Sunday, April 7, 2019

Q & A with Charles Traub

Photo: SVA
Charles Traub is a photographer and teacher based in New York City.



BA: Congrats on the new book Taradiddle. That put you back on my radar recently but I have some of your other books. I've been a fan for a while.

CT: Thanks for your support and interest. Much appreciated.

How did first get started in photography?

Like the cliché, my father gave me a camera - A Brownie Hawkeye, when I was about ten. He was from central Illinois. I grew up in Louisville, KY. We had to travel to the flat plains of his childhood home to visit an ailing grandmother. We frequently did it; it was a long trip, 5-6 hours. When we reached the Illinois line, west of Indianapolis he would always exclaim "We're in the land of Lincoln. Isn't it beautiful!" In my petulant retort I would say, "No, Kentucky is beautiful. Rolling and green. And Lincoln was from Kentucky." My father would predictably come back with "Son, you just don't see the beauty. It's in the horizon."

So you didn't appreciate the flat fields of Illinois, the horizon line. Do you think that comes through in your photos? To me they have a certain amount of congestion, which I'm tempted to trace back to growing up in thick hilly Kentucky. You think there's any connection there? I sometimes wonder the same about Friedlander who grew up in thick hilly woods in Washington, and stuffs his pictures with all sorts of material, almost like a bird nest.

Swirling Water, Kentucky, 1970
Clearly we never escape our roots, no pun intended (if you look at my landscapes). Very early on, I think in the Kentucky/Illinois days, I realized that photography was my means of bringing order to the visual reality of my environments. It allowed me to aestheticise in the frame that which seemed so haphazard as I passed through wherever I was. That could have been the suburban strip, or the frantic streets of the city, or the dense impenetrable thicket of a rural landscape.

Skip forward eight or so years. I find myself at the University of Illinois in the middle of what I considered the desolate landscape. It was the family school. Everyone went there —mother, father, etc. I never felt comfortable in that landscape. 

Skip a couple years again and I'm an English major with a Journalism minor. It's my senior year, last semester, and I'm about to go into the Peace Corps. My father has died and left me another camera - a Leica IIIF. 

A serious camera. 

I thought it might be smart to learn how to use it. Something told me not to do it in the Journalism department.

What sort of photographer was your father? 

He was a rank amateur.

The best kind!

He did use it for some medical purposes as he was doing some medical research.

OK, back to senior year...

Anyway, I trundled over to the Cranart Art building, perhaps unconsciously aware that the medium had much more interest as an art form rather than the kind of hack photojournalism that was being taught at the university. As I went down the stairs to the photo area which was in the basement, as all such were in those days, above the transom hung a large panoramic photo of the Illinois landscape. It stunned me. My god, that's what my father was talking about: the horizon line. The rest is sort of history. Art Sinsabaugh was my teacher.

He was at University of Illinois?

Yep, for many years. I only had him for one semester - My last.

Well that was a lucky connection.

It was indeed. I went into the Peace Corps, but was terminated because of a bad accident. Had to go back to Louisville for some surgery and healing. Guess what? I had to duck into graduate school to avoid the draft.

This was during Vietnam?

Yup, Vietnam. Met Bob Daugherty

I don't know that name. A photographer?

Daugherty was a designer, photographer, and former student of Walker Evans and head of the University of Louisville art department. A few years later he became director of George Eastman House. Shortly after I met Ralph Eugene Meatyard and became a member of the Lexington Camera Club. Gene was really my first mentor. He gave me a show in his optician shop.

I love his pictures.

I loved them too. I was very fortunate to find in such an unlikely city a community of serious people who were serious about the possibilities of the medium.

Lexington was for grad school? 

No, I went to the University of Louisville but I got drafted in 1969. Johnson did away with the graduate deferments.

Yale Press, 2016
I'm sure you've seen this but there was a recent book and show about Lexington and the photo community there. Very interesting arts scene.

Yes, I'm in the book. It was really a wonderful time, except for the threat of being drafted which happened in due course. Johnson was trying to prove there was no favoritism so inevitably a lot of college grads ended up in the infantry.

I'm trying to get the timeline straight. Were you making photos at this time?

Yes, I started making photos in late '67 and was making photos until being drafted in '69. My first wife was killed during my time in the Peace Corps.

I'm sorry.

Despite a good deal of tragedy from the Peace Corps and an uncertain future I suddenly had a stoke of good luck. Two weeks from going to Vietnam with a rifle in my hand I had colitis attack; it was a condition from my childhood acting up. I had to shit in a the middle of a mock battlefield, with live machine guns firing overhead as we crawled through barbed wire. The next day I was sent to sick call and because of the graces of a wonderful internist I found myself back on the block, discharged. 

Picked up the phone and called Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design and told him I'd like to study with him. I gave him my history and sent some prints. And then the next conversation "Okay, bub, come on up in September."

How did you know about him?

The photo world was quite small and if you were serious and curious, it was easy to find out who was who. After all, Sinsabaugh had been Siskind's student. Please also remember all of these masters were connected through the founding of SPE in, I think, 1962. The Midwest was not a hinterland for our medium.

You certainly had some all-star mentors along the way. 

Good teachers allow you to simply develop, to work, emulate, but at the same time direct you away from their own meta. 

When did you first feel like you had found your own vision, beyond what they could teach you?

from The Chicago Period, 1968-1977

I think my vision really formed after grad school in '71. While I was working in 4x5 format and very interested in the edge to edge texture and tactility of the landscape I discovered I was actually equally interested in all the artifacts of the human figure - how we display ourselves in everyday life - the toss of one's hair really was no different than the shake of a bramble. I started to rely more on my SL66 Rolleiflex as the means of getting in close and detailed. People became my interest. I liked touching them with the camera. I shot the Beach body of work, other street works, and Parties in the early 1970s. I also went to Louisiana with my colleague Doug Baz to do a massive 7 month documentary of Cajun country.

Some of that is in the Gitterman book you sent...

No, not the Cajun work, the 6x6 Street and Beach work. The Cajun work combined not only landscape but people, events, and all of the same mixture of interests. After forty years it is finally going to be exhibited in the Historic New Orleans Collection in March 2020. A new monograph of that work is under production too.

from Cajun Document, 1974

Getting back to my style, By '74 I started experimenting in color. "Real world witness" - the ironies, serendipity and chance encounters with people brought about by the very presence of the camera and me with the other - became my hallmark.

...and it seems you began standing further back?

Yes, but not always. The environment in which things and people were encountered added to the humor and irony of the situation.

This is just an outsider's perspective but to me your earlier stuff seems more concerned with texture/pattern/form than later when you were more oriented toward narrative. 

Oh! I am one who believes that every photograph has an embedded narrative. Certainly any body or series works has a narrative. Further I am one who doesn't really like the separations made between the intent and means of making photographs. That is to say, I don't give any particular value to the terminology, too loosely and sometimes overly exclusively used. Words like - fine art photography, conceptual image making, documentary, tableaux etc. The lens and screen arts is a matrix for all kinds of creative discourse. To build silos by labeling can only be limiting to how we expand our practice. It is ridiculous to think that any serious photographer/artist/documentarian, what-have-you, is not conceptual.

I agree. Labels are confining. I hate the term "street photography". I'm not even sure what it is anymore.

I forgot to mention that one, street photography. That is the worst of them all. Does that mean I don't photograph in a room? Does that mean I don't photograph in the woods? Does that mean I don't photograph in the studio? How ridiculous this label is!

from Dolce Via, Italy in the 1980s
I didn't mean my question to pigeonhole you into this or that style. I was just generally curious about the direction of your photography over decades. Maybe you could take a stab at it. How would you describe the shift in how you make photos since the 1970s?

Color added a great deal. I realized one couldn't look at the real world and find the subtleties that stimulated me by abstracting everything to black and white. I am interested in what is there in front of me. What I discover as I pass from one place, or one person, to another. What's there to be photographed? Color has information, detail, fact and even symbolic logic.

My photography approach is similar. Photography rooted in observation. I think that approach is waning, at least among high end art photographers.

Everything wanes sooner or later. But I think what I call "real world witness" photography is coming back. The contrived is getting to be too facile, or complicated for complications’ sake. The world is always changing. It is in constant flux, and the discovery of what's out there with the lens always leads one on further quest. What is found is really much more phenomenal than that which can be constructed.

Maybe photography is a flux-avoidance mechanism? "Freeze!"

Don't forget, at least any photograph but particularly those made in the real world always seem to have more value as time moves on - because if nothing else they are historical records. A detail of something that a later generation may need, or at least find of interest. All photographs ultimately have value as information.

from In The Still Life

You're pretty involved in educating young photographers. Do you try to teach an observation-based style? Most of what I see coming out of grad school is the opposite.

No, we try to teach our students how to look, how to think, and define their own voice. If that sounds too simplistic it is because we deliberately do not espouse any one orthodoxy or ideology. The lens and screen arts are ever expanding and the digital practice is at the heart of practically every creative gesture. My program prides itself on allowing students to explore that which truly stimulates them. Indeed they often follow certain trends and the faculty here will often respond critically and try to get them to stretch beyond whatever they may have seen on the cover of the latest art magazine. While my faculty is very diverse in their practices, my own interest is working working with observation itself.

I don't want any student to copy a faculty member, or faculty members to make protégée of their student. But inevitably teachers do influence how students think about their own creative work. The trick is to lead them to waters, but not to let them waddle in muddy water.

I get that. It's important to let photographers find their own way of expression. But do you notice a general tendency in that voice as a generational thing? Say you were a young student going to grad school today. Do you think you'd have developed the style you have now? Or be influenced in a more conceptual direction? The people who taught you, Siskind, Sinsabaugh etc, were documentary observers. Surely that had some influence, no matter how much they tried to keep from being dogmatic.

Well again, I don't accept the term 'conceptual'. I am quite sure if one is serious about working through a thesis idea, which is required by most graduate schools, they have applied a great deal of thinking, research and practice to their endeavor.

If you read about Siskind you will see he thought of himself as abstract expressionist and that he was very 'conceptual' and thoughtful about his reasons to make the kind of pictures he made. He never doubted that he was an artist, but he was proud to call himself a photographer.

Didn't mean to imply he or any of them weren't thoughtful.

What I am getting at is the idea that separated the kind of photographer I became from the journeyman practice of the time was that we were invested in finding meaning, personal discovery, and coherence that would constitute a body of work, a style, a way of saying something about what we beheld that works something like poetry.

from Taradiddle, 2018
Thus to answer your question I suspect I might very well, as a student today, come to the same ways of working as I was originally inclined. I am a relatively hyperactive person. The joy of going out and making pictures - here there and anywhere - is a way of channeling my energy and putting my thinking, as well as experience, into coherent forms.

Maybe "conceptual" is a problematic word. Perhaps "project-based" is more descriptive? For example, your book Taradiddle contains images made with no ultimate project in mind (I think?). The photos are just based in the act of seeing and shooting. That's the thing I'm trying to get at, which seems less common now.

The past couple of years I've been seeing more students trying to get back into "shooting". But there is an inherent problem in the nature of graduate school that forces a student to do what is called a project, something that has a thesis, a kind of beginning and an end, a body of work that can be evaluated. This surely limited, to some degree, the spirit of the wanderer and the wanderlust that drives a more mature way of seeing in the real world.

The point of the graduate school project/thesis, is to give the student discipline, to help them understand what it means to work, and work out, their concerns in a consistent and disciplined manner. It's not a perfect pedagogy, but it does allow the student to understand what it means to be a working artist, and it is only the beginning of a creative career which, if determined, liberates itself once it leaves the ivory tower.

I was flipping through your book Lunchtime and surprised to see what looks like Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Cornell Capa among the faces. No caption or explanation. What's the story there?

from Lunchtime
Did you see also Mary Allen Mark? and Lartigue? 

I can't spot ME Mark. I will look closer tonight.

They were just more characters encountered during the period I was doing candid street portraits. Andre Kertesz is there also and William Holden. They are no captions on any of the pictures because I didn’t see celebrities and notables as such, but rather just persons encountered in the course of everyday life.

Did you just bump into them? Or arrange a portrait?

Nothing was arranged, they were just seen in passing in France and also on the streets in the US. Of course I knew who they were. Perhaps more telling is a story of about how I did not photograph Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on 5th Ave and 57th street and Yoko Ono and John Lennon, all of whom stopped to pose for me. That story has been told a number of times.

I think if you'd included them in Lunchtime they would've been easily spotted. But the photographers you did include are just on the verge of anonymous (at least with general public, and probably many photographers as well) so they almost pass unnoticed. They are sort of like easter eggs hidden in the mix. 

That's the point. I wanted basic spontaneous encounter. To look at the person as a personality met in passing. By personality I mean a distinct individual. All the people in the collection are unique in their presentation of self. 

Was there any reaction to their inclusion in the book? I tried to look up contemporary reviews but no one seems to mention it.

Blake, I think you are the first person who really identified them, or asked about them!

Oh well, I guess it had to happen at some point. By including them I think maybe you intended a hidden message, hoping it would be picked up somewhere? And I guess it wasn't. Same with most hidden messages.

Not really. It was just part of my collection of caricatures. It is fun now that you have discovered this little secret.

Was there any reaction from the photographers included? I suppose some of them are gone now. But at the time?

No. I don't think so. Several of those pictures are already in the collection of ICP. I gave them the ones with Cornell right after his death. You know, when you are not trying to celebrate somebody famous but looking at them as humans, something of our commonality inevitably comes out. While each person is physically and visually different we are all just basically alike when encountered out of context. That might be really the point of the book, isn't it?

It's an odd book. Honestly I had skimmed it a few times in the bookstore but without really picking up on the pairings. I think that twist makes it more intriguing. It's a kind of statement about humans and generality. I have a little pet theory —which is completely wrong, of course— that there are only about 50 people in the world and I keep running into the same ones over and over. Many people I meet give me that feeling, a strong resemblance to someone from my past.

I think you are exactly right. If we were all naked on the street we probably we would not even take much notice after a while.

But someone wearing pants might cause a stir...

from Skid Row

I'm going to send you a mockup of a new book called Skid Row. In black and white I photographed in the late '70s the occupants of the Bowery and in Uptown Chicago. In the end despite the fact that they have "fallen" they are indeed people we know.

So you're working on a new book? You just put one out.

Yes and I've got about 4 in the works. A lot of work that hasn't been seen but also some contemporary. You have to realize that I have been photographing for the past 50 years. 

...and now it's easier to make books than before. 

SKID ROW is in the works with Steidl.

Are you still pretty active making photos? Do you set aside regular photo outings? Or what is your process? 

One would always want to have more time to wander, meander, hit the road, whatever. But while I do not have a routine per se, every journey I make is more or less, really, to photograph, and that includes a walkabout in the city or simple two-day road trip over the Spring Break. If you are a photographer you are always photographing, and by the way, Blake, I really appreciate the kinds of questions you are asking. It is clear you know how to look.

Thanks. I guess my questions come from someone who's doing the same thing. I'm pretty much always looking for photos. 

If you look at my Instagram cellphone feed you will find a lot of ideas and sketches of a whole new order. 

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bt4ZKTQAfQS/
Would you label yourself a "street photographer". I know that's a messy phrase. Feel free to interpret as you want.

I think we covered this before, but NO, I hate this term. What does it means? I only photograph in the street? I don't photograph in a room? Other terms are bad too, Conceptual photography, Straight photography, Fine art photography is the worst. These terms keep people from expanding. Silo people. And overly simplify the great matrix that the lens and screen arts holds for all disciplines and all creative thinking. If I had to make a statement for the kind of work I do I would use "a real-world witness" to everything I do.

How about the phrase Taradiddle which implies a lie or untruth. Do you think photographs are deceptive?

Or course whatever is framed and caught in the still is certainly taken out of context. It is a reality, but it's the photographer's reality, and even better put, the camera's reality. All of this is not to say there isn't truth in it, so it is only a little white lie.

"Little White Lies". I once titled a show with that phrase.

So you agree with me.

Yes, the twist of photography that most interests me is the translation from reality, and especially when the two things seem to differ. But it's maybe a fine line between the good photos which do this, and simple visual trickery, which is less interesting. Optical illusions are fascinating but only to a point.

Once again you've hit the nail on its head, at least for me. As I've been quoted many times, it's the serendipity of the discovery of something more unique, exciting, bizarre or unrevealed that is the reward of photographing in the real world. Nothing I could construct would have the same import.

It also depends a bit on the audience. Some people will see a photo the way you intended. And some won't (circling back to the Lunchtime book and its hidden easter eggs). Do you have a reliable group of friends or colleagues to share work with? A nice small audience you can count on for feedback, like a photo group?

I don't have a photo group any more but I certainly did as a young photographer and I do believe that aspiring image makers ought to meet with each other to show and tell as much as possible. 

From New York On The Edge
I think the place most of these meetings take place now is online. Do you feel a physical meeting is more valuable? Or can an online meeting provide the same feedback?

I am a chairperson in a major graduate department with wonderful students, colleagues and staff, who feed my understanding of the medium all the time. I certainly don't work in a vacuum and people like Yoav Friedlander, who is typing this as we speak, Blake Ogden, Brenda Hung and other members of my immediate SVA community react all the time to things of mine they see. It is indeed important that one get out of their bubble.

I think Instagram can actually be useful to expand beyond the bubble. Because most of the people on there aren't photographers, so it's sometimes a good place to gauge general reactions. But of course social media isn't always the most trustworthy feedback.

I am always surprised when I show something to someone who isn't immediately in the field but is intelligent and curious, when they discover something in an image that I hadn't really seen or thought about. A good work of art speaks in many ways to different and many people.

You said you don't have a photo group "any more". What happened to the group?

Frankly I never had that kind of a group in New York. I had it when I first started in Lexington, Kentucky with Eugene Meatyard and others, and later in Chicago when groups of former graduate students would meet to share work. I must say also because I am in an active place daily it is pretty easy for me to ask the questions I want to ask and not have to have a formal structure. There comes a point also where you really do know what you are doing. Too many voices can set you astray and a good artist has to be decisive at some point.

How did your photos reach the attention of Steidl? And can you tell me a bit about this new book.

Very good question. I can't remember exactly!

You should've taken a photo of the moment, lol.

I think I showed him a different project a few years ago. And I visited him once to show him several others of which was this one. I am not going to tell you about the book. Instead I will send you a mockup and see what you have to say. It goes to the previous question. I value your ideas and view.

It sounds like you've been digging some into your archives and pulling out unseen stuff. I'm sure there's a lot of it. Are there some older things you've rediscovered which you've completely reevaluated. Either stuff you loved which you now don't like so much, or vice versa? Those types of projects seem to open doors, at least for me. The ones which don't stay in one place in my mind.

So much of what one's doing in one life time is ended up unseen in boxes. Let's face it, we really don't do it for a specific audience. We do it because we need to do it, because we like doing it, and because it's what we do. But of course we want people to see it and we think we have something to say to others and as you said the book is much easier to do now so why not do them and get these things out of the boxes? Without sounding pompous I am always surprised how much I like something today that I wouldn't have been so sure about in another era.

from Indecent Exposure

Honestly, I feel much more sure and knowledgeable than I ever had and I ever did. It is a function of age, perhaps some wisdom, and most important, not caring really about judgment - I'll take what I get.

Wise advice. So maybe the thing to do is just stick all your photos in boxes until your 70s? (just kidding).

Well that's probably the option of most artists. But it is nice to have an audience whenever possible. Remember everybody thinks they are a photographer and even an artist and there are lots of good ones out there. The art world has its own peculiar issues regarding commodity and while there are so-called collectors out there aren't really many great ones. By the way - I have the largest collection in the world of Charles Traubs.

You've cornered the market.

Indeed!

What are the "peculiar issues regarding commodity"?

I am sure you really have your own understanding of the art world.

I'm pretty cynical. But open to ideas.

It really is about a select few who may or may not have great talent, who may or may not be really original, but who get anointed for whatever connection, happenstance or fair reason. A recent survey really did note rather profoundly that your connections matter more than anything

Networking. Same as any business. 

But the issue at heart is really a matter of creating a product that commoditizes with "value" for a very elite. If knowledgable or not knowledgable they are very wealthy people.

I dunno. I see that whole world as pretty tangential to making photos. I guess it's a way to make it financially viable. But beyond that it doesn't have much to do with the creative process. So the "stored in boxes until 70s" method still has potential, haha. 

from No Perfect Heroes

Every gallery and every museum wants to find a dead artist to discover or rediscover. Aging must be a good career move.

I actually think photographers get too caught up in careerism. Trying to sell photos, get X's attention, make a name as an artist. All that stuff is pretty secondary. The core act is to make photos.

Absolutely? But you need to make a living.

True. Probably the best way to pursue an art career is to be a hedge fund manager or something. Make a pile of cash, then just focus on art without all the marketing bullshit.

Why do you think I've been an educator most of my life? Though I like it.

Well don't tell the kids not to pursue an art career. That'd kill the industry.

(All photos above © Charles Traub unless otherwise noted.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Q & A with Sean Lotman


Sean Lotman is a photographer based in Kyoto, Japan.


How was your recent trip?

Wonderful. It was my second time on the art islands (Naoshima, Teshima, Inujima), but first time with my four-year-old son. Always risky taking little ones to museum or installation spaces, but he mostly enjoyed what he saw. Of course, we made sure there was ice cream at some point in the day.

Are you usually taking photos when you're on these family trips?

I do, but I usually have to let go of a lot of shots. Street photography is composed of very fleeting moments and when you're monitoring your wild kid and attentive to his needs, you just have to say, Oh, well.... But I love photographing my son and I'm working on a long-term project about childhood (probably like every other photographer dad out there!)


Tennbo in Tsuwano

I think your kid is just entering the sweet spot as a subject. The next few years of shooting him will be fun.

Yes, but he knows he has power over me as a subject and can withhold shots without rewards of sweets, haha. Clever kid...

Do you photograph your wife too? Does she photograph you?

I do, but just for fun. It’s not for any projects. And for her it’s the same. We’ve been together for 14 years so we’ve been witnessing some aging. Mostly the photos we’ve taken of each other signify memory and events and eras, which is the primary purpose of photography for most individuals. Maybe once all the years and photos are tallied it will add up to something.


Ariko 2012

How did you get into photography?

My path towards photography was a very tardy one. I did not go to art school and did not own a camera through most of my twenties. Only when I moved to Japan did I really embrace photography as a means of personal expression. My background is in fictional narrative and I continued to write for many years while dallying with photography while traveling. But slowly over the course of years, it became difficult for me to continue narrative— I'd been away from the US (I'm from Los Angeles) too long and the social forces and environments evolved without my fully understanding them. However, I knew I did not want to write about being a foreigner in Japan and I was uncomfortable writing from a Japanese perspective. Gradually, instead of writing I took to long walks to gather my thoughts, and on these long walks I began to *see* patterns which had only been quotidian before. 

I've been here a long time but still struggle with the language. Rather than managing anything close to linguistic fluency, I've discovered a visual vernacular flourishing in its place. Kind of like when one sense is dulled, another becomes sharper. 


So photography assumed the role of language for you? Because you had difficulty speaking in Japanese? Or is that totally off?

No, you're exactly right. Some people are natural linguists, but I'm not one of them. I think learning the language would have been so much easier if it weren't for the pictograms and their thousands of permutations to master (as well as all the complexities associated with dialects, verbal conjugation, and formal vs. everyday Japanese). But interestingly, those beautiful pictograms enhanced my visual literacy. Do you know what I mean? (To give you an idea, I can read about 300+ Chinese characters but you need about 2000+ to be able to read a newspaper. Between studying and printing, by now you probably know what I'm doing...)

Emoji training?

Nah, I’m not a big emoji guy. Too cute. And I don’t have patience for cute.


Kamakura Purple Sky
Who needs cute when you've got photography?

When I began darkroom printing, I really began to enjoy photography on a whole next level. But printing is time-exhaustive and I had to give up writing and embrace photography as a full-time avocation. Maybe one day I'll get back to writing narrative... I miss composing a beautiful sentence and the complexity of forming a story, but instead of lamenting about sacrificing that capacity I have tried to integrate these skills into my photography.

In some sense writing and photography are both inside baseball. The main audience for serious writing is other writers. And the main audience for serious photography is other photographers. It's pretty hard to cross-over and make a splash into mainstream culture. Just my opinion.

I agree. It’s quite a dichotomy when you think about it: nearly everyone enjoys taking photographs but the market for serious photography and photo books is extraordinarily niche. Probably a lot less than 1% of the general population will buy photo books, but those that do tend to be fanatically engaged. It’s a cult almost. I’m a devotee myself. 

Let's back up a minute. When and why did you move to Japan?

I’ve always been politically progressive and in the early 2000s I was really dismayed by the belligerent response to the nascent War on Terror. I marched a half dozen times against the Iraq War, but even in LA you heard nationalistic pablum from otherwise intelligent people. I decided to leave and briefly considered South America (where I thought I could really work on my Spanish —ha!). But I wanted to travel, to see the world, and so I thought I'd live in Japan for a few years. I moved there on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. But two years multiplied when I met my wife, the photographer, Ariko Inaoka. Now I have a life here. But I do miss the US, even though it seems things have gotten more dangerous.

I really like a lot of things about Japan, but I am definitely not one of those otaku (nerd types). I'm not really into any of the classic traditions, and I'm definitely not into anime, manga, video games, J-pop or Pokemon or any of that time-suck. But I do love traveling the archipelago. I like certain elements and those are what I seek. Wherever you are, wherever you go, you make the best of what you like and do your best to filter out the rest. I guess it’s something like island living, but we all do it no matter where we are.

Yeah, I gotchu. U.S. foreign policy sometimes goes off the rails, and one response is to leave. It's kinda funny thinking back to Iraq now. Even though that war was wrong and boneheaded, at least it was rooted in some cohesive rightwing ideology. The existence we have now, with Trump, is a very dark place. It has no rational basis. No cohesive anything. Just some crazy wacko making decisions on the fly. It's a nightmare! Anyway, not to get too bogged down in politics. But yeah, maybe you're lucky to not be here right now. 

So long as Trump does not start any wars, is hamstrung by the Democratic House and is booted out in 2020, I'd say we dodged a bullet. 

Possibly, but in the meantime every day living under him feels like a bullet. It's exhausting.

Certainly. At the moment, I’m quite wary of his imperial designs on Latin America, particularly Venezuela. 

Are you a Japanese resident?

No, not a resident. I have a spousal visa. 

Was it your wife that introduced you to photography?

She is certainly the biggest influence. She did go to art school, worked commercially for years, published a book, and committed to long-term projects. She only shoots film and taught me color darkroom printing. There aren't a lot of husband-wife photographers, so we've shown a bit together too. If I hadn't met her I'd have definitely moved back to the States (or somewhere else) years ago and it's unlikely I would have developed an aesthetic or my enthusiasm.


from SOL, by Ariko Inaoka 

We both shoot color but we have different interests in photography. The only place where we might intersect is photographing our son.

Tell me a bit about your darkroom. 

My wife built the darkroom in her studio next to the family soba restaurant when we were still living in Tokyo (we reside in Kyoto now). 

So the darkroom is in Tokyo?

No, it's in Kyoto. Next door to my wife's family soba restaurant. 

Oh, I misunderstood. 

No, my bad. The color processor is a CP32. We can print 8 x 10 and 11 x 14. This being Japan, I can ride my bicycle for fifteen minutes to buy developer and fixer chemicals. However, we order Fuji paper from B and H in New York— even with airmail shipping it's cheaper than buying paper here. I love printing. Before I got into photography I was intrigued by old books where dodging and burning could create surreal effects (especially in monochrome like the work of Ed van der Elksen). I could print all day, reprinting an image, tinkering and experimenting, until an accident might reveal a new way of appreciating the image. 

That's one thing which is pretty distinctive about your book Sunlanders. I've printed some in a color darkroom but I'd never realized the artistic potential of extreme burning. When you burn stuff in it doesn't just get darker. It takes on a color cast. Do you dial in certain color before burning? What's the process?

So early on, probably inspired by my frequent trips to India (where I'd been working a novel, still unpublished), I'd become intrigued by the potential of color. I started cross-processing my images early on (when Kodak discontinued Ektachrome in 2013 I bought one-hundred rolls from my local lab). They looked okay when scanned, but were often irritating: too blue or yellow, or washed out here or there. Only when I started printing could I really pilot the colors and tones to a whole next level of chromatic weirdness. I sometimes shoot with normal film as well, and it's much easier printing that as there is often consistency to the roll once you've figured out how much light the image needs, how much magenta, yellow, etc. But with the cross-processed negatives it really is an adventure. The color settings will be all over the place and I need to experiment constantly with burning and dodging to get something unexpected. 

Sunlanders is printed from negatives? Or Ektachrome?

Ektachrome cross-processed into negatives. I'm printing from negatives. The photographs in Sunlanders do not depict reality. For example, the images of the speedos swimmer with a towel on his face and the man on the train reading a newspaper— during both those moments the skies were a very dull white, but I intensified the light while burning to achieve what I like to call "Technicolor" skies (I'm a bit of a cineaste and love the Golden Era of Hollywood, especially the trippy hues from 1940s and 50s cinema). I see photography for myself not as a way to depict reality but to conceptualize surreality. For my personal work, a beautiful strangeness is what matters most, and I'll try anything with colors to get there. 

Yeah the colors are pretty bizarre. To me they look quite filmy too. I'm not sure it would be easy to replicate them digitally. But who knows, a lot of stuff is possible in Photoshop. 

No, I'd say it's impossible to replicate in Photoshop. I could never make the images quite so intriguing before I started printing. Definitely, it's a darkroom process and if I had not started printing, I probably would have stopped cross-processing a long time ago. Not properly executed it can look quite garish, gimmicky and obvious. 

Are you changing the color settings before burning? Or is that just a natural burn?

Sometimes I burn a little, sometimes a lot. The sky in the newspaper image was burned for 99.9 seconds at the brightest setting (f2.8). Sometime I'll change the color while burning so the colors mix. It can be a frustratingly long process. Sometimes, the burn is almost natural, especially with dark blacks. These I must be cautious with, as I had to be with the cover image of the back of the man's suit jacket. Otherwise, the black might bleed. So that suit jacket had to be dodged to get it just right!


Sunlanders, Cover photo

You gave him an aura.

Yeah, I like auras, haha. Reminds me of angels. I like that. I like what we cannot see but might only sense.

The local darkroom near Portland just closed. So it's the end of an era for Portland darkroom printers, color shooters anyway. My main memory of using a color darkroom was the intensity of the darkness. I've used a monochrome darkroom for years, and in there you have a red-light which offers some visibility. But with the color process, you're spending a lot of time in complete pitch black which is darker than any other daily experience. I have to admit I never became completely comfortable in that space like I am in a monochrome darkroom.

Absolutely. You need total darkness while printing color. You’re blind really. So you need to trust your hands. 

Can you talk a bit about the experience of the darkroom? What's it like? How does it relate to your general outlook and expression? 

The demise of public color darkroom facilities is a tragedy for the art form. Do you know that in Paris there are no public color darkrooms anywhere in the city? For printing you need to go to Berlin or London. It's nice that Photoshop does so well mimicking film, but it is not darkroom printing. Photography literally means "writing with light." I really feel that, because when I'm printing, my hands are gesturing, almost dancing, between the light and exposed paper. I am writing tones with my hands. And then if I think something needs more magenta or the whole image needs to be a little bit darker, I need to test with a tear sheet and then wait five minutes. Oh, too much magenta, well, let's do a little less, then wait five more minutes. 

It can takes hours to figure out how one photograph might look. And that one photograph can be reprinted and tinkered with in a few weeks and something else discovered. There is an unparalleled intimacy the photographer has with his images working in a darkroom. This is obvious even in the process: you're in a completely dark space, your hands are caressing light, and your heart is beating madly because you have three separate exposures on one image and you need to burn and dodge carefully. It's absolutely sad that most people are unable to experience this anymore. 

I'm hoping I will be able to print the rest of my working life, another thirty years or so, but that is dependent on chemicals production, photo paper, etcetera. 

I don't have access to a color darkroom anymore but I still enjoy printing in a b/w darkroom. I'll use that forever, at least as long as chemicals and film are around.

I probably enjoy printing more than taking pictures.

Newspaper
I enjoy the darkroom process too but for me photography is mainly about the image. The translation of reality into a 2D frame. 

The process is valuable because, the greater history of photography is a history of darkroom printing. If it comes to a point where no one can print color or monochrome anymore because there is no more film, I think we would have to stop calling it photography. Because it would be something else. It already is something else with the way people use their mobile phones.

I don't know. I think photography can exist without darkroom printing. It might use different processes, but the main activity of looking and capturing would be the same.

You’re right the process of looking and capturing would be the same, but the process of making the picture would be completely detached from its historical roots. I like that they continue to co-exist. Don’t get me wrong. I like plenty of work made on digital. It’s about the image in the end. There are many bad film photographs and many excellent digital ones. It’s maybe 25% tools, 75% image, but a lot can go into making that image wonderful. There is no doubt if I photograph a person with my iPhone and the same person at that same moment with my film camera, most likely the printed image will have more character and a stronger personal signature. 

So you do shoot with a mobile phone? What about a digital camera?

I’m old-fashioned, and deliberately avoided smart phones because I observed their powers of distraction, finally buying an iPhone six months after my son was born (in 2015). I photograph him with film of course, but it is easier to shoot everyday stuff with the phone, and to record video. 

They are like a drug for sure. I've had a smart phone for about 2 years. It is very useful for some things. But I also find it a major distraction. 

Of course smart phones are incredibly convenient, but I have mixed feelings about them. Here in Asia, it seems nearly everyone between the ages of thirteen and sixty are staring at their screens. It's a disaster for street photography because to me there is nothing more boring to observe than a person looking at his or her phone. A good subject is someone engaged with their environment. When I see a dude on his phone he's usually playing video games or scrolling cat pictures on Instagram and that's boring and depersonalized. Oh, man, no one's daydreaming anymore. Or reading books. 

What's the difference between someone hunched over a phone or a book? It's nearly the same pose, and same non-engagement with the environment?

Well, you’re right.  Perhaps I’m prejudiced. I associate books with learning and the acquisition of knowledge, while the internet is more about information. I always get excited when I see someone reading a book. But to be honest, I don’t photograph them. I just feel the world is a better place for their reading. Anyways, I feel these devices are powerfully addictive and disastrous for our imaginations, but I digress, alas... 

I'm curious about the weird colors and surreality of your work, the conscious remove from "reality". What is that about? What are your photos trying to say about the world, or about you?


Junku, Tennbo, Tractor

I mentioned cinema before. And books. And invented realities. Ideally, this all comes together with my work. I want a photograph to have narrative— either something has happened, is happening, or is about to happen, or at least, how did we get here? I believe it's important to stay off-kilter, to surprise the viewer, to make them consider novel forms of reality. 

I call my aesthetic "psychedelic humanism." I'm still formulating what this means on a textual level, but generally, what I am trying to do is subvert reality with color (and hopefully tableau vivant), in order to provoke an imaginative response to our environment. Because imagination is closely linked to humanity. Perhaps animals and birds and even plants have the capacity to imagine —we don't know— but humans certainly do and it is through imagination we discover our greater potential as human beings. Not to kick the dead horse, but mobile phones, constant news feeds, and social media is destructive for the imagination, because they distract us from knowing ourselves intimately, which can only happen when the mind wanders. So, I am trying to provoke imagination with my photography, because it is only through our individual daydreams that we can find our true individual selves in an increasingly over-saturated mediated environment.

Do you think animals have imagination? I'm gonna say plants, no. But I could be wrong. With animals, who knows?

I really have no idea if animals do. But they might. Plants are a lot more sentient it seems than most of us know. If you watch the 1970s documentary Journey to the Secret of Plants, you really begin to wonder…

Photography is a strange beast. It's quite dependent on the world but it also requires imagination. You have to escape the here and now to think about how a scene will look in the future, as a photograph....which then recedes quickly into the past. Sorry, rambling....

You are definitely using your imagination out in the street. You are looking for patterns, considering weather, following different paths, angling for the best viewpoint, saying to oneself "yea," "nay," and "meh." Using imagination and trusting yourself, because you usually have just one chance on capturing your subject so you better think it through but do it fast.

Do you think Japan is generally more tuned in to the tactile, craft-based side of photography, and art in general? I know it's a very techy society but it seems to have an strong craft tradition too. Just wondering how your experience in Japan might relate to your thoughts on analog process and anti-phone, etc.

Japan is marvelous for its sub-cultures. It is a lot more old-fashioned than how it is perceived overseas. Many people in Tokyo might be obsessed with tech, but even there and elsewhere people are still doing things as they've always done. A lot of crafts are dying because they are in the countryside and heirs to family welders, kimono makers, basket weavers, ceramics makers are leaving their hometowns to work in Tokyo. But then young people eager to keep traditions going are leaving the city for the countryside or small towns to apprentice and keep these cottage industries going. And Japan has a very strong tradition in photography with many masters. A lot of sensitivity is put into materials and printing. I would probably be against phones wherever I go because they don't discriminate in their capacity to distract. I love literature, and old page-worn books, and scribbled notebooks and vinyl, and stacks of DVDs. I like to collect things and I don't feel like I own anything when it's in digital format. Obviously I like tactile things, which is one of the big reasons I also like printing. There's a world's difference to holding a print in your hands and viewing it on a screen. There is digitalization and then there's a real object, handmade and taking real space in the world.

That's one of the things which appeals to me about photography (at least the type I do). It forces you to engage with the real world. You've got to go outside, look around, interact with things. Even if you don't find any photos, it's always worthwhile to spend some time walking and looking and being present.

I’m with you there. It’s healthy for mind, body, and spirit.

Why do you use the word "psychedelic" to describe your aesthetic? Psychedelic humanism. Is there a drug component? 


from Psychedelic Humanism

No, it's not drugs but about what drugs can do, which is the expansion of consciousness. The root of the word "psychedelic" is "psyche," which could mean our vital life force, our inner spirit, or even our subconscious. Perhaps because I'm a lapsed fabulist, I hope I can still tell narrative with photography. Instead of just depicting people on the street, or those I know intimately, I'm hoping through wild tweaks of color and setting that a person's humanity can be novelly observed in a radical mise en scéne. I am deeply influenced by literature and cinema— but it is a lot harder to tell stories with photography because the storytelling element can be so subtle and interpretative. So to sum up, "psychedelic humanism," is a subject's life force made vivid with color and composition. 

I visited your hometown Los Angeles last week. Not sure which part you're from but was staying in Silver Lake. Then exploring all over from there...

I'm from Woodland Hills, in the West San Fernando Valley. Luckily I don’t have a Valley accent, but my laconic California origins are self-evident when I speak Japanese or Spanish, making me obviously gaijin and gringo.

Did you ever take photos of LA?

I did not take photos until I left Los Angeles. As I mentioned, I did not even own a camera until my late 20s. Those were different times. People just had moments, enjoyed them, and that was it. You remember them or you don’t. Memory will affect your present understanding of a place no matter how much its changed. When I was growing up Los Angeles was very dangerous. Gangs, kidnappings…I vividly remember the LA Riots in ’92 and the tension it wrought in my high school. My mother would take us to Hollywood to enjoy live theater and I remember seeing homeless and prostitutes everywhere. In the few times I’ve been back in the last 15 years it seems so much more of an adult playground these days. 

Everyone there seems kinda magazine pretty.

Yeah, LA seems so safe and sanitized now. And picture-perfect. Very different from when I grew up there in the 80s and 90s.

Probably depends where in LA you go. I think some parts are more sanitized than others. But if you're talking about Hollywood and West LA, I agree they're getting tamer. I never spent much time there in the 1980s but I get the sense it was a lot seedier. It's all kinda one big photo op now. 

This arc from seediness to sanitization is probably true of most North American cities. That’s both good and bad. 

You called LA "picture-perfect", and that seems like a literal part of its identity. The city is image-conscious to the core. Everything and everyone is a photo op. When I was there last week I kept stumbling on movie sets and light reflectors and location shoots. I found a weird pink wall on Melrose which was a continual selfie stop with hordes of young people posing there taking photos. And of course there's Hollywood Blvd which is photographed millions of times every day. So maybe there's something inherently "photographic" about the culture there. Its self-identity is mediated by photos/film, one step removed from reality.

Definitely Los Angeles is a lot more "picture perfect" now than it was when I was a kid. There was some serious urban neglect happening between the mid-1960s and mid-1990s (roughly from Watts until Rodney King riots), especially in Hollywood Boulevard. Even when I was in my mid-20s around the Millennium it was still pretty nasty there. The change in Hollywood Blvd is a lot like Times Square. Things got much safer, but at the expense of character and characters. As late as early 2002 I was living a few blocks from the lake at Echo Park for just $400 a month (it's probably quintupled in price). I used to jog around the neighborhood and it had a nice Latin element, but at night there were almost always helicopters hovering with search lights overhead. So I do think in Los Angeles the photographic culture is more suggestive of the times we live in than a natural historic quality.

I think Japan might have some of that same dimension, with its self-identity tied up in photos. What do you think?

To be honest, I don't think Japanese are too gross with selfie-stick use. They were the caricature of camera-toting tourists for decades, but in reality they are generally humble and don't feel overwhelming inclinations to photograph themselves everywhere they go. On the other hand, I've observed Korean women being obsessive about it. Not surprising, when you consider they are psychological victims of some major beauty campaign ads, particularly regarding unnecessary reconstructive surgery on eyelids and noses. I guess selfies then would be part and parcel of a return on investment.

Personally, I am happy that I don't need many photos of myself and can go an entire month-long trip without taking a single image of what I looked like. Anyways, I subscribe to what Dorthea Lange said, "Every picture I take is a self-portrait."

(All photos © Sean Lotman unless otherwise noted.)