Sunday, August 1, 2021

Q & A with Nicole Jean Hill

Nicole Jean Hill is a photographer and teacher based in Eureka, CA, and the author of the recent book Encampment, Wyoming.

BA: I'm wondering if we could start with your first trip visit to Encampment. What was your initial impression of the Nichols photos?

NJH: During my first real trip to Encampment to look at the work, I couldn't see much of it. The only ones I could see were 100 images that some museum volunteers had made small prints of and put in a binder. The rest were on a very old Mac that hadn't been turned on since probably 1999. So my first impression was that there were probably some really incredible things in the 24,000 images but they were stuck in a weird technologically limbo. The negatives were sealed up in freezers so the only possible access was the files on the old Mac. Each image took about 90 seconds to load. So it took about two years from that point to really start looking at what was in there.

I guess that's an ongoing issue for any photographer, deciding how to store things with future viewers in mind. Digital formats change so fast. The book also mentioned that selection of 100 "greatest hits". What did you initially think of those 100? Would you have picked the same ones? Did any of them make it into the final book?

No, none of them are the same selections. I just had a chance to look again at those initial 100 favorites and I don't think a single image overlaps with the book.

Was that Nancy Anderson's selection? Or was it by committee? Or who decided?

I believe it was Nancy and a group from the GEM (Grand Encampment Museum) board. Nancy had done a small exhibition of Lora's work called "Tapestry" in the 1990s. Some of the images currently hang at GEM. They are lovely, but they were selected by people familiar with the family members and Encampment area, so those selections were really driven by knowledge specific to the area of historical relevance in a way that was outside of my experience.

So you're digging through these files on an old Mac. When did you first begin to sense that the archive was something special? Did her photos grab you right away? Or did that happen over time?

Well, I had read Nancy's book on Lora before I arrived in Encampment. It's a selection of Lora's diaries and I was really intrigued by Lora's voice as a writer. I knew that if she was also making photographs, starting off at such a young age and compiling so many of them, that there were bound to be remarkable things in there. So getting involved in making the work accessible was a leap of faith. 

I also really connected with Nancy. Although she's 40 years older than me and a Wyoming rancher, we were fast friends right away. We both have a strong interest in Antarctic maritime history (of all things), and I knew I wanted to be friends with her. And SHE knew Lora's work was special, and I trusted her instincts. I met her on that first trip, and she was just devastated that the work wasn't really viewable. Nancy and her husband Victor were the ones who scanned them originally and what they did was really top of the line technologically at the time, but it was pre-Internet and the technology became obsolete soon after the scanning was complete. But the original scans are exactly what is done today in terms of workflow. I used those files for the book and exhibition, I just needed to do the restoration. In a way, it's really incredible what the two of them accomplished.

I doubt Nichols would be remembered at all if not for Nancy Anderson. And of course your efforts were essential too. I think the lesson for photographers is that it's rare for work to find an audience on its own. It generally needs a patron or backer or friend or someone to promote and organize and funnel the pictures to public consciousness.

A big part of it too was Ezra Nichols, one of Lora's sons. He passed away before I came on to the scene, but he helped pay for the scanners, freezers, etc. He wanted his mother's work to be saved and shared, but didn't have the expertise himself.

What sort of person is Nancy Anderson? How would you describe her?

Hmmm...great question. She is incredibly smart, very funny, self-deprecating in a charming way. She was a high school teacher—taught drama, Spanish, and English. She has traveled extensively to look at art, and at the time I met her lived in a house at a place called Coyote Canyon probably about 10+ miles from the nearest neighbor. Their house was filled with books and plants and animals. I noticed she had a subscription to the NY Times and I thought, WOW this gal is not like anyone else I've met in Wyoming.

What were other people like that you met in Wyoming?

I’ve spent a lot of time there before the archive work and since then, and it’s an amazingly diverse place and it would be impossible to generalize. But Nancy has experience as a rancher, teacher, avid historian and writer and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of Carbon County history. She’s a gem. She now lives in Encampment after Victor passed away a couple of years ago. She lives in Lora's old house. 

What did she think of the book? What did people at the Encampment museum think of it? The book has a totally different selection than their choice of 100 “Greatest Hits". I'm curious if they liked your choices, or if they were puzzled. Or if it showed them a side of Nichols that they hadn't considered?

It seems like everyone really loves it—at least what trickles my way!  I know Nancy is pleased with it for sure. Everyone in town that I've talked to is very delighted by the fact that I named the book after the town.  I'm sure there is some puzzlement involved too, but they know I am a photographer myself so I look at form and content in a certain way. I know that Nancy was surprised by how much I love the picture of Lora's son cliff sleeping on the couch with his military jacket and shoes next to him. But she likes seeing things from different perspectives. 

As far as the different audiences, Nancy is definitely art savvy, and everyone else in Encampment that I've talked to has been really supportive of my efforts to get the work out there. I have given at least three talks in Encampment about the work, so they have gotten to know me and my point of view on her work. The only issue has been some of the more religious and conservative members of the community have been a little flustered by the bits of nudity in the book.

Now I'm scratching my head trying to remember the nudity. The photo of the boys swimming?

The issue was with the one of Guy Nichols in bed recovering from the flu.

Haha, I guess it didn't seem too pornographic or I would've remembered it. I just looked through the book again. I think nudity is a very minor element. Hmm. The picture of the boys swimming is one I saw online. I thought it was in the book but no. But it's awesome.

Well I think in the photo world we don't blink an eye at skin.

The book is named for Encampment and features the town. But her archive includes a lot of other material from Stockton and other places. Do you foresee future books based on that material? Perhaps a less portrait focused book? Or some other curation?

I made this book knowing I wanted to focus mainly on portraits because I do think it is the most captivating part of her archive. I also wanted to cover in the book both her work and the items she collected as a photofinisher. To create kind of an overarching overview of the collection that focused on the community she built around her. But I think now that this book exists, it frees up the possibility of a book that expresses more of Lora herself. I've started doing the very basic ground work on that, but I'm not in any rush. I'm also encouraging Nancy to finally publish part II of her book on Lora.

What do you mean a book that expresses more of Lora herself? 

Well it's in a very tender place in my mind right now so I don't want to say too much, but I can give an example. The image in the book of Lora that is double exposure of her with a banjo...I didn't originally have that in the book. Hans Gremmen, the designer, encouraged me to include it. I didn't want to initially include pictures that I wasn't confident were perfect in terms of both form and content, or could be labelled as a collection of snapshots, because I really wanted to the photo world especially to take Lora seriously as a photographer. Another component of the next book may include how Lora made use of the photographs as the physical objects in albums, diaries, etc. 

The book includes Nichols pictures along with photos by others which she collected. There are no captions or easy way to trace which photos are which. Can you tell me a bit about that editing decision?

For the photos by others, if one wants to hunt it down, the other photographers are listed in the plate captions. But I wanted to front load the book with images and decided that even if she didn't take the photographs, she was curating an archive making certain decisions, so it still reflects her throughout.

How did Hans Gremman and Fw:books get involved? And how much editing input did he have?

I met Melanie McWhorter, who used to work for Photoeye, at Photolucida back in 2008. I reached out to her in 2019 after a slew of rejection letters for the book to see if she could point me in the direction of someone that might take a gamble on the project. She suggested Hans because he's a great designer and also has an interest in Americana. I liked the idea of a European publisher. The original edit and sequence is mostly intact from what I provided him, and he made some page spread decisions, including selecting the cover for the book, and then the design. It worked out really well.  I love how he totally got the idea about making the images front and center without any directions as such.

Why do you think the book was initially rejected by other publishers?

I suppose I didn’t make a convincing enough argument for the need for an academic book on Lora, even one largely image-based. I’m coming from a studio art background and am not a historian. But rejection letters are just a part of the process and I’ve experienced them throughout my whole art career, so I know it’s just about keeping on plugging away. I pursued the academic angle first since most do accept submissions—that is not the case with many other publishers. 

It turned out great. I especially love the design choice of text set against a black background, with silver ink. The photos in this section have a ghostly presence. Very nice.

Yes, very classy.

The fact that it was rejected from a few places, and that it eventually found the right publisher, just reinforces the power of editing. I mean, someone else could take this same archive and produce a completely different book. But I think what makes yours work is that it combines Nichols pictures (which are strong), with a particular curation. It’s her voice, yes, but also yours. You mentioned that your selections were aimed at the photo world. So maybe that's what I'm responding too. But the book also seems very alive and animated, and looser than what I commonly associate with old historic photos. It’s not so much about the people she shot but the spirit of the place.

Yes, exactly. I think because she started photographing so young, in a geographically isolated place, and then continued throughout her life means two things. She both was able to really refine her craft, and also didn't have pretenses on what photographs needed to be. So it is all very genuine. And thank you for your acknowledgement on the curation- there are certainly an infinite number of ways her work would have been introduced through a book and I’m glad to hear that you have interpreted Lora’s work this way.

That kind of goes back to my earlier question. It does seem like a strong "photobook" which fits comfortably into the fine art genre. But I think it might also appeal to Encampment’s "Greatest Hits" crowd. Finding that balance is a challenge but you seem to have finessed it.

Her work has incredibly broad appeal. I didn't have to pick images to tell a specific story about the history of Encampment which the original 100 did. I could pick images based on a broader template. I needed it to be visually convincing in a way that Lora wouldn't get labeled as being only relevant to Wyoming and Wyoming history, although that's a big part of it too.

Do you think Nichols was aware of other art photography? Maybe she saw pictures in museums or galleries? She may not have thought of her work that way. But perhaps she absorbed other photographic influences somewhere?

The only other photographer she mentions in her diaries in George Irving who was an industrial photographer from NY that came to the area in the early 1900s to photograph the copper mines. They ended up being pen pals and wrote about photography...but mostly just tech talk. I am sure she found her way to magazine articles and other items put out by Ansco and Kodak, but not in an art context. I don't think museums or galleries would have been part of her experience, at least not that I could find in her writings and not from what I have heard from Nancy. So her photo practice was largely homegrown and organic.

When I first contacted you I sent a link to a New Yorker Mike Disfarmer article. I see some parallels there, and to Vivian Maier and Atget and Bellocq, and several others photographers who found fame posthumously through the efforts of admirers. Disfarmer's archive is now tangled in a big legal battle. What's your reaction to that story, and were any of those issues on your mind as you embarked down the Nichols rabbit hole?

The Disfarmer article illustrates a lot of incredibly valuable issues with archives. Most notable to me was when it mentions the concern moving forward that archives would be hidden from view for fear of litigation. Taking a step back several years, I had heard of the Charles Cushman archive at Indiana University on NPR a few years before I became involved with the Nichols archive. It's public domain, searchable, really incredible. I have also been loosely aware of litigation around Vivian Maier’s work. So when I came into the project, my hope was that Nichols' archive could end up something more like the Cushman archive, not behind a paywall but as accessible as possible to historians, researchers, students, etc. (I should also mention that I wasn't actively searching out archives to get involved with!)

The balancing of ownership rights with public access is complicated. I mean, Neither Disfarmer or Maier would be known today without the efforts of dedicated enthusiasts. And sometimes the only way to generate resources for curation is by monetizing the images. But then again the collecting impulse can trample the artist's rights/wishes. What do you think of Disfarmer’s photos or Vivian Maier’s? I mean on their own merits, and also realizing that you’re seeing both artists as they were later curated by others.

I am enamored by Disfarmer’s work. My favorite part of Disfarmer’s work is that provides a sense of place and time within the vacuum of the photo studio. It is both very narrow and expansive at the same time. The Twin Palms publication on Disfarmer is one of my favorite photobooks and I had the design of it in mind when I started working on Lora’s book. It’s remarkable that there are some overlaps with Encampment, including the use of black pages, because I don’t think I ever mentioned that book to Hans. It makes space for the photographs to do their thing. Maier’s images of children are my favorites of her work, they remind of some of Lora’s photographs.  I try to keep my thoughts about their work separate from my thoughts about how the archives have been handled. I’ve tried to learn from the paths these archives have taken, but try not to let those logistics overshadow my appreciate for the work as it is.   

As I understand it, a museum has agreed to own, store, and organize the Nichols pictures? Is the sale of her books and prints funneled into funding those museum efforts?

The family officially donated the negatives to the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, and in the process, although I'm oversimplifying here, they designated the work as public domain. Both the AHC and the Grand Encampment hold a copy of the digital files of all the photos as well. The GEM was donated Lora's diaries and letters. I am currently a one-person operation managing the outfacing components of the archive, including the traveling exhibition, book sales, etc. I have been able to do some grant writing for that through my home base at Humboldt State University. I'm currently in the process of creating an entity that will be the umbrella for all of this, possibly creating a gallery or residency in her memory. 

The book seems to have struck a nerve in the photo world. Have you been surprised by the reaction? I know it was technically published a few months ago but mine just arrived this week. And I think other orders were only filled recently. So it may be about to get a new wave of attention.

Yes, I’ve been totally surprised. I mean, I think the work is completely amazing and Lora's story really resonates with me on so many levels. But I know other things I am really excited about (like Antarctic maritime history- hahah!) don't resonate with others. And of course, having received so many rejection letters, I was preparing to have a garage full of books to sell for years to come.

Now instead of your own garage full of books, your book can join someone else's garage full of books, haha.

As long as my garage has not books I'm happy. I live in a rainforest as you know. Mold city. 

I found it hard to evaluate the book based on online info. But after I saw the photos at Blue Sky I ordered a copy.

Alec Soth posted a video about the book about a week after the first printing arrived in the USA. Most of my copies of the first printing were donated to public libraries right away, and after the Soth video (which I didn't know was happening) the rest of first printing sold out within a few weeks. 

It's kind of scary that Alec Soth (or any single person) can have so much influence.

Yes, Alec Soth was certainly influential, but I think too a bulk of the copies also flew out the door because it hit the media in France really big in February too. So in Europe where the books are stored, the book was gone pretty quick. 

Darn Europeans, always a step ahead of us.

The first run was only 1000 copies and the publisher decided to do a second printing of the first edition, and that second printing just arrived state-side early July. And it really hasn't been in many other USA-based media until very recently. I had the show at Blue Sky in April and didn't have any books available because it was in between the first and second printing. I suppose that was a good problem to have in a way.

The show was great. But I think it's even better in book form. The picture quality fell off a bit in larger exhibition prints. I think they were meant to be in a book.

Yes, I know what you mean about the scale. It feels odd to look at something 14"x 20" that was originally printed as a 2” x 3" print for a photo album. But I also recognize that finding different avenues and formats to create an audience for her work is an okay thing. It’s a show that can travel very easily. 

What about doing a show of her original prints? Hint hint.

I like the idea of the original prints too. It would have to be a particular kind of space for that.  They are very small and there aren't many that have survived.  

What’s your favorite Lora Webb Nichols photo and why?

I have too many images that I love immensely that I couldn’t pick a favorite. But I can say that I really appreciate the pictures of Nina Platte. She’s in a few images in the book and she has such an intense gaze for a teenager. She was one of Lora’s muses and must have been such a pleasure for Lora to photograph. In the pictures from a few decades later, I also really love seeing images of Ted Higby, one of Lora’s employees whose work is also included in the archive. With both Nina and Ted, I feel like I really know them through their photographs. 

(All images above from the collection of Lora Webb Nichols)

Monday, May 31, 2021

That low hanging bar

The pandemic's grip is gradually loosening (at least in the U.S.). A few days ago I found myself in a real-life, nuts and bolts bookstore. Smith Family Books in downtown Eugene, to be specific. Their used photobook section had been a regular haunt in pre-pandemic times, but of course Covid, bla bla bla. You know the story. 

Aside from my mask it was just like old times at Smith. I can't say their selection had much changed from a year ago, but it hit me differently this visit. Tastes shift over many months. Some books which I'd previously ignored struck me with new interest. Meanwhile, others seemed less exciting now than before. After browsing for a little while I wound up coming home with two, Mark Klett's After The Ruins and Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories by Mell Kilpatrick. Both books discovered by chance and acquired together for about the price of a six pack. That's the sort of experience that's hard to replicate online. And trust me, I've tried.

As a comparison, I ordered Meg Hewitt's Tokyo Is Yours a few weeks ago. There aren't many people who live farther from me than Meg, and it's been entertaining to track her book's long meandering journey from Australia to Oregon. In fact it was in Eugene just this morning. Now it's in Springfield. Hmmm. I guess it's not quite ready to settle down yet.

Along the way I Shot Tokyo has made stops in Singapore, Vietnam, Korea, Anchorage, and Kentucky. Yikes, this book has traveled through all sorts of exciting places. I'm jealous. It's been a spectacular tour. But when these exotic locales are filed into a rote shipping list, they transform into something rather ordinary. 

Have I merely found the banal in the spectacular? If so, Car Crashes takes a similar tack. The book (with excellent printing, by the way) is a recent edit of lost work, the archive of a bygone photojournalist rediscovered by curator Jennifer Dumas decades later. This lost/reborn schtick is a recurring theme in photoland, but I haven't tired of it just yet. 

Mell Kilpatrick was a self-made autocrashdidact who bullied his way into a late career at the Santa Ana Register at age 47, simply by hanging around and obsessing. Soon enough he was head of their photo staff. From that point he became something of a regional Weegee, documenting the never ending stream of local accidents and crime scenes in 1950s Orange County. His pictures are in the same general ballpark as the great cigared one, and also Enrique Metinides. But they are rawer, gorier, and less consciously artsy than either. Kilpatrick shot police scenes more like a technician, pure kill shots recording blood, guts, and debris with the mechanical efficiency of an old school reporter. Just the facts: What, How, Where, Who, etc. Looking at his pictures at my kitchen table last night, it struck me that Kilpatrick had found banalities in the spectacular, like a book shipped around the world.

I think much of contemporary photography is headed in the opposite direction, away from spectacle. I could name some examples (such as this, this, thisthis, or this) but I'm sure you can think of your own favorites. The spectacular has long been vanquished in most photo quarters. The vernacular humdrum carries the day. One could trace it to back to New Topographers perhaps, or art schools, or maybe just general societal malaise. Who knows. Pandemic restrictions have only exacerbated the situation.

On a recent edition of his podcast A Small Voice host Ben Smith asked Bryan Schutmaat What advice should young photographers be leary of? Schutmaat noted that art photographers in MFA programs are commonly taught to avoid exotic/spectacular subject matter, and to focus instead on plain material found nearby. In other words, they're told to shoot like Robert Adams, not Ansel. In this brave new world spectacular car crashes might be far down the list, somewhere below a decrepit shop front or a blade of sidewalk grass. 

All well and good. But the potential problem with this approach according to Schutmaat, is that boring material can lead to boring photographs. How true! He cited Adams, John Gossage, and Paul Graham as tantalizing counter examples. All have photographed seemingly plain scenes, often in interesting ways. But of course those guys are exceptional. They make it seem easy, and most students attempting the same trick will get caught in the weeds. To convert the everyday into something noteworthy requires experience, and a measure of talent, and even then it's a challenge. So we're awash in boring photos—at least I feel that way most days—and it's hard to parse out the noteworthy.

I had a chance to shoot my own spectacular car crash a few months ago. I was driving home from Portland to Eugene one evening, the same drive I've done a thousand times, straight highway, 65 mph, enjoying some tunes. But this time was different. Just past Salem was a row of semi trucks backed up in the right lane, moving very slowly. By the time I saw them and slammed the brakes it was too late. 

People say time slows down during an accident, that your entire life passes through your eyes or whatever. That wasn't my experience. It all happened pretty fast. But there was a strange normality to the chain of events. Even as my van was slamming into the rear of the semi in front of me, part of my brain was observing patiently, as if it were just another daily event. Once again I'd stumbled on banality in the spectacular. 

If you've ever noticed that bar hanging down near the back tires of 18-wheelers, that's what stopped me from plowing straight under the trailer. Instead I came to a rather abrupt stop, my car in a heap. Airbag deployed, engine block totaled, the full deal. The good news is I was fine, and I don't think the semi-driver felt a thing. Maybe a mosquito-sized nudge. A few good Samaritans helped my car off the road, cops came, medics, a tow truck, etc. There was a routine quality to their actions which felt reassuring.

The pandemic has shifted all judgements about what is or isn't mundane. It's the most unusual event of my lifetime. I've never experienced anything remotely similar. Yet within just a few months of its onset, I had adjusted my mental compass. Social distancing and masks and quarantining felt, well, not quite normal. But they were part of the everyday fabric, no longer worth noticing. When things like that become routine, who knows any longer what is unusual and what is common? 

In 2019 I would have been very excited to see people in masks on public streets. A great photo op! How special!  That was then. Now I'll be happy if I never see another mask again. When all of this craziness is over I'm going to collect my mask stash in a pile (they now number a few dozen) and incinerate them. It should be spectacular.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Q & A with Dan Shaffer

Dan Shaffer is a photographer based in Albuquerque, and the other of the recent book Joe Deal's Albuquerque Then & Now.

BA: Can you tell me briefly about your background in photography.

DS: I was fortunate to get an early start in photography, getting a Kodak Starflash camera in fourth grade in 1959. My father was always shooting and experimenting with different cameras. Much of my youth was in East Africa so wide open vistas were what I loved to photograph. I worked on the high school yearbook and college yearbook. My first job after college was as a pasteup artist at a printing company and then I became a freelance graphic designer for 10 years. I was never technically oriented so usually hired better photographers for projects like motorcycle billboards that I did for several years.

I’m tempted to ask about Kenya but probably should stay on topic. 

Yes, Kenya and Tanzania. I experienced the transition from colonial to independent countries and was taught to be comfortable in a mud hut or in an embassy function.

What brought your family to Africa? 

My grandparents spent their entire careers as Protestant missionaries in Kenya from 1925-1955. My dad was born and raised there and returned as a public health medical doctor so I spent most of my youth in East Africa, coming back to the US for college. I was drawn to New Mexico since it has a lot in common with East Africa —high altitude, blue skies, wide vistas, multicultural population, hot food, etc.

When did you first become interested in rephotographs?

My introduction to rephotography was with "Albuquerque Then & Now" by Mo Palmer and "New Mexico Then & Now" by William Stone and Jerold Widdison. I’ve always enjoyed contemporary rephotographyI suddenly realized there was a  project I could do like that. A friend introduced me to the New Topographics movement on Facebook which I have been following for a long time. That’s how I discovered the New Topographics exhibition in Rochester and the fact that several of the photographers were based in Albuquerque when they were at UNM getting graduate degrees. I moved here about the time they were here, Joe Deal and Nicholas Nixon in 1972. Nixon photographed the Boston area for the big show but Joe’s pictures were all local and I was fascinated and intrigued and determined to find and shoot them all and I have finally succeeded after about six months. I self published my own book with about a dozen of the pictures that I had found.

Did you know Joe Deal's pictures before discovering New Topographics?

No, I learned about the exhibit from the NT Facebook page. If I do a second edition I think I will include all 18 of Joe Deal's Albuquerque scenes from the New Topographics exhibit with my rephotography versions.

Which ones are in the first book?

Only the eleven locations I had found and just wanted to get this project into print. I have since located all eighteen Albuquerque scenes.

So the second edition would be the full Joe Deal rephotography book. 

Because of Covid I’m having trouble getting UNM at all interested in what I’m doing. I would think they might have some archives from his two periods at UNM for MA and MFA. Jim Stone is UNM photography professor emeritus who I gave a book to and may help me make some progress at UNM.

How did you go about finding the locations of Joe Deal’s pictures?

I could easily tell these shots were in Albuquerque but because the horizon line was cut off it was a little hard to locate them. I was puzzled how he got so high up above the homes he was shooting. I finally realized he had climbed boulders to achieve almost every single one of these shots. He was carrying a 2 1/4 camera on a tripod. I used a Lumix FZ 2500 with a mono pod which came in handy as a walking stick. The Sandia Mountains create a practically vertical western face at the edge of town and millions of enormous granite boulders have tumbled down over eons. It was a scramble to achieve the right viewpoint and sometimes I’d have to jump to the next boulder up or sideways. Not using the exact same lens as he did provided frustration. I could get the scene framed exactly in one corner but in the other opposite corner the composition might have changed. I didn’t worry too much about that variance though.

So all of the photos were from the same general part of town. The western edge near Sandia Mountains?

Yes. From about 5 miles north of interstate 40 to 1 mile south of interstate 40 where it emerges from the canyon. From the north it’s Glenwood Hills, Supper Rock, and Four Hills neighborhoods.

What do you think attracted him to that area? Was it the high vantage? Or maybe he lived nearby? Maybe it was a rapidly changing area?

The shots have the irony of the man altered landscape, just beginning in these neighborhoods in the mid-1970s. But his special touch was getting an elevated viewpoint. He more likely lived in the UNM area as most students did. This neighborhood seemed very far away at that time and now is surrounded by shopping centers and/or homes with very few empty lots.

You mentioned that you even tried to time your photos at the same time of day as him?

It’s not hard to get good lighting in New Mexico! But yes, I did try to go in the morning so the angle of light was similar. I was photographing in October, November, and December so it was never very hot. Don’t know when he was shooting. Another help in finding these locations was access to annual aerial surveys in the 1960s and 70s by Dick Kent, a local commercial photographer. I am volunteering to scan hundreds of his 4x5 negatives. He would fly from one edge of the city to the other on clear days, often on assignment for businesses.

Maybe you should rephotograph his pictures too, haha.

I will order a high altitude drone trying to rephotograph Dick’s aerials. 

Can’t tell if you’re joking? 

Joking. I don’t know if drones can fly that high. At least I wouldn’t have the expense of renting a plane for every aerial survey. I noticed Dick Kent usually chose clear days to avoid the black shadows clouds would cast on the land.

A Dick Kent photo is on the back cover of my book. Dick’s son was very encouraging. The father of a 60-year-old man who let me in one of these houses was in a photo that Joe took. 

Oh, that's amazing. The guy standing in his garage in the shadow, is that the man? That's on the only photo that seems to have a person in it

Right, hardly any people. That’s a NT thing. Yes, the man in his garage I think is the photo. 

Did he know about the Joe Deal photo of his house?

No, it was a surprise to him and I gave him and his 80-something mother a copy of the book. They have lived in the house since they built in 1968 and it looks the same as it did then I’ll bet. They offered to let another group that I belong to called Modern Albuquerque come in and photograph the interior. That group is fascinated with mid century modern architecture, interior and exterior. I am more interested in documenting the world than in creating fine art.


I think I read a quote from you on your blog describing the difference in photographers who think about what they are going to shoot before they shoot as opposed to those who shoot what they see on their walks. 

Everyone has their own way of doing things. For me the photographs are always first. If I get ahead of them, I wind up in trouble. Photos are a continual source of information and new leads and entertainment. They have a lot to offer already, without me and my thoughts getting in their way.

I like that attitude. Except when I am rephotographing then I do think in advance about what I’m going to shoot.

I don't know Albuquerque at all. But if it's like any other western city I imagine it has seen steady growth. Eugene is the same (but smaller). So it's not surprising to see lots of new development in your rephotographed pictures. What I found more surprising was the amount of new vegetation since Deal's photos. His photos show natural desert scenery. Yours are much more vegetated.

We are heavy water users but are learning to water less and less. In Joe Deal’s time the civic authorities believed there was a water source the size of Lake Superior below us, no kidding. But it’s all chambered in inaccessible sections so we actually use most of our water from the Colorado River diverted through dams in northern New Mexico, then the Chama river and back to the Rio Grande. Then it’s pumped up to dozens of large water tanks scattered through neighborhoods and distributed by gravity to homes. The increase in vegetation is what most people comment on when viewing my book.

So the city uses more water now than in the 1970s, but from a different source?

I’m told it was a desert like San Diego area until irrigation. The city has tripled in population from 250,000 to 750,000 in that time. We have always used river water from early colonial days for irrigation in the field in the river valley. But needed a lot more when suburban development crawled up the mesa towards the foothills. Complex legal agreements between Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas share the Colorado river water now. Phoenix will dry up without it.

May I divert to another project I’m dreaming up? It would be to rephotograph the many other scenes of Albuquerque by other photographers like Ernst Haas, Lee Freidlander, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Frank Gohlke, etc

That would be a massive project. 

You are right the next project is huge but I’ve only been retired two years and have plenty of time ahead. 

Ernst Haas, Albuquerque, 1969

How is it going so far?

I am slowly accumulating a list. What I cannot seem to get an answer for is if this is an allowable fair use without a copyright permission. I actually have Ernst Haas’ daughter Victoria‘s permission to use his Famous Central Ave., Albuquerque scene. I thought with that I might get more approvals from other photographers estates or heirs or representatives. 

Dan Shaffer, Albequerque, 2020

The safe answer is I would not be comfortable putting them in a book. Maybe it’s ok online or a small zine. But not anything with wide circulation. 

I have put the Joe Deal book as a gallery on my website.

Even a website is kinda iffy but no one is probably going to pursue that. But a book is a fatter target for lawsuits. Maybe Jim Stone could help with this. Does he have connections? Could he help get some permissions?

Yes, Jim stone is a good suggestion. Maybe he can crack something open at UNM and he may have good ideas about contacting or not contacting other photographers.

I don't know much about that world. Once photographs reach the gallery scene or museums or $ involved, everything gets weird.

Yes, I only printed 25 copies but since Walgreens screwed up the color registration of the black type they printed another 25 at no charge so there is an edition of 50 copies with only five left. I gave away half to nonprofits and people who helped me and sold the rest for cost.

Nice. Did Gary McLeod ever buy one? I sent him your info. He's in Japan, writing a big book about rephotography.

I don’t recall Gary’s name. Albuquerque is an important place in photography. In 1976 I worked in a copy shop near UNM and would make copies for Beaumont Newhall! A quiet tall gentleman.

Very cool. did you know of his importance then?

Yes, I was an avid photographer and spent time in friends’ dark rooms. But I was not inclined to academia and did not think about applying to grad school in photography at UNM.

You mentioned that you found the Winogrand driveway kid shot. How in the world did you find that? Do the people who live there now know about that photo?

Regarding the search for Winogrand's baby in the driveway classic, my friend Nick Tauro Jr. has a post about reshooting it called Worth a Thousand Words: Garry Winogrand and so does Joe Van Cleave: In Search of Wingrand’s ‘New Mexico, 1957.

Which other ones have you rephotographed at this stage? Any Shore photos? Friedlander? Doesn't Danny Lyon live near Albuquerque?

Yes, in the next town north, Bernalillo.  I remember his shot of a kid shooting a basket outside the trailer home with the Sandia mountains in the background. Winogrand's baby in diapers, Ed Ruscha’s Frontier gas station, Ernst Haas’s Central Ave, Lee Friedlander’s intersection, Thomas Barrow's dart.

Thomas Barrow, 1974

Dan Shaffer, 2020


Awesome. The dart must be a well known landmark. But how do you find the more obscure places?

I even contacted the Haas estate that they had miscaptioned the Western Skies neon sign as being in Colorado, so I did a drive-by and took the same shot out of the driver window to show the mountains in the distance that matched. That’s when Victoria Haas wrote me back and thanked me and said they could not change books that have been printed but they have changed it on all their electronic versions.

I can relate to Haas. I think misfiled photos are just part of being a photographer. 

I honestly think growing up in Kenya gave me a sense of scouting out locations. As a very little kid my nickname in Kikuyu language was Macharia, or wandering one. I’ve always liked history and photography and rephotographing combines them.

Ed Ruscha, Albuquerque, 1962

Dan Shaffer, Albuquerque, 2021

When you visit the sites now do you get a sense for what the photographer might have seen or thought? Can you tell why they looked in a certain direction or shot certain things? 

No, most of the shots are pretty mundane scenes for most people. But for photographers who like to share what current life is like it’s like candy.

What's like candy?

For me, the candy in an ordinary scene is usually lines and shadows that form an appealing composition. Shadows are my mainstay. They are everywhere every day - almost - here in New Mexico. 

It's funny you say that. Amid all the buildings and structures and trees that last for decades, and various changes and similarities, shadows are the most ephemeral part of all of it. Speaking of ephemerality, is the legacy of Joe Deal well known in Albuquerque? The people whose homes are in his photos, do you think they have any idea? Or is it just a nerdy insider thing.

I think it is the latter. I showed the book to a neighbor of one of the scenes. He got excited, but he’s a realtor so more likely to appreciate the history of the street. He pointed out that a still-empty lot was soon to have a house built on it, and to make sure I got that shot before construction. But of course it will be on my list for taking after construction too!

Is there something about New Topographics that makes them especially appealing to you for rephotographing? I mean, there are all sorts of pictures of Albuquerque in all styles and authors. Why do you think you're drawn to NT, or Joe Deal? Maybe Beaumont Newhall has some Albuquerque photos? Why not rephotograph his, for example?

I don’t mind following in other peoples footsteps, even if it means clambering over boulders. Good idea about Beaumont Newhall photos, although I usually think of Manhattan when thinking of him. 

Sure you could find others. But is there something in the New Topographers that invites revisiting? The pictures are generally static and open, with lots of space. Maybe they leave room a lot of room for development, in the mind and/or in reality?

As I said I am not the academic type, but the more literal documentarian. What I wish I could find is an essay by someone about Joe Deal and why he shot this way to include in a second edition. Or maybe Stone could give a photo grad student at UNM the assignment of writing an essay.

I just picked up a great book on Joe Deal with a pretty lengthy essay. But it's focused on California. Maybe you've seen it. it has blue lettering? It has a lot of info about him and his thinking, but no photos from NM.

Yes, I think I have it. I’ll check the title. Southern California Photographs, 1976 to 1986.

Yeah that’s it. Great photos. You get the sense he could be parachuted into any place and find pictures nearby. Actually it was that book I bought a few weeks back that reminded me of you. Which is when I emailed you. Full circle, zing.

I picked it up at a used bookstore before I knew about New Topographics. You are right I am attracted to that style because even though the scenes may seem boring and empty to most people, they are always well composed and usually have some irony or even humor about them. I read a definition of the word “ironize” from irony the other day that made me laugh. Never heard that word before.

Ah, so you did know of Joe Deal before NT.

I guess you’re right. I did know about Joe Deal by buying his book but had not heard of New Topographics at that time.

Do you know the Christopher Rauschenberg book Paris Changing? He rephotographed some of Atget's pictures in and around Paris.

Love Atget. Things I resent are how uptight many photographers are about how super sharp a picture is, ignoring that half of Atget’s and Cartier-Bresson’s photos are fuzzy.

I've never found that to be a prob with Atget.

For me an impactful image does not need to be sharp or need to be in a 3 to 2 format or need to be shot with a certain lens. It just needs to appeal.

Photographers can be technical nerds sometimes. Pixel peeping, fine resolution, etc. I think more than other creative fields just because mechanical tools are integral to the craft. So sometimes people get wrapped up in tech stuff. No worries, just gotta like what you like, no apologies.

From Paris Changing by Christopher Rauschenberg, (L) Atget / (R) Rauschenberg

What's fun about the Rauschenberg book is there's a section at the end called Atget's Footsteps where he doesn't rephotograph the old pictures. But instead he tries to find his own scenes in Atget's style. That's where it gets kind of interesting, when you put yourself fin the photographer's shoes and try to mimic not only their pictures but their thought patterns.

There's a mention in the book that Covid shutdown helped inspire the project, or provide time for it. Do you think it would've happened during "normal" times? Or would you have been tied up with other stuff?

Yes, I think I would have done this without Covid but not until I had retired and had the free time to go out and spend an hour or two or three going to locations and shooting.

Have you explored Albuquerque much photographically outside of the rephotographs? Your Kenyan nickname the Wanderer. Does that apply outside this project?

Most of my career I have been in outside sales so was moving around the city or country all the time with a camera within arm’s reach. Thanks to those employers for allowing me to sneak a few pictures in when the light and shadows and composition presented themselves.

Nice. What about now that you're retired. Are you exploring on your own? Or mostly through this project?

I am Macharia, so I am always wandering and exploring my hometown and this intriguing state. I rarely come home from a morning run without having taken a dozen photos on my iPhone. Flowers, architecture, roadrunners that abound here, and of course shadows.

The subtext is that one of the most essential ingredients for making photos, or any type of serious art, is free time. Just the ability to explore with no deadline for a few hours. I have never done that without getting at least a few good photos, and often many more. In fact photos come in almost direct proportion to time spent looking. Joe Deal was a photo student while in NM. So I suppose that gave him opportunities to shoot. It's something you don't think much about looking at the work now. But all of those bigwigs from the past. Their output is largely just a function of time.

Yes, I tell people I am always scanning around where I am. Luckily I have developed an eye to spot a good shot and since I carry a camera can get that shot and don’t have to go back and hope that it’s there again.

Haha, I've done that before. You drive by something and tell yourself you'll check it out tomorrow. But it's never the same. Photographer pitfalls 101.

I do believe in luck as well. There are times when I go out on a walk or a drive and one good shot after another just pops up for me. Especially nice when that happens during the golden hour. Or photographers’ happy hour. No thinking required, just noticing and using what is presented with the right composition and angle. Then when I think I’ve got the shot looking at it again to see what I missed and maybe move backwards or left or right to reassess the scene

I know the feeling but I'm not sure if it's luck. I think it’s more to do with mood or mental outlook, but I admit I don’t fully understand how photos happen. Let's put it this way. I find it harder to spot the first photo than the 10th photo. That’s been consistently true for the past few decades.