Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Q & A with Elaine Mayes

Elaine Mayes is a photographer based in New York and Oregon. Her book Recently is now available from Daylight Books.

How and when did you get into photography?

I began in 1960 at the San Francisco Art Institute. I took a photo class.

Did you grow up in San Francisco or move there later?

I grew up traveling about.  I mostly lived in Oregon and California.  Then there was a war.  My Dad was drafted.  We followed him until he went to France and Italy for two years.  After brief times in Texas and Tennessee we lived with my grandparents in Oregon until after the war when we lived again in California.  I went to Stanford before art school.  I wanted to pursue painting but circumstances led me to the basement and photography.

You lived in Oregon when you were younger? Is that the Brookings connection?

Yes.  I had always wanted to retire on the ocean, so I moved to Brookings after retirement from NYU. I had taught at The University of Minnesota, Hampshire College (founding faculty), Bard College, and one semester at Pratt, ICP, and Cooper Union before my seventeen years at NYU. I also kept a place in New York at first when I went to Oregon. 

What is your general impression of Brookings? How would you describe the place to someone who hasn't been there? 

Brookings is a small town on the Southern Oregon Coast.  It has a beautiful site with two rivers and a now small lily growing farm business.  Brookings has the very best weather anywhere between Santa Cruz to Alaska on the coast. The coastline goes NW and SE, so Brookings is protected from the summer north winds.  The population has been growing, so many people who live there are from Southern California and retired.

OK, so Stanford brought you to the Bay Area and that's where you found photography. What attracted you to it initially? And what were you shooting at first?

Well, I already knew the Bay area because I had lived in Menlo Park when young. After college I was interested in both painting and photography and chose to stay with photography because it took me into the world. I thought as a rather shy person that staying in a studio was a bad idea. I wanted to be challenged. As far as what I was shooting, in art school photography was taught as a poetic visual enterprise, and I began with class assignments and a 35 mm camera. I went into the world to shoot and responded to whatever interested me visually. To me the work of Cartier-Besson and Robert Frank seemed more interesting than the photos of Ansel Adams who began the program with Minor White in 1945, the first college photo program in the country.  In any case, all these people and their work affected me.  I learned a lot from Minor.

Minor White was your instructor?

Yes, for two summer workshops.

What was your initial impression of him?

I took his workshop initially because I thought I disagreed with him.  He then taught me about abstraction, seeing and metaphoric issues, very important ever since.

What did you think you disagreed about?

Hard to define after all these years, but it had to do with street photography, disagreeing I thought with his approaching the medium as a form of making high art and using a 4x5 camera and time to compose a picture.

You mean you were more interested in street photography than him? 

I had understood that the photography I wanted to do was working spontaneously with a small camera.  Minor was a 4X5 type like Ansel.  I wanted to do it all....but I didn't yet understand how much a philosophical approach and aesthetics were my primary interests. I knew that equipment didn't matter except as to serve the best way to approach working.

This image is one of the Haight portraits, one of my favorites.  I used a 2 1/4 Hasselblad on a tripod with the wide angle lens all the way stopped down in order to get maximum depth of field.  The tripod meant a slower working method with more time to compose and choose before shooting.  Also, the tripod meant I looked like an ‘official’ photographer.  The young man was just sitting there leaning on a tree in the Panhandle across from where I lived.  He was very young, and I believe lived in San Francisco but probably was a high school student who was just visiting the Haight.  The portraits came from my personal responses to people I encountered.  If someone looked interesting to me, I asked if I could photograph them.  I had no other agenda except to make sure the images included both men and women in more or less equal numbers.

OK, so you wanted to explore the world (non-studio) with a small camera. How did you wind up making Haight-Ashbury your subject? 

In 1967 I was living in Mill Valley and went to a wonderful rock event on Mt. Tamalpais. I met a guy who said he was doing a book, and would I like to participate? Two days later I went to his commune in the Haight and ended up moving in. Then I moved twice while in the Haight and did the formal portraits because I wanted to make photos about the situation that were not being done by the media…and I was part of the media myself. 

My relationship to the so called Hippies was mostly that they were people like me. I lived with them or next door to them and they also lived in the neighborhood. I was a bit older and a professional photographer, and most of them had no profession.  My work was in photographing the scene, so I was "the  photographer" who lived with Sam and Jan, Jack, Charlie, and sometimes others in our communal three story Victorian on Central Street.

I was a bit old to be a hippie, but I was pursuing newsworthy topics and certainly was sympathetic. I got lots of assignments because I was there. I also had a very good time there.

Did you realize at the time that the scene might have historical interest later? Did it seem odd or unusual at the time? Or just normal?

It was unusual. In the Bay Area in the mid 1960s lots of people started smoking pot and growing long hair, and the "freedom" I and others felt then was exhilarating. It was a good time. I thought the scene should be documented. 

Yes, it was unusual. I made portraits there at the end because I wanted to make pictures that were more of the truth than what the media was publishing. I was part of the media, but I also wanted to make the portraits as a different approach to documentation. The Summer of Love was created by the press, and I was part of this media generated story telling as I said, but I wanted to make the portraits, just each person who was there without any storyline. Also, I was living in rapid cultural change that for me was more about specific people and the weather than any kind of movement.

You mentioned your role in the media. Did that ever become an obstacle to photographing because it cast you as an outsider?

My own shyness was the obstacle in some ways, but people did tease me about my role. Because I was living there I wasn't seen as an outsider any more than any photographer would have been. When I had an assignment I would introduce myself in that manner, let people know what I was trying to do. I also told people I wanted to make a book, and the reason for the portraits was to make the book. I hope to actually make this book before all is said and done.

So most of your subjects were strangers? Looking at the photos I'd assumed they were friends or acquaintances.

In the portraits most are strangers. Some are friends of friends.  Most I met on the Street. I asked if I could photograph them. In those times, it was easy to talk to people on the street since many were just hanging out.

The first year there I also often worked along side Nicholas Von Hoffman who wrote for the Washington Post, and I worked as a  photojournalist on various magazine assignments, but the portraits were something that I did on my own later.   

This image of Richard Brautigan was taken on Haight Street in 1967.  I saw him and asked if I might take his portrait.  The photo was done very quickly and spontaneously. Richard lived near the Haight Ashbury District and most everyone living there knew him or about him.

I noticed Richard Brautigan in one of your photos. Did you know him? 

I met Richard, but I didn't know him well. I remember going to his apartment, and the place was full of books. Books were everywhere. I believe I went there with Nicholas Von Hoffman because Nick was interviewing people who were considered part of the scene.

You've mentioned your shyness a few times. I'm assuming that's not still true or maybe it is. Do you think that was part of the attraction for you to photography? As a sort of therapy to be bolder?

I wouldn't say therapy but instead purpose beyond myself.

And what is that purpose?

In this case, history. No, better to say, I was hired to work, and I had to honor that commitment; therefore I had a passport.

But that makes it seem like just another job. Wasn't there more to it for you? I mean, you're a lifer, right? What's the purpose? Besides history.

I was young then. I think the purpose for myself is different from one that means showing what I do to others… Besides to make history I see photography as a medium that can be used to make art, and like engaging in any art activity it offers feedback on my process and my relationship to what I see with a camera. I had no idea I was a lifer at the time. I was quite interested in popular culture and the latest happenings in the culture.

The Haight series is only one of many on your site. They're all diverse and I've had fun browsing them. I'm guessing they show just a limited selection of what you've done. Looking back at all these projects which one is the most meaningful to you now? In other words, which photographs do you think most strongly represent your photographic voice? And maybe a related question, what connects them all?

I don't think about my work exactly in terms of what is best or what best represents me. In fact I have done many projects since the Haight Ashbury portraits, but most others seem to like the Haight work best. I quit doing portraits in the same manner for several reasons. My Hasselblad was stolen and I couldn't afford to purchase a new one, so I had to return to 35 mm for one thing. Another reason was that when I knew how to photograph in a particular manner and had produced a body of work, I then switched to a new approach or subject. I am someone who is responsive to just about everything. Everything in life and in art influences me all the time. To keep doing only formal portraits seemed like repeating myself, and also after leaving the Haight I got influenced by academia and the idea of working from different perspectives.  The academic situation did not present itself as a good place to make more portraits, though I did some when the students and I went on field trips. One weekend my Photo II class went to Fulda, Minnesota, and I made some portraits of the people who had businesses on the main street. I didn't return to Fulda though, so this group of portraits is quite small, probably only about ten individuals.

I feel my work is connected because the same person is seeing things throughout the years. I have never looked over my shoulder to see who is paying attention, but I am aware that I have been searching for photos for more than fifty years. I believe my work reflects not only my personal interests but also who I am, and in this sense I have always been influenced by everything. I have moved with the times, so to speak. I think my images are connected not by subject matte but by the entirety of my experience. My photos tend to be subtle and quiet. I guess this is true because they come from me, and I am not a loud noisy person.

This photo is of the back yard of my neighbor’s house in Florence, MA 1976.  I took the image from my driveway.  It was spring, and the leaves were a pale green and just emerging.

I have always photographed spontaneously and also have worked on projects for many years at a time. My Soho Walls Windows and Doorways project was begun in 1978 and is still going. My Autolandscape series from 1971 (probably my most innovative) has been repeated four times. My "Things On the Ground" Series has been going since the early 1980s. My photos from Hawaii have been going since 1989. Most all my projects are attempts to extend the idea of "documentary." In all my work I keep trying to see new images. I believe my job is to go beyond what I have seen before or what others have seen, so this means changing what I do when necessary. I think my best work in the final analysis will be my projects, various of them, and many have been in progress for more than thirty years.  

This photo is from my Hawai’i project.  It is the entrance to a Japanese Buddhist temple in Honolulu during the time of the annual Bon Dances.

Do you see many photo shows? Which contemporary photographers do you like?

I certainly don't know many now…some of my ex students, maybe a few others, though I do have trouble remembering names.  I used to keep up with everything, but since retirement from teaching and since outside forces have affected me personally a great deal since then, I have lost touch with a great deal in photography. Also, now there are many thousands of photographers out there all trying to get ahead. The numbers are daunting. 

I like Phil Perkis' images and I like Bill Arnold's. I like Judy Linn. I've seen presentations from others too, but most of these names are difficult to resurrect. I see lots online now, but I rarely see good ones. There's a photographer I met on Facebook, and his photos are great. I would have to look up his name.

Phil Perkis is very good. I have a few of his photo books and also his teaching notes.  

Phil and I along with Ralph Gibson were in school together in San Francisco at The California School of Fine Arts. We are good friends.   

Are you still an active teacher?

No, but I give presentations and sometimes do workshops.  I will be teaching in Hawaii in March and at Hampshire College during the summer of 2015.   

Your website lists Ken Burns as a former student of yours. What was he like as a student?

Ken was a good student and a friend too.  Early on when he was in his third year at Hampshire we began a production company called, Florentine Films when I shot a street film in New York, and Ken and other students helped. Ken took the sound. Others from that era (the early 1970s) have become very successful as well, and I am in touch with all of them. Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman won an Academy Award for their short documentary called, Strangers No More. Roger Sherman has produced a number of interesting documentaries, and most recently Susan Wittenberg and Carol Stein have been making music documentaries for PBS. 

Can you teach someone to see photographs?

I hope so. 

Let me ask it another way. Have you had success teaching that skill? Or is that even a skill that photo programs focus on? I think some programs tend to be more concerned with thinking than seeing.

I never thought of seeing as a skill. I think it is an ability that can be educated and can go further.  Thinking is important too. Seeing is a kind of thinking. It is an act of engagement or consideration.

Well said. But many photographers put thought before seeing. They have an idea about what they will shoot even before they pick up the camera. Whereas the ability to go out into the world and simply react to it before thinking is harder I think. And those are usually the sorts of photos I'm drawn to. 

I mostly agree. I sometimes respond to made up intentions, but I'm partial to eyes, heart, medium, skill and moment.

The idea of just wandering down the street with no idea what you will find is incredibly challenging. Maybe you will come up empty. Maybe it will be a world class photo. And you have no idea when or where the image will strike, or what you're even looking for. That's exciting! But I think the model I just described is falling out of favor now generally.

What to you think is going on now?

Thinking. Photos based on thinking. The brain is in the way. Because brains dominate everything they come in contact with. It's their nature.

Which ones do you mean? Photos that come from ideas can be interesting, but the idea needs to be visual.

There was an exhibit in Portland last month which showed a woman walking in New York. She made self-portraits of herself and how surrounding people reacted to her. That's in the ballpark of what I'm talking about. She had an idea. She executed it. By the time she took the photos, the actual images were an afterthought. I mean, she had a very clear sense of what she wanted and what the photos were likely to look like.

I see. Her images were only an idea…and her idea is illustrated by the photos, but the photos are not good photos…the tricky part. 

Well, maybe they were good. I don't know. They illustrated her idea so they were good in that sense. The other end of the spectrum might be someone like John Gossage who just wanders around shooting small ephemera. A lot of it is boring. But I think it's all unplanned and maybe tapping into the unconscious. Or Eggleston or Bill Dane or Phil Perkis. Good seers. Reacting before thinking. At least I assume. 

Yes, I think they react before thinking somehow. They know where to look... John has a honed visual sensibility. He uses it. He does this well, but the photos normally don't for me go beyond strong skill and lots of formula. I probably should not say this in public because I respect John a great deal.

This image was made during the time I taught at Pratt in 1978.  One of my students was a club doorman, and he invited me to visit the club where he worked.  This night was my first in person introduction to the Punk Music Era that I photographed.  I did not know about the Ramones before this event.
What's [Gossage's] formula?

The formula is a kind of predetermined look for the images, so they are a series.  Is the subject interesting. Is the seeing complete? I think some of his are good design and craft but not enough magic. Of course I realize that many 'important' photographers are not interested in magic. Louis Baltz (RIP) for example wanted to be neutral, and wanted to keep his feelings out of his photos.

[Gossage] knows his own way of seeing so well that it's become a trap for him. That's a potential pitfall for all photographers. How do you be yourself while escaping yourself?

I have no idea…but I keep trying.

That's where outside eyes can help. I have blinders when I look at my own photos. But when I show them to others the filter is removed and they can see problems. As you can see with Gossage.

Outside eyes are very enlightening. At least they can be.

You mentioned the word "magic" and I think that's key. Every photo needs that regardless of what else it has. But the puzzle is that sometimes a lack of magic can be magical. As with Christenberry, Eggleston, Evans, etc. Atget.

Magic is probably not a good word. Let's call it a quality of transformation maybe.

I like the word magic. That's how I connect to photos I like. But many photos I see now I don't get the sense the photographer is feeling magic. But you're right the word sounds a bit wishy-washy. Not very real.

I saw some photos on Facebook of your opening last week.

The opening was great fun and very nice too. It was a one day show and booksigning for my new book.

It always feels good to cap a project. I'm not sure if openings always do that but sometimes they can.

This was I hope the beginning of other such adventures…I would like to have more events for the book.  I'm in Oregon during the winter, so I'm hoping to set up similar kinds of events.

(From Recently) Left: Meal in Italy….Right: Man with water bottle on Broad Street near the Stock Exchange

How did the book come about?

This book happened because I have been trying to do books.  To increase my income I rented my Catskills house and went to Oregon for the winter and lived as house sitter for three months.  I set up my computer and decided to make a book from images taken since I switched to digital.  The first version was an I Photo book. Since these images came from digital files, I could travel and continue my work.

What are the photographs about?

The photos were made in response to seeing and include numerous subjects, places and responses. The book is difficult to describe. It was published by Daylight Books and was released on Nov 12. It became a narrative I made from various situations photographed over a six year period. As was mentioned, I was in Oregon because I was in the process of trying to survive financially. The book comes from the places I saw and went to in order to survive my personal financial downturn. I was on the road every three or four months. I also had a house in Oregon, but it was rented, so I housesat for neighbors. The book is a kind of diary but is not in chronological order. It refers to travel a lot and also to the many dentist visits that were necessary and urgent. (I have photographed myself at the dentist since 1972.) The book is edited form all my images made during that time period.

So it's a recent visual diary of sorts?

Yes, it is called Recently.

How did Daylight become the publisher?

My friend Jeff Jacobson suggested I contact the publishers.  I wanted to do a retrospective kind of book, or a book from my Autolandscape series, but the publishers wanted my 'recent' effort.  So, my iPhoto version became an early dummy.   

Autolandscape, 1971, California

I know you've made other books but I think they're mostly out of print so I haven't seen any of them. But this is the first in a while I think?

Yes, this book is truly recent.

We're living in a photo book boom. Are you in touch with that world? Do you collect other books or keep track of all the new stuff being published? Or some of it?

I realize that books are multiplying all over the place.  Most of them that I have seen don't interest me really.  I can't afford to buy books now, but I want my work to be saved, so books always have seemed to be the best method. Since the medium is in a new circumstance, and I have been a photographer since 1960, I feel I have lived through the boom and into the next phase….photos and photo books everywhere….and many thousands of photographers. When I began we all knew each other. The community of 'serious' photographers was very small then. I'm a relic but still kicking…or is it photographing.

Wait. What is the "new circumstance"?

The new circumstance to me is digital means and social media plus the fact that now everyone is a photographer…I am no longer part of a small select group. Also, I taught photography for thirty-five years and feel somewhat responsible for what I call the 'boom." When I began teaching in 1968 I was the first female to teach film and photography in any American University...many ex-students are out there now doing well.

Ah, so it's your fault. :-)

Well, the number of professionals certainly needs to be considered…and how they got there….but the digital revolution is another matter way beyond anything related to me.

I suppose I'm part of the more recent generation although I've been shooting more than 20 years. But part of why I do these interviews is to find out about earlier shooters.

Good for you!  I think that we early devotees came to the medium for very different reasons than what people use photography for now. I love being in the world, and as I mentioned earlier, a camera has always been my passport of sorts. For me photography enabled participation in circumstances that I would not have accessed without a camera. Photography always has been a passionate way to operate, and I still keep learning by doing photography. I love to learn and hate being bored. I also think about things, and photography enables thoughtful introspection.

You say people come to photography for different reasons now than before. Why did they come to it in the past? And how is the reason different now, in your opinion?

My reasons are very connected with considering myself an artist.   was a painter before photography. Now, people communicate with photos (social media) and art is not a consideration. Also however, some get large careers not available when I began (Cindy Sherman and others), and the medium is ubiquitous to say the least. I suspect most all people hate being bored or dealing with reality, so distraction is a major force in human behavior, and doing photography keeps me occupied. Photography is unique because it has so many many applications. I love the philosophical issues that surround the medium, always have. I guess I don't feel many photographers do all the art thinking and developing (old term) of skill that I have embraced. Technical stuff is not really interesting to me, but knowing about putting together a great photo matters to me….and I think this kind of delving into the medium is quite uncommon. I think many believe they will have an interesting life style or make money, and the photography part comes second. With me the opposite is true.

Many interesting points raised. Let me tease out a few. Are there really any uniform guides to putting together a good photo? Like the rule of thirds or something? I suspect it's good to know how to put a great photo together, but mostly so you can unlearn that technique and do the opposite of what you're "supposed" to do. But maybe that's the distracted photographer in me seeking variation for just for its own sake.

OK…where to begin…..well, knowing the history of painting, thirds, good design and all that are very helpful of course.  But my intent is to see well and in my own manner. To this extent I don't throw out rules but try to get at what I see instead, something I consider difficult. I love snapshots, and many of my photos are just that. The difference between me and many others though is that I practice trying to see beyond what has been seen before. Also, I began as a painter, and my painting background and art education are very much a basis for what I do. It is mostly impossible to see beyond what has been done of course, but it is my goal. I choose the best image from my snaps for reasons very difficult to describe. It usually can best be talked about with a specific photo present….composition, moment, light, design, intention, zing, and other words that have no actual reference to anything except maybe emotions.  

This photo was found in Monteriggioni, Italy…I took it primarily for two reasons:  The landscape behind the Mona Lisa image is in fact the same landscape that is in the image.  Also, the image is a photo copy on the side of a porta potty.  One of my recent projects is photos seen in public places.  I love the fact that the image does not reveal exactly its circumstances, a kind of irony because one of the world’s most famous and respected paintings is now reproduced on the side of a portable bathroom.  I wonder what Walter Benjamin would say about this!

I'm a big believer in snapshots made with not much thought or "skill". I think they are sometimes pretty profound. Although usually not. 

Snapshots are most mysterious….some are fabulous…all great photos are mysterious somehow. When one can make thousands of exposures, editing and choosing is what has to happen. I like the idea of a moment that reveals something….I love the idea of mute poetry (spoken about in my new book). I like spending time looking at things. I love it if I feel I got a 'good' image, but defining this quality is a very complicated task.

So the main skill in photography isn't technical. It's finding your visual voice. Tough assignment. Is this the skill that you mentioned above which is lacking in current shooters?

Another difficult question.  Yes, I do see a lot of photos that I have seen before done by other people earlier and usually better. We all have seen many thousands of images. I just try not to do the ones that others do but instead my own. I realize many of mine also look like those of others….and this is a tricky situation. Maybe the concern is to make bodies of work that others are not doing. Many images I see on the internet lack a feeling of passion…they are skillful but not interesting, and the only quality I can ascribe to my experience then is that the photo does not mean anything to me. Very few images are really interesting…and the more one sees makes the issue is very difficult to tackle or get at because well, photography is mysterious after all really. A photo concerns a point in time and intention plus the medium itself and how it operates. I'm taking about photography done with a camera of course, and I'm talking about "seeing." Most current shooters have learned technique but not the 'thinking' part that I believe is so important. Many shooters have no idea what "seeing" is about.

What photo by someone else is really interesting to you. I'm sure there are many but is there one which comes quickly to mind?

I like most of Helen Levitt's photos. I like one or two by a number of photographers. I always loved Edward Weston's Charis nudes. I used to want to be Paul Caponigro, and I was fascinated by Wynn Bullock's images. Then I loved Timothy O'Sullivan's landscapes. I guess my most favorite photographer over time has been Adam Clark Vroman. I love older photos that show me something that existed then…the history part of images. Besides Helen it is interesting that the photographers mentioned here use large format cameras.

Adam Clark Vroman

You made a video about Helen Levitt, right? What was she like as a person? And what do you think distinguished her photos from other street photographers?

My video is not finished. I need a Final Cut Pro expert who could help me since I have not been able to keep up with the editing part. 

Here is what I have to say about Helen: She is mostly invisible to her subjects.  She catches moments that should be photos. She doesn't plan or wait. She doesn't intrude.  She is kind to her subjects. She just sees and snaps. Helen is difficult to describe as a person, but when my video is complete I hope to shed light on this question. I think most of what has been written about her work and intentions is inaccurate, so perhaps my video can shed more light. Helen does not wait for photos, and she doesn't appear to be taking advantage of her subjects. 

I think she used a right-angle lens at times which helped her stay invisible. 

She really didn't use a right angle finder, although she had one. That is one of the things said about Helen that is not accurate! One time I borrowed her finder to use on the subway. It was much more difficult to use than shooting from the hip. When I returned the finder to Helen I told her that it didn't work for me. Helen then told me it never worked for her either.   

She is one of my favorites too. Did you go out shooting with her?

I didn't really go out shooting with her except for our summer vacations. I feel I knew her well though, and I would like to tell the world what I learned about Helen! Talking about what she was like would be a huge conversation…a long one. Most of the writing about Helen's intentions is incorrect;  the reason I would like to finish my video! Maybe I could set the record straight.

I guess I will find out in the video about Levitt. 

(All photos above by Elaine Mayes unless otherwise noted)

1 comment:

matty said...

Blake, thanks for yet another wonderful interview, and introduction to another 'early devotee'. I'm not surprised to see Perkis mentioned (a favourite I also discovered through you), I clicked on the link to Elaine's website and straight into 'The teaching years', mainly because the photo on that section reminded me of his.
Looking forward to browsing through her archives!