Tragic, heartbreaking news from Libya that Tim Hetherington was killed and and photographers Chris Hondros and Guy Martin have severe injuries after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
I interviewed Tim just before he left for Libya for an Outside magazine piece. I hope to publish parts of our conversation soon. My prayers and thoughts go out to the photographers families and friends.
Dan: We moved in 2000. I knew going into this that there’s no market in Austin. There are a lot of photographers here…
Rob: It’s amazing how many photographers there are in and around Austin.
Dan: Yeah, we have a pretty amazing photo community here. There are ties down here, but really there’s “Texas Monthly”, that’s about it.
Rob: What’s amazing, though is the Creative Directors that came out of Texas Monthly. Fred came from there and DJ and Scott Dadich.
Dan: I was always envious of the relationship Seliger and Fred had and I had it to an extent with DJ, and we did some really good stuff together, but I never thought it matured to where we both had hit our stride. Now I feel like I’m on my game and I feel like it’s a culmination of all the stuff that preceded this. That happened when Scott and I started working together. The funny thing about Scott is how much younger he is than I. I think the first time I met him he was 23 or something, but for some reason it just gelled, and I think it was partially due to his tenacity, because some of the stuff we shot I was questioning what it was going to be like. Like that barbecue thing, it looked like an insect collection and I’d studied entomology since I was nine, even went to California State Fair and won once in high school.
Rob: Wait, you studied entomology? Ok, your style is starting to make more sense to me.
Dan: From the time I was nine until I was 18, I studied entomology under George Merriken. I wanted to be an entomologist, but realized they don’t get paid anything. I could make more money as a photographer. When George died and his wife donated his entire collection to a couple universities I flew up to California, and set up a studio in her house and documented the entire collection on 8 x 10. I shot them all the same way using a little set I built.
When I showed Scott those he called me to say, “Why don’t we do barbecue and do it like those insect collection photos.” And right from that moment I felt like we were on the same page. I really feel like I will always work with him, he’s a very close friend, he designed my book.
Getting him to design the book was a project in and of itself. He and I had started two books already, and we had one of them almost done, a black and white street photography book. So I had always said, if I get a book deal, you’re designing the book. So, I got this phone call from Aperture, and they said, “We want a book with you and we want to send some people down to your studio in Austin, what’s your schedule like?”
They have a two-year, first look deal with me and I have several books that I’ve been working on including a bee book.
Dan Winters, September 1989, New York City, photograph by Kevin Amer
Dan: I worked for Chris for exactly a year. When my year was coming up, and I said, ” two more months left.” And he’s like, “you’re really going to stop?” and I said, “yeah, I want to shoot.” The entire time I had worked for him, every weekend I was shooting at his studio because he would go to his house on the North Brook Long Island with his wife, and I would have friends come over and shoot portraits of them and do lighting. I built my portfolio while I was working for him. So when I left him, I started going to night meetings.
Rob: A year. that’s pretty fast isn’t it? Sounds like you were super ambitious
Dan: Yeah, I mean this is my life. I had that place in Little Italy for only three months, and then I found a room in Brooklyn in Park Slope. I was dying to get into the city, so I found a shit hole, we called it the hell-hole. It was this building on Lake Street and Hudson in TriBeCa, which at the time was like no man’s land. There wasn’t even a restaurant, you couldn’t do anything. You had to ride your bike over the canal to get Cuban food.
There were three of us in this place, I had one room and my darkroom was in my room and I slept on a futon so I could fold it up and shoot. I’ll never forget opening my eyes when I woke up and looking at chemistry that’s on my shelf.
Dan: This was a really interesting time. Throughout the history of magazine photography, there had been individual voices but there was more of a different schools of photography. You had the “Geographic” school, the “Life” school and the “Esquire” school of photography. So the magazines were dictating the look, to a certain extent. And photographers were really kind of like scurrying to fit in so that they could be shooting for that magazine, rather than a photographer really trying to hone his own voice and get it published.
So, in the ’80s, I feel like a lot of individualization started to happen with guys like Seliger, Chip Simons, Eisler, Karen Kuehn. Then there was Bill Duke and Matt Mahurin, who did tons of stuff for “Rolling Stone” and were really trying to really individualize. And some of it was based in technique, which I always feel like is a little bit shallow, because I think, when you rely totally on technique, if you have the waif-y, alabaster-skinned model, and you have the right background, you have the right lights, and you have the 8-by-10 Polaroid, you can make this kind of picture. But if you take any of those elements away, you don’t get that. So that’s really technique-based. It’s not like vision.
Heisler was a big influence on me. He could do anything. He was shooting still-life objects and portraits and all kinds of stuff. He did this great photo essay on the Olympics with this amazing portrait of Louganis diving off the high-dive, in infrared four-by-five. I’m like, “Oh, that’s amazing shit.” I was just like, “Wow, this is great!” So that’s where my head was. My head was in New York. My head was on this work.
I built this portfolio up and started to take my portfolio around. It was a custom box, with loose prints, all black and white. You dropped it off, you waited around, you picked it up, you took it somewhere else, because I only had one. So I went to Metropolis Magazine, the design studio that did it was Helene Silverstein and Jeff Christensen, because they didn’t have an in-house art department. They had a studio called Hello Studio, which was awesome, cause when they answered the phone they’d say, “hello studio.” Which always cracked me up.
What I’d do is I ‘d go to the newsstands, to look at magazines and figure out where my work could fit, which I think is very important for a photographer to do. So I would drop off my book. Then ride my bike over to the Cuban restaurant that I used to live at, then I went home and the red message light was beeping on my phone. I picked up the message. And it was Jeff, at Metropolis. He said, “This is Jeffery, you dropped you book off here a few hours ago, I have a couple of assignment for you.”
Dan Winters is one of the most recognizable, awarded and sought-after editorial photographers in the world. I’ve worked with him a number of times, even visited his studio in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got the chance to interview him that I fully understood what makes him tick as a photographer. I think you will really enjoy reading what he had to say.
Rob: So how are things with you? Busy as ever I’m sure.
Dan: I feel like the greatest gift I’ve had, is the fact that in 26 years, I’ve never not been busy. Honestly, I think the key to that has been, treat every assignment as if it’s your first one, you know? I think there is a misconception, especially that students have and I really make a point when I speak at schools to talk about the fact that you never really arrive. You are always working towards something but you never stop. I think there is this crazy idea that you get somewhere and then everything is cool.
Rob: OK, so can we go back to the beginning? I really want to hear how you got started in photography.
Dan: The first exposure I had to it was when I was in 4-H club, I was 9 or 10. We had an instructor who was a military photographer during Vietnam, and he was really passionate about it. He had a full darkroom set up at his house, so he headed the photography project.
Once I graduated from high school, I started going to a junior college that had and still continues to have the same instructor, John Gray, who was incredibly influential to me and several other guys like Matt Mahurin. I still go out to my old alma mater, Moorpark College, and give lectures and I talk to him all the time. He’s still a mentor. He studied under all the people who started the New Bauhaus School in Chicago. You know, Moholy-Nage and Manray, Siskind, Callahan; they were all in Chicago at the Art Institute. And John studied under them. And so, he brought that to educating which, you know, is lacking in institutions that teach photography.
So early on, I started to just devour everything I could about early photography and early processes. John’s a talented photographer but knows his life’s calling is to educate and to inspire. So when I was at Moorpark, that was huge for me. That was like, you know, the floodgates opened and it was just profound. Then I went to Munich, and went to film art school at the University of Munich film department.
Rob: Wait, why did you go study film?
Dan: I was really interested in photojournalism, and documentary photography, which was what I was doing early on. And, for some reason I wanted to study documentary film. And they had this legendary department. Herzog was on the board, and Fassbinder, at one point when he was still alive, was on the board. It was this great thing I’d read about. I’d studied German in high school and in college, and I thought it would be this great adventure. I was doing carpentry while I was going to junior college and I saved a bunch of money but school didn’t cost anything. Material cost but if you get accepted into a German school you don’t have to pay for it because tuition at state universities is free.
I actually felt what was inspirational to me about Germany was a little bit romanticized. I had this idea that I would go over to a foreign country and study. And I’d read Hemingway, and I’d read Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London” and “A Moveable Feast, ” which are about them living on nothing in a foreign city, a little bro’ thing, with them. I was doing odd jobs, and I shot some stuff for the “Deutsche Zeitung,” which is the German version of “The New York Times, ” some freelance stuff. I was hustling.
I started to realize that this has been an incredible experience, but I’ve – I don’t want to say I’ve thrown away the last year and a half of my life – but certainly I could have probably been moving in the direction that I wanted to be moving more rapidly if I hadn’t gone. But, now I look back on it, and it was invaluable to me to have that experience. I think living abroad for anybody especially Americans because you tend to grow up a little bit myopically, is a great experience. So, anyway, I didn’t finish school there. I went for about a year, a little under a year and a half, I guess. Then I came back and I got hired by a local paper. It was a 35,000 daily.
Fred & Farid ad agency in Paris has created a striking series of images featuring stunt men and women in its latest campaign for Wrangler.
The ads feature Hollywood stunt people performing daredevil acts including jumping from windows, being set on fire, and falling through panes of glass. The performances were all captured by photographer Cass Bird, and together form a striking set of advertising images.
Cass has a great sense of humor and you can see in that video why everyone loves working with her. That along with a great body of work is solid gold.
UPDATE: Four New York Times journalists missing in Libya since Tuesday were captured by forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and will be released Friday, his son, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, told Christiane Amanpour in an ABC News interview. (story here)
The New York Times is reporting that 4 of their journalists are missing in Libya. Photographers Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario along with Anthony Shadid, the Beirut bureau chief and Stephen Farrell, a reporter and videographer. Bill Keller, excutive editor of The Times says, “We have talked with officials of the Libyan government in Tripoli, and they tell us they are attempting to ascertain the whereabouts of our journalists.” You can read the story on the Media Decoder blog (here). On March 9th Tyler told the NYTimes Lens blog that he had witnessed the “thickest fighting in a single day that he has ever experienced, with the most firepower — coming and going.” That’s pretty serious coming from a man who covers conflict for a living. Hopefully they’re fine and unable to make contact temporarily and will be found soon.
Journalists, including New York Times photographers Tyler Hicks (right in glasses) and Lynsey Addario (far left), run for cover during a bombing run by Libyan government planes at a checkpoint near the oil refinery of Ras Lanuf on Friday, Mar. 11. Photo by Paul Conroy / Reuters
JB: I was in New York in June, and I had a meeting at the Whitney with a curator and I had about 15 minutes to kill, so they let me go upstairs to the exhibitions. There was one section of the Biennial that was still up, so I headed right for it.
I looked at your pictures, and it’s hard to put words to the experience. But it was a gut punch for me. I was so amazed and touched and blown away that I ended up walking out of that room sure that I had a long way to go. I was very humbled. So I went from being, not cocky, but very happy with myself to realizing how much work I needed to do in a span of 10 minutes. As an artist, and a human being, I was very inspired by what you created, and I thought that it was incredibly brave and fearless work. So the seed was planted in my mind, at that point, of what you were able to communicate.
NB: So, let me ask you a question, if you don’t mind. Clearly, people think the subjects are brave. But why did you see the photography as brave? I think this might be a very interesting path to go down in this conversation, for a moment, if you’ll go there with me.
JB: OK. Well, that’s easy for me to answer, actually, because I’ve given it a lot of thought. I put myself in the position that, what if I saw Ty, and at the time I didn’t know his name, walking down the street. And the answer is, if I saw him walking down the street, I would look away. Because, as people, we’re conditioned out of respect or shame or what-have-you, to look away when we see someone who’s been hurt like that, or altered like that. I mean, it’s hard to even come up with a verb. I would look away, and I think almost anyone would. To stare at someone like that is rude and disrespectful. So as an artist, I felt like you were pulling a complete 180, by putting me in a situation in which I was forced to look. The appropriate response when one is looking at pictures on a wall, certainly in a museum, is you’re supposed to look.
The ideas in the images are being offered up to the viewer to focus on. I felt like, immediately, you had spun a social convention in a very powerful way, and created a scenario in which I was meant to look at something and meant to see something that almost everyone prefers not to see. I thought that that was a brave idea, in and of itself. At the same time, the process of engaging with these soldiers, in a position of power with the camera, I think it’s brave to put yourself in a position where you’re going to be uncomfortable in a very edgy place. I didn’t just look at the subjects as brave, I thought the process was as well, and I felt like I a got a lot of information about your process through your pictures, because I hadn’t seen much of your work before.
JB: You don’t hear that often?
NB: I see it differently, of course. By the time I met Ty, I had been immersed for years already in photographing severely wounded veterans. I had seen very bad injuries, and had decided not to turn away from these injuries, and to try to photograph them in a way that wouldn’t so much highlight the goriness, or the gruesomeness of the physical injury, but to try to get past that and to look into the psychological and emotional makeup of the subject. So when I met Ty, even though there was a brief sort of sense of recoiling, because I hadn’t seen someone quite that bad, it blew by me really quickly, and I think that’s because I’d already been so immersed in it.
For me, if I can call the series brave at all, it’s because I took a somewhat dispassionate approach. Clearly there’s empathy there, because I’m sticking with it, and I’m looking at all of these moments, but I didn’t try to romanticize the situation, or to urge on a more beautiful look. Right? Which could easily have been done. If there’s anything that’s brave about the work, in my point of view, it would be that. It would be not falling into a trap of trying to either romanticize it or to make it more profound. The thing about the pictures that I find interesting, and I hope other people do, is that in some ways they’re quite mundane. You see these very every day moments, that are shocking maybe because…
JB: I hear you. They’re not glamorized, by any means. I understand that when we make work, when we immerse ourselves in a subject, at some point it begins to feel real and natural. I was introduced to your work through “Marine Wedding”, but now that I’ve done some research and prepared myself, I’ve seen the “Purple Hearts” work and I know that you’ve had a long history of working in dangerous places, and you’ve seen a lot. Of course that comes through in this body of work. So it makes perfect sense to me that as an artist, you would feel somewhat matter-of-fact about the situation you were in. But these pictures were decontextualized and put in the Whitney Biennial. I now know, from my research, that you were commissioned to make these photographs by People Magazine. Is that correct?
NB: The first batch, yes, which I’m sure gave a lot of high-end art people a big laugh.
JB: I would imagine. I’m wondering if the leap has ever been made before, from People to the Biennial? I’ve got to figure that you’re blazing trails on that one, wouldn’t you say?
NB: Well, I think that in some ways it shows a lack of understanding of how someone like me, who comes from an editorial tradition, works. And also how a photographers “take” and what’s published can often be very different things. Very few of my favorite photographs from the series were published editorially. I had to wait for an art exhibition to show the series in the way I wanted. To this day, editorial publications want to push the work in a direction I can’t condone. For example, I had an amazing experience recently where the “Marine Wedding” portrait was shown at the Milano Triennale with some “Purple Hearts” work and an Italian editorial publication similar in style to People wanted to do a feature with the images. I asked first to see the text that would go with it, and what they wrote was so over the top, so dripping in melodramatic fantasies, almost high camp. I couldn’t let the publication proceed and pulled the pictures. So for me going to the Whitney was great because I finally got to show the series the way I wanted, without any text, but I also went in with this uneasy feeling that some might dismiss the work because it originated at a mass market publication.
In some ways, I have a hard time talking about that aspect of it. No one quite raised it directly. In some people’s minds it sort of limits the power of the work because initially it was commissioned by such a mass-market magazine. Whereas I’ve spent my entire career taking assignments and doing with them what I wanted, and I think that I’m hired for that. I remember, when I was starting out early as a photographer, my agents would say, “Maybe you should make a portfolio that shows all of these varieties of styles, kinds of works that you can do,” and I thought, that’s the opposite way that I should go, because I can’t pretend I’m this great studio photographer, or I can’t pretend I’m this great, celebrity portrait photographer, or business photographer, so why should I even throw it out there as though I’m capable at it when I’m not terrific at it. I should just show what I think I can do that no one else can do, or no one else can do like me.
JB: It’s a great back-story and is a great lead-in to one of the things that I want to talk about. The 21st Century is a mash-up culture at this point. So many boundaries that have existed in photography and beyond are coming down or already have. And one of the things that I find interesting is that the distinctions between the terms photojournalist, editorial photographer, and artist seem somewhat arbitrary right now. I noticed that you refer to yourself as a documentary photographer. I come from an art background, so I never heard the term “personal project” until a couple of years ago (NB laughs…). Right, I laughed. I was like, “What could that possibly mean?” It sounded like a riff on something absurd, like your pet rock is your personal project.
NB: Well, you know it’s kind of funny, because I first used to describe myself as a photojournalist, but then I realized that the public’s conception of a photojournalist was a guy with 8 cameras around his neck, running, with a bandana around his neck… I was clearly not that, in any way, shape or form, and there was a hard-news vibe that went to it. This wasn’t really who I was, so I started searching for different words to label myself. Often, I just say I’m a photographer. So this idea of documentary photographer is kind of me. I don’t create scenes to photograph them. I don’t think you could call someone who does that a documentary photographer. So I just use it, but I could also use any other term. A woman with a camera, or a few cameras, or an artist, or a journalist, or whatever.
JB: So do you think that the distinctions really matter anymore?
NB: I don’t think they really matter to anyone except maybe a few collectors or gallerists, who don’t like photojournalism, or don’t like this or that. But in terms of the actual practice? It doesn’t matter to me. If you call yourself an artist, and you’re coming from a photojournalism tradition, and you start calling yourself an artist, maybe it can liberate you from some of the constraints of the tradition. But it also then makes you suspect in some of the more important values of that tradition.
JB: Like what?
NB: For instance, the famous picture from the Ty Ziegel series (Marine Wedding) is this wedding portrait. When that picture first appeared, many people thought that I had gotten a backdrop, brought them in, positioned them, taught them how to look, and took the frame. And I didn’t do any of those things. A printer of mine thought I did, and I told him, “No, I didn’t,” and he said you shouldn’t tell people you didn’t, because it’s better for them to think that you did. Does that change the meaning for some people? Working from a journalism tradition, OK, I wouldn’t do that. However, maybe once you see the potential of art, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to do that.
JB: Well, I read a piece by Paul Graham at some point in the last couple of years about the fact that in the art world, perhaps there’s a bias against taking versus making. Finding images versus constructing. I think most of these biases are outdated. And some times it takes time for people to catch up with reality. It has to do with context. That’s why I think it’s brilliant that your photos were in People and the Biennial, because the audience is so different. The way people react to images is so different. You take something and you put it on a white wall in a frame and people are going to ask questions of themselves. They’re going to try to deconstruct your methodology in a way that of course isn’t going to happen in a magazine, but that just expands the reach of the work, I think. I think it’s a credit to the work.
NB: That’s my view. For me, I’m happy to show pictures in a high school library that were hanging in the Whitney, or any other sort of high-art world. I don’t see why I should have to constrain myself to one kind of venue or another. And there are people who disagree with that, right?
JB: Sure. It’s a good point, because one of the things that I find interesting, something I talked to Phil Toledano about in the last interview is the idea of fearlessness. All people have fear and the idea of fearless, to me, is people who can understand their fear, understand preconceived limitations, and choose to shake things up. Choose to step beyond and not let fear limit their abilities or decision-making.
So I find it interesting that in looking at your biography, I saw two points in which it appears that you made big decisions that then led to major changes in your career and presumably your life. The first, when you were a print journalist and then decided to embrace photography, and the second, which I find really fascinating is that, as an established, successful professional, you applied to Jen Bekman’s Hey Hotshot competition. I know they’re decisions that were separated by decades, but I thought you might speak to what it was that made you shake things up and take chances, and how that led to the rest of your career?
NB: Those are really good questions. I grew up wanting to be a writer. It was kind of my dream. I was an early, avid almost obsessive reader and most readers want to be writers. But I also watched lots of film. Eventually, I had kind of a parallel life. Writer. Photographer. Career-wise, I went to graduate school in journalism at Columbia, which had a very limited program in photography, but they did have one and I spent most of my time on that. I got a job as a reporter out of school and I hated it, and that’s when I made the change.
I hated having people pick through my words. I did a very long, well-respected project on Vietnam vets returning to Vietnam in 1987, when the Soviets were still in power. And there were very few Americans that had gone back. I wrote it and shot it, and I liked the pictures very much. I just couldn’t stand having editors pick through my text, and it was around that time that I decided to leave the newspaper world. I figured, well, all they can do with a picture is maybe not use it, or crop it, but they can’t chop it up and spit it out. So I started freelancing as a photographer, and had this successful career shooting many different stories in different parts of the world editorially.
I applied to Hey Hotshot because once I started doing this veterans work from the Iraq War, I became completely and utterly obsessed with getting these pictures out. Nonstop. And I think a lot of that was because I had such a negative reaction from magazines early on with the work. They did not want to publish it. They didn’t see it as an interesting story. It so infuriated me on so many levels that I became a one person obsessive machine in trying to get it out. So I saw the Hey Hotshot competition, probably at 3 in the morning one night, and thought, this is easy to submit. You can only submit a couple of pictures, let me give it a go and see where it takes me.
Also, from the “Purple Hearts” work, I started having people reach out to me from different walks of life that I had never really communicated with. I developed a pretty open attitude to this. And decided, that rather than have a default reaction to scrutinize every approach that people made towards me, or take a look at every opportunity, to be very open about things and see where that goes, and not make a judgement until it’s followed through. And so on the Hotshot, I just said it’s another competition, let me put in a few pictures.
JB: It’s good to hear that, because I’ve found something similar myself, in that I try to stay open to possibilities. I read a quote recently by someone that codified it, “Always say yes,” whenever possible. Trying not to see the outcome of opportunities, but being open to possibilities can be a great strategy for transitioning and having new things come into one’s life. I talked about it explicitly in the last interview, just because the Industry itself has been shaken to it’s core in so many ways. I don’t really know that from the inside, just from reading, and from my own experiences here in Taos. But it’s nice to hear from you. So it was less about that particular opportunity (Hey Hotshot) so much as a real desire to have as many people see the work as possible and try to find what those avenues were going to be by going after all of them? Is that a fair synopsis?
NB: Exactly. I didn’t even know much about Jen, or about Hey Hotshot. Now that I’m sort of stepping back, remembering how it happened,I know this woman Swanee, Mary Virgnia Swanson who I’ve known for years through a mutual friend. And occasionally I’d go on her blog and she would let people know, there’s this competition or there’s this thing happening, so I think I found it there. But I didn’t really know much about it.
JB: It’s been a great relationship for you, working with Jen Bekman, I’d imagine?
NB: Well, Hey Hotshot led to the “Purple Hearts” show at Jen’s gallery. And that was all very spontaneous. Jen was like, “I have this space in August, and no one is slotted, and I would have wanted to show more of your work than what was up in Hotshot, so let’s do it.” So I said “OK, let’s just do it.” It was so spur-of-the-moment, last-minute, and I had these prints that were already a bit banged up, and we just put it up. And that work, for whatever reason, just blows people away, or at least it certainly did back then. It was kind of surprising and shocking. It would be nice for me to think that it speaks entirely to the strength of the pictures, but I think it speaks to the hunger people had to see some kind of authentic depiction of this war, and I don’t think people felt they were getting that from the traditional outlets. Magazines, TV, blah, blah, blah. So when they saw this work, paired with narratives from the subjects themselves, rather than it being a completely mediated experience, I think that people were kind of, “Wow. I want this. I need to see this, because I feel a little bit duped about what’s going on in the war.” That’s why I started the project, because I felt I’d been lied to.
JB: I read somewhere that you said you realized that you weren’t seeing images (of the war) and you wondered why. That was something that I wanted to ask you. Is that where your ideas often come from? From a standpoint of questioning accepted sources of information, or questioning reality, or questioning perceptions? Is that how you typically begin?
NB: Yeah, I think that my best work comes from that. And if you want to go back to the art versus journalism divide, or synergy, or whatever word you want to use, rather than saying, “I’m interested in this place, I’m just going to drop myself here and check it out.” I start from a stand point of, “I don’t understand this, or I disagree with this, or very often, I feel lied to or manipulated, so I want to investigate that.” And I think that can be an investigative photographic process, I’m not sure. But I think that’s where my best, most original work comes from.
JB: It makes sense. I culled through a lot of your projects and the parallel that I came up with, it made me think a lot about David Simon. He was a print journalist, first, as well, at the Baltimore Sun. There was one line, I think it was either in the fourth or fifth season of “The Wire,” where a character says the words, “You’re here to speak truth to power.” And I know that the term has caught on, but it’s something that I felt was a theme in your work. Given the variety of issues that you’re poking at, between Wall Street and the financial industry, and religion, and violence and war and sexism. You used the term investigative. Is that something that you agree with? That you’re trying to speak truth to power?
NB: Yeah. I think I’m definitely a political animal. I actually worked as a political organizer for a few years in my 20’s, when I lived in Chicago. I definitely see the role of a member of society as ultimately a very political one. You lead a political life, whether you think you are or not. Either by your action or inaction. I definitely hope that my themes and images come from some conversation with political power, and with the power of ideologies. I think a lot of my work has to do with ideology and belief systems. How these are mapped onto people. In the case of the soldiers, physically mapped onto people, through war. The “Homeland” work is very much a look at ideology and spectacle and manipulation and American mythologies, and ideas of security and all the rest. So that is a component in my work, and actually, right now, I’m in this kind of limbo, because the Obama victory threw me for a bit of a loop. Not that I feel as though America has changed radically under Obama, but I had such great material to pull from in the Bush years. I had very clear personal reactions to things.
JB: That was very clear to me. The folks at photo-eye in Santa Fe actually lent me a copy of “Homeland,” so I got to look at the book itself. And far be it for me to be critical, but that was the only work that felt different to me. It felt, especially when I looked at the piece that you wrote, and dated it as 2001-8…I almost felt like it was a personal response from you to George W. Like a reactive agenda. And I liked the work a lot, because I thought it was funny, ironic and surreal. So much of the other work that I saw is very, very serious, as well it should be, but I liked the humor and the irony, and yet it felt like a very different tone. I felt like, rather than your typical, dispassionate style, you experimented with something new that came from a place of anger or challenge. But then it opened up humor and absurdity, which I found very interesting.
NB: Yeah, I think that the “Homeland” stuff is closest to who I am. And I was doing that and the soldier work simultaneously, and they’re like two sides of the coin. I’d started the “Homeland” work first, and then when the war came about, I stopped it for a while, because I didn’t want the humor. I wanted something totally serious, and very personal.
JB: Well, you accomplished it. The serious work is very touching, but the absurdity…it felt different. I enjoyed seeing the perspective. The lack of nuance felt very different. I could feel the judgement, but at the same time, the pictures are straight. And it’s not like you were creating these scenarios. Why on Earth did the lady at the Church in C-Springs put on a burqa? I have to ask. That was Ted Haggard’s church, right? New Life?
NB: (laughing) Yeah, yeah.
JB: I drove through the Springs on Sunday, and that place is strange. I’ll go on record, that place is really strange. But you were there…
NB: You know, it’s funny you say that because I was there twice, and I kept saying to myself…I mean, I kind of liked it. And I said to myself that if I lived in Colorado Springs, I’d probably be a member of the Church. I mean, it’s absolutely true. All of these trips through these Mega-Churches, I kept thinking to myself, “When am I going to walk down that aisle and give myself up to Jesus Christ?”
JB: That’s awesome. I’m sorry, that’s awesome.
NB: No, it’s totally true.
JB: I believe you. I do.
NB: No, the pictures may have this detached, sharply analytical feel…
JB: They do.
NB: However, the compulsion…I mean, I keep going in there. Absolutely, just completely mesmerized by people who have faith. I’m actually trying to continue this work in April in a new place I’ve discovered. I want to know how people can believe so strongly in something. I just don’t get it myself, so I’m always looking to see, and that runs through my work. But the burkah, so what happened was, and it was totally by luck, it wasn’t planned out, it happened to be missionary day at the Church. So you had all through the lobby of the Church, people dressed up in the outfits from countries they hoped to evangelize. So there was a teenager in a burqa serving peanuts, and you had people dressed as Saudis…
JB: You can’t make that up.
NB: No, you can’t make that up. They even had a camel. And I never made a great picture of the camel. They had a camel with the mountains, and a guy with a cowboy hat on, and it was just so whacked. And sometimes, I’m so overcome by how amazing the thing is that I’m looking at that I screw up the picture. To be honest. I’m like, “Whoa, man,” and forget to make a really stunning picture.
JB: Well, that’s just a part of living life, right?
NB: Yes, a part of living life, but the New Life Church is incredible.
JB: With respect to the book, there are so many photographers out there obsessed with books that I have to bring it up. I got to look at the book, and the printing was really, really saturated. The colors were really saturated to the point that the they were flattening out, and it felt like it was pushing towards a hyper-real aesthetic. And I read in the back of the book that you used the term, “state-sponsored performance art,” so my first thought with a production like that is that I’m going to assume it was intentional. That the color palette, that sense of hyper-real and surreal, was matching up with that concept that you had of “state-sponsored performance art.” Is that correct? Is it safe to assume that it wasn’t a function of the printing?
NB: Oh, no. It wasn’t a function of the printing. The project started with shooting 50 and 100 ASA Fujichrome, slightly under-exposed, with external flash. So they were boom-boom, saturated pictures from the get-go. And it was the colors that I saw. The aesthetic began with a picture I shot on Fifth Avenue, with the Columbus Day Parade in October 2001. The bombing of Afghanistan had just begun, and there was the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York. So I went to check it out, feeling like it was in bad taste, but also curious to see if it had more of a militarized feel to it. They had laid this red carpet out, for people to march past at the reviewing stand. So because of the sun that day, and the weather, for me it seemed so surreal, and I made series of pictures of these shadows, and it felt very much like a mechanized, almost Soviet look. It was that image that led me to this kind of aesthetic on how to shoot this project. And wherever I’d go, you’d see these colors. I’d go to Florida and you’d see a blue sky and a bright sun, and I’d just latch on to these colors.
And then I started lighting these things, because the way it transpired, is that I would go to these security events, and search for a moment of truth within these events. Like, where is this narrative going in these events I was watching, and often, I couldn’t really look at them seriously, because some of them, in my view, were so absurd. So I saw them as almost advertising, and started to light some of the scenes. Not with lots of assistants and lots of lights, but one or two external strobes on a stand. And I had this idea to shoot it more like a commercial look, with very saturated colors.
JB: I imagined, looking at the pictures, that there had to be added light, and it works. It’s a great look. And again, holding the book was nice, because I could see the through line. On the NOOR site (her agency), they break the project down into different bits, but seeing it cohesively, I took note of the themes, how you move from the terrorist prep to the megachurches to the war games, the kids with guns, the SWAT camp, the border photos, I could just feel you moving through these themes of the Bush era. It seems like a nice, book-ended view of a certain aspect of American culture in a very edgy time.
NB: In a very particular time. And I think if I were to go back and try to revisit these places, and revisit some of these scenes now, I would probably shoot it differently. It would probably appear to me quite differently. There would be a few more cracks in the seams. Maybe less ironic and more pathetic.
JB: A lot of the work that you do, and I don’t want this word to have a negative connotation, but there are a lot of bleak photographs, and a lot of the misery of the human condition and the social condition. So the “Homeland” set of images was so poppy and surreal, and funny and absurd, it definitely seemed like you were expressing a different part of your psyche.
NB: Actually, the book, to be quite honest, it started out as another incarnation that started in the 90’s and ended in 2002-3. I had a dummy for this book and for many years, I’ve sort of explored these frenzied subcultures of consumer society and mixed that with the political. So I had this dummy, and it was all kind of shot in this style, and I liked it, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. And then when 9/11 happened, and I started seeing it taken to a whole new level. So I threw out all the stuff, pre-9/11, and began anew. I actually had an exhibition, in Perpignan, in 1997, of the early foundations of this work, and Photo District News also did a fairly sizable feature about my work, and about the exhibition at the time. I haven’t put the stuff up on my website, mainly because I still haven’t scanned much of my analog images. But perhaps one day I will.
JB: It’s a nice point to make, because, on the subject of taking risks, I try to be as ruthless as I can when I’m editing, because I think the difference between a good image, a very good image, and THE image is pretty sizable. The difference between good and very good is not that wide, but the difference between very good and great is vast, so the fact that you tore it down and built it up again to get it right is something that people will have interest in hearing about.
There are a couple of other points that I want to touch on, because in one, I’m personally curious, and in the other, the timing of global events is such that I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk to you about it. I know from your history that you’ve taken photographs in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and you’ve traveled in some pretty dangerous places. The idea of fearlessness was as much metaphorical as anything, but given the opportunity to talk about it literally, I want to ask…Do you feel like the phenomenon we’ve been seeing of journalists and photojournalists being attacked and killed in the line of duty, doing the job, certainly it’s been getting a lot of attention in the last few years. Is that something that you feel was always a really dire risk? Or do you think that we’re living in a time in which the rules have changed?
NB: Oh, I think the rules have changed a lot. I think journalists are at far greater risk because information moves so quickly. Because things are so much more interconnected. I think journalists are frequently targets now, as opposed to maybe just innocent bystanders in a dangerous place.
JB: So when you say the speed of information, you mean that the act of the information getting published or put out into the world means that the people being written about have the time to react in “real-time?” Their identity as a journalist and the source of the story becomes obvious, and then they can be put in harms way? So that’s the impact of the Internet?
NB: Well, a picture can very quickly have a huge life, whereas in the past, it was contained and confined to particular countries. For instance, if you’d photographed the secret police in Tehran killing people, if you’re able to make this picture, and put it on the Internet, it becomes an international issue. It can affect sanctions, it can affect all of these things. It doesn’t go away when the magazine is thrown in the garbage. So for governments and powerful institutions that have a lot at stake, it’s the messenger who’s the dangerous person.
JB: So journalists become a far bigger threat to power.
NB: Journalists are a big threat. And I think that what you saw in Egypt, with all of the equipment being confiscated, it was flash cards. “Give me your flash cards.” That’s what was happening. I’m with NOOR images, where there’s some very brave, heavy-duty, conflict photographers in this agency, and one of our photographers who was there, his whole day’s work was gone because it was confiscated. And then you’ve had situations of people being attacked this is going to happen more and more. What you’re going to find is journalists figuring out strategies. Different kind of strategies to either conceal their gear, or work more with I-phones, or things like this.
JB: Well, we all know that the power of information has grown exponentially because the Internet is really the perfect information dissemination vehicle. So you’re saying with the growth in the power of information, there’s a commensurate growth in the power of the journalist, of the person reporting that information. And therefore, the risk undertaken in doing that job is exponentially higher.
NB: Yeah, I think so. I don’t see myself in the same category. When I did work in Bosnia and Afghanistan, even though it was during times of war, I was never what’s known as a “bang-bang” shooter. Where I’m looking at the moment of super high drama and conflict, I’m always more on the edges and the aftermath, looking at how the civilian population is affected. So the stories come from a different place. I never thought I would be very good at that kind of hard-core combat photography.
JB: You’ve been so generous with your time. There’s one last question I’d like to ask, if you don’t mind. There are certain symbolic benchmarks in a career that I think have an almost mythic sense of power. Within the art and photo world, the show you were just in, the Whitney Biennial, is one of those events that can set off a chain reaction, where the world is your oyster. Since it just happened to you, has it been all that and more, or is it just another step in a life?
NB: I’m not sure if all creative people struggle with this, I suspect not, but sometimes I have a difficult time taking myself seriously. As seriously as maybe I should.
JB: But the work is so serious. That’s the last thing I would have expected you to say.
NB: The work is so serious, but that’s different. So let me finish what I’m talking about. It comes, from a place of insecurity and also a bit of impatience and nervous agitation. For instance, there are people who do a body of work and then step back and very intelligently, calculatingly assess its trajectory. Where they want it. Who they want to see it. How they want to get it out. And move through that list. That’s not me. And I think that that kind of organization and singularity of purpose speaks to a person who takes themselves and the work seriously, and has a tremendous amount of ambition.
I really like taking pictures. I like being in the moment, doing it. I like exploring it, I like looking at the pictures. I don’t like all the other stuff. I’m not this person who’s like, “Man, I’m going to this gallery, and then move on up the rung to that one. And I’m going to this museum, and then I’m going to move to that one.” That’s not me. I kind of wish I had a bit more of that career shaping shark in me, but it’s not who I am, and I suspect it will never be who I am. So the Whitney moment, as I think it’s called, was not something I sought. I was enormously pleased at the respect they paid the work: the curators, and the institution. And the fact that people were really, really moved by it. The room was very busy, and people wanted to see it, and went back to see it.
Has it made the world my oyster, in the sense that I have no financial difficulties, or I can do any project I want, or I have all of these amazing offers just dropping in my lap every day? No. It has not done that for me. Has it opened some doors? I think. I think, also, that the effect of the Biennial will be something maybe felt for quite a while, for me. It has given me a bit more confidence in the choices I’ve made and what I do. And so for all of those reasons, it was a beautiful experience.
My work is still very difficult to look at. It’s very political work. If you look at what’s in museums these days, in the art world these days, it is not of such a direct political nature. At least, I haven’t found it.
JB: One of the things I find very interesting about your response is that you talked very specifically about who you are, and your way in the world, and the way you relate to the world. To me, a large part of the process as an artist is learning more about oneself and developing a sense of self-criticality. But also understanding one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses. It sounds like you’re keepin’ it real, and as such, it led to these outcomes because you’re doing what you need to do, from a sense of passion and mission. The idea of mission came to me a few times as I was looking at your work. That’s there is a sense of mission and purpose. And I would agree with you that that is lacking in much of contemporary art, perhaps to the detriment of art viewers. But I think people probably responded to your work to the degree they did because there is a hunger for experiences that push people out of their comfort zone, and that share powerful information that is not easily accessible.
NB: I think that’s true. I say I’m a political person, and that my work is political, although I’m not saying what that politics is. I’m just saying that it lives in a political world. Or it can live in a political world, if people want to take it that way. However, I think one of the strengths of both the “Marine Wedding” pictures and the “Purple Hearts” pictures is you don’t know where I’m coming from in the political spectrum. I present the work at many different kinds of venues, some of them military venues, some of them not. People, early on, wanted to know what my personal politics were regarding the war. And I wouldn’t tell them, and I’m still very reluctant to share that because I feel as though it will destroy the pictures. Because then, whatever people are feeling about the pictures, as they consider the pictures, they can say, “Oh, well, I’m just being manipulated one way or another, because this is really her intention.”
So I learned a very good lesson, and I learned this lesson not because somebody told me to do this, or because I learned it from people before me. I learned it the best way, which is through my own experience. And so when I started this work, I had certain ideas of course, and then when I met the soldiers, all my ideas just exploded. I didn’t know where I was, or what kind of ground I was standing on, and where this project was going. I was open to everything. I think that not forcing a partisan point of view, in the pictures, makes them much more volatile to look at, and much more interesting to look at.
PDN’s annual “30 photographers to watch” is now live on their site. Always a favorite of mine because of the high quality and there are inevitably people who’s work I’m unfamiliar with. For the photographers on the list it’s a good opportunity to get some exposure and do a little marketing. Congratulations to this years class:
Prime Collective is a brand new photographic cooperative that I stumbled upon recently. I like the idea of photographers banding together and Luceo Images has proven that it can work well for marketing and potentially for business as well. They’ve got a nice professional group site set up and I know photo editors will like the one stop shopping of it all. With all the social networking that needs to happen and the potential to use twitter, facebook and blogging to market yourself it makes a lot of sense to me to share those tasks among a group of photographers. Good luck to Prime.
Prime is a photographic cooperative founded in 2011. Our six founding members – Dominic Bracco II, Melanie Burford, Brendan Hoffman, Charlie Mahoney, Lance Rosenfield, and Max Whittaker – are united by our firm belief in the power of the image, the importance of pursuing self-directed projects and stories we believe in, and our commitment to journalistic integrity. By working in cooperation, we hope to further several goals: to reinforce the importance of, and market for, photography; to use economies of scale to increase the financial viability of our own careers; and to share information and motivation between ourselves to constantly improve our photographic abilities.
We are devoted to the idea that while truth is not absolute, experience never total, and perception invariably colors reality, the world can be most universally understood and related through images. By applying our own studied judgment, we believe that we can produce narratives that shine a light on the human condition. We may further human understanding, though it is just as likely that the stories we produce will serve only to highlight the complexities of mankind. Either way, we hope our work enriches the lives of our viewers, our subjects, and ourselves.
JB: I wanted to talk to you because I’m interested in looking at photographers who innovate by connecting their work to their ideas to their style to their individuality to their fearlessness. And that doesn’t happen by accident. I believe individuality is the key to our future success.
PT: I couldn’t agree with you more. The only thing that makes us different is the quality of our ideas or the individuality of our ideas.
JB: There are so many people who are afraid right now, who’ve seen their incomes evaporate, who’ve seen their lifestyles evaporate. I’ve read, but could not of course substantiate, that there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of working photographers who’ve lost their livings. I talked to a lot of people this Fall and I solicited a lot of opinions and people heaped them upon me and there is so much fear right now. I don’t know if people have caught their breath coming into the New Year or not or if people are buying cameras again, but clearly we’re living through, and have lived through, a fairly unique time, in which the radical shift was so great that people were just adrift. And watching one’s livelihood disappear is not something I would wish on anybody. So, lets talk about fearlessness. To me, it’s not that people don’t have fear, the people that we might call “Fearless,” it’s more that they’re willing to acknowledge the fear, talk to it, understand it, and then surmount it.
PT: Or you could just be idiotic enough…
Actually, this is interesting, because I’m working on a project right now and I think about this all the time. What drives me to be an artist, to make the work I do and I think that a large part of being an artist is being delusional. You have to be totally delusional and slightly narcissistic. You have to be delusional to think that you’re going to think up stuff and people are going to be interested in it.
JB: Well, I wouldn’t use that word, delusional, personally.
PT: I use it for me.
JB: I would say “ego.” Clearly, it has to be there. Anyone who, chooses to take it out of the shoebox and put it on the wall, and say, yeah, you ought to look at that, there’s a confidence and an ego, and perhaps a sense of delusion.
PT: The parallel I draw is it’s like being a dictator. You’re an artistic dictator. You create ideas, you create themes, you create concepts. You create this world, and then you have to populate that world with believers. Much like a dictator does. For me, it’s delusion, because you have to believe, you have to delude yourself into believing that what you’re saying is of importance, not only to you because you’re interested in it, but it’s of interest to the world at large. That, for me, is delusional because I don’t have any fucking idea if people are interested in what I have to say. I’m interested, and I’m just going to assume that somehow, other people will be interested. That may not happen.
JB: But you don’t make it for your audience, you make it for yourself.
PT: You’re right, but for me, part of being an artist is understanding that at some point, there’s going to be an audience. I’m not interested in doing stuff only for myself, if it would end up only in my closet. I have to make the art that I make, but the second part of the equation is that there are going to be people who want to look at it. For me, I’ve always wanted to do stuff that speaks to people, that addresses issues, that talks about the world we live in, that makes people feel things. I remember saying, even when I was a kid, that if I could just make stuff that made people think differently about stuff, then I would feel happy.
JB: I read that and I’d like to dig a little deeper into it. What I’m curious about, is the decision that you made and correct me if I’m wrong, but you worked in advertising as an art director/creative director for about a decade, right?
JB: One can imagine that you were well compensated. It’s not a chump change industry. I don’t need to see your bank book, but can we assume that it was at least somewhat lucrative in a way that it created a lifestyle for you?
PT: Yes, a lot more lucrative than being a photographer.
JB: Well, that didn’t just happen by accident.
PT: Fuck, you’re making like 200, 300, $400,000 a year when you’re doing that. Here’s what drove me out of that. I realized that I had, at best, a mediocre career in advertising. And I wasn’t interested in that idea. I think about that a lot, particularly in light of my parents dying, that we only have one go at the whole thing. You’ve just got to lunge at whatever it is that you think you might be good at. If it doesn’t work out… I mean it’s sad, because as you get older, you realize that everything is a cliché, and that all the clichés are true.
JB: Thank you, because there’s my money quote. That’s what I wanted to hear you say. That’s what I’ve come to believe myself. And the more I’ve embraced the idea of risk-taking, and having confidence in my own ability, and digging deeper into what I need to know about myself, it has translated into people taking notice.
PT: It’s a good question, man. Here’s the thing. I remember, when I started being a photographer, I remember thinking this very clearly, I was going to put together a portfolio of stuff that interested me and only me, and if people were interested in it, then that would be some kind of divine sign that I was on to something. I talk to people all the time, particularly when I go and talk to students, and it’s amazing to me how many kids and people feel that they have to create work… they’ll look at the market and create work that fits for that market, and I think that’s a terrible, terrible mistake. And what happens then is what you just said, hundreds of thousands of people lose their job. Because what happens is they’re not being original thinkers, they’re just providing content that already exists in a slightly different form. You can’t do that.
JB: Well, certainly not anymore, no…
PT: I don’t think you can ever do that, if you want to be…well, I guess it depends on what you want to be. For me, I just like to make art, so…even if you want to be a photographer that’s surprising and have a long career, you have to have something new, you’ve got to say something new, and it can’t be a technique, it can’t be cross-processing or desaturation, or whatever the fuck it is. You know what I mean? It has to be something inside your noggin. It has to be an interesting idea.
That’s my advice. Do exactly the thing you want to do. It’s really hard, to separate yourself from the gravitational pull of the norm, and the gravitational pull of what sells. For me, that’s the only way that you’re ever going to be successful.
JB: OK, but when I look at your work sequentially, on Mr. Toledano, with “Bankrupt” and the early work, I see work that is really stylish and graphically interesting, but I didn’t see a lot of YOU. I didn’t see a lot of soul or emotion or personality, I saw, “Hey, this looks like art and the subject matters are interesting.” I mean, empty buildings sure, but I didn’t see you… they’re very commercial. And then, all of a sudden, we hit the thing that everyone wants to talk about, the “Days with my Father” project, and it’s like, BOOM. GUT PUNCH. THERE HE IS. There was something in the early pictures that was lacking. To me, pictures can’t be visceral, can’t communicate emotion if they’re not embedded with emotion.
Days With My Father
PT: It’s interesting, I was talking about that yesterday, with a friend of mine. I think, certainly, that since “Days with my Father,”… well, you see all of those ideas, like “Bankrupt”, or video gamers, you’re right in the sense that there’s not a lot of me in them, but it’s a cerebral kind of me. There are different volumes of Phil, so there are ideas that I find really intellectually interesting, and there are things that are like, my soul, nakedly exposed, right? Like “Days with my Father,” or “America, the Gift Shop” is also very me. I mean, did you see that project? (An installation series that showed at Hous Projects in NYC)
JB: Yeah, I saw the pictures of it, sure.
PT: That’s also very me. They’re all aspects of me, it’s just that it depends on what you respond to as a person. Some people find the intellectual aspect more interesting than the emotional aspect.
JB: What I respond to and what I consider the best work is that which marries both. There was a lack of humanism in the early pictures. In the Gamers I thought the pictures were kind of cruel. You’re looking down on these people, literally, and they look really bad. They’re unflattering photographs, and of course I understand the idea, and I don’t want to nitpick here, because they were nice pictures. The difference is, and this comes back to fearlessness, that you made a decision, as an artist, to take a big risk and you decided to bring yourself, your family and your life into the work. I’m a big fan of the plastic surgery photos, “A New Kind of Beauty.” I saw them in Fraction, and I love them. To me, they’re a marriage of the idea and the execution. There is a humanism in the way you’re relating to these people, a dignity that is there, despite the fact that there is an overt sense of criticality for the phenomenon. There’s restraint.
A New Kind Of Beauty
PT: I would say, there’s never been any sense of trying to criticize what’s happening. I’m just interested in what’s happening, and the direction we’re going as a race, evolutionarily speaking. Look, you can’t look at that work and not expect people to feel emotion or repugnance. That’s not my intention at all. I just want to make that clear. It’s too easy to criticize that stuff in the same way that with the “Phonesex” work it would have been to easy to make that a joke.
JB: Of course. But you can’t fake dignity.
PT: I’m with you on that.
JB: Most people are going to say, “Hey, look at the freaks.”
JB: And you know that, but you didn’t. And to me, that’s why the work is great. So what I’m suggesting is that in looking at the trajectory of the work, what I saw was there was a moment in which you decided to take a chance as an artist.
PT: I don’t think you’re wrong on that. I mean,”A New Kind of Beauty,” was done as the same time as the stuff with my Father.
JB: They were concurrent? I didn’t know that.
PT: Yeah, they’re very connected really. Because in those pictures with my Dad, I was essentially waiting for him to die and I was thinking about mortality all the time. And so of course I started thinking about ‘What is plastic surgery if not the denial of death and aging?’ And then I started thinking about evolution, and where we’re going as a human race, and the things we’re doing to ourselves.
JB: Let me come back to that. I’m hoping with this conversation that we can encourage a bunch of people to figure out how connect to their inner abilities, to their inner risk-taking, so that they can shift. What happens in recessions, the end result of shakeouts like this is that people lose their jobs, they lose their livelihoods, and then out of necessity, out of desperation, they scratch their heads and say, OK, I’ve got no choice, there’s no job being offered to me, how can I make a job, what am I good at, what do I care about, where is my passion?
PT: You know what I say to that, man, is you make a job by surprising people. I know that sounds simplistic, but ultimately, the reason, that “Days with my Father” and “A New Kind of Beauty” are interesting to people is that they’re surprising. They happen to relate to people in a particular way that I never thought they would. It’s originality that surprises people. The last four projects were totally inward facing, and are much more interesting for me to do.
JB: What I saw was a guy who’s making interesting enough pictures with smart ideas and then all of a sudden, they became great. That’s part of an evolution as an artist and as a person. But when I went into the backstory, I saw that you had in fact been in the advertising industry, you knew it in and out, and the fact that the work was graphic and somewhat easy. It almost seemed to me that you were doing what you knew how to do, making it look good, and then you committed to the process, you had that ah, ha moment where it just kicked into gear, and it’s all came together.
PT: What you were saying about the pictures being graphic and all that stuff doesn’t have anything to do with advertising, ever since I was 12 or 13, I’ve been taking black and white photographs of buildings. They were very graphic, and very architectural and that’s all I took pictures of. I was just obsessed with that for 15 years. I never liked pictures of people because I found them uninteresting. And, generally speaking, I still find that without an umbrella idea over a portrait series, I don’t find it that fascinating. That’s why “Phonesex” is interesting to me, because they’re phonesex operators, or people who’ve had plastic surgery. But I’ve never been very interested in random portraits of people, you know, like the old guy with the wrinkly face, and it’s black and white, super contrast.
Beauty is not enough for me it’s interesting for 10 minutes and I need more than that. If those pictures of my father were not a whole body of work and part of a thing I wanted to do to remember my Dad, to say goodbye in my own way, it would not be so fascinating.
JB: Of course. It’s about ideas. Let’s shift gears for a minute. You just showed these photographs, “A New Kind of Beauty,” at Klompching and you had a solo show in New York for the Fall season and you actually debuted the work on the Internet. You have just lived through what is the lifetime goal for many people. I can’t speak for everybody, but if you ask many, many photographers, the idea of the big, gleaming, New York City solo show, in the Fall season, is it. And clearly, though, for you it isn’t it, because your life didn’t end. You didn’t punch the clock and say, “All right. I’m out. I’m going to Tahiti, bitches. WooHoo.”
PT: I’ll just order some fucking donuts, watch TV, I’m done.
JB: Let’s talk about how your vision and your goals evolve when you’ve done something grand like “Days with my Father.” I’ve heard the number 1 million people? Right?
PT: A million and a half, actually.
JB: A million and a half? Well, Mazel Tov. OK. Now, I read a lot of your interviews, and you’re constantly defending the idea of intuitive. You’re like, “Don’t roll your eyes, but, it’s intuitive.” Or, “I know this sounds silly, but…I made something that spoke to people.” And then I read something where you said, “I want to get people thinking. I want to impact culture in a mass way.”
PT: But I haven’t done any of that.
JB: That’s where I’m headed. So I want to know how you want to use this platform, what do you think of the artist’s responsibility and ability to enact change? What aspect of culture would you want to change?
PT: I might be naive, or I might have misconstrued the idea of art, but I always assumed the idea of art was to make the world better and to be an accessible, interesting thing for everyone. Exactly why a project like “Days with my Father,” had a million and a half people look at it, and the reason why it turned into a book, and the reason why it’s going to be a movie now, which is kind of insane…
JB: Oh my god. A movie? Am I breaking that? Is that an exclusive?
PT: You can break that.
JB: Well, I think your work reached an incredibly cohesive and gorgeous level when you allowed the humanism and optimism in, and it married with the conceptualism. So how can you encourage others. Do you even have to? Is your story enough? Will people say, what can I make work about that matters?
PT: Listen, there’s two different things. It’s tough. I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, about the first half of my work versus the second. When I first did Bankrupt, I really thought that work mattered. What those pictures were supposed to be talking about were the human cost of economic collapse, and I thought they were portraits of people without the people in them. But I understand the the emotional reaction to them is going to be totally different from the emotional reaction to “Days with my Father.” Or the series about my kid, or the plastic surgery stuff. You know, for me, I feel like I’m not going far enough out. I think to myself, I am just so reigned in. I am just not far enough out. I’m not on the edge enough. I’m not pushing myself far enough. I’m constrained in my work. But I have made some progress. It’s all about releasing. And that’s why the delusional part is so important, because you just can’t give a shit. The moment you start caring, that’s when your work gets shit. Caring about other people. Caring about the reaction. Any of that stuff.
JB: But almost everybody in the world cares deeply about what other people think of them.
PT: Yeah, but that’s the problem, because I care enormously. My wife is always abusing me, because if someone writes something good about my work, I’ll read it and re-read it, because it makes me feel great. If some geezer in Shanghai who I’ve never met likes my pictures, fantastic. But at the same time, I’m incredibly driven to do work that I’m interested in, even though I feel like I don’t make work that sells very much. I mean, plastic surgery, it’s very hard to buy that work and the stuff with my father, it sold very well as a book, but as a gallery show that’s very hard to buy. And the project I’m just about to finish, the stuff about self-delusion, nobody’s going to buy that fucking stuff. It’s all oil paintings and bronze sculpture.
JB: It’s interesting. I don’t exactly know where to go with that, because I’ve said some things critical of the gallery industry in New York, despite the fact that like anybody else, I’d love to have the work on the wall. I’m no hippocrite… we like the white walls, we like the acclaim, we want the respect, but we want the income as well. It’s a hard mix. The commodification versus the purity of the ideas and the objects. I’ve got a heap of questions about that. I know Rob’s audience skews heavily towards working, commercial photographers. I’m curious about how you balance the two.
PT: The commercial work is not that different from my art. In the sense that they’re all ideas. It’s like I said before, it’s just a question of volume. Doing editorial work is fantastic, because it’s kind of like going to the gym. I’m exercising my mind. There are doors that have been opened to me into subject matter and thoughts that I might not have had if someone hadn’t said, “Hey, can you just take a picture of this thing for us.” It’s interesting. Like that plastic surgery thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I shot a photograph of a guy who’d had a lot of work done for a magazine in England. And when I took his picture, I thought, Fuck, this is fascinating, I’m really mesmerized. I find the editorial stuff really valuable, because it keeps me alive, in a way.
PT: No, I’m talking mentally, but yes, also financially. But mentally it does too.
JB: I don’t know that we can do justice to it at this point, but the competing motivations of having to pay bills and commodify our ideas, versus trying to get them out there in the purest way possible as art…
PT: But I don’t think they’re competing. I think that’s where the problem lies. I think that’s where people make mistakes. The only reason I have any career in editorial at all is because when magazines see that I can conceptualize stuff in a very peculiar kind of way, and that’s a very valuable commodity. But that’s exactly the way my art is. The root of what I do is exactly the same. It’s just the way it manifests itself, whether it’s art or editorial may be slightly different, but the root is the same. I think that’s the problem. People feel that their art and their commercial stuff should be different. I think they should be the same. And when you make that realization, then you can be successful, I think.
JB: I noticed that both the “Bankrupt” and “Hope and Fear” projects were both used as advertising campaigns. Right?
PT: No. What has happened with my art is that often agencies will say, “Well, that would be a good ad campaign.” So for “Bankrupt,” people had me shoot stuff that was like it. Or with the “Hope and Fear” stuff, it’s not that they used those particular images for advertising, but they were inspired by that stuff to do ads that were similar to the work.
JB: I think it’s interesting how the two do dance back and forth.
JB: I’m interested in the evolution of your work, because I saw the switch get flipped. When I looked at the “Hope and Fear” work, and to and extent the “America’s Gift Shop” work, the symbology was just very direct and very simple. And to me, I think ambiguity is a really important part of great work.
PT: I’ve always said that I always want everything to be like an unfinished sentence, and yet when I look at a lot of my work, it’s just all very straight forward. Like this new project, do you know who Kim Jong-Il is?
JB: Did you say who I think you said?
JB: Our dear leader? Don’t we all know who he is?
PT: Well, I’m doing a project called “Kim Jong-Phil.” It’s also straightforward. (PT now sends me a photo from the project via Skype.)
That was a revelation for me, was this parallel between artistic self-delusion and narcissism, and how a dictator is fueled by the same kinds of desires and urges. So what I did was I found paintings and murals from North Korea, photographs of them, and I had them copied in China into 30×40 oil paintings, and they replaced the dear leader with me. So this is a project about me, again, because since “Days with my Father,” everything has been inward facing. Did you see that? (the photo he sent.)
JB: Yeah, I got it.
PT: So there’s a whole series of these oil paintings, and also bronze sculptures of other assorted dictators. What do you think of that thing?
JB: It’s pretty funny. So it’s going to be shown as a painting, right?
PT: Yeah, they’re all paintings.
JB: It’s actually a nice little opportunity for a segue. I think it’s clear that for the folks in this industry who are going to rebuild things, that clicking a shutter, only by itself, is not enough for most people. That there has to be some sense of being capable or literate in multiple media, or combining knowledge bases into the photography. Video is the obvious connection for a lot of people, but I think that a lot of people are going to have to figure out where their talents lie beyond just clicking the shutte,r so that it can become a gestalt thing with other abilities. You are already working, as an artist, with sculpture and installation and painting. As an artist, how would you suggest people surmount the fear of not knowing what to do? Do you have any ideas on that?
PT: It all comes back to the same thing, man, which is listening to yourself. The reason why I make things like sculpture or painting or have other people make them for “America the Gift Shop” is that I’ve always said that the idea determines the execution. And I really believe that. So those ideas were better as oil paintings or sculpture. Actually, I’ve got to send you one of the sculptures, because they’re mental. Hold on…(PT sends me another photo.)
JB: There it is. Time travel now exists for information. You just clicked a button, and here it is. And I’m 2000 miles away. That’s instantaneous. (Laughs.) It is interesting. I think that by working so much, it brings out different sides of yourself. There’s obviously a humor and a directness in some things that are obviously a part of you, and then there’s the subtlety and the emotionality and the ideas. I’m a big fan of Caravaggio, and I spent a lot of time in Rome at one point and got to live with the work directly…you use the word restraint before, and I used that word in my notes before, because as over the top as “A New Kind of Beauty,” is, there is a kind of restraint. You’re using chiaroscuro properly, and that’s what makes the photos as great as they are. They should be better than what you did ten years ago. We won’t always get it right, but if we aren’t growing then what the fuck are we doing?
PT: That’s exactly right. But you talk about this fear thing, and what should people do, and I think, you can’t say “Don’t be afraid,” because that doesn’t work. No one’s not afraid.
JB: I think we all have fear.
PT: You have to just say “Fuck it.” That’s the best advice I can give to people is to just say “Fuck it.” Just do the thing you want to do. If you want to take pictures of your balls, then take pictures of your balls. I’m serious. I know that’s not the kind of advice that Rob can probably publish, or you can write, but I really mean it. Because the world is composed of millions of people always telling you things you can’t do or shouldn’t do. There’s always a reason “why not” for everything. So that’s why I find this Kim Jong-Phil thing so resonant with me as a person, is because I spent my entire life being a pathological contrarian. It’s a reflex, it’s in who I am. I have to do the thing that I want to do. I just have to do it. And the more people tell me I shouldn’t do it, the more I want to do it. The more wrong it seems like it might be, the more I’m interested in it. So that’s the thing. People don’t do stuff because fear is immobility. So you just have to be moving at all times. Which is why I’m terrified right now because I have no projects in front of me. “Kim Jong Phil” is done, “A New Kind of Beauty” is done, “The Reluctant Father” is kind of done, so I have nothing in front of me so that terrifies me because I feel like I’m going to start slowing down and I’m going to sink to the seabed.
JB: Well we both know we never make our best work in our comfort zone, so it sounds to me like you just figured out what you need to do, which is to dive into that. If your biggest fear is not working on something, then there you go.
PT: I know, you’ve got to be reckless, because that’s the only way that all that interesting shit happens. I see stuff online all the time, and think, “Why didn’t I think of that.” I think the best ideas are the ones that are right in front of you. The most obvious things are the most interesting, most of the time. I have a secret formula, which won’t be a secret any longer when I tell you, which is that stupidity and genius are neighbors. So you can do an idea that is so fucking stupid that it’s genius.
Last month I had the pleasure of joining friend and fellow photographer Jonathan Blaustein on a tour of the Chelsea gallery scene as he conducted research for an APE article, which can be read in its entirety (here). We decided to stop by Aperture and wandered into their back room where, tucked into what was essentially a chink in the wall, several photographs by the controversial Jock Sturges were on display. Before I had my own children I never cared much about him one way or the other, but now his images struck me as distressingly sexualized and, frankly, unsettling. Jonathan puts it best in his piece when he says that: “even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo.”
I didn’t trust the work at face value, and I wanted to examine why: I began thinking in particular about the delicate relationship between creator and subject when a certain intimacy is involved; the questions brought about by the dissemination of such work in the internet age; and the fact that Sturges’ models are almost uniformly beautiful, raising issues about preoccupations with appearance. I soon discovered that my uneasy feelings were not groundless: I found Sturges to be strangely silent on the topic of how he feels his work functions in a contemporary setting, and I learned that he had at one point had an affair with an underage girl, making the question of age and beauty that much more suspect.
So with all that in mind I’ll throw out the following question: is it fair to expect any artist to recontextualize his or her work if the original frames of reference have changed due to technological advances and/or societal shifts? Is it fair to take into account an artist’s persona in general and, if there is a model involved, the specificities of the artist/subject relationship? Certainly images must first be viewed on their own merit, but after we have detached ourselves from preconceived notions about the meaning of the work based on the fame or notoriety (or lack thereof) of the maker and the particulars of place and time in which the work was made, there is always an underlying context. Ultimately art does not exist in a vacuum, otherwise typing “Shakespeare biography” into the search bar on Amazon would not return thousands of results.
Sturges is a photographer who is nothing if not notorious. Rather than join the already beaten-to-death dispute over whether his work is art or pornography or neither, I’ll try my best to stick to the issues noted above and ask again, as it pertains to Sturges individually, whether it matters that when he began exhibiting in the early 1990s, his pictures of preadolescent and teenaged girls would almost exclusively be seen by a selective crowd. Those who wished to view his images had to seek out gallery exhibitions or purchase one of his books or prints, which created a controlled system of distribution. Today things are very different, as we all know—any image that is put online will be around the world and back in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
According to Sturges, the dignity of his models is his highest priority, and part of his way of preventing them from potentially feeling debased has been to give them final say over where their likenesses will end up, ad infinitum. In a 1994 interview he stated: “It’s not inconceivable that at some point in the future [the models] might decide that these pictures embarrass them; the control, the power to decide whether that happens or not, shouldn’t be mine—it should be the kids’, and that’s where it stays. It creates a very complex life for me, I promise you. When I want to use a picture in a book, I have got to call foreign countries, find people, explain the context.”
That is all well and good, but the establishment of the internet has fundamentally changed the conversation. The discussions we are having in 2010 are not the same ones we were having in 1994, and the idea of jurisdiction over one’s likeness is now a fallacy. (Quick note: Aperture itself does not show the photographs I saw in its gallery online, requiring any interested party to email them directly, but a quick internet search easily found pictures of the girl shown in the images elsewhere.) If a child grows up and decides she is uncomfortable with naked photographs of herself being shown it is already too late—her request exists in an entirely different world. If Sturges’ definition of dignity is synonymous with control, then dignity is stripped every time that girl’s image is propagated on websites far and wide, and once out there, there’s no taking it back. Despite much searching, I couldn’t find any reference by Sturges himself to a change of attitude in how he views the circulation of his images in the 21st century versus the 20th.
Then there is the question of recontextualization. While search returns for Sturges mostly directed me to fine art websites, inevitably there was some usage on erotica blogs and alongside pop-up ads for teen chat rooms and the like; a handful had once been displayed on actual pornography sites but had since been removed. Whether due to copyright infringement or because Sturges is being careful to try to keep his images out of such places is unclear, but this detail is at least heartening. Still, I would surmise that there are doubtless more than a few instances of his work appearing uncredited on pornography sites, particularly since, chillingly, they would be categorized as pedophilia which—being illegal—is underground. Should Sturges be concerned about this? I believe so, or I believe he should at least engage in a dialog about all of the facets of internet use. And yet he seems determined to stick firmly to platitudes about nudists’ lack of shame, about people’s general prudishness, and about how, while there may be some who will look at his work and have “impure thoughts” (his term), there are also people out there who, quote, “buy shoe ads, Saran Wrap, and all manner of things who have impure thoughts. I can’t really do anything about those people.”
What he fails to address is the fact that shame or not, “impure thoughts” or not, any young model Sturges photographs should be aware of where her likeness might end up. There is a difference between someone looking at a picture in a “neutral” environment versus on a site amidst images whose sole purpose is to arouse. Whether the responsibility ultimately falls firmly on the shoulders of an offending viewer is somewhat beside the point—yes, one can’t control every off-the-books (mis)use of one’s images, but in Sturges’ case it’s inescapable that the scope of the misuse is potentially wide. I can’t help but wonder if a 10 or 11-year-old girl, no matter how emotionally mature, can fully grasp all of the issues involved.
Interestingly, in 2006 Sturges became a member of the site photo.net and soon after was (in my opinion, respectfully) asked by the administrator to remove images of anyone under 18. Here is his response: “Well, I will pack up and go. I am an all-or-nothing sort as I never censor my work in any part myself nor condone others doing so on my behalf. Your rules are what they are I suppose. I was naive in imaging [sic] that my work which is published and available world wide would not be problematic in your forum. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it would be. Silly of me. I leave with regret because I love writing about photography…So it goes.” When some commenters then raised the issue of context he never responded.
More than once Sturges refers to the naïveté expressed above—here is another quote from his 1994 interview: “I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that…It never occurred to me that anybody could find anything about that perverse. It was a total surprise to me, which is obviously evidence of my having been pretty profoundly naive about the American context. But over the course of my life I’ve spent so much time in this context that I’d forgotten that Homo sapiens isn’t always like that, which is indeed naive of me. I’m guilty of extraordinary naiveté, I suppose. But it’s a naiveté that I really don’t want to abandon, not even now.” He truly seems not to have abandoned said naïveté, given that 16 years after the previous paragraph was spoken he was on photo.net stating anew that it had never occurred to him that his images might be deemed problematic. Again, I am not speaking about people placing their own analyses onto his pictures, but rather am attempting to draw attention to Sturges’ personal reaction to the questions surrounding his work.
In my opinion it feels somewhat disingenuous for Sturges to cite his astonishment over the reception of his photographs in light of his own past predilections, which brings me around to the tricky matter of whether an artist’s history and persona should have any bearing on the interpretation of his or her work. In 1998 it was revealed—through the release of a semi-autobiographical film by a woman named Jennifer Montgomery called “Art for Teachers of Children”—that she and Sturges had had an affair when she was 14 and he was 28. Admittedly, we can dig through practically anyone’s past and turn up plenty of dirty laundry, but Sturges’ liaison with a minor applies so specifically to the nucleus of his continuing thematic motifs that for him to claim he is surprised when people view the children in his images through a primarily sexual lens seems suspect. I believe it is pertinent to mention that his current wife was also once one of his models, whom he began photographing when she was 11.
If we wish to hear Sturges defend his actions regarding his relationship with Montgomery there’s not much to go on—the only reference I could find was the following, from a 1998 LA Times article: “I’m not a philanderer. I’ve had four relationships in my life. That’s it. Period. She was the second. And it was at a point in time when I was getting divorced from my wife. I was vulnerable and making bad decisions. That’s obviously embarrassing now, but in light of my regard for her intelligence and the stature of her intellect—I’m human.” I would say that whether he’s had four relationships or forty is beside the point, the fundamental issue being Montgomery’s age at the time of the affair. Regardless, gleaning solid factual information via the internet is admittedly risky business (I can practically hear the stampeding horses of angry commenters approaching) so I won’t claim to know for certain what did or did not happen and instead say this: in the many hours spent researching this article and mulling over Sturges’ words I have come away with the overall impression that he does not fully address the scope and breadth of the origins of, and reaction to, his work.
In particular, he fails to acknowledge that the societal structures that exist alongside his imagery might be something other than simply “repressive” or overly politically correct. Putting the blame back onto society is an easy way out, akin to ending a heated argument with a defiant “it’s a free country.” Tellingly, his exchanges about certain issues—such as Puritanical attitudes, American prudishness, and how the people pointing fingers should look back at themselves—are vehement and precise, e.g., “if you read sexuality into my pictures, beyond what’s inherent to a human being, then the work is acting as a Rorschach, and you’re evincing sexual immaturity or sexual malaise in your own life. I have to tell you, I am sometimes deeply suspicious of the sexual mental health of some of the people who point their wavering fingers at the morality, the art, of others.”
In contrast, his opinions about other areas just mentioned (the internet, his sexual past, the fact that not all of clothed society is necessarily inhibited) are generalized or nonexistent. In examining the following quote, which is the closest he really comes to delving into the controversy, I find him to be rather vague: “As soon as somebody says that you might be x, you have to immediately say, ‘Oh no, I’m y,’ even if in fact the truth is probably somewhere in the middle…[I’ve had] to pretend to be something that, quite frankly, I’m probably not, which is a lily-white, absolutely artistically pure human being. In fact, I don’t believe I’m guilty of any crimes, but I’ve always been drawn to and fascinated by physical, sexual, and psychological change, and there’s an erotic aspect to that. It would be disingenuous of me to say there wasn’t. There it is; so what? That fascination pervades the species from the beginning of time; people just admit to it to varying degrees.” I’m sure given how often he has had to defend his methods over the years he is loath to delve too deeply into multilayered philosophical discussions about his themes, but if he wants to rail against the established system, he must also take into account all facets of that system without for the most part dismissing it outright or accusing his viewers of sexual immaturity when they dare question his work.
Larry Towell seems to be the perfect candidate for a kickstarter project. As a highly regarded photographer with a track record of producing excellent work and well crafted books it would be a no-brainer for one of his legions of fans to advance him $250 for signed copies of two of his books or $350 for a limited edition 4.5×5 Mennonite print or $500 for an 8 x 10 from the current Afghanistan project or $1000 for an 11 x 14 plus a copy of the book with your name listed as a sponsor.
But, Larry’s a little off-the-back on cultivating his online audience. Currently and traditionally, the book publishers, galleries and magazines hold all the names, addresses, phone numbers and emails for the people who love his work and want to know when he does something new. The new way of doing business is that you keep those lists and collect those names by setting up a blog, facebook, twitter and email subscription accounts. That way your fans can find out when you’ve got something exciting cooking like this. Larry does have a facebook account (here) with 845 people on it and who knows how many are true fans but following the 1000 true fans rule, he would only need them to each pledge $12 to reach his $12,000 goal.
I think this is the business model for these types of projects because as Larry says “since the traditional venues for funding photojournalism have disappeared, I am appealing to you for help.” And, we only need to look to fellow Magnum photographer Alec Soth who is the gold standard for alerting your audience to your activities with his old blog and new Little Brown Mushroom Blog where books he publishes for sale are quickly sold out.
[I swear this is my last kickstarter post… these things come in 3’s]
Assessing the field of photography is as self selecting as measuring the unemployment rate. Only those actively looking for work are included in unemployment statistics, and those who’ve given up aren’t counted. The fine art photo world operates in a similar way. It’s very good at monitoring the progress of motivated self-promoters, but that is only one piece of the puzzle. Quietly obsessive folks like Vivian Maier are not included in the equation.
While the basic outline of her life life is now fairly well established, Maier still remains something of a mystery. For me the most intriguing questions center on her photographic skill. How did she gain such a sharp eye? What training did she have? Which photographers or photographs did she come in contact with? Who if anyone helped her develop? Or was she a pure autodidact?
There’s also a kickstarter for a feature length doc:
Surf photographer Jeff Flindt shows us what its like to be in the thick of it. Just like Capa said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough” which has nothing to do with proximity and everything to do with connecting with your subject.