Thursday, December 6, 2012

Q & A with Jason Langer

Jason Langer is a photographer based in Portland. His debut monograph Secret City was published by Nazraeli in 2006. His next book, Possession, will be published by Nazraeli in Spring 2013. This extended interview is part of the Eye-On-PDX series. 

(Note, the new Blogger platform is creating sizing headaches for me. Feel free to adjust typesize with Cmnd+ or Cmnd-)

B: Tell me how you got into photography. When did you know you wanted to pursue it seriously?

Jason Langer: Well, the longer I am in the creation and business of photographs, the more I realize that my story is pretty unique. I think the way I entered photography has a lot to do with how I create my images, view others' work and interact with the photography community. I got turned on to photography in 7th grade- I was about 12. My friend and I were housesitting for someone who had all these beautiful, mysterious and intoxicating black and white photographs all over her walls. Turns out this woman was Michael Kenna's sister-in-law. I was so mesmerized I was hooked. I'd never seen anything like it- a giant wave caught at it's peak- frozen like the ICON of a wave, deck chairs lined up on a pier weathering a storm with a very mysterious and foreboding ocean in the background. So I found out who that was and began taking photo classes in Jr. High and High School.

It sounds like you had a conversion experience almost like a religious awakening. Some find Jesus. You found Kenna.

Partly I found Kenna but partly I was awakened to photography being something spiritual, not just news-related or factual. When I was about to graduate high school, I called him and asked where I should go to college  to learn to create images like his. He said he didn't know, but to stay in touch. So I got involved with every photo-related class at my school- mostly the school newspaper and yearbook. Then my mother bought me a darkroom kit from the Spiegel Catalog- remember that? Anyway, it had a small enlarger to enlarge 35mm film, trays, tongs, - that kind of thing. I assembled the darkroom in my closet which had no water. I would carry the water upstairs to my closet and I would walk or ride my bike all the way downtown to buy chemistry which I had to special order.

Jason Langer, Elevator, Secret City, 1998
This was in Ashland?

Yes, Ashland. I ended up going to the University of Oregon (my state school) and took photo classes there. I worked in the school's darkroom as a part time job and also worked at a video store part time and saw a lot of films. I wrote a postcard to Kenna every year with my photo on one side and when I was ready to graduate in 1989 he was ready to hire his first assistant. I jumped at the chance, moved down to the Bay Area and got paid $6/hr. to babysit, mop floors, wash dishes- anything he needed- and of course all the photo related things. Souping film, making contacts, drymounting and matting prints and getting them ready to ship. I would also hand deliver his prints to the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco and see what was happening there. And remember, no one was making images like Kenna's- long exposures in cityscape and landscape; extended investigations of one subject matter, e.g. nuclear power stations, gardens by Andre de la Notre. All his prints were exquisitely printed and sepia toned.

So I think my story is unique in the way of being transfixed by photography at an early age and knowing exactly what I wanted to do. 

And also unique in having a good and immediate connection with a respected artist like Kenna. 

Then I ended up in an apprenticeship situation which even then was a pretty rare way of beginning a life in fine art. So to answer your question, I was serious about photography from day one.

Day 1 age 12 you mean?

Yes. I always wanted to do weird pictures and felt that everything I photographed had some kind of internal meaning. This is what I explored- even in high school. It was always very intimate to me.

Did you go through the MFA program at U of O. I have some friends who've done that.

I decided not to go MFA. I wanted to be out in the world doing my thing and I couldn't pass up Kenna's invitation. So I'll tell you what I did after that...

When you look at those photos from high school, do you see strains that now appear in your current work? It sounds like "weird" might be a good description but it's not a very precise word.

I would say surreal and symbolic. Surreal in that people had to figure out what they were looking at and that they were meant as subconscious triggers, yet undefined. I would experiment with double exposures, incongruent objects being put together and lots and lots of silhouettes which I eventually found was the best way to put across a universal statement about people in general rather than an individual person.

The first serious series I did when I graduated from college was called "Shadow" and was literally a physical shadow (a dancer from the Oakland Ballet) dressed entirely in ski-tight black. I put him in various scenarios to symbolize as many aspects about being a human in a human body as possible.

Jason Langer, Spree Park No. 2, Berlin, 2012

So they were staged photos but not very different in some ways from much of your current "found" work.

I ended up making 72 images which included all the earth elements, the cosmos, flying, being rejected- as many ways to bring the human figure and physical surroundings together to physicalize and symbolize the human experience.

What do you think of those photos now?

Now those images may really benefit from some digital stealth. I felt I was never really able to completely suspend disbelief. I think now that if I got those negs scanned, I could burn down some reflections and smooth out wrinkles in the outfit to better make my statement. I imagine that someday they might make for a very interesting deck of cards. 

But then I had my first trip to NYC and everything changed.


Well- let me go back a minute to the business of selling pictures which I think is really important in today's world. So, my first experience with "fine art" photography was with a reclusive, obsessive, hermit spiritualist who did nothing but photography- something I could relate to! It was a good match...

You mean Kenna?

Yes. I learned first hand how much work it takes to create and look for images with meaning that could never happen again- they were special. This is a key point which is so very hard to find in contemporary photography these days.

Going out hunting for fleeting scenes could be seen nowadays as old fashioned. That's not putting it down. That's my style too. But it's not very hip.

I learned many life lessons from him which I thought were ALWAYS true- that no one could ignore or leap over. Since 2000 it all changed for me and now, those ideas seem absurd. I'll tell you what they are...

Michael told me not to expect to EVER make money from fine art photography and that I should find other means of making a living and keep my overhead low. I don't know whether this point is taught in schools or if photo students really think they can pay the rent by selling their personal pictures. Maybe this is possible today, I don't know. Seems it would be VERY difficult with all the competition and the fact that everyone has a capable camera now.

The next point he told me was that it takes about 10 years to figure out what you want to photograph- what your subject is- and it takes that much time to get good at it- and in the meantime, don't show your work, until it's ready- keep the photos under your bed and keep working. There is no rush.

That's a lesson which shocking (to me) has gone out the window- people don't take ANY time to let their images stew in the pot. It takes AT LEAST this to create a signature style and subject matter- or so I thought. Now - seemingly- it doesn't matter.
Well his advice doesn't mesh very well with the internet age. Not saying it's wrong. Just not followed much.

Also, when I would deliver images to the Wirtz gallery I imagined that in order to be on those gallery walls you had to have unique subject matter, a signature style that is instantly recognizable. That you would have to be an experienced artist- solid and confident about your view of the world and most of all have something to say.These points I think don't exist anymore. From what I see, the bar has been lowered significantly- to ridiculously low levels. Now I can go to a gallery and see images that were taken in one weekend. I taught photography full and part time for 12 years and what I see on the walls now would barely qualify for a well seen and crafted body of work from a student.

Let me back up. Do you agree with Kenna never to expect to make money from photography?

I totally agree with Kenna. The chance of capturing the public's imagination to be able to sell enough prints to buy or even rent a house, raise kids, pay all your taxes, have health and car insurance and put something away for retirement? Not to mention all your daily expenses- food, entertainment, etc? Do you know how many prints you'd have to sell? I calculated that when I was single, I'd have to make $6000 a month in print sales EVERY month in order to make that...

Ironically someone like Kenna can probably live off of photography. But not very many can.

Another point about Kenna- he was the exception and always told me so. He always told me to not base success and lifestyle based on his achievement

Do you think students have some misconception about that? I don't think anyone expects to sell anything but maybe I'm wrong.

I really don't know. Seems to me we live in such a culture of naval gazing and self importance that I wouldn't put it past students these days.

Another thing Kenna told me is that its extremely easy to be published too soon - when the work's not ready. And that was BEFORE Blurb and self publishing. I am constantly stunned to see how many photo books are out there now- that the work is good enough to be made into a book (which to me is a huge achievement) and that enough people want to buy them. I know of several photographers who are sitting on garages full of their own self published books... and the point it is... self acknowledgement? Who is buying all these books? My understanding is that all those people who were once willing to drop $50 or $75 on a photo book has dwindled down to only the most ardent hardcore collectors.

Jason Langer, Figure No. 10, Secret City, 1999

Before we go on I have to make a confession...

I like confessions.

I don't really like Michael Kenna's work.

That's fine- why not?

I like some of his images. But mostly they seem very clean and polished. There isn't much of a sense of documentation or grittiness.

Kenna's documentary is more symbolic. He has been accused over the years of being too designy.

I know straight documentary is not what he's going for. But it seems sort of the extreme end of "arty" photography. I like more the other end. Shore and New Topographics. Walker Evans. With extraneous stuff in the photos.

Michael's earlier work when he was walking around the British streets emulating Brandt- this work was pretty gritty. And of course the Ratcliffe power Station, The Rough plant and all of his concentration camp pictures- but the latter series doesn't conjure up as easily. But I think it seems poeticness has really taken over. This is fine with me. There's definitely a lack of a poetic quality in photography these days. So much of contemporary photography is downright ugly. Maybe photographers feel they have to be more shocking and edgy to be noticed. I remember about ten years ago Holly Stuart Hughes wrote in her introduction to an issue of PDN that jurors for photo contests were seeing too many photographers picturing "sad, sullen teenagers staring at dead houseplants." Now that seems all the rage.

I like your photos better than Kenna's because they are more fleeting and streety. Not as clean.

Right- I don't take anything out of my pictures (Kenna doesn't either)- I like it all in there. The only thing I do is darken some things I'd like to not have the viewer concentrate on. But I do think by and large less is more. Simplicity tells a cleaner story for the eye. Kenna definitely sways toward a naturally cleaner landscape.

It's the antithesis of Walker Evans. But on the other hand simplifying also creates a specific style.  It's what gives Kenna's photos their feel. You buy a book of his and the photos are unified. Which is a tough thing to do with a camera.

Walker Evens was also quite formal at times.

Yes but he was also very democratic. He included everything in the scene whether or not it was "important".

Yes- true. Michael isn't so interested in details- I'm not either for that matter. I'm more interested in the overall sense and idea in my images.

What happened in NY 10 years ago? You mentioned a big turning point.

Ok- so the big turning point in my work was when I traveled to New York to do magazine interviews and portfolio drop-offs...

Keep in mind that I listened to Kenna's lessons and for 15 years made a living through photography in every way I could- editorial, corporate, head shots, weddings, etc.- anything that would come my way- except advertising. I didn't feel I cared enough about selling things to make convincing photographs in advertising.  And I also taught photography at the Academy of Art in San Francisco and made money through Getty Images as well. But it was all to feed my obsessive personal photographic ideas.

So- I went to New York and the moment I came up from a subway station I felt that I was there before in another life. It electrified me- the ironwork, the cobblestones, the business, the taxis, the hoards of people. I was staying with a friend and spent many many days and hours walking the streets and finding all of these little glimpses into alternative realities- just by keeping my eyes open. I was able to peer into another world where odd, scary, funny, sexy, warm, thought provoking and mysterious things were happening all around me without even trying. It was just there for me.

Another thing I started to do was follow people in the streets and surreptitiously photograph people and see what happens.

Jason Langer, Bridge, Secret City, 2002

Would you call your work a type of street photography?

I don't call myself a street photographer- maybe an urban photographer. I think of street photographers like Winogrand and Bruce Davidson- photographers whose main subject is people and what happens on the street. My pictures just happen to be on the street- it's just that that's where I find a lot happening all at once. The street is pregnant with odd possibilities.

In New York I ended up creating a sort of alter ego for myself whose face I would never reveal. I felt he was a symbol for my inner aloneness and everyone's singularity in this world.

That sense of alienation and loneliness is pretty strong in your work. So that NY trip was the first time you really explored that theme?

Yes- I think one of the things people can connect with in my work is that universal sense of aloneness, peacefulness or fear of it and the sense that anything could happen- danger as well as romance.

That theme came up in me unexpectedly. That's another thing I started to notice about my students and what I see in a lot of work these days- that many people with cameras want to be photographers. They put the cart in front of the horse. Their entire "projects" are completely thought out before they even touch the camera. I don't know what this makes them- constructionists or abstract artists or something like that. Photography for what its inherent and unique qualities are- is sort of irrelevant.

Agreed. But there's room for everything. I like found photos myself. I'm someone out observing the world with a camera. But I am open to those other forms. But they do seem to me to be from a slightly different discipline.

I don't know that there is room for everything. I want to give you a quote from Fran Lebowitz- one of my heroes: 
Too many people are writing books. There are too many books. The books are terrible – and this is because you have been taught to have self esteem. And apparently you have so much self esteem that you think 'I shouldn’t keep these thoughts to myself- I should share them with the world!...' When Toni Morrison says 'write the book you want to read, she did not mean everyone.'

So self esteem is bad?

Self esteem isn't bad, but do people steep themselves in their own work for 10 years anymore? Do they have any sense- other than their own feelings- that the work is good? Maybe this quick, or heavily concept-driven work should be called something different altogether? Or do all images that have that contemporary smell belong on a gallery wall? Do all photo "projects" make a good book? Isn't anyone saying "no thanks- go back to the drawing board?" It all seems so ok and acceptable which sort of waters down the entire experience of photography for me.

There are some very important photographers who receive little attention. For instance I think Ed Burtynsky is one of the most important photographers of the last 20 years. My inbox never mentions him, but I receive 50 announcements a week for shows and books by photographers who I've never heard from before. The photography world is crazed with the new and there is so much of it that for me it basically lowers the power of photography. I can only imagine that everyone's getting a bit exhausted of imagery frankly.

Well, books have (until recently) reinforced that patient approach. It takes a while to edit and publish something. So the process imposes a bit of delay. Maybe not 10 years. But usually when you see a book by a reputable publisher it's had some years of thought behind it.

Not necessarily. You could have a book published with only 25 pictures in it and those 25 were the only ones that were made- concept entirely ahead of the process. The main thing that I sense in so much of today's photography is the lack of risks being taken. I can feel just by glancing at a group of images, that very little was put on the line to make a series of photographs happen. No film is being spent, no people are confronted or land being trespassed upon. Few people are even putting their physical bodies out in the real world (think Google Street View). So many construction artists have basically managed their images from start to finish, there's no risk and very little amazement anymore. This turns me off. It's hard for me to get excited about "managed photography."

I like images best when I feel that I couldn't take the same image if I were there- that something SPECIAL happened for that photographer- in that place in that particular moment. I shy away from work that feels like if I were there I would see the same thing. Frankly, I see too much imagery these days showing the world AS it is. I don't know why so many people want to see the world as it is, so many photographers trying to emulate neo-Stephen Shore. I want to see alternative realities- something that tells me something I don't already know. I thought this fascination with big color documentary would be over a long time ago. Don't people want to see what's beyond it? Underneath ordinary reality? 

Contemporary photography is so broad and non-self reflective. I'll give you another quote from Fran Lebowitz: 
"Everything has to be broader. Everything has to be more blatant- more on the nose. Because obviously they’re not going to pick up little subtleties. What we have had in the last 30 years is too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in the society. There’s no reason to have democracy in the culture because culture should be made by a natural aristocracy of talent.
This idea flies in the face of the "democratization" of the digital "revolution" and signifies that there are some artists who are genuinely picking up on something deeper about life, and others who work on the surface. I also started thinking a lot about the general coarsening of life- (at least) the American experience- when Gore Vidal died. Furthermore I've noticed that the ironic outlook on life is so pervasive, we almost expect it when seeing new photographs.

Hmm. Lebowitz's comment sounds a bit elitist.

Yes- it is elitist- I wouldn't go that far personally but she has a point- there's just too much content out there and now we all have to become curators. Now there are even curators of curators.

Partly what she's saying is that people no longer take the time to live with and study art or photographs for very long. She's also saying that not everyone is equal- there should be a way of distinguishing those who are going for the broad and those who are exploring the intimate or the inner realities.

Also I want to mention something that started to happen in 2000. I started seeing all of these "Kennabees" show up on the scene. Kenna was extremely popular at that time and all these admirers started creating work that was nearly indistinguishable from his. Nothing wrong with that per se- its sad, but what got me was that galleries were- and still are- taking them on. I don't get it. Now it seems you can directly copy someone- you don't need your own voice anymore- and galleries seem to be ok with that.

I could name 10 photographers who have had varying degrees of success copying Kenna to greater or lesser degrees and there's room on gallery walls even for them- I don't get it. I figure at some point galleries really needed to keep a roof over their head and took whatever they thought they could sell.

Jason Langer, Central Avenue, After Hours, 2006

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

I admire dealers that closed their galleries and went private so they could keep their standards up and not pander. My longtime dealer Michael Shapiro did that. His overhead was $15,000 a month and I think he did the right thing by consolidating and only dealing work he really believed in privately.

Interesting. I think your dealer Hartman in Portland runs in that direction. I'm guessing the majority of his sales are not through the gallery but through private deals.

A combination of both I think. The Portland art audience is slowly filling out as more money comes into the area. What I see are a lot of 'collections' of things. Someone who photographs road signs along Route 66. Someone who photographs all the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenues all over the country- that kind of thing. The answer for me is... yes... and...? I think there's this kind of fascination with pseudo-documentary and 'collections' that is somehow intoxicating to people even though we're not learning anything new in viewing the images. I thought this would end a long time ago. Also- as a side point- there are so many photographs out there that galleries are asking for smaller and smaller editions- editions of 2 and 3. This seems absurd and also takes us farther and farther away from the inherent qualities of photography.

Many typologies out there, some of them quite self-referential. Thank the Bechers, at least in part.

Bechers, yes, but do we need someone else who catalogs all the things found on their property? I have always been more interested in creating images that are ambiguous and strange and have an undercurrent of humor, mystery, solitude and melancholy.
I'm curious about your actual practice. Most of your portfolios show photos from a wide range of scenes and distances and subjects. The main thing tying them together is a sort of mood or symbolic feeling. It makes me wonder how you find these pictures in the real world. With such a near universal cupboard of subject matter to choose from how do you know when to push the shutter?

I don't plan anything. I am constantly photographing from my life experience. I always have a camera with me and unusual opportunities for photographs simply offer themselves to me. I don't consciously work on a 'project'. I just photograph life.

Jason Langer, Bride and Groom, 2011

A good example- when my wife and I were recently in Austin, we walked into the hotel lobby late and a bride and groom had just walked in. They didn't have anyone with them and they were signing into the registry. The clerk was somewhere else. So here was this couple who had just married, checking into their new life. They are alone surrounded by an empty hotel. That's meaningful and unusual. You can read into it what you wish.

Reality and metaphor in one scene.

Or another time I was walking in Paris and ran into a Dior model just getting out of a fashion show. I see this woman walking past me with this fabulous set of legs and stockings. A man is holding her arm and escorting her. I simply followed behind them until I got something emblematic. Again- a story with open ended meaning but somehow iconic.

Jason Langer, Fashion Week, 2010

I know it's a stupid question but what sort of camera?

A variety. I started with a Mamiya C330 then went Hasselblad, then Contact 645 then Fuji 645 and then Mamiya. I normally have about 3 medium format cameras with me at all times so I'm ready for the right situation and the right camera. Always Tri-X.

You must have a heavy bag.

Lots of glass but a couple of the cameras are collapsible. One thing for me is crucial though in making good pictures. I usually wait a long time before I show my work. I have waited as much as 2 years before even processing film. That came from being so busy with life, personal matters and children. But it's a huge blessing to be behind. It really allows me to view the images later with some distance and see which images jump out of the contact sheet and rise to the top.

I agree. I'm six months behind in printing. I think it's the perfect gap because the environment outside looks so different from what's on your film.

Let's change gears a little. I'm curious about your book Secret City. How did the project evolve and when did Nazraeli get involved?

I created those images over a 15 year period and kept working on a book dummy all that time.

Wow. So pretty much since High School?

Not so much since high school, but mostly since I graduated from college. I was quite shy but I sent it to Kenna one day and asked him what he thought of it and if he thought it to be worthy to please show it to Nazraeli. Nazraeli loved it and wanted to publish it as is- with no changes. This was very gratifying and took many years to complete. My next Nazraeli Book Possession is exactly the same thing. It's mostly pictures from the last 10 years with some oldies mixed in that really tie the work together.
How will it be different? Looking online it seems the pictures are perhaps a bit more controlled?

The difference is that this group of pictures is both more haunting than Secret City, but also more romantic. It has many more doppelganger-like still lives and also starting in 1998 I started photographing a lot of nudes- both men and women.

This came about because I moved to LA and had 2 kids. I had very little time to photograph in between diaper changes and teaching full time and I wanted to get away from the constant LA light so I started asking people- friends and their friends if I could hang out with them at home to see if some good pictures would come about. They did. I was using about 6 rolls of medium format film in about 1 1/2 hours and I would usually come up with 1 or 2 good pictures. You keep adding these up over years and lo and behold you have a 'project'. So there are a lot of images from those sessions mixed in.

Jason Langer, Pianist, After Hours, 1995

The nudes are of friends?

Friends and their friends.

I figured they were models. They look pretty trim. How is it photographing someone in the nude who you know well?

Someone who wants to be photographed nude is usually comfortable with themselves and their bodies and wants to be documented looking good. I no longer photograph women. I think I got as far as I wanted to go. Now I am only photographing men.

I also experimented to see what would happen if I brought nude men and women together. What I got was intimacy and lovemaking- it just happened so I started photographing it and again some pretty exciting pictures came out.

So you were playing matchmaker? Or were these people couples before you brought them together?

Only one couple didn't know each other- the first couple, but then they were are all boyfriend/girlfriend or married couples. One couple was having an affair which was really exciting. 

Then word started getting around that I was doing this work and friends decided to make love for the camera- actually mostly friends of friends- people I didn't know very well- that made it easier. I also posted some Craigslist ads to offer people some money for their services. I made about 300 of those pictures and created a nice special edition folio which is only available though dealers. I do not make jpegs of those. They're simply too intimate and I don't want those images floating around on the web.

So how is it photographing a good friend nude?

The best friend and the most fun I have photographing a friend nude is my wife Lucy- she's the best.

Why did you stop shooting women?

I started photographing women in 1998 when I experimented with what a female figure or energy would do mixed in with my very male world that I had created. It really made a huge difference and brought out a much softer side in my work. I worked on understanding that energy for about 14 years then felt I had explored that in myself enough and was time to move on. I also found photographing men was much more challenging, creatively and politically.

Can you expand on that?
Well- in our culture when we see images of naked men we assume that they are created for the audience of gay men. I found this very difficult to get away from. How do I create images that aren't charged in a homoerotic way? What if the men are muscular? What does that signify? What if they are very feminine? I found that I tended to photograph men in a very feminine way- softer and contemplative as opposed to harder and more warlike. Think George Platt Lynes v. Herb Ritts. Very different expressions of the male form.
Also photographing the penis has a lot of cultural baggage that comes along with it. The erect penis, even more. I'm still working out those challenges in meaning.

Jason Langer, Figure No. 88, 2007

You say you'd created a "very male world". Do you mean photographically? Or just living as a male more generally?

Photographically. One writer Margaretta Mitchell who wrote a biography of Ruth Bernhard as well as Recollections- Ten Women in Photography said that my concentration of the singular man, silhouettes of men and men in hats was a visual reconciliation with the divorce of my parents and the time when I had confusion about the male figures in my life. I think that's probably true. During that time I was watching old noir movies and Casablanca and other Bogart movies. There is a lot of Bogart in my early work. He was sort of my alter ego- still is in many ways.

Hmm. I need to go back through your site. The emphasis on men didn't stand out before.

There is a lot of editing on my site. Not everything is in there. Not a lot of the early work. My site is more of a cross section. And by the way, the creation of Secret City is just a title that I had to come up with to make a book. Really everything I photography is my Secret City.

  You just don't see many photographers who simply photograph anymore. It's a bit unacceptable or not seen as serious enough or something like that. So I reluctantly divide my work into different titles. I guess to makes it easier for people to digest but really its all part of one way of seeing the world.

What was the impact of Secret City for you?

I feel being published by a very fine publisher is still a very important part of the process. Yes- self publishing is more 'democratic', but there is also a lot of noise out there. Some book editors really are worth their weight- they elevate the material- by helping to unify the work and at best bringing its full essence forward. In my opinion the stamp by a prestigious and respected publisher still holds importance.

Nazraeli is generally great. Anything with their imprint or Steidl's will generally be worth a look.

Exactly. Seems lately that there are so many books out there its a bit of a jumble as to what publishers offer, the kinds of books they make- but a real solid vision for photography publishing- book art-pieces that are meant to stay on one's shelf through generations isn't easy to come by. My new book was assembled jointly with Nazraeli. We did it together and the process was fun. I had a lot more work to choose from and I leaned on the publisher's eye and experience to help bring the best forward and present it in the best way.

Your work reminds me a bit of Matt Mahurin or Tom Sandberg. Do you like either?

Matt Mahurin's first book by Twelvetrees is the first photo book I ever bought. It really inspired me. I have since written him and asked him if I could buy any of his old images in print- in any size, shape or form. He told me he's not yet set up for print sales and when he does, he'll let me know. I keep bugging him. My work can be a bit haunted and disjointed. Sandberg's work is even more so. Arthur Tress (who I printed for for many years) told me that my work reminds him of Dave Heath. That's quite a compliment.
I love the Mahurin book too. Curious to see Possession. Speaking of Nazraeli, I'm curious about your relationship with Portland. Do you still live there?

I am in Portland.

Do you take many photos of Portland? It's hard to pin down specific locations in your photos.

I always keep a camera on me and on my walks and drives I often find things to photograph- and I do so- but not in any way yet as an explicit project. Maybe someday- it is a beautiful city. If I could make photographs of Portland as beautiful and Daniel Robinson's paintings of Portland, I would. Portland has many oddities about it - as you know- and it's rife with opportunities for peeks into the surreal world through its cracks and crevices.

Hmm. But to collect those photos into a "Portland" folder seems like a different approach for you. I think part of what you're going for is a separation from anything specific like that. More of a feeling than a place. Are there any Portland photos in Secret City?

No Portland photos in Secret City- I hadn't moved here yet. But there are one or two in Possession. The next book- from Radius Books- due to come out in 2014 will have much more from PDX. 

In everything I photograph I try to avoid timestamps- I have always looked for the universal and timelessness in the true sense of the word. I do have jpegs of all my work and I do keep them in folders on my computer- based on where they were taken- just for easy reference but no one really knows where the images are from.

Jason Langer, Cowboy, Possession, 1995

What made you move there?

I moved to Portland because my wife and I and 2 kids were in LA and we wanted to get out of California. Kenna and his then wife were here as well as Nazraeli and a nice photo community. Unfortunately that nice small group that I knew has since imploded and now there's a much larger scene. Between Blue Sky, Hartman, Newspace, Portland Art Museum's Julia Dolan (who's awesome) and Ampersand, it's quite rich.

Wait. So the scene getting bigger is a bad thing?

No- not a bad thing at all- But I was starting to get to know people in small group gatherings. Now we don't get together anymore. It's a small point really. I have to tell you though that since the photo community expanded I've been quite shy about showing my face.

What's your relationship with Portland's photo community. Do you hang out with other photographers? Or visit some of those places you mention?

I don't hang out much. I'd much rather have a drink with an individual photographer. I find that there is a balance to be struck between the impulse to be involved in the larger community and the concentration it takes to focus on your own work. I don't like to talk about my work very much. I don't have much to say about it. It's too abstract and esoteric. Its not something I can encapsulate in one sentence. I'm not really working on a 'project'- I am actually- several at the same time, but not anything easily imparted to another. 

As photographers we are increasingly being asked to be more involved with social media and to be more 'out'. I am tremendously ambivalent about this. I know from experience that people- collectors, dealers and appreciators like discovering a photographer. But there are so many photographers out there that now one is almost forced to join Facebook and Instagram in order for anyone to know that you even exist as an artist. I can envision many many wonderful introverted photographers who are being passed up every day. For a long time I felt that there was no need to do anything except create imagery and that the usual channels would bring the work forward to people. Now, I am finding that even with a dozen or so galleries selling my work, the existence of the work needs to hit someone over the head stronger and more repeatedly to be noticed. Not the work changing quality or subject matter, but the visibly of the work. Having a new book published by Nazraeli is a big deal to me, but I am wondering if the book will appear as simply another book in the great, ever-expanding sea of books. I reluctantly joined Facebook a couple days ago to have a broader way of letting the public know that the book exists.

I have attended the juror group that Blue Sky conducts once a month. That's fun. But we're all in the dark and then I generally take off afterwards.

I attended a few of those when I lived there.

Oh, and there's Photolucida. I was asked to be a juror for their Critical Mass.

I think Critical Mass is interesting because it sort of encapsulates the current state of things. What people are working on. Where things are going. I think it may be more valuable in 20 years as a historic snapshot than for any specific photos. But I've wondered about Critical Mass as an evaluative tool. Is it even possible for a democratic system to come up with any reasonable judgement? Or does it just bog down so that least-objectionable material floats to the top? But I suppose they would say it's not a contest. There's no winner, if you ignore the 50 winners.
I think we're in a new birth cycle now in photography and very few names will be remembered in 10 years' time. I am very thankful that there is a consistent market for my work and that people are interested. Not many photographers can say that. My eyes are getting tired though from looking at too much photography. I may take some time off from that- but when you're a photographer and you love the medium it's very difficult to ignore. I'm not exactly a hermit. 

I have seen quality of photography go WAY DOWN in recent years. People enlarge their photos past pixelation and very few people seem to care. Even one of my galleries has a giant nighttime skyline image for sale that's completely pixelated. Print quality matters very little too I've found. I think that's getting better though.

How was it being a CM juror?

It was fun actually. There were so many entries I really only remember Mitch Dobrowner's work. We decided to give him a show. I have since purchased two of his prints from Blue Sky. I will no longer collect his work- there's a bit too much Photoshop manipulation in them.

I don't think he does much besides extreme dodge and burn. Do you mean subject manipulation?

When I bought the first Dobrowner print it was awesome- everything was completely in focus. I do think the PRINT should be in focus, not necessarily the subject matter. When I bought the second one I found that parts were in focus- as shot- and other parts- particularly the clouds had been 'mushed' or 'smudged' around to swirl the clouds into the place he needed them to be- which I think is going too far- for my tastes.

Jason Langer (Facebook profile photo)

Interesting. I hadn't realized he was moving things around. You can create quite a storm if you Photoshop enough menacing clouds into one spot.

I'm not positive he does this. I don't think people care though- this is an example of how quality isn't being focused on like it used to. Remember, one needed also to be a good craftsman when creating photographs. Now I think most people are intoxicated with the new baby that has arrived. I can't explain that intoxication. Its something though. Almost like being love blind.

I also think we're living in a weird time. Like we saw with the last election, facts don't matter anymore. Everyone has their own set of facts. So there is no longer a set of qualities that distinguish pro photographers from amateurs or even pros from one another. There are so many pictures coming from all directions that everyone can be involved purely based on their own choice of intoxicant.

Cultural stew...on simmer. Name someone shooting now who amazes you.

Well, I can tell you which contemporary photographers whom I've collected prints. Dobrowner- It's amazing what he can bring out in the landscape and weather. David Leventi's opera house photographs are stunning- I don't know how he does it. I have a gorgeous 50" x 60" print hanging in my dining room. And I have a couple of David Nadel's landscapes of the forests of Montana, because he's made bare tree trunks in the snow look like Asian minimalist monochrome scratches- completely transformed the landscape.

How do you relate photographically to your kids and family. Do you ever take "serious" photos of them?

I just started taking photos of my older daughter. She's eight and I want to follow her through to 18 and see if a nice body of work can come out of it. Eight I think is when life really starts to get interesting.

How does she respond to being photographed?

She's used to being photographed now.

What about your other child? You mentioned two.

I am too turned off by five year old tantrums to want to hang around it for an extended period of time. I'm excited for both my kids to get a bit older and have a greater sense of self management and be able to make more rationally based choices.

Kids acting rationally? Not even grown ups can be counted on to do that. But a 5 year old tantrum might make an interesting photo.

Right- but I'd much rather photograph a sleepover party with a bunch of girls then my son screaming because he doesn't want to put his clothes on. They need to get beyond that for my camera to come out.

I know exactly where you're at. My sons are 11, 10, and seven. I've been shooting them since the first one was born. I think there's a fun tension when a photographer turns the camera on his/her own family. How much are these photo keepsakes meant to document an important family time, and how much are they objects to be shown publicly as art?

I'll happily leave most of the kid pictures to Julie Blackmon.

Another Photoshopper...

Right- but unabashed. Her appeal has nothing to do with accuracy.

What about that tension? Between family photos which every family has, and using family as the subject of art?

I am so obsessed with photography that my lesson to be learned is to be as present with my family as possible without photography. I am a constant searcher and I need to learn to turn it off, pour some whiskey and play monopoly.

That's a related tension. The tension between being present as a parent, and being a photographer who is constantly looking for moments. I find it hard to turn off my photo eye, even with my kids. 


PBR StreetGang said...

I'd wake up and there'd be nothing. I hardly said a word to Blake, until I said "yes" to a signed print. When I was in Portland Maine, I wanted to be in Portland Oregon; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back to Eugene. I'm here a week now... waiting for a photograph... getting softer. Every minute I stay in Eugene, I get weaker, and every minute Blake squats in the darkroom, he creates more prints. Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter.

Blake Andrews said...

My thoughts exactly. I mean, during the brief period in which I read your comment and the written words were running through my mind, they formed my exact thoughts.

Mike Kayton said...

This is a good study of process and restraint.

Corey Hendrickson said...

Great interview... lots to think about here.

PBR StreetGang said...

How many people had I already photographed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to leave an imprint of the Leica logo on their face. But this time, it was an American and an fellow street photographer. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit... photographing a man with a Nikon D4 in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the photo. What the hell else was I gonna do?

Ben said...

Great interview Blake and wonderful work by Jason! My usually facile analysis indicates more of a Ralph Gibson/Bill Brandt influence (with a side of Steiglitz) than Kenna -- and great to see it after all these years but without the grain. ;-D Jason, why do you crop square images 4x5?

Zisis Kardianos said...

Even though I enjoyed the interview very much and Jason made a lot of good points on the state of things, I still cannot digest how a photographer like Kenna who lives comfortably from his prints and book sales, can be so discouraging about someone else prospect on the same field. It's even more suspicious when this someone else is his apprentice. How can you advice your apprentice that you cannot get rich by selling art photography, at the same time that you are drown in money from just that? Good thing for Jason that he didn't take that too seriously.
The fact that Kenna has so many successful imitators of his work, maybe it says something for the quality and the singularity of the work itself.

On a lighter note, how can you be "always ready for the right moment" carrying three different medium format cameras with you? I always carry just one camera with a prime attached and 99% of the times I'm not ready! I guess that what differentiates a good photographer from a bad one.

Claude Edwin Theriault said...

Great read, was not familiar with the work of Jason langer, very detailed read.