Edinburgh, May 1, 2015
” What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.”
-Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: On the Mysteries of Photography
A couple of years ago my wife and I found ourselves in Edinburgh for a day, traveling between some place or other. For those of you who’ve never been, it’s a really nice town to spend a few days – lot’s of history, good free museums, active and interesting culinary scene, great street life. We were also lucky enough to be there on May Day when Edinburgh celebrates Beltain, the Celtic neo-pagan holiday commemorating the beginning of Summer, the celebration consisting of naked people dancing around fires on Calton Hill overlooking downtown Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is also a great place for “street photography.” Given its latitude and the oblique angle of the sun, you get nice bright light contrasted with deep black lengthened shadows, which makes for the types of visual contrasts good street photographers exploit. And it’s a town of shoppers, for me at least, the perfect setting for interesting and thought-provoking visuals. Princes Street – a half-mile of upscale retail shops running east/west – being as target-rich an environment as I’ve ever experienced. So, of course, the day I was there I walked around snapping photos while the wife shopped for a kilt for her son (yup). The photos I’ve used to illustrate this post were all taken during an afternoon walking Prince Street.
Above is a “street photo.” I took it that day in Edinburgh. It’s an uninteresting photo. It says nothing, connotes nothing, implies nothing. It’s just a guy on a street, a throw away shot that doesn’t work on any level. But, hey, it’s properly exposed, it’s in focus, the tonality is nice, it’s framed competently (but what’s up with the big black empty space on the left?) and it’s a guy on a street. Bingo, I’m a “street photographer.” Too many “street photographers” seem to think that’s enough to qualify. If you have any questions, go here and look at what people post on public forums dedicated to showcasing “street photography.” 90% of the photos posted are no better than what I’ve posted above, many even worse. Why? They say nothing. They’re just people walking down the street. Ask the photographer ‘what’s the point’ and in all likelihood, he’ll reply with a blank stare – ‘what do you mean, what’s the point?’
Which gets me to my point. Street photos – any photo for that matter – need to say something. How do you do that? You have something to say. You must have a belief – an idea wishing to be made manifest – before you photograph, and the resulting photos should convey that idea, both individually and as a collective. Garry Winogrand’s 1960’s work, wonky and off-kilter though it was, was the result of a unified vision that worked both individually and collectively, the collective giving context to the individual, the individual stating its own visual truth.
Good “street photography” captures a fleeting moment that stands for something larger. The people and things pictured aren’t just people and things; rather, they suggest something more, some question to be answered or puzzle to solve. What is shown suggests something not shown, hints at it, implies it. It aspires to a reality truer and deeper than anything immediately at hand, something more intense and deeper than the ordinariness of the routine life pictured – what the Greeks called anagnorisis – when the mundane surface is stripped away and the essence is revealed.
Below are a number of photos I took that day in Edinburgh. I think they’re all good examples of street photography that works. They have a theme that runs through them, something I’m suggesting to you. They’re interesting visually and, and, if you’re paying close attention, intellectually. They work both individually and collectively as a series. They have a point of view, something that I’m attempting to communicate to you the viewer. We may differ on what that point is, but the photos themselves admit of something more than their topical subjects, and they add something to each other when they’re viewed as a group. Really, that’s all you need to produce decent work. Just have something to say.
“I’m known for taking pictures very close, and the older I get, the closer I get” – Bruce Gilden
Bruce Gilden is an American “street photographer.” He is best known for his in-your-face flash photos of people walking the streets of New York City. Although he did attend some evening classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York, he’s pretty much self-taught. He has had various books of his work published, has received the European Publishers Award for Photography and is a Guggenheim Fellow. He joined Magnum in 1998. Think about that: he’s a guy who bought a camera, taught himself the craft, and ends up a member of Magnum and a Guggenheim Fellow. It wasn’t about his contacts, or his educational credentials, or the camera he used; it was because he developed his own unique vision.
Up until the digital age, he shot in B&W. Recently, Leica gave him a Leica S and he’s been shooting in color since. He’s currently working on a project he calls “Faces”, extreme color close-ups using flash (some of them are illustrating his interview below). While you might consider these photos exploitative of the subjects (and they may be) and ugly and perverse, they’re powerful correctives to the airbrushed faux reality of most visual culture.
I like Gilden. It takes a lot of balls to walk up to someone on the street and push a flash camera in their face. Does it take some special photographic talent? No. But that’s not the point. It takes a certain unified vision. The point is Gilden has created an aesthetic unique to him and hasn’t much deviated from it in 50 years. As such, he’s created a large, coherent body of work. I’ve heard people criticize his work, claiming it gimmicky and artless, something any 8th grader would be capable of. Could your kid have taken these pictures? Yes. But your kid didn’t, and Gilden did, just like it would have been within your kid’s skill set to have painted Jackson Pollock’s Alchemy, 1947. Your kid didn’t, because your kid would have never considered the aesthetic potential inherent in the medium. The genius of Pollock -and Gilden- is having seen the aesthetic others missed.
Imagine this Guy Pointing this in Your Face on a NYC Street
This is an interview of Gilden on the occasion of a retrospective of his work exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York.
ISP You’ve been described as combative, confrontational, as a genius, as “one of the best street photographers currently alive.” How do you feel about these characterizations?
BG A characterization is just like anything else. Some of it may be true, some of it may be false. Look, people don’t know me. I’m basically shy. And I guess you could say I do what I have to do. But I’m pretty good at reading situations. In other words, when you work close with a flash with someone, I have a pretty good bedside manner. If you’re comfortable doing something, run with it. When you’re uncomfortable or doing it for the wrong reasons, then you encounter problems, because people get a sense of your uneasiness. And if people feel you are doing it for commercial purposes, saying, “oh I have to get that lady with the short hair because I’m selling that picture,” it’s completely different than doing it for artistic reasons, for something that’s in your guts and in your soul. So what I do is always in my soul. I don’t take many pictures. Last year I didn’t even work that often because I decided I was really not going to shoot much more in New York City. So all my shooting has been going on outside my hometown of New York. I mean, if someone wanted me to shoot here, if I got a commission here in the city, I could do it. But now I’m starting to go elsewhere around America and see what’s there. The only problem is in America, there’s nobody on the street. I’ve been doing a lot of formal portraits in color.
ISP How do you feel working in color?
BG It’s quite an easy and smooth transition. If you know how to form a picture, you know how to form a picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s in black-and-white or color. I just got back a little over a month ago from the Milwaukee state fair, and I think I did some of the best work I’ve ever done. It’s almost all formal portraits. When I say formal portraits I mean, when I see people at the fair or in Milwaukee I ask them, “can I take a picture of your face?” And I take a picture. So there’s no studio paper. When I say formal, it means I’m asking the person I want to photograph.
ISP They’re preparing for the shot.
BG No, they’re just average people—my kind of people—people I’m interested in. And we take a picture, but I have an idea how I want it to look, to work. They’re very strong. So that’s what I’ve been doing the last year, year and a half. But I’m also doing other things, too. My style might be aggressive, but I always believed in life that the people who stand back are suspect. In life, if you’re going to do something, let the people know you’re doing it. What I mean by that is you have to be somewhat—I won’t use the word “sneaky”—but… if people know you’re taking a picture and it’s supposed to be candid, you won’t get the picture many times. So you have to be smart and shrewd. But I don’t like people who stand half a block away and take a picture, because I find that sneaky.
ISP You’re talking about the “shooting from afar” strategy.
BG Yeah, to me that’s sneaky because you know most people—I take pictures very close—they don’t even realize I’m photographing them many times. But I approach them well. If you’re at ease, you’ll be surprised how other people many times will be put as ease by your demeanor, unless you get the wrong person, which… it happens.
ISP Do you find that happening more now with the change in camera culture and sensitivity to pictures? With the ubiquity of cameras on the street today, the use of images has changed. As such, the response to photographers may be changing. Particularly with the rise of so-called “creep porn,” women especially might become much more aware of and concerned about being candidly photographed by men they don’t know. There are also rising anxieties about terrorism and reconnaissance, surveillance, and even pedophilia that permeate the street. Has this made your subjects more hostile? Are people really more guarded against street photographers? Do you have to work harder to capture an authentic candid picture of someone?
BG It doesn’t change anything for me. I think it has to do with culture itself, and where you work. For example in a rich area like Kensington in London where I worked a lot, you can feel the British class system, so there’s a difference: if you’re rich and cultured, you have almost divine right, and when a plebian comes over to you and takes your picture without asking, more people will get upset than it would happen in a “bad” area. When working in a “bad” area, if you get the wrong people, it has nothing to do with the camera culture. It has to do with culture—period—which I think is more important. The rich, people in Britain, the posh and snotty, they think they own the world, ok, but if you go in a bad area, and if you don’t know how to deal with the people there or you don’t know how to feel them out or joke with them, you’ll have a problem because you’ll get that kind of response: “You’re a stranger you come in my fuckin territory and you take a picture of me!” Some people are good at dealing with that, some aren’t. You carry it in your body language. Again, if you’re comfortable, it will be fine. I used to be a pretty good athlete, so my body language is not stiff, it’s fluid, and if you go at somebody with a fluid body motion, there’s much less chance of a problem. Then I don’t think it matters if a guy is with a woman that he’s not supposed to be with or if he had a bad day, and it doesn’t matter if you’re ten or two feet away.
It’s true though that our culture is becoming ruder, and it has nothing to do with cameras. When you walk in the streets of New York or some other large city, people are always on their cell phones. If you collide with someone on the sidewalk, even though they probably walked into you because they’re not paying attention, they’ll turn around and tell you to go fuck yourself. To go back to your question, I don’t feel that way, because I believe that if you look for that problem, you’re going to bring the problem to yourself. It’s like going into a bad area and saying, “uh-oh, the guy’s going to pull a gun on me after I take a picture.” You can’t think like that otherwise you’ll never take a picture. I think that what I’m doing is fine. I’m not hurting anybody. And I’m doing it from my guts. I always feel that the people I photograph are my friends, even though I don’t know them. And they’re also symbols for what I see. It’s not like that person is that person. He or she reminds me of something else. It’s like being in a little movie.
ISP In speaking about films, you’ve mentioned that working with the moving image might be hard for you because you find raising money for projects to be difficult. You’ve also found this to be the case with your photography. How much has it helped you working with Magnum? You joined them in 1998. I think we can all imagine what a highpoint that was.
BG It helps in one way, and it doesn’t help in another way. Magnum helped me to get editorial work, which I had never really done before. But then with all this time spent at doing editorial here and there, I didn’t pursue the art market as much as I should have. Fortunately, I have been working on the Postcards from America project (I travelled to Milwaukee as part of it). Postcards is an ongoing collaborative project in which a loose group of photographers chooses a site that intrigues them and gathers there to play like a visual band. Postcards is a project on its own, but for me, as for many of the photographers involved, it’s also an experimental creative space, and it has enabled me to do very good work recently. In fact, without Postcards from America, I may not have started color. I participated in the first episode where the whole group of photographers stayed in one place. By “group” I mean ten or eleven photographers. We stayed in Rochester. And we had to have 100 pictures in two weeks.
ISP This was the project last year at about this time when you were with ten other Magnum photographers covering the decline of Rochester, NY in the wake of the partial halt in production at Eastman Kodak, which has its headquarters there.
BG Yeah, and I realized—wait a second— I can’t do 100 pictures in two weeks, especially when there’s no one on the street in Rochester! That’s why I started to do the portraits. So in a way it’s good because we’re all competitive and I compete with myself: when other people are working in the same area, you don’t want to look like a schmuck and have no pictures (he laughs). It’s challenging. I borrowed a Leica M9 from Leica and I started to do digital for the first time. I did a little digital in Haiti to photograph the houses the year before because I wanted them in color at night. In Rochester I did a lot of digital work because you’re able to see what your photographs look like right away. This gave me confidence to get to that mark—to that hundred mark. I’m not saying all 100 photographs are good, but it gave me confidence. It was encouraging because you had to get a hundred pictures in a place that you wouldn’t choose to shoot. With all of that combined, I also did black-and-white, and I think the strongest pictures from that take are formal portraits in black-and-white. Doing both color and black-and-white was good,
because there was also a guy who was developing our film. We’d shoot it on Monday, and we’d get it on Tuesday. We could see what we were doing as we’d go along. And then the next place we went to was Miami, where I started to use the Leica S camera, which is the mid-size that I’ve been using since. And everything’s been in color and digital.
ISP And what an interesting departure from the black-and-white candid work that you’ve become so famous for doing.
BG When you’ve been doing something for so many years, it’s always nice to have a change. When I did Foreclosures, no one thought I’d do houses.
ISP Yes, your new book, Foreclosures, is devoid of people. It’s a shocking change in subject matter.
BG I think change is important. How many years can you do the same thing? Look, you never get a perfect picture. But also as you get older things change. My form of photography is very athletic, and I can still do it ok, that’s not a problem. Of course, you can’t bend as low, and you’re not as fast. That’s the concession to age. On the other side, on the positive side, you have more experience. So you know how to get what you want. It’s sort of a balancing act.
The transition has been quite interesting because I’ve worked in Bogotá, I’ve worked in London, I’ve worked in Miami twice, I’ve worked in Milwaukee, I just got back from the Big E Festival in Massachusetts, I’m going to the state fair in Mississippi this month coming up. It’s exciting for me because I’d never worked in color. And I’m doing these intense color photographs of people—my kind of people, people who interest me. I have nice conversations with them. And I don’t like asking people to take photographs, because I’m basically shy and it’s very tiring. But I’m quite good at it. If someone wants to say, “No,” they’re going to say, “No.” But I enjoy it in a certain crazy way. And if you see the pictures, I’d be surprised if you didn’t like them. They are strong.
I can tell you when something’s good of mine; I can tell you when it’s not good. We all care about our work, but I think I’m pretty clear and open. In other words, if I didn’t do well, I can admit it. Not everything that has my signature on it is a wonderful picture.
ISP So there is also a modest side to Bruce Gilden?
BG No, no, look: I worked hard, and I stuck with it. I’m proud of where I am, because I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth where I started. I had no inclination to take pictures. I’m not a technician. Having said that, I know what to do to correct things in the field. I’m not ignorant technically. I’m more interested in the person. But the form has to be correct. A good picture for me is well-framed with a strong emotional content. My pictures aren’t loose—my good pictures. Like today, you see a lot of people, and their form isn’t very good. They’re just concerned about getting the image—what they want in the image, that person, or that emotion or something. But the image isn’t formed well. To me that’s not good enough.
ISP Do you think that’s largely a product of digital photography? Some have complained of laziness in framing since the rise of the easily erasable digital image.
BG It’s not just digital. It also may be a product of not learning your craft in a certain way. For example, when I started photography I knew nothing. I didn’t even know when you look in the finder that’s what you supposedly got. But I looked at tons of books and magazines. And I knew what I liked and I knew what I didn’t like. So if I saw a picture I liked, I would see how it was taken, try to find out from the perspective what lens was used. And then you go out and you say, “Oh, that photographer put a person in the front here. That’s pretty good.” So, you use that, but eventually—hopefully—you become yourself. For example, when I started, I was compared to Weegee, Arbus, all these other people. Now I’m just myself, because I take my kind of pictures.
ISP Now other people are compared to you. I’ve seen time and again in print mentions of your name as a point of comparison for someone else’s work.
BG I feel good about that. But everybody has to find their own way eventually. And some are strong enough to do it, and others aren’t. I’m appreciative of that, and it’s funny to read it, but it takes time. Eventually some of those photographers will be referenced as their own. If I’m a step beyond, sometimes someone’s going to be a step beyond me. It’s just the nature of the beast. Records, like in baseball, are made to be broken. If someone’s still shooting in my vein without improving in twenty years, they’re doing something wrong.
ISP You’re saying they have to develop their own eyes. This is something you spend time cultivating in your students. Can you talk to us a bit about Bruce Gilden the teacher? You travel the world for exhibitions, for photography festivals, like the upcoming Miami Street Photography Festival in early December where you will be featured. And you often offer these mentorship opportunities and intensive workshops that are very well-attended.
BG In the workshops, I’m very blunt and honest. And I’ve devised a little system, which I won’t talk about in detail, but it’s quite simple. People who come to the class, some of them, their pictures aren’t very good. And it’s not because of their style: I’m smart enough to see when someone has talent, and I don’t expect them to be little Gildens. I think the most important thing that I can tell them is to photograph something that you’re interested in, and to be yourself. Don’t listen to what anybody says unless you’re smart enough to realize that someone is telling you something that’s constructive—not destructive, because some people don’t want to see other people get ahead.
If someone has strength, I’ll give them assignments that will lead either in a direction to make their pictures stronger or in a direction that they haven’t been shooting. So it opens them up to something else that can help them get where they’re going, that I think they’re a little weak or they’re not paying attention to. If someone isn’t generally doing very good work, I started giving them assignments in my workshop two or three years ago that are usually basic portrait assignments. And I show them how much better their pictures are after they’ve done these portraits, which helps build their confidence. Some of them don’t continue doing portraits, and they don’t have to.
I’m very critical. If someone is good, they’ll know they’re good (he laughs) when they’re finished with my class. I also try not to be overly critical to people who just started photography and also the people who aren’t full-time photographers. If you are new, it’s a bit different than if you’ve been photographing 20 years. I always ask people, “Do you think your pictures are good?” I find that when people come into a workshop thinking they’re really good, they usually aren’t. Then we have to straighten them out. When I ask my students upfront, I get a sense of what needs to be challenged to help them improve. Look, I’m not a god, but I think I’m quite visual. It’s ingrained in my soul. I give a lot of myself. By the end of a workshop, I’m quite exhausted, because I’m open. You can take what I say and think it’s wonderful; or, you might think it’s crap. At least I’m honest. I’m not trying to knock you down just to knock you down. If you do good work, you’ll know it once you’re finished with my workshop.
There’s one guy in my class who has become a very good friend of mine. He’s a bright guy. People looked at his work and said, “Wow! He’s taking pictures like you!” He started to use flash and color. And the pictures are really good. But they’re not mine; they’re his. You can tell when someone’s imitative and when someone’s doing it because that’s who they are. I don’t have a thin skin about that. I think he’s talented. And he doesn’t even do photographs! Now he’s doing more of them. But before he was only taking pictures four times a year! Certain people have the spark, other people don’t. You have to deal with that. But if someone does something good, I tell them how good they are and how good the pictures are. We get into a dialogue. I think I’m pretty good at teaching, but I wouldn’t want to do it too often. I’m not going to be doing too many more workshops.
ISP You do have one coming up in December 2nd – 6th in conjunction with the Miami Street Photography Festival.
BG Yes, in Miami, which will allow me to return to these communities I’ve been photographing down there. This started with the Postcards from America. But I may not be able to continue shooting when I’m in Miami this time, because with the Leica S I have to have an assistant to hold the light for me. It’s very tough. The camera’s heavy. And to get the person the way I want, I couldn’t hold the light at the same time. It’s too much unless I was maybe Hercules. And I’m not.
ISP Is it difficult for you to not have the flash in your hand, to rely on somebody else for the flash?
BG No because we discuss how it has to be done. The difficult thing is if they do the light wrong. Portraits aren’t as difficult as candid street photographs. In the candid street photograph, no matter how much control you have, if you’re combining things in the image, anything can go wrong. The person in the background who you wanted to look left is looking right, for example. But still my portrait assistant in Milwaukee said, “Hey look at this portrait you took!” It’s, I think, about the best one I took on that trip. He said, “Look at the other five pictures that we took till we got to this one. Anyone who says shooting portraits is easy is wrong!” because in the other five pictures… the pictures are terrible. And then I finally got what I wanted. You have to be able to recognize that. You also have to pick how close you want to get. My pictures are close. And it’s not like you can pick anybody. I walked all day around the state fair, and maybe I shot ten people in eight hours. It’s also about them agreeing to have their pictures taken and you deciding how you want their attitudes. Do you want their eyes more open? Do you want them to look directly at the camera? It’s not as simple as it looks. Still when you come from a candid street photography background, it is more simple because you’re working with just the face. It’s different than when you’re working with ten people in a photograph or with someone who doesn’t know you’re taking the picture.
ISP With candid street photos, you often surprise your subjects. That shock of being randomly photographed can cause different reactions in your subjects, particularly when you use a hand-held flash. But in your new work, you don’t have to contend with not knowing how the sitter will react when you take the shot. People who realize they’re being photographed get an opportunity to prepare themselves mentally for the picture.
BG Yeah, but with portraits, people sometimes get too self-conscious. I don’t like smiley pictures. When people realize they’re being photographed, they have all sorts of different reactions. Some are funny. One lady I photographed in London—in Essex, actually—who’s portrait will be in the forthcoming London book, her daughter said, “Mommy, do it! Let him take your picture!” Her daughter was probably in her twenties. The lady got up, and she was so terrified of the camera her eyes bulged out of her head. I didn’t say a word, and she looked more and more intensely. Her daughter tried to put her at ease, but the lady was so stiff! And it actually made for a very interesting picture. So there are a lot of factors involved.
ISP You talk about your subjects as your “characters,” and whether it’s candid street photography or portraiture, there’s a truth of expression—an apparent unguardedness—to the people you choose and the ways you choose to frame them emotionally. This quality is lacking in the more prepared experiences that you’re talking about, like the smiley pictures. It seems to me that you have an aesthetic of sincerity. That honesty is of very high value to you artistically.
BG My honesty, my bluntness, probably comes from my past and my relations with my father—everything I found out (that he was a gangster) and how I found out (in that his tire store, the young Gilden realized suddenly, was devoid of tires). I had a tough emotional childhood. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see that most people didn’t have my upbringing. At the end of the day, someone could look back at that kind of childhood and say, if they’re not strong, “Look what they took from me, my father and mother, emotionally.”
But they made me what I am, so I guess they gave me strength that I’d never realized until I was older I had. I was always a little different in that I had a lot of energy and was very athletic. I guess I was a little bit wild, but in a controlled sense. There was a lot inside that couldn’t get out.
Photography kept me alive in many ways. So I have that to put into pictures that I think a lot of other people don’t have. I think that gives my pictures strength. If someone else shoots in the same style, but they don’t have a certain background or a certain way that they related to their background, I think they’re not going to do the same kind of picture. That doesn’t mean that they’re not going to do a great picture. It’s just that I do my kind of picture. And other people do their kind of pictures.
Take street photography: it’s always been the stepchild in the artistic world of photography. But it’s probably the hardest type of pictures to do. That doesn’t mean a street photograph is a good picture and another one isn’t. It depends on how you do it. I’ve seen a lot of bad street photography, just like I’ve seen a lot of bad photography. There’re people that are good, and there’re people that aren’t as good. There was one kid I saw who was very good, and I have a feeling that he has very good potential to be really, really good. You just feel it. He wasn’t in my workshop. He was this young guy who, when I judged the Oskar Barnack Award, he got the Newcomer Prize—a Polish guy, Piotr Zbierski. I think that Zbierski has a talent that can’t be taught. He has it in his soul. The pictures of course are a little dark, they were black-and-white. I mean, dark in what he photographed, almost like a fairytale.
ISP Like a Grimm’s fairy tale?
BG Yeah, and they’re good! Most people don’t have it. He had it, and he was very young, 23 or 24. But I don’t know how he got to it.
ISP You mention his work is dark. Your work, too, can be dark in that you often focus on what people describe as “the dark side” of people. Your photographs gravitate towards extreme and criminal subcultures. You’ve been quoted as saying you like “bad guys” in reference to your continual return to this subject matter.
BG My father was a tough guy, so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
ISP And while you are drawn to this character, you don’t romanticize it. Gangster culture, the Yakuza, the Russian mob, gangsters in the UK and Australia: you don’t romanticize them in the way that you shoot them whereas a lot of portrayals of gangster have this sheen of cool.
BG Yeah, because they didn’t grow up with it. I learned a certain type of respect, that you don’t ask questions. I often get along with people in that culture because I know never to ask a question. I don’t want to know, because if you know, you could be responsible for putting someone else at risk. And it makes sense to me because that’s how I grew up. Look, to me, (gangsters are) just like anybody else. In some cases they can be better because at least you know who they are and what they are. So other people, like for example a corrupt policeman or a priest who’s a pedophile, you go to them for security and then they violate that. I won’t call the gangster a “bad guy,” I’ll call him a “tough guy.” Look, people take what they can; they’re not going to take liberties with tough guys, because they’re tough. And they will take it with someone else. But the thing is, I look at tough guys and see that they’re human beings. And I like them, I generally like them. When I was in Australia with Mick Gatto, I had a great time! He was such a gentleman and a wonderful guy. Sometimes I have admiration for tough guys—some of them. But I’ve met some I don’t like also. Those who abuse their tough-guy-ness, who try to test you, you have to stay away from them. It’s like the regular population: some people are good, some people aren’t. And they do what they do.
ISP I see this aspect of your work not only as an engagement with your father, but also something that coheres with this critique of the economic system that I think your work mounts. Crime and criminals disrupt business-as-usual. And it seems like your work, in the most obvious way with Foreclosures, but also in your traditional street photography, poses real challenges to the way we see people as a culture, which is largely a function of economics. Your work looks where others don’t. Last year, as you’ve mentioned, at about this time you were covering the decline of Rochester, NY after Eastman Kodak cut 50,000 jobs. You’ve been
working on Foreclosures since 2008, documenting the fallout of the subprime mortgage lending crisis. You have been criticized for your use of surprise close-up flash photography in the city streets. You focus on people you describe as “the left behind” in your work. There is a truth, as we’ve mentioned, in this work often lacking in the prepared appearances of those who are ready to be photographed. That truth in itself seems to make a statement about the lack of sincerity in the visual world of ubiquitous advertising. To me, this is major source of connection in your work. Do you think your work has a central focus of economic critique?
BG I like people who tell the truth. I hate politicians.
ISP You recently photographed Anthony Weiner.
BG I photographed all of them—all the New York City mayoral candidates for the New York Times Magazine—and I liked all of them on a one-to-one basis. Some more than others. But they’re politicians.
But to return to the question you raise, I can’t talk as much about Foreclosures as I could have before, because when I was preparing for it I read about 20-25 books. But that was a few years ago. It was legalized thievery, what the government did (the subprime mortgage lending crisis and its aftermath). They repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. There were no regulations on a trillion dollar industry. And there was this fantasy that everybody should own a home. It was disgusting. So no matter what I or any other people can do, we can’t come up to the heights of that. Then we bail out the banks with taxpayer money. And then you read that this quarter Chase Manhattan made outlandish profits. I mean, come on now! Please! I’m not a fool. They say, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” I come to the topic from that perspective. And like I said, the people I photograph are my friends.
I have always identified with the underdog. I’m not coming to this like some art director who plays in the street, then goes on to do something else. I come from the street. I’ve always been in the street. It’s something that attracts me. I didn’t have your average upbringing. My father didn’t exactly model good behavior or offer moral guidance. I had nothing to live up to and nothing I wanted to be. I didn’t have to go into my father’s business, which I used to drive a scrap metal truck for. But I didn’t have this background like I’m John Lewis, III or something. I was loose that way. I always felt that I was an underdog, an outsider. For me, you also have a certain freedom when you’re left behind in that way, because you’re not enchained or imprisoned. But I don’t have to make up a whole intellectual dialogue about what I do. I do what I feel to do… when I have the money to do it. And I’m pleased with that, with what I do. And if you’re comfortable you have a chance of doing it well.
And I also always identify with poorer people. But I’m not a bleeding-heart liberal, the kind that say, “Oh, I think she had a very bad upbringing, and that’s why she knifed you in the back.” No one’s going to knife me in the back if I can help it. I had a tough upbringing, and I survived. So I expect you to be able to survive.
I’m a realist. As a realist, you know the world’s a terrible place for many people. I don’t think it’s getting any better. The have-nots are going to be getting further and further behind. So many people are left behind by our political and economic system. And that’s the project of my Guggenheim: The Left Behind. When I was in Russia, I went 70km outside of Ykaterinaburg and I wondered, “What do these people do?” We live in New York City. If you don’t travel to see these things about the world, you may not know that people in certain countries and places are really left behind. And it’s getting worse. It’s not getting better. It’s a terrible thing. I feel better that I’m 66 and not 25. I feel bad for my daughter. Look at the ozone! Look at what’s happening with the weather now! And who’s doing it? So many people, and all just for money.
aliens came to Earth, systematically deforested the planet, killed 90% of life in the sea, we’d declare war on them. But for some reason when corporations do that for profit, it’s generally accepted.
BG Yeah, that’s a great statement! There are people who are helping the planet, people who are advancing medical research, people who are doing things that are helping humanity. And I find… well, I’m not big on the non-profit groups, though. I spent a lot of time in Haiti. And the one I really like is Médecins sans frontières. Most of the others just know how to waste money.
ISP I’m interested to hear what you think about the Occupy movement.
BG Occupy Wall Street? I went down to lower Manhattan for the protests, and I think you had the wrong people for the right job, at least here in New York. Half the people down there were high on drugs, running around, and playing flutes. They looked like they’d just rubbed their chests on the ground for the last three weeks and didn’t take a bath. It’s not that I’m against that either, it’s just that it was starting to go somewhere. I met a great lady in Las Vegas who runs it out there. She’s great. The Occupy movement elsewhere has been more successful. And I agree with them and with the premise. But the Manhattan protests were a mess. The problem is that a lot of the people in the tents and stuff are people who are… losers, for fault of a better term. They seem more interested in hanging out than getting things done. If you want real economic reform, you have to defeat these guys at their own game.
I believe in Machiavellian theory. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Take that rebel who’s fighting against the government, put him in power, and he’s going to become the very thing he was once fighting against. When you get millions of dollars in front of you, how many people aren’t going to take it? I do prefer people who are—even if I don’t like their politics—who say what they’re going to do, even if I can’t stand it, like Bush (W.). I couldn’t stand him, but at least he said he would do this, and he did it. I don’t like Obama.
ISP In that you feel he’s insincere where you found Bush to be more genuine.
BG I feel like he’s full of shit. Look, he said he cares about the middle class and lower class. But even progressives don’t like him. Harry Belafonte can’t stand him either. And he’s always been a progressive who supported MLK, the Civil Rights Movement, all progressive agendas. He hates Obama. And I do too, because the guy walks with the swagger of someone who knows the street, which he doesn’t. He says one thing but does another in policy, too. He said we’re not going to dig for oil in America; we are. We’re going to get out of Afghanistan; and, we’re still there. In the foreclosure crisis, which I can talk about a little because of the research I did for my new book, he decided to keep Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary and Ben Bernake as Federal Reserve Chairman, who were responsible for repealing the Glass-Steagall Act (an act that had imposed financial regulation in the US, and that, once repealed, contributed to the economic crisis and its resulting financial devastation). And Geithner, whether he worked on Wall Street or not, has been working for Wall Street all along. He’s part of the reason that everything went so bad for the world economy! So if you want change, you’ve got other people to put in charge of the economy. He could have pulled in Volcker, who’s a smart, good guy in that field. No, I don’t like that guy (Obama). I can’t look at him. You know, I have my opinions. Those others guys are terrible, too. But he’s no different. He wouldn’t have gotten to be President if he hadn’t been pushed by somebody. I think he made backroom deals.
ISP Do you have any suggestions on how to get money out of politics?
BG Well, maybe you can’t. But to me the decision to keep Bernake and Geithner really sticks, because they were complicit in the whole financial collapse around the subprime mortgage lending crisis. So it makes no sense to ask them to be responsible for changing the problems of the economic system when they had a hand in creating those very problems themselves. How do you justify keeping people who support all that Clinton and Bush (W.) did? This all started with Clinton saying that everybody should own a home. But everybody should own a home who can afford it. Anyway, let’s get back to the subject.
ISP It is in a sense very much the subject of Foreclosures.
BG I’ll talk about my cat (he laughs). I have three cats! They’re very nice. Three Russian Blues. They’re sweet as sugar. They calm me. I pet them all the time, I talk to them. They’re my friends. Why don’t we move to the next question.
ISP After the discussion we’ve just had, this may be a jarring transition. But what do you think is the future for street photography? Here we have been talking about imminent environmental or financial collapse, so it seems like a strange question now.
BG I don’t think like that. I see what’s in front of me. I think the scary thing, not only for street photography but for the world, is that everybody’s becoming the same. The cities are more homogenous now, the shops. If you go, god knows where, you see a Starbucks. People wear the same clothes. The world is smaller. They all listen to the same music. People more and more are losing their individuality. And I think ultimately in a hundred, 200, 300 years, everybody’s going to look the same and be the same and maybe act the same. I’m stretching that now to make a point. Whereas I look for the differences, there’re people who look for the similarities. So it makes sense that there would be a change in what pictures look like. But I don’t know.
In 1888, Kodak first made it possible for a lot of people to take pictures. Now we have the digital age and the iPhone. Everybody’s taking pictures. Maybe more people are taking them now than then, but Kodak made it affordable then. Almost everybody can take pictures now. So it must have been quite cataclysmic when that first happened. The common man could all of a sudden take pictures. You didn’t have to pay to go to a studio photographer to take a portrait.
ISP But now the camera phones that you mention make choices for you. They make visual choices for you.
BG I haven’t seen that myself, but I’d heard that. And it follows along what I was saying: there’s going to be less and less individuality. If you look at the movies now, so many movies are about the effects; whereas, years ago, all the movies I liked were about relationships, emotion, love. If you listen to the music from years ago, doowop and so on, it’s about boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl drops boy, boy drops girl. It was human! We are becoming less and less human. And one thing I don’t like: we’ve become so politically correct that people are afraid to do anything because—gasp!—it’s not the right thing to be seen to do. Yet they’ll do worse things, and they’ll be accepting of worse things.
So, to answer your question, I don’t know. But I think street photography will go on until there’s no more street. It depends what you mean by street photography, too. I said to a magazine once that in street photography you could smell the street, feel the dirt by looking at the picture. You’re seeing less and less work like that. Look at most photography today, and even if it’s good, you still can’t tell who took the picture. The average picture could have been taken by 500 people; whereas, years ago, if you saw a Cartier-Bresson, you knew it was a Cartier-Bresson. You see a Winogrand, you know it’s a Winogrand. You see an Arbus, you know it’s Arbus. A Weegee’s a Weegee. The best usually have a recognizable style, a personality.
Also, a lot of street photography is confrontational, unflinching. But people don’t always like to be turned upside down. To be confronted. To think, to feel. It’s more challenging to the viewer,
some people don’t like that. But I feel it’s important as an artist to show work that challenges. If we don’t show something just because it’s difficult subject matter, who’s going to know its there? If things need changing but they aren’t shown, they’ll never be changed. I’m not saying you’re going to make a difference anyway. Look at all the war photographers, and still we have war.
ISP What’s next for Bruce Gilden?
BG I’m working on my Guggenheim project, The Left Behind. I got a commission in the Midlands in the UK to do a similar project. A photopoche book, one of those pocket-sized books from France, comes out this November. The London book is out this November, too. It was commissioned by the Archive of Modern Conflict and is formally titled A Complete Examination of Middlesex. But ultimately, what’s going on in my life now and in the future is my family. My daughter Nina just turned 21 and is graduating from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston this year. My wife, Sophie, speaks better English than I do even though she’s French. She was a journalist for Libération in Paris and a radio host on France Inter. I have a good wife, I can’t complain. She’s intelligent, elegant, attractive. And we love each other. Twenty-two years. Some would say it’s impossible to stay with me 22 years, but she did it!
Meyerowitz rocking his Leica
Editor’s Note: Joel Meyerowitz is an American street photographer in the mold of Winogrand, Friedlander etc. He photographed in color during a time when there was significant resistance to color photography as an art form. In the 1970s, he taught photography at Cooper Union in New York City. He’s probably more well known in France than he is in the States. I’m not much of a fan, finding his work uninspired and lacking much of a coherent overall vision, his idea of an interesting subject usually just a little too gimmicky for me. You may differ. (Directly below are two examples of what I consider photographs that don’t say much of anything but rely on a visual gimmick for whatever interest they possess.)
This is an interview Meyerowitz gave to Geraldine Chouard of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie on the occasion of “Joel Meyerowitz. A Retrospective” at the Maison in 2013.
Géraldine Chouard: Thank you, Joel Meyerowitz, for granting us this interview on the occasion of the exhibition of your work in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie. The first picture of the exhibit, of a woman diving into the water, literally makes the visitor take the plunge into flux (cloud of bubbles) and color (swimming-pool blue); it’s almost as if we get splashed watching it. Why did you choose to exhibit this picture upside down?
Joel Meyerowitz: I was making an installation video in Florida and was working in an under water viewing room watching the divers. I saw the divers enter the water, pull the oxygen down with them and then, while they rose, the bubbles stayed behind and coalesced into an almost atomic cloud-like form which slowly rose and dissipated. Suddenly I had a flash of insight; the bubbles were oxygen, the Element Air, and they couldn’t stay in the Element Water. Of course this is a simple truth, but in that instant, for whatever reasons, I had a glimpse of an entirely new body of work in which I would try to photograph the “Phenomena of each of the Elements.” Then when I saw the contact sheet with these images it simply seemed natural to me to want to invert them—in a sense the divers underwater are without the orientation of the horizon line, and gravity is less under water than on land, so I allowed myself the liberty of letting the photograph tell me which way it needed to be seen.
GC: When I was visiting the exhibit at the MEP, a French man said: “C’est vraiment super américain.” Do you feel “super American”?
JM: I don’t really know what he means when he says that. I am a New Yorker, and often New Yorkers feel somewhat closer to Europe than to the heartland of America. If that means anything then perhaps that makes me slightly less American.
GC: How do you feel about having become the (or one of the) iconic contemporary American photographer(s), at least in France?
JM: I have long been well received in Europe and especially in France. Probably because early in the 70s when color came on the scene, my work, along with Stephen Shore’s, was shown here so my sense is that I was seen to be one of the ‘New Color’ photographers.
GC: Since you are in Paris, I have to ask you this question. You are probably aware that “Le Baiser,” by Doisneau, staged on the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in 1950, resulted in dozens of couples claiming that they were the couple appearing on the picture. Has this been the case with your 1965 “Kiss Me Stupid” shot, in NYC?
JM: No, never. After all this is an innocent moment, perhaps on New Year’s Eve and no one considers it anything extraordinary.
GC: In the 1960s and 70s, you really contributed to making color photography accepted in the art world. Was the choice to include in this exhibit, side by side, both black and white pictures and color pictures of this period, taken just a few seconds apart, a way of pointing out this pivotal point in your career?
JM: Jean-Luc Monterosso saw this series from the mid-60’s and felt that this was the “missing link” in American photography and he said to me that he always wondered how color seemed to be something new but yet he couldn’t see how it developed intellectually and at that precise moment in time. This series was my contribution to the argument for color. Since I began with color in 1962 I always believed in its power, but there was so much resistance to it then that I had to always push for its place in the medium, and make the argument, and then I decided to use two cameras side by side when possible to judge for myself how color worked.
GC: Is your interest in the “ordinary” related to a sort of democratic ideal? As Andy Warhol famously said, everyone would have “15 minutes of fame.” Are you giving people their one frame of fame?
JM: No, that has nothing to do with the way I work with, or feel about people. These brief recognitions I have of a moment when the world seems to have a peculiar order for me, are the only reason I have for making the photograph. It has nothing to do with the people in it and everything to do with my being conscious for a brief moment.
GC: The energetic dimension in your photography is striking, whether it’s scenes of the city, at the beach, or taken from a car. The result is often a sense of celebration. Has photography made you an optimist?
JM: I must have been born an optimist because ever since childhood I have wandered the world saying oh and ah and gasping with surprise and delight at whatever it is that startles me into consciousness. I also feel that every time I press the shutter release I am in effect saying YES to life! So with that basic understanding as my guide to the world everything that pulses with life, whether it is the complexity of street life or space and scale along the water’s edge, or witnessing a revelatory moment at 100 kilometers an hour, all of these ‘glimpses’ fill me with a rush of pleasure, pleasure at being alive! Pleasure at being capable of ‘seeing’ what is revealing itself. Pleasure knowing that photography has given me a voice and language to say something about what it is that moves me.
GC: Was your recent work on “Ground Zero” intended to create an archive of the city, your city? I find it reminiscent of the FSA photographers’ mission to document the whole country during the Depression.
JM: When I began that work it was simply that I wanted to be helpful, useful in some way to my wounded city. Those impulses were not supported by the Mayor or other city officials, so I had to act on my own sense of what was necessary and right for that period. I took it on my own to try and make the historical archive which would one day be indispensable since all photography was banned from the site by the Mayor. But you are right to sense the FSA as a background method although I was a single presence rather than a team—and it should be noted that I wrote a proposal to the Mayor outlining an FSA-like team approach for this history. However, I found myself alone in there for 9 months and have always felt that a great deal was lost to history because I could not be everywhere at once.
GC: Your attention to the elemental has always informed your photography (as reflected in the titles of some of your albums, such as Cape Light, At the Water’s Edge, Bay/ Sky) but it seems to have taken a more “elementary” turn, with pictures of just water, air, earth, and fire. What provoked this new interest and what are you seeking to show through this new approach?
JM: In 2008 I was scheduled to show some large prints of work I had never shown before from the series “Between the Dog and the Wolf” (“Entre chien et loup”). These photographs of pools by the sea at dusk had been on my mind, and periodically added to for over thirty years, and with the upcoming exhibition, I felt the urge to make an installation video about divers to accompany the pool photographs. For that, I went to Florida where there was an Olympic practice pool where I planned to make the video. The filming progressed easily enough as there were a number of divers practicing and I could watch their process over and over again. And then it happened, as it so often does in photography; what you think you came for is not what you are actually seeing. What I saw, from inside the underwater room I was in, was that after each diver entered the water they brought in their wake an enormous surge of air that enfolded them and through which they passed leaving the cloud of bubbles behind. At first, it was just bubbles rising and disappearing and then, after about the tenth dive, I realized that I was really interested in the phenomena of those bubbles. They were air and they were inside another element, water, in which, although oxygen makes up part of water, they cannot remain. I had one of those heart-skips-a-beat moments of recognition of a new body of work.
The Elements—Water, Air, Fire, Earth—each have part of the other in them but yet are separate entities. It was revelatory. And so simple! I’ll admit, I was stunned and wide-eyed by the thought: The Elements and the phenomena of the elements! I saw in a flash of instinct that I had been working with these forces forever, or so it seemed, but always within the conventions of Renaissance perspective space, that illusion of deep space that a photograph always conveys. But here, underwater in that stifling room, everything out there was seen as a flat field of overall color. My mind raced to the thought that it might be possible to make photographs of each of the phenomena, very large photographs, in which there was only the phenomena itself—no horizon line to demarcate between air and water, sky and earth, nothing but the thing itself. Isn’t that what I was always trying to do? Get to the essence of things so that I could feel the authenticity of the thing itself? In that brief moment, I was determined to explore how to do this and to consider what I would have to give up to see this idea freshly, and even wondered why this revelation was presenting itself to me at that moment. Perhaps it’s my age? Haven’t we seen in the history of Art older artists suddenly contemplating the four seasons, or the classic skull on the table painting, so perhaps it is what comes to an artist if you live long enough and keep working out your observations and ideas and then, suddenly, a big one appears where you are asked to pare down the work to the essential questions, in this case, that of how to photograph the basic forces of our planet without beautifying them or resorting to imagery that has been overworked already. That is where I am now.
GC: Your retrospective monograph, Taking my Time, will be coming out in June 2013. Could you please comment on this rich title? Does it mean that with your 50 years of innovative practice, you took a part in the history of photography? How is this “time-taking” compatible with the urgency of the act of photographing itself?
JM: As I reflected on the fifty years of work and the various questions and forms that arose during that time, I saw that I was never in a rush to get anywhere quickly, but that in fact I often let the work build slowly and in a sense to teach me what it was that I was really interested in. These clues are often buried in one’s daily actions out on the street where of course, ironically, one has to be extremely fast. Then, later, the joy of reading contact sheets or rolls of slides was for me a revelation describing myself to me through the appearance of images which showed how and what instinct was actually driving the agenda for me, and my responsibility was to engage with these glimpses of my inner life and turn towards them. So that process was the germ, once I recognized it, of the title “Taking My Time.”
GC: You’ve said in the past: “I photograph to see what I’m interested in.” Have you found out?
JM: What I have discovered, and truly photography is a process of self-discovery, is that I am a happy boy, even at my age of 75 now. The world keeps offering its bounties to me, but only if I pay attention to what is all around me, so the act of paying attention daily completes the circle of pleasure. And time is too short now not to make every day as pleasurable as I can. And within this cycle of seeing/pleasure/knowing, comes the same old surprise: can it BE that THIS familiar thing, or THAT remembered moment, has presented itself to me, yet again, in a new form, and so my INTEREST is aroused once more, and the camera rises to my eye and we blink together for that instant, and then it’s gone.
That’s Garry Winogrand on the Left, Photo by Tod Papageorge
By Tod Papageorge from https://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/7084
I first met Garry Winogrand at the beginning of 1966. Although I was a dozen years younger than he was, we quickly became close friends and, soon enough, were photographing together on the streets of New York. In the beginning, I found this a little strange; for me, making photographs was something to be done in private, if only because it required such tremendous concentration to have any hope of doing it well. But I soon realized that meeting with Garry and walking the streets with him didn’t mean that I would have to give up the idea of working autonomously: we simply spread out, typically separated by about half a city block, and worked independently. Manhattan was rich enough in photographic possibility that neither one of us felt constrained by the other: there was more than enough to see and be excited by. And then, every once in a while, we could stop and have coffee together and indulge in the pleasure of talking about what we’d seen, usually in the Museum of Modern Art café.
And so, one Sunday, on an early spring day about a year after we’d met, Garry and I found ourselves walking through the Central Park Zoo. I was 20 or 30 yards ahead of him when I noticed a handsome couple walking toward me—they looked like fashion models, in their 20s, both well-dressed—improbably walking with a pair of chimpanzees who were as immaculately attired as they were (the animals even wore shoes and socks). A New York City piece of strangeness, it seemed to me, strange enough to take a picture. So I did.
Then, bang!, I felt myself being pushed in the back away from this odd little group. A real shove, unfriendly, hard. And, of course, it was Garry, camera already up, making pictures, who’d done it.
Obviously, he was seeing something that I hadn’t seen, and what he was seeing was important enough to him that he was willing—for the first and only time in all the years that I knew him—to aggressively lay hands on me. I was shocked, of course, but once I saw that Garry, and not one of the Sunday strollers rushing by me, was responsible, I forgot about being angry or even irritated: he was my friend, I rationalized immediately, and must have had his reasons for momentarily acting as if he’d never seen me before.
By now, both chimpanzees were off the ground (as my picture shows, one had been toddling between the couple when I first saw the group), and I finally noticed that the man in the little quartet was black, and the woman white and blonde. I’d already recorded that fact with my eyes, I’m sure, but what it may have meant, or could mean, in a photograph, was something I hadn’t had the time or the consciousness to process.
Garry Winogrand, however, had obviously processed the fact: where I saw only the possibility for a joke that, at best, touched on the crazy-quilt nature of city life, you could say that Garry, by not so much seeing the group itself but instantaneously imagining a possible photograph of it, placed meaning, particularly as it might gather around the question of race, at the very center of what he was doing.
In other words, quite apart from whatever Sunday pleasure or notion of self-advertising had actually brought that couple together with those two animals, Garry’s quick mind construed from their innocent adjacency a picture (or the projection of one) that could suggest the improbable price that the two races, black and white, might have to pay by mixing together. He was speculating, of course, playing an artistic hunch, but a large and important enough one that he felt it was worth pushing his friend aside for. So he did what he had to do, and then, a moment later, I answered by making a picture of him standing by the same family group as they continued their stroll through the zoo.
Note Garry’s smile, like that of the cat who’d swallowed the canary, and also the stub of a cigarette sticking out between his fingers, which, with that grin, suggests a man deep into the moment, full of the pleasure of it, more than a truth-telling artist who had just produced an image that can arguably bear comparison with the best graphic work of Goya. For example, here, making such an argument, is Hilton Als, an African-American writer, describing this picture at the conclusion of an essay called “The Animals and their Keepers”:“In the photograph,” he says, “we see a white woman and a black man, apparently a couple, holding the product of their most unholy of unions: monkeys. In projecting what we will into this image—about miscegenation, our horror of difference, the forbidden nature of black men with white women—we see the beast that lies in us all.”
Of course, when he made this picture, Garry had no proof that it would mean anything at all. His film would have to be developed and, even then, he wouldn’t have photographs to see until he’d produced the small 1 X 1 ½ inch frames of each picture on a contact sheet that he could read one by one with a magnifying glass. In other words, as the digital age is now tempting us to forget, there was, and is, built into the usual photographic process a significant distance, both of time and physical immediacy, between an event and a photograph of it. This is a distance that, for Garry Winogrand, had virtually ontological implications, as suggested in the carefully chosen language of his well-known statement, that “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,” or, to elaborate it clumsily, “I photograph [at a given moment] to find out what something will look like photographed [when I eventually have the opportunity to study it in an undetermined future].” When Garry finally developed that film, then, it was not in the spirit of hoping to claim a masterpiece of photography, or simply a good picture (which never really interested him), but, in this particular case, to determine if the possible narrative he’d sensed in the three-dimensional, shifting space of the zoo had, in fact, been confirmed within the reduced two dimensions of his picture—in other words, to judge whether a photograph that more or less depended on a pair of well-dressed chimpanzees to become actors in a provocative, ambiguous tale had, somehow, in the shift from world to image, managed the feat. To put it another way: he was less interested in the ultimate “success” of the picture than in what he called the problem of making it, a problem he had consciously set for himself in the antic moment of pushing me out of his way. As he put it to a group of students a few years later, no doubt remembering this picture as well as others, “well, let’s say that for me when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let’s say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey—if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you’ve got a very real problem taking place in the photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?”
As it turned out, Garry never reached a conclusion about whether or not he’d solved the problem, or question, that the picture we’re considering here had posed for him. Although it has become canonical, and is, perhaps, the single photograph now most associated with his body of work, the fact is that, in his judgment, it remained an aesthetic question mark until he died. For example, “The Animals,” his first book, comprised of photographs made in zoos, was initially published in 1969, two years after he made the picture, yet it’s not included in the book, a piece of evidence, that, while not conclusive (since John Szarkowski was the publication’s principal editor), at least suggests that he wasn’t sure enough of it to insist that it be added. But he didn’t really worry about such things: there were too many other pictures to think about, too many kinds of lessons in his pictures to unravel and learn from, too many problems put into play as he made them. As he understood it, photography was much larger than he was, and his pleasure as an artist was to unremittingly study it.
As I’ve already stated, Garry was remarkably unmoved by conventional notions of success, even artistic success as typically measured by exhibitions and awards. “You learn from work,” he’d say, and, further, “I really try to divorce myself from any thought of the possible use of my photographs. Certainly, while I’m working, I want them to be as useless as possible.” Which, turned around, also suggests that, as he understood the issue, any one of them could be judged a success by virtue of the possible lesson it might teach him. Failure, as much as success, was an irrelevant concept to him.
Garry could be scathing and utterly dismissive in his criticism of other photographers, however, if their work failed to measure up to what he felt intelligent photography should be. For example, he scornfully rejected a body of work by one of his contemporaries that concentrated on a minority community in Manhattan, by saying that “You expect the people in his pictures to tap dance and eat watermelon,” proof of how aware he was of the power of photographs to reduce black subjects to smothering cliché. But he conducted his own personal investigation into the nature of the medium in what was effectively a judgment-free zone where his interrogation of photography and the making of his pictures were effectively one and the same activity: as I understood it then, and still do, he was the pure artist, or as pure as one could be who was committed to conducting his researches in the open-air theater of the corporal world. Also, he began to teach during this period (at virtually the moment I met him in 1966) and, as part of his teaching, to formulate the series of cryptic, but powerful, aphorisms about photography that, even now, any young photographer would be foolish not to commit to memory before considering the question of whether or not to reject them. So, yes, as the curator of this exhibition, Leo Rubinfien, quotes him as remarking near the end of his life in Los Angeles, Garry was a student of America. Yet, during his most prolific and creatively fulfilling years as a photographer in New York, I would suggest that he was more nearly a student of photography whose observation at the time that “a photographer’s relationship to his medium is responsible for his relationship to the world is responsible for his relationship to his medium” traces an eloquent circle of causation that begins and ends with the photographer’s deep identification with his medium. Certainly, during that period, when I was seeing him nearly every day, he was very much the genius/apprentice implied in that remarkable comment, instructing himself, exposure-by-exposure, about the many different ways photographs could look;how their frames might drop around his subjects, or even tilt as if the photographer was falling or out of control. And, more, how free he could be, and let his subjects be, to move and claim their place in his pictures as if they were expressing their own active agency, rather than appearing to be responding to the whip of the controlling, manipulating artist. In other words, working out a method of picture-making capable of appropriately serving his fierce understanding of whatever his subject might be, whether that was America. Or a beggar in the street. Or a pair of chimpanzees and their putative parents. As he said to a student who asked him what the purpose of one of his photographs was, “My education. That’s the answer. That’s really the answer.” And then, “My only interest in photographing is photography. That’s really the answer.”
For Garry Winogrand, it was foolish to pretend that a thing and a photograph of it were, in any useful sense, one and the same, and that the photographer could no more than minimally control the way his or her pictures of that thing would look. As he understood it, the lens and its unforgiving memory; the world, full of color and dimension; and the photographer’s own limited ability to absorb all of the information arrayed in his or her viewfinder from edge to edge determined an effect, the photograph, that would inevitably be different from the cause that created it, which is to say, the nominal subject of the picture, wild out in the world. “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed,” he said. As a result of this understanding, he came to see that, far from trying to control, or even limit, that difference, it might be embraced as a way of enlarging the meaning of his pictures, by charging them with an irreducible trace of unresolved, still-sparking energy that, from picture to picture, could be seen to embody the very élan vital that prods and pushes us forward in our own daily lives. So that, in the end, the picture, in some real, physical sense, re-joins us to life, but life transformed, still palpable in its vitality (always decomposing, always rising) and, by being so, true to the chaos—or “monkey business,” as he often called it—that Garry Winogrand knew it to be.
Swans in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 2003. Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200.
Readers have probably noted along the way that I’ve never officially posted my identity on the site. There’s a reason for that. I’ve not wanted the site to be about me; for purposes of the blog, who I am is mostly irrelevant. Plus, I have a web identity in my field of work and don’t wish to conflate the two (no, I’m not a dentist). I wanted to say what was on my mind without fear of offending someone in my professional life who might stumble on the site via a google search – whether I offend someone is usually low on my list of priorities, but in our toxic American culture, where everyone thinks they have a God given right not to have their feelings hurt, you’re always going to piss somebody off when you have an opinion, so best just not tie my name to the site. Problem solved. However, as Leicaphilia has progressed (or digressed, depending how you see it), it’s content has become more personal. I’ve settled into an online persona and have revealed more about myself and the particulars of my life and backstory, and some of you, mostly those who’ve taken the time to email me, now at least know my name.
I’ve also been using odds and ends of my photo work to illustrate posts from the beginning, all without attribution, but I’ve never published a piece about a specific project I’ve done. I’ve occasionally published work submitted by readers, but I’ve made a point of not peddling my own work because it just didn’t seem to be the proper place to do it…and I’m long past the point where I want or need the approval.
All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve decided to occasionally publish some of the photo work I’ve done through the years. Most all of it’s been done with an old Leica and film. Some of it’s been shown locally, most of it not. Good or bad, it seems a shame to sit on it, not showing it to others, when I’m able via the blog. So accept occasionally being subjected to my work as the price you pay for the other content.
Paris, where there’s a great (and often cliched) photo around every corner in the ‘good’ parts of town
Some 15 years ago, while living in Paris, I was lucky to make friends with a native Parisian, also a photographer, who introduced me to parts of the city I’d never have seen were I confined to my ex-patriot bubble. Paris is a fascinating city, full of beautiful spaces both public and private. Yet much of it is dirty and ugly and unsafe. Parts of it – the ’93’ in particular – have a sinister feel not unlike NYC in the 70’s, places where you’re best not to go without an realistic sense of your own vulnerability. As city dwellers know, the most effective strategy to prevent being victimized in strange places is often an observant fearlessness, carrying oneself in a way that signals confidence and self-possession while minding one’s own business. As a photographer, the worse thing you can do is to be signalling your vulnerability – openly displaying a tourist’s cluelessness, consulting a map while dangling a camera around your neck, looking hesitant while shooting. Best strategy: if you’re gonna do it, do it bravely and openly, like you’re there for a reason and deserve to be…and don’t take any shit from anyone, unless, of course, they’re armed or you’re seriously out-manned.
I’d been schooled in the attitude while attending ‘Art School’ in NYC in the late 70’s, a time when large parts of Manhattan seemed completely lawless. I’d never been bothered in even the worst parts of town, often seeking such places out looking for ‘authentic’ photographs. I’ve also been blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with a rashness that at times has caused me problems. Regardless, the key – act like you belong, and most people won’t bother you. It also helps if you act like someone capable of defending themselves.
The Bois, back in the day
If you’re a reader of 19th and Early 20th century French lit, you’ll have read of the Bois de Boulogne, a place of elegance and spectacle where wealthy Parisians retreated for amusement. With sports fields, bandstands, cafes, shooting galleries, riding stables, boating on the lakes, a zoo and other attractions, it was the place for Parisians to see and be seen. An area in the center of the park, called the Pré-Catelan, included a large circular lawn surrounded by trees, grottoes, rocks, paths, and flower beds, a marionette theater, a photography pavilion, stables, a dairy, and other structures like the Théâtre des fleurs, an open-air theater in a setting of trees and flowers.
Today, the park is pretty much down at the heels, a sort of no man’s land to drive through with the windows shut. Not a place normally on my list of priorities. However, I’d been told by friends that I had to go there at night, in a car, not for the leisure but to see firsthand the surreal Fellini-esque atmosphere that prevails. Apparently, after dark it becomes an open market for prostitutes of the most flamboyant type. If your tastes run to the sordid and dangerous, you’ll feel right at home. And if you have a fondness for transsexuals, this is the place to go, as 90% of the hookers there are/were men. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that venturing there on foot with a camera and pointing it at the natives would not be a good idea, as most sex is solicited from cars while the hookers and their pimps control the boulevards. Some idiot with little command of the language and a camera around his neck probably wouldn’t last long, which explains why, after some research I discovered there aren’t any photos documenting the scene. How could that possibly be?
I ultimately spent many nights there, either in a car or often on foot. I was never bothered much; in fact, I had more than a few interesting conversations with the denizens, most of whom seemed to come from the east and almost all of whom spoke English as their preferred medium. I used an M4 with a 50mm, scale focused, and HP5 pushed to 3200, aperture close to wide open and shutter speed at 1/15th. Pretty much ‘point and shoot’, you get what you get, find the good ones on the contact sheet. Thinking back now, in the age of quick and easy digital, it seems laughable that I’d spend a few hours shooting and come back with only 2 rolls of 36 exposed. I did try shooting digital a time or two, but abandoned it and went back to the M4 when I couldn’t duplicate the results I was getting with film. Digital couldn’t replicate the smoothness of the low-speed motion captured with film, and digital lag made shooting cumbersome – and there was the film grain which itself became an integral part of the look I wanted. Were I to do it again today, I’d do it using film.
Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 2003, Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200. That swirling motion was produced the old-fashion way: by moving the camera as I shot. In reality, not planned – just a lucky shot.
This, from a reader of the blog, Igor Vereshchagin, a photographer in Moscow. Interesting photography, the clip itself thoughtful and well put together.
Mr. Vereshchagin happens to be purchasing my black M4. Can’t think of a better person to send it to.
By Philip Wright
Boston, Massachusetts is a looooong way from Melbourne, Australia. Thirty-two hours long, if you take layovers into account (and you should!). So when I lucked on the job of accompanying my son Alex there earlier this year to help him with his transition to college, my wife Sue very kindly suggested I might like to take a bit of time on the return leg, perhaps visit New York and Los Angeles, maybe catch some exhibitions and take some photographs.
After giving the proposition much serious consideration (for two seconds) I was on the booking websites, and eventually four days were allocated to each city. To state it clearly – that’s four days in New York, then four days in Los Angeles, with nothing to do but take photos. I still pinch myself. Gigs don’t come much better than that.
So, next thing to decide was, what camera or cameras to take, with what lenses and what film. I was attracted to the minimalist idea for a while (one of each), but then reasoned that I had the capacity to take more, and foresaw that I’d want to cover a fair bit of territory photographically, and therefore could make use of various combinations. So in the end I settled on my two M6TTLs, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses, Tri-X and Portra 160, plus I had a few rolls of Adox Silvermax that I threw in as well. So much for minimalist.
Why this gear in particular? Well, my M6TTLs have different viewfinder magnifications – my silver one has a 0.58 viewfinder, the black one a 0.85. So one camera to handle 28mm and 35mm, the other perfectly suited to 50mm and 90mm. Check. The lens choice is easy because it’s basically what I generally use. I figured I’d use the 35mm most of the time, with the others in lesser proportion spread around fairly equally. I really wanted the 90mm because I envisaged some nice cityscapes in evening light, and the others are what I use mainly for people and street shooting. The film was basically dictated by what I had, and as it turned out I also had to buy some more in New York. I didn’t really anticipate that I’d use any colour in New York, but wanted some for the few pictures I thought I’d get the opportunity to take in Boston, and I figured that perhaps in LA I’d take some. So again, check.
Why Leica? Very simply because I figured I’d be spending whole days in these incredible places with nothing to do but think about and pursue photography, so I wanted to take the cameras I have most fun with. No contest there – the Leicas win hands down. And with those beautiful lenses, which I often feel I don’t use enough, there really was no argument – even overcoming my initial concerns of “what if I lose some gear, or get robbed” or whatever. Plus I found I could pack that amount of gear fairly compactly into my ThinkTank Streetwalker backpack as cabin baggage, which would also enable me to get the film hand-inspected, rather than it going through x-ray machines.
So, that’s the way it went down.
The upshot of the trip is that, most importantly, Alex settled incredibly well into student life in Boston and loves it there (well, OK, not so much the winter weather, but still).
And what of my eight glorious days in New York and Los Angeles? They went by in a blur of walking, subways, freeways (LA), visiting exhibitions (Danny Lyon and Diane Arbus and MOMA in New York, various architectural sites in LA) and of course, taking photographs. As an example, one morning I got to walk through Central Park to the Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer, and that very afternoon found me, Leica in hand, at Coney Island where she and countless others of the greats had taken such wonderful, iconic pictures. I can’t tell you how much it meant to finally, after seeing it in great pictures my whole life, walk along that boardwalk.
Overall, the pace was frenetic, and the experience was magical. At the end of each jam-packed day I was exhausted, but energized as well, and keen to be up at 5am the next day to start all over again. I was as happy as… well as a bloke who can’t think of an idiomatic expression clever enough to express it; and I think – no, I know – that I came away a better photographer because of my total immersion into it.
Oh, and on my return I even sold a bunch of my other (non-Leica) gear and bought a third M6TTL, this time with a 0.72 finder, because afterwards I realized I could have gotten away with just the one camera body, and the 0.72 finder fits the bill perfectly.
Now, back here in Melbourne, the thought occurs to me that Alex’s music course will take him four years to complete. Which leaves plenty of scope for Sue and I to go over and visit him. Hmmm…
By Tadeas Plachy. Mr. Plachy lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic
[Editor’s Note: I love stories like this. It’s easy enough to be jaded about modern Leicaphiles – those who simply buy the camera for the name and the cache that supposedly comes along with the name- and easy enough to forget that there are still people like Mr. Plachy, dedicated to learning the craft of traditional photography and wanting to do so with a camera that has meaning for them as something other than an upgradable widget. He’s right – there is something profound about the use of a precision mechanical camera like a Leica M2, 60 years old but still remarkably relevant.]
My photographic journey had already begun when my grandfather gave me his well used Leica on his deathbed. I had started in the 90’s with a cheap film camera, a Minolta point and shoot, shooting Kodak color negative film. I was a curious kid so I shot everything. My mother, who paid for the processing and prints, was quite unhappy that I shot random things. Sadly, while moving I lost all my negatives from those years.
In 2002 I received my first digital camera. I went to London for school and took my new 1.3mpx fixed focus digital camera. I could take about 20 shots with a set of 2 AA batteries. I carried full pockets of batteries. A 128 mb compact flash memory card cost the same as the camera, so I only had one. It was full within a day. I soon put that digital abomination into a drawer and never looked at it again. Unfortunately, my digital experience killed any further interest I might have had in photography.
In 2014, my wife and I visited her parents in Herefordshire, England, for Christmas. While perusing a book store I spotted a box marked “Lomography Konstruktor.” My wife noticed my curiosity and a few days later I found it under the Christmas tree. My love affair with photography had begun again. I did some research and decided that I wanted a rangefinder. But I was still finishing my university while married, and I couldn’t possibly afford a Leica, so I went for next best thing within my budget – a Zorki 4K with Jupiter 8 50/2 lens, my ‘Russian Leica.’
My university is close to the Castle District, one of the nicest parts of Prague. I shot with my Zorki there almost every day. Along the way I discovered I was doing something called “street photography.” Apparently I was on the cutting edge and didn’t even know it. In May, 2015 I attended a darkroom workshop and learned to process my BW negatives and print with an enlarger. I have been doing it ever since. Sadly, I suck at it, but, of course, that’s no reason to quit.
In 2015 I visited Paris with my wife and my Zorki 4K. And, as so many before me (Bresson, Kertesz etc…) I fell in love with photography even deeper there. I noticed that my 50mm lens, which seemed perfect for me in Prague, wasn’t allowing me to get more context of the street into my Paris shots. This is how we learn. After I returned I bought a Jupiter 12 35/2.8 lens and Russian auxiliary viewfinder. But the memories of Paris brought me back to the fact that someday, somehow, I’d need a Leica.
With my wife I often travel around Europe. London, Rome, Edinburgh, Vienna, always with my Zorki. It was Summer in Vienna when I totally fell in love with Leica. There is a big Leica store in Vienna, just across the Stadthalle. In it everything I dreamed of. I asked if I could take a look at an M2 with a 50/3.5 collapsible lens they had on display for a bargain price. Even though it had some scuffs, scratches and few pieces of Vulcanite were missing, it was a Leica M2, and it worked. I could feel the precision when cocking the shutter. The viewfinder was so much better than my Zorki. But I still hadn’t the money to buy it, even though it was a lovely price for both M2 and the lens. But the seed had been planted.
I love the beauty of precise mechanical machines. I spent 5 years as editor-in- chief of a blog about mechanical watches. I saw how they were manufactured and how much labour goes into these intricate devices. Classic film Leicas are the same for me in this respect. That was another reason I started placing every spare penny I could into an envelope marked simply “Leica”.
Six months after my visit to Vienna I bought my first M2 in a Prague camera store, with guarantee. Unfortunately, its shutter was riddled with holes, which wasn’t apparent when I tested the camera in store. I returned the camera, got my money back, but my heart was sort of broken. But shortly thereafter I found another M2, a bit less nice, with some vulcanite missing, but it worked. I bought it, got it overhauled and shot the heck out of it, using my Jupiter 12 and Jupiter 8 Russian lenses and a cheap Chinese adapter. The, for Christmas that year I received a Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8, the modern one made by Cosina. It’s a good lens, probably too good for me. I added a Voigtlander VC-2 meter and now I’m all set.
I’ve recently found a job near my university. I’m 5 minutes walking from Prague Castle and the Castle District, where I love to shoot. Mostly every day, after 8 hours of mind shredding crazy stupid boring and pointless work for my government I find it most relaxing to go shoot photos with my M2. Sometimes I shoot 2 rolls in 2 hours, sometimes it takes me 2 weeks to get through a roll of HP5, which I load from 100 ft rolls into old East German canisters I got in a flea market. I’m slowly starting to blend into the city life in the quarters where I shoot. People who live there are starting to recognize me. I’m still on a steep learning curve. My photos are far from perfect, although the technical side is pretty easy these days, I can make proper exposures, I can process and scan, but the content is what I’m struggling with.
I don’t want to make excuses, but Prague is a really hard place to shoot. In the historical center, you can’t find any locals who live there. We no longer have those small shops or cafés where locals would get together and have a chat – just tourist traps and people selling rides on Segway. In any event, I can see that through my photography I’m becoming a different person then I was before. More curious, more involved. I continue to shoot my trusty M2, mostly everyday out in the streets of Prague or wherever I find myself (soon I go to Budapest, Barcelona and London again…), documenting the world and life around me. I know the Leica is just a tool, that great vision is what makes a great photograph, but I must say, my Leica M2 is one of the best tools I could wished for. As for my grandfather’s Leica…that’s a story for another day.
I was lucky enough to have been in Paris this last week, where I often visit. It’s a beautiful city, full of visual treasures, though, as a photographer, it’s easy enough to be aesthetically lazy there. Most everything there is picturesque, designed to give visual pleasure. Acclimated to an American culture where public spaces are constructed for their vulgar utility and everything of value is monetized and commercially exploited, a simple walk through Paris can be a revelation. I’m not speaking now of the usual Parisian tourist trek: Notre Dame, Latin Quarter, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, Champes Elysees, Louvre etc, which in this age of travel as mass commodity have all the authenticity and charm of visiting Disney World, but the real Paris where people live and work and carry on their daily lives. And, of course, Paris has the best food in the world, but it’s not just found in the elite Michelin rated restaurants but in the unpretentious corner cafes and patisseries and boulangeries you’ll find on every corner. If you’ve ever sat down to breakfast with a flan nature still warm from the corner patisserie you’ll know what I mean. (And for god’s sake, please do not go to Paris and sit in a Starbucks, which, given there’s a cafe about every other meter in most Paris neighborhoods, just might be the single stupidest American affectation sullying the city.)
Ironically, competent photographers who’ve spent any time in Paris with a camera know it’s an incredibly difficult place to take interesting photographs. This is because it’s easy to fall into cliched ways of seeing your experience there – you know, the lovers kissing on the Pont des Arts, the guy with the baguette and the beret, the view from a table in a boulevard cafe, the pretty woman in a dress with the toy poodle on the rue, the de rigueur photo of the Eiffel Tower somewhere in the picture as a trope that says “I’m in Paris!” Please. Good enough for a cafe exhibition in Indiana? Probably. Been done a million times? Most certainly.
Am I begrudging those of us who’ll be in Paris once or twice in their life and want to record their experiences for posterity? No, of course not. What I’m saying is this: if you aspire to say something with your photography, aspire to say something about you. How you do that is not by recycling tired cliches that represent the stale vision of others, however scenic they’ve proven to be, but by presenting what you see and how you see it. To do that you don’t need the beauty of Paris. You need your own sense of aesthetics and interests, developed and cultivated with your particular vision.
Cliched tropes can often be a barrier between you and the richness of the potential experience in front of you, something that restricts your ability to really recognize the breath and intricacy of what you’ve come to see. Looking for that perfect picture of the Eiffel, you can miss the quotidian beauty that’s all around you. Of course, the same thing can be said for the overly familiar; we can become habituated to a place and not really see it anymore. When in Paris I stay with a good friend, a lifetime Parisian. He’s also an exceptional photographer, his work exhibited around the world. In the room in which I stay there’s one of his B&W prints on the wall, a simple street scene in some non-descript lower Manhattan neighborhood. I was with him when he had taken the picture; it was of a scene I’d passed a million times, nothing scenic or remarkable, something I didn’t “see.” But he did. It’s a reminder to me that I don’t have to go to exotic places to find things to photograph. They’re there, everywhere you are.
*All photos taken with an M8 and a 35mm Summicron. As this was a personal trip for personal reasons, I left the film Leica and the 50 rolls of HP5 at home. Actually, I really enjoyed using the M8. Still a great camera for what it is. I certainly can’t see why you’d need anything more if your interest is a digital rangefinder.