'The Knight's Move' - In Conversation with Paul Graham
This conversation (abridged) was originally published in Aperture #199: Summer 2010.
For additional information about PAUL GRAHAM, please visit: http://www.paulgrahamarchive.com/
AS: Aaron Schuman
AS: A mid-career survey of your work is currently touring Europe. Firstly, how did that come about?
PG: Ute Eskildsen - the Curator of Photography at the Museum Folkwang, Essen – wanted to do it. When I was twenty-five or so, she gave me a small photography prize; we've kept in contact since then, and it was Ute who suggested that we do a survey. They were in the midst of building a large extension the museum there, so I was kind of lucky in that my show was the last before the museum closed for renovations – they had already cleared out the permanent collection, so they offered me an unusually large amount of space: the whole museum.
AS: With Ute curating the survey, how heavily involved were you in terms of how the history of your work was written?
PG: Well, it’s important to understand that I’m a very hands-on photographer, so I was heavily involved with the production the show – the scans, the digital corrections, the test prints, and the final prints. Printing technology has changed drastically over the years, and there was too much variation in media and color-range in the original prints, so we decided to reprint everything except A1, which are vintage prints. But we didn’t change any sizes – everything is the same size as the original exhibition prints. Also, I print all of my own work and always have done; I don’t mean that I watch it being printed in a lab, I mean that I physically print them myself. So yes, I was involved with it. Furthermore, the book, Paul Graham, was produced by SteidlMACK in parallel with the exhibition, so it was quite a bit of work altogether.
AS: What did you learn by intensively looking back at twenty-five years worth of your own work?
AS: It seems that throughout your career you’ve been pushing the medium’s potential. Your early work was large-format and color, when most everyone else in Britain was still strictly devoted to 35mm black-and-white. And then when others started using large-format and color, you moved on to medium format and then ‘snapshot’-style photography.
PG: It’s not so much a reaction against what everyone else is doing. It’s more about keeping the medium alive for me, keeping it exciting. Maybe that’s a little selfish, but it’s important for every artist to be dynamically engaged with their medium.
AS: Many photographers seem to find a technique, approach or subject matter that works for them and then stick with it. You’re one of the few photographers that is experimenting all of the time. Of course, one argument against this could be that you give up on things before they are allowed to fully develop. Or do you think that the excitement of the new is what makes your work come alive?
PG: To be blunt, some artists find an idea and make a career out of variations of it. That has the benefit of familiarity for the audience, who get to know what to expect and how to read their work, but sometimes fades with repetition. Now, of course, if their idea is good enough and profound enough, that’s great; it is worth a lifetime! I’m glad there are the people that dedicate themselves to one way of working; I’m happy that they exist, if they’re making good work. Rineke Dijkstra is one of the best portrait photographers out there, and I don’t want her to suddenly stop and go off making landscapes; I’m glad she does what she does. Having said that, when someone has a more protean approach to the medium, reinvents themselves repeatedly, and evolves as they move along, it’s harder to see the bigger picture at first. After I did Troubled Land I was invited to a number of disputed territories, and offered a lot of opportunities to produce landscapes with secreted conflict details – in South Africa, in Israel, in Central America, and so on. I could have repeated the same concept for a long time, but to me that’s like a creative death – I can’t do that. I’d probably be financially better off it I did, but I can’t.
AS: Are there any specific photographers who also have had a protean approach, to whom you look for creative inspiration? In Paul Graham, ‘Election Eve’ by Eggleston gets a mention. As far as I understand it, that was originally a Rolling Stone commission to photograph Jimmy Carter in his hometown, during the 1976 election campaign.
PG: But then he went AWOL with his lady-friend to do whatever he wanted.
AS: Exactly, he was given a rather straightforward and traditional documentary assignment, but then went off the rails and did something much more about minutia and everyday detail. It seems like that’s a part of your approach as well, and I was wondering how much Eggleston’s example had influenced you. Because in works such as Troubled Land and American Night, the idea is centred within traditional social-documentary, but your photographs remain on the periphery.
PG: Like I said, it’s about keeping the medium alive for me and having a two-tiered approach: one that is focused on subject matter – an investigation of the social fracture in America, the British presence in Northern Ireland, or whatever - and another that is focused on the nature of photography. I’m very interested in what keeps this medium alive and moving forward, not just for myself but for the readers/viewers/public. We can all point out cases of rather dead, moribund photography, even sincere reportage photography, where however worthy the intentions of the photographer, however hard they have worked, they’re using a language that has essentially dried up and fails to reach people. If the images have become clichéd, it’s self-defeating.
AS: But do you feel that there was a point when such images did serve a purpose?
PG: Absolutely, but not anymore. That type of photography had its time, and those types of social concern are still relevant, but we’ve just got to find a fresh language to express ourselves. Today, we don’t write books as we did in 1952; authors now explore the structure of a novel and what writing now means, as well as their subject matter. Of course, there comes a point of overkill, when it’s just gimmicks and tricks, and you’ve got to be careful that’s not all it is. Anyway – to answer your question on protean work: someone like Lee Friedlander interests me in the way that he’s moved around from Factory Valleys to Cherry Blossom Time in Japan, to Nudes, and so on.
AS: Friedlander is often considered the ‘photographer’s photographer’ in the sense that photographers can really connect with how his work not only engages with the subject matter, but also with the process of making photographs. But, probably similar to your work, a lot of people – if they’re not familiar with that process and the debates that surround it – have some difficulty in accessing that work.
PG: It’s only difficult at the time when it’s brand new. For example, some people got very worked up by Troubled Land, and now you can hardly imagine what the fuss about. That way of working – mixing landscape and conflict photography – is now widely accepted, and there are many photographers doing it. But back then people said, ‘You’re crossing a line; you’re mixing up reportage and landscape; it’s all about you as an artist and not the issue, the place.’ There was a very hard critique of it.
AS: Did such criticism bother you?
PG: Sure, it affected me at the time, although I knew that I was right and they were wrong! I was still a twenty-eight year old photographer, so it took a lot of confidence to think, ‘Screw you, you don’t get it’, to established critics. More recently, the same thing happened with American Night. People weren’t really sure about these overexposed pictures. The strange thing is that when you break the norms, you uncover photography’s unwritten rules accidentally. Like you realize how, for decades, many photographers took a correctly exposed negative and printed it down, pushing the tonal range into darkness and gloominess and candlelit shadows, we all know the many technical references on how to keep your shadows open in a good print... But take that same negative and push the tonal range up the exact same amount, and they go, ‘you’ve manipulated it! What are you doing?’ And all you’ve done is the exact same thing in the other direction. So you realize that this was one of the unwritten rules of photography. You can make a picture with gloomy shadows if it’s about poverty – that’s the approved way of doing it - but not images in near invisible blinding light.
AS: Friedlander often broke unsaid rules of photography as well – in Self Portrait, his shadow is constantly intruding into the frame, and in other works he often has a tree or post sticking out of someone’s head, or a fence interrupting the composition.
PG: Indeed... or people think that it’s a touristy idea to photograph the public monument in the middle of the town, so he goes off and does one of his very best series, American Monuments. That’s the point – going straight to the belly of the beast.
AS: You also do something similar in End of an Age, with red-eye and so on.
PG: Yes that, and using dumb direct flash – you’re not supposed to use the flash that way professionally. Of course fashion photography has since picked up on it, and people like Juergen Teller are doing very well with it, with the harsh shadows and burnt out highlights. And also, you’re not supposed to fail to focus the picture and have camera blur, or leave the color-staining from the nightclub lights – you’re supposed to correct that out. But... you know – whatever it takes to make the pictures reach people.
AS: Is this something that you’re conscious of doing whilst you take pictures, and do you go out and look for these things?
PG: No, you can’t really do that, can you? Any sentient photographer has some idea of what they’re hoping to find, but you have to be open to what the world throws back at you, and engage with how it challenges and transforms your idea. That’s the beauty of the medium, that’s its unique quality, and for me, that’s why I mostly admire photographers who go out and deal with the world as it IS, and somehow, through liquid intelligence and sensitivity, they dance with the world - and it responds to them, and they create these wonderful bodies of work.
AS: It seems like you go out and photograph whatever catches your attention, and then when you get back to your studio you look at it carefully, and then decide how to make it work – ‘This is what I’ve got, now what can I do with it?’
PG: I guess... sort of. And it’s also about finding the one picture that’s interesting. The first time I went to Northern Ireland, I took all of these pictures of the murals and armoured personnel carriers coming down the street, and I came back thinking that I had all of these great pictures. But if you’re honest and self critical – which is a big requirement by the way – you quickly realize that they’re just like every other picture you’ve seen, which is what happened to me. Then, there was one picture that wasn’t like the rest. It was this almost overlooked picture. That’s the gateway, and that’s that one you have to be open to recognize, embrace, and realize its potential. It was the same with American Night. The first overexposed one was an accident. when I had the print of that, I just left it on the table, gradually looked at it more and more, and realized that it was in fact interesting. Then I started trying to figure out how could I get this effect intentionally – I could overexpose in the camera and maintain it, because I do my own processing. I suffer from the same amount of laziness and procrastination as anyone else, and I remember when I was working in Memphis once I went to a movie in the afternoon. When I came out of the movie into sunlight, my vision was burnt out; there was this blazing afternoon sunshine and I couldn’t see anything, and I realized how much that darkroom accident mimicked this optical burnout, which was about invisibility, and just beginning to perceive things. I do a tiny bit of teaching at Yale, and I’m always saying to the students, ‘Don’t fall into the trap of trying to make photographs like the ones you see in galleries. You’re supposed to be making what we’re going to be seeing in ten years time.’ You have to find something that is unique and interesting and different. This doesn’t mean that you have to turn the camera upside-down – but find something that confounds you, and isn’t comfortable. The minute it’s comfortable and safe and looks like it belongs tastefully in any gallery show of the past decade, then it’s probably too safe.
AS: Has teaching been important to your work.
PG: For me, not so much. I enjoy my few days at Yale every year, because it’s a good dialogue with a group of well-educated people, so I like to engage with the ideas there. The type of photography that I do is a very insular – I don’t have assistants with me when I take pictures, or a production team back at my studio – so it’s nice to find some sort of dialogue with others. That’s also partly the reason that I moved to New York; I was seeking a like-minded dialogue with people there.
PG: The UK definitely has a smaller photo-community – is that something that frustrated you?
AS: At the time I left in the late ‘90s, the Tate hadn’t shown any photography, and as far as I knew they weren’t going to. (A couple of years later everything changed, with Vicente Todoli’s appointment, and shows like ‘Cruel and Tender’.) In New York there’s MoMA, which has been showing photography for eighty-plus years and has a whole department dedicated to it – not to ‘artists who use photography’, but to photography. Also, photography isn’t really taken seriously enough in the British mass media. They’ll maybe do an article about Salgado or Martin Parr, but they should aspire to more, and they don’t. I remember going to New York, opening up the New York Times, and finding a review of Garry Winogrand’s 1964 that was two-thirds of a page long. And the level of assumed knowledge in it was wonderful: ‘Winogrand was in Szarkowski’s “New Documents” with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander’, and then it just went on, as if everyone knew who Arbus and Friedlander were. Then the other third of the page was a review of Boris Mikhailov, so I simply thought, ‘I belong here.’ Furthermore, in the 1990s there was the big YBA explosion in the UK, and there really wasn’t much room for other dialogues at that point because everyone was so obsessed with the YBAs. Some of their work is great – don’t get me wrong. But I needed to continue growing and developing, to stop being a good British photographer and work on an international level... and fundamentally, that’s why I moved abroad: to continue to grow.
AS: Do you find that your ‘British-ness’ works to your advantage abroad?
PG: Not really. When shimmer was shown at MoMA, people finally began to realize that I was more than a New British Colour photographer. Having said that, the States does need to internationalize its outlook a bit more. They’re often surprised if you reference Scandinavian or Japanese photographers, and that works against their broader interests sometimes. There are so many photography courses in America pushing out graduates, with conventional values that were established when the teachers were studying themselves, in ’77, or ’84, or whenever. It’s very hard to keep that moving along and growing. But the great thing about all of these courses is that it creates a huge photo audience.
AS: In Mirrors and Windows (1978), Szarkowski wrote, ‘It might seem ironic that the rapid decay of the traditional professional opportunities for photography has been paralleled by an explosive growth in photographic education…one of the by-products of photographic education has been the creation of an appreciative audience for the work of the student body’s most talented teachers.’
PG: I’ve said this before, but in my opinion Szarkowski’s greatest contribution – aside from the books and exhibitions – was in recognizing and demarcating an artistic space that was unique to photography. He saw classic, black-and-white reportage/documentary photography and pushed that slightly to one side. He saw self-conscious fine-art photography – ‘ARAT’ I like to call it: ‘Another Rock, Another Tree’ – and pushed that to one side. And then he said, ‘The space between these two areas, where the documentary and artistic instincts overlap, is special and unique to photography.’ He defined this space, ring fenced it and promoted it at MoMA, hence 'New Documents'. Unfortunately, much of the art world hasn’t yet recognized that unique artistic space, and although they have embraced photography over the last fifteen years, their embrace is very partial and selective.
AS: With that in mind, do you think that the primary venue of the art world – the gallery – is a space that is really appropriate to photography? You’re primary output is often books, and even you’re new SteidlMACK monograph reproduces all of the layouts from all of the books you’ve published, in full. The book is often your end result.
PG: The gallery and the book are equally important, and exhibitions have grown more important to me over the years. In the past, they were a little bit secondary to books, but I think that’s only because I grew up with photography publications - I was stuck in the West Country, and all I could do was get the books, so that’s how I learnt about photography. And I also learnt that books disseminate photography very well. Furthermore, they are, in their own way, the original work; they are the complete body of work.
AS: Standing in a public space versus a very intimate relationship with a book – these are two very distinct and different experiences of photography.
PG: Yes, very true. In the book you have a one-to-one dialogue, and the author has great control over how they see the pictures. But the exhibition has presence, the possibility of a larger scale, much finer quality reproduction, and it can have surprise. It depends on the work. When Tate Modern first opened, they put the Gurskys and Struths in the stairwell, which the photographers weren’t terribly happy about; most photographers are always very insecure about their position in relation to the greater art world.
AS: Does your mindset differ greatly when you are curating a show rather than laying out a book?
PG: They are pretty interrelated, though obviously flexible. I don’t want an exhibition to be a book on the wall, and I don’t want a book to be an exhibition catalogue. So I have to find some balance between the two. Sometimes I think I’ve succeeded, and sometimes not. Certainly with shimmer, I succeeded in separating yet inter-relating these presentations. I used corners of the gallery and empty spaces on the wall, similar to the book. I actually learnt from creating the book to leave some blank pauses – they look like errors at first, but they are there to force the viewer to stop and take a breath before going on. Doing that on a wall too is interesting...
AS: How did you first discover Szarkowski, 'New Documents', and all of the American work you reference so often?
PG: Through books. After university, I was a lowly bookshop assistant at the Arnolfini; was in charge of the photography section, so I was able to order whatever I wanted. Also the magazine, Creative Camera, was very important to me. It was tremendously influential. Early on, it had a letter from Robert Frank in it almost every month called ‘Letter From America’, and you’d find Arbus, Friedlander, Winogrand, and so on. I learnt about all sorts of photographers whom I shouldn’t by rights have known about as a twenty-two year old stuck in the West Country – John Divola, early Richard Misrach, Thomas Barrow’s ‘Cancellation’ series. And like someone obsessed with music who remembers all of the names of obscure bands, I became a nerd over these people and this era of work. You carry that information with you for the rest of your life, so I have this background knowledge from Creative Camera and the bookshop years.
AS: A1 seems to share a lot with the tradition of photographing the American road-trip. There’s a story that Robert Frank carried Walker Evans’s American Photographs around with him whilst he was shooting The Americans, and I was wondering if you did anything similar.
PG: No, I wasn’t carrying anything around with me back then in 1981. I knew about ‘Election Eve’ at that point, but all I knew was this little brochure catalogue, which had only three or four pictures in it – that was all I’d seen. What I was really inspired by was Eggleston’s freedom, and his tangential approach to documentary. He doesn’t go at it head on; he does this incredible circumnavigation, spiralling slowly in towards the subject. I learnt that it you shouldn’t go direct to the source – make it elliptical, and appear to be doing something irrelevant which isn’t. That was more influential to me than anything.
AS: I often show students A1 in the same lecture with The Americans and Stephen Shore's Uncommon Places.
PG: Thanks, that’s nice to know. To be very honest, I’m one of those people who didn’t really get The Americans at first. I recognised its greatness, and that it was probably the greatest piece of post-war photographic work. But back in 1981 it was one of those things that I was kicking against; it represented that black-and-white Leica/Magnum school of photography. So I’d be interested to see that lecture myself.
AS: The students, who are mostly British, often find it strange to see what happens to that visual language when it’s applied to something that isn’t as exotic to them as the American landscape.
PG: But isn’t part of photography about realizing the exotic within your own life and landscape, and recognizing the power and importance of it? The extraordinary of the ordinary? When I get stuck, I tell myself, ‘Relax. It’s everywhere and everything. It’s all around you, and you just have to let it speak to you.’ It’s not about having to cross the great American West, or the deserts of China. You don’t have to do that. It’s right in front of your face; all you have to do is relax and breathe it in.
AS: Do you carry a camera with you everywhere you go?
PG: No. I used to. But again, that’s something that I’ve kicked against because whenever I went to a photography lecture in the mid-80s, the photographers would be at the back with their Leicas dangling over their shoulders, and I just thought, ‘What are you doing? That’s silly.’ It’s a little sad though – I used to take a camera with me everywhere – I miss that freedom now.
AS: What propels you to pick up the camera?
PG: In New York, I go out most days and take pictures. Lee Friedlander has a great routine, so I’m told. In the morning he works on correspondence, in the afternoon he goes out and shoots, and in the evening he prints in his darkroom, while listening to music. I hope it’s true – but, you know “print the myth” anyways! Having said that, I guess that any routine can become a trap as well. The good thing about the road-trip is that you’re isolated and forced to think; even if you don’t take any pictures for a thousand miles, you can think quite deeply about your work. It allows you the space to make the knight’s move. Rather than just thinking in terms of straight lines and diagonals, you go up, over and across. By isolating myself and being away purely to work, I can make that knight’s move in my thinking, and that’s very productive for me.
AS: Has looking back at all of your work for the survey affected your current practice in any way?
PG: I was kind of surprised at how much work there is over the years, because I think of myself as a rather idle person who doesn’t work that much! I struggle with distractions, and would rather go out drinking with friends than work all the time. Strangely, it was the same with shimmer - when it first came out as twelve small volumes, the books were very light with just short series of images, so they seemed quite slim and insubstantial. But when the compendium single volume came out eighteen months later, I picked it up and realized that it was a decent amount of work. I think the trick is not to get burdened down by your past; not to let it become a weight around your ankles. I was having dinner with Rineke Dijkstra the other day, and she said, “Are you going to carry on with shimmer? You should do more of it.” But I don’t see the point in doing exactly the same thing again. I think it’s a good piece of work, but photography has to stay alive for me.
AS: You’re work is often regarded as political.
It’s ‘political’ with a small ‘p’, or ‘social’. Yes, American Night is about the social fracture of America, but it’s also about the landscape of America, from the inner-city to the suburbs to the McMansions. So it’s about seeing and not seeing, about lightness and darkness, black and white and colour, about a state of mind - visibility and invisibility. When people come from a photographic point of view, they tend to lock in on the social-documentary aspect of it, which surprises me. Some people think that shimmer is just about the peripatetic dispossessed in America. But there’s actually a whole series shot in New England in there – middle-class homes with nice cars outside, multi car garages, and a woman collecting her post from a mailbox.
AS: But It’s easy to assume that such a series, amongst the rest of the work, is meant as a contrast to the dispossessed, and is therefore slightly disdainful of the middle-class.
PG: I don’t think that it’s disdainful. I grew up in new housing – 1950s post-war utopianism – so when I look at the McMansions and cookie-cutter homes I feel warmth towards them, because that’s where I grew up. So contrary to how it may seem, I actually have empathy for those places and people; I actually have very conflicted emotions when I see a brand new house, because to me it’s childhood memories.
AS: Robert Frank, who described himself as a ‘naturalized American’, talked about having a ‘fresh eyes’ when looking at America. As a Englishman living in the States, do think that something similar served you in American Night and shimmer?
PG: I don’t really think that where my passport is from plays such an important role. I have a live-work space in New York, I barely go out, and if I do I barely leave the neighbourhood. I don’t take part in normal city life – I don’t go to work or the subway, I don’t go uptown much. So when I do go out, it’s a shock – when I’m suddenly in midtown watching office workers, or I’m in suburban America in a car, I feel like I’ve dropped onto Mars. And that is something that I seek to maintain; to keep the surprise of looking at the world with fresh eyes. But then, aren’t most artists, in any medium, supposed to have this innocent wonderment at the world?
AS: Yes, but it seems that this sense of displacement can lead to both the best and worst of photography. It’s easy to go off to India and find photographs, because its all so new and exotic; and in a sense that’s what you’re doing in America, but you do it in a very different way.
PG: You’re right – it does produce the best and the worst. The worst is the result of too many carpetbaggers who think that their pictures will be interesting because they’re of the bazaars of Marrakech. But I’m sorry, it isn’t – they’re the same pictures we’ve all seen before. You can take photographs in the slums of India with the most sincere of intentions, but if they’re cliché, they’re cliché. I applaud these people for going to the ends of the earth, but they should think more carefully about the visual language that they use. On the other hand, the opposite example of successful outsider is Frank.
AS: Where do you look for photography?
PG: I keep an eye on the books that come out. And every month I do the rounds in Chelsea, but then I’m relying on the art world to determine what I see. I usually don’t want to see something too strong because it might throw me off my course, but I keep my eyes open. I’m a little bit broader minded than some, in that I look at what artists who use photography do as much as I look at photographers work. There’s a lot of bright smart people working with photography.
PG: I’m optimistic that the art world’s embrace will expand; it’s been a very narrow little embrace, and I thing they’re reaching outwards. I’m surprised at how many gallerists and curators now finally know who Robert Adams or William Eggleston are, so that knowledge base is growing. Until recently, people who came from a fine art curatorial background didn’t know anything about photography. Now, they recognize the Dusseldorf school and the Bechers, plus a few others – Jeff Wall and Thomas Demand, etc, but I think that this embrace is going to expand, and will become a great place for photographers to show their work, and earn their living.
AS: I wonder if the great photographic movement you’ve mentioned – the 1960s in New York, or even the 70s and 80s in the UK – happened precisely because the art world wasn’t paying attention to them. The photographers had a small community, had a battle to fight together, could experiment freely without the pressures of the marketplace, and had time to grow and mature.
PG: Yes, I would argue that, like Abstract Expressionism or PopArt, the bloom of American photography in the 1960s and 70s was one of the greatest post-war American art movements, which still goes unrecognized today by the greater art world. Shore, Eggleston, Adams, Winogrand, Arbus – from ‘New Documents’ to ‘New Topographics’ – that’s a great artistic movement there, very much of and for its times. And you’re right, they were alienated by the greater art world; they were forced to make their own little system with a few little photo-galleries, small print sales, teaching, workshops, and they egged each other on. That’s they way movements work.
AS: Now the art marketplace in incredibly competitive, and space is limited. Do you see any alternative areas where photographers might get their work out there?
PG: The gallery scene is very difficult, as it is for painters or sculptors, and I don’t see why photographers expect to be any different. The good news is that book publishing is exploding, and so that’s very exciting. I think that eventually with Blurb and Lulu books, or even if it’s just PDF photographers make, there will be a website you can go to with a popularity chart, just like with iTunes, with recommendations and so on. When an e-book book gets to be really popular, someone will pick it up to be a tree-book. So there are windows opening now that didn’t exist before, and that’s very exciting.
AS: But you published your own books at the start of your career as well.
PG: Yes I did. I had to, because there was no one to do it for me.
AS: Didn’t you sell your own postcards at the Arnolfini bookshop too.
PG: I had a little bound collection of prints called Five Originals – five little color pictures from 1977. I think I made ten, and I’ve got two of them left; whoever’s got the rest...well done. That was my equivalent of a Blurb book then, because that’s all you could do. Now you can use your Epson printer, produce a double-sided book, and have it bound, or just go to one of the online printers. I really think there is a window right now, because at the moment the newspapers are wrong-footed and don’t know what to do, and publishers are wrong-footed and they don’t know what to do. If it is a safe bet, like Cartier-Bresson or Irving Penn, then they will do it, but if it’s someone new, the major publishers are very uncertain.
AS: Steidl takes some risks.
PG: Yes, Steidl takes risks. But the point is that there’s this gap right now where you can produce your own book, and most photographers know where the twenty most interesting bookshops in the world are; in New York. Paris, London, Tokyo and so on. And if it’s good enough, you can get your book into them. It amazes me when I go to Dashwood in New York. People go in there seeking and finding very small-run Japanese or European books, even if it’s only a hundred edition.
AS: It seems that in times of recession there’s often a lot of creative growth and experimentation – with no marketplace to cater for, there’s a certain sense of freedom.
PG: True. If you were a punk musician in the 70s you couldn’t get a deal with a major label – they weren’t interested in your little band, so what did you do? You recorded the songs in your garage, had some seven-inches pressed up, and it worked. Everyone began to start up labels, whatever that meant – you did your own record, your friends record, their friend’s record – and soon you had ten records. Then you took them around to some record shops you knew, and it exploded. I don’t see why we should lose sight of that model, especially now the digital opportunities that are around us.
AS: But digital hasn’t only affected publishing.
PG: Well we haven’t even touched on the digital opportunities within the camera.
AS: Do you exclusively shoot digital now?
PG: Yes, I’ve shot digital for the last five years. Once you realize the quality and convenience of digital, it’s very hard to shoot both. When I got my first digital camera, I thought that I’d use both for a couple of years, but I’ve only put two rolls of film through the camera since then.
AS: Has your relationship to the camera changed since using digital?
PG: No, if you’re talking about the camera, digital really hasn’t made that much of a difference to me. At the end of the day, I’m walking around with a dSLR, which has exactly the same problems as a film SLR – focus, aperture, shutter speed, and the biggest problem of all, what the hell you point the camera at. I’m sorry, but the fact that it’s a piece of silicon recording the light rather than a piece of gelatin doesn’t make such a big difference. Is someone taking totally different pictures because they have a digital Leica M9 rather than a film Leica M7? I wouldn’t have thought so in any meaningful way. No, what people muddle up in the whole ‘Digital’ debate, is the digital camera with the use of Photoshop...and those are two very different things.
AS: Is that something that you’ve experimented with?
PG: Sure, if there’s a fault on the film I fix it. There’s a Beyond Caring negative that has dust on it from the processing, and now I’m able to retouch that perfectly, which is what I tried to do in the darkroom anyway in the past, with less success! With American Night, although the negatives were already overexposed, Photoshop made them a lot easier to print because you could increase the curve and still keep some detail in the highlights without everything just getting blown out into an anonymous white. You can bring the midtones and shadows up, but the highlights stay where they are and don’t burn out. But that’s one of the simplest moves in Photoshop; it’s not remotely advanced. With shimmer, it was about seeing the workflow on the computer screen – clicking through the sequence. The earliest series were shot on film and then scanned, and going through them on screen and seeing the stuttering filmic sequence rather than a contact sheet, I began to notice this beautiful flow happening.
AS: What in particular did you find interesting about the notion of the stuttering series?
PG: It’s a hard thing to answer. I went across America, and sometimes I felt like I was failing because I wasn’t doing ‘Election Eve’, or The Americans, or 1964. And then I thought, ‘Relax. It’s everywhere and everything – it’s that guy smoking a cigarette at the bus stop opposite you. He may not be Frank’s cowboy or the black folks forced to the back of the bus in New Orleans, but this guy is smoking a cigarette, right here, right now, in front of me...and that’s just as interesting.’ So I just kept taking the picture, and tried to tap into the flow of life; I stood back and tried not to force myself on the world, but instead learnt to accept the flow of it all. Someone I know, who’s working on the Cartier-Bresson retrospective at MoMA, was looking at his contact sheets and said to me, ‘The “decisive moment” is nonsense!’ There are ten pictures before and ten pictures after every one of them – he actually took a dozen pictures of people leaping over that puddle!
AS: But the difference in shimmer is that you choose to print the whole dozen.
PG: Exactly. I relaxed and recognized that it’s about the moment-before and the moment-after, as much as it’s about the ‘decisive moment’. In shimmer, there’s a series where I’m walking behind two people carrying some boxes of Pepsi on their shoulder, and then the attention flips to a couple waiting at a bus-stop. We just all happened to walk passed them, so I took a picture, then I went back to the walk and the guy carrying the Pepsi. A moment later we passed a little boy playing in his garden, trying to use a plastic bag as a kite. So I took a picture of that, and then returned to the guy with the Pepsi again.
AS: Do you find that people struggle with your work, especially if they aren’t photographers themselves?
PG: Not so much with shimmer – it’s fairly open, and people seem to get it. They struggled with American Night a bit; the hardest one was Empty Heaven. Although having said that, now with the rise of the Superflat movement where people are mixing pop culture with Japanese history and trauma, what Empty Heaven was about has become a bit clearer. I guess that, like any other contemporary art, certain people pick up on what I do, and others don’t.
AS: But shimmer in particular, as you described it, seems to rely on the viewer intimately knowing that experience of walking down the street looking for pictures.
PG: Ok, but could I be the devil’s advocate and argue that this sequence represents a more natural way of seeing, and that we as photographers have gotten too obsessed with looking for the special moment, this one punctum in life? I’m just turning your question around, and saying that maybe the public in general have less of a problem with this approach than those in photography who have invested in one way of working.
AS: Fair point.
PG: The question that I do get because of the nature of that work is, ‘Are you going onto film?’ But I’m still absolutely in love with still-photography; the potentials and opportunities are expanding all the time. I see exciting new work every year, and the new opportunities that are coming now are fantastic. In less than ten years we’re going to be able to pull a RAW file out of video, thirty frames per second. And the only reason that anyone can complain – that it’s cheating or whatever – is macho posturing. It’s not cheating, as long as you find the right pictures in that video. The editing is simply is occurring later in the process, but you’ve still got to recognize it and make sense of it, and that’s the biggest challenge. In fact, you can divide photographers up into those who are good editors in the moment, and those that are good editors after the fact. Some photographers do know what they’re doing afterwards, and others don’t, leaving that work to editors and curators. What Szarkowski pulled out of Eggleston’s work was very much Szarkowski. Eggleston took the pictures of course, but he didn’t get ‘final cut’ or seemingly care. Hence you get The Guide from Szarkowski, but then other editors, curators and publishers come along and don’t manage to pull such interesting things out. Or maybe they do...
AS: So do you ever let editors or curators determine the presentation of your work?
PG: Well, I’m very hands-on with my work, but some people aren’t. Whatever works. That’s right for me, a different approach works for others – its all ok, really.
AS: Do you think that photography has become too precious or cerebral?
PG: It’s frustrating sometimes, because when photography does become to cerebral, it kind of dies. You know, sometimes I think that there is something at photography’s core that, alas, many in the art world don’t get. For example, when someone comes at it from the classic art world perspective they think there’s something missing from what Winogrand did. He simply walked down the street, and took this picture of a demonstration, and it seems just like a lucky snapshot. You know the one where all of the gestures line up in Public Relations; where, if you drew a line with a ruler across the four hand gestures, it would be perfectly straight? Whereas... if Jeff Wall recreated that with ten models, a huge photographic team and lots of postproduction, everyone would accept that – there’s no problem and it’s seen as legitimate, because the artistic and creative process is clear. So there’s a big gap between the synthetic and the analytic. That said, I’m admirer of the best of Jeff Wall. But what I have problems with is that Wall is very influenced by Winogrand - you can see that in his work; he loves that kind of photography - but the same people who love and admire and promote Jeff Wall have never heard of Garry Winogrand, and they should have. To go back to that Winogrand with the gestures in a line, people will celebrate John Baldessari’s piece where he’s throwing balls in the air to make a straight line; that’s a conceptual West Coast performance version, with chance and whimsy and a trivial event being given some sort of meaning. And yet, Baldessari is embraced, whereas Winogrand is forgotten. The mistake to make is to define these things as oppositional. I’d love to see more integration of great photography into the art world; we did see Robert Adams in the Venice Biennale and Michael Schmidt at the Berlin one, so one hopes more such ruptures will break through in future.