Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Q & A with Sam Prekop

Photo from Thrill Jockey video
Sam Prekop is a musician and photographer based in Chicago.

BA: I've known your music with Sea And Cake since the mid 90s, but I've only recently gotten to know your photos through Instagram. How'd you get into photography?

SP: I grew up around photography, darkroom in the house, the whole thing. My dad is a long time and quite accomplished artist/photographer.  Somehow I avoided it til much later. I went to art school for painting and the two don't coexist, especially in art school.

What do you mean "the two don't coexist"? 

Yes of course they “coexist” I should have said the departments just felt quite separate without much interaction at least from my perspective. I was so focused on painting I’m not even sure I was aware there was a photo department!

Was it a situation as a kid where you didn't want to do what your parents did? Is that why you avoided it when younger?

I don't think so really. I knew pretty early on I wanted to be an artist but I just didn't equate photography with it exactly I suppose. I do recall doing Rayograms. Is that the term placing objects, etc, on photo sensitive material?

Yeah, those are fun. You did those in art school?

At Home.

Nikko, Japan

What does your dad think of your recent photos? Does he follow your Instagram stuff?

He's always been a big supporter of whatever I'm getting up to. He's checked on my Instagram but hasn't kept up. I tried to get him involved but it just didn't click, too small! His main tool is large format studio photography, which doesn't quite translate well on a phone.

The digital divide. What if you show him prints or some other method? Just curious how he'd react from an art/academic perspective. I think your photographic style is unlike what's usually taught in art schools.

Well the IG thing is somewhat recent for me, well a couple of years I guess, but I was for sure focused on making prints and dreaming of making books. But I'd say he thinks I'm a better painter than photographer! And probably wishes I would get back to that instead of music, etc.

What does he think of Sea and Cake's music?

Well I’m not sure how often he really listens to it, but I’m pretty sure he likes it fine. I think he’s most impressed that I’ve eked out a career of doing what I want. He’s always been very supportive of me not getting a real job! 

Are you still painting?

It's been a while but admit I feel like I'm gearing up for it again. I make a lot of drawings that I think keep me somewhat limbered up. I also think of my photos as in a away as "fast" paintings. Really fast!

Split second. Drawing has no chance. Let me go back a second to art school. You didn't do any photo studies there?  

Yeah, no photo stuff in art school.

Did art school help you with looking? Or was it more focused on thinking?

I'd say my focus was looking first, thinking afterward, which is how I make photographs as well. My paintings work along similar lines, hope something happens that's interesting and that you're in a place to recognize it and not screw it up. 

When did you first get into photography?

I started dabbling a bit in designing record covers, but didn't really get into it until on a whim I brought a camera on an early tour, and pretty quickly I fell pretty hard for it. I early on made the connection that in a raw sense, just looking was rewarding work in itself, and the documents became interesting as well.

How do you decide which of your photos to use on album covers?

Well actually I almost never plan on using one of my photos, the exception would be the latest record, but that came about somewhat by accident. While looking through some old 4X6 prints the image I used seemed so just right and that the photo is probably 10 or so years old also contributed a mysteriously detached quality to it even though its subject matter is so familiar to me, but in a transition state, being that it’s a photo of a room that I had just moved into, in a new house at the time, but where I live now. Anyway these are a few of the reasons the image resonated with me so much I think. Also normally I don’t really decide on what an album cover should be until the record's finished. In this case I found the photo and then made the record. It was on my mind during most of the process.

The Sea and Cake, Any Day, 2018 (Thrill Jockey)

What about generally? What are your favorite all-time album covers that use third-party photos? 

Oddly not something I’ve really thought about. but one of my least favorite album covers happens to use the Eggleston photo of the dolls on the Cadillac! I think it’s a Big Star or Alex Chilton record. 

Did you pursue any training as a photographer? 

No training in photography. Years after first getting into it, I then became really interested in the "craft" of making prints in a darkroom. So for five or so years I was focused primarily on black and white work, and teaching myself how to print and process.

Sam Prekop, Photographs
2017 (Presspop Gallery Publications)
Those were the photos in your first book.

Yep. So my darkroom work was going well and then I had kids, and had to shut it down!

Because of kids?

Yeah, we needed the extra bathroom and somehow the whole operation seemed just too close to newborns. I now have a separate studio again and have thought about setting something up again, but really I think I'd shoot for getting my painting studio going first.

So the reason you switched to color was purely due to space limitations? Was there some aesthetic reason too?

In retrospect I consider myself a color photographer. I started with color and then the black and white detour occurred. Wanting a darkroom —among many reasons I was not satisfied with the whole scan and inkjet workflow. I wanted"real" prints, and black and white was what I could pull off. Of course I love black and white work. I just don't think my work is as strong in that area.

Do you make prints now of your color work? 

Actually I don't make prints all that often any more. I mean, I hope that changes but the right project I guess hasn't presented itself. But when I do I scan and then send them out to be printed on "photo paper"

Well that's a print, isn't it?

Yes, of course, but I used to print a whole lot more. Now it's a somewhat rare occasion.

You're shooting film?

Yeah, film.

I asked before if you'd pursued any photographic training but I'd kinda guessed the answer already. What I like about your photos is they are quite raw and unmanipulated. So whatever you're doing, don't change it. I'm curious if you were looking at other photographers as you developed, or had any outside influence besides your dad. How did you find your style?

St. Louis perhaps?

Well yes, I look at a lot of work. I guess these days it's on IG! So I've gone through several periods of obsession with certain photographers. Like a lot of people Eggleston was pretty big for me. I recall seeing his work before making photographs and being distinctly unimpressed. I think it helps to try making you're own work to really appreciate his genius. Walker Evans, Robert Adams, Atget, many of the usual suspects. I also went through a real German photography period which hasn't held up for me quite well.

What do you like about Eggleston's photos? Do you remember the conversion moment for you, when you went from unimpressed to impressed?  

The first Eggleston book I came in contact with was “The Democratic Forest” and I think it’s still my favorite. So I think his work really got to me in book form. I think the sequencing and the color feeling like the subject really spoke to me in a way that a one off photo can’t do. Also the process of having the book and coming back to it again and again only increased the weird fleeting ephemeral quality to the work. And his working statement with regard to a visual democracy, that anything can be a photo has of course been a huge influence on me. 

I think Eggleston is an good example of photography being inside baseball. If you don't make photos he can seem obtuse. A bit less generally accessible than music, perhaps? I guess it depends on the specific photos or specific music

I agree, but a bizarre strength of taking a photo is that it's available to anyone. I've always found this fascinating. It's truly democratic, for better or worse. Music takes more effort I'd say on a base level. But because of photography's inherent qualities, it's very difficult to make an interesting picture.

How do you know when you've made an interesting photo?

Well, I never quite feel like I'm "making" it. I like to think I found my better pictures. While I'm out taking photos is not where it's happening, in a way. For me it's quite intuitive, backed with a lot of looking. The ones that get to me jump out with not a lot of effort. Of course I'm not always right!

I'm curious about your process. How do you go about finding photos?

When I'm really on I'll go out daily to take photos. However it's usually en route to do something else, grocery store, kids, school, etc. So it's pretty much in my neighborhood. I rarely go somewhere specific to take photos, but I will say my neighborhood has been quite an inspiration. I also do quite a bit on tour as well, but I feel like my best work happens around here in Chicago.

Which neighborhood is that?


Pilsen. It still feels like "old Chicago". It hasn't changed as much as other areas, and is quite a vivid mash up.

Photography is a good enforcer. It makes you pay attention to the everyday. Just one city block can provide entertainment for hours. Maybe it's a double edged sword though, because eventually it becomes hard to simply be in the world without visualizing it as a photo. That's especially a problem for folks (I'm one too) who find material in their everyday routines. Sometimes I envy studio photographers. They can make their work in one place. Then come home and leave it behind for a while.

I spent some time setting up still life situations to photograph an interesting problem to solve. It's definitely closer to painting than street photography. Lately I've just started taking photos again around here, and being what I'd say is a bit rusty, everything looks new and weird again, pleasant but somewhat awkward.

Are there streets or areas nearby you haven't yet explored with a camera? Or have you seen all of it by now?

I do feel like I’ve seen them all! Well, not really. I like alleys quite a bit in that they’re more similar to each other than say streets are. So alleys always have a sort of neutral appeal to them always nicely unremarkable and it’s likely I’ve seen most of them but who can remember! So they look oddly new all of time. The neighborhood just south of Pilsen is called Bridgeport and it’s really as different from Pilsen as you can get both visually and culturally as well. I actually feel like I work there a bit more lately and it does seem to hold some more surprises for me in a way lately.  

Do you compose music in your head while photographing? Or is that a completely separate activity?

Yeah pretty separate, really. I'm usually working on one or the other.

Why did the German photographers become less interesting to you?

I guess last year I saw a pretty major Thomas Struth retrospective in Munich, and I was quite shocked at how flat it felt to me. I really don't like huge prints at all, and the work felt bored, and maybe he wishes he were making paintings? A bit harsh, I guess! But I can't say I'm opposed to all german photography!

The Düsseldorf stuff is pretty controlled. 

Yeah, I think my initial attraction to it along with everyone else was that they might not be "photos" in a away, and a very specific "European-ness" to them was quite exotic some how.

It's not really my thing either. But I like some of the related offshoots like, say, Stephen Shore or Baltz.

Yes, Shore would be in my foundations list.

What do you think of his Instagram photos?

Hmm, I really like that he makes them, but I'm not always convinced by them. But somehow that doesn't bother me.


What's your take on Instagram in general? Do you value the feedback? Do you learn from it?

I guess I was a bit conflicted when I started and really wasn't all that interested, but it's grown on me gradually. Now that I'm into it I'd say now I've learned a tremendous amount from it and really have found crazy value for my work and the work I've found. I think it's changed my work as well. Before IG I really didn't have much of an outlet, and wasn't all that concerned about it either. But now I just appreciate in a weird way what I've been exposed to and the exposure I think it's afforded me as well. 

But it is a real time suck! I am a bit concerned that I'm compelled to post something daily, and fear quite a bit the addiction involved with the "feedback" element.

You've learned a tremendous amount about your own photos? Or about what's out there?

One thing I've caught myself feeling that one photo might be to Instagram focused, an easy shot, and I've been a bit weary of leaning on what I think might work better than another, in an Instagram context. But of course some stuff just works better than others.

Who is someone you've discovered there whose photos have radically opened your eyes or altered your thinking?

Hmm, I wouldn't say radically, but I do have some favorites. @ann.lee, @hitomarunobase, @negativeone2, these are a couple of the top of my head.

@negativeone2, yeah he's extremely unpredictable in a good way. That's Scott that used to live in Portland. Good friend of @faulkner.short. I think he lives in San Antonio now. But his IG feed doesn't really show that. It's all over the place. And time.

Yeah definitely, somehow his work has changed, even though he seems to show a lot of old stuff. But for quite a while I felt we probably just liked the same photographers. But some photos he's gone past that for me.

What do you mean, his work has changed? How so?

When I first started following his work, I must have liked something about it, but it seemed so wildly inconsistent and perhaps that was part of the appeal in a way. But maybe the work hasn’t actually changed as much as I think, but just that he’s gotten much better with the editing. I will say I’m still pretty often surprised by a certain loose almost scattershot way he has with his work but still comes off quite elegantly. 

I feel the self imposed Instagram filter you mentioned earlier. After being on there a little while I realize that some photos work better on IG than others. So it's hard for me to impose the type of conscious inconsistency that makes some books work well, or that Scott employs to great effect. Extrapolate that to the general situation and Instagram is probably having some long-term effects on the overall direction of photography. Another double edged sword. Darn, those things are everywhere.

Yes, definitely.

Maybe Spotify and Soundcloud are having a similar effect on music?

Hmm I guess, I actually don't really participate with that stuff any where near to IG. I know it's happening, just hasn't happened to me.

Why do you distribute your photos and music in such different ways? Is it something about the artistic mediums? Or about you?

I make a lot of electronic music that I’ve been thinking about posting on soundcloud / bandcamp , and I’d be interested in the feedback to it and just having it exist beyond my studio. But since I do have a more “traditional” way of getting my music heard via my record label that could be why I’ve been a bit less urgent about getting it out there in a social media sort of way.  I’m definitely not opposed to it. I think it’s really just a matter of time and a bit of sorting priorities. 


Do you ever put together shows of your photos? Or maybe have another book planned? Or some other non-IG outlet?

I've had a handful of shows, but for me I think books are the optimal way to deal with photos. I'm always thinking book in the back of my mind, but no plans.

Are there photographers in Chicago you get together with to share work or chat or shoot together? Or is it just you?

Just me. I know a couple of people working, but yeah, I don't feel a part of any "photo community" here. For a while I used a rental darkroom and really enjoyed the general photo banter action.

I think that's another maybe underrecognized aspect to Instagram. It can feel like a community of sorts. Or maybe it can supply community for those folks who don't have it locally.

When I take photos on tour, I find a bit annoying to have other people around! Always having to ask people to move out of the way, etc.

You mean shooting photos with bandmates?

Yeah, band mates. I'm sort of kidding a bit.

I generally like to shot alone, especially in urban scenes. But it's nice each month to hang out with photo buddies and look at pix together.

Yeah, that would be excellent. Archer who's in my band is quite a cheerleader and critic of my work so I'm always eager for his take on things.

Does he take photos?

He does, but it's pretty much in an in passing sort of way.

But he has good feedback?

Years ago he would say he had loftier ambitions for it, I think.

So he dropped photography to do something practical...like join a rock band. Haha.

Well the feedback I'd say wouldn't be perhaps the most hardcore. But we have such a long working history it's valuable.

Friends like that are so valuable they're invaluable.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Q & A with Gerry Johansson

Photo by Ola Billmont
Gerry Johansson is a photographer based in Sweden. 

BA: How often do you go out to make photos? 

GJ: The last book American Winter was done during three week periods during 2017 and 2018. The rest of the years have been spent on smaller ”projects” (sorry, but I hate that word). They usually last for a week or so but I also have some ongoing work that has been running for years. When I return from travels, much more time than the actual shooting is spent on developing, scanning, printing and editing. I’m analog, except for work in preparation for printing. All my books the last 20 years are scanned by me.

How do you decide where to go? 

In all kinds of manner. I went to Ulan Bator because I remembered a film scene in a movie by filmmaker Chris Marker. I went to Pontiac, Michigan, because I heard over the radio that it was the first American town to go bankrupt. The Deutschland book was done because my childhood had many German influences and I wanted to learn more about the country.

What catches your eye? 

When I start working on a subject I try not to have any predetermined idea of what I will do. The work has to develop as I go along. It usually ends up looking pretty much the same anyway. Thankfully.

How much time do you typically spend with a scene? 

That is very different. But I usually doesn’t spend much time in any place. I prefer to work in the countryside, in the small towns, and in an hour you have seen pretty much what there is to see. I rarely wait out a scene for better light or so. I like to work quickly as I go along. There will  always be interesting things to photograph.

Do you automatically visualize in black/white? 

I guess so. In earlier days I would also bring a camera for color work. But nowadays I find that too distracting. I seldom think that something I photograph would look better in color. However my favorit photographer today is Guido Guidi whose work I rate way above Eggleston and Stepen Shore.

Spread from American Winter

Why did you choose to shoot winter scenes for your recent book? 

I suppose I’m a winter photographer. I even went to Antarctica, and that was a great pleasure. I hardly ever photograph in summertime. One source of inspiration came from the movie Fargo, by the Coen brothers. There are some fantastic scenes of snowdrift over endless highways. But film is one thing and still photos are something different. But it was certainly a great experience driving there, even though I didn’t manage to make a great picture of it. I know American landscape photography quite well and I found that most of the pictures were made in pleasant, sunny weather. Not a big surprise but I felt something was missing.

How did you decide which states to visit? 

I had many years ago been in Montana, Nebraska, South and North Dakota and Wyoming and I liked the vastness, emptiness and peacefulness. It’s a bit like being alone in an ocean of land.

In an interview you once said "pictures can be different depending on their size and the viewing distance," a statement I agree with. The photos in your books are generally quite small, and the viewing distance is relatively close. What effect do you think that has on your photos?

White Earth, Montana, 2017

I like the idea that you are alone with the picture when you look at it. In an exhibition it is important that you have to walk close up to the image. Print size in exhibitions is 16 x 16,5 cm. I hate exhibitions where you can stand in the middle of the room and think you have seen the whole exhibition. In the book it is a bit different, but all the white space around the image creates a calm space for the ”reading”. The image size in the books is 9 x 9,2 cm which is close to the format you would have in an old family album. 

I think it has forced me to be more precise and careful with the structure and composition of the picture. But. strangely, on the other hand many of my pictures look awful if I make a big print. They sort of fall apart.

Your website has note that you've recently eliminated limited editions. All print editions are now open ended. Can you elaborate on your reasons for this step? 

I think the whole idea of limited editions is silly and I’m surprised buyers don’t see through this business idea. Today you can buy anything in limited editions. Cars, toasters, or whatever. It’s stupid. Regarding my last books as Special Edition with open edition prints I have not heard one negative complaint and they are selling better than ever.  My favorite argument is the fact that the Ansel Adams image Moonrise Hernandez, at a Sotheby’s auction in 2017 sold for $740,000. At the time it was printed in over 1300 copies. 

What has been the reaction from collectors?

At times I have made editions just to please a gallery, but my sales are quite irregular so it just becomes too complicated. There are galleries that are OK with open editions so I stick to them. They are the nice guys anyway and people who buy stuff for the numbers on the back can go somewhere else.

Another quote from a past interview: "Digital today looks fine, but everything is possible and the result usually comes out boring." Can you elaborate more on that thought? Do you think a limitation of possibilities can be positive in some way?

American Winter, with open edition gelatin silver print

I just think that a properly made black/white silver gelatin print is something astoundingly beautiful. Film and silver prints are materials you have to work along with. They are materials with characteristics you have to understand and follow. In a similar way that a sculptor chooses wood, bronze or marble. So yes, I want some resistance when I work. There are of course fine digital prints also. But the result of the digital technique often puts a ”haze” of boring perfection over the prints. With digital material everything is possible so if that is your most important goal it is perfect.

You've said that photo titles are important, and sometimes you announce the titles aloud when presenting work. And several of your books are sequenced alphabetically by title. Since most of your photos are titled simply with name of location, a trait which is somewhat uncontrollable, what is their importance to you? 

Yes, titles are important to me. They are usually very simple. Just the name of the town or the name of the street where I was standing, not the street I’m depicting. It’s a way of verifying where the picture was made. It is for instance quite easy to find most of the images from Pontiac on Google Earth. Quite often there is a connection between the title and the image content. If you don’t feel to silly about it, I recommend that you read out loud the titles for yourself. You will enjoy it. At one literary evening in Stockholm I showed images from Deutschland and read out the titles. It was enormously popular.

Can you list a few of your primary photographic influences?

First of all I would put Paul Strand. I saw his Blind Woman as a teenager and admired his work, but then he was ”lost” for me during many years. Actually after seeing Time in New England which I didn’t like at all at that time.  But he has gradually come back to me. Since a few years back I have his ”Mexican Portfolio”, 20 photogravures,  framed on the wall in my studio. It’s the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing I see when I go to bed. It’s fantastic.

Other photographers I have admired and learned a lot from are Evans, Friedländer, Winogrand, Gossage and Robert Adams. I think the period in the late 60s and 70s is the golden age of photography. But let’s not forget some Europeans, Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Michael Schmidt. And as I mentioned before I think Guido Guidi, whose work bring constant surprises, is outstanding.

What is your understanding of chance or coincidence as it relates to photography?

To me chance and coincidence is everything when I work. I work with am minimum of planning or preparation. Everything comes to me as I work. None of the pictures I have made could I have figured out in advance. 

What about as it relates to life in general?

In private life I’m quite well organized and hate surprises.

What do you think your photographs say about you as a person? 

Difficult to say but I have a feeling people find me more social than they expect when they just know me from my pictures.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Q & A with Mimi Plumb

Mimi Plumb is a photographer based in Northern California, and the author of the recently published book Landfall.

Dark Days and Landfall seem connected in both time and subject matter, and they're a bit mixed up in my mind. Can you tell me how they relate to each other?

Back in the day when I made the photos I didn't have a title for the series, or at least one I can remember. When putting the work on the website, I chose the title Dark Days for my 1980s photographs. Landfall is the book made from my work from the 1980s Dark Days series.

So they were all part of the same project initially? 

Yes, all from the same project including pictures from The City, also on my website.

Landfall, 2018, Mimi Plumb (TBW Books)
How did the specific photos for Landfall get edited into a book?

I sent TBW hundreds of scans. Basically they did the edit, I think inspired by the written piece at the beginning of the book: "I remember having insomnia for a time when I was 9 years old. My mother told me there might be a nuclear war…” 

The opening text does set a dark tone for the photos. But I think they also manage to remain open to interpretation. Not just photos of End Times or Reaganism or whatever. 

I think I felt a profound dread in the 1980s, a sense of no future, and I looked for subjects to express that. 

What was your process making the photos? Did you shoot specific places/times/subjects? What were the daily mechanics?

I love taking pictures. A lot of these were made in San Francisco but I also liked to travel, particularly to the desert. The subjects essentially presented themselves, things that spoke to my mind set. Such as the pier fire in San Francisco, the pictures of the guys looking at a massive blaze, or the house fire up the street from where I lived, a burnt globe in the living room, a burnt, shredded lamp in the bedroom…

spread from Landfall, 2018, Mimi Plumb (TBW Books)

Were you shooting any happy photos too at the time?

Probably not happy but I do often like to find a bit of humor in a scene.

When did the dread set in? Was it tied to some political event, or maybe to life events?

There was a lot of optimism in the 60s that we could change the world. I think that optimism was challenged quite a bit in the 70s and by the 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan, a former movie actor to the presidency, I felt extremely disillusioned. It was in the air, in the music, if you think about the punk movement and what that represented. There was a recognition in the early 80s of global warming which was very worrisome. It didn't seem as if our capitalist system could meet the challenge of it.

So the 80s were a letdown coming on the heels of such an idealistic period. Makes sense. Looking around at the American political scene now, do you feel the same sense of dread?

There are two things happening now that provide some optimism. It's the anger of both young people, the Parkland students for instance, and the anger of women, and their refusal to remain silent. But the times I think are also much scarier, given the current state of our politics and the extreme rightward bent of Trump and the Republican party. 

I agree, scary times. But instead of dread it sounds like you're more upbeat?

I just have a sense of something new happening, of many people refusing to accept where the country is heading, and willing to fight against it.

Well, I felt that in the 80s too, with the punk movement you mentioned, and a lot of radicalism generally. But none of it seems to have had much lasting effect. 

Is the book's release timed with current politics in mind?

from Landfall
The book's release happens to coincide with these times. It certainly makes the work more relevant to today.

How did TBW get involved with the book?

Very serendipitous... Paul Schiek from TBW saw a few of my vintage prints being framed at a local frame shop. He liked them a lot and eventually, a few years later, we met at a book symposium where he was speaking. The next day he contacted me about doing a book! We started on it about a year and half ago.

Did it turn out roughly as you expected a year and a half ago? Or were there some surprises?

Lots of surprises. They had seen a draft Blurb book I'd done along the way and I thought it would look like that, similar to Dark Days on my website. They had their own ideas though that clearly developed over time. The sense I had from them —and it might be worth asking them about this— is that they loved many of the images and found them to be strong, but they were having a difficult time finding a narrative form for the work. The images in Dark Days are disparate and it's hard to find a cohesive grouping for the pictures. At some point they presented me with this edit and I quite liked it. I asked them to add some images that were important to me which they did. They then worked on refining it all.

What do you think of their edit? For me it seems they chose the not-so-depressing photos from Dark Days, the photos from the series less loaded with decay and ruin?

I really love their edit. It seems to touch people in a way that eluded me in some of my previous attempts to edit the work. I think I'm more direct and political. I had an agenda regarding male power, the destruction of the environment, the economics of war...

How did they choose the title Landfall?

It fit the content, and it seemed to work for all of us. 

Since we're now in another political period of reactionary craziness, I'm wondering if you know of other photographers working today or projects or books which carry that same sense of dread, or are reacting somehow to our dark times? One which comes to mind is Alec Soth's Last Days of W but that was a decade ago. I wonder if there are ones you like which are more recent.

There are definitely many photographers trying to address what's going in the world. Joshua Dudley Greer has a terrific body of work, Somewhere Along the Line, looking at America and Americans. Edward Burtynsky’s landscapes are a nightmarish depiction of our relationship with nature. As he says, “if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.”  

There seems to be a pictorialist quality to a lot of work being shown today. Maybe it's what the collectors are looking for... not sure. 

What do you mean by "pictorialist quality"?

I think Pictorialism is an emphasis on decoration and beauty rather than content and reality. There are a lot of decorative pictures out there in the art world. 

I think those are basically a given in any time period. 

Don't you think more so now? Maybe it's Photoshop…

Well you could trace it all the way back to the original pictorialists, Coburn, Brigman, etc, and then up through the modernists Weston, White, Adams, Sommer, etc. Their photos were generally non-political. Maybe you could even use the word decorative.

from Dark Days

Can I ask about a specific photo? There's an image of a button up shirt in Dark Days. I believe it's been inverted so that the shadows are white. As far as I can tell it's the only photo with that treatment. What's the story there?

Interesting! Nope, it's the fire. It has that effect.

Oh, It's burnt! I totally misread it.

I'd never invert a picture.

Why not?

I'm a purist. What I love about photography is its veracity. You can argue that it's not reality but for me it is. Often when people start fabricating or obviously manipulating the medium, I become pretty disinterested. 

Hmm. Just to play Devil's advocate, the veracity of the photo would be the same if inverted, no? The indexicality I mean. We may be venturing into the weeds here...

You lost me on indexicality! And we are venturing into the grad school weeds. But seriously I'm interested in work that reflects the world around me, and most often when there's a lot of obvious manipulation the work loses it power for me. I kind of adhere to that adage that "truth is stranger than fiction."

What about the decision to translate reality into monochrome? Is that a manipulation?

I'm laughing now! Shall we go on? I thought we might end up at the abstraction of black and white. Photography, in its detail, even in black and white, I think can have a certain veracity that's undeniable, that speaks of life outside of one's fictions or manipulations of reality. 

True. I'm a purist at heart too. But I like creating thought experiments.


I suppose that's a draw for most people into photography, the connection to "truth" and also the inherent dissonance.


Here's an unrelated question. I know you recently retired from teaching, and your photo career has had a little boost since then, I'm guessing because you have more time now to devote to it. Were you basically chomping at the bit during all those years? Anxious to have more time to devote to your personal work? And now that you have more time, what else is on the docket?

from Local Girls

When I left teaching I had two ideas. One was to concentrate on photographing women and girls, a subject always on the periphery of my projects. The other was to take a closer look at the the many projects I had done over the years. I had no idea that something would come of my old projects. For instance, as I began scanning the farmworker pictures, I was quite shocked at how much work there was, and also the quality of the images. The pictures told a story of the farmworkers rather than of the leadership of the farmworkers, and people were interested in that depiction.

What I found, to my surprise, was a huge amount of interest in my earlier projects. The Internet certainly made my work accessible to anyone looking. My suburbia pictures took on a life of their own, and seemed to touch a lot of suburban kids. 

Personally I was most interested in putting out my 80s pictures. It's difficult work though. The strength of it seems to be that there is a certain relevance today to the work I did back then, which is deeply meaningful to me.

When you revisited the work after many years, what surprises did you find there? 

Something that comes to mind is my excitement in finding numerous iconic images I’d never printed or noticed before. Some examples  are the ‘girl brushing her hair’ in Landfall, the ‘couple at the Standard gas station’ in What is Remembered, and the farmworker carrying ‘downtown boxes’ in Pictures from the Valley
from Pictures From The Valley
Where did you post stuff online? 

Pretty much only on my website. From there it was word of mouth. And then picked up by bloggers, newspapers, magazines, etc.

Do you put much energy into promoting your material online? Or are you more hands off?

I’m hands off. I post events on Facebook, I have a mailing list, and that’s about it. But I do say yes to interviews.

Did you enjoy teaching photography?

The best of times, absolutely. I basically taught the kids (well, maybe not kids) one thing and that was to photograph what was interesting to them, what they were passionate about. It amazed me how often students told me they had never been asked to explore their interests. 

Good advice. And what kinds of things are interesting to kids these days? Were any of them in tune with a sense of dread?

Well, I stopped teaching 4 years ago. Obama was still President then and I think we lived in sweeter times. Or at least lived with the belief that we might be able to solve our problems. But teaching others did kind of take the place of making work for myself. 

It's kinda funny. I have three kids. But I still struggle sometimes to figure out what motivates them or what they're truly interested in. One has gotten into photography. But "shoot what is interesting to you" might fall on deaf ears. He's still sorting it out.

I think the camera is a great tool for exploring one's interests. When you tell someone to photograph what's of interest they start to find what is of interest to them. Super exciting process! It happens during the semester...maybe not with all, but with many.

Dorothea Lange: The camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera. Mimi Plumb: The camera is a tool for learning your interests without a camera.

I think one's interests lead to exciting engaging work, work that speaks to others. That engagement seems to give a person the wherewithal to make a lot of work, and explore a subject in-depth.

I think the lesson might be aimed at contemporary photoland as well as beginning students. A lot of projects I see seem like a stretch.

Meaning that the engagement isn't quite there?

The personal interest. I see a lot of projects that don't tell me much about the photographer. They seem pulled at random from a list of ideas.

Yes, absolutely true.

Not that a photo has to do that. A photo doesn't really need to do anything. But I especially like the ones which feel personally invested. I like to read memoirs too. Maybe there's a connection.

from The City

You studied with Larry Sultan. I saw him give a talk in Eugene once. Best photo lecture I ever attendedWhat sort of teacher was he?

Larry was lovely, super bright, challenging in a thoughtful way. Always seemed to get to the heart of things. And he was very curious… what makes people tick? what's going on in the world? He’s sorely missed!

How was your experience at SF Street Foto last June? 

I enjoyed giving a lecture about my work. It was a lively crowd of people, and I was pleased to see a lot of woman in the audience. Most of all, it was such a pleasure to meet and lecture with Jeff Mermelstein. I think his new iPhone pictures are brilliant. They’re street photos but he’s extremely close to his subjects, and the pictures are raw and edgy due to this intimacy. They sort of hurt to look at, from errant hairs to text messages, but they show something about life on the streets that I’ve never seen before. They get at what it looks like to be human, rather than what we might wish it to look like.

How do you think your work relates to street photography? 

I tend to be most interested in how people present themselves in public rather than in private. Consequently, a lot of the pictures I make are in public spaces.

Two of my favorite photographers of all time are Winogrand and Arbus. Few of my photos are made in the style of Winogrand in which people are unaware that they’ve been seen and photographed. My approach is more similar to Arbus’s approach. I make my presence known, and I often talk with the people I’m photographing. It’s how I feel most comfortable.

All images © Mimi Plumb