Friday, January 25, 2013

Q & A with Michael Northrup (Part 2)

Michael Northrup has been one of my favorite shooters for a while. Back in 2007, he was the very first photographer I interviewed for B. Since then we've kept in touch periodically, but I hadn't thought much about him until the other day when I stumbled on his new book Babe at Ampersand in Portland. "Gently humorous but decidedly jubilant color photographs of his daily life," is how the publisher describes his work. I guess that's as good a description as any, because Northrup's photos are pretty tough to classify. All I know is the book looked awesome! I bought it on the spot, returned home, and sent Michael a few questions.

How do you know when to press the shutter? What makes you explore a scene photographically? And within that scene what creates the moment when you know NOW?

Making a "picture" is some kind of combination of previsualization (ref. Minor White) and allowing for a certain amount of accident/serendipity as you begin to create the image.  This might all happen within a fraction of or a couple of seconds.  I press the shutter when it all comes together and I feel an element of excitement.  That's a subtle little spark that happens, not a mind blowing thing. But it's felt. There is that moment of YES. I am reminded of a slide show of Cartier-Bresson I used to show my students that had a tape interview that accompanied the slide show. Cartier-Bresson described that moment as some "guttural" feeling and then he made some funny sound with his voice to describe this indescribable moment. It's like these tentacles coming down from the brain and up from the gut and wherever and whenever they meet and touch, I press the shutter.

I explore a scene photographically because the camera has taught me a way to put order to the ever-changing external, chaotic world.  And that little instrument has been a portal to my spirit, allowing me to channel a lot of unspeakable feelings and insights to my life and life around me.  Through practice, emulation, example, I've honed my vision and found my own place in this field.

Are you always ready with a camera? Or do you set aside time (with family, for example) to be present without shooting?

In the 1970s, 80s and much of the 90s I was always ready with a camera.  It went everywhere with me.  Now, not so much.  I guess after actively photographing all this time, sometimes obsessively, I'm running out of steam. I feel kind of like Muhammad Ali. After so many fights you're kind of spent. Though I'm sure his spirit, like mine, is alive and well.  I mean when did the Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney write a new song? But their music is still very much alive in the world and in them. That's one of many things I like about being in the arts.

What was your impression of Minor White?

It was one of awe. The guy was a mystic. His early influence, along with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, to name a couple, got me looking at the hidden structure of the real world, i.e. the "abstract". Jack Welpott enhanced that view of Minor. When I went to San Francisco my last term of undergraduate photo to study with Jack in 1971, I arrived while he was at Martha's Vineyard with Minor, Jerry Ulesman, Fred Sommer, and a couple other guys. Minor had organized a few days for these great photographers to hang and just discuss whatever came out of the dynamic of the group. Jack came back from that trip like Moses coming down from the mount. He was profoundly moved by it. He said Minor was fascinating, Jerry Ulesmann was consumed by a new girlfriend and that Fred Sommer was absolutely mind blowing.  

Then around 1973 I moved to Boston to work at Eastern Mountain Sports and while there I contacted Minor and asked if I could meet with him to discuss some ideas I had on making cabinets for storing prints, after having made one for Jack during my trip to San Francisco.  He invited me to his office at MIT and asked me a few questions.  The three that stuck out was 1. Was I gay,  2. Did I drink alcohol, and 3. What was my zodiac sign.  I answered, "No, yes, and Virgo/Leo cusp".  

Then he invited me to do private study with him and about 9 other guys who got together once a week. We started by sitting on the floor in a few rows and we would give a back massage to the guy in front and look at images at a painfully slow pace while listening to music like Also Sprach Zarathustra. After about 6 meetings I decided to move back to Ohio to focus on my work where living was much easier. I remember meeting with him before I left and I asked him what he would do if someone like himself gave him an opportunity to study with them. He said "I'd run like hell". Then I asked him how long he thought a photographer could keep up their work without finding an outlet to show it and he said without hesitation, "About 7 years". Very curious. My experience with Jack, and my time with Frederick Sommer who I met through Jack, and my meetings with Minor let me know without a doubt I was on the right track.

What's more important to you, form or content?

That's like a "Sophie's Choice". I could ponder over that for hours. But I'd have to eventually say Form. I react to form more than I give weight to content. When we come into this world and our eyes start working the first thing we're receiving is forms without context, other than "mother". It's the basis of structure and without structure there's no order. I just made all that up but I think it kind of rings true.

When you take a photograph, does it generally look like you expect it to? If not, how closely do your photos generally match what you expect looking through the viewfinder?

It's almost always a match. The light might be working slightly different than I expected, but the design, subject and idea are damn near what I thought. I'm rarely surprised but sometimes some magic slips into an image I didn't see at the moment of execution.

Looking back on your work from 20 years ago, how has your photography changed? What are you looking for now when you shoot that your weren't looking for then? What do you think of your photos from back then?

I've gone through many morphs. I started with a view camera in undergrad and was interested in very formal images being inspired by Adams, Weston, White, Callahan, etc.  That got to feel constricting so post undergrad I bought a medium format camera so I could shoot more spontaneously and rely more on my gut. 

Then I grew tired of being limited to available light and loved the characteristic light I saw in the work of Weegee, Friedlander, Arbus, and other contemporaries of the 70s who either on occasion used flash light or used it exclusively. And I liked the fact that I always had light in my hand and could even photograph in the night. I began playing with those properties, throwing things in the air and flashed to suspend them and called that body of work "Levitations".  

Then when the color process became easily available, around 1980, I continued working from the gut with flash. But I soon became interested in manipulating the color of the light and began making portraits in normal ambient light but using a colored filter over the flash that would bathe the subject in that light. I called that series "Colored People". From that I explored making multiple colored flashes on a single piece of film creating a kind of light painting. I was using a high shutter speed with the flashes so I could get away with maybe 100 flash exposures in daylight with the ambient light just looking normal and all the applied colored flashes holding up. In just room light I could get away with up to a couple hundred exposures before ambient light looked normal. At this point it was becoming limited in subject matter and very physically and mentally demanding. But it got even more elaborate when I incorporated an on camera masking device that I shot through using a matte board to create shapes and manipulate the subject matter and colored filters to affect the subject matter. But this eventually became a burnout. Over time I found that the more time I had to affect something the more I seemed to screw it up. I was also wearing out with the darkroom and whole chemistry thing. 

In the 90s I went commercial and those projects made me even more deliberate which was both good and bad.  I think it forced me to be more careful with composition, even in my personal work. But it also pulled me from my artwork and forced me to do dumbed down work to make money. By the late 90s I almost stopped shooting altogether. What saved me was the development of digital media. It eliminated the darkroom and was cheap and easy to make images not to mention the extended control one had over the image and distribution.  And now I'm back to shooting from the gut.

I love my older images. But many that seem to be showing up in my books were seen by me more as stepping stones to other images I thought more lasting and interesting.  I have no idea what people like and kind of keep a blind eye to that so I don't start pandering to that and keep focused on what is important to me. That's probably why I don't show very much.  I leave edits to my books up to my editor/publisher, Jason Fulford at J&L Books. I think he has a better pulse on my audience and the market.

Do you have faith that good work will eventually find an audience through sheer merit? Or does it require promotion?

It's some of both. I have faith but don't know if I'll live long enough to see it come to fruition. There's a lot of crap out there drowning out some greater work. Much of life is luck and I've had my share of it. I keep reminding myself, almost daily, that Mozart was buried penniless and in a common grave. But his music is immortal and lives on…. the most any of us can hope for.

What music do you like?

Good question. I'm all over the place.  It's easier to say what I don't like.  I don't like folk, bluegrass, irish, any  traditional  European music, disco, kids music, elevator, or most rap. I think I like everything else as long as it's done well. Depends on how long I have to listen to it. I can enjoy traditional Chinese for a few moments. But I'm a rocker at heart and still play bass with a few guys.

What photobooks from the past 5 years do you like?

Hmmm, I should probably refer you to the opening line of the introduction to my work at the gallery , Uprise Art, who advertised me on their blog with this line: "Who hasn’t read a book since the 70’s? Meet Michael". I just bought a recent signed book by Joel-Peter Witkin. I got a christmas present a couple years ago on Paul Outerbridge and one from an old hero of mine, Les Krims who said he liked my work. That's about it. I remember in the late 80s I was a finalist for a teaching position at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and the interview was going well til someone in the back of the room asked "What do you read". And I replied "I don't read books". There was a pause and then one of the faculty came up and said "Thanks for coming in". I actually think I have a reading disability that was never caught. It's painful for me to scan the printed word and keep focused and accurate. I drift and mistake words for other words that look like the printed one. It's my cross to bear.

What do you think a photograph generally describes best? The world in front of the camera? Or the world inside the photographer's head?
Well I guess that depends on the "head". If it's empty then the photo is simply describing the world. If the head is extremely versed in the medium and is a very complex head, then it's telling more what's inside. But that leaves out the viewer to qualify that question. I once had a student, of simple origins, who finally came back to college after giving up a career of working at a chicken plant. He was humble, called me Mr. Northrup. I'd say, "Jim you can call me Mike".  And he'd reply "OK, Mr. Northrup". I thought his images were mind blowing but I don't think he had any idea how or why they were working.

Tell me about this photo from Babe.

The photo of the bird cage was created using this homemade masking device.

I made multiple exposures on a single piece of film. The center of the mask was cut in slices and I photographed through each slice one at a time, moving the cage from slice to slice.  Keeping all the exposures identical makes it look kind of seamless.  

I picked the bird cage because, 1. we had one, and 2. it was kind of iconic for me from childhood days. The architecture is the president's home at Shepherd College and the columns gave a simple classic bit of architecture for the cage to work against. I'm just weaving together stuff from my life. Often times my choices of people, objects, and settings are like the old Surrealist exercise from early 20th century called "Skipreading" which I learned from spending some time with Fred Sommer at his home in Prescott, AZ. A person would take a book and pick, hurriedly and unconsciously, random pieces of text by just scanning and grabbing words. When read back, this would often come out not making much sense but sounding like amazing and beautiful poetry. I think my photos work very much like Skipreadings…

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