When I first saw Ben Gest‘s photographs, I didn’t quite trust what I was looking at. Something was off. Before I had time to figure things out, a security guard was rousing me from my hypnosis, pointing at the clock above--the museum was closing. So I went home and looked into it. Sure enough, these are no ordinary photographs. Gest meticulously stitches hundreds of individual photographs together into one large, seamless, deceptive single image. The people that appear together in any given photograph were probably not together in real life. He plays with perspective like a cubist, subtly distorts the human figure like a mannerist, and has built a repertoire of psychologically charged scenes like, well, a photographer.
I initiated the following conversation a few years later, after returning to Paul Joyce’s book-length interview with David Hockney, which for me brought cubism finally down to earth. Gest’s main points of reference are not other photographers, but painters, and he builds upon Hockney’s photographic foundation more and better than anyone I can name. He answered my questions so well that I struggled to keep pace, and each time we spoke, I felt I was seeing his work again with fresh eyes. Of course, we talked about the aesthetic and social motivations behind his photographs, but more than anything, we kept coming back to what we found in common: a knotty relationship with photography itself.
Alec Quig: I'm going to start with my most basic question: I've been looking at your work for years now, and have read just about everything out there on you, but your core motivation is still enigmatic to me. Your work is remarkably consistent. You're really driving something home. I wanted to talk about the psychology of that. There's nothing out there to give your audience an idea of the soil your work germinated in, who you are, or even what you look like—to be honest, I thought you’d be at least twenty years older! There must be a pretty significant wellspring of psychic energy you draw from in painstakingly compiling these big images.
Ben Gest: My work is very much reflective of the moment--the moment now. The moment I live in. My life. What I struggle with is trying to describe the complexity of all that. I don't think about photography being a depiction. I'm not interested in photography that picks something that's happening over and over again, pulls apart the subtle differences between these moments that keep happening, and generally recording, recording, recording. I'm very interested in the idea that the photograph enters into a space that's much more psychological, much more subtle, and much more powerful, about the conditions of life at this moment, and the struggles I think people are engaged in. My interest is in a very specific cross-section of photography. I think a photograph can transcend the specificity of the thing it visually describes and approach something much less tangible, and to me, much more powerful.
AQ: Hazma Walker described your compositions making the eye “move not so much around the picture, but in and out of it.”
BG: That's what's so interesting about photography. I teach photography a lot, in lots of places. When my students really start to understand the medium, they begin to see that a photograph describes more than what's actually in front of the camera. It's not just the depiction of the thing in the photograph, it's this bigger experience: how you look at it, how it affects you viscerally, how that relates to content. Content isn't only the thing that's being described in the photographic moment—it's a broader experience. That's where I engage with the process of photography in a very specific way. There's a real opportunity to think about the experience of how you read something, how you look at something, and how that creates its meaning. Until the computer, photography hasn't been able to engage with that.
AQ: Do you see your work continuing in this vein for a while? Indefinitely, even?
BG: I'm not bored by what I'm doing at all, and I don't feel like I've even begun to exhaust the possibilities. I have very narrow interests within photography. I'm not a prolific photographer, and I'm not generally excited about the wider landscape of the medium. But I am very interested in very specific ways that I can use it. Of anything I've ever done, it's the only medium that seems to be able to connect what I think and what I want to say. It's exactly aligned with how I think and how I experience.
AQ: Is what you want to say to hard to say in words, and thus better conveyed through photography?
BG: I certainly believe that there's a language within this medium that's unique to itself. But I'm also a firm believer in being able to be articulate about your work. On one hand, I think there's something that [visual] art does that you can't do with words, and at the same time, I think you have to respect the complexity of the language you have to use to try to talk about these things.
AQ: Is there a body of work from before what you're known for now? Did you have to push through "straight" photography to get where you are now?
BG: There are a few pictures. I started with very traditional street photography. I haven't shown them much, but you can see a link between how I did things then and how I do them now. I don't work "intuitively" so much now, but I was able to dissect things even then.
AQ: Dissecting seems to be a good word for the principal function of your work. And your focus seems to be narrowing.
BG: I think that's true.
AQ: Though the connotation of “narrow” is a bit off, you really are mining this. As a spectator, your work seems to become more mysterious the more you continue to do so. The first piece of yours I ever saw, years ago, was either “Chuck, Alice, & Dale” at the Art Institute [in Chicago]. Strangely, it seemed so fully realized that there wasn't much mystery to me, even though it was quite different from other photographs around. I didn't know exactly what was going on in the picture, but I intuitively got it. I felt immediately at home with it. Literally, the work was something I could imagine, you know, hanging it up in my living room. It didn't challenge me like some of your more recent work does. And on that note, I couldn’t imagine living with a lot of your more recent work. It’s too unnerving.
BG: That was an interesting and important picture for me, but one I have a lot of mixed feelings about. I have very specific goals with each picture, and with some I feel I achieve them more gracefully than others. Then, once they're out of my control, there's that whole world of interpretation out there. I respect that picture very much and learned a lot from it, but I don't know if it's as graceful as some of my others.
AQ: Which, for example?
BG: I think my single-subject images are some of my most graceful and psychologically pointed. It started at the Renaissance Society show, where they were made public for the first time. They've since continued to become more personal. My work presents itself as something very simple. It almost looks like a very everyday, snapshot kind of picture, but it reveals itself to be something very different. Some of these pictures, especially the more recent ones, really need time to reveal themselves. What I do like about my work is that it's all in the picture. It's all there. It will reveal itself, but it takes time. I think my work asks you to spend time with in it a way that photography has trouble with in some ways.
AQ: I would say more so every day. Maybe even every minute. Coming at it from the internet, as I am most of the time, and as I imagine a good deal of your audience is, it's challenging to give something the time it deserves.
BG: I struggle with that, honestly. I know my work survives very differently in front of you than it does in any reproduction. That's not good, because my work requires something more.
AQ: And it’s also pretty heady. Cubism’s heady stuff, period—and here’s a blunt question: is what you're doing cubism per se?
BG: It's related. It's about the desire to understand how to describe something in its fullest on a two-dimensional surface. And I do think there's the disruptive element of cubism: intentionally seeking to break or challenge the comfort zone we’re in when looking at a representation of something or somebody. And I want to be part of the conversation of how photography is changing, or can be changed. The cubists were interested in disrupting sculpture and painting; I'm interested in disrupting photography on some level. It's that modernist gesture of wanting to break traditions. And I don't think I'm aggressively doing that visually like cubism did, but some of the underlying lessons regarding the complexity of representation that cubism can't help but...
AQ: ...throw in your face. Are you able to articulate what those lessons would be? In other words, what has this body of work taught you about representation? I think it's there—”everything’s in the picture," as you say. But since you've shown it, can you tell it, too? Hockney really made cubism click for me by showing and telling. I've been seeing Picasso and Hockney practically all my life, but the latter’s photos drew me in like a moth to flame. And he delineates it so clearly and effortlessly. I was kind of walking around in a daze for a day or two!
I mean, I know people who are pretty involved with painting and still don't really get cubism in full—I've had this conversation where it’s of course another important movement, but the quantum leap nature of it, the magnitude of it, hasn’t sunk in viscerally. Often, they're looking at all these paintings from a hundred years ago, and they're still very demanding, and it takes a while to start seeing. I can't imagine the challenge they posed to viewers in, you know, 1917. Most people don't get the chance or impetus to think about it all that deeply. Some of it relates to the same problem you deal with in terms of audience: needing to see the work in person. But it's very interesting that photography, of all things, via Hockney, can bring cubism down to earth. Wasn’t cubism partly a response to the advent of photography?
BG: Well, in terms of your original question, I don't know if I can, as you say, “show and tell.” I can say that I think artists are frequently frustrated by the limits of what they know about how to describe the world, and that innovation comes out of a sense of one’s intellect and ambition reaching beyond their facility. Those who do anything innovative connect those dots. I'm specifically interested in questioning intimacy, the relationship between the photographer's presence and their subject matter, the participation of the viewer in the picture--literally, how the photographer controls how the viewer reads the picture--and disrupting space in a way that creates meaning. Where I diverge from Hockney is removing those edges, so you don't know how I did it. That's where he was all about process. He makes it clear. I don't. And it makes you uncomfortable, and that relates to the subject matter. It's another foreign aspect that conveys meaning. If I'm trying to describe a relationship in which two people are tense towards one another, I have a choice to record it, or to describe it. Describing it is about...
AQ: ...making tons of little cumulative choices.
BG: And that's what can make photography potentially more complex. In many ways, it becomes very practical.
AQ: That's exactly what I'm trying to get at.
BG: How do I get you to look here, and here, and then here…and not be caught up in the inherent hierarchy of structure that photographs make. It's very easy to know where you're supposed to look in a photograph. There's usually a clear “most important part.” I've tried to disrupt that. I want you to not only look here and then here, but to experience that process in a certain way. That's what makes a narrative unfold. That's the solution to my problems. If my pictures create anything, that's how they do it. That's how they go from just another big digital print to something that unfolds and unravels--hopefully, in a positive way, where they add up to something. It's not just moving from point to point, but...
AQ: In and out.
BG: But I'm also interested in the potential of photography at a deeper level.
BG: I have certain aspirations that have nothing to do with my broad intellectual interest in what's going on in photography. There's not much photography that I really care about in the world. I'm interested in photography's potential to engage visually with the psychological and emotional, its potential to talk about something very real, but intangible. Psychological states.
AQ: As you’re saying all of this, I'm looking at “Twanna Trying To Be Still.” It stands out. She’s one of your only non-white subjects. How should one read into this?
BG: With Twanna, I was trying to describe a certain kind of moment. I wanted a working woman with a little girl, and I knew she had a girl. She was of the age group that I was looking for. Race isn't what drove that picture as much as a certain age and situation that I wanted to describe. I use the way people look--say, the clothes they wear--as an indication of their relationship to social cues. This has less to do with economics than it does implying the presence of others, or the position they take with others. Their dress, in short, implies something public. By default, it suggests a certain kind of formality and economic “presence.” That's interesting to me. My motivations for shooting the people I photograph are rooted far more in how they look than who they really are. Though most of my subjects are not wealthy at all, there is this upper middle-class presentation in there—that’s the role of the public self. Twanna was just another person that I had access to, who I dressed to look a certain way.
AQ: So you picked her outfit.
BG: For the most part, I pick people's outfits.
AQ: But from her wardrobe.
BG: Yes—I'm asking people to look a certain kind of way. I'll photograph them and make changes. Twanna was just another person who I barely knew, who I met with the goal of photographing. She was someone who I thought would make an interesting picture. Photography is indexical: it records everything in front of it. Part of what’s interesting in constructing an image is that there are things about it that I can't fully control. Photography describes with a specificity that I can't even conjure, and I accept that. As much as I try to control things or change these images later, I'm photographing people in their own clothes, in their own space.
AQ: What fuels your interest in the difference between the public and private? I’m compelled by this too, but it manifests differently. Like, I have a fascination with masks.
BG: It relates to a lot of questions that I'm interested in. I'm troubled by the way that we fulfill the expectations upon us almost blindly.
AQ: Or unconsciously?
BG: I'm troubled by the way I was taught to conform by our society. It has to do with big questions. Where we live, how we live, the expectations that have been put upon us, and in many ways, the dissatisfaction that results from all of this influence. All these things that we're asked to do, how we're rewarded for some things and not for others. I think I'm a well-adjusted and frustrated person, but in a positive way. I don't mind challenging a lot of things that I come against on a daily basis. The public versus private is just that: there's a performance we're always doing, but there's something else that's very hard to describe. There's something else that you are that no one else has access to. I like to deal with that on both personal and interpersonal levels. Between two people together, and with people who are alone, and the idea that there's something that you are to others that's not who you are to yourself. There is a space in your mind that no one could have access to. I'm trying to make a picture about that space. I'm trying to describe the fleeting moments of self-acknowledgment that you can't share. And I think a photograph can describe that.
AQ: In a way more immediate than words. This seems to apply pretty readily of pictures of people in middle age, but as you're saying this, I'm looking at “Alice Waiting.” It's more subtle than this, but it seems in your work that people are mostly cast in three groups: children, the middle-aged, and elderly. The bulk of them seem to be middle-age. You've been outspoken about your photos not being a sequence, but you work's inevitably going to be situated chronologically. The inclusion of children in this sequence shows how we're being socialized at an early age, and the elderly, maybe age predicates a relaxation of having to play a social role. What was the catalyst for say, Alice being a reappearing character in your pictures? Her expression here seems to ring true with what you said about self-recognition. She seems to be in a way a self-portrait, representative of how or what you, Ben, might be seeing, or trying to depict.
BG: If I take a step back, it's clear that my work is not linear. It's not one thing. But it is all very much about something internal, the internal struggle between something social--the bigger requirements society asks us to do--and something very personal, with respect to where you're at in your stage of life, and how you struggle with who you are. That's where Alice comes into it. There's a picture of a woman sitting on a bed reading a book to someone. Another where she’s pulling a stocking up over her legs. These pictures are about the eternal conflict between expectation and reality. There's something in your understanding of yourself that no one else could ever access. I'm interested in that: why that is, how it changes throughout life, how it's different from a child or an older person. I haven't lived to be ninety years old, and I don't know what that means or feels like. But I'm interested in trying to understand it now, at this moment, seeing how it relates to me, and exploring how somebody who's two or four years old might even be in a parallel state of anxiety, though about different things. They all relate to the same kind of psychological struggle. This is where a two year old lying on a couch makes sense next to someone coming out of their Volvo, or a woman putting on jewelry, or a woman sitting in a wheelchair. It manifests itself in different ways, so I'm always trying to find new ways to describe it.
AQ: And the sleights of hand with perspective mirror the psychological state you're trying to convey or construct.
BG: It's impossible to separate the two. I really liked reading some of the things that Hockney talked about, and one of the things I most responded to in a very powerful way was: there's something about photography....I struggle with how unemotional it is, how distant, how removed, how slick—all of these bad words. The problem with photography will always be the two people present: the subject and the photographer. I'm trying to figure out how photography can enter into some of these conversations like other mediums can, without the burden of my presence being part of the reading of the picture. A lot of these things--manipulation, exaggeration, multiple perspectives—relate to solving that problem. How can you take a picture of somebody where it reads like that person is actually alone? I'm trying to talk about aloneness, and that's inherently contradictory to what photography is! When I take a picture of you, it's easy for us as viewers to know where we both stood. But I want to try to disrupt that, and the destruction of single-point perspective plays a big part.
AQ: It's incredible to me that this mantle hasn't been taken up more.
BG: No one is dealing with this stuff. As far as I know, I'm one of the only people using photography to explore this. When digital photography and computers became prevalent, I really thought it would be the next logical step. Hockney explored it. But see, what people don't often understand is: he was basically studying painting with photography. The process of what he was doing was the most important thing to him in photography. This wasn't the case, as far as I know, in his painting. The way he took those pictures and laid them on top of each other, and showed them that way, was clearly about how he did it, and how it creates an illusion.
AQ: Like visual strength training. He repeatedly brings up how hard it was to remember where the last picture ended and where the next picture should begin.
BG: It's all about painting, figuring out how it worked. It was all about learning for him. To me, Sunset Blvd. is about what he learned from photography. He seemed to have very little emotional attachment to the medium itself.
AQ: Totally. And it seems like that more as time went on. I can also see, after the experience of growing up in Yorkshire, in rainy, gray England, going to Los Angeles…the diametric opposite of everything you know: light, topography, people. I mean, no wonder it really happened for him there, and that his color palette, with all due respect, looked like a box of Crayola markers! I've not been to LA since I was a kid, but in the past few years I've become very interested in the idea of LA, the mythology of LA, how it's depicted in art, film, literature. Most of the painters I really like nowadays always end up living there. But at least in my imagination, it seems to be very fertile soil for the kind of work he made there.
BG: I think the quality of the light, the hills, the desert--the Pear Blossom Highway pictures are to me his most fascinating. The highway becomes so neatly packaged that it's unlike a lot of his other photographs. It has all the lessons he learned embedded in it. I wanted in some ways to take up where he left off. I removed all of the obvious descriptions of process. There's a lot I'm doing to my photographs, but it’s hard to look at them and know what I've done. That's fine with me. That's how it should be. I could talk about this forever: one of the things that always frustrated me about photography was that the understanding of a photograph had so much to do with understanding how it was made. Whether street, studio, large-format…all that stuff mattered, and even making it interesting in some ways. There's so much you can't account for as a photographer, that you couldn't control. Because of that, as a viewer, you can't critique everything in a photograph. I wanted to make photographs that didn't talk about process, and refocused on content. That's where montaging comes in--it disrupts everything so you don't know what you're looking at. Hopefully, by extension, it doesn't matter how it was made. It's about your experience. That's a different spot for a photograph to be in.
AQ: I've read your work described as “photos masquerading as pictures.” Though this might be an obvious or even irritating question, why photography and not painting?
BG: That question doesn't bother me, but of course I don't think of my work as painting. It's photography. But it relates to painting. There's an opportunity when you paint something to interpret the way you see. What you see is translated onto a flat surface. In photography, you're limited by the physics of a lens and how it handles refractions of light. But I don't feel that burden, and I get to make a lot of the same kinds of decisions that painters make. But my photographs don’t look like paintings, even though they start to enter the visual universe of how paintings look. This has to do with the simple--at least I'm beginning to see it as relatively simple--graphic illusions created by painting. When a painter turns their head down to look at someone's feet, they have to translate that somehow onto a flat piece of canvas. There's something that happens there, between the leg and foot. They get pushed together to remain continuous. These are not at all the same rules by which the camera depicts that same foot and leg. My work falls somewhere between these two.
AQ: I tend to speak about photography in a way like you did earlier, where you’re a bit detached, and you don't think of yourself as a photographer--you're "using" photography. A lot of people in your orbit in Chicago were doing "non-straight" work, too. Was straight photography too easy for you? Did it bore you?
BG: I would define straight photography very specifically. I don't think the use of the computer in and of itself has much to do with the things I'm dealing with. I don't think removing an object from a photograph automatically makes it “non-straight.” People used to talk a lot about [Andreas] Gursky removing things from his pictures, how that was unsettling. But I'm less interested in removing something than finding a new way of describing it, and that was through not being limited to one exposure or perspective. Gursky started to explore that in his work in some spots, but I've taken it a lot farther. It's a whole different set of questions visually when you begin to combine perspectives. It's a different way of asking the viewer to approach the image. That's something that photography could engage, but generally doesn't.
There's a possibility here to extend the way we encounter and read objects—that's what I'm deeply engaged with. Photographers seem to have gotten excited about computers, then started to explore them, then got bored, and now just use them as tools for refinement. When I started making these pictures, I really thought that a lot of people would be doing the same kind of thing. And I waited, and I waited, and I'm still waiting. This is the thing that's so unique about our moment in photography, and what makes it so special: Hockney couldn't do this. He couldn't remove the edges. It was the eighties! And I see my work as being located very much in a linear tradition. The same basic set of questions was being asked before I came around.
AQ: And before Hockney came around. And on that note, I wanted to draw you out on the painters who were big reference points for you. Alice Neel was the first.
BG: There's a clear parallel in our shared interests in content. When I look at something, I try to deconstruct why I'm looking at it, out of all other possible things: why do I want to spend time with this? I was interested in her choices in how to describe someone. Literally, how she did it. When she paints a person, she paints the faces flat, or square to the canvas, as if you're looking straight at them. As you move through the painting, you can feel her head turning down and then back up again. It's the obvious movement of her eyes, and how that translates to the image.
AQ: And what’s your method of deconstructing?
BG: By looking for hours and hours, and at a variety of works, to notice what's consistent and intentional. She always managed to make that face resonate in a way that was psychologically potent. And I think a lot of that is simply painting square to the canvas. She succeeds at making a very deep description of a person in a way that, up until the digital, a photograph or photographer couldn't.
AQ: And what about [John Singer] Sargent?
BG: That's very simple: the noses, the fingertips, and the ends of the ears. How they were red, when the rest of the skin was white. How he could imply so much about the emotional state of that person by a gesture of color. In my work--though not all of it--you can see the same kinds of things going on. But none of it is really real, in the sense that no real psychological drama was really happening. I’m just making photographs of somebody doing something over and over again.
AQ: Have you heard of [film director] Yasujiro Ozu re-filming scenes over and over, thirty or forty times, to purposely drain his actors? Are you doing the same kind of thing? Or is it just the practical necessity of needing lots and lots of images and perspectives to compose—or “compile”—these pictures?
BG: It's more practical. Nothing you’re looking at represents a single moment. If you look at someone's face, it would be wrong to assume that I captured one good face and used it. The lips are different from the eyes, which are different from the nose, et cetera. I think of these sessions as building a kind of library of gestures, or positions of the face, that I can piece together. It's very practical. I'm not interested in whether the subject feels something. None of my subjects have anything to do with what they're depicted as doing in terms of emotion. I don't care so much about who they are, it's more them and their specifics. That's where the library comes in--it's just about information. The photographs are information that I can do something with. It has very little do with the happenstance common of photography--in the end, I get to pick and choose every element, every pixel, in these pictures.
AQ: And what about Lucien Freud?
BG: You can just look at his choices. He really sets up the frame to make the viewer uncomfortable. He makes spatially disruptive, uncomfortable decisions. Look at that sloping floor. It rolls back, from the front of the back of the image. You can't do that with a photograph—at least not with a single image. If you use a wide angle lens, you can create distortions, but wide angle lenses really draw attention to the technical—the physicality of lenses and refraction.
AQ: Peter Bacon Hales described your images as "reflections on the psychology of doubt, dreams, and moments of intense loss." Often, the only thing that prevents me from slipping into seeing these this way is this kind of neutral digital-ness. This might be lost on people who aren't photographers, but I was wondering--obviously, you're pretty handy with Photoshop—the surface look of your work struck me as something that had to have been deliberate, maybe a comment upon the medium itself, particularly in our time.
BG: I don't make them look deliberately digital. But they also don't look traditional, and that might mean that they look partially digital. They don't look like what a traditional photograph normally looks like. In ways they do, but in ways they don't. That might be what we call "digital" now, but it might not be in twenty years.
AQ: True. Let’s say they look “of our time,” for better or worse.
BG: I think so.
AQ: I think that's the best place to be. But the other thing that strikes me between you and Hockney--and this is related-- is that he seems much more interested in beauty. The way he depicts the experience of perception is more vivid than real life. Perhaps this is simply because of the film he was using, but perhaps this is also what perception is like for David Hockney. It wouldn't surprise me [Laughs]. Your approach to color seems to strive more for a kind of objectivity.
BG: Yeah, I'm not interested in beauty at all. Well, I shouldn't say that. I'm a firm believer in beauty coalescing when a lot of things add up and come together nicely. I think anything has the potential to become a beautiful pictorial thing, but it's about the sum of the parts. I think Hockney does make more references to traditional forms of beauty in representation, but to me it's about subverting that. I certainly don't try to make pictures of beautiful people or situations. It's very simple, stripped down, and the subject matter itself isn't particularly interesting on a surface level. Somehow, I hope it transcends that.
AQ: There's also more artificial light than natural in your work.
BG: Versus Hockney? Or in general?
AQ: I would certainly say versus Hockney, but also in your work generally. Even Hockney’s interior subjects always seem to be lit through the window. Your work is principally concerned with psychology. He's concerned with psychology too, but he’s also more involved with surface, formal elements, light. In Hockney the subject and their environment are given just about equal formal consideration. In your work, the viewer is going to focus pretty intensely on the figure.
BG: I think of Hockney as trying to figure out how to make a picture that feels like it's lit through the window. His concern is not to make a picture that shows the beautiful window light, but to make a picture that makes you think about the window light, regardless of whether it looked that way when you were sitting in front of it. Photography for him does a really bad job of conveying what it actually felt to be standing in front of that window. It's about the more complicated experience of seeing and experience, and how painting can address that. I feel like I'm related to him in that way: using photography in non-traditional ways to get to something that describes something intangible. The message I'm trying to convey is concrete, specific, and relatable, but I get there by a different route. I know, all of this can be argued with; I see photos that have nothing to do with what I'm doing and still somehow manage to accomplish this. But I want to mine this, and figure out what the limits are to it visually. There is a point you can reach where the viewer can very easily drop out, and it doesn't feel like a photograph anymore. My pictures start off in a spot where they don't feel like photographs. They feel like, sort of...cartoony things.
BG: …and they get pushed back towards this point where they become the best of two worlds. They read quickly as a photograph…and then they don't. But getting back to the photograph is important.
AQ: Did you have to work through beauty at all? Or did it never interest you?
BG: It never interested me. I get critiqued for that a lot. I'm never satisfied by a pretty picture. It never enters the conversation. People say, "Can't it just be what it is?" And I always say no. [Grins]…I always say no.
AQ: I feel like I have to work through it until I get sick of it. And maybe then, I'll really land somewhere.
BG: How do you mean?
AQ: Like, I need to plunge so much into beauty that it becomes normal. I want to get so comfortable swimming in it that I don't realize it's there anymore. To have it become so second nature that I don’t think of it again until, say, it suddenly, for some reason, drops out or disappears.
BG: I'm the opposite. I don't think or care about it. I'm almost repulsed by things that are too beautiful.
AQ: Because you don't trust it? That's what your face is looking like.
BG: This is a big generalization, but it's just too easy. I know how to make a photograph that people will like, but that's not the world I want to be part of. I want to make something that challenges something deeply, and turns into something more. Once you tap into the mechanics and tropes of photography, it's very easy to...
AQ: I might just put a period after "very easy."
BG: [Laughs] You can mimic anybody. Very quickly, and very convincingly. I remember when I was about 20, making street photographs...I was able to study the work of people I admired, close the book, walk out into the world, take pictures, and mimic them so easily and so well, when I brought them back to the world, people liked them. I didn't even know what I was doing! There were roots of my larger sensitivities in that work, but a lot of it was about trying to make work that looked "right." I was deeply frustrated by that—people liking it. It was too easy. I was deeply troubled by that. I was thinking: if this is what photography is, then I don't want anything to do with it. Going back to school for me was about getting past that. I was in a class with Michael Weinstein, an interesting guy. At the end of the class, he put everyone in two camps: modernist and post-modernist. I always thought of myself as a post-modernist, but he didn't.
AQ: I'd have to agree with him.
BG: And if color can be evocative--and I believe it can…I do believe in the power of these choices: line, shape, color, and how they can transcend themselves. All my work is about how to use those basic things to get you into an emotional place. I'm a modernist in terms of using these things to engage the bigger social questions of my moment. But in other ways, I'm not. But that's the interesting thing about photography now! I always say that I wish I could make purely modernist work, but I can't. And I don't know if anybody really can anymore.
AQ: How do you mean?
BG: To put it very simply: that form, line, and shape are enough.
AQ: I don't think that you, the man who just said that pretty pictures are never enough, really want that.
BG: [Laughs] So, let me qualify. That's how I feel when I become frustrated in the process of how to solve the problems I'm grappling with.
AQ: Part of what interests me about your work, and the trajectory it's taken, is...you know, Hockney talks a lot about Rembrandt and Rubens. Your approach seems to me a lot like his: drilling into something really hard, making subtle deepenings from work to work. You’re working in a very modern medium, in a very technologically adept way, but your approach is kind of baroque! After speaking with you, I wouldn't be surprised if you kept going down this path until you're old and gray. Hockney, for one, seems to see a lot of value--or virtue--in that. A lot of people do. But I don't see that as very modernist at all. I associate modernism with the imperative to constantly re-invent yourself. Picasso, or Miles Davis repeatedly re-inventing jazz.
BG: I agree with you. I use the word modernist in a more narrow, art-historical, Ad Reinhardt kind of way. It's too loose.
AQ: Academics say "problematic."
BG: [Laughs] That's why I didn't want to get into it. But this does have to do with wanting to understand the medium, and the desire to ultimately change it in some way. I think it's a healthy place to be.
AQ: Peter Bacon Hales connects your work with “the death of the medium.” Though I think that's a bit dramatic...
BG: …there's been a big shift in the medium. These photos, they're supposed to exist in front of you. All of the constructs in them are supposed to be removed. I don't want you to think about materials, technology, process. I want the photos to transcend all that and bring you to a moment where there’s nothing but the thing in front of you. I look for paper, you know, that doesn't draw attention to the ink! All of these tiny choices are designed to make it hard to see where one thing stops and another begins. I get frustrated when people spend their time trying to figure out how I did what I did. As much as that’s part of what I'm doing, it's just a component.
AQ: [Laughs] I saw that camp coming from a mile away.
BG: If one of my pictures doesn't fulfill the expectation of looking montaged, then people get frustrated that I'm not doing enough! It's a weird conversation that happens. Especially at the beginning, very traditional photographers couldn't begin to understand. They kept asking why I was wasting all this time at the computer when I could just take a single picture and be done.
AQ: Somewhere I read your photos described as looking similar to ordinary snapshots, but then you look at “Bob,” and his dog is popping out of the picture.
BG: When I say snapshots, I'm referring to a disarming. I want the photos to be an everyday kind of thing. Moments that don't seem particularly important.
AQ: When did you first start doing this?
BG: At the end of graduate school, when I was around 27, and that was in 2001-02.
AQ: There seems to have been an unusually high coincidence in photography at that time of figurative, dramatic, coming-of-agey scenes, or the direct opposite: very big pictures of very quotidian things.
AQ: But your work seems less like a reaction to the larger field than you really hammering something personally meaningful home.
BG: What I was reacting to most were critiques made of touchstone photographers where I couldn’t see...I was struck when reading pieces about photographs where the author didn’t seem to be really closely looking at the work. Here, again, Gursky comes up--everyone was pumped up about their detail, how full of detail they were. But when I walked up to them, I just saw blocks of color. There really wasn't a lot of detail. They were huge, and full of shapes and forms, but there weren’t specificities of details that you could actually read. If you get closer and closer to my images, you'll see something different at an inch that you would at six inches or a foot. They're very private in that sense; as you get closer, you get more intimate. I'm interested in controlling that. The experience of the object parallels the intimacy of being close to the subject. It’s like how when you're laying in bed with someone and looking at their face, you see things you would never see when having a conversation when them at a restaurant. The statement that Hockney makes--and he does this a lot--is that photographs are uninteresting to look at because they're all the same. The space they create is really predictable. Once you've seen one photograph, you've kind of seen them all. They refract light in similar ways. They create the same illusions. He claims that that’s why photographs are easy to look at quickly and move on past. I don't know if I fully agreed with it at the time, but I thought about that question quite a bit.
AQ: This is approximately ten years ago?
BG: This is in grad school, before I was making these pictures. I really believed, and I still do, that there was a very unique moment happening. I don't know if I was fully conscious of it. There was a changing moment in photography happening with the computer, and I didn't know what it was. I remember thinking that it had to be more than just the ease and use of the computer that made it interesting. There was something rooted in this whole process. I was thinking about why I was frustrated with photography in my own work. I was very conscious of some things happening with the computer, what it enabled, and how it extended photography. I'm reading a lot, making a lot of photographs that were pieced together like his, and trying to figure out what was happening that mattered. There was a lag between what I was intellectually or philosophically approaching, and what I could actually formally do. But then there was a point when I made three pictures in a row where it...it worked. All of the things I was thinking about and studying and trying to make sense of and understand spatially...suddenly, I had control. It was a real growth. That made me very aware of the difference between the struggle for photographers between understanding the importance of the computer and being able to control it, and make something of it. I could really feel the frustration when a photographer would challenge the use of the computer. The skill set then was very different. There was so much backlash against the computer. It must have been for many people a very unsettling time.
AQ: I very much grew up with computers. But most people, say, ten years older than me, who didn't, I feel quite sorry for, because they can never seem to fully adjust to living in such a wired world.
BG: Yeah. The skill set was not there. People didn't know how to do anything. Suddenly you have to understand a lot more about illusions, space, constructions. There were three pictures. Two figures in a basement, one getting dressed by a laundry machine. Another of a bathroom with the dog and a woman combing her hair. And I don't remember the other. Suddenly, I was starting to make sense of all these choices, and how they added up to something. I was trying to figure out how these choices conveyed meaning. I wanted a photograph that was somehow able to bring the viewer into that world of contemplation that’s easy with a painting but not so much so with a photograph. When I made them, I knew it. I remember thinking to myself: these are different. I brought them in and showed them to the people around me, and I think everybody knew something had happened, and the work was entering something that was kind of new.
AQ: At what age did you first start photographing?
BG: I always liked making things--there was a certain pleasure I had in drawing as a kid, and to a lesser extent painting. But what I like about being an artist is the opportunity to think and speak out loud. That's where my interest in art began. When I became an adult, it was really about having an opportunity to spend my time publicly sharing my thoughts about the world. I transferred into an art program at the end of school, and found the people there to be much more well-rounded, intelligent, and insightful about things than anyone I had met before. They were all able to speak about things and engage with big questions. Until that point, I had never met anyone like that.
AQ: And how far back does that go? Do you remember the first art experience you had? I got into Edward Hopper in fourth grade. He was my first big book report of any kind. The way I remember it, it was basically off to the races from there.
BG: That was not me. I liked drawing, and spent a lot of time doing that when it was hot in the summer. And I liked building things. But I don't necessarily think that's art. Art to me is something very different. It's connected to something bigger. It's a deeper investigation, somehow. It falls under lots of categories in people's lives, but to me, it's about deep involvement, questioning things, trying to understand why things are the way they are.
AQ: Do you have any kind of niche fascinations outside of art?
BG: It depends.
AQ: I’ll put it this way: if you're out with people, there must be subjects that really get you talking right away. Things you’re a minor expert in.
BG: My interests as an adult have always wavered—everything I've become interested in I've become deeply knowledgeable about. One of my strengths as a thinking person is the ability to find something, explore it deeply, and generate my own understanding of what it is. I have millions of interests like this, but I'm also the kind of person that doesn't share a lot with other people. I'm a private person. I only share who I am with two or three people. You're not gonna find me out in a group of people speaking my mind. The reason no one knows about me personally as an artist is because I'm not interested in anyone knowing anything personal about me. There's a real validity to what you're asking: understanding the complexity of the person helps explain the art. But I don't want to share anything. I want to keep my art my art, and my self my self. It's a criticism I've always gotten: I'm too un-public about everything. I keep it all to myself.
AQ: I can see the larger direction that our world's heading amplifying that for someone like you—Facebook, blogs. I think it’s a valid, understandable reaction.
BG: And I do think I'm reacting to something, something that's happening.
AQ: I'll have a night every few months where I suddenly become horrified at how much of me is out there, whether by my own control or not. I think a lot of people go through the same thing. For a while, I instinctively want to take it all down. But by the next morning I'm back to remembering that very few people care [Laughs].
BG: It's the same anxiety I talk about in my pictures. There's this very strong desire in people to mold the public's understanding of who they are. To me, that's very curious. I don't want to talk about Facebook too much, but this idea that it connects people, and the question of whether it actually does. I read something about Facebook being a public display of insecurity, and that's kind of how I read it. A lot of what it is is trying to create a public persona. It goes back to the anxiety of how you perform. How you know yourself versus how you're read. How we're engaged in that all the time.
AQ: I think this will be an increasingly productive avenue in art. I'm surprised I don't see it discussed more beyond op-ed pieces.
BG: This public sharing of information to me is an odd way of living.
AQ: A profoundly odd way of living!
BG: To me it is about insecurity. Not the standard kind, where you're nervous, but where you fit into the bigger world: wanting people to know who you are, being careful that you're coming off a certain way. That's what Facebook is.
AQ: Keepin' up with the Joneses.
BG: It's exhausting! And that's what I make my pictures about. Facebook makes it even more clear that there's a big difference between who someone says they are and who they really are. A person is not what he or she says she is. You are going to be the *most* unreliable person in terms of telling people who you are. I don't know if what I'm interested in is psychology or emotion, but it boils down to what I said earlier: what the photograph does best doesn't relate to its specificity, but intangibles.
AQ: What exists between what's there and what's not.
AQ: Have you ever had the experience of watching people observe your work without them knowing you're the artist standing right there?
BG: People stand in front of it for long periods of time and look through it. I watch people trying to move their mind through it. They try enter into the picture on many different levels. I've had pictures ruined by what looks like somebody pointing around the picture with a pencil and dragging it across the surface. But the photograph asks you to do this in a very controlled and subtle way. And when people look at it, they do just that--they find themselves in and moving through the picture. My way of constructing them is meant to have that happen.
AQ: Is there anything that people consistently miss in your work? Are there subtleties that you're surprised that people haven't picked up on?
BG: No. Certain people do. Here's what I've noticed: either you have zero interest in it—I've talked to people who have looked at it and thought, "Oh, no. More big digital prints." But then, after spending a minute with it, they see that they’re not just another set of digital prints. And then a lot of people walk right by and don't engage with them. Part of my interest in these pictures being big and digital is trying to understand what those elements might offer. I want to mine that. What shocks me more than anything is when some people can see all the things I'm trying to put in the pictures right away. Sometimes they do it really well, or really quickly. They're so literate at understanding how things look that they can quickly understand. I think those who have written about my work did so because on some level they've felt a certain complexity there that's worth exploring.
AQ: How important is working out these social puzzles in your work for yourself, versus communicating to a likeminded audience?
BG: That's a good question. I live my life knowing that I'm not the only one who feels the way I feel about things. Every time I do, make, or think something, I know I'm not the first or only one. Even if I have no one around me like this, I believe that. I don't believe in, you know, the universality of man in my pictures, or that everyone can relate to what I'm talking about. But I do believe that I'm not the only one. Everything I think, I inevitably share with many others. I don't believe in the idea of making art to show people things they never thought about. I’m not trying to teach anyone anything. That's never been a motivation for me, and I often question that assumption. I am moving through my own set of problems and ideas, while acknowledging that I'm not the only one.
AQ: Well, if you had no audience, would you still be putting this much effort into the work?
BG: I think part of being an artist is wanting to be part of a public conversation. Would I still think the same things I think? Probably. Would I be expressing them on a piece of paper? Probably not. I've often thought that photography, or being an artist, isn't the only thing I could do. It's a conscious choice to do it. Sometimes I question it: why would someone want to do this one thing? I'm not sure if it's something I'll do forever, but it is what I want to do most.
AQ: Are you able to articulate what you've learned about people, or humans as social beings, since you started this body of work?
BG: I think of myself as an optimist. Sometimes I think of myself as the only one who sees me that way. I also think of myself as pretty well-adjusted in this world, pretty level-headed. I think that my opinion of society and the world sometimes gets…I feel like in life you're forced into so many things. At least in our society, American society, everything is designed to keep you from thinking about that. Our society is designed to keep you from stopping and thinking about the game we've all somehow entered into. I think a lot of life—and this doesn't only relate to technology—is about distraction. There are so many ways to distract yourself. When I think about making a picture, it's about moments when you’re lucid, where you’re self-aware, in spite of all the distractions that are perfectly placed to keep you from thinking about yourself. Those moments are extraordinarily hard to come by. And when they do come by, they're kind of uncomfortable and jarring, because a lot of what life is is beyond your control. You find yourself in a position, and it's hard to figure out how you got there.
AQ: “This is not my beautiful house?! This is not my beautiful wife?!”
BG: I think a lot of people are in that position: living a life that they can't even fully account for in many ways. And when you stop and think about it, it's pretty upsetting. What you want, versus what you've been told to want. The way you live versus how you think. See, when you do something and the reaction is positive, you do it again. Then you figure out how to do more of it. But unfortunately, in our culture, you get rewarded for things that aren't particularly noble. Or important. You lose track of who you are and what you want because the affirmation comes from conformity. That's a tough place to be in. What actually happens and what you're feeling are often two different things. It's easy to suppress what you're thinking and feeling most of the time. But not all of the time.
AQ: You said earlier that you were interested in a very narrow slice of photography. It went in a different direction that I anticipated, and I wanted to go back to this and ask more specifically: what photographers do you admire?
BG: I always question the assumption that because I'm a photographer, I'm interested in a lot of photography. Right? There's also the idea that I see things that I like and try to...
AQ: ...or don't like.
BG: And I think that's more what I do. It's not that I see things that I don't like, necessarily, but I see things and they don't add up. I try to make things where the parts add up, and that's where the computer comes into it. The computer basically says: here it is, and you can do whatever you want to it. You can separate it into thousands of parts per inch. What are you gonna do about it? That's what's exciting. Now, I have to take responsibility for all those parts, and that's something I want to do. But to go back to your question, there have only been a few photographers whose work I look back to as formative. Often, they're the same famous photographers that many others have responded to. I don't know why I like what I like; I think I like something because I'm learning something when I'm looking at it. I never look at art and think, "I've been so deeply moved." I never have that experience. I look at art and when it works for me, it pushes me into a deep process of thinking. That's what I like.
AQ: When it sticks with you?
BG: The art doesn't have to stick with me. It's the process of coming to understand it. The connection between the artist's intentions and how she resolved it. When that does happen, I respect that. A lot. Everything I like solves something. Every work I make is a question to be solved. Something in my own life drives me to make each picture, I like the end result better depending on how well I resolved the two. I don't share, or need to share, what inspires them, but it relates to something deep that needs to be solved. And I think of myself as a very sensitive person who can...[long pause]. I have no interest in telling anybody how to feel. About anything. At all. I have no desire to make anyone feel the way I feel about anything. But what I do care about is that, in my private, personal endeavors, I pushed to figure something out. And if I care about what you've done, it's because I feel the same about you. That's what I respect in art. I respect—at a private, personal level—people, and relationships. Even in a very personal way: if you're not engaged in solving something...if you're the kind of person who does not engage with bigger questions, and challenge things that challenge you, then you're not particularly interesting as a person to me.
AQ: So who does it for you?
BG: As a young person coming to photography, when I looked at Diane Arbus' pictures, I remember thinking to myself: there's someone who's interested in people. What I also liked were her choices of how to photograph people, how she actually described a person. It wasn't just a person, but how they were described. She created this personal construct of what someone looked like. All of these questions were also about her, and not so much about the person she was photographing—in my opinion. She was always looking for a kind of person—to me, this meant somebody who was not just different, but somebody who was in the struggle of self-awareness that they were different, and how hard it was to exist when you acknowledge that to yourself.
AQ: And there's nothing you can do it about.
BG: But that could imply, well, if you could, you would. But I don't think that's what it is.
AQ: Right. This goes back to this moment of self-acceptance you’ve described.
BG: Her pictures are about the toll it takes on you to not conform. That's what I'm interested in. Not difference, but the way it eats you up to not conform.
AQ: Which sounds like the opposite of what your pictures are doing.
BG: How do you mean?
AQ: Your pictures are about the toll it takes to conform.
BG: Right. See, this is what I think about people. I think at some level, we're all kind of the same. And the people that are conformists are all facing the same...Okay: this is the thing I firmly believe. We all know who we are. We all know what's right and what's wrong. But we don't all choose to acknowledge it. And when you acknowledge it, that's when it becomes a problem in our society. When you start to think about how you really feel, how you really react to the world, and your place within it...then, realizing that there's nothing positive on the other side of that quest. To me, this is exactly what we should be doing as feeling individuals and thinking people. But there's no reward on the other side, except for a personal one. If the personal one's enough--which, for me, it is, and maybe for artists it is--if it's not enough, then there's no reason to do it. You just…keep on keeping on. And that's what frustrates me. Everything is set up to reward you for conforming. It's just the way it is.
AQ: As you say this, it's almost impossible for me not to think about grade school, and how strong the pressure was to conform, versus some point in high school, when you begin to want to do the opposite. After, it seems to become more of a tightrope act between the two. At least that's what it feels like now.
BG: See, it's not necessarily…as an adult, it's not social. It's more economic. If you're an adult and you want health insurance like the guy sitting next to you on the subway, you'd better get a job making money for somebody. You're forced into it. All of this stuff constantly, constantly, constantly telling you: if you want to reap the rewards, you have to do this. It infiltrates every part of our culture. It's not just the motivations you feel as a teenager--and I remember the same feelings you just described--but this is on a completely different level, where it becomes practical.
BG: You're always buying into it, but only certain people get access to the same things we're all contributing to. It’s a sick system, but it's hard to let yourself exit that cycle. Once you do, all the doors get shut on you. That's just the way it is, so why would you exit? Why would you want to think about who you are? What's the point? You have to conform just to get any of the things you're already paying into. I'm making a picture about that moment--that acknowledgement of who you know yourself to be versus who you have to be or present yourself to be to exist.
AQ: And when they collide.
BG: Or, when they don't connect. And the discomfort that arises. Some people have described my images as funereal, and in some ways, maybe that's true—at least in the sense that this moment of self-acknowledgment is never comfortable. That might be why the people in my pictures look the way they look.
AQ: With that in mind, it's incredible that your subjects aren't really experiencing what's being projected upon them, whether by you or the viewer. They're just doing mundane things over and over. But that, maybe by coincidence, is related to the type of societal conformity you're talking about: one usually has to do repetitive things to get by, to make a living. But how, or why, do we end up reading the work this way, if the people aren’t really feeling what it looks like they’re feeling? How does this magical transformation happen? This is the thing that still messes with me the most about your work. The disconnect between what your subjects are actually feeling in the real world versus how we read the picture.
BG: My pictures are not about specific things. They're not about going up the steps, or getting out of the car. That's what's tricky about them. They're never about what's being depicted. That's the problem with photography: the thought that somehow you think that the photograph is good at capturing the intensity of a moment as it really happened. To think that this is the way, that this medium is best at that...I really want to challenge whether that's true. This is why, when I do commissions, I have people pay me before I give them the final work. Because usually they have a really hard time. They now have to look at themselves doing something that bears...
AQ: ...absolutely no relation to how they were feeling at the time! [Laughter] I didn't know these were commissions!
BG: About half of them are.
AQ: What a mindfuck!
BG: Yeah. It's quite an experience for everybody. No matter how well-versed some of these people are in art, you're looking at a picture of yourself--a photograph, with all the associations of objectivity that come with it that we can't seem to break past. There you are, doing something next to someone who was never there, in an emotional moment that you never experienced. And it's you, standing there! Most people cannot handle that right away.
BG: I'd love to get ten of my subjects together in a room and have a real, emotional conversation, and just talk about how they reacted the first time they saw these pictures.
AQ: How do you choose your subjects’ gestures? Are you borrowing from your own life? How do you decide upon depicting a woman pulling up her stocking when you're not a woman?
BG: I think of…the emotional resonance I'm trying to create. When a woman's pulling up her stocking, I'm talking about her struggle with her own body, or her own self. This idea of being something, having to deal with it, and how that might not be how you imagined yourself would or should be. The feeling of having to deal with it. Then I ask, how can I visually manifest this, the struggle of the self? I think about that in a psychological way, and I think about it in a physical way. To me, it's about the stocking—the stocking pinching your leg so tight. The pinching is where it happens for me, and that's what I made a picture about. In a sense, I know how to make you look at my pictures. Hopefully you don't realize that I'm making you see this in a certain way, but you do it anyway.
AQ: “Ben and Katie,” on the other hand, must have been inspired by real life.
BG: In the pictures of couples specifically, one of my main interests was trying to describe a disconnect between people. The internal thing that you can't access from the other person. In a sense, the terms are very simple: two people in a situation in which you'd expect them to be interacting in some way, and somehow they don't. I try to think of these little narratives that describe that. Like, my little dog gets a lot of attention.
AQ: That’s your dog? See, now this becomes kind of hilarious [Laughs].
BG: Yeah. She has a lot of personality. It's funny, because she's more social than I am, and she probably has a lot of people that are more excited to see her when she walks into the room than I do [Laughs]. The one figure, myself, just came out of the water, drenched, and he's the one that's being ignored. But it's not about me, per se; it's about the misstep between us. How do you describe that feeling? You have someone who looks like they need attention, but they're not getting it. That's what all my pictures are about. These two should be acknowledging each other, but they're just not. The thing with that picture on a computer screen is that you can't see the details. You can't see the coldness in the hands, the water dripping off his body. It's all there. It was an important picture for me. It was the first of these pictures that was made with a digital camera. The camera was in this weird spot, kind of out in the water--the camera was on a dock, but you don't know that. I removed all of that information so it looks like it's floating.
AQ: Ben, do you watch movies?
BG: No...this is the thing...I'm very interested in what I'm trying to figure out. For a long time, I looked at a lot of art. A lot of it. I studied it very closely and tried to figure out what I was looking at. At a certain point, I stopped. My own problems became more important to me--what I was trying to figure out. That was enough, and it still fuels and drives me. I don't look at art for inspiration. I'm comfortable in this position. I guess I believe this: the way to make something that's your own is to divorce yourself from it all, and try to figure something out. I'm perfectly happy with that. It's a hard thing to do. You see this lot, as you get older: just how hard it is to keep it going, on so many levels. If I've accomplished anything, it's having been able to keep it going in a very real way. Not just, you know, just playing the art game.
AQ: But staying truly engaged.
BG: How do we get to the work we make?
AQ: This is kind of a perpendicular way to respond, but a lot of my interest in photography relates to my interest in place, the mythology of places. The whole photographic preoccupation with America, the photographic road trip as rite of passage...that all really appeals to me. The mythologies of places. Hockney said photography doesn't engage with mythology very much--you mean to tell me America hasn't developed its own mythology in very short order? Perhaps the biggest collective aesthetic in photography for at least the past fifty years is questioning those myths, stripping them bare, and exposing their contradictions and ironies. It's funny that Hockney makes this claim, because LA, and even California in general, seem to me among the most blatantly mythical places in America. Especially as a midwesterner [Laughs]. Memphis would be another one—really, I think Memphis might be the most mythical place in America. This goes back to earlier, about Hockney having more of an investment in beauty: he seems more comfortable with the external leading in, where you seem to be about the internal coming out. [Laughs] What was the original question?
BG: [Laughs] How we come to make what we make.
AQ: After having read about your work compared to dreams and moments of loss, I can't help but project that onto your work. Even if you couldn't admit it to yourself, I can't imagine your work coming from anywhere else. I don't see how it couldn't be.
BG: I think that's fair. I can admit that a lot of what I've done relates to that. Again, where I don't aspire to depict the universal, I'm always conscious of not being unique. Maybe my work attracts people who can relate to the moments I describe, or the feelings associated with them. But I never try to go back and re-invent something that happened. When I photograph a child, it has nothing to do with my compassion for their moment, but somehow trying to understand the feeling of their frustration. It never has to do with a specific moment, but what all these parts add up to. You don't relate to the moment, but everything that surrounds the moment. Psychologically. I think that's what people relate to. We're all frustrated, and at times wondering how things led to this, or wondering whether I even want this. I think we can all relate to that. [Long pause]. Do you think people can see this? Or care about it? Does it translate? Or is it all an academic thing that matters, but doesn't really amount to much to most people anyway?
AQ: I think the growing ubiquity of the computer, the digital camera, and the internet—in conjunction—make the questions you're asking of the medium as pressing as they probably were to the cubist painters a hundred years ago. But rather than painting reacting to photography, now we've got photography reacting to itself, to its own explosive ubiquity! But I don't know if most photographers will get it in a deep way. I think your photographs sit pretty squarely in the territory that would usually appeal to painters. But many painters are uninterested in photography, if not outright dismissive or hostile towards it! I feel for where you're at, where you've been, and probably where you're headed: this weird intersection between the two disciplines.
Well, I finished my master’s thesis. 126 hot, steamy pages of academic rigor! You can read the whole thang after the jump. It's about music like this, and stuff like this:
Andrew Moore’s large-format photographs are dense documentaries that depict the collision of past, present, and future. When seen from the bird’s eye, larger themes emerge: his past subjects include Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam, each of which explore the consequences of communism and socialism. More recently, his book on Detroit as America's scarred monument to capitalism has received both a broad audience and a polemical reception. I saw in his work a shared obsession with the “metaphorical richness” of architecture, and reached out to talk. Proceeding from a mutual love of New Orleans, my adopted hometown, we were quickly off to the races. His photographs of nature returning in the Lower Ninth Ward have since graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine, coincidentally illustrating a story by my neighbor, Nathaniel Rich. We discussed Moore's upcoming project in the Nebraskan Sand Hills, “ruin porn,” and irresistibly, as the Occupy Wall Street Protests were occurring just outside his New York apartment, politics and generational difference.
Alec Quig: You grew up and went to school out east, but it looks like you came down here the first chance you got.
Andrew Moore: The thing about New Orleans, and even the South to some degree, was that there was a uniqueness to the culture. I was photographing small businesses, craft industries that were remnants of the 19th century industrialism that had persisted and were still in business in the CBD [central business district]. Only in a city like New Orleans could things like that exist. People were making brooms by hand. There were ladies sowing the lace linings for coffins. Strange Masonic buildings. Ice factories.
There was a raw furrier at that time in the quarter. It was called Steinberg and Sons. They were buying raccoons from the bayou, scraping off the fat, shipping the fur off to Chicago and New York. My neighbor worked for him, and I have a good picture--not a great one—in this dimly-lit room. There’s a log with two nails in it, to which they’d affix the eye-holes of a raccoon pelt and stretch it over the log. Then they’d get a big scraper blade, and we watched them literally scraping the fat off of the raccoons. I guess they're pretty fatty down there. And the room stank, oh..my goodness. It was just filled with fat scrapings. But I loved that! I was kind of learning to use the 8x10 and refining my craft. It prefigured all of my later work. It's all about getting into and discovering these places that have an incredible connection to the past, making a bridge between the subject, myself, and the viewer, bringing people into the work. New Orleans had held on to that, but I think it's mostly gone. Most of these places have vanished in the past thirty years.
AQ: Certainly in the CBD. There, along with much of mid-city, I still pick up the lingering scent of Katrina. But what are you working on now?
AM: I like the central part of America these days, because much of it is the least developed. Like the Sandhills in Nebraska. It's still one of the least commercially developed and exploited lands. This is a theme that comes up all the time, but places that are still connected to their pasts—whether through buildings, culture, the stories people have to tell.
AQ: And you’re finding it in this little corner of Nebraska?
AM: The Sandhills are where the homesteader culture, people who came out to be farmers, collided with ranching culture. And there were a lot of wars, shootouts, and big tussles; in fact, the FBI was partly created in 1906 because of these ranch wars out there. But even before that, right after the Homestead Act was passed at the end of the Civil War, you have people crossing the plains, looking for land. These people ended up in a place that really wasn't suited for agriculture, but they tried to make a go of it anyway. They had five years of what's called "proving up:" planting trees, building a house, improving the land, and living on it for five years. Then you could get title to it. But the land was totally unsuitable for farming. The topsoil's only four inches thick. It was really always land for buffalo, grazing, and cattle. So most of the homesteaders failed in that area, but there are remnants of the people who tried--mostly trees, sometimes houses. It's not a well-known area particularly, but I love this landscape, and the remaining vestiges of these people who came out there and tried. Particularly the trees, which are sometimes 130 years old. Gnarly. Almost like the windblown cypresses on the west coast. They fought for every inch of their lives. Very soulful.
AQ: A long way from Detroit.
AM: I know this sounds kind of crazy, but I'm really trying to make pictures now about the American soul. I know that sounds weird. I did Detroit, and it was a downer. I made it as beautiful as I could; I tried to make it compelling. There's such historical richness there, but it feels rather apocalyptic, except in the sense of nature coming back.
AQ: It is of some comfort to know: even if humanity somehow engineers its own extinction, chances are nature will come back. Evolution will slowly and steadily continue.
AM: Building on that theme of nature, I'm trying to look at the other side of the coin, to see where nature itself speaks to the idea of persistence, the Pioneer spirit, this idea of the rugged individual in the land, toughing it out. I'm looking for those kinds of clues. It's a work in progress, but I've decided: no more urban decay. Ultimately I hope that this Sand Hills project will be a chapter in a larger book about America. There are landscapes, some interiors, the trees, some portraits, but it's sort of: what happened to the pioneers? What happened to that spirit? What happened to people working together in a tough environment? I'm hoping to find a diversity of emotional notes there, because what I don't like is work that hits the same note every time. Even if the pictures change.
AQ: I read your response to the Dusseldorf school on Conscientious--is that what you're referring to?
AM: That's the weakness of the German school. They're great on methodology and craft, but they're afraid of emotions. There's a dryness to their work. And I'm really focused on being an American artist these days, drawing from the tradition of American art, and really want to do something that speaks to America. This project out west is about birth, death, and resurrection. I'm looking for positive symbols about America, without being idealistic or nostalgic. Why has this country been such a powerful magnet for people from all over the world? What can we do to bring that back?
AQ: All of my favorite photography monographs seem to have "America" in the title! Walker Evans, Joel Sternfeld, Robert Frank, Alec Soth, who writes about this very phenomenon in his own America. But you've also said that America is becoming a tough place to find photographic subjects. How did you come upon this project? Driving through? Reading?
AM: It's this chain of events. Somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody. I ran into some ranchers in South Dakota, just below the badlands. Five years ago I was doing work out there, contacting ranchers, getting frustrated, because I didn't want to do another story on cowboys--out there, it always seemed to be about the ranchers. I've been digesting this project for five years, and finally figured out the way to do it. The characters are large, but the landscape is very subtle. When I tell people I'm doing it, they're always like, "Why Nebraska?" I think it's something like 49th in the country for tourism.
AQ: But Lincoln, Nebraska was one of the craziest places I’ve ever been! My hosts there were popping psychedelics like candy. They took me hopping the freight trains that come and go in the middle of town as casually as you'd board the subway in Manhattan. But the state at large certainly strikes me as a difficult place to photograph.
AM: There's two things about photographing America. First, people are very suspicious and very wary. It wasn't like that forty years ago. And second, so many images have been made of America. But that doesn't bother me too much, I think I'm okay at coming up with different takes. People out in Nebraska are very hospitable, very open. Just the other day I was reading about this pipeline they're building from Alaska, bringing shale oil or something, and they want to run it right through the Sandhills. There's a huge aquifer, the Ogallala, just beneath it, and people are worried about threatening this vulnerable area. So it's a very crucial area to our country as well, in terms of the economy. It’s where a lot of the beef comes from. It has, I believe, the largest underground reservoir in the country, and the largest open pasture. It’s like the Russian steppes--it's just open, rolling hills. For me, it's the quintessential American landscape. It might take me a couple years. If you don't live there, it's hard to catch these ephemeral moments.
AQ: And aside from WPA [Works Progress Administration] or FSA [Farm Security Administration] photographs, there's a dearth of images from the “bona-fide” Midwestern states. Have you been to Butte, Montana?
AM: No. But that's interesting, because someone recently mentioned Duluth, saying that was an interesting city as well. I spent some time in Omaha this summer, and that's a city I like, but it's seen immense changes from the days when they had all the stockyards. A lot of American cities have lost the things that made them great to begin with. I would definitely check out Butte.
AQ: If I’m not mistaken, it was the richest city between Minneapolis and San Francisco in the gold rush era. Wim Wenders made a film there. When I came through serendipitously for the first time I couldn't believe it. They have, or had, one of the most polluted lakes in the entire country, from what I think was mine runoff. It's this unearthly blue color. People see my photo of it and say, "Wow, what a beautiful lake! Was that at Yellowstone?" But I think it still the kind of water where if you dipped your foot in, you’d come out with six toes. I don't know when the city started to tank, but there's lots of abandonment and weathered mining shacks, surrounded by the general splendor of Montana. The craziest, most diverse architecture I've seen in America outside of New Orleans. If your project in Nebraska is the first chapter of a larger book on America, what will the other chapters be?
AM: It looks like I may get a commission to do a project about the South, through the High Museum in Atlanta.
AQ: And what route do you imagine taking?
AM: The first place I would come back to would be New Orleans. It's most familiar to me, and there's obviously been so many changes, and I already have a base of work there. With something as ill-defined as “the south,” I would probably start with the periphery: New Orleans, some of the coastline, the Sea Islands off of Georgia. From there I would do more remote areas--there's a part of Georgia near North Carolina, some of the mountainous areas up there. I wouldn't necessarily do small or big towns, I'd be looking more for the landscape and the periphery, then work my way to the center.
AQ: The landscape here is challenging. But in the middle of unvarying expanses like the Mississippi Delta, you have places like those seen in Birney Imes’ Whispering Pines.
AM: And he was from Mississippi, and I think he was very familiar with those places, most of which I think are now gone. The thing in the South particularly is personal contacts. Sneaking in, breaking in, finding access points, uncovering things that people haven't seen before. It's always a very person-to-person sort of research. That would make or break this kind of project. Making strong connections to people, and being shown places that are special to them. Ideally I'd like to do the Sandhills, then the south, then the west coast, and put all of these things together into a book.
AQ: Where would you go on the West Coast?
AM: It's hard. I'm not really sure where I'd start, but if you're going to do something about America, it has to be included. It might be outliers: people living off the grid in Oregon or northern California, but that's a vague idea. I just read Memories of Lost Skin, about sex offenders in Miami. Sex offenders can't live within 2500 feet of any place where children are: no schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, etc. The only place this group could live in Miami was under a highway bridge. Unfortunately that's gone now, but the idea of people living—by purpose, design, or accident—in the outskirts, is interesting to me. If I did the west coast, I'd look for people living a kind of separate life in some way.
AQ: Not only marginal spaces, but marginal people. I understand their appeal broadly and viscerally--I did some work at Dignity Village in Portland, OR this summer--but is there a more personal compulsion for you?
AM: It's a place to start. It's a place to look for clues. Where people are living slightly out of the mainstream, I think there are often more possibilities for metaphor. Why photograph an old house as opposed to a new house? A new house doesn't have history to it. This is all speculative, but people living outside of what's considered normal or acceptable…there may be more expressive potential in terms of what's going on, say, with our country. A lot of the traditional pathways aren't working for people.
AQ: The lie that reveals more about the truth than the truth itself.
AM: You see pictures of Orange County, California, these Chia-pet like developments, ticky-tacky, “Weeds”-like houses. That's an interesting picture for me, but it's lacking some poetry. That may be one picture, but anybody can see that, and can make a fairly decent photograph of it. I'm looking for things that are meaningful in some deeper way. It's not easy to find, or even talk about.
AQ: It's hard to hit "different notes," as you say, in suburbia, until something uncommon drifts into the frame. It happens in the unlikeliest of places.
AM: I think Joel Sternfeld's photographs in Oregon are really pretty good.
AQ: Oh, sure, American Prospects is in my top five!
AM: It's also in mine. I'm not so big on Stephen Shore or Joel Meyerowitz, but I think Joel is a real master. There are some pictures in that book that continue to provide inspiration for me. The beached whales, the pumpkin and the fire, the maids outside of Atlanta. They capture that moment in time and speak to a broader, deeper human drama.
AQ: In a way that's difficult to talk about.
AM: But shows it.
AQ: You’ve also worked extensively in faraway places. What turned your gaze homeward?
AM: I decided that, rather than traveling to foreign countries, which is always interesting and exotic, I'd like to stay here and talk about things that I really know. I think that's why the Detroit project was so successful. It was meaningful to me. It connected all the parts of my world in a unified way. So I'm searching for other places where I can do that. I don't want to re-do Detroit. It's unique and there's no reason to try to do that in another place, like Gary, Indiana, Cleveland, or Buffalo. I went to Buffalo. They have some interesting stuff there--the grain elevators and everything--but I'm looking for new challenges.
AQ: Does your Detroit book as a sort of coda have anything to do with the polemics that came in its wake? I mean, on a scale of one to ten, how tired are you of talking about "ruin porn?" I think you've already addressed that whole thing pretty succinctly and comprehensively.
AM: You know, when I was shooting in Detroit, starting in 2008, nobody ever talked about it. It was never an issue. Then towards the end, Vice Magazine did an article about lazy photojournalists parachuting into Detroit for a day. Of course, people should spend a little bit of time there, and if they're all photographing one building, it's very superficial. Anyone who shot pictures of abandoned buildings was eventually painted with this broad brush of making "ruin porn." Then local politics and boosterism comes into it. People are saying, "Why didn't you take pictures of the nice stuff?" I'm like, why not look at the magazine in your hotel room? I'm sure there are pictures of gardens and nice places to go to. But that's not what I thought was of critical importance or unique to the city.
AQ: Metaphorical richness, as you've said.
AM: And the same thing happened in Cuba a little bit. Some Cubans asked me: why not photograph the nice parts of Havana? We had different ideas of what was "nice." But I think ruin porn is a mask for bigger issues. People are very anxious about this country, its direction and future. I think Detroit is a metaphor for both the good and the bad in this moment. Detroit is America's city. Detroit is not just about local issues. It's not just about providing good PR for Detroit. It's talking about America as a place, and where we're headed. The reaction to the pictures in general has been very positive, but there's a small fraction, mostly of people coming out of Detroit, who are very defensive, very protective. If they took the energy in the other way and used it…like in jiu-jitsu, where you use the other's momentum. People are interested in Detroit. That's the thing to capitalize on. Not, "We don't want people from the outside coming here and talking about our problems. We can do it ourselves." It's clearly not going to happen. You need that interest. Civilization begins with people in the Mediterranean trading with each other, both in goods and ideas. I think the concept of "ruin porn" is shutting the doors, and just the opposite of progress in my mind. But I'm glad to humor them. In five years, nobody's really gonna know what ruin porn meant. It's kind of a bullshit term. You can attach “porn” to anything.
AQ: And “porn” implies something…utilitarian. Something with an explicit function. Without interior meaning.
AM: I try to be philosophical about this. What else is really at work here? Are they asking that photographers be socially responsible? That they should work for the betterment of society? These are classic arguments. They’ve been around since the beginning of the nineteenth century, right after the French Revolution. The ideas about socialism begin to ferment, and the role of artists in society begins to be questioned. This became opposed to art for art's sake, where you work in an unhindered fashion. I've said it before: I don't think these things are reconcilable. On the other hand, I think the dialogue between these two extremes, and the tension between them, is where a lot of great work comes from. Detroit is the absolute embodiment of that. Artists want to be free and have an open city to create things, but at the same time, it's so emblematic of issues that trouble people, and it touches on both. That's why it's such a phenomenal subject. I respect their sensitivities. I try not to be dismissive of the argument in favor of turning it around and questioning what it's really about.
AQ: Well, I sent you the video of Glemmie "The Coon Man" Beasly, and became fascinated by that and Charlie LeDuff, the journalist, who also did the incredible story about the frozen upside-down body in the elevator shaft that I'd read when it came out.
AM: My friend discovered that body.
AQ: Wow. Shawn Doerr?
AM: No, Shawn Hawking, who's a sculptor. They were playing hockey in the basement of the building and discovered the body.
AQ: The Guernica piece on ruin porn makes reference to "rotten photojournalism" in Detroit, which yours doesn’t purport to be. Even if you were doing photojournalism, I think one could do a lot worse. LeDuff is a native son of Detroit and moved back there. I was astounded, after watching that video, to discover that his whole M.O. is “exploring race and class in America.” He shared in a Pulitzer at the New York Times for a veritably great piece he did on race relations within a North Carolina slaughterhouse. But within Detroit he's making this guy kiss a skinned raccoon on local TV. By the end, he’s engaging the camera and audience in a way that’s very much on the verge of treating this guy's life as some kind of joke. I couldn’t believe it! I showed it to a lot of people to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, and they were even more aghast than I was. I was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, a city very similar to Detroit, and your work hit very close to home.
AM: The other thing about Detroit is the overwhelming fact of its history. People are always telling me how their relatives worked in Detroit. It's connected to America at large in a familial way. Closing the wagons in Detroit and saying that they don't want outsiders coming in is so wrong, so narrowly focused. Detroit is an opportunity in America to think big, to come up with radical solutions. They should encourage young people to live there tax-free. They should give buildings to artists for development. So much could be done. There are so many buildings downtown that would be perfect for things like this, but they're warehoused by their owners, who are just paying a little property tax. I was just there a few weeks ago. There are a couple of buildings being restored, but it lacks an agora, or a central meeting place. Every city should have that--a place where people can focus. A real public space that's open. It's one of the major faults of downtown. Plus, the city's too big. They need to somehow partition off the parts of the city that are viable and let those other parts have another plan. It's too vast now to really be manageable as it's shrinking.
AQ: I was curious about your personal interpretation of Detroit as a metaphor for America. I just read an interview between Bill Moyers and David Simon, and Moyers asks Simon if he thinks America’s “going to make it.” Simon says, “We’re not going to make it as a first-rate empire. And I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing in the end. Empires end, and that doesn’t mean cultures end completely. Americans are still sort of in an age of delusion, I think. A lot of our foreign policy represents that.”
AM: I don't know if I'm quite this pessimistic. I do think empires do go through phases. We started as a commercial empire, and segued into being this military empire. I think China is now in its commercial empire phase, and might one day be military. What comes after? I do agree that we're in an age of delusion and denial. The pie might not be getting smaller, but the pieces are. How do we share it? It's really ultimately about money. There's less money than there was, but this is still the only place where people in the world can come to reinvent themselves. My wife is a Hungarian immigrant. She grew up in a communist country. And she's a big fan of America. She talks a lot about immigrants, and part of this project I'm doing out west is about immigrants. People who travel eight-thousand miles to end up in a sod house in the middle of nowhere on the Great Plains. They came to work! I think if America's going to have a future, we need to embrace our immigrants. There was a story in the paper today about how Hispanic immigrants are filling up these empty towns in the midwest.
AQ: You can drive straight up the spine of Michigan on two lane highways, and in what used to be overwhelmingly Anglo, main street-esque small towns, you have communities of Mexican immigrants, surrounded by endless fields.
AM: This idea of shutting the doors and putting up electric fences is shooting ourselves in the foot. We should be even more open. The soul of America is in people coming here to reinvent themselves. If I could make any statement through my new work, I'd hope to achieve that.
AQ: Even before I had encountered your work, I talked to another photographer about wanting to go to Detroit, and he said something about it having been "over-photographed." But if you had Robert Frank, Henri-Cartier Bresson, and William Eggleston going into Detroit today, it would clearly be a worthy project for each.
AM: I still think there are many, many other books to be made about Detroit. I think it's going to be a continuing thing. The Starn Twins are gonna do their bamboo project in Detroit, and Matthew Barney was there. The floodgates have opened.
AQ: Bernice Abbott said that you see architecture as “the symbolic key to a city's meaning.” But you might expand from city to country, country to civilization.
AM: Cities represent our collective memory. Every time a building is torn down, it's like losing that part of your memory. You build new parts, of course, but when a city loses a big portion of its buildings and history, it's like their identity has been cleaned, brainwashed.
AQ: That's the situation in my hometown. "Urban renewal" cleared out most of the best architecture, roughly during Vietnam.
AM: And that's the situation in much of America, and what can make it hard to photograph. Our collective past, and a lot of what made places unique, has been erased. I think that's why you see a lot of photographers moving away from the experiential and towards manufactured or internalized work. You see that a lot within the arts in general in America. People moving towards creating their own internal vocabulary rather than going out and exploring and being more experiential. Take Thomas Demand. He recreates sets and photographs them, and there’s this tension between the real and the unreal. But it's a turning away from the world, it's turning inward. I feel like I'm in a minority of artists in that I'm not an inward turning person. I always try to focus on the outside.
AQ: I came to photography somewhat through the backdoor, via people like David Hockney, and then Jeff Wall, before I got to the classic “photographer’s photographers.” But there’s still a lot of room for "lyrical" photography, as it's been called. Even if it's dismissed as formally conservative, and even if every other schmuck can hit the road with their new DSLR, I think there's room for everyone.
AM: I don't think some of this more artificial photography is that formally inventive anyway. I'm less interested in Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson. I know their work and understand the theory behind it, but especially in the case of Crewdson, it's second-hand. It's derivative of people like Hitchcock and Spielberg. Wall’s work, though, has a lot of intellectual firepower behind it. Though I get where he's coming from, I don't always find the pictures compelling. I prefer someone like Struth, at least for his turning outward, constantly trying to sift through the scenes.
AQ: Who else’s work interests you?
AM: I’m always seeing Burtynsky, Pollidori, [Sze Tsung] Leong, some French photographers who are trying to make complex pictures about the complexity of the world, while still trying to have some poetic vision that focuses all of that material. It's hard to name names. I see student work, bits and pieces that I like. But I don't find Wall or Crewdson inspiring. That’s not a road that I'm interested in. I'm not a fabricator of my own mythology. I'm looking for mythology in the world, and trying to seam it together. I do love Matthew Barney, who really does have his own universe, and his own vocabulary of inhabitants in that world. I'm fine with all that. I think it's an amazing thing to plunge into. But smarty-pants art references are less interesting to me.
AQ: What about painters?
AM: There's the whole corpus of 19th century American paintings is very interesting to me. Starting with the Peel family, Caleb Bingham's scenes along the Mississippi, George Catlin's paintings of the Native Americans, the luminous painters like [Martin Johnson] Heade, [Albert] Bierstadt, [Frederic Edwin] Church, the trompe l’oeil painters like William Harnett and John Peto. I like that whole period, as well as 20th century realism: Hopper, Wyeth, Winslow Homer.
AQ: Close-to-home guys.
AM: That's my foundation. American realism is particularly what I'm interested in. Photography has embraced that mantle as it’s gone forth. There's not a whole lot of contemporary realist painting that I adore. I like Wayne Thiebaud, those landscapes of San Francisco, and Rackstraw Downes--long, skinny panoramas of peripheral industrial urban landscapes.
AQ: Have you ever messed with panoramic cameras?
AM: Very little. But you know who's very good? Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer. He has some of the best ever. It's a great story: he had this old Kodak camera, and he could only put one sheet of film in it at a time. He only had one arm. He would take it out to the suburbs of Prague in the 50's, and wait all day for the light and scene to get exactly right, and shoot that one sheet of film, and go back to his little garden shack in Prague and develop that sheet. Very deliberate, slow, awesome images. He also made some beautiful vertical panoramas in Prague.
AQ: I’m almost always shooting vertical because I can’t stand the aspect ratio of my camera horizontally. I hope I live to see the day when you’re able to modify things like this in-camera.
AM: One of the hard things to deal with in shooting 4x5 or 8x10 is that it's a blocky, industrial format. 5x7 is a little longer, and almost has nicer proportions. I'm often fighting the blockiness of my format, and will crop the top and bottom to get a little more length and dynamic framing in terms of diagonals. I think that discipline and focus...limitation can be important. I need discipline.
AQ: Well, here’s something I always ask photographers, because it's a so integral and seems to fall somewhere between an art and a science: how do you approach sequencing? Are there still images you wish you could shuffle around when looking through your books today?
AM: It's very difficult. I recommend that photographers not do their own sequencing, because they're too tied into embedded content and not able to distance themselves from either explicit or implicit meanings that the audience might not catch onto right away. I feel that my Havana and Russia books, which I sequenced myself with a little guidance, would have really benefitted from having an outside eye. In the case of the Detroit book, a very wonderful editor named Alice Rose George organized picture flow. I basically handed it off to her, and we tweaked it together after that. I couldn't be happier with the sequencing of that book. So, my advice? Don't do it yourself![Laughs]
AQ: Was she nixing photos as well?
AM: I showed her a box of one hundred pictures or so, and maybe a dozen that I had my doubts about. From those she culled maybe eighty pictures and began to organize them. I printed out little baseball card-sized images so she could make a little booklet. You need to physically see them somehow. She liked some that I didn't, and at the very end I added one or two that I thought were great and got stuck back in. Having a couple of minds together really made it work very well.
AQ: How do you know her?
AM: She was the editor of Fortune magazine back in the 80's, but has worked for Geo, Magnum, and was the assistant to Howard Stein, who was head of the Dreyfus corporation. She's very well known in New York, and has been a consultant on many books. She was terrific. She helps a lot of young photographers as well. What she brought to the project...I couldn't really duplicate her efforts.
AQ: In addition to what you’ve been looking at, I must ask what you’ve been reading.
AM: Right now I'm reading Ian Frazier's book on the Great Plains. I just read about the history of the Nebraska stock brokers' association, detailed histories of families who went west and tried to prove themselves up, their struggles, the patchwork landscape of the west, and the different layers of it. Then I'm looking at Lucretius' book, On the Nature of the Things. And Epicurian philosophy, how we shouldn't be afraid of death. So, a mixture of history and philosophy.
AQ: Which sounds like it’s tied to this Nebraska project.
AM: When I go out there, I want to be pretty informed, because these people have lived there for generations. I want to have a shared vocabulary, to be able to offer them something. But in terms of research, I don't like to look at too much before I go someplace for the first time. I find that it biases my eye. It's happened a few times. I don't do a lot of internet research or look at prior photographs. What's more important is to develop a contact and find the right guy who can kind of lead me into that world. I just need one person. Someone who gets what I'm doing and is willing to be my guide. I find them in all kinds of ways. For me it's not the books and research, which comes later. What you need is the guide to take you through hell. Isn't that Dante? Didn’t he have a guide? That's what I'm looking for. That one person to take you through the lower world. They're the seed from which everything else springs. They inevitably know others.
AQ: Has that always worked out in your favor?
AM: The guy I worked with in Vietnam was very good, but I needed to expand my social circle there. It's a hard place to penetrate. People are super busy. It was very hard to get some people to even stand in one spot for a picture sometimes.
AQ: The pictures do have an air of busyness.
AM: The main problem with Vietnam is that I got there a little too late. There was such a hectic, frenzied rush to create business that by the time I was shooting there in 2005-2006, some of the cooler parts of Hanoi had already changed. It's a big country. There are 110 million people there. I had some trouble finding my way into that and creating intimacy. I think it would have been better to have gone there, say, in the mid-90's, when the legacy of the war was still a little more raw, and there was more of the French legacy. Most of that's gone at this point.
AQ: They're tearing down those amazing buildings?!
AM: Oh, yeah. In Vietnam, things that are old and respected, have to be like, 500, 800 years old. 150 years is nothing for them. They have a very different relationship to the past.
AQ: Your Vietnam stuff is some of my favorite work of yours.
AM: Really? It's still a communist country that has fully embraced capitalism. You can see a communist flag hanging right next to the Mitsubishi corporate flag. They have no problem with that. It's top-down capitalism. I like the small cities. I like the north, and hated the south. Saigon is ugly. Hanoi, where there was less development, is a very cool city. I would definitely recommend that as a place to visit if you go to Asia. But maybe, someday, all three will be part of one project. Maybe another one for my old age [laughs].
AQ: How long were you there? The very first question I wanted to ask you was: how do you know when to stop? This goes for Russia, Cuba, Thailand, Abu Dhabi. If I put myself in your shoes, that would be one of the most difficult questions. These places go on and on.
AM: The question makes me think of painters who push and push, and take it too far. With Russia, I was trying to do the periphery. There was no way I could do the whole country. I tried to stick to the boundaries. The one part I feel that I didn't do was the river in the south, I think it's called the Don river--there's unique culture along there. I just felt like I had done what I set out to do, in terms of capturing the defining edges of the country.
AQ: And in Cuba?
AM: With Cuba, I got to the point where I really exhausted...every time I went back, I tried to do a different thing. I was focusing on different time periods. On the last trips I was focusing on architecture from the 50's. I got enough of that to create a spectrum of time in the work, from the colonial era to present.
AQ: What was the catalyst for your project on Havana? It was your first book.
AM: Cuba came about because I had seen some photographs of old theaters in Cuba, and been doing photographs of Times Square theaters. When I was there I realized immediately: wow, it's not just about the theaters. It's like the whole city is kind of an open room! There's so much life on the street, and at the same time there are so many mysteries hidden behind doors. The truly amazing thing was that you could pretty much go to any house, knock on the door, and people would just welcome you inside! It was incredible. Not everybody was working, generally somebody was home, and they were very open to showing someone around their house. Could you imagine, in America, going to a random house asking to have a look at someone’s living room!? I would go with a friend from Havana, and he would quite formally introduce me as, you know, this illustrious artist from New York, and people would let me have a look around. It's where my interests in architecture, history, narrative, the exotic, the familiar, color, politics...all these things came together in a very synergistic way.
AQ: So there were elements of both premeditation and discovery?
AM: Absolutely. I think the artistic process is...it's a little hard to explain to...
AQ: …someone who isn’t somehow engaged in it themselves?
AM: You have to be completely focused. You're on the edge of the razor. You're totally focused, but also very spontaneous, able to make a turn on a dime. It's hard to communicate that. I talk to young photographers, who through education become so self-conscious, so deliberate, so intentional, and it takes some of the joy from photography. You need intentionality and discipline, but you also need intuition and instinct.
AQ: And photography is so reliant upon the external world: light changing, people crossing your path.
AM: I'm going to republish that book. I want to go back and refocus more on the country at large, on what's happening now with these new businesses, and the fact that Cuba is an island. When I was there in 1998-2000, it was right at the end of the "special period," after the Soviet Union collapsed and all the subsidies went away. Cubans were almost starving to death while living in these mansions and big houses, with multiple families in each. Very little income, little to eat, little to buy. And that's changed. There's much more money now in Cuba.
AQ: And now someone else can step in and try to do something else definitive.
AM: There are moments of ripeness, and you try to capture them. Then they come to an end, and that period's over. I feel that with Cuba, Times Square, and Russia, my timing was good. They've all changed tremendously. Russia is a richer country. With Vietnam, I missed the moment a little bit, where you have the past and present colliding. By the time I got to Vietnam, that struggle was over. But sometimes, it's just a deadline. I have gone back to Detroit and shot after the book came out, but that was urban farming, people's parks, people building their houses, and signs of renewal. If I reprint the book, maybe it'll come back to that. I put some of it on my website, but for me, the moment's over. You need enthusiasm and momentum, and at a certain point it dissipates. I think that's really the crucial factor: your own commitment and energy in relation to the subject matter. Maybe some people could photograph Russia their entire lives, but for me, it would be really depressing [laughs]. It's a heavy country.
AQ: How do you mean?
AM: If you look back, the original Russe invited the Vikings to come in and help give them structure. It starts about 1000 AD. They start around Kiev, near what's now the Ukraine. If you look at these thousand years, you have the Mongol invasion, the Tartars, terrible tzars, Napoleon's invasions, the revolts in the 19th century, the Bolshevik coup, and Stalin, which is one of the worst political episodes...there’s just a constant darkness to their country. I consider them to have the darkest history of any country on the planet. There's no country that really compares to that thousand years of real bloodshed. Moments of beauty, of course, but a very dark history.
AQ: In your book, Boris Fishman describes Russia as “a place that derives its charm precisely from the feelings of artifice it provides."
AM: Boris grew up there, and that's more his take. But it relates to the Potemkin village. When Kathrine the Great wanted to make a tour of the Russian countryside to see what the villages looked like, her prime minister, Potemkin, sent out crews in advance to build large-scale, glorious-looking facades of villages along the highway, so when she passed in her carriages, they'd say, “Oh! Look at these fantastic villages! How lovely!” These come down in the language to mean an illusion, a falsely created semblance of the present. The delusional or illusional aspect that derives from that is still very much present. Whitewashing, fixing things up in a patchwork way to make it all look good, when beneath it's shambles and doesn't really function. I think that's definitely part of the Russian character. They still do that today. They'll take a public outhouse and paint it with bright colors, but you go inside and it's still a hole in the ground.
AQ: He also says that “most Russians are ambivalent toward Americans: they long for the quality of life common in the states, but they consider the emotionless self interest that fosters such prosperity disgraceful and depraved.” What does he mean?
AM: I think that's a bit of a stretch. I think they're just as bad as us. It's a country where people are very much out for themselves, particularly now, with the fall of communism. There was a kind of sharing and helpfulness during communism, but with the influx of capitalism, those virtues are kind of lost. I think we're in some ways quite similar in temperament. I didn't feel like they were really foreign to me, or that they feel demeaned by the west. Russia is a very rich country now, but they don't share their resources very well. Moscow is unbelievably wealthy. They may feel that the west looks down on them, but I don't feel like they're resentful.
AQ: You also write about growing up during the Cold War. It struck me how different my view of Russia is than yours. I'm in my twenties. I hadn't come to consciousness when the Wall fell. There’s a generation gap here. You’ve said to Joerg Coelberg: “My sense is that our perception of the world, as influenced by the rapid evolution of information technology, directs us away from history and the past. It’s as though we view reality through a speeding car: the future, which is rushing toward us, appears immediate and vivid, while the past, which can only be viewed through the mirror, falls away into blurriness and quickly vanishes.” Being raised on the internet, this doesn’t jibe with me. I feel like my generation, or at least the culturally engaged segment of my generation, has a proximity to the past that’s unprecedented. Hyperlinks, Wikipedia, the immediate gratification that the internet provides, at least in the realm of facts. Can you remember the existence of a more widespread retro trend in American society? I've read articles about how these things go in cycles, but because of the internet, especially in its aughts incarnation, people my age seem overly aware that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, hyper-conscious of what’s already been done.
AM: I’ve been trying to get into your head, and spent a lot of time since the last time we spoke thinking about what you mean by this. I mentioned it to some friends, and it's true! Maybe the past is more omnipresent in a way, and yet, on the other hand, the media is so engaged in the present, and all the minutiae of the moment. I became sympathetic to your point, and will be continuing to think about it. Because I love history, it made me happy to hear you say this. For you it may feel like a weight, but for me, it's great that young people can be very historically aware, even if they have to go through the retro thing to get to their own original point of view. It's all part of the process. I think you're very fortunate in a way to be coming of age at this time. This is an amazing period in time. But for someone like you to have missed the high point or glory days of America...I feel sorry in a way.
AQ: This brings us back to Russia—these images probably aren’t quite as loaded for someone my age.
AM: I was so interested in traveling behind the Iron Curtain because these places were taboo and forbidden. Same with Cuba; you weren't supposed to go there. Most of the time I went was illegally, through Jamaica. Montego Bay was the good highway to Havana when I was going. I wanted to see an alternative view. I wanted to experience a different view of America, and a different take on history. When I came back to Detroit, it was like, wow, this whole cyclical nature of things is now playing out in our country.
AQ: Well, that’s another running thread in your work: penetrating taboos, sneaking behind closed doors, getting into people's living rooms or abandoned spaces. What are the roots of that?
AM: Well, it’s difficult to talk about this without sound psychoanalytical.
AQ: That's the idea!
AM: It has to do with two things. The first is the place you think of where you feel comfortable and safe, like your home. I never really liked the home I grew up in. I was always desirous of other people's homes. I was much happier at other people's houses than my own. I always felt that my house was sterile. It wasn't friendly, warm, or inviting, and I hardly ever had people over. I think that has stayed with me psychologically. I want to be in other people's homes, in their worlds. That's where I feel more comfortable, strangely enough.
AQ: Growing up in suburbs, I had something like that—my house was very much a gathering place, but when I encountered Victorian houses for the first time, I never felt the same in my own, newer house.
AM: My father was the distant cousin of a spinster in Hartford. When she passed away, he was the executor of her estate. We all went there with him and had to go through all of her stuff. He told me that when this woman's dog died, she simply took the carpet and threw it over the dog. When they got to this house, they rolled back the carpet and found a skeleton. To discover that there were these crazy houses with all this amazing stuff and weird stories…that was deeply attractive to me from the beginning. I love both the story and the exploration.
AQ: This is reminiscent of the cat skeleton you photographed in Detroit.
AM: Yes. That was in a library, and that photograph is almost Egyptian for me, in the sense that the Egyptians would bury the pharaohs with their cats, and here you have this decrepit, abandoned library, and the sole remaining thing there was a cat that had starved to death, and was entombed in this library. It harkens back to the Egyptian ruins. And I don't know if we should publish this, but when I was a kid I was arrested for breaking into people's homes. We were taking random things--silver dollars, whiskey. I was the leader of this little gang. Getting arrested and all of that was kind of a bummer, but the adrenaline of going into someone's house at night, when they might come home at any moment, was a huge rush. Detroit had some aspects of that. Being where you should't be. Sometimes it was pretty dangerous. I definitely risked my life to take pictures in a couple of those places. Many of those buildings, their ceilings or floors, were nearly collapsing. It's just part of my makeup. I like to enter into places that I'm not supposed to be. There's something satisfying for me in that. I feel some kind of accomplishment. Some people like to climb mountains; I like to get into places that others don't get into. It's one of the fundamental things that drives me.
AQ: Since we’ve gone back to childhood, let’s go back to your original interest in architecture--you said it was your second love. How did it win out?
AM: Well, my father was an architect, and had a little home office. I loved playing there: not only were there all these colored pencils, protractors, templates, drafting paper, and tracing paper, but little balsam wood models of houses with different additions. I loved that. It was almost sculptural. And as a family we'd often go on the weekend to visit one of his projects. We'd get to these places and it'd maybe just be a slab, a couple of walls, and he would say, you know, "here's the gymnasium, the bathrooms," and so on. I got used to imagining space as a mental blueprint, and in a profound way, that got me used to thinking of spaces not by how they're defined by structure, but how space is brought to life through architecture.
AQ: An interesting perspective with regards to Detroit.
AM: Whenever I go to a location and am looking to make a picture, the first thing I'm considering is, how alive is this space? How lively is it? How can I shape that in the photograph? There was a point where I thought I was going to study architecture. This was at Princeton in the late 70's, when postmodernism was really flourishing. Michael Graves was the main teacher there. I just wasn't really interested in theoretical architecture, paper architecture. I really wanted to make things. That was the tipping point. There was a saying there: "Why should we teach you how to draw? The English department doesn't teach you how to type." They equated these two things on the same level, and I couldn't have disagreed with that more.
AQ: So what happened?
AM: I was fortunate to become a student of Emmet Gowin there. He really emphasized that craft and ideas were completely joined, that one couldn't speak a language without learning craft, grammar, and syntax. The idea of engaging your body and mind together in making something...and being able to work with architecture through photography. All of my architectural knowledge and feeling has been incorporated into my photographs.
AQ: On that note, places and things are much more often the subjects of your photographs than people, so I wanted you to personalize some of your figures. What, for example, can be said of the man living in the Detroit dry dock?
AM: The Detroit Dry Dock built propellers for the boats that plied the Great Lakes. It's a remarkable late-19th century structure with a steel frame on the inside of the building—maybe one of the first in this country like that. It's also where a young Henry Ford worked as an apprentice, and where he was first introduced to the combustion engine. That’s a remarkable history right there. It had been wide open, meaning easily accessible by the street, for many years—ten, maybe twenty. This homeless guy had probably been living there for several. People always ask me if I saw homeless people in the buildings in Detroit, and I always tell them there are so many abandoned buildings, every homeless person could have one of their own. I was there on a very cold February day, and he's tucked back in the corner with this big plastic sheet hanging down, maybe as a windscreen. It was very dark and gray. We set up the camera and he said, "Oh, you're not gonna take my picture, are you?" And I said no, we're just doing the building. He was in the frame, but he couldn't tell. We did a couple of long exposures--a couple of minutes--and I think we gave him some money at the end, just to help him out. I did not learn his name; he wasn’t very talkative. He was drying socks and maybe cooking something, staying warm. In some cases I try to learn people's names and get information, but he was standoffish. We didn’t want to bother him. It was like going into someone's house. He wasn't violent, but he certainly wasn't encouraging us to hang out. He was the “owner” of that building. Not literally, but he had been the resident for many years.
AQ: Do you think he hung up that big sheet?
AM: It's interesting, because you couldn't easily get to the second floor. The metal stairs had been cut away. Somehow, he must have figured out how to climb up there and hang up that sheet. And he's the only person that could have been motivated to do it. There's no other explanation. It was shielding his little shack there.
AQ: How old?
AM: Probably in his 40's.
AQ: It sounds like it was much darker in there than the picture would attest.
AM: Very much. Because of that long exposure and the wind blowing that plastic screen, it somehow looks like a cave-dweller living under a waterfall. That's what I love about it--this sort of atavistic aspect to it, while at the same time, it's present-day Detroit.
AQ: What about the abandoned missile base?
AM: That was an island in the harbor of Vladivostok, five or six miles offshore. It had been a missile base and silo. In the picture you can barely see a barracks building with a star, and supposedly the staff was all female. Locals were told that this was some kind of mental hospital or home for pregnant mothers as a cover story to keep people away, but supposedly it was an all female crew manning this missile base. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they took out the missiles. This guy with the mustache was the lighthouse keeper, his wife has the orange hair, and they and their children lived on the island. They only had a rowboat. Local crab fishermen, fishing illegally around the island, would drop off crabs for them to eat. Maybe somebody came and brought them milk and other supplies. But basically they were living, on their own, on this weird little rock island, in a lighthouse and abandoned dormitory. I was definitely not supposed to be there. I didn't speak to the guy because I didn't want him to know I was American. My Russian friend who was with me did all the talking, and I pretended to be the assistant.
AQ: So they could barely leave, living six miles offshore with just a rowboat?!
AM: Yeah. They really depended on the kindness of fisherman to get to shore and bring them food. Maybe a supply boat came once a week. But otherwise they were living on their own out there.
AQ: You’ve already spoken elsewhere about the watchman's room in Siberia, but I also wanted to know about that.
AM: It was near Ulan-Ude, which is in southern Siberia. The big factory had been used to make glass of some sort, and had been shut down a couple years before. There was a young couple taking care of the building, but they hadn't been paid in something like a year and a half. They had nowhere to go. They were just living there in hopes that eventually the owners would come around and pay them. On the walls there are things written like, “Don't forget to feed the cat.” Practical things. It was a really sad situation. They were virtually trapped. It was their job, but they hadn't gotten paid. If they left, they definitely would't ever get paid. That was their life.
AQ: Finally: the falcon keeper in Abu Dhabi?
AM: You're the first to ever ask about that picture. I don't know much about him. The sheiks--the big movers and shakers in Abu Dhabi--they like to go out to the desert to practice falconry and race their camels. They all have camps and tents in the middle of the desert. When they go home for the work week, these other guys basically stick around and take care of the animals while the sheiks are away. There was an older man in charge of the camels, and the guy in this photograph was in charge of the falcons. This was the little shack that they lived in, out in the middle of nowhere. He must have been from Yemen--he wasn't from the UAE. He was a poor guy, but very cheery, and living out there in the middle of the desert taking care of the Sheiks' falcons.
AQ: How did that project come about?
AM: The Abu Dhabi photos were a commission from NYU. Abu Dhabi is so wealthy--they've bought all the cars, jewelry, and handbags, there's a surfeit of those things there—so now they're starting to buy institutions from the west. They're going to have a branch of the Hermitage, Louvre, Guggenheim, the Harvard Medical School, and NYU is building a branch there as well. NYU agreed to grant diplomas in Abu Dhabi on the same level as their New York campus. Yale refused this, but NYU is trying to make a global university, where they have campuses in China, Paris, et cetera, so students could transfer all over the world and be within the same institution.
AQ: Sounds great?
AM: I think it's pretty cool. They wanted me to show what the texture of the city looks like, what kind of people live there. There was supposed to be a book published, but through various complications, the project stalled. I was there a month. It's not a big city. If I was going to finish the book, I'd go back for one more trip. When I was there, it was an open, cosmopolitan city--very little police presence, virtually no crime, very placid, lots of money. Even the lowest workers, say, from Bangladesh, had some level of income. Despite their housing not being very good, there were opportunities for everybody. I think the UAE has become a bit more nervous with everything going on with the Arab Spring.
AQ: And finally that sentiment has made its way here. You can walk to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations from your apartment. Have you gone down there?
AM: Obviously I'm incredibly sympathetic to the Occupy protests, but as the parent of two small children, I don't exactly relish the idea of being put in jail overnight. I think that this is a sign that the progressives in this country have had no outlet. We all voted for Obama thinking he was going to be a progressive and he turned out to be a compromising centrist. I think it's a natural outpouring of emotion, of anxiety, of anger. Maybe it does have some kind of symmetry to the tea party, but of those I've met, they've mostly been of the angry, rump white state. I saw a police captain from Philadelphia arrested in New York the other day. He was saying that the police are the tools of the 1%. I feel like this 99% thing is an incredibly effective slogan, and I'll be interested to see if it's co-opted by more mainstream politicians. I think it was time for this. It’s the beginning of the death knell of Reaganism, thirty years of American conservatism. I think that's great. Whether we've shifted so far to the right that we just need a small or big correction, time will tell. I've said for years that it's the young people in this country that need to come to the fore and let themselves be heard.
AQ: This goes back to the predicament of being burdened by the past. We have the example of the sixties. But you've lived through more, and have seen the pendulum swing back and forth. I'm twenty-five. I've only ever been truly conscious of Bush and Obama. Despite this, you, somewhat paradoxically, are able to more quickly and comfortably give OWS two thumbs up, and I'm ambivalent about it. Isn't the young person supposed to be gung-ho, and the older person, you know: wisened, skeptical, ambivalent?
AM: When's the last time in this country's history where there was youth movement standing up for the little person? I'm supportive because I think the pendulum needs to start to swing back the other way, because we've veered so far to the right. I can understand your skepticism, but in the larger picture, you have no idea how far right this country has veered since the 1980s. I think Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 changed things forever about America. It really introduced religion into politics in a way that never existed before. Barry Goldwater, this incredible conservative who ran against Johnson--he never talked about religion. And he was an ultra-conservative! The alignment of political, economic, and even religious forces in American life today is very disheartening to me. I think for your generation to find alternatives ways--whether the DIY movement, traveling easily outside of the country, protests--I hope that your generation can recreate the energy of the 60s. People were much more idealistic. On the other hand, by some accounts, the 60s were the product of a wealthy society. They had the time to go out, party, and be idealistic. That's the rub. In a time of economic hardship, when your belly's not full, how can you be in the street and protesting?
AQ: I do think Obama was the best person that could have been elected, and it's like: if this guy can't bring about some major changes, then we're really fucked. When you’re in your twenties nowadays, you often lose your faith in the political system entirely, and focus instead on carving a little niche. This is where we get accused of "generational selfishness." It's often attributed to indulgent parenting. There are a pletora of articles coming out about "my generation." Their sweeping generalizations usually drive me crazy, but I can't help but read them. And I can see that most of my friends, while mostly culturally engaged and left-leaning, don't talk too much or too deeply about politics. Most of the people who do end up being blowhards, representative of the polarization we have going on between the left and right.
AM: There's only a certain amount of disenfranchisement that people can take before they start to take back what's theirs. I think this is a natural part of the cycle of politics. I hope this is the beginning of something. Maybe it'll be smothered. Look at Iran. They were ahead of the curve of the Arab Spring, and they got squashed. We'll see what happens.
AQ: I’m working on a thesis about the tropicália movement in Brazil. These avant-garde hippies grew up in a golden age there that's exemplified by bossa nova, then came of age in the sixties under this awful military dictatorship. Though leftists, they disavowed the sloganeering and backward-looking orthodox left as well as the right. They didn’t take sides, and poked fun at both ends of the political spectrum. Artistically, that’s more interesting to me than anything.
AM: I don't think anyone can disagree that art has disengaged from politics. Now, it’s about money. When people look back on the last thirty years, the big movement in art has been very decorative. Jeff Koons, for example, is a super decorative artist. He makes incredible, super-expensive tchotchkes, and he's just the tip of that iceberg. He even looks like Reagan! We're in a huge stalemate, obviously. What will break it? Usually it's some kind of violence, whether in words or in the street. Something has to give at this point. I'm not advocating any particular scheme, but welcome young people becoming re-engaged in politics. If it's because of disillusionment, that may be the best thing. It's not based on idealism. I don't think any of what’s going on now is idealistic at all.
AQ: Oh, no. Obama's first term to me represents a kind of end of idealism.
AM: If he's not going to provide strong moral leadership, then somebody else is going to fill that vacuum. I saw The Book of Mormon the other night, and it was amazing, by the way. We may have a mormon for president!
AQ: It wouldn't surprise me. But to go back to art and money: how long have you been making a living as a photographer?
AM: I always tell my students to practice their craft daily, but I was making some kind of living since 1983, photographing work for artists. That's how I made my living for six, seven years. Photographing for galleries, making reproductions. It was easy work, it paid OK, and I got to hang with interesting folks. I had some periods in the late 80's where I sold quite a few pictures. It's only been since the late 90s that I've truly been able to make a good living selling my work. I was an overnight success after twenty years of work. It's good to hang in there, but not everybody's up to that challenge.
AQ: Looking at sites like Booooooom, Fecal Face, etc. has been one of my quintessential aesthetic experiences. You see the infinitude of great work being produced right now without the excessive lag and curating that comes with traditional magazines or galleries, and it goes on forever. For me, it levels the playing field. It turns the structure of things in visual art upside-down—in a way, these sites serve the 99% who are just making cool stuff, compared to the 1% who are, say, savvy or connected or tenacious enough to get into the MoMA. It brings “high” visual art in our culture, maybe for the first time, towards a wider audience, towards something more folk-oriented. And that makes me more compelled to hang in there. The motive is not “success,” especially financially, or even any grand sort of validation, but simply making stuff that gets out there and seen by people through its own intrinsic merit, even if only on the internet.
AM: This whole idea of: if you're not famous before you're 25...I heard that a lot when I was younger, and it really broke a lot of young artists. They felt that if they didn't make it before 25 or 30 that they would never make it at all. It's a very poisonous attitude. It's such a burden for the people who that does happen to that they have difficulty growing from there. If you look at someone like Cézanne, his first pictures were really pretty terrible. The same with Van Gogh. And the Japanese woodblock artists, like Hiroshi and Hokusai, were making great work into their eighties. It's not like being a mathematician, where most do their best work before they're forty. I think one of the great things about being a visual artist is being able to mature and grow. It's not like being an athlete. You're using your mind, body, and soul all together. You can ripen and mature. I never felt like I had any options. I just had to go forward and pursue my work, like a horse with blinders, building a brick wall one brick at a time. It's been a long, slow, steady build. I hope that means I have a good foundation.
AQ: Was there a moment when you knew you were going to, you know, "make it?"
AM: I felt that I didn't have any options as a photographer. Being an artist came later for me. I didn't dream about being an artist when I was twelve years old. I did want to travel, and was always interested in storytelling and narrative. It's been a very slow, gradual process. All of my projects are self-funded, in terms of being funded through gallery sales. I applied for grants, and got a few small ones, bust mostly I was just able to piece together a few thousand dollars here and there to do the work. The biggest breakthrough came in my early 40's, when I went to Havana. That was the tipping point in terms of establishing my credentials as a photographer and artist, doing work at a high level. This is twenty years after I graduated from college. In the first ten years I struggled, did lots of projects, traveled, and finally had my first show in New York when I was thirty, with those montages. It took ten years to improve my craft, and another ten to finesse things and begin to figure it out. A full twenty years after graduating was when I really got up to speed.
AQ: I think the channel gets narrower every day. Being a career photographer doesn't strike me, at twenty-five, as a sane ambition [laughs].
AM: I have a lot of young people asking me how to get started and get a career going as a photographer. A lot of the pathways are narrower than they once were, but on the other hand, all of the your generation's technological advances, that'll be the way to go. If there are advances, it'll be made through those. Digital photography has so profoundly democratized the art of taking pictures. Anybody with a decent camera can make a decent picture, at least from a technical standpoint. New hybrid forms are going to be the realm where young people have possibilities. But I can't even imagine them.
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