A few questions for Gordon Stettinius about his recently published book Gita Lenz, the accompanying exhibition, and Candela Books.
B: Has Gita Lenz seen the book? What was her reaction?
G: She has seen the book. She is a little bemused by it all. She wonders how many people might buy a book of her work. How much does it cost? et cetera. And she remembers certain images every time and then other times I visit, a name might escape her. She will often say that I really like this one or something more tongue in cheek like "I must say , I way pretty damn good." To be honest though, every time I visit her, it is as though she is seeing the book for the first time. And she has a couple of them at the nursing home. I will be heading out tomorrow to visit her on her 100th birthday. Which is just incredible to me but it should be fun.
How much input did she have in the editing? Were her prints at all organized? What was the selection process?
Gita had almost no direct input into the editing of the work. I tried hard to ascertain which images might have been more important to her by looking at the entire body of work. There are some pretty strong indicators that she felt strongly pulled by the abstract expressionism movement. Quotes in some of the contemporary magazines echo this idea. My sense is that judging by the quality of the work, much of the street work was earlier and much of the stylized or experimental work was coming after she had been working for a while. The prints are just more consistent in the more abstract work. There are some beautiful images in the street photography tradition also but within the larger collection, this work is a little more up and down in terms of quality. This could have been for other reasons too, perhaps the abstract work received more exhibition opportunities maybe? Then craft might have been given a little more attention because of the opportunity. It is difficult to say as there is not a lot of dating and titling on the individual prints.
The story of you and Gita Lenz makes me think of the role of discoverer/champion in certain photographers achieving recognition. Sometimes great work just sits in a closet for years until it's "discovered". E.g., Atget, Bellocq, Gary Stochl, Billy Monk, or Vivian Meier just last fall. It often takes another person to come along and set society's pointer, and this discoverer then assumes sort of a co-role in determining how the work is understood. Do you see yourself in that role? Does it carry some responsibility? Is it possible to achieve recognition without someone in that role?
There is a strong sense of responsibility, definitely. I am not sure where this project goes ultimately. And I do sort of like it this way. The archive is not so gigantic that I am trying to make grand claims about it or about Gita. But the work is of a definite quality and it exhibits a lot of qualities that resonate with me. First of all, she cared about it and that speaks to me. She continued doing it even though she was not earning much income from it. These are such common themes to artists everywhere but it still makes for a poignant story as it unfolds. She pursued her interests for nearly twenty years and then decided to move on. She was someone who appeared to have a fresh take on the medium given the predominant themes of the day.
There are some 30 boxes of prints and I am probably most responsible for their organization at this point. And then there is the question of which work was selected for the book and exhibition in New York and, of course, the gallerist, Tom Gitterman puts a strong impression out there of which work he feels is important. We agree most often but then we each have a handful of images that are more difficult to understand why it is that "image A" is interesting to the other of us. No surprise there really. There were some great images that are not in the book because they were off in another area of exploration and I was already fighting a fairly eclectic collection of imagery. Some cool images though are still waiting for their audience.
The work was definitely in some jeopardy when we brought it to Virginia from New York. So, in that sense it needed a champion but I think that many artists are their own champion. It doesn't hurt when someone else decides to make a persuasive case about the work though.
Why are there no captions in the book?
There were almost no titles available to us at all. Of the images in the book, maybe six of them had titles... We thought about including a plate index but I felt it would be a little anemic having 49 or so images listed as untitled, undated and then have scant information for the others. I wish the book could have been more informative also. There are also documents and pay stubs and the like that allude to images published or exhibited but these are hard to attach to specific images because the title are listed on an inventory sheet with no photos attached and often read something like Transformation #9 or Waterscape #4 or Arabesque #9... I have often thought that this would be an interesting project for a photo history Phd candidate. But I have done what I can and have sought help out from many varied sources also.
The book seems to jump around in subject matter and it's sometimes hard to sense a unifying vision across all the styles. What do you think is the unifying element? What do you think Gita Lenz would say is the unifying element?
I think the work represents an evolution. I would love to see where she might have gone as an artist if she had continued these past forty or fifty years.. Minor White supposed that it takes twenty years at least to master the medium. Gita didn't quite hit that mark and as such she did some journalistic work to pay the bills, she photographed the neighborhood around her, working people and then she saw the potential for emotional expression through tone and symbols in a way that was pretty radical at the time. It is definitely eclectic. She photographed a lot of ducks, fences, chairs, taxi drivers... It could be that I respond to this aspect a little as well because I suffer from a similar eclecticism.
What do you think motivated her primarily? I know she was a commercial photographer but do you think that was the main driver? Or was she shooting for herself? Or to make it in the art world? What?
I suspect that Gita was motivated by artistic inspiration from the outset. She strikes me as an intuitive and emotional character. Maybe even a character in the broad sense of that word. Or maybe I project a lot of ideas onto her. Even when she gave up photography as a professional pursuit she turned to creative writing and poetry as an outlet. Judging from her book collection, she was widely read and politically active. She ran with some interesting people. I think she needed a career and she fought for a long while to make her way creatively as a photographer. It was a hybrid existence to be sure but probably not that unusual then because it certainly is almost the norm now.
What are your thoughts on founding a publishing house? How's it gone so far? Was Candela in the pipeline for a while before Lenz came along, or was it spurred by meeting her?
The books sales are steady but let's just say I have a ways to go yet in starting up relationships with booksellers. The next project will benefit from the effort I have made while starting up the company by launching Gita's book. So she has sort of given me a gift in that regard. And I hope to make book donations to any institution or university library or museum that makes a request of me. I am seeking these people out also.
I definitely would like to sell the book to individuals with an interest in photography or women in photography or abstract expressionism or New York photography or mid 20c photography... but I would really like most to see Gita's name entered into the historical record a little bit. The exhibition has gone very well so far and I hope that sales continue (especially to public institutions) and perhaps other exhibition opportunities might come about as well. I intend to mount an exhibition here in Richmond next year. If for some reason the work were to do very well from a sales perspective, we intend to start up a foundation in Gita's name. I am not sure wether we will get to that point though to be completely honest. The project has been extremely rewarding but the rewards have been more the intangible kind.