By James Rhem
When Arthur Tress stood amid the sumptuous retrospective of his career in the rooms of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in July of 2001, he had one question: “Where do I go from here?” At 60 Tress was not ready to end his career as one of America’s most prolific and protean photographic artists, but he wasn’t ready to settle into repeating himself either. “It happens to many photographers,” says Tress, “ you become successful for one period because maybe in your twenties and thirties you make a certain contribution to photo history and then you kind of settle into that.” And, indeed, while he’s produced a huge and varied body of work, prints from Tress’s Dream Collector series done when he was in his thirties remain perhaps his most collected work along with his homo-erotic imagery and selections from one of his excursions into color photography and extended photo-narrative, The Fish Tank Sonata.
Tress describes himself as “polymorphous perverse” in style and motivation, always looking for the edge of expression and pushing it or transgressing at that edge just a bit. The last rooms of the Corcoran show contained what must have seemed to many viewers the end of the line in stylistic experimentation. There were “pop-ups,” three-dimensional photo constructions and a group of images called Faceted Fictions” These last Tress created by photographing book illustrations through a faceted glass and then hand coloring the photographs. “With this elaborate series of very crafted images, I really pushed what photography is normally thought of,” Tress recalled in a recent conversation.
“So what do you do?” Tress continued. “You go two steps forward and one step back; so I took six steps backward. I began rereading, getting in touch with photographers that I admired in my youth like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and others. I began looking at their books again. So in my own photography I went back to simple documentary, just walking around and taking pictures.” For Tress, known as a pioneer of “staged” photography in his Dream Collector and Theater of Mind series in the 1970s, this move was both a departure and a return. His first major work was also documentary made just “walking around” — Open Space in the Inner City: Ecology and the Urban Environment — a series undertaken for the Sierra Club focused on finding remnants of nature in the built environment. Five thousand portfolios of that work were printed and distributed to public schools. It fulfilled its documentary mission, aided in many ways by Tress’s darker surrealist sensibility.
Before Tress could get out the door on his new walking adventure, what he describes as a “funny event” happened: a heavy box of prints he was getting down from a high shelf fell on his head and gave him a slight concussion. Perhaps it was more than slight; he awoke that night with the room spinning and found himself taken by ambulance to the hospital. He developed a severe case of vertigo. Most vertigo lasts a day or perhaps a week; Tress’s lasted a year and a half.
The falling box was the first of a small series of accidents that had significant impacts on Tress’s new creative work. When he started photographing again, he began a series he calls Spinners created by rotating the camera lens around a central pivot during exposure. “I’d just twist my wrist,” he says. Spinners of children seem to catch them with a fresh visual energy not so much in a tableau from their dreams as in the visceral process of dreaming itself.
One day while making Spinners, Tress’s lens shade got cock-eyed. He thought, looking at the vignetting in the ground glass of his Hasselblad, “this is interesting” and went on to make a series of octagonal photos. Later that led him to wonder what would happen if he turned the lens shade around backwards. He tried it and looking at the fully circular vignette, he began to imagine images of strange new planets. Focusing on different textured and patterned surfaces, he created a whole portfolio of these, which Lodima has just published as a book. “I was just using what I found — a kind of ‘straight’ photography, not that that’s in anyway superior to manipulated photography. It’s just where my head has been the last few years,” Tress continued.
The vertigo, Tress says, created a little instability in his creativity and made him rely on intuition more than on a program of intention. Somehow it also got him into geometric shapes, especially spiral shapes.,
While the actual vertigo was new to Tress, the appeal of disorientation and the quest for reorientation were old friends. After college, he traveled the world — Europe, Egypt, Mexico, India, Japan and Africa — photographing cultures and customs as a kind of folklorist and ethnographer. Indeed, he ended his world tour in Sweden working as photographer for the Stockholm Ethnographical Museum. And when Tress retuned to the States in 1968, his first assignment took him to Appalachia to document the people and customs there. Each of these “foreign” worlds presented a disorienting aspect, a challenge to Tress’s understanding and experience, a challenge he would work out photographically by embracing the “otherness” of the places and peoples. He had, after all, long been in the process of embracing the otherness of his homosexuality, a process culminating in yet another body of published work, Arthur Tress: Facing Up (1980). “Growing up in the 1950s as a gay teenager and not really knowing what that was gave me sort of a sense of being an existential outsider,” he says.
The outsider hasn’t wanted to change, but he has thrived on transformations of the world around him. In the early 1980s Tress discovered a way into an abandoned training hospital on New York’s Welfare Island, a 500-room facility full of outmoded equipment from the 1950s. For three years he entered through a second-story window with cans of colorful spray paint, his camera and color film. He transformed over 60 rooms from haunting tombs filled with the memory of diseases like polio into what he describes as “Kafkaesque kindergartens.” An iron lung becomes The Green Cow; an array of portable respirators becomes a rainbow fantasy of maternal nurturance in Mother Matrix.
In some ways Tress has been almost as prolific, varied, and creative in the six years since his big retrospective as in the 40 years it showcased. He’s produced compelling work in at least ten new series in both black and white and color. In two of the most impressive, he’s played to his strengths as an “existential outsider” making penetrating images of two very contemporary subcultures — the habitués of skateboard and paintball parks. Both these worlds contain the fears and excitements that have animated some of Tress’s best work for years. “It’s something reflective of my inner psyche or insecurities, I guess,” he says. “I always seem to focus on this edgy darkness, and that’s where the best Tress lies. I don’t know why: it’s my gift and my curse.”
In the skateboard and paintball parks, the fears of death and injury are both real and imagined; the dreams of flying and conquest enjoyed equally though in miniature versions. But if thematic familiarity drew Tress to these worlds, it is perhaps his delight in engaging very different visual and technical problems that has helped make them newly vibrant. “Look, there’s a great joy in photography,” says Tress. “Most photographers, when they’re happy is when they’re trudging along with their camera photographing; it’s the brightest part of their day.”
Just as thematic streams in Tress’s creative life flow together in these two series in transformed ways, so, too, do formal visual qualities: the disorientation of the current spinners series, a harking back to the drama of shadows, which he once explored in a full-length narrative (Shadows, 1975). Yet nothing about the work seems old, rehashed Tress.
“An aspect of the skate parks and paintball series that I’m rather proud of,” says Tress, “is that I became a sort of sports photographer to do them, and that was something that I’d never really done. I really got good at anticipating action and shooting at 500th of a second. With the Hasselblad it’s not easy. By the time you focus and release the shutter the action may be over. The way I enjoyed learning these new skills was as a challenge, I think that’s part of me, the attraction to trying the new to see what that’s like. What can I do with that?”
Eventually the skateboard work became a kind of narrative of ritual self-initiation that will soon appear as a book — Wheels on Waves.
Serendipity has guided Tress’s artistic journey in the last several years, and while he’s opened himself to aleatoric practices at times (as in the “spinners”), there’s been nothing careless about how he’s traveled these new pathways. Take Pointers, another post-vertigo series that followed Spinners and the octagonal photos. Exposure to a lot of modernist, European-style architecture around Palm Springs caught Tress’s eye and led him back to reviewing Rodchenko and Bauhaus imagery. Faced with the challenge of photographing these stairways and facades in a fresh way, he turned the camera 45 degrees and stood his square image on its point. There was a touch of Mondrian influence hovering over the form as well, since Mondrian had done some diamond-shaped paintings with his usual geometric content. But Tress didn’t stop there: “It was a way of working that I’d never explored,” says Tress. “Over the last five or six years I’ve thought of myself as a kind of student, recharging my batteries for the next 25 years,” he says laughing. “When I was doing the Pointers, I even went to Europe to photograph some of the masterpieces of modernist architecture: Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and others. I just made a little pilgrimage.”
About the Pointers Tress says, “I set out first to destroy the frame, the traditional frame of the photograph. I’ve made myself a little rule for the last few years that I’m not allowed to make the same photograph twice. I think a lot of photographers get one or two interesting photographs and then do that for the next five years. So I’ll do three or four of something, and then I’ll say to myself, ‘Have I done that already?’ In photography it’s very easy to get into visual formulas, and I think a lot of photographers fall prey to that. It’s the way you structure reality. You just get in the habit of organizing things again and again the same way.”
Though the modernist subject matter in the Pointers seems familiar, Tress’s images convey a fresh energy, one that not only satisfies in the here and now, but also one that renews one’s sense of what was fresh and vital in all that Bauhaus imagery and modernist design in the first place.
Influences abound in Tress’s work. He readily acknowledges them, knowing that to be influenced is not to be derivative. “A big influence on me in the last few years has been Paul Strand,” he says. “A couple of his books are laid out on my table right now.” Though Strand did all kinds of work, his portraits have impacted Tress perhaps most, and have led to yet another impressive series in the last few years called Grave Demeanors. A number of these picture gay men with their mothers. One astonishing portrait of Tress’s sister makes the idea of family connection almost literally palpable.
All of Tress’s recent work has been formally well structured; something that he believes may be a professional disadvantage for an artist these days. Thinking especially of his Pointers” Tress muses: “One of the tenets of modernism is movement of forms within the picture and the tension of positive and negative shapes and the edges of the picture, but now with the adoration of the snapshot aesthetic that attention to form has been neglected a little bit — the ability within that instant to be able to construct a very complicated orchestration of shapes and forms. I think we’ve dumbed down what we expect from photography. And sadly, I think a lot of curators have followed that lead.”
Though Tress has continually renewed himself creatively and produced an impressive body of varied work, he remains untroubled by the thought that clear, careful structure is passé. For him, a photograph could hardly aspire to the status of art without it, and, in that way, he remains unabashedly old-fashioned even as he goes forward never really repeating himself.
James Rhem is the author of Ralph Eugene Meatyard: The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater & Other Figurative Photographs and the Phaidon 55 Series on Aaron Siskind.
Manipulating Reality: Jill Greenberg
A photographer active in both the commercial world and the fine-art gallery realm, Jill Greenberg has become closely identified with the subject matter of monkeys and apes, bears, and weeping human toddlers. It was the monkey portraits that first commanded the attention of gallery-goers in 2004, in part because of the tension between the “human” eyes and expressions set into “animal” faces. Both the photographic prints and the book Monkey Portraits (Little, Brown, 2006) became best-sellers overnight. The monkeys were closely followed by “End Times,” a series of photographs of crying toddlers with politically-charged titles attached to the pictures. However, as Greenberg found, the titles were not the only controversial element. Although the work was praised by many, it was also criticized by those who considered it abusive to induce small children to cry, even though the cause of the tears was merely taking away a lollipop. Most recently, Greenberg has presented her “Ursine Series,” which consists of photographs of bears, to the art world. In addition to her distinctive subject matter, Greenberg is noted for the techniques she employs on her prints, including Photoshop, drawing, and brushwork. In a nod to her approach to her technique, she gave the title “manipulator.com” to her website, and the nickname “the manipulator” has stuck to the artist.
By Jain Kelly
In 1989 you graduated from RISD—the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence–with a BFA in photography. Do you see yourself as being steeped in the history of photography?
Yes, I do.
Are there particular photographers who stand out in your mind as having influenced your work, or perhaps you simply like the best?
My influences are pretty varied. They’re not just photography. I’m probably influenced more by painters than photographers, especially the Surrealists and Francis Bacon; also by rock concert lighting. I have lots of different inspirations.
In one interview you said you were not a fan of straight photography. Could you explain that?
Some of my portraits are pretty straight, but I don’t necessarily believe a photograph has to be straight. What I really meant is I like to alter reality, or “make” a picture more than “take” a picture, which can involve changing something that doesn’t necessarily have some innate truth to it. I don’t think any photograph is the “truth” necessarily; it doesn’t necessarily prove anything happened.
Early on, you became known as “the manipulator,” and in fact that is the name of your website: manipulator.com. Is that a name you gave to yourself or did someone else give it to you?
I gave it to the website, really. It was inspired by a German photo magazine called The Manipulator that I used to read when I was in high school. It was an oversized art and culture magazine in Germany at about the same time The Face Magazine and ID began publishing out of London. When I was in high school I used to look at these magazines and be really inspired and think I really liked all the different kinds of photography that they showed.
That’s quite intriguing. Can you tell us about some of the techniques that you employ in your work?
A lot of it is lighting and then a lot of it is Photoshop afterwards. Sometimes for a job I’m asked to do something that looks like something else, so I’ll do that. And then sometimes when I’m doing personal work I’m trying to do something that’s different and I’m experimenting. A lot of the personal work has been shot on film and a lot of my advertising work has been digital. I do still prefer film but there are definitely some benefits to shooting digitally. For example, you can keep playing with the lighting and keep pushing it and changing it and tweaking it, and I can see what is working. I might at some point start shooting digitally for my personal work, too.
Sometimes you draw on the animals’ eyes, is that correct?
I draw on all my images with Photoshop. Originally I was playing with changing the bears’ eyes because I felt they weren’t as open and human-looking as the monkeys’, so you couldn’t identify with the bears as much. Actually the bears’ vision isn’t very good so their eyes aren’t as important as their sense of smell to their ability to function as animals. In the end I kept the bears’ eyes as their own, but to me that’s not necessarily significant, because, as I have said, I like making pictures instead of taking them. I go back and forth: do I want something to be “authentic” or does it matter to me? I make these pictures as an artist; I’m not a scientist and I’m not a documentarian of various species of bears. However, when you’re working in photography as a medium, people want to know your techniques and other kinds of information. They want to know how you did the lighting for the bear, where was it shot, what was the bear’s name and what kind of bear was it? All these things are important to me, but to me it’s more about the picture itself: the emotion of the picture, the formal composition, the colors, and the feelings that you get from looking at the picture, what it makes you think of, and what it means to you as opposed to the factual information of how it was made. The factual information is kind of frustrating, actually. I’ve done interviews for photography magazines written for tech geeks and that’s what they want to know, maybe because they want to copy the pictures and they think that knowing the techniques will automatically allow them to duplicate the photographs. To me all of that is almost beside the point. That’s why I’m thinking of starting to do some more painting, although I’m not clear that I can ever actually avoid those kinds of questions.
So you are a painter, still?
I’ve gone back to it a little. My whole childhood I was drawing and painting and doing sculpture. When I went to RISD, originally it was to be an illustration major. I was doing photography in high school. In fact, I had been doing photography since I was eight or nine years old, including working in the darkroom, as well as painting and drawing. In freshman year at RISD, my teacher Paul Krot said “You’re definitely a photography major, not an illustration major,” and I switched my major to photography. I’m very happy that I did that, and I still have a great outlet for my drawing and painting in my Photoshop. It’s just fun to do.
When you went to New York City after college, was it specifically to do advertising photography?
Well, I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I first graduated. I knew I wanted to be a photographer and an artist, but I wasn’t really clear how that was going to happen. I was working on my portfolio for commercial photography and I was also actively doing personal work. I didn’t have any contacts at all in the beginning, but a lot of my friends from RISD were in New York in the fine art scene and I started hanging out with them and going to art galleries and openings. Basically I was trying to do both the commercial work and the personal work, and it was hard to do both because they are two different things. I continued taking classes at the School of Visual Arts in things like Photoshop, art history, and studio painting. I applied to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, which provides a setting for artists to pursue both the practice of art and discussion and debate about it. I had done an internship at Pace/MacGill Gallery, and had recommendations from Peter MacGill, and the artists Andres Serrano and Ronald Jones.I came extremely close to getting into the Whitney Program right up to the interview, but I had never really have never been that great–or at least I had fallen out of the practice of– talking about my work in that incredibly serious, critical theory format that I’m sure is still expected for anyone applying to the Whitney Program or to any graduate program.
I still feel that the work I showed to try to get in was interestingly avant-garde. I was scanning body parts–this was 1991 or 92–and I was scanning from men’s porno magazines and doing strange collages with things like that. So it was really early digital art and it would have been interesting if I had gotten in and followed that course. The week I didn’t get into the Whitney Program was the week I got an assignment from Sassy Magazine to do a portrait of somebody, and I said, “I guess maybe my decision has been made for me. If I do this kind of work I can afford the equipment and supplies to do my personal work later on.”
You remained in New York for 12 years, and you’ve been in Los Angeles for about 8 years. Why did you move to Los Angeles?
I’m from Michigan, so I’m not an East Coast person. I wanted a little more space and light. I used to come to Los Angeles about 5 or 6 times a year for work and I just knew I could keep working. Basically I wanted to get out of New York and LA was the best option for my career because of the commercial world. It’s the runner-up city to New York for both commercial photography and fine-art photography. Also, I knew some people here.
At what point did you start to exhibit in galleries?
My first exhibition was in 2004 at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles.
Who are your main galleries, especially in Los Angeles and New York?
Now it’s Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and Clampart in New York.
Was the Monkey series the first series shown in a gallery?
Yes. I didn’t have many contacts to help me get into a gallery, but there was a teacher at RISD who showed at Paul Kopeikin Gallery. His name was Henry Horenstein. We were friendly but he had not been one of my teachers. He used to bring his class down to New York to give them a tour of New York photographers, so every year he brought his students to my studio. I knew he showed at Paul Kopeikin so I asked him to introduce me to Paul, because I just needed somewhere to start. It’s really hard to get started in the art world. Originally Paul was a little bit skeptical. He said, “Why would anyone want a monkey on the wall?” But I printed one really big and he said, “I’ll stick it up on the back wall and see what the response is.” People were incredibly interested and they said, “This is crazy! What is this? Can I buy this?” You know, the monkeys and apes are really expensive to rent and I wasn’t sure how much I should invest in this series if I couldn’t have a show. At a certain point Paul said, “Yeah, maybe you should shoot some more and see what happens,” and eventually he gave me a show.
So you began photographing the Monkey series in 2001 and it debuted in October of 2004. How did the idea for this series come about?
I was shooting a little monkey for a job for Target. It was a little white capuchin in a room with two little children. I don’t think I’d ever really met a monkey personally, close-up. So I decided to do a portrait of the monkey just for myself and I quickly set up a little lighting situation. I was so in love with the results when I saw them that I thought, wow, this is something interesting. I loved the lighting on the fur and the expression on the monkey’s face, and I just loved that this was a portrait of an animal that was so similar to humans. What did that say about humans? What did that say about the animal? To me the lighting was really different from other things that I’d been doing. It felt totally modern and fresh. I liked all these new things that were going on, so I decided to continue it.
How many pictures are in the Monkey series?
At this point there are something like 80 or 90. I originally made about 20 or 30 for the first show. I published and designed the exhibition catalogue with a friend from RISD; the essay was written by a friend from RISD, Paul Myoda. Then a friend introduced me to a book agent who decided to help me shop around with the idea of doing a Monkey portraits book [Monkey Portraits, Little, Brown, 2006]. Once I got that deal, I had to shoot more. I used the advance to go down to Miami to shoot a bunch more. Then I looked everywhere to find as many different species of monkeys and apes that I could find.
Are you continuing with the Monkey series?
I’m not really continuing only because there aren’t that many species of monkeys that are available to me through the animal agencies, any different than the ones I’ve already shot. I would definitely shoot a gorilla but there are no “working gorillas,” because they’re endangered and PETA would never allow it. Or a Bonobo. Neither of those is available. They really have to be trained because they can be dangerous so they’re all animal actors. If I came across an amazing animal I would definitely do a portrait. I’ve done orangutans and chimps and capuchins and mandrills and baboons and I’ve tried to exhaust all the resources. I was emailing people all over the world trying to find different species that were working animals.
Did you find that you bonded with certain monkeys, almost like human beings?
The most bonding, I think, was with the orangutans, because they’re the most intelligent. Chimps and orangutans are the most intelligent because they’re apes. There were a couple of baby orangutans whose hands I held that just seemed like little children. But it would be hard to bond with a lot of the little monkeys because they’re a little skittish and crazy.
The titles in the Monkey series seem fairly straightforward, things like “Kenuzy’s Back,” or “The Cuddler,” Is that a naïve statement?
No, they’re pretty much free association on my part. For example “Kenuzy’s Back” refers to the name of the chimp.
The next series to come to the attention of the public was “End Times,” conceived in 2004 and exhibited in 2006. Can you tell something about how you got the idea for this series?
I had photographed children who ended up crying. When I was at RISD I went to visit one of my cousins and photographed her son crying. I just loved that picture and I used it for a little poster for my DJ night at the school disco, called the Tap Room. Then around 2002 I photographed a friend’s child in Los Angeles. The picture I liked best of him in the series was the one in which he just started crying and I put that in my commercial portfolio. Basically after the monkeys I was trying to figure out what I might like to do next for another personal series. I had a daughter at that point and I was thinking of all the things that my daughter might have to deal with growing up as a little girl, so I was thinking of doing a series of little girls around 6. I started photographing a little girl I had met at a party, but then her younger brother came at a studio shoot and I started photographing him. He just started crying for no reason. I guess he didn’t want to be photographed. It was the end of January, 2005, and George Bush had just been inaugurated for the second term. I thought the picture of the little boy crying should be called “Four More Years.” I just thought it would be sort of funny to do a series of children crying. I mean it to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, or on the nose, with titles like “Four More Years” or “Shock” and “Awe,” “Nucular,” “ Intelligent Design,” and “Postdiluvian.”
At the time the toddlers evoked great controversy as to whether or not getting them to cry was “child abuse.” How did you get them to cry?
Either they cried by themselves because they didn’t want to be photographed or we sometimes gave them a lollipop and then took it away. The mom usually did that. I didn’t ever talk to the children or touch them or actually interface with them in any way. I just sort of sat there and waited for them to do something. Or in many cases, maybe 30% of the time, the kids wouldn’t cry at all, so we just sort of gave up very quickly. And that was pretty much it.
Were most of them professional models?
About half. As much as a 2 and-a-half year old can be a professional model. A lot of them were registered with an agency but hadn’t really worked before. Some of them were my daughter’s classmates at her pre-school.
I wasn’t sure how the series would be received in terms of would someone want to buy that picture for their wall? But you know people have all different reactions. Some people say, you know, I love them, they’re so beautiful, I really want one. Someone said that to me yesterday. Then some people say, or you read, that they’re awful or they’re sexual, all these things that people read into them.
Were you taken aback by the level of controversy?
I was taken aback by the level of controversy and it was upsetting at first, because I am a mother and I’m glad my kids are too young to have heard about it, but at some point they will hear about it when they’re old enough. The controversy and the anger that was directed toward me was upsetting but enlightening. That’s what the blogging culture has become: the bloggers and then the media sort of pumping up the controversy. Whether it’s real or not, that’s just what the media does. They just need stuff to fill their air-time. They syndicate stories that go all over the world and it’s just crazy.
Do you continue with photographing the babies?
I don’t do the crying children. I did a series called “Performance” of my daughter Violet and another child, an actress. It’s on my website. That debuted at the same time as the “Ursine Series,” the bears, at the same gallery, and I think that the bears sort of overshadowed “Performance.” I like both series, but I feel the Performance Series has more going on conceptually than the bears and I was a little sad that
it didn’t get more attention. I’ve been thinking ever since the End Times of doing more children. There are other things I want to say with them, but children are a touchy subject at the moment so I took some time off from the controversy and I went to the bears.
On the subject of the bear pictures, they were conceived about 2006 and they were photographed in 2006 and 2007. Why bears, in particular?
I wanted another animal that people related to and identified with. Monkeys and bears feel like the most popular animals. People call each other monkeys or they think of people as teddy bears. I’ve also had another idea for about 20 years that involves doing something else with bears, and I wanted the bear portraits possibly to be a segue into the other project, which is on the back burner at present. I came up with this other concept while I was at RISD. I’d rather wait to talk about at a later time.
How dangerous is it to work with the monkeys and especially the bears?
It’s definitely more dangerous than photographing a two-year-old human, but you know they’re all really well trained and their trainers are right there. Before I started photographing the grizzly bears I thought, well, can they be sedated? They said no, no, no, they’re not sedated but they’re trained. They’re brought up by this one woman or man, as the case may be, from when they’re incredibly young, and they think that these people are their parents, basically. They act similarly to dogs; they’re trained to sit and to stand and to growl and to do the things that dogs are trained to do for photo shoots. And they’re treated like children by these people. They do things for food. They’re well taken care of and they have a lot of space to run around in. When I was photographing the bears, they set up a hot wire around the bear. The hot wire is not actually hot, but they are trained in the Pavlovian manner as if it were hot, so they won’t cross it or touch it. In fact, one of my photo assistants knocked into it while moving a light, and the bears freaked out, thinking it was somehow going to touch them. Once I met the bears, I thought “this is going to be o.k.,” but I’m sure it could be dangerous. You just have to respect what the trainers tell you to do and not to do.
Your photographic prints are made very large, often around 4 feet. Why did you decide to go so large?
Originally with the monkeys and apes there was just so much detail and there was so much to look at. I’ve always liked big pictures. I‘ve always thought I want a house where my pictures can be billboard-size inside the house. Big is fun, for me. I mean my stuff has an impact…I like to have an impact and then “big” makes even more of an impact.
Like most studio photographers you have a variety of people helping you, like make-up artists and various kinds of set builders and technical experts, occasionally even a DJ. To New Yorkers this is like a miniature movie set. Do you see yourself in any sense in the Hollywood tradition of creating a little movie translated into still photography?
Sure. In the best situations you have a full production. You build a set and you can do some different little scenarios with a little bit of a narrative to try to tell a story. Other times you’re shooting everything at once, like three advertising shots, and it’s not really a little movie. It depends on what you’re doing, but yes, I think a lot of commercial photography things are big productions.
Do you conceive of yourself as a director?
You definitely have to direct people. I sometimes get a kick out of that fact when I think back, “I just told Clint Eastwood what to do. Move over there. Look that way.”
That brings up the subject of your celebrity portraits. Who are some of the people you’ve photographed?
Let’s see: all different kinds of people ranging from Lindsay Lohan to Martha Stewart to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert was really great to photograph, a lot of fun. It depends on each person how much of a connection I can have, how much we can have a conversation.
Have you exhibited your portraits of celebrities in galleries? Do you plan to?
Maybe in 30 or 40 years I’ll look back on them and think they’re more significant, but at this stage I feel that they’re not necessarily art. I think the celebrity portrait is pretty disposable in our culture. I’m happy with the pictures, but I don’t know why someone would want to have Sharon Stone—or any big celebrity—on their wall because I’m not sure what that says.
Do you find that there is an overlap in style between your personal work and your commercial work? Sometimes your work is described as hyper-real or super-real. Does that kind of description resonate with you?
Yes, the approach is similar. But I’m trying to re-invent that now or reassess it, at least. I wouldn’t want just to do the same thing all the time. So the techniques and the approaches go back and forth. I’ll take from personal work and go to jobs or I’ll take from jobs and go to personal work.
Of course, you do a lot of advertising work. Who are some of the companies?
I just did something for Epson printers. I also did a big job recently for Animal Planet with my animal portraits, so that was nice. Wrigley, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, AXA Equitable, Asics shoes, and some of the networks like Showtime and HBO have been clients. There are a lot of them listed on my website.
You were speaking earlier about how much it takes to put together a set or context for your photographs. Do you find that you ever long for the simplicity of the guy on the street with a Leica and a roll of black-and-white film?
I do long for that in certain ways, not necessarily that simple, but maybe something a little more simple–just daylight, outdoors.
What kind of personal work are you doing now?
I don’t know whether I’m going to like it or not, but I’m experimenting with painting on the pictures. I’m going to be printing them on a canvas paper and then painting them because sometimes I feel there’s a limit to what you can do with Photoshop. It is the nature of Photoshop that it is a totally two-dimensional, super-flat medium; sometimes it can look a little bit cheesy, so I want to show the brushwork–show my hand a little more—just to drive it home that these are painted, they are created, they’re not straight. Also, some of my stuff is getting a lot more collage-like. I really don’t know where that’s going to go.
How do you see your future in photography, if you look down the road 5 or 10 years?
I’m not sure how I would know that. Hopefully I will continue to do personal work, but the commercial work pays the bills and allows me to have the money to do the personal work, so I think I’ll probably continue to do both. I’ll keep pushing and be happy to continue to have the opportunity to do it all.
An Outsider On the Inside: Bruce Daivdson
By Jain Kelly
An intense and well–spoken man, Bruce Davidson has proved to be one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The list of his photographic series that have culminated in books is startling. He has published 16 book titles. A partial list includes East 100th St. (1970 and 2003); Subway (1986 and 2003); Central Park (1995); Brooklyn Gang (photographed in 1959 and published in 1998); Portraits (1999); Time of Change, Civil Rights Photographs 1961–1965 (2002); England/Scotland 1960 (2005); and Circus (2007). In particular, the modern classic East 100th St. has afforded Davidson a special niche in photographic history. With a background in what many would characterize as photojournalism (he is a member of Magnum Photos), he introduced innovation by utilizing a 4 x 5” view camera to create portraits with depth and complexity — and yes, beauty — of the residents of what was termed in the late 1950s “the worst block in Spanish Harlem.” The impact of East 100th St. was heightened by the charged emotional atmosphere of a nation struggling with Civil Rights issues.
Bruce Davidson is known as an artist whose work ethic is unusually consistent. He invests a great deal of thought in his projects before he begins, but that is only half the equation. The other half is sheer, non–stop work over extended periods of time to accomplish his goals. His approach requires an extreme level of organization, right down to the careful filing of prints. He brings that same work ethic and organizational ability to the presentation of his exhibitions in the art world. Although a veteran of the museum world — his first one–person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York took place over 40 years ago, in 1963 — he has come to the art gallery scene relatively recently, in the 1980s. In a short period of time he has emerged as an important figure in the collectibles market, partly because his body of work is large enough to sustain exhibition after exhibition in rapid succession. It is notable that in addition to investing time in preparing exhibitions and arranging his archive of past work, he still moves forward with the act of photographing the present and planning future projects with joyful intensity.
At the time of this interview, The Jewish Museum in New York City is presenting Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side: Photographs by Bruce Davidson. Spanning the years 1957 to 1990, the exhibition features 40 intimate photographs of Singer, the revered Yiddish author, as well as residents of the Lower East Side Jewish community, including visitors to the Garden Cafeteria in that location. Could you tell us a little about your relationship to both Isaac Bashevis Singer and the world of the Lower East Side?
Isaac Bashevis Singer lived in our building here in New York on the fifth floor. I had photographed him years before on a magazine assignment. We just became neighbors. Also, I was interested in trying to find out about his world because that was the world of my grandfather. I wanted to find continuity. My grandfather came to the United States from Poland as a boy of 14. He learned English, became a tailor, and had a very good business. He went from being a tailor into manufacturing with his older son Leonard and Leonard’s wife Ruth, and that company is very large now.
I was born in 1933 and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. My mother was a single parent. She was working in a torpedo factory during World War II. My brother and I could really fend for ourselves. We were very self–sufficient. We learned to cook. We learned to clean. We learned to meet our mother on time at the bus stop and carry home very heavy packages of groceries. My younger brother became an eminent scientist. I became a photographer. That was all part of being with my grandfather. For a while we lived with my grandfather in the home my mother was raised in. I began to sense there was something strange about my grandfather, there was some secret. There was something he left behind and he never really talked to us about it.
I was the first son in our family at that time to be Bar Mitzvahed. Our synagogue was a small clubhouse synagogue. I mean it was not a synagogue at all; it was a clubhouse with a small congregation. While I was reciting the Hav Torah during my Bar Mitzvah, I could see a box that I knew would be a camera on the rabbi’s desk. During the 1940s, cameras were scarce. Film was scarce. I had been taking pictures since the age of 10, and was very excited about receiving my first good camera and two rolls of film.
I was taking pictures and my grandmother emptied out a closet in the basement where she stored bottles of jelly. I began developing and making small contact prints in it. I even wrote on the outside of the jelly closet — I mean, it was small; I could barely fit in it — but I wrote “Bruce’s Photo Shop.”
You know, there is a similarity between photographing and tailoring. You learn to make the pockets straight, and actually you have the persona of the person you are fixing the jacket for. The persona is definitely there. It’s craft. And photography has craft also. So my grandfather sewed buttons and I sewed photographs.
So I would say that entering the world of Singer and the Lower East Side was really entering the world of my grandfather, but I am in no way an observant Jew.
As a Midwesterner transplanted to New York, you have demonstrated your great love of the city and its inhabitants in many series of photographs. Could you expand on your feelings about New York and how the city inspires you?
The town of Oak Park was a very small community. It was the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemmingway. I have said that I am not a practicing Jew, but I am in the sense that wherever I photograph in New York — or wherever I photograph anywhere — it becomes to me a spiritual space in that I think there is a solemn responsibility when you have a camera. Although I don’t read the Torah, I do read the Torah of life, and my own personal Torah, so it wasn’t a big deal to leave Illinois to come East, to go to school, and to explore New York. My very first day in New York — my mother had remarried and we were staying at the Plaza Hotel — I began to explore. I went outside the hotel and I was photographing the pigeons and people with my Rolleiflex. My mother or my stepfather came out and said, “You’re using up all your film.”
I think New York is probably the most important and the most alive city in the world. It’s the most diverse. It’s the most difficult. It’s the most challenging. I have found that over the years I have been able to enter worlds within worlds in the city, beginning with the Circus series, then the Brooklyn Gang, and later the Subway and Central Park, and other entities. I entered worlds within worlds and they became sacred places for me. I no longer entered a shul; I entered the sacred space of people’s lives.
You attended the Rochester Institute of Technology (1951–54) in Rochester, New York and Yale University (1955) in New Haven, Connecticut. In other interviews, you have spoken of taking classes at Yale with the artist Josef Albers. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, I took Josef Albers’ color course. I also took his drawing course, although I didn’t draw. I was there as a photo student. But his color course really left an impression, and I began to understand the meaning of color. That isn’t to say I was going to use color to become a color photographer. I understand color. I know how to use color, but I do not prefer it. I prefer black–and–white. My films are in color, but the Subway body of work is the only major body of still photographs that I have in color, except for a number of landscapes made on Martha’s Vineyard over the years.
I started photographing the subway in 1979 or 1980 in black–and–white, but I saw another dimension of meaning in color. The graffiti, even the iridescent, fluorescent lighting in the subway, all had a kind of meaning — there was sort of a poisonous green–blue light down there that had color meaning, so I switched. I remember going out at day with one camera with color film and one camera with black–and–white, and I redid each picture. I would take pictures in black–and–white and then I’d switch to color. There’s a difference, you know, not only because one is black–and–white and one is color. There’s a difference in the “moment to moment” and you have to choose.
You have compared the subway to the Theater of the Absurd. Do you still think of it this way?
Yes, but it is also the most democratic space in the world. Anybody, rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, rides the subway. The graffiti at the time was written all over the place and was what is called the hieroglyphics of anxiety, of anger, of frustration, of “I am invisible but my marking remains.” You know, dogs pee on a pole but graffiti artists draw their name. The dog says, “This is me. I am here.” They’re making their marking and then somebody else comes over and pees on that marking and makes a new marking; so that was the dynamic. But the subway could be excruciatingly beautiful. It could be the sexiest environment I’ve ever been in; we can’t go into details but the subway can really be sexy.
How did all this relate to the mood of the city at that time?
At that time, about 1980, the trains were running poorly. They were very unsafe, there were a lot of muggers, there was graffiti written all over the place. I think the city was in default at that time, also. It was a chaotic, neurotic, pathetic time. And I chose…the subway really chose me. I started to go into it with a camera out, with a flash. A safari hunter. In fact I fashioned myself after the tiger hunter Jim Corbett. His books were written for boys but I liked them. So I became the tiger hunter. When you hunt tigers you have to watch your back. Anyway, I had all sorts of fantasies going because that’s what the subway can be. It could become as sacred as a church pew, it could be beautiful, it could be upsetting, it could be depressing. Anything goes, and I fed on that.
You have stated that your work in the subway was an antidote to depression. How was that so?
Because the subway was more depressed than I was. And in photographing in color — I wanted the color to be vibrant — I drew a parallel between fish in the deep sea where you see no light and yet you have iridescent colors when light is shown on them. I wanted to transform the subway in some way so that from a beast I made it beautiful and when it was beautiful I made it bestial, so that anything could come to me or reflect off me and rebound in the subway. I left my imagination and awareness open to the moment. The color experience was also a human experience.
Did you find it an experience of loneliness?
Yes, I seem to be attracted to things in transition, things that are isolated, maybe alone. I gravitate to that which has a certain tension because it’s in transition. The circus was in transition from tent shows to coliseum shows, from small, intimate family circuses to large extravaganzas.
Let’s talk about your circus photographs. Historically, many artists of the 20th century, such as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Edward Hopper, have been drawn to clowns and the circus. What do you think is the source of the appeal and how did you yourself get started with the circus?
Magnum in New York had an incredible picture librarian by the name of Sam Holmes. Sam was an amateur trapeze artist. He was the one who told me about the circus in Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, which was the beginning of my circus work in 1958. I was not drawn to the circus per se, but to the clown who was a dwarf. It was the combination of attraction and repulsion that I felt standing next to him outside the circus tent that drew my attention and sustained a friendship with him.
His name was Jimmy Armstrong. He was melancholy. He was sensitive, very sensitive to everything. He wasn’t depressed but he was poetic. It’s almost like he was a performance artist. Even when he was outside the tent, he was performing; he was directing the camera to what he could feel at the time. I never said, ”Jimmy, why don’t you pick up your trumpet and blow it.” I waited for him to do it. He worked hard in the circus. He was carrying two heavy buckets of water. And you know, people in the circus liked him. I have a picture in the Circus book of a roustabout giving him a massage. He didn’t have to do that. But that was the nature of the circus, too — they were a family. They were kind of like Magnum, but with elephants.
Jimmy and I had a very silent friendship. I just observed him. He allowed me to observe. He also allowed me to see things that might have been embarrassing for him, or even dangerous, like walking through a crowd of children. You know children can be quite cruel to dwarves. Where else can you find someone with the same size head as your father, but half your size? At the end of our two–month trip together I bought him a Yashica Rolleiflex–type camera that he could hold in his hand. He often said that I was his best friend, even though I wasn’t really close to him, except in the sense that I was with him all the time. What made it so compelling was that we all have a dwarf in us, and that dwarf can come out in various ways: something small and compressed as being repulsive.
The picture I took of him peeking out of the van [on the cover of Focus Magazine] is an early ”confrontational” photograph. It isn’t that other photographers hadn’t done confrontational photographs, but it was something that wasn’t usually done. In photojournalism at that time you were supposed to be the “unobserved observer.” So no one looked at the camera because the camera wasn’t “there.” Here I made the camera “there.” I think that was a very penetrating thing. The fact that Jimmy Armstrong, the clown, allowed me that close into his soul was important to me.
He was married and had children. He married a normal–sized, but short, woman named Margie. Jimmy is dead now, and Sam and I can’t seem to find Margie. Sam found out that Jimmy, during World War II, could crawl into the fuselage of the bombers to do wiring. So he joined the war effort as a dwarf. He had a lot of lives. He was a musician. He was photographed by many different photographers, including André Kertész. He was even in a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) with Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton.
After I left the circus, he sent me a route card every once in a while. This was his schedule, so I knew where he would be. I would call the chief of police of a town and say, “My cousin is a dwarf in the circus. Could you get a message to him?” The chief would assume that I was a dwarf too, and he would jump into his car and run out with the message, “call me,” or whatever. Over time I lost track.
Going back to the period of your life following Yale, you were in the military from 1955 to 1957. Was there anything about that experience that relates to your photographic work?
Absolutely. In the army, I was in the Arizona desert for about a year. I used to hitchhike to Nogales, which was only 40 or 50 miles away, to photograph the bullfights. Patricia McCormick was a female bullfighter and I became somewhat friendly with her. In hitchhiking to Nogales I came upon a small town called Patagonia. It was really a railroad siding and a bar and a gas station and a post office and that was about it. There I met an old guy who was driving a Model T Ford and we became friendly. He was a miner. Every weekend I stayed at his bunkhouse and photographed. As I look at that body of work now, it seems very whole to me and I find it amazing.
It was the precursor to the Widow of Montmartre, which I made the following year, when I was transferred from Fort Huachuca, Arizona to Paris, France. There I met a French soldier who invited me to have lunch with him and his mother in Montmartre. After lunch I was standing on the balcony with my Leica and I saw an elderly woman hobbling up the street. I took a picture. The soldier said, “Oh, that woman lives above us and in fact she knew Toulouse–Lautrec, Renoir and Gauguin.” She was in her 90s in 1956, you see. She was the widow of the Impressionist painter Leon Fauchet. So the soldier introduced us and that series became the Widow of Montmartre. I lost track of that soldier for many years, but recently found him. He still lives in the same area. He’s one of the painters at the top of the hill in Montmartre.
At that point in my life I decided to show my work to Magnum Photos in Paris and to Henri Cartier–Bresson. Well, actually I had no idea of Cartier–Bresson. He was beyond reach. I left my photos at the Magnum office. They called me and said, “We would like to show your work to Cartier–Bresson.” Then I had an appointment with him, and that was the beginning of my career, and my life in photography.
Henri Cartier–Bresson is known as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Could you talk about the effect of Cartier–Bresson on you and your work?
Cartier–Bresson took me under his wing. He tried to get me to read more, to reflect more, to be more disciplined. Over that year we had a professional relationship in which I occasionally showed him my work. Of course he had seen the Widow of Montmartre contact sheets. In fact, I just donated those vintage contact sheets from 1956 and about 17 prints to the Fondation Cartier–Bresson in Paris.
Cartier–Bresson is known for developing the concept of the Decisive Moment, one definition of which is the moment of stillness at the peak of action. Do you see yourself as being influenced by the idea of the Decisive Moment?
Well, the concept of the Decisive Moment has never been absolutely clear to me. To me it’s the Decisive Mood, and not the moment. I think that, sure, there is a decisive moment in life in everything we do. There’s a certain timing. But it isn’t just about timing, a man jumping over a puddle. The Decisive Moment is an internal thing. If you become decisive and you enter life in a decisive way, the moments will appear, as long as you are in tune. So what we are really talking about is a way of looking at life, a kind of balance. Sure, there’s geometry, there are moments and all that, but my photographs are more of a mood and they are cumulative, too. They aren’t just one picture.
We’ve spoken of Cartier–Bresson. You’ve also mention in other interviews being influenced by W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank. In an interview with the Oregonian Newspaper you said, “Cartier–Bresson was Bach, Smith was Beethoven, and Frank was Claude Debussy. They’re all in my DNA.” Could we discuss this?
Well, definitely Smith was an influence because his photographic essays published in Life Magazine were very powerful. I don’t see how anyone could do a better job on Spanish Village than he did. All his works were very theatrical. They’re almost like stage sets. I don’t think he’s given enough credit for what he’s done. To some extent I was influenced by Robert Frank, but I moved away from him completely when I did East 100th St. and, in fact, I moved away from almost everybody who might have inspired me when I did East 100th St..
You did your series on the Brooklyn Gang in 1959. It was published in Esquire Magazine that year, but it did not appear in book form — Brooklyn Gang, published by Twin Palms — until 1998. One critic has described the essay on the Brooklyn Gang as having an air of innocence about it. Do you agree with that?
Those kids, at that time, you see, were actually abandoned by everybody, the church, the community, their families. Most of them were really poor. They weren’t living on the street, but they were living in dysfunctional homes. It’s the same thing. Anyway, they were kids and the reason that body of work has survived is that it’s about emotion. That kind of mood and tension and sexual vitality, that’s what those pictures were really about. They weren’t about war. I mean, you can’t compare those kids to the kids today who have machine guns. So there is an innocence in the photographs because it reflected the kids’ innocence, but that innocence could erupt into violence.
It’s interesting that the leader of the Brooklyn Gang, Bengie, who is now 65 years old, called when I was given a large show of the Brooklyn Gang at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York in 1998–99. My wife and I went down together and had coffee with him in midtown, and he turned out to have had an extraordinary life. He is now a substance abuse counselor. We just returned last Sunday from his birthday party, where we saw some of the old gang members.
What caused him to contact you?
There was a reunion of the old gang members. They were looking at my photographs in Esquire Magazine and they started talking. Bengie said he had been trying to get up the courage for years to call me, and finally he just did.
Perhaps we could discuss East 100th St. for a while. You photographed on that block from 1966 to 1968. The book East 100th St. was published by Harvard University Press in 1970, and was reissued in an expanded edition by St. Ann’s Press in 2003. You received the first–ever photography grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1966, which you used in support of the East 100th St. project. East 100th St. appeared as a solo exhibition — your second at this venue — at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. How did you come to be introduced to the people on East 100th St.?
Sam Holmes, the picture librarian at Magnum who told me about the circus in Palisades Amusement Park, also told me about the “worst block in Spanish Harlem.” His cousin was a minister living on the block and working with the Metro North Citizens’ Committee. So I looked up the minister and had an appointment with the Citizens’ Committee and then I photographed for two years.
Were you attempting to create collaboration between the photographer and the subject?
Yes, one of the reasons I chose to use what would be regarded as an old–fashioned view camera on a tripod, with a flash, was that I felt it dignified the act of photography. I was eye–to–eye, face–to–face with the subject. The only thing that connected me to a camera was the little cable release, but I was really looking into the eyes of my subject. The environment was also important; what surrounded them was part of the picture, too. It was part of their expression. If the wall had a picture on it or a birdcage or nothing, it said something about them.
In some of the photographs the people presented themselves in a middle class way, very dressed up. Why do you think they chose to do that?
Well, you know, people are middle class in their minds. They may not own an automobile, but they dress very elegantly on Sunday, going to church. I had an experience in which I saw some children half–naked. They just had some little panties on and they were playing on the fire escape. I went to take that picture. The mother saw me and brought the kids in through the window. I counted the floors and went up and knocked on the door. The woman said, “You can photograph my children that way, but you must also photograph them dressed up.” So I photographed them playing on the fire escape and on Sunday I photographed the family dressed up.
Much has been made of the dark tonality of the photographs in East 100th St.. Did that tonality emerge immediately as your intention, or did it evolve over time?
When I entered a person’s home I was entering a sacred space, is the way I looked at it. It was up to the person to decide where the photograph might be made. Was it in the kitchen, in the bedroom, or in the vacant lot downstairs? Most of the time it was in the bedroom because it was a quiet space and it had artifacts or clues to their spirituality, like a cross, a picture of Jesus, a framed photograph of John F. Kennedy. Very often these dwellings were dark. I remember a photograph I took of an elderly woman sitting on a bed with towels and rags stuck into the cracks in the window to keep out the cold air. That was an important part of the photograph, which showed her sitting alone in this dark room with only one little light bulb on the ceiling. I tried to be true to the mood, to the darkness, and through the darkness I made a light because I made an image of that person’s predicament in life. So when I printed the photographs for the book I printed them in a very strong and heavy way. In fact, I was inspired by the bronze Degas sculpture of dancers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bronze looked like shrapnel to me. It was dark, metallic, rich, and I followed that through as a theme in the printing of my photographs. I was highly impassioned in those days with that tonality. Years later, when I was printing for the second edition of East 100th St. I opened up the tonality because I was able to: the technology had improved. I had the aid of a scanner. I made the printing a little lighter.
East 100th St. wasn’t just a documentation. It was a vision, a vision in which I reached into the tonality with a large format camera. I wanted that depth of field. I wanted to be able to see down to the street while someone was lying on the couch. The way the camera was used, the way the lighting was used, the way I saw things were all part of the aesthetic. The aesthetic dimension to East 100th St. combined with the sociological message.
How recently have you had contact with the people on the block?
A few years ago I received a fellowship from the Open Society to go back to photograph. When I returned I could find very few people I knew. They had moved on. You know, people move on. What happened in the 1960s was that a matrix of new schools, tutorial programs, all kinds of things, rippled all through Spanish Harlem. Metro North Association was the beginning of that self–improvement, reviving the community. The community itself was doing it. I photographed positive aspects of new schools, new housing, tutorial programs, a new park and ball field, a women’s health center, the vest pocket gardens, and the new mood and the street. I’ve donated all that work to the Union Settlement and it is on display there. Yes, Spanish Harlem has changed. It’s almost easier to get a café latte now than a café con leche. Some of the texture is lost, but it’s a lot safer than it was.
Obviously you maintain contact with people you have photographed over the years. Can you tell us more about that?
I do, but I don’t overdo it, because life goes on. In Time of Change, there is a picture of a woman in a shack holding a baby, made during the Selma march. I found that baby and I found the whole family recently and re–photographed them. Their lives had changed tremendously because of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the younger children to get a better education. One of the 11 children holds a master’s degree in library science and became head legal librarian at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. Almost all of the younger children I photographed have successful lives.
You photographed the Civil Rights Movement, primarily in the American South, from 1961 to 1965. In 1962 you received a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of this project, and in 1963 the Museum of Modern Art included these historic images, among others, in a solo exhibition. The book, Time of Change, Civil Rights Photographs 1961–1965 was published by St. Ann’s Press in 2002. In that same year, the International Center for Photography presented an exhibition of Time of Change. When you were photographing these events in the early ’60s, did you find it a frightening experience?
Oh, yes, because if you made a mistake and you got into a situation that you couldn’t get out of…that almost happened to me. I photographed a Ku Klux Klan meeting, but I drove my little Volkswagen bug too close to the cross. When they lit it, they said, “New York license plate so–and–so, you’re too close to the fire.” I knew that that was not going to be cool, to have New York license plates at a Klan meeting in Georgia. I stayed a while, took a few pictures, and then left.
Would you call the Civil Rights photographs a turning point in your life?
Well, it certainly made it possible for me to understand what I was getting into in East 100th St.. It was the prelude to East 100th St.. It was like my homework. I had borne witness to what was going on in the South and to some extent become sensitized to what was happening in the North, too. Without that background I don’t think I would have done East 100th St. the way I did.
What about your early fashion days? How did that happen?
The story I heard was that after Brooklyn Gang was published, Alex Lieberman, the creative director of Vogue Magazine, was having lunch with Cartier–Bresson. He asked Bresson if he thought the young Bruce Davidson could do fashion. Bresson’s answer was: “If he can do gangs, why can’t he do fashion? What’s the difference?” So I did a lot of fashion for about three years.
I rarely do fashion now. I came to a point in the Civil Rights Movement where I was doing fashion and also protest marches and I couldn’t equate the two things, so I gave up fashion. I’m good at fashion photography but it doesn’t give me meaning. It’s like cotton candy. It looks beautiful, but it melts in your mouth, and the sugar can rot your teeth.
During the early 1990s, you did an extensive series on Central Park here in New York, which culminated in the book Central Park, published by Aperture Press in 1995. How did that series come about?
I did a body of work for National Geographic Magazine called The Neighborhood, in which I retraced my boyhood steps in the Chicago area. After I completed that the editors asked me what else I would like to do. I said I’ll make a list of ten things. To make it an even ten, I added Central Park. We used to take the kids there and at that time it was like a dust bowl. You never knew when you were sitting with your children if there were hypodermic needles sticking them. Then the editors said, “Oh, Central Park, that’s a good idea.” I said, “I need four seasons and I need to be in black–and–white.” They said, “Oh, no, we are a color magazine. You have to do it in color and we can give you only three seasons.” So I went out and I started photographing Central Park. I exposed 500 rolls of film. Then we had a presentation. The next morning I got a call from the editor–in–chief Bill Graves, who said, “We’re pulling the plug on this project. Think of something else.” So I said to myself, “Good, I’m free at last,” and I went back to Central Park with my Canon Cameras and I spent the next three years photographing in black–and–white.
That series has been called a love poem to New York. Do you think of it that way?
Yes, the series I did was a love poem, but it was not a sweet poem. It had a fierceness to it. It had an edge to it, as I explored the layers of life.
What are you interested in photographing at present?
I’m interested in the balance of nature right now and the meaning of the vegetation that at times goes unnoticed in our lives. I just finished a large body of work called the Nature of Paris. It was shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. The exhibition opened in June of 2007 and closed in September. In Paris I think I made an homage to vegetation. In that city the monuments take over. We go to the Eiffel Tower and we don’t realize there’s a 500–year–old tree growing right next to it. When you see the pictures it will be self–evident. I’m interested in raising people’s consciousness, my own included, to the meaning and the need for green space and vegetation.
When I began the project in Paris, I began by photographing some people in nature. For instance, my assistant found an elderly woman in the cemetery in Montmartre, a woman well into her 80s or 90s. There were cats standing on the tombstones, waiting for her to come to them with food. They wouldn’t just rush in. I photographed her and also lovers in the park and all that kind of stuff, and I was getting sick from it. I edited it all out, including the panoramas, even though the panoramas were successful, I thought. I edited all the 35mm pictures out. There was something I was doing with the square format that was coming through to me. In the end the whole show was nothing but the Hasselblad 2 ¼” photographs. I was able to disinvest all that other imagery, which I’d already done, into something that I hadn’t done, something that was new to me, fresh to me. And challenging.
I’m looking for another city that would be the extension of Central Park and Nature of Paris. I would like to continue the concept that was born through the Paris photographs.
At what point did you become interested in selling your photographic prints through galleries?
I was too busy photographing during the 1970s to become affiliated with a gallery. I became interested in the 1980s. It was Howard Greenberg who really brought me out of the fine art world “shadows” and into the sunshine. I had my first exhibition with his gallery in New York in 2002. I felt that Howard could really embrace my work and he did. Howard is, as they say in Yiddish, meshpokha, he’s family. He understands the work, he’s honest, he’s energetic, and he assigned me Nancy Lieberman, who is wonderful, and who manages my work for the gallery. Recently she arranged for my wife and me to go to Greece for a 75–print commemorative exhibition for the Hellenic–American Institute in Athens.
On the West Coast, Rose Shoshana and Laura Peterson of the Rose Gallery have mounted some of the most beautiful exhibitions I’ve ever had. They did a dye transfer color show of Subway that was amazing to see, and before that, Brooklyn Gang. They had a patron who underwrote the creation of a portfolio of Subway containing 47 very large dye transfer prints (20” x 24”) in an edition of 7. I think there are only two portfolios left.
I am now working with three people: Howard Greenberg Gallery, in New York, Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California and the Sandra Berler Gallery in Chevy Chase, Maryland
After 9/11, did you have a desire to photograph events here in New York City?
Well, I went down a night or two to 9/11 to photograph. It was very difficult to get permission to work. I had sent a whole portfolio of photographs — not of 9/11 — to Hillary Clinton, but it never got to her. The FBI just X–rayed things and kept them, so I got those prints back a year later. So I didn’t have permission to get down there, but I knew someone who operated a building nearby and they were housing police overnight. He said the captain would be willing to take me around for a while at night, but that was all I could get.
In my slide presentation I have a photograph of the Twin Towers at night with the Statue of Liberty before 9/11. It’s a photograph that can be taken only with a 1700mm telephoto lens. There are only two in the world. I borrowed it from Canon. My wife did the scouting. She found a pier that jutted out a quarter of a mile into the bay. It’s a Kodachrome picture of the World Trade Center at night, lit by the office lights in the windows. When I took it I thought, oh, yeah, this is a perfect symbol of consumerism, materialism, all of that. But after 9/11 it became a memorial image, like two candles set on the altar of life and death.
Esquire Magazine gave me an assignment to photograph some aspect of America after 9/11. I just didn’t feel comfortable going someplace like the Grand Canyon, so I went to Katz’s Delicatessen. I spent a month at Katz’s making photographs of people eating pastrami, because I wrote, “Pastrami and Peace Go Together.” You feel very peaceful when you are digesting pastrami. I felt that freedom was about being able to photograph the impossible or the vulgar or whatever, or simply people enjoying themselves.
Did you feel the urge to photograph the people around Union Square who were looking for their relatives?
No. I felt there were so many photographers there that it would be well covered. I don’t like to photograph where there are a lot of photographers. It doesn’t feel right to me. I like to go where no one else has gone. Also, you have to understand my feelings. The whole thing knocked the wind out of my sails.
What projects are you involved with at present?
I still do some editorial photography. In fact, I just did a really interesting project with CareOregon, a private healthcare company that asked me to photograph a number of their members. These are people who are very, very sick. They are in their homes, not in the hospital. CareOregon made two beautiful exhibitions of the work, one at their headquarters in Portland and one in the Department of Human Services Building in Salem. Legislators got the chance to see people who really need care, and who are having good care right now through CareOregon. There were testimonials that were heart–wrenching.
Do you have any final statements to make about your work?
I would say I work out of a state of mind. When I’m photographing the dwarf in the circus, I’m confronting myself as a giant compared to this dwarf, but I’m not a giant compared to other people who might be a foot taller than I am. So then I confront another reality; I’m in another state of mind. Even in the Civil Rights Movement I’m erasing my own heritage and the town I grew up in. We didn’t have any social experience with black people at all. So I’m learning about that oppression as I go deeper into the Civil Rights Movement. And East 100th St. is another frame of mind. Then I work on that. I don’t read an article in The New York Times and think, well, that’s a good idea, I’ll work on that. No, my work is very personal. It’s a personal barometer of my life, a voyage of consciousness that is my life’s work. Each one is different. My wife says, “You always start with zero, you erase your clichés,” as I did in Paris. You’re only seeing what I ended with, what I felt the thing is. So there’s a psychological, there’s a visual, there’s a contemporary, there’s an artistic element.
I, personally, have been printing my body of work during January and February for the last two or three years, and I’ve accumulated about 1,200 prints in that time. I’m doing it because it needs to be done. One of my publishers, Gerhard Steidl, who does beautiful, highest–quality work, and who published England/Scotland 1960 in 2005 and Circus in 2007, is talking about publishing a four or five volume set of books of my life’s work. That would be great, if it happens.
I would also like to give my wife Emily credit for her keen intelligence, visual acuity and inspiration through all these years that we have lived and worked and raised our children together.
Jain Kelly was the assistant director of The Witkin Gallery in New York City from 1971-78. She has written numerous articles on various aspects of photography and is a fine-art photography consultant to collectors. Her email is email@example.com.
Seeking the Sacred: Paul Caponigro
For over 50 years, Paul Caponigro has held a preeminent position among landscape photographers. In addition to being an Honorary Fellow in the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, he has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and three NEA grants. His luminous black-and-white photographs are included in major museum collections and history of photography books. Visiting him in the small coastal town of Cushing, Maine, where he now lives, feels like walking into one of his own landscapes. As we speak, the nearby window frames a color image from his book, New England Days. Inside the room, a grand piano sits amidst objects harmoniously arranged, waiting to be photographed.
From 1950 to 1951, you studied music at Boston University College of Music. The piano seems to have been your first love, but in 1952, after being drafted by the army and stationed in San Francisco, you became a photographer. In 1953, you switched to studying photography with Alfred W. Richter and Benjamin Chinn at the California School of Fine Art. What brought about that change of mind?
I never changed my mind. I was going to be both. I wanted to be a pianist all through high school, but simultaneously, I picked up the camera. When I was about ten or so, I got a job at Revere Beach in one of those places that takes pictures of people in masks. I learned to develop film. In high school, I offered my services to the local portrait studio. I said, “Let me stay in the background and watch you and work around the studio.” For the last two years of high school, I worked in that studio and picked up more knowledge about the medium. But I thought, “Am I going to be a photographer or a pianist?”
I got into Boston University with luck and musical talent because I was not an academic type at all. I had two years of really solid piano training -one year with the university, then I quit and took a job as a photographer to make some money and went evenings and weekends to study with the master. I literally spent a year where I was not allowed to touch a piano; they would not let me play; all music was taken away. The master said I had learned so many bad habits that unless I stopped playing now, I was going to bury those habits deeper into my fingers. He gave me special finger exercises that he invented on the spot to retrain my fingers. Then the army drafted me, and I had to do my tour of duty. “My God,” I thought. “After two years of real effort getting somewhere with a real teacher, the army takes it away!” My teacher said not to worry because what I had learned I would never lose. That satisfied me. The Army
was going to send me to Korea during the Korean conflict. They prepared me for battle. They said, “Alright -get ready. Get a night’s sleep. Four a.m., report to the parade field. We’re going to shuttle you off to the front lines in Korea.” Midnight, the PA system in the barracks blared a message that President
Truman had ended the Korean conflict, and there would be no further shipment of troops. Saved by the bell!
I ended up at the Presidio in San Francisco, in the army band playing the glockenspiel. But the bandleader said, “I’m sorry, I don’t want that instrument in my band. You play the piano -okay, report to the dance band.” I said, “But I only play classical music!” So, he said, “What else do you do?” “Well, I’m a pretty good photographer!” He called up the photo lab and said, “I’m sending down Mr. Caponigro. He’s a hotshot photographer who will be on the job.” So, I ended up in the photo lab in San Francisco, and there I met Benny Chinn. He informed me he was a student of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange at the California Art Institute.
While I finished my tour of duty with the U.S. Army, Benny taught me technique. I used army cameras, army film, and I got a fully paid education in photographic techniques and ideas. My army days were pretty wonderful! You were in an extraordinary place at that time. It might even be called the golden age for black-and-white fine art photography especially for landscape and still life photography. San Francisco was home to so many masters. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogene Cunningham were all part of the F64 Group established there twenty years earlier. You were part of the new generation. Did you feel overwhelmed by their history and influence?
I knew none of that. Benny said, “You’ve got a good eye. I’m surprised you come from the East because you photograph like someone from the West Coast. However, you need technique. You know what you want from the camera, but you cannot put it across in a print. While you’re here, let me teach you!” So, I worked with him. Eventually he said, “Look I can’t take you any further. You need Minor White. I’m going to take you to a party this weekend -don’t wear your army clothes. Wear your civilians. I’ll pick you up at the barracks.” I went to this party. I parked the car, walked up, and knocked on the door. The door was opened by Ansel Adams, whom I had never met before. We were ushered into this studio that was loaded with photographs that were supreme. That’s where I met everyone, because it was Minor White’s going-away party. He had just left the California Art Institute and taken a job with the George Eastman House as exhibitions curator. He also started the photo art department for Rochester Institute of Technology. I was about nineteen years old, and I met all of those people. I got my education, met some nice people, and was able to do the kind of photography I wanted to do!
From 1955 to 1957, you studied with Minor White in Rochester, New York. Those studies culminated in your first solo exhibit at the George Eastman House in 1958. Minor White was not only a noted teacher of photography and curator at the Eastman House, but he was also known as a writer and philosopher on the art of photography. Was it White that helped you develop your personal vision and philosophy?
White created an atmosphere in which people could work happily, dreamily, and have someone to talk to about it. Minor would talk about Zen. I listened to what he said, but it didn’t take hold of me. I was after something else. I was interested in those matters, but not in any particular system. I realized that Minor was a seeker, and he provided a place and an atmosphere where these things could be discussed. I was still working out my own notion about religion and different systems of thought.
That is a very different approach to image making than photojournalism or documentary photography. What you are looking for in your subject is going to be coming more from within you. Is that something that you feel that Minor really stressed?
I listened to Minor and learned a few things, but he did not start me in that direction. I think he took me on as a student because I had such a strong interest in that interior place. There was one man, Walter Chapelle, who was at Eastman House at that time. Walter gave a few books of Gurdjieff’s teachings to Minor. Minor was in the middle of getting to know that material, besides touting the Zen that he liked so much. Walter gave me a few books at the same time. I took a real interest in Gurdjieff. Metaphysical and occult are two words often associated with Gurdjieff. He seems to have had a profound influence on many creative people from dancers and musicians to writers and visual artists that continues to this day.
You often speak of the need for profound self-awareness, and your work is imbued with a metaphysical beauty. Was part of the Gurdjieff attraction an awareness within yourself of a need for intense interior focus and availability to your environment?
I was looking for a core place, a place that functioned despite all the information and influence. I studied Gurdjieff, looking for reinforcement of what I already knew. When you talk about mysticism and the spirit, you are on pretty shaky ground; it is a very ephemeral business. Discussion about it and ways of achieving it can be as much a hindrance as a help. I was aware that something in me knew something. Of all the systems that I studied; Gurdjieff provided the most practical approach to reaching that personal knowledge. It had nothing to do with whether or not you were going to be a better artist. Nothing! It had to do with developing your inner place, and once developed, you could apply it; it would automatically come into everything you did. My photographs are no better than my internal space. Gurdjieff teaches you that you must constantly work on your internal space.
In 1960, you were living in Massachusetts again and working for the Polaroid Corporation. Were you ever tempted to start working with color at that time?
My job was to use the materials that were coming off the press. I let them know that there was trouble here or trouble there. When the new color came out, they handed me a few boxes and said to use them. I used them; it didn’t interest me that much. I was very interested in their black-and-white process. They had taken it from the Land camera and roll film to capture the professional view camera market -the Polo print and negative. In the beginning, that film was really beautiful-really exciting! I made a number of very extraordinary black-and-white images on that early material.
You have always remained true to the black-and-white print. What special appeal does the world in black-and-white hold for you?
The ability to abstract. You look at the things that black-and-white records -the world of color, and the world of space and form, and if you know how to read what is out there, you know how it will translate into a black-and-white image. I like that business of pulling it into an internal world and manifesting an image. Color is too close to the real world.
You were born in Massachusetts. One of your major bodies of work, New England Days, was photographed there. But in 1966, when you received your first Guggenheim Fellowship, you traveled to England where you photographed Stonehenge -a site steeped in metaphysical lore. By 1966, hundreds of photographers had come before you. What thoughts did you have on creating your own personal vision?
Well, first of all I had no intention of going to the British Isles. My intention was to go to Egypt. I wanted to photograph the temples, the tombs, and look into Egyptian mythology. However, it was a very difficult political time. Nasser was in power and very anti-American. In fact, I met Dorothea Lange while she was installing her show at the Museum of Modern Art. She said, “You want to go to Egypt? I think you better think twice about that -especially with a wife and a young boy. They don’t like Americans, especially ones with cameras. They will stone you like they did me. If you must go to Egypt, fly from Italy and call yourself Paulo. Tell them you are Italian.” My wife said, “You know, I’ve been to Ireland and they have ancient things there as well.” We did a little research, and she pointed out that the Celtic material could be as exciting as the Egyptian material. So, we went to Ireland, and I began my work there. Within a couple of months, we took a boat over to England. That’s when I made my acquaintance with Stonehenge. I returned again and again for several years. I traveled all through the British Isles, but always made a return trip to Stonehenge. I got to know the guards. At first, I paid the guards a few pounds to get in when the tourists were gone. Then they figured out that I was up to something, and let me in carte blanche.
Your work rarely includes animals or people. Yet, you photographed your most successful image in Ireland -the herd of running white deer. How did that come about?
I found the landscape in Ireland quite magical. Although I had started the project on early Christian and early Celtic art, I was in the landscape all the time and learned about a herd of white deer on an estate. It intrigued me. I called the owners, and they said I was welcomed to come. I went, and there they were. I wondered, “How do I photograph these beasts!” I photographed a few here and a few there, but they were skittish. Then it struck me -Irish sheepdogs -they can corral anything! I called the owner and asked if he had a sheepdog on the property. He said that no one was without a sheepdog in Ireland! “Could you get your dog to corral a couple dozen of these animals down at the low end of your field? I’m going to set up here on this stand of trees, and when I give you the signal, see if the dog can chase them in this direction.” I had to hide in the trees -if they saw me, it would be all over. I focused on the stand of trees. I was forced to use a long exposure because of the dark light. I cocked the shutter and motioned to the owner, and he set the dogs off. One deer took the lead, and they all followed him right across. I thought, “I’ve got a magic moment!” Thirty seconds after I clicked the shutter, two white swans flew over my head, no higher than this ceiling, their wings beating above me. I thought the fairies had sent swans to tell me something was on that film!
Another of your famous images, one that Kodak used on a box of their Polymax paper, is the sunflower. This sunflower was to you as the pepper was to Edward Weston. You seemed mesmerized by it. What was it about this very ordinary flower that spoke to you so eloquently?
That it could mesmerize you! My son, John Paul Caponigro, was born in 1965. I was living in Boston, and I had two students at that time, Marie Cosindas and William Clift. Bill was working with me. A very, very fine photographer. He should be much better known. He came by to say congratulations on the new baby and brought a large sunflower that I put in a vase on the windowsill. For the next few days, the darn thing looked at me! I was not looking at it. It was looking at me! I didn’t know what was going on, but I thought I would work with these flowers. I literally spent the next three months searching them out, grabbing them out of fields, stealing them out of gardens. I photographed them inside and in the fields. I didn’t know I was doing it at the time, but when I looked at all the images, all the photographs and contact prints -it really was the life cycle of the sunflower. There it was -birth to death.
You moved back to the southwest in 1973. What drew you to that remarkably different landscape after the British Isles and New England?
Edward Ranney, who photographed Monuments of the Incas, called me. He said he knew my work and knew so-and-so. I said to come over and let me see your photos. He came, and we found out that he was moving from a rental house in Santa Fe where he had built a darkroom. He had to leave it behind, but if I wanted to use it, he would talk to the manager and reserve it for me. My wife and I looked at each other and knew that we were ready to go. We talked to the landlady, packed up everything, and moved within six months. I bought his darkroom from him. It was a very convenient situation.
You’ve always maintained a deep interest in architectural photography. You recently photographed the temples, shrines and sacred gardens of Japan. Are there other sacred sites in the world that call to you now?
I didn’t start out with a deep interest. I needed to make a living. I created a portfolio in Boston of some of the new local buildings and visited their architects. I got some commissions from that. The first structures that I photographed, ancient structures, were those of Ireland and then Stonehenge. These structures were associated with the mythologies that I was interested in pursuing -sacred sites, they call them. Later I branched out and did some of the temples in Japan and the abbeys in France. I tried to photograph a few cathedrals in Italy, but those were pretty boring. They are like an Italian opera -just too much! Yet, architecture was incidental to what I was trying to root out -what the structures might teach me. In order to photograph them, I had to discipline myself to be aware of what they were saying. In fact, it was the ancient stones in Ireland that taught me that I was not even supposed to think about composition. I went out to photograph in the field, found a group of stones, and photographed it. Then I found this stone, and I started setting up, looking through the lens, measuring the light, and I swear the stone leaned forward and said, “That’s not what you’re looking for, is it!” I thought, “What was that!” It was the stone teaching me, “What is it you are after? You cannot rely upon your technique and your sense of composition. That applies, but it’s not the central point of what you have to do here.” I listened very carefully. That was the vantage point from which I had to work. I had to ask the stone’s permission before I photographed it.
You’ve received two Guggenheim Fellowships and three NEA grants. When Imogene Cunningham received her Guggenheim at the age of 87, she promptly set out to revisit her negatives and to reprint many of her images. Can you imagine yourself doing this in later years, or would you leave instructions to another printer of your work, such as Edward Weston’s instructions to Cole Weston?
It would be easier to print them myself. Edward worked with his son when he was no longer able to work. He worked first with Brett, but Cole was willing to do the printing, and made a good living printing the negatives after his father died. But no! I would not leave detailed instructions. Their tough luck that I couldn’t get them all printed before I died. They don’t all need to be printed! You have always printed your own photographs. Is printing part of the process of creating the photograph for you?
Yes, and it is still fun for me. I don’t want the torture of trying to get someone to see the image the way I see it. That is too difficult. If they want to reproduce my images for publication or education, that is fine with me. Let them use my material. Whatever prints I leave, that will be my legacy. I won’t turn them over to an archive. I have approached a number of museums and asked them to fill out their rather meager collection of my works, which barely touches a representation of my ideas, but there is never a budget. “No, we don’t have a budget. We just built a new wing. We just bought another seventy-five thousand dollar painting.” So, I figure that if they don’t have a budget to support a photographer while he is still working, then I’m not going to turn my material over to any of them. They aren’t entitled to them. No support deserves no support! So, they will go to my grandson. He can do with them as he pleases.
Is there another portfolio or body of work on the horizon?
For the last six years, I have photographed in this room. I bring the materials in and photograph them here. I have bad knees. I had one replaced, and the other has yet to be replaced. That keeps me from being active in the field with my view camera. These still life’s are the work of the last five years. If this next knee is successful, I could get out again. I might very possibly hear of an exciting new piece of sacred ground that I haven’t experienced and do some work there.
Paul Caponigro is represented by Andrew Smith Gallery San Francisco and Santa Fe. His recent still life’s can be viewed at www. andrewsmith.com. Future publications include Stone Churches of Ireland, October 2006, Lodima Press Portfolio Book Series and a limited edition, hand-bound retrospective of his work, Lumiere Press Publishers, Michael Torosian, 19 Fermanagh Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M6R1M1.
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