Friday, January 9, 2015

Q & A with Thomas Roma

Thomas Roma by Lee Friedlander
Thomas Roma is a photographer based in Brooklyn.

BA: It sounds like you connected with my friend Matt recently in Paris and also Istanbul. He's a great guy. I'm wondering if you had a chance to shoot photos on either of those trips.


TR: Yes, we met Matt in Istanbul and then hooked up again in Paris - He's a great guy. I have really enjoyed our short new friendship and I'm sure we'll be friends for the duration. 

No, I did not shoot. In fact, I only photograph when that's what I am doing. Even in the earliest days when I was associated with a group of photographers who would walk down 5th Ave or across 57th St., Leicas at the ready, I didn't carry a camera. I should also say here as a side note that my cell phone, which is an old Nokia flip phone, doesn't have a camera feature.

My phone has no camera either.

This is only the second phone I ever had. When my first one stopped working my wife took me to a Verizon store and I asked the clerk if he had a camera with a phone inside. When he said no, I said okay then give me a phone without a camera in it. He couldn't understand why I wouldn't want it for the same price and I had to explain I like to keep my appliances separate. I'm happy to meet someone that shares my point of view.

You make your own cameras so you could always add your own phone to them if you want…

Yes, I do make my own cameras but I think I am stuck with Nokia. 

So when you're home, what have you been photographing recently? 

I'm always wandering around Brooklyn photographing. And many of my photographs are made very close to home. Very, as in a couple hundred feet or so. That said, I also concentrate on specific projects that I can devote my attention to. And always more than one thing at a time. So, about a year ago I stopped photographing in a place in Prospect Park Brooklyn where men go to cruise each other (portraits and landscapes) but while I was doing that I was also photographing in another park on the other end of Brooklyn, a dog park, photographing the shadows that dogs make. That ended when the city decided to tear the park up for renovations. It's been closed for months now. So I had to stop. 

And most recently I've been photographing in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that has undergone an amazing transformation in the last decade. What was until recently a very mixed neighborhood is now entirely a neighborhood of recent immigrants from China. This happens over and over again in Brooklyn and I am continually fascinated by it. But I am also dealing with another recent phenomenon, another Brooklyn one, which is a real estate boom. Suddenly Brooklyn, much of which was 1, 2 and 3 family homes is now being covered with high rise luxury apartments and even hotels. Something that was unheard of only 20 years ago. So in dealing with this recent fact, I've decided to try and make landscapes from the roofs of these buildings. I'm curious to see what Brooklyn looks like from up there. 

Of the projects you mention the only photos I've seen are the dog park shadows. I'm curious what drew you to that subject matter. Why did you decide to shoot them from above, and is that your first photo project you've shot without your eye behind the lens?

For the dogs, I was inspired by Constantino Martinez who we just call "Tino" - He's the standard poodle that's lived with us for the last nine years. I'm avoiding saying "my dog" because it is hard to imagine owning another creature but that is what I meant. Here's what happened. The work in the Vale of Cashmere required me spending a lot of time in the Park, often just walking around (cruising) until I encountered someone who would be interested in being photographed. I'd get there in the early afternoon and things didn't really heat up until closer to sundown and depending on the time of the year, I would spend a lot of time not photographing if you could imagine. During the years I spent going there, it was also a bit of a dangerous place, many muggings and even a murder and, let's face it, my presence wasn't always welcomed. So to be clear, I had to approach men and sort of introduce myself - I wasn't interested in outing anyone - and the vast majority of times, my offer to photograph them was rejected and sometimes angrily so. 


from Mondo Cane, 2014, Thomas Roma


Which brings me to the dog park. Early mornings my wife and I would take Tino to this wild rather large (for a city) enclosed park on the opposite side of Brooklyn in Bay Ridge. There was something about the release of all this energy, something about photographing where frankly the stakes were much lower, and the anxiety level zero that made it irresistible. Because I was there early in the morning I couldn't help but notice these amazing shadows, how much like wild animals these otherwise lovable creatures looked. 

So I found a way to photograph them which turned out to be with a camera on the end of an eight foot long pole from above. I actually started photographing from above much earlier, back in the mid 1990s, I began something I was calling "Interior Topography" and I'd ask my neighbors to allow me to come in their homes with this enormous apparatus that I cobbled together that consisted of an 8x10 sized tripod with a geared head and a long boom that I counterbalanced and looked like something you'd see on a movie set. I would photograph above the dining room table after a meal or above bedrooms before the beds were made. 

I'm not sure it ever quite worked out how I wanted. I also spent a fair amount of time trying to make pictures with a finger print camera. It was a camera that shot one to one on the film and I own a bunch of them. The whole camera would be pressed up against whatever needed to be photographed (fingerprints). I started doing that about the same time, something about the forensic nature of photography. Both of those, what should I call them, projects, kind of led to the work I did in Criminal Court (looking through the view finder though) called Enduring Justice which is a PowerHouse book. That may not make sense, but I should add that I begin many projects that don't immediately pan out. Mostly because they are nonsense. I do a lot of things to give myself an excuse to leave the house where I am probably too comfortable.

I don't understand the fingerprint camera. Is it basically like a hand held scanner?

Imagine a shoebox with an opening the size of the film (2 1/4 x 3 1/4) cut out of one of the short sides. They were originally made by Folmer & Schwing, the folks who made Graflex and Speed Graphic cameras. Just behind the opening are four light bulbs that illuminate the area to be photographed. Since it is an extreme close up (1:1) the box has to be pretty long. If you Google image "Graflex fingerprint camera" they pop up.

Sounds weird but interesting... The reason I asked about not putting your eye behind the camera -a sort of hipshot?- is I'm curious about that technique and the conscious lack of control it implies. Some of your photos (e.g., Found In Brooklyn) seem like the opposite end of that, with very precise positioning. I guess my question is, do you welcome that lack of control and the element of chance it injects? And maybe more broadly, how big of a role does chance/fate play in your creative life? Or in life in general? Warning: BIG questions. But not too big hopefully.

In the case of the original interior topography work and the fingerprint camera, yes it was very much about the relief of not having to look through the camera.

But I wouldn't exactly say it was about introducing chance. In both cases the things I was photographing were static. There is a lot more element of chance walking down the street photographing in the flow and flux of life in any city whether you are looking through the viewfinder or not. Thanks for noticing the framing in Found In Brooklyn. It is a BIG question, not just what part chance plays but what it is we are actually doing when we make a photograph, what can we do, what do we have control over? The frame relates to the form of the photograph. 

So getting back to not looking through the camera, I am interested in what photographs mean and they mean something because they look like something. Look, I don't care how good a blues song is, it's not going mean much to someone who never had the blues in the first place. Works of art are valuable because they remind us of something significant. Photographers, singer songwriters, actors, painters, you know what I'm talking about, do all they can to get their point across, to have an effect. How the photograph is made by other photographers is of no interest to me. But having said that, this "hipshot" way of working, which is so prevalent nowadays, especially with digital Leica cameras, photographers having been recently released of the labor and cost of developing film, doesn't strike me as a particular interesting way of working. The idea that the photographer is some kind of camera holding device and the real work of it has to do with, what do you call it, downloading or uploading zillions of digital images to be considered later, doesn't appeal to me. When I photograph, I'm always trying hard at that moment. 

It is a visceral experience and I am completely involved in what I am doing. It demands an understanding of one's physicality, where you are in time and space. It's not happening in my head, making a photograph is much more the result of a physical gesture than anything I thought of first and went out to execute. Watching Garry Winogrand photograph was like watching an Olympic athlete, not something easily forgotten. 

In photographing the dogs, it is true, I was not looking through the camera but I always thought of it as more akin to using a view camera, the photographer standing along side the camera looking at the landscape and possibly waiting for the clouds to move into the right spot. In fact, the overhead camera was used in a way where I photographed everything upside down the way you'd see it in a view camera. I'd have to stand on the upside down side of the shadow so as not to be in the picture myself. The camera is held over and above, and tilted back towards me. And I was always looking at the thing I was photographing which was actually the ground as I either waited for the dog shadow to enter the frame or as I chased them along looking very much like a mad man. At least that is what people in the park said.

You say blues songs can't mean something to someone who has never had the blues. Can the same thing be said about photographs (but with slight twist)? Do you think someone who has not practiced photography can understand/appreciate photographs as deeply as a photographer? By "practiced photography" I mean ventured into the raw world to find and capture images. Not putting things together in Photoshop.

What I mean is, you don't have to have sung the blues to understand a blues song. But you must have had the blues before you understood what a blues song is really about. The song can't give you the blues. It can only remind you of having had them.

Let's apply it to photography. When you look at a photo, like when I look at one of yours, I imagine the person at the scene and what might have been around and wonder what caused the photographer to frame it a certain way or what caught their eye. I tend to focus on the particulars of seeing and what goes into making the image. I think that perspective might be particular to photographers as opposed to say, critics or musicians or the general public. What do you think?

I think you are probably right. I could imagine a musician hearing a particularly difficult passage, say for a french horn in a Mozart horn concerto, and appreciating it at a level beyond something even someone passionate about classical music could. Simply because of a greater understanding of what it would take to make the horn sound the way it does. But let's be clear. The same could be true of someone who played tennis watching a tennis game, or, and I've seen this happen at the Marshall Chess Club, a particular chess move could illicit gasps while I am still trying to figure out what the point of the move was.

Why do you make your own cameras? And how?

Why? Hmmm... In 1971, I bought a book called Camera in Paris by Brassai. I bought it in a used bookstore in Brooklyn. I didn't know much about Brassai but in the back it had the technical information relating to each photograph which was pretty common in old photo books. It said he used a 6x9cm Voitlander folding camera. Well, I looked around for the modern equivalent, mostly meaning a wider angle lens than the longer than normal ones on those old folders, and there was none. So I foolishly thought, easy enough, I'll just make my own starting with a Mamiya press camera roll film back and a wider angle lens. It was a lot harder than I thought, even though I was working as a darkroom technician at Pratt Institute at the time and was able to use the machine shop in the engineering department. 
Pre-Siciliano 6 x 9, 1972, hand-made camera by Thomas Roma


Voigtlander makes a folding 6 x 7 now. Not sure about the 6 x 9.

In any case, when I saw how difficult it was, I should have given up but obviously I didn't. And I learned more and more about the process, including making mechanical drawings by studying a US Navy how-to manual. And I discovered I really liked making things. From there, I went on to designing parts and having them made by other machine shops, and assembling the parts, to actually building my own machine shop and making almost everything from scratch myself. Getting back to the why of it, I have to admit that I live by the principle that it is better to be different even if it's worse. I know it is not a good reason, but there it is.

There are eleven shown on your website, including probably the one you mention from 1971. Are all of those still in use or do you replace older ones with new models? I think the newest is from the 1990s. 

Originally I was replacing an old model with a new. Some of them though I made to take very specific pictures, not that it always worked out that way. In 1990 I made one for myself that I haven’t been able to improve upon. Anything after that I made either because it was a challenge (as in the Pannaroma when Lee Friedlander casually mentioned he didn't think it was possible to make a 35mm 1x3 panoramic camera with a fixed lens that would cover. So I did it for him originally and then made a 31 camera production run of them) or as a way to teach machine shop practice to a buddy of mine, Kai McBride, as in the Psyclops. I have used the Pannaroma but I've never shot with the Psyclops. 

I want to put the date of the first one in context. When is 1971 in relation to your photo career?

The Waters of Our Time, 2014, Thomas and Giancarlo T. Roma
I left my job and career (after 4 1/2 years) in September 1971. I got a job at Pratt and was shooting with a Leica M2 although virtually no one has really seen any pictures I made before my own camera. I probably started making the first camera in 1971 but I know I finished it in the winter of 1972. In fact, the cover picture of my recent book "The Waters of Our Time" is a photograph from roll 1 in 1972.

Why haven't you shared those early M2 photos? Do you still like them?

I immediately laughed when I read your response. When I think of those photographs that it amazes me I had the nerve to leave my job on Wall Street to pursue photography. Pretty embarrassing stuff. The short story is after being dumped by my girlfriend, I decided to start all over and I destroyed almost everything. In my own defense, I have to add, I was drunk.

Did Wall Street prepare you in any way for photography? Do you see any connection at all between the two skill sets?

My job on Wall Street was great. I was on the floor of the American Stock Exchange. I met a lot of terrific and generous people. I never thought of that job as preparing me in any way but, and this is probably just pertains to me, I was very shy before I got down there and quickly learned to be a more social animal. I suppose it was important to think on your feet and to take responsibility for your actions. I think of those things now as being helpful but I can't say other than being a better person for having had the experience that it directly prepared me. It certainly changed me.

Even if you don't like them now there must have been something on those early rolls to make you take the plunge. Did you have anyone else at the time giving you feedback on your photos? Or was it basically a solo move, just based on internal faith? 

Alright. I'll try to do this quickly. In December of 1969, I got into a one car accident, was thrown from my Volkswagen Beetle, hit my head, hospital stay, therapy, and recovery. During the recuperation I was confined to a chair near a window looking out on my dead end block. My brother visited me with a camera, sold it to me, I got an Ansco home developing kit, and my mother brought me to the library. After a couple weeks of photographing the squirrels out the window (I couldn't sleep because of the headaches), I was anxious to see what else could be photographed. I looked through back issues of Popular Photography and Modern Photography magazines and discovered a review of Garry Winogrand's The Animals - the photograph they reproduced very small was the European Brown Bear photograph. All I could think was, what the hell am I looking at?  

I love that Winogrand Brown Bear photo.

from The Animals, 1969, Garry Winogrand


I have a print of the European Brown Bear hanging on the wall at the top of the steps that I look at every day. But at the time it didn't strike me as being anywhere near as interesting as the photographs of flowers, children, and pretty girls that filled the magazine. On the opposite page was the mention of a book store in Manhattan called the Laurel Book Center, so off we went, my mother driving me into the photo district where the store was. It was around Herald Square at the time, near all the big camera stores. I bought The Animals, A Way of Seeing, The Photographer's Eye and The Concerned Photographer and maybe one or two more. After taking a couple of photo workshops in the evenings and on weekends, I met photographers who led me to believe that there was a life after Wall Street. 

What about now? Who do you share your work in progress with? And who do you trust for honest feedback?

Well, my wife Anna looks at everything and I do mean everything. She's often with me when I photograph. I suppose I can say anyone who comes to my house gets to see what I'm working on and if they have been to the house, it is safe to say that I trust them. I made photographs to show others so I am interested in what everyone has to say - I'd hate to start naming names because I am sure I will leave people out.

No need to name names. But how important is outside opinion? Do you ever get rave reviews about a photo of yours you aren't crazy about? Or have a particular favorite that no one else seems to like? What happens in those cases? How much do you trust your own opinion and does outside opinion ever sway your internal compass? The mismatches, in other words. What do you do about them?

I try not to show anything I am not sure of outside of to Anna. In other words, I don't show people work as a way to help me edit. Although I know photographers that I really respect that have that practice.
Thomas and Giancarlo T. Roma, photo by Anna Roma
Do you ever shoot color?

No, never. Although I am very interested in color photography. I don't shoot digitally but I am very interested in what people are doing with it.

Why have you never been tempted? You mention shooting digitally. Is it primarily a technical thing? Or is it particular to your vision and how you put photographs together?

It's really as simple as this: I love what I do, I've loved it from the start, and I don't see any reason to do something I care about less. I do believe it is important to change though. But not change for the sake of changing, change to address an issue or a lack, or a shortcoming. In that sense, no matter what I've tried to photograph, whenever I fail I can never identify the failure as a lack of color or lack of film sensitivity or having to change the roll of film once in a while. 

I should also say that what I do in the darkroom, which is very basic stuff, is part of my self image. I like to eat but I also like to cook. And I mostly enjoy the food I make myself. There is something about the scale of black and white photography, the way it was when I was first introduced to it all those years ago - a camera, a pocket full of film, a darkroom, where you could walk in with your film in the morning and end the day with a batch of prints in the wash. 

I'm basically with you. I started shooting film in 1993 and 21 years later I haven't changed much. Still print in the darkroom. It used to feel more sensible but the photo world has long ago passed me by and now I do it partly out of habit, partly out of identity (which you mention), and mostly because I'm in love with the images it produces in the end.

Who would argue with those reasons?

What was on your Christmas list? That's code for "What's missing from your life?", twisted into consumer terms.

Boy, that's a tough one. Mostly I want what I can make myself. I own a complete machine shop, a pretty good woodworking shop, and I am putting the finishing touches on a guitar repair workbench. I suppose I am always on the lookout for tools that I might need. I should also say that Anna and I go to tag sales, estate sales, and junk shops wherever we are. I've been buying a lot of records lately and collecting old receivers and turntables, stuff like that. But I can't think of anything new that I would want.

I meant to ask about music and this might be the place. Do you play guitar? Is that why you need a repair shop?

I don't play guitar but my son does. When he was a baseball player, I made his baseball bats and built a machine that made them semi-automatically. He got interested in playing guitar while he was still in high school (now he's a year and a half out of college), so in order to keep up with his interests, I started buying vintage guitars and learning how to repair, tune up, etc... I did recently buy an odd-ball one for myself to learn on, an acoustic one. My son is going to teach me to play some rudimentary chords, mostly so I could have a better understanding of the instrument. I do sing at every opportunity. Also, in relation to music, I begin every class I teach by playing a song, a different one each week.

Almost every serious photographer I know is also a serious music-phile.  

I've noticed that too. Photographers collect music. 

I think there's something to it, some connection. But I'm not sure the exact mechanism. Basic hoarding? Does music prepare the mind for learning photography? Or what is the relationship between them? Why do you begin class with music?

I suppose music prepares the mind for everything creative. The thing is, everyone loves some kind of music and in fact, turns to music at different points in their life, for instance if you lose someone you care about, perhaps you'd listen to the blues more often and when you fall in love, even sappy love songs seem to have a place in your life. When approaching making something for serious consideration (I'm avoiding using the word "art" as much as possible), it's important that students realize that they already consume someone's creative output. Everyone has a playlist and chooses from the playlist as suits the situation. I try to get my students to make photographs that will function in people's lives the same way music does. People have always spoken of photography as a "democratic" artwork but music is much more so.

Music often has a very specific age referent. Musical associations are closely tied to specific moments in your life, as you say above. And I think one's music taste for life is pretty well set during adolescence. Not always but usually. I'm assuming most of your students are quite a bit younger than you. What do they think of your musical playlist?

Garry Winogrand insisted that I listen to Mozart when I reported to him loving a certain recording of Beethoven. He told me not to waste my time with Beethoven. The music I play in class is everything from folk, country, gospel, pop, blues, and jazz. Always songs, always music with words and 99% of the time, they are songs my students have never heard before, which is also my goal. To get them ready to accept the possibility of new and wonderful things that they may have missed. To be specific, I've begun every semester for a long, long time with Dinah Washington's "Look to the Rainbow."

OK, so it's breaking them out of what they're used to. That's why you go to school. 

I explain before I play the song that I am not playing the song to entertain, amuse or distract them, but rather we're to take the time to actually listen and try to imagine, even though I almost never refer to the song during the class, that I may have a reason for playing that particular song. I believe that art sensitizes us, the viewer or the listener, to the important issues in our life and that's why we make the time for it. To go to galleries, concerts, museums. 

What about extending the musical question to photography? Do you think people are naturally attracted to certain styles at certain ages? And is photographic taste ingrained at an early age, from which it's hard to escape?

How could I argue with the idea that things in our adolescence get set for life? I'd be putting every psychiatrist out of business. But having said that, I don't know if we could actually speak of "styles" in photography. Mostly what happens is, given the opportunity, people who are going to care about poetry, novels, film, photography get startled and almost tricked into it. I mean we all have strong feelings and inner lives. I don't care how many photographs, even well made fashion photographs or news photographs one sees. Unless one touches deeply, in other words, unless you see a photograph and it touches you in a way, in a place, that you didn't know a photograph would, then photographs are just another aspect of your life. 

I have nothing against the fact that people often photograph the meal they’re eating  with their cell phones and send it to a friend as opposed to writing a letter describing the taste, the heat, the texture, the smell, etc., but I do see photography as being used as a general dumbing down, but not that it has to be. If I hear once more that photography is just another descriptive tool, I am going to scream. I don't think it matters where you begin. I mean, what were the first photographs Atget saw? Most of the people I've known, from Helen Levitt to Lee Friedlander, first saw photographs in popular magazines but somewhere along the line, they realized (they must have) that photography was capable of more.

Christmas Card, 1982, Thomas Roma
I was browsing the annual Christmas cards on your site, and there's a shift in approach over time. For many years they always showed people. Then around 1998 they switch to more abstract/formal shots with no people. It's only one photo per year and I don't know how much to read into that, but screw it, I'm going to read into it anyway. I think photographers tend to move toward abstraction as they get older. Big generalization but it's something I've noticed. Do you agree? Do photographers become more abstract over time? In general? And what about you specifically?

Wow. That's something I am going to have to look into both about myself and other photographers. It was certainly true for Stieglitz and more and more photographers as I put my mind to it.

Josef Koudelka, 1985, Thomas Roma
Many years ago (maybe '83 or '84) I was in Sicily living in a villa on the Mediterranean that was loaned to me by a Baron (actually the Baron's son, a Baronello) who had a real interest in photography. And Joseph Koudelka visited me and stayed for a few days. We were in the formal gardens having a glass of wine and he startled me when he spoke about what he had left to do in photography. I was in my mid thirties and hadn't given a moment's thought to that. Koudelka was very matter of fact - he made a diagram in the dirt with a stick (I actually have a picture of him doing it) suggesting that as time went by, he would have less and less energy and he recognized that he'd have to plan to do less, less traveling, less being on his feet, less sleeping outdoors in open fields. In fact, when I met him at the ferry in Palermo he had slept the night before in a field in Naples and it had rained on him. It was an amazing sight to see him as he walked up to me completely wrinkled, laughing about his misfortune. In any case, I've thought of that late afternoon discussion many times and I see Koudelka about twice a year and he hasn't slowed down one bit, I mean, not even a little bit. But it doesn't matter. He planted something in me. It was almost a warning. 

Great anecdote about Koudelka. That guy rocks. And he is a good example of someone who's gone more abstract over time. But Chaos is too abstract for me. I prefer his street stuff.

Maybe photographers become more interested in abstraction reflexively, that is, as a default. I am always mindful because I photographed in the same place, the same city, for forty years. There is more than a small possibility of repeating myself, not only photographing the same things, but stopping to photograph because I recognize the world has configured itself in a familiar way. I am not sure if that is what you mean by abstraction. I am interested in what photographs can possibly mean. Robert Frost wrote "the problem with modern abstractionists is that they want to be wild with nothing to be wild about."

Yeah, it could just be a matter of slowing down. And a slow world lends itself more to abstraction.

from Sicilian Passage, 2003, Thomas Roma


You talked about teaching and it reminded me of the site Shit My Photography Professor Says. I'm assuming you've seen it? Did you know those quotes were being recorded and made public?

I did not know the quotes were being recorded. My students have always been free to tape record or video tape or whatever they want in my classes. In fact, my classes are open to the public. I am aware the site exists because my son saw it when he was at Columbia and I've heard quotes from it but I have never visited it myself. I can tell you this for certain, I have been mis-quoted on that site but I am fine with that. People hear what they want to hear and I know have embellished things that I've said. There is language that has been reported to me that I would never utter in front of a class but I do try to startle my students and I think sometimes the words get reconfigured and language is attributed. I think the gist of what has been recorded is pretty accurate. But no, I have never visited the site. 

A few weeks back when I went to Paris Photo, I ran into a woman who is now a photo curator at an important museum and she came up to me and said that she took Photo I with me at Yale University in 1988. She said, “you did something that you said we'd never forget, and I didn’t.” She went on to ask if I did it in every class. She told me that I turned from looking at some photographs that a student had put on the wall, and then jumped straight up and landed on a table that separated the wall from the students. They were all shocked. I pointed at them and said, "You'll never forget that I did this today. Now you go out and do something unforgettable." Well I've never done that again. I remember practicing my vertical leap before doing it. I am sure I couldn't do it now. I am always trying to find ways to make people wake up, to make them care more about their own lives.

Has she gone out and done anything unforgettable?

I suppose you'd have to ask her. Frankly, I hadn't seen her since 1988. She did say that that class gave her a start in photography and she did become a curator. I simply lost touch with her. I had no idea that she had gone on to have a life in photography. My classes are rather large (as many as 30 in a class) and I've been doing it a long time. I've had, I believe, at least 3000 students.

I think that story fits the general tone of the SMPPS site. It makes you come off as a wild card, and an admirable one. I want to get your reactions to some other quotes there (even if they may not be accurate). In several quotes you make reference to pain's importance. You have to be hurt to make good art, etc. For example, "There is only one thing you can do that will undoubtedly change someone’s life. That thing is to hurt them." It sounds like the words of someone who's been hurt. Is that something you want to talk about? If not, I understand.

Well there's one quote where the exact language doesn't ring a bell but in general, I believe a work of art has a disruptive influence. You can be driving along in your car with the radio on having someplace to go, and then a song you’ve never heard comes on and affects you deeply in a way that's wounding. That's something. 

Let me put it another way. Getting back to Paris Photo, we were having drinks with people I didn't know. It was late. It was after midnight. I was having a pleasant conversation with a woman across from me and I learned she was a psychiatrist, a serious one working with the criminally insane. And I was questioning her about how and why she did that and after she explained and it was really a beautiful explanation. She looked right at me and asked me why I photograph. And it was probably some combination of the scotch (it was Oban, single malt, 30 Euros a drink), I was on my third, or the fact that she was a psychiatrist but I answered her without thinking. I wasn't expecting the question because the crowd was mostly photographers, and I said I make photographs to make people cry. And so she narrowed her gaze. And I said, you know what I mean. If I were a musician, I would play the blues. That is what I'm interested in. Boy, I don't know anyone, I certainly have never met anyone, who hasn't been hurt. It's at least a good place to start. 

Why do most kids go to photo school? What are they expecting? Do you think they expect to make money? Or art? What drives it?

Well that’s another tough one. There are many levels - You said "photo school.” I taught at SVA for 13 years and all of my students there were interested in having a career in photography. Most of them started without knowing what that may be - fashion, editorial, commercial. Many of the students were commuters and hoped by being part of community they would find their way. That is undergraduate of course. For six of those years, I also taught at Yale where I was teaching photography classes to undergraduates in a liberal arts environment (as an elective), as well as in the MFA program, which is what I’m currently doing at Columbia. MFA students have a better idea of where they'd like to end up when school is over. But that is another large complicated subject. Somewhere in the middle of all this, there are schools just for photography but I suppose now that much of the craft is dying out, there are going to struggle to survive.

Leaving aside the craft/technical stuff is fine. With that out of the equation do you think seeing photographs is a skill that can be taught? Can you create a Helen Levitt from any old student? Maybe a related question is, do students care about learning that skill? Or is it more about ideas/networking/maneuvering the art world, etc.

My understanding of teaching photography is not that I am teaching people to become committed to being photographers themselves. What we do in my class is essentially a close "reading" of my students efforts. I have never shown a slide or a book or the work of other photographers (here I’m speaking of Photo I). We only deal with the work my students produce. The challenge is to make photographs that can be criticized, that can be taken seriously and the only way I know of to do that is to break down or even more accurately, dissect the photograph so that when we discuss what the photograph is about it is not merely someone's opinion, but someone's reaction to something that can be actually pointed to, touched, in the photograph. 

You might be thinking more about the role of talent and look, let's face it some people are born with a gift in any number of things. I am most interested in the hard work, the toughing it out, the identifying the need for what needs to be said and then saying it. I promise you this is my last Robert Frost quote: "a poem begins with a lump in the throat, a home sickness or a love sickness, it is a reaching out towards expression, an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words." 

You know what I mean, something about photography, something about it being better at discovering then illustrating. I think it is enough to go out in the world with a camera and a lump in your throat and then sometime later, for me it’s after working in the darkroom, after making contact sheet, probably even after making work prints, but it could just as easily be downloading and looking at a laptop, but it is only after seeing the picture, that we can have any idea if the emotion has found a thought... and the words (photographically speaking).

That's similar to how I work too. The photograph comes first. It leads me to the ideas. Not vice versa.

Getting back to creating a "Helen Levitt" I think the best I can do is make people aware that they should want to be Helen Levitt, they should want to have a life like that.

I'm wondering if that style is even relevant today? Should they want to be Helen Levitt? Or Roe Ethridge instead? I'm playing Devil's advocate. But just wondering about the place of seeing as a skill in photography. It's definitely faded as an integral component. I think this gets back to your comment earlier about quick cell-phone photography where you take a lot of photos and the emphasis is on editing later. I think the importance of editing now is greater than ever, with the ease of shooting. But seeing sometimes gets left behind in the process.

"Seeing" as in "A Way of Seeing" is poetic but misses the point. Or at least the most important point. Helen didn't just see, she was present. Things happened because she was present. Photography, and by photography I mean Helen Levitt's photography, is not about a mere recognition of what's happening before the camera and this is true everyone else for that matter who went out in the world with a camera. Not a mere recognition, but a physical effort. It is not just recognizing the poetry. It is contributing to it. The authorship has just as much to do with the physical gesture of insuring the camera is "in place" in time and space when the exposure was made. There's work to it. Seeing seems to me far too passive a term to describe what it's like to actual photograph. Perhaps I told you before, but I'd been with Helen while she was photographing. There is an intelligence that's required for the kind of photography I am talking about. But it's an intelligence that has to do with more than intellectual intelligence. Perhaps emotional intelligence, muscle memory, something to do with courage. Something to do with not being so God damn sure of yourself because you're sticking to the script.

Maybe in retrospect "Seeing" is too passive a word. I agree that photography is more than seeing. But for me that is the root strength of it. The world is a busy complex messy planet. It's tough to venture into into it and remove visual slices that mean something. And before removing that slice you've got to see it. That's sort of the crux for me. How do you get to that point?

I hope you understand that I like all kinds of music - country and western, haha - no really, I appreciate that as open as I am to all kinds of music, I was never a fan of disco, not at all, although I like a lot of rap music. But I believe these new ways of doing and saying things in some ways have to contain within them a rejection of the recent past. Young people want their own music. When I was young we loved it that old people hated the Beatles. It was a way to make the music more our own although frankly a lot of that early stuff (She Loves You) expressed the same sentiments as Pat Boone and his ilk. So of course I am completely open to all the differences but that said, I have a role and my role is to keep as fresh and relevant as possible through my work and through my teaching, my understanding of photography, the photography that I truly fell in love with and continue to love. 

Young people always need something to rebel against. And that drives a lot of musical innovation. What about photography? Where do you see it going next? What is happening today that the next generation will rebel against?

from Found In Brooklyn, 1996, Thomas Roma


Photography? Generation? There have always been a lot of "photographies" - there have always been people at the top of their game, let's say in fashion photography, or commercial photography and some of them kind of crossed over - think of Lee Friedlander photographing album covers or even Winogrand trying to make it as a commercial photographer and having his eyes open to other possibilities. I don't know if they necessarily rebelled against anything but I am reminded of what Garry Winogrand said to Jay Maisel as told to me by Jay. He said, "Your photographs are no good because they don't describe the chaos of life." Jay went on to have a great career, a really admirable one, and he wasn't trying to describe the chaos of life. But Garry was rebelling in a way or reacting against the demands of picture editors and art directors - you could hear him say it in his own words in the Rice video that has been making the rounds since the newest retrospective. Certainly Lee didn't rebel against that and didn't feel a need to. I agree that young people probably need something to push against, some way to gain traction. 

I haven't seen the Rice video. But if I understand you correctly some of Winogrand's visual power was rooted in rebellion? He didn't like being a straight photojournalist.

Remember, rebellion doesn't need to be a rejection. It's wonderful to see Elvis and Sinatra sing a duet on YouTube. I think the only thing to reject is hypocrisy and all that goes with it in regards to an art career. Do the work, do the work and worry about the rest later.

Do the work. Good advice. It might work. Or it might turn you into Vivian Maier discovered by happenstance.

Can I ask about another quote on the SMPPS site? You tell people NOT to photograph these subjects:

• homeless people
• fire hydrants 
• old people
• chinese people
• children
• african americans
• street performers
• italians

Is that an accurate quote? And what is the reasoning for the restriction?

Let me make a correction here - I do not say do not photograph "Chinese people" but rather don’t go to “Chinatown" - I do not say don’t photograph "Italians" but in the fall semester there is the San Genaro festival in Little Italy and I tell them not to go there to photograph. I also tell them not to photograph mimes, jugglers and whoever else is all over the tourist spots. It's not actually important what I tell them as they do whatever they want anyway. I also poll the class at the same time I am telling them this, asking them how many people have kept a diary. I usually get a fair number, half to 2/3rds, and as I continue to tell them, rattling off the list of what they shouldn't photograph, I ask by a show of hands how many people have attempted to write a poem even if they never showed anyone. Then I continue with the list and return for the last question - How many have written a love letter or a letter home? I then tell them that whatever it is they were trying to express in their diary, or poem, or love letter or letter home, is what their photographs should be about. I doubt whether they were writing about old people or Chinatown or children playing in the park. At least I hope not. 

It has been suggested to me that I give the list simply so that the students avoid cliches. I am not concerned with cliches. Cliches can be corny and I like corny - I just want it to be personal. I just want my students to be serious, to understand that making photographs to show others is an act of generosity. That in order to make it serious, you have to give something, give something of yourself, you have to care about it. Oh, I just remembered another one - no rows of bicycle wheels in the late afternoon sun casting interesting shadows.

Even if you're a bike mechanic?

Haha, yeah.


Selected Thomas Roma Monographs


OK, last question on teaching, I promise. You mentioned in another interview that teaching photography is more important to you than making photographs. Is that still true? Or was it ever true? Which work do you think is more meaningful to you, not worrying about others or legacy or anything else.

When did I say that?!? 

On a given day, teaching, I come in contact with 50 or 60 people and there are times when I feel like I am doing good work. I mean it is the kind of feeling you get when you step back after you've been working on a rock wall or something. There are a lot of days, more than I could quantify, where I am somewhere in the middle of a process - like I am now, two years into shooting something and have no idea at all of its value, I mean its value out in the world. The photographing and darkroom work is satisfying but there is a big lag between taking the pictures and seeing them somewhere, as in a book. And even that, the work is somewhere out there where it is supposed to be. I work hard at teaching and sometimes I try to imagine when I'll stop doing it. Did I really say "more important"??

It's in this interview on Vice.

A couple of things about that interview - 1.) Matt Leifheit is terrific and it was the first time we'd met. 2.) we were in a bar 3.) now that I checked, I guess I said I "care more about" Hmmm. What I think I meant was I care more about doing a good job. I allow myself to do a lot of foolish things as a photographer. I've started many projects that anyone with half a brain would see were doomed from the start. Or even pointless. But I am much more serious about teaching. I've never missed a single day due to illness.

Can I switch gears completely? I hate to keep bringing up old quotes but something else in the Vice interview caught my eye. You made a passing reference to renaming yourself at age 30. And having four names? Can you elaborate on that?

It's actually an uninteresting story but a little complicated nonetheless. 

Uninteresting to you but I'm actually interested. 

I'll try to simplify it. No one called me by my given first name at birth but my middle name was "Gaetano" after both of my grandfathers. The diminutive for Gaetano was "Tanni" which was corrupted into Tommy which lead to Thomas by the time I entered school. I was also called Guy from time to time. On my father's side I was called "Elo" because my first name was to have been "Italo" (more on that later). When I was seven years old, my father (Italo Roma) gave me up for adoption. It's a sad story but he did. My mother married a man named John Germano and he adopted me. So my last name then became Germano. Then after I left high school at the age of 16, knowing that I would soon be getting a draft card, I had my first name changed legally to Thomas (no middle name now). So at that point I was Thomas Germano. Then in 1980, long after my mother divorced John Germano, I awoke from a dream feeling, I don't know how to describe it, feeling happy, and in the dream, my name was Thomas Roma. So I legally changed it again - back to Roma, my birth last name. The troublesome part was trying to get my original birth certificate, because having been adopted my records were sealed. After years of trying, court papers, lawyers, etc... they finally said no. So I don't actually know what the original document said or says.

Where did all of this take place? In Brooklyn?

Yup.

So you've never seen your birth certificate. And you don't know what your given name was?

Okay, here's the problem. My father's name was "Italo Armando Roma" which is a real name. The problem with having a name like "Italo" was that it had gotten corrupted to "Italy" which is not a name but a country which was on a hand written birth certificate that replaced my original when I was adopted. My father at this point was going by the name "George" which made it difficult to track him down (my wife is laughing as she's typing, it's all rather absurd). I think I would have stayed with "Italo" or even "Elo" (which I think has a nice ring to it) the way I saw it spelled in my father's mother's photo album which I finally got to see years later. It was written out in white ink on black pages. And it was practically the only time I'd ever seen pictures of myself pre-adoption. They were family snapshots - my mother had a professional photographer come to the house when I was about a year old and I still have some of those. Anyway, Italy was not really an option for me and I already felt like a Tom, a Thomas or even a Tommy by then. What was clear to me was that my last name should be "Roma" - it was not just my father's name but it was the name my father's father etc...

Hmm. I'll give you my silly two-cent psychoanalysis. Photographers thrive on alienation. It's mixed up in feelings for the Other and the need to put a division between subject and object, even though they must blend for strong photography. But the sensitive photographers always feel that wall between them and the world. That's why there are so many strong Jewish photographers, and ex-pats and immigrants. They all feed on Exile, and they're hungry to overcome it. All of those factors would steer you, as an adopted kid with mixed up identity, into photography later as an adult. I only have a few of your books but Sunset Park and Come Sunday seem relevant here. They show you penetrating a culture that's not your own. That's why I'm not a psychiatrist. But I am Jewish, so I know a little about alienation.

from Sunset Park, 1998, Thomas Roma
Well that's as good an explanation as I've heard. 

It all makes sense. But may not an hour from now.

My father's father was Jewish and rejected him. But my father didn't turn to photography. When he went out shooting I am afraid it was a totally different thing.

He was a hitman?

This was more fun than I thought it would be. He ended up being what would be called a captain. The business of being a hitman is mostly in the movies. Most people did a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Did he actually shoot people?

I never saw him shoot anyone. He did carry a gun. A five shot 32 off duty revolver. I never asked him and he never told me but I knew that he was "highly respected" in his community. That's all.

"Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma." (Arbus) I'm not implying you're a freak. But I think you need some wounds to be a good photographer. It goes back full circle to your early quotes above.

Although I don't think it's appropriate for what we're doing, and I don't mean to bait you and sound cryptic but assuming someday we'll meet, there is another issue/wound that I've carried with me my whole life that probably has more to do with the decisions I've made for myself than anything else. But you are onto something for sure.

That's why my analysis is only good for two cents. We've never met and I barely know you. Just reading through the lines and making assumptions.

(All photos above by Thomas Roma unless otherwise noted. Thanks to Matt Stuart and Anna Roma for facilitating this conversation.)

3 comments:

Hernan Zenteno said...

I liked very much the anecdotes. I coincide about music and photography and poetry. About the comparison of cook and do photos I know several photographers that like to cook too. But in the lab the only I still do is develop rolls or make my own formulas or soups. I let the printing for modern technologies.

Vasco said...

Wonderful and inspiring read. Thank you.

Greg Thompson said...

Long time reader, first time poster. Great conversation. Thank you.