Thursday, September 25, 2014

Q & A with Jeffrey Ladd

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer and new father based in Cologne.
How did you wind up there [in Germany]?

I've been coming here for a few years after Errata got started. I met my wife who lives here and decided to try living in Europe. I was feeling like NY no longer had the hold it had on me before.

Errata is published there?

Well, no we are based in NY but all the production is via computer so technically I could be anywhere. I was traveling to Europe for festivals like Paris Photo or the Kassel Photobook Festival and I knew several book people based in Cologne so this city would be my starting and end point. 

And how do you like it?

Cologne is a cool art friendly city (unlike NYC) with a few important galleries, a lot of museums and a long history of great art (Polke, Richter, Sander and others). My cost of living here is about 1/3 of NY so I don't have to struggle as much to make ends meet. 

I always thought of NYC as the art capital. But maybe that only applies to the collectors, not actual working artists. 

NY is an art capital for the wealthy or artists that get their 15 minutes of recognition and parlay that further. It is not very art friendly. I know more struggling artists with good unrecognized work who turn bitter in NY than anywhere else. I'd say that isn't too cool.

Do you feel like a stranger in Cologne? Does that effect your photos and/or thoughts? I'm asking because I noticed on your website a division between HOME and THE ROAD.

Well I am an auslander (foreigner) as they say. It has affected my work in that the new photos are about place and language specific to Germany.

Wedding, from Nachbarschaften series

For you, what setting is most conducive to making strong photographs? Unfamiliar surroundings or familiar surroundings?

I am not sure it could be a simple division like "familiar" or "unfamiliar". I am here so I respond to what is here which is unfamiliar. Whereas I lived in one place for most of my life and photographed what was familiar. I can say that I can’t remember being more excited and inspired about my work than where I find myself now.

Your new photos seem to be more about space and geometry and buildings than people. I'm not sure if that's due to living in a foreign place or if it's a shift with you internally. What do you think?

I do not set many constraints with my work but I did make one when I moved here which was to put people on the back burner for the time being. I did not want to move here and just continue to a lesser extent what I had pursued for years in NYC. I consciously wanted to approach something different. I had no idea if it would be fruitful or not.

Why? Just for the sake of change? Or did you feel the attraction to people was a dead end? 

I wanted to move away from what I had been doing, which is commonly referred to as "street photography." I found I respond to very different things here, things I hadn't paid much attention to in the States. In NY I never really looked at architecture as something meaningful to my photographs. I made some panoramics of homes and the suburbs of NY and New Jersey but never really considered what I had done as important. It didn’t fit with my other work so it stayed in boxes. I recently reedited that work and found it very interesting.

from In Passing series

This relates to your thoughts mentioned at one point about street photography. I can't remember the quote but it was something on the In-Public board about growing tired of that type of work. Did I remember that right? Do you still feel that way?

I mainly grew frustrated with those guys [In-Public] splitting hairs over what I saw as mediocre work. It seemed like they would never put someone's work, or invite someone to be a part of IP, if the work was better than the founder’s. That is what seemed true with what I was seeing at the time. Maybe it was in my head.

Can you think of a specific photographer? Who should have been invited there that wasn't added?

Not off the top of my head but they would send emails with a selection of people’s work asking our thoughts and who we would support for ‘inclusion’. And it was mostly just a rehash of every silly pun picture I have seen before and not interesting to me. That's why I said, whoever they invite that they should just replace me because I lost interest in that language of photography. That pissed off some people.

I was OK with it but curious why. Now I know a bit more.

And putting up "masters" like Richard Kalvar? That's really funny. Sounds like they were really scraping the bottom of the barrel there.

Not a Kalvar fan? He's got some very nice photos.

Everyone who has worked as long as Kalvar might have some good ones. The "masters" section of the site is pretty funny. Meyerowitz ok, he has great work but the others are not really what I would consider worthy of that title. Nice guys. But a little overstated.

I'd consider Saul Leiter a master. 

I hadn’t seen the site added Leiter as a master but I still wouldn’t consider him worth the title. Saul Leiter is someone who’s photographic work was from the 40s to the late 60s (?). He seemed to have been really engaged in photography for a couple decades. Is Steidl publishing anything else? Later work? His photos with painting on them? He was good in his short moment and made some interesting work but in actuality he was someone who worked for a few years and was ‘rediscovered’ in 1993 (I saw the show) and marketed by a gallerist. He is not someone like Meyerowitz who has engaged full-heartedly in this medium for most of his life, has an incredibly deep archive, and who’s voice, for better or worse depending on your view, evolved in different directions.

Who else do think think should be in the Master's section?

It is the usual suspects but the photographers or their estates would probably not allow it. 

Yeah, that's the catch. Anyway your comments about seeing the same photo again and again struck home. Because that's something that a lot of people think about street photography, that it's hard to shoot the genre in a new way. Maybe that's true of photography in general. But I think with street it's more acute. And I think it tends to drive people away eventually. Like you.

Of course but there were other factors too. Modern life (and not that I want my photos to look old) has intervened in ways that are uninteresting to me but unavoidable to have to deal with. Cell phones and a large part of the society looking at cellphones is not interesting to me. Plus, I worked for 25 years in NY. I had done ‘it’ and said all of what I felt I wanted to say. I leave it to others. Impress me....please. I’d love to see someone brilliant trump the old guard.

You don't want to see cellphones appear in photos? Or don't like pix shot with them?

Cell phones have changed the social landscape of what cities look like. People are looking down into their devices more often than not. It is hard to make a photo without that appearing somewhere in the frame. Some would say that is a challenge. I was done. 

Do you use a cell phone yourself? Do you think they symbolize something nefarious, a society of people focused inside machines instead of relating to the people and environment around them?

They aren’t nefarious, just silly. I have a phone but don’t use it too often. I had one in NY too. People looking down is just not interesting to me and to date I haven’t seen a cell phone picture that will replace a single great work of art.

There's definitely a lot of rehashed puns, etc, in the street world. But I'm not quite ready to toss out the whole thing. I just saw Errata's Bad Weather at Powell's, for example. I know it's an old book but it was a reminder that with skill that type of photography can still seem fresh. What do you think about street photography in general? Is it still a valid form? Or do you think it's reached an artistic plateau? What street photography excites you now, if any?

Of course it is still a valid form. Limiting it to what you mean by ‘the streets’ is where I have reservations though. How are my photos in neighborhoods in Germany not ‘street’ photos? There is a street there. They are as valid as ‘street’ photos as any. It just isn’t what people think of when they talk about ‘street’ photography. They mean Klein, Levitt or Winogrand. But those terms are the same ones Winogrand always pointed out as being silly and meaningless.

die Rampe, from The Awful German Language series

My definition of street is pretty open. It includes any candid photo made under unplanned circumstances. And since I don't live in a large city that often includes quiet scenes or family photos or whatever. But in the question above I was referring to the more classic understanding, shooting strangers in urban settings. Do you think it's possible to take that someplace new?

I think anything is possible. I don’t have solid examples to point you towards as far as people working today that do it. Maybe Katy Grannan. Have you seen her two-volume book The Nine and The Ninety-nine? The black and white work she made in Modesto, California is amazing. The downside is that the subjects are ‘the other’ (prostitutes, drug addicts and homeless) and not really people I can connect with other than as stereotypes but what she made is really interesting to me. I am not so interested in her color ‘street portraits’ as she chooses to show only the seemingly damaged. They are all very skillfully made and interesting in their way but I prefer what she did in black and white. It seems to be a modern approach into FSA territory.

from the series 9, Katy Grannan

In terms of that language of small camera in big cities, you are up against a lot to make something your own. As far as contemporary work Paul Graham approached ‘something’ (I am being purposely vague here) with his book The Present but I wasn’t convinced enough to buy it even though he was celebrating what people like me love about the medium.

How active are you now as a photographer? Does publishing/writing take up most of your creative time? Do you still hire out as a darkroom printer?

No, writing and publishing is a small part of my time. When I moved to Germany I photographed nearly everyday. I don't have a traditional job so I have lots of time. Now I have twin girls 11 months old which has changed the game but I can still work nearly everyday if I want. My wife and I are both stay at home parents for the next two years. We go for long walks almost everyday with the kids in the stroller and I have made a lot of new work. Much of The Awful German Language part on my site has been made on those walks.

I like those pix.

The other Nachbarschaften (neighborhoods) section is also from before the kids and continuing now during those daily walks. 

Is your wife a photographer? Does she have any interaction with your photo making process, either on the walks making them or looking at the results later?

My wife is a bookseller with Walther Koenig here in Cologne. Koenig essentially started the first shop to concentrate on art books in Germany in the 60s and is considered the most important art bookstore chain in the world. They have also have a publishing company which since the 60s has made artist books and catalogs with most of the really groundbreaking artists in Germany and elsewhere like Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Martin Kippenberger, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Fischli/Weiss and literally hundreds of others.

My wife knows a lot about photography through books which makes us a good pairing except when she wants to look at my contact sheets. 

You don't show them to her? Or you argue over her assessment of them? Do you show them to anyone else?

My contacts remain private. I show what I want people to see - family included. When I die they can have a field day.

Errata Books on Books #17, Martin Parr's Bad Weather

People like to recognize my writing or the Errata books but I am a photographer first and always have been. I found it funny that people saw it the other way around. I was at a museum opening in Essen and Martin Parr asked me what I was doing now that my old 5B4 blog was over. I said “I’ve just been photographing,” and he replied, “Oh, so you’re giving it a go at being a photographer now.” That was funny. I somehow have to justify myself as a photographer now because people got to know me through a blog. At the end of the day when I quit everything else, you'll have to put up with my photos if you want to know about me.

How about back during the 5B4 era? Was that pretty demanding timewise? Is that why it ended?

During the 5b4 days I was photographing more than I ever had actually. I wasn't producing much that I was excited about sharing but I was out everyday. The real story is that I was going through a divorce then. I started 5B4 to keep my mind off the shit I was living through. So I spent all day in the streets photographing and then all night until I was too exhausted, writing. Look at those early weeks and months of 5B4 and you'll see that I was posting every night and usually between 1 and 3 am. I was a bit out of my mind. 5B4 kept me a little more sane.

It's interesting that you generated such a strong public presence in a time of personal crisis. I tend to react opposite. When I am down, I become withdrawn. I need to feel a wind in my sails to post on the blog. If it's not there it's a negative feedback loop for me and I can't get going. But maybe you are the opposite? Or you used 5B4 as personal therapy to pull you out of your funk?

Like I said, it started as a way to keep my mind off replaying my misery over and over, trying to master my feelings.

Was the process of making photographs also therapeutic? 

Only in that it kept me out of the house for 10 hours a day and is so physically exhausting that there was no doubt I would eventually sleep deeply.

I didn't realize what time of day the posts were but I know it was prolific. And good. So your diminished online presence is a sign of good things behind the scenes.

You might say that.

What about 4B5? That doesn't seem very active.

I stared 40x50 to sell stuff - books and prints. I thought if it succeeded then I would keep a blog running and hope it drives traffic to the site. I sold a decent amount but the reception for my prints was very lukewarm. Can't say that isn't frustrating since I was offering copies of my work very cheap. 

I wish I could offer advice but I'm even worse at selling photos. But I think there is a point if the price is very inexpensive that reverse psychology comes into play. People disbelieve a deal that seems too good to be true. It's almost easier to sell something for $400 than $40. It's not a rational market.

It is hard to say. You have to find your audience. More young artists out there think their work is worth something so they keep it in boxes. I wanted my work to 'work' for me and keep me in paper and film since I moved to a different country and no longer had my steady contacts for work.

I like the idea of cheaper art al a Jen Beckman's 20x200. So thought I would try my own small version.

I bought a few 20x200 prints. The quality was sort of Meh. About what you'd expect for $20.

For 20 dollars there you get an ink jet print at 8x10. I was offering a hand made print out of my darkroom for $40. The quality is the same as my larger final prints, the only difference is it is not signed but stamped. Cheaper than most books but prints are not precious to me.

If it's signed by you it costs more. What does a signature add? A dumb question maybe. But not as easy to answer as it might seem.

Novi Sad, Serbia, 2001
The signature is just for someone who cares about such things. I had an inquiry lately from a person who only collects vintage prints. 

Would you consider yourself such a person? Does a signature matter to you?

For a long time I would ask people to sign my books. I was asked once at a gallery by one of the owners why I prefer to get books signed (this was at a booksigning which I thought was an odd question). I said if there were two copies of the same book sitting in front of you, one was signed and the other wasn’t, and they cost the same, which would you prefer? She claimed to have not cared. I replied that obviously she knows others do care, that’s why she was having a booksigning for an artist.

Part of what you're running into is that the audience is maybe not as discerning as 30 years ago. A cheap inkjet looks fine. A darkroom prints looks fine. To many people they don't notice the difference. Maybe you've just got to give them what they want.

You asked about 4b5 not being active. I don't want to provide a lot of my energy through content to people for free anymore. if you like what I do, you support it like I support people I like. If you don't support it, my free content goes away.

Yeah, monetizing online information is a very very sticky wicket. It can be done but only if you have something very special or can scale your audience to a large size. Maybe that was the basic conundrum faced by photobloggers. There was a huge wave of blogging for a few years until people got tired of giving away their energy for free. But nothing has really replaced that model. Just less blogs around.

Initially I did it, like I said, for me. Much later I did it for the audience and just grew tired. I asked for donations but only a few donated. Weirdly those few kept donating fairly constantly. I appreciated that but I also just ran out of new things to say.

Maybe you could include a password to the site only for those who purchase prints?

Earlier you said "prints are not precious" to you. What do you mean?

I am a print maker by trade. A print is a piece of paper. I can make loads of great prints in a day so I would sell you one cheaper than others might.

Do you think the fine art print is still the ultimate expression of a photograph?

No. I only think the photo and what it means to the viewer is important. If it conveys something to you, it doesn’t matter if it is a photo in a book, on a museum wall or in an old newspaper covered in bird shit.

That's a precarious stance for someone trying to sell photos. A computer jpg is accessible, free, and generally serviceable at expressing a photo's main idea. Where does that leave prints?

Now I realize why I don’t sell many prints. People are just grabbing my images and using them as their screen savers! I like the idea of that. I am honored but please do not turn off your computer. 

I don’t know what to tell you, Blake. I look at a print in a museum I am not standing there drooling over the print, it's the photograph. I have seen BEAUTIFUL prints of the lousiest pictures and vice versa. If someone wants a xerox and that’s fine then so be it. If you want to look at your photos on the internet then that is fine too. Until they figure out how to just plug this shit directly into your brain then there always has to be a vehicle for that experience and for almost two centuries it has been prints in one form or another.

So you're still printing in Germany? You have a darkroom?

I have a darkroom above my apartment. It proves a nice get away when the kids go to bed. I print my own work of course but I have no printing clients here at the moment. I wish I did. If you are out there, look me up.

What music or audio do you listen to in the darkroom?

In NYC I used to listen to NPR most of the time but here I listen to all the same crap that gave me tinnitus when I saw it live - 1980s hardcore. My taste in music was stunted from the start. It’s embarrassing but true.

Do you ever feel like a dinosaur? Most of the photo world has abandoned darkrooms for newer technology. Is there something in that process that's therapeutic? Or do you think the end result is better? I still would rather have a silver gelatin print of a photo than an inkjet. But I think I'm in a shrinking minority.

I have said before that digital prints are probably much better than mine but I like this process. When I moved here I bought new darkroom equipment for very cheap. Brand new stuff. I paid 600 euros for a Durst 4x5, 150, 80, 50  lenses, a Seal 16x20 drymount press, and two saunders 4 blade easels (11x14 and 16x20). A guy had bought it all new and then died without using it. Yes I am a dinosaur. Proudly. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for millions of years.

I keep waiting for the darkroom revival. Like with vinyl records. When the world is awash in inkjets a darkroom print takes on a sort of unique quality.

Like I said, it is an enjoyable process. I don't really like doing things on the computer and figuring out how to print it that way.

The dirty secret of chemical printing is that no one can see you dance in the darkroom.
from The Photobook Museum's Facebook page

Are you involved with The Photobook Museum?

I wasn't a part of the photobook museum in any way. I heard about it a few years ago in the planning and was very skeptical. I saw it just a couple weeks ago and I have to say I was impressed. 

Why were you skeptical? It seems right up your alley.

Well, what is the audience for a photobook museum? Who would not be skeptical? Turns out the museum will only be there for a few more weeks and then they have to figure out where else to do it. Unexpectedly here in Cologne the opening brought out 3,500 people from all over Europe. That said, I didn't like most of the work shown but I liked what they created. The space was impressive and how they dealt with exhibiting, and the scale reproduction of Cafe Lehmitz as a bar for beer and snacks.

They reproduced Cafe Lehmitz inside?

Yes they had a to scale walk in bar...with Anders' Cafe Lehmitz photos on the outside walls.

3,500 people is a lot. Does that mean there is a strong photo community in Cologne? 

Cologne is historically a strong art and photo center. There is Photokina happening right now which is a long running photo fair. Mostly technical bullshit but lots of exhibitions happen around now. 

Do you have a community of others there to share work with, etc?

I keep mostly to myself. I have some photo friends here that I used to share a darkroom space with before my family moved into this apartment and could make the one upstairs. 

Given your strong interest in photobooks, why haven't you published one of your own? There's even a nearby museum to collect it.

Ha! When I feel I have something worth publishing you'll know it. 

Surely it's in the back of your mind. You must have thoughts on design and editing that you want to apply to your own photos. Or maybe they are too hard to pin down and make final?

I have made many dummies but I lose interest in them after a while. I have my own criteria for my own work and book - the first criteria is asking “Is it necessary.”  This game is about challenging myself and having that thing, whatever I create, be something so meaningful to me that I have to share it. 

You mean you aren't yet satisfied with your photos?

Just because you can publish doesn't mean you should. No, I am a complete opinionated snob in regards to my own output but it isn't self satisfaction I feel. That is a tricky and, I think, dangerous feeling. It is more like I sense that what I am doing is feeling out a better understanding of the world as I experience it. Trying to instill and then decipher that in photographs is the pleasurable problem. It has little to do with what I could publish at any moment. I see too many books that show me what NOT to do. 

What are some things NOT to do when making a book?

Many books are just too superficial in my opinion. They do not feel "necessary" other than seemingly to fill a void in some person's ego or desire to be noticed. A lot of photographers – and this is not limited by any means to the younger ones — seem to have a few interesting photos under their belt and then think they'll make a book, so they just repeat themselves 47 more times and there you have it. 

I hate to single Txema Salvans as an example as I think he is actually a good and interesting photographer but his book The Waiting Game (RM Editorial, 2013) about women prostitutes waiting along roadsides in Spain I think is an example of this. It isn't a bad book but it does strike the same note for me over and over again. They are well made photographs but I am not sure it is a book because for me it just feels like reading 50 versions of the same sentence. A lot of books are like that but with REALLY shitty sentences to begin with that the 'artist' expects you to read over and over again. At least Txema is a good photographer and I think I'll always look out for what he produces. 

On the other hand a good photographer like Carolyn Drake had her work in Two Rivers run through the grinder by the designer with his cleverness. She showed me an early dummy and I made those comments that the design cost the images their strength because the design interrupted the individual photos by bending around the page edges. That happens a lot too where the pictures are thrown under the bus for the design. It is a hard balance to achieve. People don't want their work to be put to sleep in a traditional book, yet by overcompensating with design the work suffers. 

Sample spread from Two Rivers by Carolyn Drake
Twenty Question Photo-Rorschach: For each item in the list below, react quickly and briefly in just one or a few words. Don't overthink. First thought = best thought.


stand still


Chocolate vanilla almond



Viviane Sassen 




Circle Jerks

Keith Morris in a leg cast

Joerg Colberg

Bad-ass western movie star


no sleep





Louis Faurer

mad scientist hair

Google Street View

I can see my old house!


camera vests

Joachim Schmidt

Printed Matter




baby snakes

Alex Prager

missed catching that flyball in the World Series



America's Got Talent

I beg to differ

Miroslav Tichy

old perv with a shitty enlarger

(All photos above by Jeffrey Ladd unless otherwise noted)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Photo Reviews Don't Hire Kittens

1. Reviewers sidetracked by relentness need to pounce on identification lanyards.

2. Kittens can't focus on anything for more than 7 seconds, requiring review times to be reduced to one minute sessions. Still not enough time for kittens to absorb basic information, nor for in-depth critique. 

3. Some reviewees discovered they could sway kitten opinion with catnip, creating unfair critical disparity. 

4. Cuteness rivets reviewees and renders them helpless to do anything but stare fawningly across the table at the reviewer.

5. Hairballs.

6. Kittens fall under the feline critical wing which argues that the unchecked proliferation of photographic images has created a "chronic voyeuristic relation" between photographers and their visual prey. If the Studium is a sort of education, the Punctum's condescension to mere meaning is not easily synthesized into formalist constraint, at least to a kitten.

7. Kittens don't have the right gallery and publishing connections.

8. When the bell chimes between review sessions, all hell breaks loose in a room full of kittens and prints.

9. Too few photographers willing to pay $800 for feedback from a kitten, even if the kitten has an MFA in photography.

10. Kittens can't talk.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Do The Math

I seldom post naked commercial pitches here but this one is too good to pass up, plus Missy promised me a cut for traffic passing through my site to hers. For every 10,000 paying customers I send her way, I win a brand new Camaro, just like the one in that picture of hers. You can do the math: 30,000 pass-throughs equals three Camaros, enough for myself and two close buddies to cruise in. Who says photographers can't live the high life just by doing what we love? 

Well, maybe Missy for one. She needs to buy more film and somehow get to Mississippi this Fall. So she's selling prints for a goddamn reasonable price: 10 for $40 or 20 for $75. That's almost as inexpensive as it gets for handmade darkroom prints. Almost.

I've seen these prints in person. They're the real deal. So is Missy, and together we're on a mission. When these prints sell out and you see me blow by you the next day in my three new Camaros, don't say I didn't warn you.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Some Spots Do

I stopped briefly in Tonopah, Nevada on a family road trip in March. It struck me immediately with a strange vibe. There was no time to really explore — three kids waiting in the car and we had to make Vegas by evening— so we gassed up and left. But it seemed inviting. It felt like the sort of place that might be pregnant with photo ops if one poked around: desolate and tucked in a mountain armpit and speckled with old buildings. Can I use the word godforsaken? Is that too strong? There was a deserted mining museum and an old hotel with scaffolded marquee. Tonopah was one of the few places on the road between Reno and Vegas to force an actual turn in the highway. So that was something. 

When I saw Bryan Schutmaat's photo hanging in Newspace a few months ago, I recognized the place immediately. Why, I know that town, I thought. I've been there. And his photo pretty much sums it up. 

Anyone who is reading this now in Tonopah is about to have a shit fit. I know what you're thinking: this picture does not sum it up. No more than Migrant Mother sums up The Depression. OK, point taken.

Hey, relax. I know there's more to your town than derelict cars and tarpaper shacks. I know people grow begonias there too and discuss Foucalt over espresso. Maybe. But the view above makes for a better photo. It captures the spirit not only of Tonopah, but central Nevada and the whole Great Basin, at least as seen through the eyes of a hip urban photographer-on-the-road passing through. 

Turns out Schutmaat isn't the only person to photograph Tonopah. He's not even the first to see it from that particular perspective. Here's a shot by Bruce Haley made near the same place in 2005, several years before Schutmaat's:

According to Bruce his vantage shows "an overview of the town, perhaps three-quarters of it, and in the lower right you can see the area where Bryan Schutmaat made his image seven years later (obviously much of the detritus hasn't moved in those seven years).  I photographed just about the entire town plus its outskirts, and spent quite a bit of time working in the same area of Bryan's  image  -  and I would have to say that that particular neighborhood is the oldest and most run down/impoverished, and certainly the most 'photogenic' if you're looking for the houses with the greatest amount of junk piled around them, the most abandoned cars in the yard, etc. etc.  However, the entire town certainly does not look that bad, though admittedly it has seen better days  -   being historically mining-centered and thus prone to boom-and-bust cycles, it is unfortunately more in the 'bust' portion of the cycle these days."    

I think it's interesting that Bruce and Bryan were drawn to almost the same spot. Maybe it was the distant mountains, or the high vantage. Or the tendency for photographers to mistake entropy for significance. Or, or...something. I'm not sure what. Looking at these photos I feel that I too might have been pulled to that place if the kids hadn't been so impatient. There's just something about it. 

Some spots work. Most don't. Finding the ones that do is the bread-and-butter of photography. That's pretty obvious for landscape shooters. But I think it's just as true for all other types. You've got to have a nose for geomorphology and angles. Drop 10 strong photographers of all styles in Tonopah and I bet they all wind up eventually at the place above.

By the way, Bruce has a new blog. It's just a few weeks old but it's been interesting to read so far. Check it out when you get a chance.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 1989

My mom's been on one of her purging kicks lately. One of the things she no longer wants is a small binder of old negatives she made long ago while taking a black and white photo class. She asked if I wanted them and I said sure. I'm on the opposite of a purge kick. Always have been, especially when photos are involved.

Like most people taking an intro class she was just putting her foot in the water, so there are only a handful of rolls to deal with. They begin in September 1989 and go through the fall. If my math is right that's exactly a quarter century ago. 

I was spending some time at home then, so I became an unwitting model in many of her photos. I had no interest in photography and no awareness of her shooting me, so it was a bit jarring to have this time capsule pop into my lap recently. I had forgotten some of this period, and these pictures filled in missing memories. I wouldn't remember any of these scenes without the photos

Here's me at the family table reading a magazine in September 1989. I was twenty. 

Sigh...another goddamn longhaired hippie kid. Just what the world needs. 

The truth is I should've been in college but I was taking a year off to "explore my options." That was code speak for "I don't know yet what to do with my life so I think I'll drop out of school for a while until I sort it out," which was code for "Stop bugging me, this magazine is important." 

The college dropout above had just returned from Alaska where he'd spent the summer working in a park near Fairbanks, digging trails by day, playing guitar by dusk, and looking for beauty and meaning, man, if only the fucking mosquitoes would lay off. Now I was back home for a few weeks plotting my next move, which turned out to be pretty predictable: I needed a VW camper van, preferably the kind with fridge and spinning front seat and Jerry's voice annoying the neighboring lanes. A chick magnet? Not exactly. But I could sleep anywhere in the country for free, which seemed more important than just about anything.

The plan was to live in a van for a few months while I explored the United States with the two guys in the photo below. That's Jason on the right and Andrew in the middle. And a fixer stain center-right.

You may be wondering if that's a washing machine in the rear by the refrigerator. Why yes. Yes, it is. And a stove nearby too. The rest of the kitchen is out of frame to the left. This is the corner of our one-room home that had running water, so all of our appliances were bundled together. The woodstove to the extreme right provided all heat for the room and was sometimes the warmest place in the house by 20 degrees. No utilities or sewage. Walker Evans would've hit paydirt here for sure, but my mom beat him to it. 

My dad is also in this photo (background in white T-shirt) but he wasn't coming cross country. He'd already driven coast to coast several times in his own VW van decades earlier. Now it was our turn. Andrew I were battle tested. We had just driven 2,000 miles down the lonely Al-Can from Fairbanks. So we felt ready, just as soon as we could find time to take a shower. And, um, a van. 

In late September the three of us made a weekend trip to the Bay Area where we stayed with Andrew's aunt while we hunted down various van leads in the newspaper. There were only a few Westfalias but they were spread around the city so it took most of a day to see all of them all. The one we came back with is in the photo below: a 1983 Westfalia with watercooled engine and 50,000 miles on the odometer. That became my home away from home for the next 4 years until I moved to Portland.

In the photo above we hadn't yet gotten around to that shower. If we look haggard, it was a calculated expression. The truth is we were psyched! We felt like big game hunters in this photo returning from the kill with the van slung over our shoulders. It had electricity! And running water! And a mini-fridge. We were ready to take on the country. 

But first, a day trip to the Sinkyone Wilderness to test out the van and enjoy time with friends. I think I would've forgotten this trip if my mom hadn't taken these pictures. It turned into a good photo op for her class. 

This photo shows a bunch of us hanging out in a meadow which is about 200 feet directly above the Pacific Ocean. To this day I still think it's the most beautiful spot in the world. I've had some good times there.

Here's another photo from the meadow showing Andrew on the left, me in the center, and Lynn sitting down who is now my neighbor in Eugene. Small world. The guy on the right is my high school buddy Bret. 

I hadn't seen Bret in a while, and in the midst of catching up I mentioned we were about to drive around in a van for the next few months to see what was out there. Bret was enrolled at UC Santa Cruz that fall but was thinking about "exploring his options" too. He asked if there might be room in the van. We said sure. So he dropped out of school and we recruited him. Then where were four of us. 

I'm not sure why my mom took the photo above. She was still wrestling with concepts like focus and exposure but despite that the photo really pops. It's got great form. I like to imagine it shows Bret in the very act of deciding to come with us. Or maybe dropping a deuce. One or the other. Photos can be ambiguous at times. In the photo below, for example, Andrew has just had a heart attack. Or maybe he hasn't.

The first week of October we left on our trip. We drove north through Oregon, then east, then hit 47 out of 50 states. We had many many many many misadventures and discoveries along the way. I was on a stupid health kick. I'd stopped drinking but was open to hallucinogens and backroads. We broke down in Ithaca. We slept in a sorority house. We cleaned up after Hurricane Hugo. We backpacked naked. We had fun.  

I wish I could show you pictures but there aren't any! None of us were photographers nor even casual snap-shooters. And this was before cellphones, Instagram, Facebook, or any easy recording options. We had no camera. So we spent 3 months driving around enjoying life, buzzing with youthful exuberance, leaving no record and documenting nothing. It was definitely the best road trip of my life.

I take that back. I did have one method of documentation and that was audio. My dad had given me a tape recorder at the beginning of the trip, and I used it over the next few months to record snippets of conversation, found sounds, and whatever audio events struck my interest. Looking back, maybe that was the beginning of my life as a photographer. It's not much different than what I do now visually. But this was with sound. 

At the end of the trip I had two full 90-minute cassettes of weird noises. I listened to them a few times and they were very entertaining. They made no sense. They were just pure surrealist collage. There were normal conversations mixed with unintelligible absurd stuff. But having been on the trip I could remember certain sounds and where they were recorded, and it was sort of like reading an old journal. I stored them with some other cassettes in a rental house before senior year of college (I wound up returning eventually) and my roommate wound up tossing the whole lot in the trash by mistake. What a bummer! Nothing lasts.

So we drove around 3 months photographing nothing, and when we returned my mom was just finishing up her photo class. She used as subjects. Here's Jason, me, and Bret a few days after returning to California.

Do we look wiser? Or more world weary? Along the way we'd left Andrew in Providence, where he'd stayed to resume school. Somewhere in a remote campground in the Blue Ridge mountains I'd asked Jason to shave my head, and Bret had found a beret in New Orleans, and there we were.

I'm still in touch with all 3 these guys. Sort of. Well, not really actually. We're in that weird limbo with intermittent email contact but I haven't actually visited with any of them in over a year. Andrew lives in Portland. Jason and Bret are in California. It's amazing you can live 4 feet away from someone for 3 months until you know them better than your favorite T-shirt. You can't imagine it'll ever change. How can it be different in 25 years? But it always is. At least I've got these photos. At least they haven't yet been thrown out.