surgical knife in his mouth, the composition begins with the landscape, which was the first thing I saw.
Then it jumps forward to the cowboy, and everything in between is what I’m looking at. The last thing I’m looking at is the red bucket, as it exits the frame.
But the picture wouldn’t exist if the cowboy on his horse in the distance weren’t above the horizon. If the horizon were going through the head of that horse, I wouldn’t exhibit or publish that picture.
There are things that I teach, about building photographs, and that’s why people come to my workshops. Word has gotten out: Sam Abell has a way to take pictures. When people come to the workshops, they’re consumed with seeking the subject, and I teach seeking the setting.
JB: It’s kind of you to share that with the audience. I’m looking at these cowboy pictures, and they’re so iconic, I can’t help but segue to the fact that you were, at one point, the photographer entrusted with creating the massively important 20th Century archetype of the Marlboro Man.
As a National Geographic photographer, and an editorial guy, how did you come to work on that campaign?
SA: Well, I did it once, and they recruited me. I did it primarily out of curiosity. A lot of legendary photographers had worked on that campaign. Ernst Haas had done the early photography, and I knew him. There’s a lore in photography about that campaign, and I was curious.
So I did it once, and they asked me to do it again, and I declined, because my curiosity had been satisfied. It was enjoyable, interesting, and an insight into Americana on several levels that I couldn’t get any other place. Insights into advertising, and big production photography, which is the opposite of what I usually do, operating as a single person.
It was interesting to see the spectacle of a shoot like this, but it only occupied three or four days out of my life.
JB: Wow. Where were you guys shooting?
SA: New Mexico. Over where the Philmont Scout Ranch is located. The other side of the mountain from you.
JB: Up by Cimarron?
JB: Who knew? I don’t like to be predictable, but given that our audience has risen up in anger many times about what Richard Prince did to you, or to your picture, I’d be a fool if I didn’t at least bring it up.
We all know the circumstances through which appropriation got hot in the Art World, and came to represent Post-Modernism. I would guess almost all of our audience will sympathize with you, as opposed to Mr. Prince. But would you mind if we briefly discussed your reaction to the way your Marlboro Man photo was appropriated?
SA: Let’s put this way: Richard Prince’s most famous photograph was made by me.
JB: Right. What does it feel like to be in that position?
SA: I will just say, appropriation is an intellectual idea until it happens to you. It’s a philosophy, and it’s got its own intellectual framework. Then there’s what happens when it’s your photograph. Then it’s personal, and that’s all I’ll say.
The reason I don’t want to say anything about it is it has a strange power to take over the conversation. Just like it’s doing with us. I was asked to participate in a documentary about Richard Prince, and be the voice of someone who was appropriated, and I declined. The reason I did is I don’t want it to be the subject of the discussion of my work.
It has that power.
JB: I appreciate that, and I will honor you and move off topic as we speak. I brought up the cowboy images, because they’re so powerful in this particular book. Clearly, through your work, you’ve been able to travel quite a bit. Now, I’m looking at a picture of Lake Como, and there are also pictures here from Japan.
Is there anywhere in the world that you always wanted to go, and haven’t yet had the chance? Or have you scratched all of your curiosity itches?
SA: I would like to go to Antarctica. That’s about all. I’m very involved in photographing America now, so I don’t think of faraway places, as I did when I was young. As I said in the Radius book, I now want to be a photographer of my time, and our common culture.
It’s what I’m photographing, and I’m very involved with that.
JB: Where have you been photographing lately?
SA: Wherever I am. I’m never not on assignment. What I’m interested in is modern American history. I’m taken with the changes that have occurred in America in my lifetime.
I’m interested in smokers standing on ledges, and big box stores, the rise of the suburbs, and the hollowing out of small towns. Self-storage. Things that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Our common culture. What we have agreed is OK to live with.
In my first class at the University of Kentucky, my American Literature professor came in, and the first sentence out of his mouth was “The central theme of American Literature is an attempt to reconcile what we’ve done to the New World.”
I wrote that down in my notebook, and thought, “What is he talking about?” But that’s what I think about now. The New World and what we’ve done to it.
I did a story for the Geographic on Lewis and Clark, and Stephen Ambrose was the writer. He said, “I’ve got the easiest job in the world. I just have to re-tell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job, which is, pretend like nothing has happened in the last 200 years.
That statement woke me up to the fact that the landscape that Lewis and Clark came across was greater than the Serengeti. And it’s gone. It’s been replaced by agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and cities and towns, and networks of transportation. If that happened to Africa, there would be a world-wide outcry.
Do they still eat people in Papua New Guinea? Apparently so, I read. But I’m not about to hike up into some jungly mountains to find out for certain. N.F.W.
Whether they still practice cannibalism there or not, we can all agree that people have come up with some seriously weird shit along our evolutionary history. You’re obviously reading this on some sort of digital device, so you’ve progressed beyond subsistence living.
You likely own an Apple product. If not, certainly Samsung. Worst case, you’ve got an LG something-or-other, as those Koreans are making good products these days.
Whatever you think of our 21st Century, First World lifestyles, we’ve come a long way from hunting animals with spears and eating alligator meat. Right? People don’t live like that these days?
But of course they do. (I tricked you with my rhetorical genius.)
Those folks are out there. We just don’t interact with them, unless we’re on some sort of safari/favela tour. (Hey Marge, get a look at the saggy boobs on that old Abo.) Naked savages exist in fantasy worlds. They don’t feel the crunch of cracked dirt beneath their callused feet. Do they?
If you doubt me, check out Sebastião Salgado’s new coffee-table book “Genesis.” Is this the first time I’ve reviewed a coffee-table book? For sure. Is it the type of work I normally proffer on a lazy Friday? Not really.
But I always, always preach that we need to get out of our comfort zones, and experience new things. That applies to me as well. No edgy-little-art-book-number today. No sir. This here is a genu-ine Taschen publication, meant for the masses.
What can I tell you about it? Are there a lot of boobs, presented in a manner that will make you feel a smidge awkward? Yes. There are. But I’m not showing them, as I used up my August boob quota last week. (Right, Rob?)
Set that aside, and it is a fascinating collection of images, by any measure. The artist has labored and trekked across this planet, many times, just to create this group of images. We see jungles and deserts and snowpack, oh my. There are indigenous groups who live in every extreme climate you can imagine.
It’s a powerful reminder there are people who exist as if it were 10,000 years ago. Poison darts. Drinking cow blood. That kind of thing. Mr. Salgado has photographed them for us, and if you don’t find this interesting, there is something very wrong with you.
The animals are here too: penguins, hippos, giraffes, crocodiles, monkeys, jaguars, you name it. Some of them are dead, festooning the backs and outfits of the natives who ate them. That might not even be the strangest body modification in the book. I’d go with the gourds or bones stuck through the chins of the Amazonian folks within.
Whether or not you appreciate the slightly ironic tone with which I am discussing this book, I must stress that the project is a massively impressive undertaking. This book is clearly meant for all of us. Mr. Salgado wants everyone to remember the world is infinitely less virtual than we realize, and I commend him for the effort.
Bottom Line: Massive coffee-table book with broad global vision
MC: I was working on a job for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, shooting portraits of Alaska fisherman. Both subsistence and commercial fisherman, all along the Southeast and Southwest of Alaska.
JB: Wow. Had you been there before?
MC: Yeah, I’ve been to Alaska quite a few times, working for different clients. I also have worked on a personal project there.
JB: How big of an area were you ranging?
MC: I started in Juneau, which is in the extreme Southeast, and I ended up near Bethel, which is in the Southwest of the main body of the State.
JB: Can you translate that into the lower 48?
JB: Yeah. How far were you rolling?
MC: Boy, that is a good question. I just don’t have any idea. I’ve never sat down and calculated how far it is from Juneau to Bethel. But while I was near Bethel, I was going up and down the Kuskokwim River, photographing the fishermen in the different villages.
JB: Well, you and I have had a bit of a difficult time hooking up to do this interview. It occurred to me only last night that your lack of Internet might have something to do with you traipsing around the bush and the backcountry.
MC: It has everything to do with that. Occasionally, I could go to a tribal council office, where they would have Internet service, but it wasn’t available in most of the places where I was.
JB: You were in a pretty remote locale.
MC: Absolutely. But I like that. I’m very interested in these kinds of experiences and circumstances. It’s nice to see how other people live in the world.
JB: Did you get to eat some really killer fresh fish? What was the cuisine like?
MC: The most interesting thing I ate was walrus. They also have a dish that is made with seal blubber or shortening with sugar and berries. They call that Eskimo ice cream, so I had some of that as well. And I tried some moose meat. When you are in the villages, they really do live a traditional, subsistence life.
JB: Where will these photographs end up? Were you shooting digitally or film?
MC: For this type of job I always shoot digitally. I never shoot digital for my personal work, but commercial clients really don’t want to deal with film and prints anymore, for the most part. This client will use the pictures for a number of different things, as they’re trying to build a library of portraits of Alaska fishermen. They’re trying to promote the human aspect of this industry.
JB: You were shooting some pretty burly dudes, for sure. And you’ve photographed biker dudes as well, no?
MC: Yes, I’ve photographed members of a certain motorcycle club that operates out of Brooklyn. I’ve gotten to know some of these guys, and hung out with them, and done some portraits of those guys.
JB: And even though you’re a nice, soft-spoken guy from Minnesota, when you were shooting those big fishermen, do you ever slide into character and start dropping F-bombs?
MC: I do find myself shooting in a lot of different kinds of cultures and sub-cultures, and I never really try to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. Whether it’s ranchers in Colorado, or bikers or fishermen, I can pretty easily join in. I don’t pretend I’m one of them, but they don’t seem to mind having me around, just being myself.
JB: How do you split your time between commercial and personal work?
MC: It’s a tough question, because it changes with the different phases your life goes through. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re in the phase. It used to almost all commercial, and a bit of what I would have called personal work.
I didn’t have an outlet for it as fine art, so I never thought of it as such. Now, I’m more involved in book publishing, gallery exhibitions, and selling my work. So personal work becomes fine art, with that label.
I spent a lot more time on that, these days, than I do on commercial work, but that’s not by any personal rule. I’m always open to whatever happens.
JB: Well, the impetus for this interview was that you and I met last year, when you had a show at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe.
JB: I was really taken with the project, “Sin Tiempo.” I saw some really exquisite black and white photographs, that I recall being gelatin silver prints. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.
MC: They are.
JB: And they were photographs taken in Europe that had the feel and emotional tenor of fifty, sixty, seventy year old pictures. You look at them sideways, and you can easily imagine some of the pictures being made by Cartier-Bresson, or Willy Ronis, or somebody of that age. Then, I looked at the title card, and they were dated as being 2011, 2010, 2012.
JB: I was taken aback by your ability to channel a sense of time dislocation. The experience of the art was very different from the literal time in which it was made. And when I mentioned that, you told me that was very much your intention.
MC: It is very much the goal. I don’t claim that I’m trying to make old-looking photographs, but I am attracted to scenes that don’t give away a sense of popular culture today. I’m not very interested in reflecting or commenting upon our popular culture, and a huge percentage of photographers today are interested in that.
It just doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. A lot of times, photographers are trying to make a critical commentary, or some kind of an ironic statement about the world in which we live, and I find myself looking for something that’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. A timeless aesthetic.
I call the project “Sin Tiempo,” which is “Without Time” in Spanish, because I prefer that to timeless, which is an overused and generic term. I’m trying to make pictures that are without time. I’m not conscious of trying to make pictures that look like they’re from the 40’s or 50’s, but I am conscious of eliminating elements that label it as now, or five years ago. Any specific time.
So there’s no particular hair styles or graphics that are shown. No cars. No fashion that would be able to be labeled as any particular time. And what you get are photographs that do look like images of another time. Fashion changes by the minute, as does typography.
JB: I’m about to throw a word at you, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to embrace it, or reject it strongly.
MC: (laughing.) All right.
JB: And I bet you could even predict it, if you tried really hard.
MC: (pause.) You already used Cartier-Bresson, and timeless, so…I’m not sure.
MC: I think it’s great. I’m interested in an aesthetically pleasing, Romantic, perhaps even dream-like settings. I really am drawn to that. The compositions are rather formal, but the feeling is whimsical. Even the photographs that have some tension to them, there’s always still a Romantic feel. Or a calm feel.
Romance is a good word.
JB: I didn’t know which way you’d go on that. You’ve photographed bull fighters, and working cattle ranches in Colorado. You were talking about timeless, and of course that’s impossible, given that photography requires time, which our readers will know.
But it seems like there is an absolute sense of of longing for a simpler time. What is the attraction for you? What is the commonality of the things you’re choosing to focus on?
MC: Tell me if I go off-the-rails here, but there’s an aesthetic commonality in the photographs. I would hope, anyway. I can’t speak for the viewers, but for me, I am attracted to ways of life that are simpler. But also a little more dangerous. A little rougher. A little of the Earth. More to do with life and death. And the involvement of animals, and physical labor.
I find those things attractive/romantic, both sociologically and photographically. I always suggest to students that if they go after a long-term project, they go after something that interests them outside of the photographic interest. That they find something that they are attracted to, because then they’ll stay with it and explore it more deeply.
With regard to bullfighters and cowboys, we really are looking at at way of life that extends backward to before there were even cameras. This way of life existed before there was anybody to take pictures of it. And there are elements if it that have remained unchanged.
The series I call “Mountain Ranch,” which is about ranchers in the mountains of Colorado, concentrates on the traditional elements of traditional lives. It’s not the story of the modern cowboy. I’m not trying to hold up some juxtaposition between four-wheelers and horses, or baseball hats and cowboy hats.
It’s just that these things are fascinating to me, and they’re going away, as is their lifestyle. Part of it is, I just want to look at it. I love being around it. It looks to me like something that I, Michael Crouser, should be making photographs of because it appeals to me so strongly.
I don’t really know what to say when people say “It’s great that you’re documenting this for posterity.” I agree, but it’s not necessarily the full motivation. It’s interesting to me to be documenting for that purpose, but I think the motivation is mostly an aesthetic one.
These things grow. It starts off as something you might like to go take a picture of, but then you meet people, and start becoming interested in their lives, and families, and the way they work. And the fact that their grandparents lived on that land as well.
I’m not photographing everything about their lives. I’m photographing the traditional elements of their lives.
JB: We just heard, at length, about how you have learned to trust your own instincts. And that’s lead to your voice, aesthetically speaking. But all workshops need titles, so why did you choose that one? What do students come to you to learn?
MC: Before I started teaching, I was doing some self-exploration, as a photographer. Just wondering to myself what it is that makes my pictures personal. Why are they mine, as opposed to someone else’s? I became fascinated by this idea that by a series of decisions, or factors, or elements in a photograph, you start to hone your aesthetic voice.
The choices that you make with regard to light, medium, equipment, composition, perspective, subject matter, etc. As you work through those things, and experiment, your photographs become something more personal. More unique to you than they would be without the consideration of those things.
A lot of students that I have in my workshops are really interested in taking another step in their photography. That’s kind of a general way that people express the fact that they want to grow and learn and expand.
It’s often difficult for people to know where to go. How do you open up the door if you don’t know where the door is? So this class looks at a number of doors that are there for the opening. When you start to explore these things, and consider the work of established photographers, and how they use these elements, they get exposure to choices that they can make.
A lot of photographers who take these classes have never thought of these things before. Maybe they like to take pictures of their kids, or horse races, or maybe they’ve never thought about the qualities of light that appeal to them the most. Once you start experimenting with your own preferences, I feel like your own voice gets sharper. More articulate.
JB: How about group dynamics in workshops? What are some of your tricks for getting people to engage with each other?
MC: I’ve found I like teaching more in a group setting, than working with individuals, because there’s more discussion. It becomes more apparent to the students that there are differences of opinion, and different aesthetic tastes. It happens all the time where one student will be very attracted to garish color, and the student sitting next to them will say “That’s ridiculous.”
There are two vastly different opinions about the same photograph. I think that is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows them that taste is personal, that there is no right or wrong. That’s an important piece of this class, because I don’t teach people that there’s a correct way to take photographs.
I teach people to explore what is they like about photographs, and what they like about taking pictures, and to run with it. Explore it.
JB: Do you find people are attracted to your way of making work? Is there a Romantic vibe in the air, when your students come together? Or are they more attracted to the fact that you’re confident in your personal vision, and they want you to bring that out in them?
MC: I think that some people end up taking a class because they like the instructor’s work, but I wouldn’t say that’s universal.
There are a few classes in which I ask people, just as an exercise, to emulate one of the photographer’s whose work we’ve seen. And there are a lot of things we do as exercises that don’t necessarily correspond to the work they’re going to do for the rest of their life.
But some people do choose to emulate my photographs, which is incredibly flattering, because it never occurs to me that people are there because of my aesthetic. But I am also aware of the fact that there are a lot of reasons to choose a certain workshop instead of another one.
JB: You mentioned that you show other photographer’s work in you workshop. Who are some of the artists whose work you like to use as examples?
MC: I like to show extremes. I try not to just be limited to the people that influence or inspire me. There are people that I find to be controversial, whose work I show.
Are you looking for names?
JB: Of course. We’re always looking for names. People love names.
MC: There is a lot of the aesthetic that appeals to me, like Edward Curtis, and of course Cartier-Bresson, and Willy Ronis, and Robert Doisneau, and Lartigue. I call it the French Mt. Rushmore. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Lartigue and Brassai. It’s an era that speaks to me so strongly.
But I also like people to see David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, and Albert Watson and Herb Ritts. (pause.) I’m trying to think of more contemporary photographers…Susan Burnstine…
JB: I demanded names, and you gave us some. Now we know you’re also intrigued by editorial masters, as it were. I just wanted to give people a sense of what inspires you.
MC: I might add that I’m inspired by people who are inspired. I’m inspired by certain photographers, but I’m also inspired by teaching; by people learning and growing. It really gets me going.
JB: Do you enjoy getting to come down to New Mexico? It sounds like you get to travel quite a bit. Do you think that Santa Fe offers anything special, compared to other locations?
MC: It’s a great atmosphere in which to learn. The people are so nice in Santa Fe, and at the Workshops. They’re so helpful and positive. They make available a lot of locations that the students can utilize, apart from classroom learning. There’s a lot at hand, as far as landscape and setting.
When you go to Santa Fe, you know you’re not in California, or Minnesota, or New York. People get a uniquely Santa Fe experience when they’re there, from the light to the farmers market. It’s a great place to be. Very comfortable and positive from start to finish.
JB: As far as travel goes, we started this conversation mentioning that you were on a long layover in Seattle on your way to China.
MC: I’m going to Beijing. It will be my first time to Asia. I’m going to speak to the organizers of an upcoming exhibition, to help them plan it from the photographer’s perspective. I do a lot of work for and with Kodak, and they’ve been so very supportive of my projects with Tri-X film and darkroom chemicals. They’re sponsoring it.
JB: If when you’re walking along the road, you see knock-offs of your own photographs, what are you going to do?
MC: It’s interesting that you mention that. I recently found some different examples of knock-offs of my pictures online. People selling paintings of my work, and things like that.
JB: I have an idea. You could just bring in the biker dudes.
MC: Right. I could mix projects for protection.
JB: You gotta call in backup.
MC: (laughing) I like it. They’d probably love it. Riding their Harleys around Beijing.
Boobs sell books℠. I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again. (Because it’s true.) But they also sell cars, coffee, cake, coffeecake, kielbasas, and anything else you can think of.
Wow. Sex sells. How original. Tell us something we don’t know.
Most people are out in the world, looking for companionship. We pair off, two at a time up the gang-plank, because it’s in our embedded code to reproduce ourselves. Right? Sex is nothing more than a pleasurable way to create the next generation, according to some.
But that doesn’t explain why single people get cats, dogs and birds. Don’t we all know someone who treats an animal like a person? Or at least creates a lasting, meaningful relationship with a pet? Of course we do, and it has nothing to do with sex. (We assume…)
No, people are social creatures. Like horses, we need the company of others. We need to tell someone what happened during our day, even if we know it was boring, because we just lived it. (For example, this evening, I will tell my lovely wife that I stared at a dirty computer screen for hours on end.)
The need to share our lives with others drives our actions far more than we think. For every dollar you’ve ever spent in an overpriced bar, throwing back watered-down drinks, I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t just about the potential booty call. We need each other.
Which is why I was so intrigued by “Precious,” a new book by Jane Hilton, offered by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. (Where the lights are always red, and the coffee shops sell lots of green.) For all the times I’ve mocked artists for including a few naked photos to boost sales, you might be surprised that I’m writing about this today.
But books are meant to be opened, and ideas are meant to be spread. (The good ones, anyway. I wish someone would put that stupid Justin Bieber haircut out of its misery.) Yes, this book features a bevy of naked women, but it’s not what you think.
Ms. Hilton has spent fifteen years among the brothels of Nevada, where prostitution is legal. She knows the culture, and the women who populate it. She seems to understand the vagaries of human nature that would lead someone to work there, and others to pay a lot of money to touch their bodies. This book gives us a glimpse inside, and it costs a lot less than a “party,” that’s for sure.
A statement, early on, suggests that the subjects were photographed naked, as their clothing made them look like stereotypical hookers. That was not the point of the photographic exercise, so off came the clothes. The emotional walls came down, too, in some images. Other pictures depict guarded women, who perhaps trust the photographer more than the process.
There are a wide range of body types and ages on display. For the most part, these are actual women; not people who’ve been scarred up by cheap plastic surgeons who’d use scotch tape to seal up the implants, if only they could. Some of the women are nearing sixty, and it’s a strange sight to behold. (A compliment for a photo book, no?)
The real treat here, beyond getting to look at boobs without feeling guilty, is that the artist includes testimonies from the women at the back of the book. Their voices come through, and make it impossible to just huck metaphorical tomatoes at their faces. Many are married. Many are proud. One girl, 18 and pregnant, has to do the work because she can find nothing else. She said it hurts to get f-cked while she’s knocked up, and that is hard to read.
We learn that black prostitutes make less than white ones, which is incredibly wrong, but not totally surprising, given what we know of racism. One woman is writing a book about sexual sub-cultures, and decided to do her research the old-fashioned way. (We’re reminded, several times, that it is the world’s oldest profession.) Apparently, the brothels are safe and clean, but take a massive 50% cut. (Just like art galleries.)
Above all, a one message was consistent: clients come for the companionship, far more than the sex. They build relationships, and the money-exchange keeps everything honest. So next time you giggle when you drive by the Chicken Ranch, if you happen to be in Nevada, just remember: people will pay a lot of money to have someone listen to their problems.
Bottom Line: Up close and personal with some Nevada prostitutes
Jonathan Blaustein: How did you come to photography as a method of expression?
Jock Sturges: It’s an important question, because the answer sets the groundwork for my whole life’s work. At age eight, I was sent away to summer camp. And, from eight on, I was in boarding schools or summer camp right until I joined the Navy in 1966.
That’s pretty young to be away from home. These were all boys boarding schools and all boys camps. I had as well four brothers, all of whom were similarly sent away. No sisters.
So, as circumstance dictated it was in these schools and camps where I was obliged to find what family I could – amongst the other boys. And right from the beginning I had an appetite for beauty. Due to a chain of circumstances that involved several broken arms, I wasn’t allowed to do sports for several years, and ended up swiping a camera from one of my roommates who had in turn swiped it from his dad. I was eventually able to make prints from the work I was doing. My roommate’s mother came up for a visit and saw some of the prints of her son on the wall and took them down and kept them.
JB: (laughing.) For real?
JS: But she paid me for them!
JS: What was then a small fortune.
JB: How old were you?
JS: I was about eleven at that point.
JB: You sold your first work at eleven? I haven’t heard that before.
JS: Right away, I discovered that many of my friends’ parents suffered from guilt for having sent their children away to school so young, so, as it happened, there was a nice market there for me. Some of my friends in turn figured out that they were a kind of cash register, and wanted a cut of course
JB: I sold lanyards. I had a friend making them, and I was basically the middle man, selling lanyards around the lunchroom in what was probably seventh grade. I think you have me beat, for an early understanding of capitalism.
JS: The capitalism was a side affect for me. It was certainly very much enjoyed, because we had no spending money. But really I was keeping the images of my friends because at the end of the school year, or the end of summer, many kids would disappear. You’d never see them again. Their parents would be transferred to Europe, or wherever.
It was a way of keeping family. And beauty was also a big part of that for me. Boys can be very beautiful, and I was drawn to it, right from the beginning. Long before that, when I was five, my parents moved into a house in Providence that belonged to my great uncle Howard Sturges – a legendary bon-vivant who was Cole Porter’s partner for much of his life. Anyway, there was a big set of US Camera Annuals, in the bookshelves of that house, which I just loved. There, inexplicably, I fell in love with Grace Kelly because of two images of her swimming in Lake Como. I had a massive crush on her. I was five or six.
I don’t have any particular explanation for why that aesthetic appetite exists in Homo Sapiens, even in young children, but there it is.
JB: I was going to ask if you were coming from the North East. Was your family part of the cultural tradition of boarding school?
JS: In fairness to him, my father had been sent away at the same age himself. It was just how it was done. The English pattern. My family came from money, but several generations before them. I like to describe them as camped in the ashes of a great fortune.
So I grew up with the trappings of privilege, but almost none of the economic leverage. The good schools, etc, were actually paid for by a relation. I came out of that, making photographs all the time, but mostly just of the other boys, because that’s who I was around. It wasn’t until after four years in the military, where I was a Russian interpreter living in Japan for three years, that I found myself finally in a context that included women.
This was Marlboro College in southern Vermont. It was very small, 200 students, and I arrived right at the height of the sexual revolution. The school’s only rule was, whatever you’re doing, just please close your door.
That was paradise for me. I was finally in the context of women, and finally really happy socially because the truth was, I’d never much liked talking about cars and…
JS: About cars and sports. Exactly. The conversation with women was instantly more interesting to me than any conversations I’d had before. The critic, AD Coleman, has since described me as having a strong feminine aspect, and I really appreciated that clear perception of who I am. It realys fit with my own sense of self.
From that point on, I only really photographed girls and women.
JB: But your first experience, based upon your age, and the age group of the kids with whom you were billeted, was in photographing young boys.
JS: Very much so. My cofrères.
JB: Is that something you think people are familiar with?
JS: It’s been in an interview here or there, but it’s kind of the bedrock of where it all comes from.
JB: At what point in your evolution as a photographer did you start working with nudes?
JS: Not for a long time. When I was at Marlboro, in Vermont, I did some. But the work then was really fueled more by hormones than intelligence. I was 22 or 23 years old, and new to the game of sex and relationships. Making pictures of naked women struck me as an enjoyable endeavor. But it left me feeling hollow, somehow dishonest, so I stopped pretty quickly
Then in 1973 I took a feminist workshop in Minneapolis/St Paul as part of a larger workshop I was doing on alternative education. It changed my life significantly, because, for the first time, I started to really appreciate the problem with objectification in nude photography — and how much of traditional photography of women was hard on them as a group. Abrasive, even.
I came away from that deciding I didn’t want to make photographs like that, and I actually stopped doing nudes for almost ten years. But then, almost accidentally, I stumbled upon the fact that making portraits of people over a long period of time transitioned the work from being about the body to being about relationship. In the same time frame I found myself in a counter-culture context in California where nudity was commonplace and shame absent. This was an epiphany for me!
This encounter with people who had no complex about simply being naked combined with my experience with feminism in the early 70’s and set me on a completely different path from where I started. Very happily so, because, since then, I have not photographed a great many people, but I have photographed the people I do photograph a great many times.
JB: So what led to photographing younger girls was that starting earlier enabled you to potentially open up a lengthy, multi-decade process?
JS: That’s exactly right. In fact, as time went on, I got more and more interested in even starting with pregnancies, when possible — starting as early as possible so that I felt like, when I’d been photographing for a number of years, that I really knew something.
Now, I’m photographing a third generation. You begin to have something on the order of a significant understanding of who a person is when you’ve known her parents, and then their parents before that, most of their lives.
The first two Aperture books did me a real disservice, in that respect. Michael Hoffman refused to allow me to edit them chronologically, as I wanted to. I had edited my first book, “The Last Day of Summer,” with a great editor from Aperture, and we had worked it out together as a chronology to our mutual satisfaction. With each of the models depicted, you’d see them getting older image by image, and that painted the picture of a relationship.
That didn’t suit Hoffman at all. He wanted to edit it graphically, so he ditched our chronology as not interesting, and basically did it as an exercise in graphics. His mantra was, “You don’t know anything about making books. I do. Shut up.”
JB: Had you gotten your way, it sounds like you would have created something within the realm of what Nicholas Nixon did with “The Brown Sisters,” which, of course, drew him massive acclaim.
JS: Exactly right. I’d been doing lifetime studies for a long time at that point. I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just pictures of pretty girls, it was a long-term relationship with a huge amount of respect as the engine, and that the project was open-ended and continuing.
All my subsequent books with Scalo and Steidl, etc, and, after Hoffman was gone, even with Aperture were in fact edited chronologically.
Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1990
Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1996
Fanny; Montalivet, France, 2011
JB: It seems like a great opportunity to talk a bit about the way your vision of your own process, your motivations and intellectual curiosity, have led you in one direction. Clearly, the elephant in the room here is the way an audience, critics, and other people have responded to what you’re doing.
It’s not edgy here to say your work is among the more controversial that’s come around in the last three or four decades.
Can we start with the way you react to other peoples’ reactions? What’s it like for you, when you feel your own actions are coming from one place, and other people are responding from such a massively different set of assumptions?
JS: The Aperture book set off a certain amount of reaction that was conservative, as you depict. I think, if it had been edited chronologically, that wouldn’t have necessarily been the case, as much as it turned out to be. Subsequently, most of those critical voices have gradually been stilled, by seeing the chronologically edited books, and the long, long timespans.
And then came the Aperture book, with Misty Dawn which described a quarter of a century of her life. That kind of calmed people down. It became impossible not to realize that there had to be a profound level of trust between a model, who was letting herself be photographed for that many years, and who then entered her own child into the process. There’s no harm being done there. Just the opposite, in fact.
In fact, the work is reifying, and re-enforcing in a very positive way for the models. Simply put, the people whom I photograph love both the process and the work. People who are too conservative to appreciate that, frankly, just don’t interest me that much. I’m fine with how the work is made. I know that it’s a great joy for me to make it, and it’s a huge pleasure for the models to be in it.
Finally there are only two entities that I answer to: myself, and the models. What the rest of the world makes of it is, frankly, just not that interesting or relevant for me.
JB: Context is key. It’s hard to have any kind of art conversation in the 21st Century without bringing it up.
I’ll speak plainly here. I saw one print, decontextualized on the wall at Aperture a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been face-to-face with the work before, and it threw me. I had a very powerful, negative, visceral reaction to it. And I wrote that as well.
It was just one print, a slice pulled out of the narrative that you’re describing. I have to say, I think it did you a disservice in that regard.
JS: We’re not there to protect the work and make sure that doesn’t happen.
To advance my notion of it, the most important thing in my work is an absence: the absence of shame. The people that I photograph are basically living a lifestyle without clothes because that’s the lifestyle they choose. They’re not taking their clothes off for me. They live that way.
That’s one of the things I discovered at Marlboro, was that getting people to take their clothes off for you is something that’s been done rather too much. It’s essentially artificial; kind of understandably hormone induced.
I have this visual curiosity, and became fascinated, later in the 70’s, when I finally started on the body of work that I’m doing now, by the reality that I encountered in the counter-culture in Northern California. Dress or undress was dictated only by weather – not social convention. A new world.
There I found the nude, per say, as something that was organic to the being of the people. They were completely unashamed of themselves. Coming from the East Coast, an absence of shame was a little startling, because I was raised on it.
That absence, even in an individual picture, can be breathtaking for people who’ve been raised in a context where it doesn’t exist. Where the body is hidden, and where nudity is routinely conflated with sexuality. That’s really not my problem, and it’s not the model’s problem. It’s the viewer’s problem.
JB: That’s why the work creates such powerful conversations, and can so easily end up in the political crosshairs. Given the times, and the decades we’re talking about, did you ever find yourself in a room, sharing a conversation with Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano?
JS: No. I never met either of those two artists. I wish I had done, and I would have been intrigued to speak with them.
My roll as a test case, as it were, was not a role that I enjoyed or embraced in any way. I wish that it had never happened. But, culturally, it was more or less inevitable. The fact that I was unaware of that, and hadn’t thought to predict it, is evidence, once again, as AD Coleman points out, of my naiveté.
As we record this interview, you’re in New Mexico and I am in France in a naturist resort with a summer population of 29,000 people on the Atlantic Coast. There are many other such resorts up and down this coast and elsewhere in Europe. I’ve been coming here for thirty years. Nudity means nothing to anybody here. People come here to exist wearing whatever they want. When the weather is cool, people wear something. If women have their period, they usually wear bottoms. People wear whatever’s relevant or nothing – as they please.
Children, especially, are rarely clothed here, because they enjoy so much not having clothes on. If you exist in that context for a while, it gives you an artificial notion of what’s reasonable behavior as regards the rest of the world. This is such a comfortable place to be.
JB: It’s great to learn more about the roots of your process, especially as one who was so offended by the work out of context.
JS: Pretty much my whole life. I’m kind of a natural teacher, if I can say that without sounding self-aggrandizing. It’s probably the thing I do best in life. I love it.
It is an abiding sadness for me that, given the political take on my work, probably no major University would dare hire me. But I’m brought in as a lecturer from time to time and I love doing it. I particularly like looking at people’s work, and then trying to help them figure out how to do it better.
JB: What do you think are the advantages of working in small groups? What is it like for you as an instructor, and what do you think your students tend to get out of the environment?
JS: Every student is a different person, and it’s my job as a teacher to try to figure out who they are, and then turn the key in their lock to help them be better. Help them manifest themselves in the work.
In a small group, I have time to spend with individuals, to try to get my head around who they are, what skill set they have, and what skills they could use to go further. Sometimes, that’s a manner of looking at what equipment they’re using, and then figuring out if they’re frustrating themselves unnecessarily by using equipment that’s not appropriate for what they need and want to do. You’d be surprised by how often that is the case.
Other times, it’s talking about the larger philosophies that are behind making pictures; understanding them, and how they relate to what they might have been born to do. I’m not much fond of art schools, where people are often taught to think in parallel as it were — where political cant has a large place, and political correctness often holds sway. This can result in students manifesting popular schools of thought as opposed to the individuals they were born to be.
My assistants during the summer come from The Norsk Fotofagskole in Trondeheim, Norway. Five years ago I had occasion during the Nordic Light Foto Festival to review the school’s entire student body’s work during one long day. No student had work that was anything like anybody else’s! Every student was doing completely original work and all of it was extremely well-made. That’s a terrific photographic education.
That’s my ideal. I’m trying to help the students be individuals. I don’t want them to be me by any stretch of the imagination. I give a gentle hard time to those people who think they’re flattering me by resembling me.
JB: A gentle hard time? I haven’t sorted that out yet. I’m more accustomed to a hard hard time.
JS: I really believe in blowing on sparks and encouraging people. Figuring out what it is that they do well, complimenting them for it, making them feel good about themselves, and then getting in a little medicine by saying, “And you could do this even better if…” I never want to do anything but encourage students.
JB: In something like this, where the purpose of the workshop touches so closely on your own process, do you ever encourage students to photograph people with clothes on? Does it always stick to the nude?
JS: Absolutely. What I like best to do, if it’s a two day workshop, the first day we’ll shoot kids who are dressed. Working with young people obliges the students to be decent people, because kids won’t pose for them if they’re not.
Kids simply won’t accept a person who’s being mean to them, or being officious, bossy, or pushy. You’ll get nothing from them, under those circumstances.
Then, for the second day, we transition to the figure, which a lot of people come to study. I still emphasize, of course, that you need to be treating this person as a person, not a model. It’s vastly better if you accept from them what they have to give, and not tell them what to do. The set of ideas we have when we instruct a model to pose is tiny, compared to what people do naturally.
There is far more beauty in the awkward grace of a natural position than there is in any sort of Neo-Greco-Roman pose. If I never saw another one, it would be too soon. I’m sick to death of all the arms behind the head and everything. No thank you!
For a five day workshop we do two or three days of younger models followed by the days of figure models. I let the group decide on the balance of what they want to do.
JB: What about San Miguel de Allende, where the workshop is taking place? Have you been there before?
JS: I’ve taught there I think as much as a half a dozen times. It’s a terrific location. My first workshop there was a real eye-opener, and was actually my first time in Mexico. San Miguel is at altitude, and has enormous charm. As a photographer, it is a paradise of brilliant locations and amazing light.
The model population is surprising too, because they’re not the kind of over-tired, worn-out models that I sometimes associate with workshops. They tend to be relatively new to it, and quite beautiful. They’re interesting people, and the workshop students become enamored of them. They develop a relationship and of course that for me is the holy grail.
JB: I’ve been through that part of Mexico. It’s lovely. There are some cool, smaller cities around there, like Guanajuato and Queretaro. Do you get out of San Miguel at all? Are there outdoor shoots?
JS: They’re all outdoor shoots, and we go all over. We go to people’s ranches. We spend a day up at an abandoned silver mine, which is a bit higher. It’s a long trip up there, but it’s a stunning location.
We definitely get into the real Mexico doing this. It’s as rich a workshop experience as anyone could ever hope to have. At the end of the week, we are all pretty beat, because we do so much. Tired but happy.
The Santa Fe Workshops does a great final evening, where everyone’s work is seen. There are slide projections. It’s a terrific experience for people. It’s my favorite workshop that I’ve taught.
JB: That’s great to hear. I’m glad we got a chance to talk about it, as the Santa Fe Workshops are sponsoring this interview series. We all know each other here in New Mexico, and I’m a big fan of how they promote education and creative practice.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on right now?
JS: This evening I’m shooting Flore, whom I have known for more than 25 years. With her kids. So I’m doing a mother and daughter portrait there.
At a greater distance I am leaving for China in a few weeks where I have a series of museum openings of my work to attend. I then come back to Europe to print a new book of 25 years in the life of my goddaughter, Fanny, with Steidl. And then I get to finally fly home.
JB: What’s the light quality like on the Atlantic Coast this time of year?
JS: The light quality is staggering. The first time I walked onto this beach, 30 years ago, I suddenly understood the Impressionists in a new way. The light here is stupefying. It has a lot of moisture in it, and in the evening, it fluoresces. Things are lit from all directions when you’re on the beach.
Shadows have an enormous amount of information in them. The highlights are soft, with beautiful, beautiful scale. The light saturations here are just so richly appealing.
JB: Do you get to travel around and hit the museums, or do you mostly stick to your beach?
JS: I tend to be doing just one thing. I’m either with my family here, or I’m shooting. I’m also in Europe a lot during the winter. That’s when I hit museums and shows, because I’m omnivorous. I’m much more influenced by paint, in fact, than I am by photography.
I love ingesting new art. It’s one of the reasons why I love teaching so much because I see things I would never have thought to do myself. I hope that I’m learning permanently.
JB: I try to use this platform to encourage people to go look at work as much as possible. I find, anecdotally, when you talk to photographers, they often say they’re too busy. But I believe, without good input, there’s very little chance of great output.
JS: I couldn’t agree more. You are what you eat. Period.
Occasionally, I’ll teach someone over the age of 60, and they’re often a lot harder to teach. Very often, they’ve made up their minds, and they’re not taking on new ideas. Because I am 66 now, I’m terrified of that ossification.
I’m always trying to push myself, and at least once every couple of days, I’ll make a picture that breaks some or even all of the personal rules I have for making pictures. I don’t want to live in a cage of my own habit and practice. Often those experiments fail – but not always. The only truly bad picture one can take is the one that one does not take at all. We learn from all the rest.
My mother was sitting in her home, recently, minding her own business. Suddenly, she heard a loud thump, and was shaken and concerned. (Obviously.)
Mom looked out the window and saw a majestic, brown and gray raptor. It was lying on the ground, just outside. As she peeked, its last breath escaped into the atmosphere. It was beautiful, she thought. So beautiful.
Later in the day, she invited me over to see it. I arrived, and realized I was looking at a Peregrine Falcon, meant to be the fastest creature known to man. It was perfectly still, lying on the brown dirt, but flies and ants were crawling on the corpse, preparing for a large meal.
“What should we do with it,” my Mom asked?
A fair question.
Immediately, I thought of our good family friend, a Native American artist, who lived less than a mile away on the Taos Pueblo. After a brief call, she agreed to take the bird, honor its spirit, and make sure the feathers were harvested properly to be used in ceremonial attire. Problem solved.
I roughly shoveled our dead, new friend into a garbage bag, and entrusted it to my almost-six-year-old son. He was entranced, holding it carefully, and kept saying, “I like it so much. I like it so much.” He wanted to keep it, so we discussed the taxidermy process, and my belief that the bird’s soul would be sad, trapped on a shelf until we moved or died.
We delivered the cargo in short order, and were promised it would be treated with respect. My son asked for the talons, as it was clear the Falcon was now his spirit animal. (Mine used to be a coyote, then an eagle, but now it’s a snake.) Needless to say, as crazy as the two previous sentences might sound to you, out here, they’re commonplace concepts.
Our collective fascination with the religion and culture of Native America will never abate. It is a permanent fixture in global consciousness, one that enables us all to focus on the majesty that remains in a set of communities that have been ravaged beyond belief. Our collective shame, so much less pleasurable a sensation, gets buried under our obsession with magic and mystery.
Whether or not you forever brand me as a new-age hipster, I’m speaking the truth. Having been around Native American communities since I was a teen, and written my first essay excoriating US policy as a freshman in high school, I speak with confidence. The vestiges of conquest have yet to lift from the broad shoulders of Native America, and the resulting alcoholism, drug and sexual abuse, and internecine violence are max-level-tragic.
I wish things were different. Would that I could make it all better. Would that anyone could. As photographers, image makers, and media manipulators, it’s hard to imagine anyone capturing that spirit of desperation, misery, beauty, and cultural pride. Even if it could be done, would it make a difference? In an age of infinite distraction, if a tree of truth falls on a plain, will anyone be there to listen?
Fortunately, this is not a thought-experiment. Aaron Huey has put in the requisite time, and spent years among the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. You might have heard of the Pine Ridge reservation before, but you’ve never seen it like this.
The project, which has received much acclaim, is now in book form, called “Mitakuye Oyasin,” published by Radius. Like last week’s offering, this one speaks for itself. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Mr. Huey’s work on the Internet, and admired from a far. But now, I’m officially blown away.
The photographs contained within are supremely excellent, and drip with tension and emotion. It’s a big, well-crafted book, and there are many photos, (and a few inserts,) so I’ll only be able to share a small sample, unfortunately. You’ll have to buy it to get the full impact.
With my eyes closed, I can see a little girl bathing in the filthy kitchen sink, surrounded by dirty dishes, a boy playing atop a trash pile, pockmarked faces and swollen noses, and another boy, leaning out his window, talking to a friend on horseback. There was a graffiti tag that said “All my heroes killed cowboys,” or something like that. I recall a cavalcade of people carrying a fallen tree, a masked gunman, a child pressed against the rear window of an overstuffed car, and a bison in someone’s back-yard.
I’m sure I come off as an ethnocentric American, at times. (I do love this country, though I live in a spot that is far from typical.) Love it or hate it, the fact remains that this continent was stolen, and most of its inhabitants were killed. We cannot change this, so we choose to forget.
The depth of poverty experienced on many, if not all, Native American reservations in this country is a national disgrace. Can it be improved? Is there any hope at all? I don’t know.
I can tell you that if you want to see for yourself what an in-depth reality looks like, this is the book for you. That Mr. Huey is a Caucasian-American has no bearing on this story. He may have a spirit animal, as I do, or he might believe that such babble, out of the mouth of a gringo, is disrespectful and bourgeois. I have no way of knowing.
But I have come to see this weekly column as an opportunity to shine light on the best work out there. Some weeks I’m funny, and some weeks I’m not. Today, I’m just doing whatever I can, small as the gesture might be, to claw back some of our collective ignorance. No matter what you’re doing today, or how pitiful your paycheck has become, there are people out there in far worse shape than you are. And they were here first.
Bottom Line: A brilliant book that honors a culture, and exposes our national disgrace
The fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. I heard it first from the other end of the house, where the children sleep. It’s loud like a jet engine is loud: in a painful manner that will damage your hearing.
I was doped up on two Benadryl, as my allergies kicked up the other day. I never had them before last summer, but now I suffer like so many others. (From allergies, not fire alarms.)
Aggravated, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but my muddled mind was afraid the BEEEEEEEEEPING might return.
I knew there was no fear of fire; only that the tired batteries were giving way, having been changed this time last year. My anxiety crested, and then it BEEEEEEEEEEEEEPED again. Before I knew it, a door creaked in the distance, and a crying child soon crept into bed. A good night sleep was not to be had.
So I sit here, now, trying to force my brain to think properly. Deadlines wait for no man, and books need to be reviewed. After three double-espressos, I felt now was as good a time to try as any other. Forgive me if I’m less-than-profound.
Fortunately, I picked a great book up off the stack this week. It should help alleviate your concern for my lack of witty banter. “she dances on Jackson” is a lovely publication, by Vanessa Winship, recently put out my MACK. (I have a love-hate relationship with those guys. Some books are poetic and perfect, like this one, while others stretch my credulity. At least they don’t play it safe.)
The book cover depicts an image of birds and trees. The color is as close to a “Burnt Sienna” crayola crayon as I’ve seen since I was eight. It’s a beautiful color, and yet the only one we’ll see. The rest of the book is in black and white.
I must have mentioned before that I came to photography on a cross-country road trip in 1996. Does that make me a sucker for this type of work? You bet it does. But given that we all still talk about “The Americans” as if it came out last week, I’m surely not alone in this preference.
So many artists are out there at a given time, pointing cameras at anything that moves. Or doesn’t. And yet, how often do we feel that someone has actually added to our overall body of knowledge? How often do we look at a photograph and think, I’d like to meet that person and visit for a while? Surely, I’d learn more about the human condition if only we could chat for a few minutes.
These are such pictures. I loved that all specific references to place were erased. It made me curious where she’d been. At first, it seemed like a Southern-based project, with drippy trees and lots of overgrowth. But, as I turned the pages, I saw mountains, and then desert that looked like here in New Mexico. Soon, Northern cities appeared, and industry followed.
The people within are mostly young, and don’t seem to be on top of the world at present. The landscape photos, devoid of people, share that sense of worn, warm comfort. The bank-type-office built into a dirt berm was a favorite, as was the tree stump adorned with shoes, and the abandoned subway cars sitting still on overhead tracks. Your favorites, invariably, will be different.
At the end, we get a taut, brief story, in French and English, that alludes directly to the otherwise opaque title. A list of locations is also provided, ending the confusion: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. (A pretty solid sample of the US of A, IMHO.)
I’ve been to all, save Montana, hence the sense of familiarity. One photo of some cotton growing along a dirt stretch took me right back to my own big adventure, in the previous century. I remembered a day in Mississippi, and how free it felt to be so unencumbered.
Bottom Line: Excellent, poignant B&W photos across contemporary America
Tourists just love Times Square. They flock, as if someone was giving out free, all-you-can-eat ice cream. Hordes of people drive, train or fly across the country, just so they can eat in a Fridays. (Or Sbarro) Depending on your personality type, you either find that ironic and hysterical, or poetic and sad.
The reality is, most people prefer to know those things that reenforce what they already believe. It’s easier to fit new information into the tidy, empty folders of a well-organized mind. Juggling juxtaposition and hypocrisy is best left to professional bloviators like me. Most folks from the heartland, therefore, are happy to hit Times Square, take in a Broadway show, and then hop a cab back to Newark Airport.
I mention this, because I recently had occasion to view several versions of Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise over Hernandez,” which is meant to be the world’s most famous photograph. It reads differently here in New Mexico, as we locals always giggle that Mr. Adams hornswoggled everyone so thoroughly. Majestic and magical as the photo might be, it depicts the massively edgy Española Valley.
Española, or Espa, as we call it here, is among the most hardcore places in the New Mexico. It sits along an important drug trafficking route, so heroin is always a massive concern. (Probably an epidemic, but who am I to say.) Mostly, Espa is a rough, tough, La Raza-style place, filled with bumpin’ low-riders and tinted down, jacked up trucks. It’s like a mini-East LA, surrounded by mountains and desert cliffs.
As I was approaching Espa from the South last week, I noticed a billboard that almost made me laugh milk through my nose. (Which is tricky, if you’re not actually drinking milk.) Some poor sap was advertising cremation services, right next to the local movie theater. Honestly. Cremation billboards? $1200 to pre-plan the vaporization of your bodily remains?
Of course, I found it ironic and amusing. (That’s the way I roll.) Perhaps someone else would have found it tragic; that the best way to get people to engage with the inevitability of death was with a roadside advertising message. It’s possible, even, that some old lady drove by, dialed the number, and gave up her credit card info on the spot. (Operators are standing by now. Our fires are the hottest around, so you don’t have to worry about any pesky bones rattling around the urn.)
Joke all you like, Blaustein, that still doesn’t change the fact that death is sad. Right? Well, I suppose so. I’d love to say that I’m so enlightened, I’m anxiously awaiting my chance to decompose into the waiting Earth. But it’s not so. I’m hoping to get as many good years on this planet as I can. (Aren’t we all.)
What comes next is not pretty, at least for the shell that houses our soul. We might not know where our spirit is headed after we die, but there is little surprise about where the corpse goes next. Which is why it’s surprising that I’ve never seen a book like the aptly titled “post mortem,” by Patrik Budenz, recently published by Peperoni Books in Germany.
*Spoiler Alert* Don’t look at the photos below if you aren’t prepared for a little gruesomeness. After last week’s Summer Vacation column, I came at you hard this week. Mr. Budenz’s book is literal, and looks at a succession of human remains at a funeral home. (Could be multiple homes, maybe even a morgue, but does it matter?)
Gray skin, suture marks, pursed lips closed forever, toes wrinkled like they’ve been in the bath too long… it’s all here. The open chest cavity was a bit much, but mostly, the book delivers on the title’s promise. The camera even follows the corpses into the cremation chamber, which is interesting, technically, but also provides a glimpse of something we were not meant to see.
It’s a fantastic photography project, embedded in a well-made, spartan book, that basically shows us something we work really hard to avoid. That’s as good a definition of excellent art as I’m likely to muster up today, sitting on my trusty green couch. Forgive me if I’ve upset your appetite, but there is always time to get hungry again. Until there isn’t.
Bottom Line: Powerful, excellent, morbid photos of dead people
“Your sun? It’s not your sun, mate. It belongs to everyone.”
“Does it now? And will the sun come and save you when I bash
your skull in? Move your arse or you’ll find out.”
That must have happened countless times over the years,
on the endless beaches around the UK. Right? Where I grew up, on the Jersey shore, it might have gone something like this:
“Hey, asshole, you kicked sand on my blanket.”
“You heard me. You kicked some f-ckin’ sand all over my girlfriend’s towel. Clean it up.”
“Take it easy. It was an accident. Deal with it, meathead, or go back to Staten Island.”
“F-ck me? F-ck you!”
Ah, the beach. Given that we are now smack in the middle of summer, you knew I was going to pull out a beach column. Right? Last year, around this time, I reviewed a book about some blue lakes in the Czech Republic. (Summer-y, yes, but it lacked a certain sex appeal.) So let’s bring back the Summer Vacation column, but do it right this year.
Martin Parr is a photographer who’s made many a book, yet I’ve never managed to review one before. Today, that changes. “Life’s a Beach,” published by Aperture, has a pink cover, dotted with flowers and leaves. It looks like a photo album you might pick up in an overpriced grocery store on Kauai, (along with some $4 flip flops) in anticipation of all the great memories you were planning to record. (When people still did such things.)
The photos within are cheeky. Witty. Fun. Take your pick of positive, light-hearted adjectives. The images were made of and in beach cultures across the world, thereby giving us a look at the similarities and differences. (A saggy tush on the beach in Miami, a cow prowling the sand in Goa, a woman sucking down a crab claw in China, sausages on the barbie in Australia, a tuft of back hair in Spain…you get the picture.)
It wouldn’t be a Summer Vacation column if I didn’t wrap it up quickly. (Thank god, they say, as they chuckle into their Iphone screens.) Too many words and it will seem like work. So, to recap, this is a super-fun book by a photographer renown for his wit and sense of humor. It’s very cool, and if you buy it, Aperture will give you one free beach pass at Spring Lake, Point Pleasant, or some other spot on the Jersey Shore. (I just made that up.)
Bottom Line: Martin Parr at the beach. Need I say more?