-THE MEDIUM HAS BECOME SO DISPERSED THROUGHOUT THE CULTURE.
Photography, asa term, may no longer be adequate; it represents a tradition that artists came from and not necessarily where they operate today. There are pictures of nearly everything now - on our cell phones, in surveillance, on Facebook pages. We have a great affection for photography, but do we really know what photography is at this juncture? For this special 30th anniversary issue, spot writers interviewed experts in the field- internationally known curators and photographers - about core issues facing the medium. Anne Tucker, Clint Willour, Richard Misrach, MANUAL (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom), and Sally Gall discuss technology that gives photographers increasing control over their images. What exchanges are occurring between photographic images and other areas of culture? What have been the turning points throughout the past three decades? Is HCP typical of other member and artist based organizations that formed in the early 1980s and were they successful? How has their relevance changed over the years, from maverick groups to more educational resources and cultural centers? Photography no longer only documents our reality but also, for many, creates our reality. We rely on photographic imagery to delineate the parameters of our lives. The interviews aim to engage and provoke as they consider the boundaries that have shifted amongst these changes.
Thirty years ago, the audience looking at or discussing photographs was relatively small - a minor tributary navigated by few has become a powerful current in the art world's mainstream. What are the paradigm shifts in this hyper-post-everything 21st century? With the rise of digital photography has there been a certain loss of the real, or lost illusions of the real? Throughout each interview, Tucker, Willour, Misrach, MANUAL, and Gall investigate the significance and infinite potential of new tools. Are there distinct styles and movements? How have exhibitions altered the way we look at photographs and how has our experience changed? The shifts in lens based media remind us that photography is constantly evolving. The curators and artists included in this 30th anniversary issue speak candidly about a medium in transition and how that medium is transmitted. From their earliest encounters in the darkroom to the most recent Photoshop experiences, all of them have been sustained by the rich aesthetic properties and intellectual challenges of photography.
Anne Wilkes Tucker received undergraduate degrees from Randolph Macon Woman's College, Lynchberg, Virginia, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, and a Graduate Degree from the Visual Studies Workshop, a division of the State University of New York. After working in various museums and universities, she joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 1976 and is currently the Gus and Lyndell Wortham Curator of Photography. She founded the museum's photography department, which now has a collection of over 25,000 photographs. She has curated over forty exhibitions, most accompanied by a publication. Recently, she collaborated with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art on the exhibition and publication of Chaotic Harmony: Contemporary Korean Photography. She has contributed essays to numerous monographs and catalogues, and has published many articles. She has lectured throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment of the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Getty Center. In 2001, in an issue dedicated to "America's Best," Time magazine honored her as "America's Best Curator." She was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Focus Award from the Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, Massachusetts, in 2006.
Susie Kalil: HCP is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, which is a good turnaround time for most things - a time to develop a new audience. How long does it take to get a perspective on images? What has been the turning point in the past thirty years? Why was HCP organized? Is it typical of those cluster organizations in the early 1980s and were they successful? How has its relevance changed over the years?
Anne Tucker: Some museums, primarily the Museum of Modern Art, the Met, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, began to collect photographs before World War II, but really photography came into its own as an art form in the 1970s. There were galleries devoted to photography. There were auctions. A number of museums began to collect photographs, including this museum (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) in 1975. There were publications. Aperture was the granddaddy - not only were there photography publications, but the art magazines began to cover issues of photography - so that the 1970s was when photography burst forward. At that time in Houston, during the 1970s and early 80s, Rice University already had a department of photography, and the department was formed at the University of Houston. Cronin Gallery moved here; Mancini Gallery opened in 1986; FotoFest started and HCP was founded when Cronin Gallery closed. There was a direct relationship. The other big thing that happened during the 1970s was the founding of all the major artist run organizations across the country - HCP, DiverseWorks and Lawndale were all part of that movement. A city needs a place where there is rapid turnaround, where artists can see their works on the wall, new projects can get up. There's not this three or four year delay that occurs with most museums -especially in Houston, since the number of contemporary galleries that we have is relatively small. Where does HCP come into all of this? That's the challenge - we don't have a strong conceptual base in this city, except maybe in the Core program. Neither Rice, nor U of H, nor TSU have produced a lot of conceptual artists - those studying with Ed (Hill) and Suzanne (Bloom) have more of a digital, conceptual base. So HCP has to respond to its community and what's being made out there. HCP has to have educational programs to get funding, but it's still showing people who haven't otherwise exhibited in this city. It's still trying to develop shows of local and regional people, national and international artists.
SK: In many ways, we're just now making sense of the medium and that decade. What are the paradigm shifts that you're seeing in recent work?
AT: Let's fast-forward thirty years. The biggest change is digital. And digital has had many effects. One is that to some extent a large portion of photography has been unhinged from any obligation to reality, to the physical world. Mom and Pop know that they can change a photograph and they can do their own changing of the photograph with Photoshop in their own computers. So, whether a photograph is "manipulated" is no longer discussed by anybody but the news. It's still an issue for the journalists. But other than even ask what manipulative production has gone on - and there could be so many stages -a photographer could take something with film, feed it into the computer, change it, maybe change it back to film and make a traditional print, or make a digital print, or make an inkjet print. We don't even know what the stages are any more. The other thing that happened with digital is size. Whereas photographs were 11x14 or 16x20, 20x24, now young artists will start out giving you a 30x40, then 40x50 and then something larger. And so many major artists now just have photography as one of their tools. The good news and the bad news is that photography has been completely incorporated into the art world. So it no longer has a distinct divinity - it depends upon whether John Baldessari is using it or Cindy Sherman is using it or Alfredo Jaar or somebody else.
SK: It's an interesting time in photography right now. In many ways, it's become like painting with no distinct movements or styles. I see riffs coming from the New Topographics, the New Color Photography - some of the painting profs tell me that their grad students want the quick fix. They don't want to absorb all of the sources and predecessors.
AT: Well, there are distinct movements and styles. There are styles that are associated with schools, especially the women students coming out of Yale. You can sort of spot what I call the Yale girls - not all, but many - especially those working in portraiture. The school coming out of CalArts is not as strong as it used to be, since John Baldessari is no longer on campus. But there is still a West Coast versus and East Coast kind of aesthetic.
SK: And how would you define that - with Baldessari, it was a conceptual based aesthetic.
AT: There is still conceptual art coming out of California. There is still a very strong landscape component in photography coming out of schools in Arizona and New Mexico. It is certainly not the Ansel Adams dramatic beautiful beauty - that's out.
SK: Who are the students looking at then?
AT: They are looking at Mark Klett, who is very conceptual - for decades, he has re-photographed famous sites of 19th century photographers and recently began to put into his contemporary photographs the actual images of the earlier photographers. The fascination with the American West - Richard Misrach, of course - is very powerful within that tradition. The number of people photographing along the border right now - David Taylor, Victoria Sambunaris who did this series on the railroads of the West - so there's still a very strong landscape component. The number of artists looking back into the past and building pieces based on a kind of theory or philosophy that comes out of past times is there. So, there are styles and there are schools. You mentioned that they aren't interested in their precedents. There's that great Carrie Fisher quote that "instant gratification isn't fast enough."
SK: I've been hearing of a Post-Appropriation group of photographers lately - but are they taking from their childhoods, or going back to the Pictures Generation?
AT: Well, you've got several things going on - you've got people who are dealing with the virtual world, like we have downstairs at the museum (MFAH) - a young man, Joel Lederer, who is literally photographing the landscapes in the digital program Second Life. He is making photographs digitally of this virtual world, of things that only exist in Second Life. There are people who are dealing with Twitter. There's a GPS in most people's cell phones and if somebody Tweets a photograph, they can get back to the place where that person was standing when the photograph was made. So the photographers (Nate Larsen and Marni Shindelman) are documenting the location from which the Tweet was sent and putting that message on the photographic print. A lot of the young photographers are addressing the barrier between what is a virtual world and what is a real world. The barrier is dissolving, because it isn't a real division for them.
SK: And that's the generational shift.
AT: An earlier generation's reality was in television. Now their heads are in these virtual existences - whether it's Tweeting with their friends, or getting into places like Second Life, or blogs, or anything else. There is no separation - the virtual is real to them.
SK: With the rise of digital photography, has there been a certain loss of the real or even lost illusions of the real? It seems in that shift, there are no seams, no rupture - rather, the digital is an aesthetic of smoothness and erasure.
AT: What I'm saying is that, for them, there is no either/or; there is no real versus virtual. It certainly consumes as much of their time. If people are going to be nostalgic about a place, they can be as nostalgic about the time they spent with their head in some virtual place as we could be about childhood homes. It is real to them. It is how their day is passed. So that's where their attention is in terms of expression. Now, the number of them who are making intelligent use of that is something else.
SK: So with the pervasive use of iPhones, is everyone a photographer?
AT: Well, yes - everyone with an iPhone is a photographer, but whether we care about them or not, beyond their family and friends, is a whole other thing. Whatever craft we are using has to be intelligent and it has to be a fresh and engaging use of that craft. As usual, only a handful are doing that.
SK: Do you think there are still some photographers in lock-in mode, still attached to the darkroom? Or are we going to see black and white, gelatin silver photographs only occasionally?
AT: Those prints aren't being made. It's not a choice the photographers are making. They can't get the materials - Kodak doesn't make dye transfer anymore. And I have to go with the stream that is flowing - it's wasted time to be sad about something that isn't going to happen again. Some photographers bought a lot of paper just before it ceased to be made; another group bought the formula for making a particular kind of photographic paper and hired a man out of retirement to make that paper for them. Others, like Richard Misrach, after thirty, almost forty years of working with traditional materials, switched to digital because that's where it's going. Even Irving Penn, the great master of the platinum print, was making archival ink jet prints before he died. So it's the way the medium is going. If you're smart, you figure out how to use it to your means.
SK: Is the realism of images - the mercurial reality they depict - a debate that we always need to explore in this hyper-post everything 21st century? We've come to see the world as photography. It no longer documents our reality, so much as it creates our reality. We live for and in photo opportunities -entertainment, news, surveillance. We depend upon photographic imagery to delineate the parameters of our lives.
Recently, in a talk at the MFAH with Richard Misrach, you brought up the fact that if you don't know the event, the photograph has a different meaning.
AT: Have we come to see the world as photography? That is just too broad a question. What I was talking about is that for some the images in their head from camera/TV/virtual world/magazines have become as real as the images of the world we used to think of as "real." Some can have feelings for fictional characters/places/ events, stronger than for actual people/places/events. Evidence of that are the thousands of people who go to the corn field at which Field of Dreams was filmed. So they are making a pilgrimage to a real place because of fictional events. And how "real" is a teenager performing for the cell phone or the camera on the computer to be seen on Facebook. We may not see the world as photography, but we may confuse the images that come through lenses as being "the world." It's always been true -whether your work is straight photography, or whether it is an invented, staged or manipulated reality - if you are making references and your audience doesn't know the references, they won't get the work. I was talking to a professor the other day who said all of his students were eleven when the World Trade Towers attack happened. So the events of 9/11 didn't really impact their lives when it happened - they were too young to fully grasp what had occurred. They knew their parents were upset, but the whole idea of death and destruction and the shock of it, of America being attacked, was not part of any grasp of reality. When you're eleven, what's the difference in seeing a plane flying into a building and that building collapsing on TV, and going to a movie and seeing the same thing. When you're eleven, you can't separate the two - they're both imagery - you can't place the significance of the fact that one of them actually existed and one was a Hollywood creation.
SK: So how do we sort through all of this when there's no difference between the real and the virtual?
AT: You have to take it case by case, which we always have. How consistently has the artist maintained this idea? Is there a body of work here? Is it thin? Or is it rich? Have they made the right decision in terms of the craft they are using? Just like there's been a huge difference in people in their darkroom prints, there's a huge difference in people in their capacity to make prints digitally. And some of them make terrible prints -their ideas don't come through because they're whacked by this unappealing object they've created. I say unappealing object, but you do have to be careful - there's a fascinating show right now at the Modern on photography and sculpture (The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, organized by Roxana Marcoci, curator of photography, MoMA). "Photographs of sculpture" used to be perceived as someone photographing a beautiful object and making a beautiful object. For instance, they photographed a Gothic cathedral and made a beautiful platinum or albumen print of it, so the photograph became a beautiful object. There are almost no beautiful objects in Roxana's show. It is a show about conceptual approaches and really moves into the world of ideas, not so hinged to the fact that the idea has to morph outward as something that is aesthetically appealing in a traditional way. She found in history the photographs that existed but that we didn't traditionally put in the category, because we had very specific ideas what the category was about. The categories, the paradigms, are changing. Portraiture has changed into issues of identity. Landscape has changed into issues of the environment and borders. Architecture has changed into city issues. Roxana has completely busted open the paradigm, the perception of what photographs of sculpture might be and are. That's happening throughout the field.
SK: What exchanges are occurring between photographic images and other areas of culture? How should photography be treated now? Lewis Baltz says that photography needs to be seen in a broader social and cultural context.
AT: In that realm, there are still hundreds of people who are working photojournalists. These are very smart people who still care about the camera as a way to bring the world together in images, and they risk their lives, lose their lives photographing wars, tsunamis, and cholera so that we can know what is physically happening in the real politic of the world. Then you get artists like JR, the young man who just won the TED award - he puts giant murals across slums in Brazil, Cambodia, Kenya. You get people who are using photographs in installations in a much more dramatic way. Installation art involving photography is not new, but it's the scale with which he's bringing to the outside. Another thing that digital is allowing is multiplicity. A major paradigm shift in documentary is where the photographer used to be confined within the two page spread mentality. We (MFAH) will be exhibiting in two years a 30 foot mural that James Nachtwey has put together of 60 images of an operating room in Iraq. And you will walk along 30 feet of these very intense, multiple views of operations on soldiers in Iraq. It is so much more powerful than a two-page spread could possibly be. These will be juxtaposed across the room from W. Eugene Smith's Country Doctor series, which was shown in Life at the height of the magazine in the 1950s. So we're setting up this shift -both of them happen to be photographing medical events, but opening up greater possibilities now, given the technology. The Smith/Nachtwey exhibition will be on display at the same time as the exhibition WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Photographs of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath. That show will take viewers through the experience of war as perceived by photographers. The sections of the show start with instigation and training, and go through battles, battlefield death, destruction of property, and all the rest. You will have an intense experience of war. I want people to come away with more respect for the photographers, who are some of the most informed, passionate, and interesting people I've met in a long time.
SK: With this kind of shift, how have exhibitions changed the way we look at photographs? People have always been able to receive information if it's packaged and labeled for them, but with the shifting boundaries comes a different viewing experience.
AT: It is a different viewing experience -the big change is with so many multiple sources, we're not all getting uniform baselines. In the era of Life magazine, there were three TV channels and a couple of dozen magazines - and now there are 300 channels? 500 channels? Plus whatever you get on the Internet - there are quick changes, where a generation will know only that which interests their generation. It's harder and harder to assume what your audience knows. The thing about photography that is so affected by these rapid changes is the references, what you can assume people know in the references and whether or not those references are necessary for experiencing the art.
SK: What do the younger art historians or young photographers see when they look at the work of Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, or Garry Winogrand?
AT: That's the point at which people circle out of the history when they don't speak to the next generation and other people who might have been neglected get rediscovered because they have something to say that speaks to people now. We simply can't project. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can know what will be meaningful for future generations. That's one of the things about being an older curator trying to look at contemporary art. I'm not watching the same television shows - I don't watch television at all any more. I'm not listening to the same music. I'm not reading the same novelists, so my references that input them are totally different. Ryan McGinley - we acquired his work early only because somebody in New York who I trust called me and said this kid was going to take off. I responded to it, but I couldn't tell you all the rap music he was listening to or anything else. It's different.
SK: Which photographers working now will one day go down as great? And what does that mean? Maybe our idea of greatness isn't relative any more.
AT: Well, I think greatness has to do with whether they keep working, whether they have influenced other people, whether the course of the medium has shifted because of their engagement. Richard Misrach is phenomenal because basically, since the late 70s, he never stopped working. And not only has he not stopped working, but we are still interested in the new work. Many artists have a ten year period in which their art is really right-on with the times. And then they may keep working, but their art doesn't seem to operate on the same plane as the art in that initial ten year period. And sometimes that early work - what they do in that period and how it affects the medium - is enough. When I'm looking at young artists, somebody like Simon Norfolk or Catherine Wagner, who we bought very early - and having watched them decade after decade make art that engages us to look at something differently, to respond to it - that's what we're after.
SK: Is it possible to experience radical breaks in photography right now? One of the criticisms of the last Whitney Biennial was its focus on neo-academic art that rendered everything visually passionless.
AT: One of the things that I thought was fascinating is that two of the photographers in the Whitney had happened to be journalists, one of whom was Nina Berman, who I've been working with recently. The curators picked Nina's work off the web and they never saw a print until she delivered her prints to the Whitney, which shocks me about their lack of understanding, their assumption that something which looks vivid on the web is going to look vivid as a print. They had no sense of the scale of her art.
SK: What does that say about the direction of photography? Where is it going? For much of its history, of course, photography was an object of modest size. Now that intimate scale has been overturned - not only from taking something off the web, but something wall-bound.
AT: Well, as I say to young photographers, they're welcome to make all the 40x50 prints they want to, but until they prove themselves as an artist, I'm not investing in it. Because when something is in a modest-size box, I can buy it and if it doesn't last the test of time, that's one thing. But once something has to be hung on a vertical rack, that's "real estate". The bigger the art, the fewer risks we will take in acquiring it for the museum. It becomes like a large scale painting and takes a lot of commitment from the institution to maintain it. I think photographers need to be careful how many collectors and museums have room for these pictures, particularly if they're color and supposed to be in cold storage. Along with that, you can Photoshop an image and can change whole color systems, but you better know what you're doing. All too often, you can just spot the Photoshop - it looks and feels artificial, and to what point? Being able to do it doesn't mean you should do it - a lot of people aren't doing it well.
SK: In terms of underknown artists, who are you looking at right now?
AT: We've always tried to find people before they were famous, partly because we never had that much money to spend. We're looking at Latin America; and, of course, with Yasu on staff (Yasufumi Nakamori, MFAH assistant curator of photography), he'll be focusing on Asian photography in general as well as contemporary photography. I'm looking at people who have bodies of work - Lauren Greenfield has been working on the West Coast photographing kids of wealth, kids of poverty, kids with issues such as anorexia.
SK: You were talking about the women photographers out of Yale who are doing portraits. How do you see portraiture changing?
AT: One of the things about portraiture over the last two years is that it has shifted away from where the viewer is supposed to think that the subject is looking at them. They are more private moments, more introspective moments. The poster image for the Latin American show currently at the museum, by the Argentinean photographer Res with the woman looking down, for example. There are large color pictures where the people are life size but they're not looking at us and not engaged with us. There is no emotional stake or any identifiable emotion that is a part of the image - a kind of emotional in-betweenness. In the photograph by Barbara Probst downstairs by the cafeteria, three different cameras went off simultaneously and showed three women from three different perspectives. I think her point of view is to remind us that at any one instant when a picture is taken there are at least two other instances possible that are different. Portraiture has shifted from what it used to be – there’s a lot of self-portraiture. It’s a subject they’re comfortable with and they know; it doesn’t cost them anything and they don’t have to get outside their milieu to engage with it. What they’re
saying is, there is no “truth.” It’s not about some kind of definitive perception. They don’t presume – we can never really know a person. Maybe they’re saying all we can know is the visage itself.
In Houston, there are a handful of people who have shaped and defined the world of photography for many years. I recently had occasion to sit down for a talk about photography and the art world with Clint Willour, the long time-curator behind the Galveston Arts Center and a major benefactor of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston photography department. For years, Clint has been a true activist in collecting and promoting the art of photography. Clint has always been known for being a person of strong opinions and clear ideas on what it is that makes a photograph a piece of fine art worthy of being in a museum collection, over being stuffed into a shoe box. During my conversation with Clint, it became clear that just as HCP's policies and views of photography have developed and changed over time, modern technology and taste have also pushed the boundaries of photography. The misty black and white silver gelatin image as being the definition of fine art photography, is long over. -RR
Robert Rosenberg: What was the first photograph you bought as a collector?
Clint Willour: It was a photo of two drag queens in New Orleans during Mardi Gras by a photographer from Houston who is mainly, primarily an architect. It was at the auction after the flood at CAMH (Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) - and I said to Anne Tucker, who was with me at the time, "Should I buy this?" We didn't know each other very well, because she had only been around a short while and had just started the department. She said, "Do you like it?" And I said "Yes" and she said "Can you afford it?" and I said "Yes" and she said, "Well then, you should buy it." I actually still have that photograph. That is the other point with Anne. I said "Is it a good picture?" and she said, "Do you like it?" Then actually after that, the next photograph I bought might have been a Keith Carter from Mancini Gallery when it was in the basement of the hotel. Then I had an ongoing account with Cronin Gallery, because I couldn't make up my mind what I wanted, so I would give them $100.00 a month until I saw something I wanted. So I bought a Sally Gall, and then a George Tice. I guess I bought a Clarence John Laughlin from them. I bought a Bravo from them. I probably bought another something from Mancini when they closed and I started traveling.
RR: Do you think the Mancinis were better gallerists than restauranteurs?
CW : I think they were good gallery owners. I only ate at their restaurant twice. They were probably better perfume makers than anything because that is what her family did in France. I was traveling for the gallery (Watson/de Nagy and Co.) a lot and when I was doing a show with Basilios Poulos in San Francisco I met the people at Grapestake Gallery. It was called Grapestake because the family was making wine - Richard Misrach was one of the first people I bought - then John Divola and Arthur Ollman - and at that point I started buying pictures for Anne Tucker. So, this is back when the NEA, God bless them, would match money for work by a living American artist. So we would have Richard Misrach send 20 pictures and I would pick one and buy it for myself and give Anne half of the money and the NEA would match the other half. And I would pick one from one series and she would pick one from another series and ultimately knowing that I would give her my pictures and we would get twofers for the price of not much.
RR: Clint, I guess I should probably tell you your right against self incrimination, using NEA money that way.
CW: No, no. It was totally legal. We often do that. We love to do double dips where I'd buy a picture from HCP auction and donate it to Anne, so HCP gets the money and Anne gets the picture. There are several committees that vet everything that gets offered to the museum, and in my case, I've now donated to probably a dozen institutions, many of whom I don't know that well. It's not just the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. I have given to my alma mater, the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, to the Menil Collection, to the Old Jail Museum in Albany, to the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Beaumont.
RR: I'm supposed to ask what you consider to be the issues or trends in photography, which I don't even know what that means. What do you think?
CW: I think everybody always wants to know what's au courant, what's new, what's happening. You know photography has a very long history. It essentially started as document making. It was a way to record the world. It was a way for people who couldn't travel to be able to travel vicariously - and it still is. But people travel more and there is more access to it because of the Internet, because of television, because of movies - all the things that weren't around when photography started. There were only illustrated publications and books. Now with the Internet, everybody has the ability to make a picture. I mean, it's been that way since World War II, basically, when cameras became much
more accessible to the public in general. And with the invention of the Polaroid where you could have instant gratification - well, now, everybody can have instant gratification with their cell phone. What I think is a lot more difficult for younger photographers now is the ability to edit, because they can take pictures so rapidly and they can just erase them or keep them indefinitely. It isn't a lot of effort. You don't have to go into a darkroom, you simply plug it into something and it prints something out.
RR: You don't even have to print it.
CW: Someone like Richard Misrach, who used to use a big camera and do 4x5 transparencies, had hundreds of thousands of those images that he never printed. Now, of course, almost everybody is digital and so it opens up a lot more opportunities. Richard has a printer that can print photographs up to 4x8 feet and he does, quite often. The trends that have been happening over the last ten years have been the objectification of photographs. I mean, it sort of started with Cindy Sherman, who refused to be categorized as a photographer. If she entered the collection, she was entering as a painter.
RR: Or maybe a sculptor?
CW: Or as a sculptor, but she didn't want to be categorized as a photographer. It started particularly with Europeans. If you made it made, always. It may be larger than it was, or it may be presented in a slightly different way. Now it is probably made with a digital camera and digitally printed, but it's still a documentary image. There are thousands of photographers making landscape photographs. So would we say that that trend has gone away? It's still here.
RR: You might say, "Are they photographers or are they people on a car trip who have a cell phone camera?"
CW: There might be that, but I'm talking about serious legitimate photographers who have been doing it for 30 or 40 years. I mean Ansel Adams made landscapes his entire life. He made them in black and white. He made them in color. He made them in Polaroid. He made various sizes of them. For instance, Moonrise, Hernandez exists in several sizes - he always made them in different sizes. But there are trends. There are things I see in younger photographers because I participate in something called Critical Mass, which is a means to an end for a non-profit gallery in Portland, Oregon. They do a FotoFest-like event called Photolucida, which brings in reviewers and reviewees. Often times, I sit across from someone with a computer and I look at the screen and see a video or I see images, moving images, of some type - it's all mostly done electronically. I find that in many competitions that I jury - like the one I just juried for the New Orleans Photo Alliance on the theme of the Gulf. It was during the oil spill but it was not to be only about the negative, but the positive side. I was quite judicious to make my selections fairly even-handed. But, when you review these things online, when you jury them online, sometimes you are given a little information, sometimes you are given a lot of information. When I juried a show like the one for the New Orleans Photo Alliance, I just see an image and a title. It's blind. I don't even know the name of the photographer. Photolucida, Critical Mass, I know their name, their hometown, their website, all these things. So it's a real promotion for the artist, in many cases, because a lot of these curators will seek them out and put them in a show, or give them a show. They are giving people the opportunity to be seen, but when I show up at the exhibition, as I did two months ago, I wasn't shocked. Often times, I was surprised at the size or the print quality, or the way something was matted and framed in a very amateurish way.
RR: Well, that's what I was going to ask you - when you look at it on the computer, you would think it could be a very distorted view of what it actually is.
CW: It's very different, because when you're looking at light coming through something, the scale is always the same and if you are not big and you face mounted to plexiglas or mounted it to aluminum or made it a light box, then it was an object and then it became art and often times those were made as unique objects - because the beauty of photography and one of its great reasons for its success is its ability to be reproduced. So that is one of the ways that photography has been able to be collected in such a wide range of institutions around the world - because there was more than one image.
RR: But then, isn't that an incredibly narrow view of what photography is supposed to be?
CW: I don't know if it's a narrow view; it's a fact. Oh, you mean the way they are treating it now as an object?
RR: No, if you remember Frank Martin - his photographs were one of a kind. He manipulated the image with dyes and bleaches during the printing process. This was 1986 or '87 - he tried to get a FotoFest show and the powers that be at FotoFest refused to allow a venue to exhibit the work. He was frozen out.
CW: Anyone could have shown him, but he couldn't be in the catalog and I don't remember what Fred (Baldwin) and Wendy's (Watriss) rationale for that was.
RR: Because it wasn't an image of a man sitting on a park bench on a misty morning. At the time, Frank was at the cutting edge of photography - this was before the Internet and he really wasn't one to study Artforum.
CW: Right. I think he was actually closer to the Starn twins than anybody - they were making unique objects that were sewn or stitched or taped. But Frank did get a show.
RR: It was a non-FotoFest show and he sold every piece. Public News did a big spread - it was a hit. And it seems the next FotoFest had room for manipulated images.
CW: And now they actually feature those as opposed to straight documentary or straight landscape. They have an exhibition up right now which involves a lot of video, a lot of moving images, and a lot of text. I imagine that the public has a serious question about something that is merely white text on a black background as to how that results in a photograph, simply because it was made with a photographic process. It's not about the image - it's about the words; it's about the text. And so I am sure there are people who question the legitimacy of that as a photograph. I have to accept it as a photograph, because it is a photographic process, but I question whether it would be just as effective if it were a lithograph or a collage. It's just like the Uta Barth - the very large Uta Barth photograph collected by the modern and contemporary department, because it's on canvas.
RR: And would that have had a place in photography?
CW: Sure, and Anne would have exhibited it as a photograph because it was made with a camera and it is a photograph. But Uta chose to present it in a more painterly fashion. It's very abstract - this was when Uta was dropping out the foreground and just photographing the blurry background. She would have a person sit in; she would focus on the person and then she would make the person leave the image. The image would be just the blurred background with no person in the place where the person would be. It's the size of a large painting - 6x6 feet or thereabouts. So, there again, that's sort of the beginning of that object making idea. I'm not sure if it's a trend. I think when people talk about trends they are narrowing a field down. I mean, there will always be documentary photography given the ultimate size of the piece - well, something I thought was rather large ends up being 5x7 and other times I thought something was fairly intimate... I chose to put a video in even though this was supposedly a photography competition - all the regulations were in the sort of purview of photography, not the moving image.
RR: Why would it even be an issue? One of your definitions of photography is that it is a medium which can be replicated, the image can be replicated over and over again. Today, to send someone a video, you know, you don't even have to send it - you post it on the Internet.
CW: Right, and you can do it on Facebook. You can do it on YouTube. You can do it in many ways - so when someone poses the question, "What are the trends?" I would say the thing most affecting photography is the ability for anybody to do it. It's always been possible for anybody to do it since World War II basically, but now literally anybody - a child with a cell phone - anybody with the ability to transmit the image can make a video and so I find that the other thing that's happening is that photography is getting more and more personal. It's generally about me. It's always been a person making the image, but usually the image was of interest to the person, but not about the person. Now, I find that most of the stuff I see by young people is about them. It's about their family; it's about their life; it's about their love or their hate, their self-loathing, their body.
RR: I would like your thoughts on one of the things I'm curious about with all the digital stuff - a photographer no longer really needs to know about lighting because that all can be adjusted on a computer. They don't need to learn, no longer need to know about printing in a darkroom because that all can be adjusted. For example, a photographer who has to take 500 images to get two, I would say doesn't have a trained eye to know what a good image is - unless you are Richard Misrach, who is indiscriminately shooting on purpose.
CW: Or you're a war photographer, or you're in a situation of extreme duress. I do know Richard Misrach frankly admits that when he was doing the Katrina pictures, he was taking 1000
pictures a day. If he were a filmmaker, it could be a film. So, that's how he's looking at it. You take pictures at the moment, as you're seeing things and he doesn't edit at the time. Then he goes back and spends hours editing out the good images because there is the ability to do that now. But I would say in pre-digital cameras, nobody made thousands of images. It was too expensive.
RR: No, you made contact sheets.
CW: But you still had to use a lot of film. If anybody is talking about
RR: It's the dumbing down of photography?
CW: As we have often said, photography as we knew it no longer exists.
RR: But it still does - Amy Blakemore is still teaching people how to use a darkroom at Glassell.
CW: She is, as is Will Michels, but in many institutions, mostly universities now, there are no darkrooms. No one is teaching the printing of photographs. It's going away radically - nobody wants to shoot film. I think it's just that the students are not interested in it. It has taken Anne and me a very long time to get used to looking at digital photographs. I still take Will Michels along for some decisions, because Will really has a discerning eye about whether a digital print is a good digital print or not. I'm still honing my eye, let's put it that way. It is also getting much tougher. Often, when I'm doing a portfolio review I have to ask if something is digital because they now have the ability to print them on paper that looks exactly like the paper and tonal qualities I've always looked at.
RR: I'm interested in the whole idea of video as a form of photography. When asked to do the interview I thought about Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill, way back when with their old video camera trying to, you know, drag people along into the video age -and it seems so, I don't know what it seems.
CW: I now look back and think it was totally genius on their parts. They got it when nobody else did. There are a handful of those people who just got it, spot on, and who knew what was going to happen and knew the possibilities of it and I think along the way were able to convince other people that it was legitimate, that it was what was going to happen, that it was what was happening. And there were "doubting Thomases" along the way, myself being one, because what I saw in the very beginning were a lot of very bad photographs made by people playing on the computer - most of it was crap. But once the computers got better and the teaching got better and the people got smarter, and the abilities to do things got much better and the possibilities became more obvious, I think they were absolutely right. I still love to see work that has been made in the darkroom. I still love to see work that is handcrafted not by a computer, but by a person in a room with chemicals and a blank sheet of paper turning it into magic. I think what I'm nostalgic about is that they are missing the magic. And it's how I feel about a lot of things, a lot of experiences that people are having because they can have a different experience via the computer or another form than I had it. Many people that I know don't communicate with other people in the same manner that you and I are communicating right now.
RR: Would you say maybe what you miss about people not using the darkroom is when you curated the show in New Orleans and when you showed up for the actual exhibition, whatever was on the wall was not necessarily what you had expected because the
computer screen had sort of equalized everything or made things the
same. You lose something...
CW: It's more and more now - it's the way most exhibitions are being done. But I don't accept it. I don't do it except when I'm hired to and it's the only means I have to do it. I have never personally curated an exhibition without seeing the objects. There is another very interesting aspect to all this. There are several institutions I am aware of that are requesting an exhibition print, which they will put up and then destroy at the end of the exhibition. They simply send the file and they print.
RR: They have no shipping costs. They have no insurance costs, because it is going to be destroyed.
CW: I want to mention the war project that Anne (Tucker) and Will (Michels) are working on. There is a photographer that's in the exhibition with all images of war, but he's removed the subject. And you would know what every picture was without the subject... there's Tiananmen Square without the tank, the Eddie Adams picture with the gun to the head, but there is no person; there is no gun. You know all of them. I do.
RR: Are there any images that are going to be in the show that are etched in the public's mind? I mean, did Iraq or Afghanistan produce any images like that, besides the collapse of the statue, obviously?
CW: There is an image that all of us found very tough to buy for the collection, but it's in the show and was very controversial when it was published - it's of an Iraqi soldier in a vehicle and he's completely burned - just charred flesh.
RR: But was that an image on the cover of Time magazine?
CW: It was published widely - and there have been several published that won Pulitzer Prizes. But I think now the problem is there are so many images, and we see them on television and we see them in Newsweek and we see them in Time and we see them in newspapers and we see them. It's interesting because for this war show that Anne and Will are curating, they're using images that were essentially sent over the air, you know, sent away and the photographer never touched them - it was printed by the War Department or the Army or the Navy and meant for publication in the newspaper.
RR: Which makes me curious - if you go online and know how to use Photoshop and you appropriate images from the web that are all original photographs, then you take your Photoshop program, merge them all together and make something completely new - or you're Sherrie Levine and just hit print from whatever website you are at - is that anything at all other than a print off a computer, or is it a collage? Is it a photograph? It is a photographic collage? What is it?
CW: It is whatever the person making it, calls it.
Robert M. Rosenberg is an attorney and writer who recently moved back to Houston. He thanks Mary Clappert for her hard work in transcribing Clint Willour's interview.
I have followed and enjoyed Richard Misrach's work since the mid 1970s. In 1985, I did an interview with him for the Winter issue of spot. That interview is available online at the HCP website. Richard's work needs little introduction. He is among the most prominent photographers of his generation and his work has been shown and published widely, perhaps most notably in a retrospective curated by Anne Tucker at the MFAH in 1996. His exhibition on Katrina, Destroy This Memory, was shown at the MFAH this Fall. Richard is the creator of a vast archive of photographs on the desert Southwest. They are sectioned into what he calls Cantos, thematic chapters that re-imagine American culture. They are provocative in the best ways and are very beautiful. He has also photographed in Louisiana for many years - Cancer Alley, the corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as well as the desolation left by Hurricane Katrina. And he has also taken pictures of the desert sky, the Golden Gate Bridge, the beaches and water and jungles of Hawaii, Stonehenge, the Pyramids... I could go on. Richard is a remarkably prolific and talented photographer. For our interview this time, we emailed back and forth for a number of weeks. And at HCP, we are very happy to have him back in spot after a quarter of a century. -PB
Peter brown: Richard, given that this is an interview, I'd like to begin with an examination of words - a few from the start of your career and some from your most recent work.
On the inside cover of Telegraph 3 A.M., your first book, is a picture of graffiti: Flower Power, Street People Unite! TCH, LSD, STP, MDA, MES, PCP - now you think of some! And above this, in a faint hand: Long Live Telegraph. They're a set of sad and funny statements that remind me of your work on Katrina. And in Destroy This Memory, your Katrina book, each photograph contains graffiti. And the graffiti set off a narrative.
In between these two bodies of work you've published books with no words at all: your first desert book famously included neither words nor numbers apart from a few things on the spine. There have been books with academic essays; one with short fiction, a poem here and there, more graffiti, even a shot-up Playboy interview with Gore Vidal. There are essays on the desert and the Golden Gate Bridge. And there is the retrospective Chronologies which has no words beyond descriptive titles.
I'm interested in your relationship to words and words to your work. You're an articulate guy and well read and you've said that you've been influenced by writers as diverse as Yeats, Pound, Castaneda, and John Van Dyke. Characterize your feelings about words and images, if you would. And tell me a bit more about writers who have influenced you. Cormac McCarthy springs to mind - as does John Brinckerhoff Jackson.
Richard Misrach: I have an ambivalent relationship to words and photographs. There have been many periods in my career where I've felt that photographs should stand alone. I am reading Duchamp's biography and I just came across: "As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences, everything goes wrong." There have been periods where I've felt that words were critical to anchor meaning in a photograph via a title, an extended caption, or an accompanying essay. And sometimes not. And neither position has won out. Over the years I have swung back and forth.
The [untitled book] published in 1979 by Grapestake Gallery was indeed wordless, titleless even. Only the spine had the minimum information required to make it a book. I was trying to deconstruct the conventional supportive material to see what would happen if one created a purely visual book. At the same time, I was having gatherings at my studio. Lew Thomas, publisher of Photography and Language, Lutz Bacher, Sam Samore, Donna-Lee Phillips among others would come over. We'd have potluck dinners and discuss readings and images. After a couple of years, we produced a portfolio of large scale language-based photographs: Text and Context. I did a piece called Contribution Piece where I offered my services as a photographer, free of charge, to a number of friends and family. My photograph in the portfolio was simply a 30x40 silver print of the typed letter I sent out. I don't remember if more than one set was ever made, but the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston bought it for its collection. I had forgotten about it until Anne Tucker pointed out its relationship to my current publication, Destroy This Memory. And what is interesting - and I didn't realize till our interview here, is that I used the same design strategy for both books. In each case, the photograph on the cover becomes the title: in the 1979 volume, the title is the image of the cactus. In the 2010 volume, the title becomes the words in the photograph on the cover.
Over the years, I've noticed that essays can become dated, whereas photographs retain their vitality - and paradoxically - defy their time specificity. We see that with snapshots. The moment from a vacation or a wedding transcends the split-second to become memory - our consciousness - timeless. Essays can shackle a body of work to a historical moment. Though sometimes that is desired. Two recent books, Chronologies and On The Beach had minimum text. I explored a number of approaches, even using my own words in an interview accompanying On The Beach, but finally felt the words limited the pictures' meanings. On the other hand, Destroy This Memory, is literally photographs of words, and my next book will have extended captions to build a narrative. So once again I am contradicting myself....
Re: what I read: I actually gravitate to non-fiction more than fiction. I like books of ideas - how art works - cultural and literary theory. I knew of J.B. Jackson through other photographers - and in fact Jackson was going to write for Desert Cantos. Although I was familiar with his thought, I confess I hadn't read much. I did read a couple of Cormac McCarthy's books, and found his novel, The Road, stunning both in the beauty of the writing and also because in its uncanny correspondence to my work.
PB: I certainly thought of The Road, and I also thought of Blood Meridian which deals with the pre-settled Southwest in ways that seem paradoxically post-apocalyptic. And J.B. Jackson's book The Necessity for Ruins in its title alone describes much of your work. You've dealt with ruins throughout - Stonehenge, the desert, the pyramids, Katrina...
In our previous interview you said you had a strong belief in intuition, in instinct. It's a belief that I share as a photographer, and it's mysterious and powerful. Beyond the mental leap into the unknown that intuition entails, you've been the recipient of remarkable synchronicity over the years. Books show up at the right time for you to read, people make appearances, fires have a tendency to spring to life around you....
And from this I'd like to get your thoughts on spirituality and religion. I know you've read visionary writers, but I wonder if over the years a more solid kind of belief system has emerged, something beyond an appreciation for powers that we can't fully comprehend.
Finally, and again connected, I presume you were raised in the Jewish tradition and I wonder how this might have impacted your work. Apocalypse and holocaust are closely related in terms of horror. You have a well defined sense of morality and purpose, and I'm curious about its context. These are a difficult set of interior questions, but I'd love to get your thoughts on them....
RM: One of the things I do, is that I "graze through books," as my wife Myriam says. And frankly this is weird. I'll read till something catches my interest, then put the book down and let the idea simmer for awhile. Then I'll pick up a different book and do the same. Then back again. I do this with several simultaneously. It's odd and I suspect I absorb the material more as a montage, or a William Burroughs cut-up, than as clean narrative. Right now, I'm reading Calvin Tompkin's biography of Duchamp, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050 by Joel Kotkin, and a catalogue on Arte Povera. Recently I read cover to cover, the exception to the rule, Jeff Wall's writings and interviews. I enjoyed it, and his essay on conceptual art's intertwined relationship to photography is truly significant.
Re: spirituality and religion - I adhere pretty closely to Bill Maher's take on it (although he gets pretty obnoxious). I just don't get religion. And although I am Jewish (and to the dismay of one of my dearest friends who is Israeli) I don't identify either religiously or culturally as a Jew. I think growing up as a second generation Californian may have had some bearing on this.
I don't think of myself as a particularly spiritual person either. That said, I experience a kind of joy in seeing things in the world - making sense of them with the camera - something that I can't explain. Perhaps making pictures gives me access to a kind of spirituality that I otherwise wouldn't have. Part of what I find so compelling about photography is the mystery of it. After forty years I would expect myself to be jaded, bored - but not at all. The magic of the ways photography works and what it does, remains elusive. Photography still challenges my visual and intellectual needs in a way no other medium can. But I can't explain the impact in conventional spiritual or religious terms.
PB: You've dealt in many interviews with the social and political implications of your work. But as you may have guessed, I'm interested in what's going on within you as well. You've been around difficult subject matter forever - from street kids, to bombing sites, to animal pits, to toxic swamps - on and on. Yet all of this has been balanced by happier stuff: the night sky, the Golden Gate Bridge; sublime images from the desert; lush jungle photographs, dreamy shots of the ocean in Hawaii.
This seems a very human balance, and I'm interested in two things: if this dichotomy has been arrived at in some rational way, or if you have simply needed breaks from the horrific from time to time and have taken them. And secondly: how carrying an endgame vision, an apocalyptic sense of the future, in both your life and work has affected you personally. I don't want to put you on some Jungian couch, but I wonder how you've dealt for forty years with a desecrated landscape and a vision of our future that you've described as out of a Mad Max movie. I've always thought there were prophetic things going on in your work Richard and frankly, they've had me worried! I wonder if you think of your photographs as cautionary tales or do you actually believe that this is the way we'll end up.
RM: There are two polarities in photography that I find tremendously compelling. The first is a characteristic that makes it a unique tool for "bearing witness" (which of course has a religious connotation in spite of my stated lack of interest in religion). The work of mine that's closest to a documentary mode - Bravo 20, the dead animal pits, the Salton Sea Flood, Cancer Alley, Katrina, etc. - serves that function for me. I do see this work as cautionary tales, as you've put it. Each one of those disasters is relatively small-scale in nature. But in each case, human folly signals that it would not be too hard to expand these problems globally. The same human apparatus is at work. That said, I'm not just photographing content here. I go to great lengths to make formally engaging pictures. I pay attention to the frame, to the light, etc. I've always felt that the best of my pictures function in a way that historical painting used to. As painting has relinquished this function, photography has become capable of performing that role beautifully. Just as Gericault's Raft of the Medusa was both a remarkable visual experience, it also embodies a specific political event. I hope my pictures function in that way as well - as aesthetic objects and markers of historical moments in America.
However, I do need to cleanse the palate after that kind of work! In 1998, for example, I was making my Golden Gate pictures from home at the same time I was taking trips to Cancer Alley. My career, in a way, has been about navigating these two extremes - the political and the aesthetic. And this brings me to the second polarity.
Aside from the more documentary/witness bearing capabilities of the medium, I love the sheer magic of the machine, and the light, and the materials and chemistry that make it up. From my earliest days of experimenting in the darkroom, to my most recent Photoshop experiences, I am never disappointed in the rich aesthetic properties and intellectual challenges of the medium. You want to know if I have deep insights into the nature of this kind of pleasure. Unfortunately, I don't. But it is a deeply gratifying experience.
PB: I like the dual nature of your work. Another photographer who follows this path is Robert Adams. His images address the politics of the environment directly - yet he is also compelled to show the beauty that remains in the West. And he takes the same care you describe in the way that he frames and edits - not just for content but for aesthetic pleasure despite the subject. And I'm wondering if you talk or correspond much with other photographers about your work?
RM: I've had three salons in my studio over the years. The first was in the 1970s. That was the most successful and lasted a couple of years. We started another one in the 90s with people like Larry Sultan, Catherine Wagner and Jim Goldberg. That never quite took off. I think we were too far along in our careers and adult lives - and it died out. I tried another one a few years ago with some younger artists but again - too busy with life and work.... So today I really don't share my ideas with other artists. But that first salon was great. Highly recommended for younger artists. I remember Lew Thomas saying "You can't trust anyone under thirty." He was thirty-two and I was twenty-eight.
PB: You mentioned historical paintings and the way they bore witness to events. In your Canto The Paintings, you re-photograph certain works of 19th century art. Most are cropped: a woman's legs, half of George Washington, a scene at the Roman Coliseum. Tell me your reasons for photographing them. Did you mean them to point toward a painterly aspect of your work? You mentioned Jeff Wall earlier, and in terms of scale and a kind of competition with painting, his thought certainly has pointed in this direction.....
RM: A number of series in the past have played with the relationship of photography to painting. My Scrubs, 1996, were a direct play on Pollocks. I even cropped and framed them in a similar way. The idea that a straight, unmanipulated photograph of something as mundane as dead desert brush could look like a Pollock fascinated me. Similarly, my sky photographs in 1988 were a play on color field painting: Reinhardt, Rothko, et al. But my photos were not trying to emulate painting - they were exploring the nature of the (profound) differences between photography and painting. The two mediums
can create similar forms, but the meanings, because of the way they are made, are very different. My Pictures of Paintings was the most literal experiment with this idea: I photographed the content of a painting and represented it in the context of my Desert Cantos, locating the paintings in a specific American West. I found Sherrie Levine's appropriation of Walker Evans' photographs to be amazing. Simply by re-photographing an image a change of meaning takes place. This was a revelation.
When people talk about photography looking like painting they miss the point. The large scale of the work for me has nothing to do with painting - it's all about our new found ability to work with size, which was never viable before. In 1978, when I was making my first color photographs (Hawaii), Donna-Lee Phillips looked at the prints on my studio wall and said that the way I presented them defeated the point. I was photographing in dark jungles at night, almost blind except for bursts of strobe. I initially printed them 16x20 and Donna said that because of their small size, the viewer "contained" them. As if I, the photographer, or the viewer, were in control of nature. She said if I made the prints larger they would overwhelm the viewer and underline this fallacy. That was a brilliant insight. I printed the images as large as I could - 30x40. They were the largest color prints I'd seen, and they felt like a revelation. I dropped off a bunch at MoMA and came back to pick them up. John Szarkowski asked me into his office and the prints were taped up on the walls everywhere. I could see that he was excited. That was a pretty heady moment.
PB: I imagine it was, and what a loss his death was. He was in Houston and still brilliant a few months before his stroke. To my mind - curating aside - he was one of the best writers of the latter part of the twentieth century. No matter the discipline. And I remember those jungle photographs well. We used them in a show at Rice, and they were overwhelming. I'd never seen anything like them before either.
RM: Yes, Szarkowski was amazing. The way he unpacks the meaning of photographs in Looking at Photographs, for example, is revelatory. It's still one of my favorite books. The half dozen times we spoke in his office or on the phone he was always thoughtful and witty. He dropped these little insight bombs. For example, he described my Desert Fire #43 as "a messy Wizard of Oz", and he said of Waiting (which you used on the spot cover years ago), that he loved it because it reminded him of Atget's idea of "where to stand".
PB: You said at your recent talk at the museum with Anne Tucker, that you had not used film in over two years. And while before you were limited to fifty shots a day, you now can take hundreds. Do you find yourself photographing with the same discipline? And do you feel the same "possession" of an image, not having had to load and unload film, cart the huge camera around.... Is there a physical aspect to film photography that you miss, or are you simply pleased to have things so much easier?
RM: I was shooting with my 8x10 after Katrina for 12-14 hours, from dawn to dusk, over a three month period. I was pushing hard and blew a disc in my back. I was unable to lift anything for ten months. I not only had to throw in the towel on what was going to be a long term project, but I had to consider alternatives to the 8x10. I started testing a medium format camera with a digital back. And that was that. I haven't shot film in 3 years (I've been accused of going over to the dark side!).
It is different. I don't have the quality that I had, but the quality of the image is still good. In exchange, I can photograph in the wind, I can make hundreds of photographs in succession, I can stop action. When I get home I can download, process and print five foot photographs within twenty-four hours of returning. In the past it would take months to have the 8x10s developed, processed and contacted just to see what I had.
But perhaps most importantly, the new technologies allow me to print my own work which I haven't done since the seventies. I am able to get prints exactly the way I want. And I'm back to experimenting and exploring with the printing process. I feel as though I'm discovering the medium all over again. And I must say, as the advancement of color technology in the 70s had a revolutionary impact, I think the digital revolution taking place is going to have even a bigger one. Kids coming out of school have access to the means of production right in their bedrooms. And the new tools have infinite potential. This is going to be an amazing period for photography and photographers.
PB: Well that sounds like religion to me. Almost a conversion experience! And it's safe to say that you don't miss the physical aspects of the large camera. I agree that this is a wildly exciting time to be a photographer. I gave a critique to a group of high school students at HCP recently and was knocked out by the work. It ran the gamut from traditional silver prints, to processed color, to digital color, to scanned overlapped Diana camera negs printed three feet in length, to prints made with a cell phone with an SX 70 app. They looked like early Egglestons. And then of course there's the web. And speaking digitally, I've wondered if Destroy This Memory is the first digital work you've shown?
RM: Actually, the 2005 photographs which I made with a 4 megapixel camera for Destroy This Memory were the first digital pictures I ever shot. But the first digital work that I've exhibited have been photos from my recent series, Untitled. These are pictures that explore the beauty and meaning of the color negative. They are inspired partially by John Cage's Notations - a book that reproduces samples of musical scores as graphic form. I've always marveled at the strange beauty of color negatives.
PB: You've just returned from Louisiana where you've worked for many years. Are you continuing with Katrina and Cancer Alley, or are you into something new?
RM: I've been revisiting and updating my Cancer Alley project which
I began in 1998.
PB: And of course the desert work continues. Do you anticipate further Cantos? I'd very much like to see this work collected in a mammoth volume or series of books. I'm thinking of something like the Atget set brought out by MoMA in the eighties.
RM: Yes, the Desert Cantos are ongoing. I'm up to DCXXX. And yes, definitely, someday it would be great to have a multi-volume boxed set.
PB: Is there a new set of pictures you might begin to make because of the digital camera? Much of Telegraph 3A.M. was portraiture, and I haven't seen portraiture from you in many years.
RM: I never know what I'll be doing next. The Destroy This Memory project is a shift that I couldn't have anticipated and it's determined purely by the new technology, as is my Untitled series. Portraiture always poses a problem for me. Ever since Telegraph 3A.M., I have believed that there is a problematic, exploitive component inherent to photography. It's weird because I am in awe of many pictures of people - Arbus, Bruce Davidson's East 100 Street, Jim Goldberg's Rich and Poor, Katy Grannan's photographs. But I always feel the balance of power between the photographer and the subject to be unequal - even when the photographers seem sympathetic. So I admire the portraiture of others, yet I don't feel comfortable photographing people myself.
Almost always, if people are in my pictures, they are "figures" - taken at a distance, and obscured from recognition. I think of them serving as stand-ins for civilization, rather than individuals.
PB: Interesting - Robert Adams uses trees in much the same way, I think...
Finally Richard, your work has functioned in many ways, but perhaps most powerfully as a cultural critique. On the end flap of the Telegraph book, written in your twenties, you say in a wonderfully innocent way that your next project is to create "an extra-personal photo-document on American values." My feeling is that this is what has motivated you all along (in concert with your fascination with the medium itself) - that you're interested in American values and where our national priorities have led us. Do you find this to be true?
RM: I was 24 when I wrote that, but maybe I was on to something :-)
Peter Brown is a Houston based photographer. He is a founding member of HCP and has written for spot for many years. The work from his most recent photographic book, West of Last Chance, a collaboration with the novelist Kent Haruf, won the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize.
Suzanne Bloom and Ed Hill with Zoë Sheehan Saldaña and Jeff Weiss
No sign anywhere of PHOTOGRAPHY you say, bah, no problem there, photography not dead yet, yes, dead, good, photography dead photograph THAT. 1
IF AND WHERE TO START
Weighty questions - as to the form and fate of photography in 2010-11; whether we are photographers, artists, or media practitioners; whether photography or art itself are deceased -trouble us not at all when we are doing whatever it is we do. Is there a time when it should weigh on us? Not really. However, when someone interrupts and asks if you would, you might just oblige them and yourself. Maybe all of us should take a crack at diagnosing photography's state of affairs.
Organize an enormous study committee, use the Internet and sample the entire globe. But think then of the logistics, the headaches. Alright, a small committee then, a crew, a brew of four seasoned minds, each with some stake in the issues and informed opinions: Zoë Sheehan Saldaña, Jeff Weiss, Suzanne Bloom, and Ed Hill. Where? La Brioche Cafe & Bakery, Montpelier, Vermont.2
When? Election Day, 2010.
An animated conversation with sandwiches, soup, lattes, and later, very rich selections from the bakery. Our new audio Flash recorder set up on a block of foam replacing the salt, pepper, and napkin dispenser against the wall. Next, 3.5 hours of dialogue.
Zoë: Are you two gearheads?
Suzanne: It's a Sony D50 Linear PCM Recorder.
Each of us at the table has her/his backstory in relation to the proposed subject, photography. All four careers launched in distinct ways.3
Zoë: After taking a photography course as part of my art history degree at Oberlin, I never actually made photographs in the grad program at RIT. Instead I created things that were "photographic." Like, I made a very large cube of Jello, first because Jello came from that area - Leroy, NY - and secondly, because of its connection to film emulsion and the photography industry. Or, I did cross-stitch work derived from found photographic images I got off the Internet - where everything comes from! These were both digital and handmade since I physically rendered all the captured information in thread by hand. This was in 1997-8.
Jeff: Once the draft was no longer an issue I decided to drop my career as a science teacher and do what I wanted. I wrote letters to every photographer I found in MoMA's bookstore whose work I liked. I said, "Hey, my name's Jeff and I take pictures too. I like what you do, so I'd like to talk to you about it." The responses from the group, including the Weston kids, Ansel Adams, Minor White, and Harry Callahan, were all positive. After visiting with each of them I decided I wanted to be a photographer. This was in the mid-1960s. Ultimately I wound up working with Minor White, and then taught photography at Goddard College.
Suzanne: In 1972 I was a color field, minimalist painter who had reached some sort of stopping point. My last paintings were like stucco walls in appearance and had become objects rather than images. Also, I'd made large paintings, up to sixteen feet. I felt I had conquered issues of surface, scale, and geometric design - what next? I no longer believed in painting as a universal language and I was very interested in issues of representation. Photography seemed like the right medium to use to explore the specificity and ambiguity of representational imagery.
Ed: Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blow Up, 1967, completely 'blew my mind.' I was so affected by the obsession with and potential of photography depicted in his film that, after seeing it twice in one weekend, I bought a Pentax camera the following Monday morning - just like that. Once I started taking photographs I immersed myself in it totally. I looked at everything I could find on photography and learned darkroom practice from a local photographer. By 1969 I was teaching basic photography and had undertaken an overly ambitious project, The Rural Environment, which ultimately led to an exhibition of 500 photographs held at the Smith College Museum of Art in 1973.
YOU CAN'T PUT YOUR ARMS AROUND IT ANY LONGER
Ed: Photography is very difficult now to isolate as an object of thought. Actually it may be a fool's errand to even try because it's so dispersed throughout the culture. From its beginning, photography has been like a cell dividing and multiplying at a geometric rate to a point where it no longer can be conceptualized as a whole body or named as a single organism.
Suzanne: Maybe we should speak of "photographies." Or admit that such a monolithic term as "photography" is no longer adequate. "Photography" represents a tradition we came from, not necessarily where we are today.
Ed: Photo images are rampant and, don't forget, aren't restricted to a camera in human hands.
Zoë: Imagine how many pictures were captured around the planet in the time it took you to say that.
Jeff: There's a picture of everything now. Since 9-11 you can't walk down the street in New York City without being picked up by a camera, and the time is stamped on the bottom of the screen documenting exactly when you were there. Enough to convict you in a court for jaywalking or stealing someone's pocketbook. The number of live feeds alone is staggering.
Suzanne: If you find yourself saying, "Those things have nothing to do with 'Photography'," then you're guilty of narrowing ever-expanding media down to your own set of assumptions.
Jeff: I still have great affection for photography. I've been a member of the photo community for a very long time, but I really don't know what photography is and I don't think the establishment knows what it is either. In fact, I think I've been having this conversation about photography for decades. At various places where I taught photography the question was, "What shall we name the new department?"
BITES, PIECES, AND BINARY CODE
Suzanne: Advancements in technology have definitely propelled us to take on certain projects. For instance, although the idea of using books as subject matter came first, without the Canon Mark II 5D digital camera we bought specifically for The Book Project, or the current quality of large-scale inkjet printers and printing papers, we wouldn't be doing this project.
Zoë: Yes, you are gearheads. You also have been adaptable to the next thing that comes along. I mean a lot of artists aren't adaptable, but I've noticed you two seem to have a tendency to say, "OK, well what's this new thing coming along, how is this going to work?" So, you ventured into video, CGI, and haven't been afraid to try the next thing.
Ed: To tell the truth, I don't believe we've ever really been at the bloody "bleeding" edge of technology. Just keeping up.
Suzanne: There is the larger question of what digital has done to photography. Yes, it's increased photography's capabilities, but is it starting to determine the quality of what people make in order to have it distributed over the Internet?
Ed: Can we put the Internet topic aside for the moment and focus on the development of what we quaintly called, always in caps, "Digital Photography"? We made our initial venture into computerland in 1985. Our first two computers were so severely limited in power that if I recited the specs you'd think I was making up a lame joke. I should also point out that the first stage of the photo "digilution" concerned creating or altering images in the computer, i.e., imaging software. We laid hands on a beta copy of Photoshop long before anyone knew it would find a place in everybody's vocabulary. From the start PS was a big leap ahead of any other imaging software.
Suzanne: Digital cameras were another thing entirely. For fifteen years we stayed with film converting from analog to digital via scanners. That meant image quality depended on the resolution of scanners which very slowly got better. Digital cameras weren't anywhere near competitive until the end of the 90s.
Ed: Having been through all of that, what is available today represents the best of all possible worlds. We have very smart, sharp, fast cameras and rich applications that give us more control over the images we capture than we ever anticipated. And, it will only increase in power and quality. How well all of this is put to use is another issue.
Jeff: Something that hasn't come up - think of David Hockney and his physicist friend who demonstrated that "photography" existed for hundreds of years before 1839 and the development of the fixed photographic image. Given all that, the main difference now is we can put control back into the process via computer software.
I want to link that to the fact I make things now that really can't be photographed. I constructed a tower, it's a model of a radio tower in North Dakota that until 2009 was the tallest man made object on earth. It's six feet wide by 2200 feet tall. My model is a half-inch wide by seven feet tall. If I try to photograph it getting back far enough to frame the whole tower there's nothing there, it disappears. I can't photograph this object in any way that is readable. Yet I can draw it in a virtual 3-D environment and make an image from that which shows you what it actually looks like in its totality.
Ed: And you use a virtual camera to render that image.
Jeff: I'd say that claiming a CGI rendering is done with a virtual camera is just borrowing familiar terminology from photography. It's basically bogus, just a metaphor.
Ed: Not exactly. 3-D computer programs very closely simulate all the settings of an actual camera. That's what makes it virtual. Similarly, you use virtual lighting to illuminate your model. You're able to make an image of your tower using the computer because you have complete control over all the "optical" phenomena. A 3-D frame render is a virtual photograph. We are fortunate not to be forced to communicate with computers in their native language.
Zoë: By the way, with your new work [Suzanne/Ed], do you see any irony or other significance in using one dying medium, photography, to reflect on another, the printed book?
Suzanne: Check that half "yes." I don't think photography is dead or dying, but it has become increasingly culturally amorphous. That said, there's an internal irony to these images because they give every appearance of being more totally "photographic" than any of our work in the last twenty-five years. However, every single image received considerable attention in the computer. Most of them are heavily composited. We used advanced techniques like HDR (high dynamic range) and other methods that are unique to digital imaging. There is no more need to capitalize digital photography.
HAS CONTEMPLATIVE THOUGHT GONE THE WAY OF VIRGINITY?
Suzanne: Would you consider the Internet as a causal agent of a major shift in paradigm? Also, has the Internet's role relative to the distribution of photography reciprocally affected photography in a broader sense?
Ed: Absolutely, it's dividing people's attention down into ever smaller fragments. And it's causing a revaluing - I'm tempted to say, a devaluing - of photographs.
Zoë: The Internet has a way of separating the good from the bad pictures in the sense that, if you do a Google search for oil platform images, and you get 500 of them, and everyone is consistently clicking on the same one, well that one is going to rise to the top. So, it's being edited through this other process, this crowd-sorting process.
Ed: The oil platform images might not be the best example because these are appealing primarily to rig workers who usually leave comments like, "My first job was on that rig in 1987." However, the site does have an album of favorites which I assume are the most viewed ones. In any case it's a dubious claim to say the best rise to the top. Isn't that determined more by popularity and isn't popularity the foremost criteria on the Web? Wikipedia's Today's Featured Picture is slightly different. We don't know how they are chosen and generally who the author is because he or she most often enters a user pseudonym. We can only guess whether it's by a pro or an amateur.
Jeff: I said earlier there's a photograph of everything. Well, all those photos are on the Net. It's there that everyone can have their photos seen because it's the super source and super gallery for, well, everything.
Ed: We need to expand here and not just talk about the Internet but the entire mediasphere. Phonocams are probably the most widely used camera today, and unique because people have them in their hands almost constantly. Without any inconvenience you can take photos of every moment in your day, post them or send them off to whomever as you go along. To what end I'm not sure.
Zoë: Just like text messages the overwhelming majority of these images have an extremely short lifespan. They're throwaways. I could send photos of my cat to my mom all day long and one would just replace the last. She'd love it. The cat that is.
Suzanne: Is there a place any longer for reflective, contemplative art as opposed to instant art, or throw away images? Susie Kalil posed a related
question - whether serious or substantial photos can be made with an iPhone?
Jeff: Of course. It has to do with intention and skill not the hardware. There are mucho examples of beautiful images created using homemade pinhole cameras. You could have things on the Internet that are just what you've described. I'm trying to make one right now about my years of cross-country trips. I have a web guy who can put together a coast-to-coast landscape that's made up of visual stories from that period of my life. Whether anyone will look at it, or, more important, look into it, that's up for grabs. You won't get any money from that sort of thing, but it is possible to have a dematerialized item that goes on the Web that's just as contemplative or deep as anything in a museum.
Ed: Ah, "dematerialized item," a perfect segue to the number one bullet point I have to offer. Namely, that the most significant effect digital technology and the Internet have had on photography is to release the image from its material base. Once an image is
liberated from a physical surface in the form of binary code, it can be moved about the mediasphere and distributed intact to screens across the planet.4 It can be stored, duplicated perfectly, or altered in numerous ways.
Zoë: Free at last! The larger culture seems to have abandoned the photographic print. So why are you two still making them?
Ed: You should not only ask why we still make prints, but why any of us, in the era of video, continue to make still images? If one of those is obsolete, so is the other. At my age I must embrace obsolescence. But, that's not the answer to your question - it's because both the still photograph and the printed image continue to have purpose in Suzanne's and my creative/professional lives as well as for humanity in toto.
PHOTOGRAPHY NOT PHOTOGRAPHY
Jeff: I used to be a "photographer," but I gave it up at some point. Why? Well... long story. I simply started using whatever I needed to use to do whatever I needed to do. And that's how I make art now.
Zoë: That is a widely held position today even though there are still many individuals who choose to work in one medium and therefore appropriately refer to themselves as photographers, painters, filmmakers, so forth. What you call yourself isn't as important as what you actually do. Your chosen label is just a reference point.
Ed: So what kind of work do you make, Zoë? Tell us about the matches.
Zoë: My match pieces started from word play. At the time I was making things that perfectly matched other things. In this case, a wooden match that really works as a match, as well as a match of a match, matching your conception of the match in your mind's eye. For this project, we cut down a poplar tree and then cut that into little sticks. Next I developed a recipe working with a chemist to get the materials right and not blow things up. From all this I created functional matches in an edition of 250, but they're not absolutely identical to each other because they're made individually. When I exhibit them I show one at a time.
Ed: How do you feel about them being presented as a photograph?
Zoë: It's been important to me how I portray the match. People often see a reproduction in print or on the Internet, so the photo becomes the artwork for them. Therefore, the qualities of the photo image are as important as the object photographed.
Ed: Seems to be about how things are actually made and, at the same time, about making a mass-produced commodity by hand, and finally about the large part photography plays in commodifying the object.
Jeff: How timely the matches were in relation to the collapse of the economy! One of the early Ponzi Scheme figures in history was a Swedish matchmaker.
Suzanne: Photography vs the artworld? Are they now in mutual embrace?
Jeff: I'd say "death grip."
Suzanne: How about the future of organizations like HCP, SPE, etc.?
Zoë: They need to keep working on getting the general culture to understand why we should value all of this stuff.
Suzanne: Including material and visual craft.
Ed: What about the rise of amateurism?
Zoë: Get over it, Ed.
Suzanne: The end of irony and return of beauty?
Jeff: Next time.
1. Paraphrase of Samuel Beckett's opening sentence in his story, Imagination Dead Imagine (Calder and Boyars, London, 1965).
2. Both couples have long held residences in Vermont as well as elsewhere, Bloom/Hill in Houston, TX and Sheehan Saldaña/Weiss in Brooklyn, NY.
3. Note: Because the transcription of the actual conversation amounts to nearly 12000 words, our word count limit will permit only very selective sampling. Bio facts can be found elsewhere in spot.
4. Early attempts at this would include lantern slides and slow-scan television. And later, broadcast television as well. But all of these analog methods had serious shortcomings, specifically in degraded image quality and transmission limitations.
Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom (MANUAL) are artists and professors who have collaborated for thirty-six years, and who live and work in Houston, TX and Vershire, VT.
Zoë Sheehan Saldaña is an artist and professor currently based in Brooklyn, NY.
Jeff Weiss is an artist and teacher who lives and works in Woodbury, VT and Brooklyn, NY.
Part I: 16 Rue des Gravellais, the Marais, Paris, France
Jack Stephens: What's your interest now? Why bugs and weeds?
Sally Gall: I'm interested in life in landscape, especially the unseen activity. A cultivated field of sunflowers infers the person who planted that field. I've often been interested in the unseen activity of humans and now I am interested in the activity of things that crawl and move invisibly through the landscape. Right now it's spider webs. There are probably hundreds all around us as we speak, but we don't see them. Only when they're lit with dew or a perfect angle of light allows it, do you see one. Then you move an inch and it's gone. They seem like ordinary things because we take them for granted, but they're actually strange, intricate, and beautiful. Do we ever stop and really look at one?
JS: Poets refresh the mundane by showing us what's marvelous about it. So for you it's the neglected participants that make a landscape what it is?
SG: They animate the landscape in mysterious ways thus it's a narrative way of entering a world. What are they doing? Where are they going? I'm offering the viewer a chance to come in on their hands and knees, for a change, rather than looking at everything as the upright creatures that we are. Also, after living in cities most of my life, I forget that bees, moths, and other insects pollinate and make things grow. I never think about the role of insects in our lives... that we wouldn't have growing things without them. I realized how important to the natural world all these creatures are, a part of landscape I have never paid attention to.
JS: Like how, without bees, we wouldn't last four years because there'd be no food... Why always nature as your subject matter?
SG: From childhood, I found being outside in nature exhilarating, a world apart from, I don't know....
JS: Your suburban existence.
SG: Yes. My working life as an artist has been to capture that sense of discovering the natural world, and to convey it to others. The beauty and the menace. With the hope that the photos take the viewer somewhere else, make the viewer think beyond the work itself to bigger things, other issues, universals, the meaning of nature in one's life, nature's cultural significance. I am really most interested in an individual's interaction with the natural world and I hope that my photograph will provide a space for contemplation and meditation and will immerse the viewer in their own humanity and its relation to nature. I want to present an experience in my photos that will lift the viewer from everyday consciousness, mundane reality, into a primal and immediate experience with the natural world.
But back to childhood. I realize as an adult that the experience I had then, and continue to have now, is what Freud called the "oceanic feeling," where one feels one is a part of something much bigger. You realize that you as a human being are only a small speck in a large universe. A feeling both scary and liberating, transcendent. I am always asking myself how I can capture that in a visual image.
JS: Some of my favorite photos of yours seem to contemplate nature from inside out. There is this friction between the meditative and the active. They don't just "put you there," but provide a locus of contemplation that is the difference between looking at fish through aquarium glass and being inside the aquarium with the fish.
SG: I've always wanted to make photos where you are in the landscape, not simply looking at the landscape. Where the viewer FEELS the natural world, has a visceral, sensual experience of it. I hope that when someone views one of the Crawl images, for example, that person feels that they really are there on the ground peering through the grasses, seeing a whole new world that they usually don't look at. I want the viewer to be a part of nature, a participant, not a voyeur. The human condition is inextricable from nature.
JS: So where do you see yourself when you are working? Behind the lens? In the lens? Certainly not like Cindy Sherman or Tseng Kwong Chi, in front of the lens?
SG: According to your definition, "inside the lens, inside the camera." I use the camera in a traditional way, as an extension of my eye.
JS: So the thing about the Crawl series is we're looking at things we haven't encountered since we were kids, or from the point of view of picnickers. And Subterranea, the body of work you shot in the twilight zone at the mouths of caves, is that place where the landscape folds inward and these are 'neglected landscapes,' places most people don't go, thus don't see. But what about the cherry blossom photos of Central Park?
SG: Ah... this is a very particular situation because living in New York, I always go to Central Park as my refuge. I love it. And it's especially wonderful in spring, after that grey northeastern winter, when the flowering trees suddenly explode. I found the trees so overwhelmingly full of life and color that I photographed the blossoms as beautiful objects against the sky, color, and light.
JS: What are you showing us about how we see cherry trees? Aren't you just making Japanese flower arrangements?
SG: I'm trying to show how lush and sexy and creaturely a cherry blossom is, the fertility of the tree, by taking it out of context, exposing the lushness of red petals against the lushness of blue sky.
JS: But also you disorient us in the one with big blossoms over the tiny cloud.
SG: To make you look afresh at something you're used to seeing all the time; to disorient you spatially. Like looking at the critters on soil-level, this time I invite the viewer's eye into the sky.
JS: This brings us to a fork in road. The blossoms were your first color work. Why the switch to color?
SG: This was the first time I really felt the work was about color; I was trying to use color like the abstract color field painters, Rothko, Barnett Newman, etc., - a field of pink against a field of blue. The color expressed the lushness so it wasn't a "switch" to color, but it was a moment I needed color to express what I was trying to express.
JS: Watching you photograph and looking at your photographs over the years, I think of you as an explorer. You are reluctant to manipulate or set up or stage or plan as you photograph.
SG: Yes, I feel like an explorer. I always want to know my surroundings and see what catches my attention, whether I am photographing or not. I feel a deep need to KNOW my surroundings and so whenever I go anywhere new, (and I am always drawn to visit someplace new), I do lots of exploring and do a lot of what some people consider, wasting time. I walk or drive around a lot, looking. Just looking and not necessarily photographing. It's about seeing and knowing, which for me is what making art is. As an example, I remember many years ago when Sally Mann and I, among others, were both teaching at the Tuscany Photo Workshop (Italy); we had both been invited to teach there for the first time, and neither one of us had been there before. I was driving around like crazy, exploring all the towns, all the roads, all the territory within reasonable driving distance of the workshop, making lots of photos of the landscape, and she never left the grounds, never left the "campus", but slowly circled around (by foot) where she was staying and took pictures. I remember having a funny discussion about it - I couldn't understand why she didn't want to get out and see more, and she couldn't understand why I did! I had a deep need to do it, and she didn't, and it was so interesting to me that a photographer that I admire and respect so much didn't, and it just pointed out the differences in artistic creation, two different ways of approaching looking at the world to make art out of. She makes art out of what's immediately in front of her (thus her family) and I go far and wide to seek... things I don't know. Underground caves, the world at our feet, wide open seas. Something that is ineffable, indescribable, and perhaps still out there waiting to be found.
JS: That sounds a bit like Cartier-Bresson, but your photos aren't so journalistic. The sense is more about how you are seeing the things you are discovering. It's like they are portraits, not of the discoverer or the discovered, but of the moment of discovery. Portraits of discovering discovery.
JS: I think of that tiny boat on that huge sea, about to sail off the edge....
SG: Evidence of Wind... Obviously I liberated the boat, composi-tionally, from its context in space by where I placed the camera frame. The narrative of the picture implies that the boat keeps sailing out of the picture frame and into the unknown. We KNOW that there is more sea and sky and land outside of the frame of the photo and yet it seems an adventure of discovery by that boat, like Columbus insisting that the world is round and going off to prove it - the boat is sailing out of the edge of the frame, off the edge of the world... to where? And of course the scale of what appears to be a tiny boat next to a giant cloud only makes us all the smaller in the face of nature.
JS: What about your choices in the darkroom? You certainly manipulate there.
SG: Because I like to abstract the image from the literal enough to make it timeless. I don't want the image to be specific to time and place, because it's about experience, not history and fact. So I do some selective diffusion during printmaking in the darkroom, making some areas of the image less sharp than others. Where the photo was shot, what time of day, what season, what year, are simply not relevant.
JS: In the same way that dream experience is very real, but dreams aren't real.
SG: That's good. I like that! I think a work of art, a photograph, can function the same way - particularly a photograph. The viewer knows I took the photo in a "real" place because it looks like a real place that has a familiarity to the viewer, and yet I tweak it a little, so that there is the sense of it having a very slight unreality (does that place really exist?) but the experience feels real. I like to create a slight frisson between reality and imagination, a dream state. All with the goal of making the viewer look harder.
JS: And yet you switched to color, which to my mind, unless you are a rabid colorist, locks the viewer more directly into a relationship with reality.
SG: And that's why I usually avoid color, but for some situations... for example, Crawl, color allowed me a certain amount of freedom that black and white didn't. Because, for one thing, when I photograph bugs in black and white, I can't differentiate the bug enough from the tangle of grasses and weeds it lives in. I do love the inherent abstraction that is part of black and white photography... we do after all live in a world of color.
JS: So how do you keep the same level of abstraction?
SG: With the focus. One can depict close color objects out of focus, and turn them into color fields. A blob of yellow, not a dandelion, and so on.
JS: It's a serious compositional issue. You're using a very shallow depth of field and a scalpel-sharp focal plane, you're being decisive about what to include and exclude in the focus in the way that you were with your framing and your search for the perfect light in your black and white work.
SG: The blossoms were very different because it's the only time I use lush colors for their own sake... with Crawl, the color, and the focus, are part of creating a world unto the photograph.
JS: Last question about landscape: What is the decisive moment in landscape photography?
SG: It's the moment the light reveals what we didn't see a minute ago. The light is always changing and revealing things. You think you know how something appears, and then voila, the sun goes behind a cloud, and suddenly a shadow covers up something that was there a minute ago, or the sun comes out and illuminates something way off in the distance that changes totally your sense of the space of the landscape. It's exhilarating because you can look at the same place 100 times and then the 101st time it looks totally different because of the angle of light and it's as if you have never seen it before. That's the feeling I try to capture - that you are looking at something that you know in a deep way (the land, trees, natural elements, etc.) and are seeing it and feeling it as if you have never seen it or felt it before.
Part II: Via 20 Settembre #3, Rome, Italy
JS: Tell me about Houston and HCP and your time at Texas Gallery and the Contemporary Arts Museum when you were in your twenties.
SG: Looking back, Houston was a wonderful place to be a young artist in the early 80s. I was particularly fortunate to be in Houston at the exact moment I was, because Houston had a burgeoning art scene! I had just returned after graduating from RISD and immediately began working for The Cronin Gallery, Houston's only photography gallery. Tony Cronin had just died and Robin Cronin was left with her grief and the gallery to run; she hired me and gave me a lot more responsibility than I might have ordinarily had because she was dealing with so much. That's where I laid the groundwork for everything I know about photography because that is where I saw hundreds and hundreds of photographs, both vintage and contemporary. The gallery wasn't exactly busy in the sense of being full of people or activity - I had ample opportunity to look at things, and to go through all the flat files with the handful of collectors that came regularly. It was a treasure trove. Robin Cronin was very generous to let me "browse"; she considered it part of my education that was necessary to help her sell photos. The next-door neighbor in the strip "bunker" behind the River Oaks Shopping center was the Texas Gallery, where Fredericka Hunter and Ian Glennie were showcasing - and continue to exhibit - contemporary artists of the moment, from Robert Rauschenberg to Ed Ruscha to Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as many local artists. The proximity of the two galleries was very exciting and I eventually showed my work first at Cronin Gallery, then at Texas Gallery. Between the two, I saw lots of art and met many artists. Then Robin Cronin closed her gallery for personal reasons and I met Linda Cathcart, who had come from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, to head the Contemporary Arts Museum. She hired me as her curatorial assistant, which gave me a further immersion in the world of art and artists, many of whom I'm still in touch with today. She had a garrulous personality and brought a fantastic amount of energy into the museum and helped me see what a big wide world of interests and activity contemporary art held.
Around that time I also taught photography at the Glassell School and one course of photo history at University of Houston. Then the
Houston Center of Photography was born, a tiny community project whose organizers loved photography and simply wanted to give photography a home in Houston. And now HCP has blossomed into a national non-profit organization, a gallery space, educational program, magazine, etc. Thirty years later it has national cache. It's thriving!
JS: What is the most frequently asked question you get about your work?
SG: Do you work digitally? And 'Why not?'
JS: And the answers are?
SG: I am interested in the making of, and the viewing of, art for its content and meaning and aesthetic. In my case, it happens to be photography. I don't have a position on digital photography or even on what is happening in photography today when it comes to current trends. All art forms evolve so it's only natural that after working in a medium a long time, one would see many trends and major changes. I am interested in what the individual artist has to say and how they say it, not the trends and directions that preoccupy critics, historians, and curators. Not that the trends and directions aren't interesting, but I come to it from a making art point of view and I am interested in why a particular artist chooses to say something. Not why suddenly everyone is making a certain kind of photo. Digital photography is another tool, a technology to be used or not. When I began photography 35 years ago, I learned with a film camera in a traditional darkroom. That was the technology then, and even then I used cheap plastic cameras like the Diana because I am only interested in technique so far as it advances my intentions. I don't shoot digital now because I have no reason to move from film to digital or to change how I capture images. I suppose I will eventually be forced in that direction because of availability or lack of materials. Not to mention their expense. Also, I suppose, the time is coming when working with film will give antiquated feeling results once we are used to digital images. I'm not a Luddite though. For practical tasks I have begun to utilize some digital technologies to make life easier. For instance, making cheaper and quicker rough prints on the computer with scanned negatives, rather than in the darkroom. In sum, I am interested in photographing the real world pretty much as it is, with just a little darkroom tweaking here and there for emotional and sensual reasons. So I'm not the kind of photographer who needs a particular aspect of Photoshop or digital image capture. I don't need to add or subtract elements from my photos, like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and others. Not yet, anyway. My interest as a photographer has always been in my interaction with the real world; I want to rub up against the real stuff of life and present it as I experience it.
Poet-novelist-screenwriter Jack Stephens is also Sally's husband, in-house critic, and sometime assistant. His most recent film release is the documentary IMAX feature Arabia 3-D and his most recent publication is the nonfiction environmental book Living Mirrors: A Coral Reef Adventure. He is currently at work on a joint Italo-Russo-American feature film based on his adventures restoring an abandoned farm in the heart of Tuscany, and he is working on a memoir as well.
The idea of Artist Dialogue came about because HCP is always trying to create new ways for artists to meet and talk about their work. Membership has grown to an all time high, and while that is something to celebrate, HCP should also feel like an intimate place where artists can openly talk about their work and visitors are invited to ask questions and seek answers. Artist Dialogue was a call for artwork that encouraged artists to show their work in the learning center gallery at HCP. At the end of the exhibit, artists exchanged work and HCP encouraged the artists to start a conversation about the ideas, methods, and history that fuel the creative process. The artists all voted for their favorite photographs, and Shelley and Galina proved to be the winners. Their winning photographs and an excerpt from their dialogue are published below.
- Bevin Bering Dubrowski
Galina Kurlat: Tell me about your new project Within My Garden, Rides a Bird. Do you generally start a body of work with an idea of what the outcome will be or is it more instinctual?
Shelley Calton: Each of my projects was formed in different ways, some developed on their own. That being said, one usually leads to another, most of the time not on a conscious level. I usually have to think about a project for quite some time before I start shooting. Once I do begin, it is intuitive. I started shooting the Within My Garden project with an old 4x5 view camera, then went to medium format. I was thinking about buying a new digital camera, so I borrowed a friend's Canon 5D Mark II, and loved it. I ended up shooting the project with it, my first digitally shot series. I see you work with or did work with Polaroid Type 55 film. Are you missing it as much as I am? Also, tell me about the Sanctuary project.
GK: I would have never suspected that your image was shot using a digital camera. The subject matter and style are very reminiscent of archaic photographic processes. I was distraught when Polaroid Type 55 was discontinued. At that point it was my primary medium. It was then that I realized that I wanted to start making Ambrotypes and working in the collodion process. I had assisted Jody Ake in New York for a number of years and finally decided I needed a space to work in which could house both a darkroom and a shooting area. So I moved down here to Houston in order to be able to set up shop and really train myself how to work with collodion. Recently, I began a completely new series of 100 self-portraits. I hope to have them completed over the course of this year using my remaining stash of Type 55 - yes, I still have a shelf in my fridge dedicated to expired film - and wet collodion. This is the first time I have approached a project with the intention of making a certain amount of images within a given time frame. It really has changed my approach. I find myself working for the sake of working, rather than a given outcome. Sanctuary (Untitled) 1 was photographed much like the rest of that body of work over a much longer period of time and usually either on vacation or a road trip. Since this work was mostly shot outside of New York City, I was able to bring back a Tupperware box of negatives. How do you feel about sharing your work before it is completed? Do you feel that a critique group or a community of like-minded artists is beneficial to your process? Since I moved, that group of friends has scattered all over the US. Now we send iPhone images and JPEGs of work we have made for each other's feedback. How important do you feel is an artist dialogue to your working method?
SC: HCP has First Tuesday, where you can share your work with other photographers and get feedback. As artists, it helps to have the input from our peers. We are so fortunate to have a large and wonderful photography community in Houston. It's great to have HCP, FotoFest, and the MFAH fulfill all of our photo community needs. I'm ready to undertake a new project -Texas women that carry concealed handguns, and I want to add audio and video, which seem to be important elements these days. Have you considered mixed media for any of your projects?
GK: Although I appreciate mixed media work, I have not really had the chance to experiment with it. The difficulty of working with Type 55 and especially collodian has kept me in one medium. That said, I have just sized some paper to try salt printing for the first time. Since paper lends itself to so many approaches, I may be interested in incorporating other media. Tell me more about your new project - one of the first things that stood out to me as typically Texas is the "51 gun law" signs outside of most restaurant and bars here in town. Can people really bring concealed handguns anywhere except a bar or nightclub? How will you find these women who have a concealed carrying permit? Do you or will you get a gun for the project? What kind of mixed media are you considering for this new body of work?
SC: Well, to tell you the truth, I did not know what the "51 gun law" was about, so I checked it out. It is unlawful to carry a handgun on the premises of a business that derives 51 percent or more of its income from the sale of alcohol for on-premises consumption. I'm somewhat uneasy around guns, so this project is also about confronting my own fears. I have signed up for a concealed handgun class in January. I want to get the full experience and hopefully meet some gun-toting women. I'm checking in with all of my girlfriends and their friends - it's always surprising who's packing! I will be doing audio and video interviews as I'm interested in why these women have guns.
GK: Hearing their reasoning for having handguns and concealed carrying permits will be very interesting. I would be curious to know how often they carry their guns with them. Do they leave it home if they are going out the mall or take it with them on a first date? One of the most important parts of image making for me is walking that fine line between having full control of your end result and giving some of that control away, with the hope of happy accidents. Collodion has been a great medium for this since there are so many variations, which will affect the image from the density of your silver bath to how you pour the developer. As maddening as it is, when it works the results are like nothing else. I find your body of work, Invisible Thread, very inspiring. The archetype of woman's lingerie has so much history, each piece being so unique and personal, yet easily recognizable. From the sensual to the purely functional, these intimate clothing items are an integral part of day-to-day life. They are usually very well cared for and change as we age and our bodies change with time. What compelled you to start working with people's belongings, rather than the people themselves? Which do you prefer?
SC: The Invisible Thread work came about in two ways. On the subconscious side, I was still working on the Roller Derby project, and part of the costumes they wore sometimes included bustiers and fishnets. On the conscious side, I was in a vintage clothing store and came across a box of lingerie. I started thinking about the women who wore the garments, their stories, and how as women we are all connected. I loved photographing the women of the Houston Roller Derby, but it was a nice change to work on the lingerie still life in my studio. I seem to have this parallel thing with my projects. I will do studio work and simultaneously work on something that takes me out into the world to photograph interesting people. As for walking that fine line of control and having happy accidents, I find that shooting digitally takes that away. Not so sure that is a good thing - I'm with you on those wonderful little surprises you get with film!