Monday, December 12, 2016

Q & A with Justin Partyka

Justin Partyka is a photographer and curator based in Suffolk, UK and Ruffec, Charente, France.


BA: What's the story behind Black Barn gallery?

JP: The Black Barn is a series of old 19th century agricultural buildings in the country side in Norfolk, UK. It's about 3 miles from the town of Swaffham.  For a number of years it was used as a museum about the Icini history in the area. But I think it just was not feasible because of the location to get enough people there so it closed about two years ago.  It was known as a place were kids went on school trips etc. I don't think my school did. It was perhaps too far away. Then last year Hugh Pilkington, who is a curator and architect, moved from Suffolk to Norfolk and was looking for a venue to put on popup exhibitions and he found the place and has some kind of deal with the owners to put on art shows there. It's a great space with 5 rooms and is very flexible in terms of how work can be presented. 

Does it actually look like a barn still? 

Yes, it's still pretty much like a barn.  As you perhaps could see in the installation shots I sent you, the place is pretty sparse inside and some of the rooms have holes in the tiles, etc. It doesn’t have any heating or insulation so it is only practical to use the space about 6 months a year.  This was the third show I have been involved with there. A solo show last year, a show with two painters earlier this year and then this latest show which I curated and had some work in. 


Haiku Pictures at Black Barn Gallery

How did the Haiku idea generate? What's your relationship with Haiku or poetry?

The idea for the show came to me from getting a copy of the recent Robert Frank Newspaper... I'm not a haiku expert or anything, but I love the form and it's so visual. For many haikus when I read them I see a photograph. I first encountered a haiku when I was about 20 and bought Kerouac's little book, Pomes all Sizes, so the idea of haikus have been in my head for about 23 years. And then more recently I discovered Robert Hass’s book The Essential Haiku. Robert Hass is a great poet and writer. His book of essays, What Light Can Do has a good piece on Robert Adams, which is also in Adams’ book on California.  

And Kerouac led you to Frank? Or vice versa?

Well it was Bob Dylan to Kerouac to Frank. But for me, right in the middle is John Cohen. It’s Cohen who links the other three together and most importantly fused photography and music: my two obsessions. 

I think you've stumbled on a connection. When a photo works well it works sort of like a Haiku. And some of the best ones work like Koans. Kind of related.

When I was thinking about haiku pictures and the idea for the show and the link to Frank, one of the key things was that the photograph should have a feeling to it, some sort of emotional quality which really cannot be described in words but it is there and can be seen if one if attuned to this kind of visual / photo thinking.  And then there is the little moment or an essence of something which is there in the picture. But these haiku moments are not grand gestures like the decisive moment. Usually they are much more simple than that.

So when you picked photos for the Haiku show, what were you looking for? Did you want more simplified photos?

Perhaps when I say "simple" I'm using the wrong term. It's about a small thing as in the composition and content of the picture saying something much larger. 

Maybe you mean photographs that can stand on their own and not be dependent on being part of a wider project?

Yes, that's one way to think about it. But what’s key is an emotional content in the picture.  There are some series of images in the show, such as A-Chan's Polaroids from her NYC roof top, but pretty much each image in the show had something to say individually. Have you seen the Frank newspaper?

No. What's that?

The Frank newspaper was put out by Steidl last year I think and has just been reprinted. It is a catalogue to a touring show going around the world which features large newsprint images from Frank which the venues stick on the wall and throw away after the show.  The newspaper itself seemed perfect to also do a show like that.  And once it was on the wall it had such a wonderful presence of taking the viewer on a journey through Frank's life and work, and for me at least, it provided all the answers for what photography is all about. 


Robert Frank Newspaper at Black Barn

So part of the show's premise is that it's impermanent? They throw away the exhibit? And then what? How does the show move to another venue? They reprint it? What's going to happen to the Haiku show after it's done? Will you throw away the work? Is that part of the idea?

Yes, they throw away the prints and the show is reprinted and sent to the next venue. I read somewhere it comes in a big roll. 

There's something poetic in that. It seems like the inverse of collectibility. Collecting things is great. It allows artists to survive and have a career. But it's sort of a perverse motivation too, especially when driven by speculation.

Yes, for sure. And that's the idea behind it. In the newspaper one of the final sections has Gerhard Steidl talking about how the show idea came up and he said that Frank was so excited about the idea and, to paraphrase, Frank said "nothing for the lousy art market" and threw a sample image in the fire, or something like that.  It's true and comes back to the idea of photography as a way of life compared to photography as a means solely to make money. I don't think any of the photographers in the show are commercial in the sense that that they make a full living from photography. And Frank is the perfect example of living photography and not doing to just make money.

Well that's an easy stance for him to take. He doesn't need money now.

Yes of course. It's easy to see the newspaper as creating the myth of Frank.

Anyway, I like the concept of throwing away the photos. I think Pete Brook did something similar a few years back at Photoville.

The haiku show has also been destroyed now. 

How did you dispose of it? Just toss in the trash? Or maybe a big bonfire?

The prints where just taped to the wall with strong double sided tape so when I took them down they also ripped of some plaster from the wall. So I just tore them up and threw them in the trash. It was a nice feeling actually, to not have that precious nature of carefully wrapping framed prints and then having to find some place to store them. But I would like to perhaps put on the show again in another venue sometime. 

A bonfire seems more final. As for the ripped plaster you can always fix that later. I think most galleries need to sparkle and clean up between shows. The impermanence of the prints seems like a relatively contemporary thing too. It used to be the print was the object. If it was lost the photo was lost. But now photos exist in all sorts of forms, and the print is just one form. A fleeting one, maybe. Destroy the print and it has no real effect on the "photo" which still exists digitally or whatever.

The plaster is not a problem. The place is a barn! But back to Frank, it seems that he lives a pretty simple life and always has, but of course he has money.

Have you had any contact with him? Either regarding the show or otherwise?

No, I didn't have any contact with him.  It seemed it would complicate things. You may know that A-chan along with being a great photographer is also Frank's assistant / printer / co-editor.  I sort of gauged if the show would go ahead or not depending on her reaction. I asked her to take part because her work is just so damn good and largely unknown. The Frank connection had no influence on the decision to ask her. I'm not sure if A-chan will tell him about the show or not. It doesn't matter. 


from Salt'n Vinegar, A-Chan
He is sort of mythologized by the photo world in so many ways. As a street shooter who defied convention. Or as a man living simply in the midst of an art scene gone cuckoo. I mean, The Americans gets cited by everyone as an influence. Everyone got turned on by it, even folks who shoot way different subject matter. He's like the Ur tablet for all sorts of photographers to project their origin fantasies. 

Yes, that's true. Much more than Friedlander for instance.  But it's so easy to say The Americans is a great book, perhaps too easy and could be even a bit cliche now to refer to it. Yes, The Americans influenced me just as it did so many photographers. But I think one of the reasons for putting on this show was simply that there was something that made me want to engage with Frank's work in a  deep way and get to really know it much better. He has done so much more beyond The Americans and this other work  is often far more interesting. But when it comes to books, The Americans is not the first place I go and never has been. I don't actually look at it very much anymore.

I like the book but I never had a strong reaction to it, like HOLYSHIT. It wasn't a major influence on me.

No, that HOLYSHIT reaction to a photo book is very very rare and hard to come across. I have hardly ever had it.

What is first place you go book wise?

For a long time Alex Webb's books always did it for me. There is some complex and beautiful work there.  Eggleston too, but it's not HOLYSHIT, more that there is something very seductive about his way of seeing, use of colour and the aesthetic texture to his work. But when it comes to HOLYSHIT there are two books I can think of right now: Friedlander's Sticks and Stones, and Huger Foote's My Friend from Memphis.

from My Friend From Memphis, 2000, Huger Foote
Two great books for sure. I think what you're dealing with is that HOLYSHIT vibe shifts over time. You change over time. And of course as you get used to material its impact on you shifts. It's probably pretty hard for any book to give you that feeling over a long period. Maybe your appreciation for Sticks and Stones and My Friends From Memphis will fade too. Or not. Who knows. What about HOLYSHIT music albums? Any long time favorites?

Yes, I guess. But certain things continue to make you feel that HOLYSHIT. In music for me it's the Grateful Dead. Dylan and Neil Young too, but when I discovered the Dead I really was taken to a new place.  Those two books I just mentioned did that for me in photography, but not at the same level. I've been listening to the Dead now since 95. I didn't know much about them when Garcia died. I remember it but wasn’t listening to them really apart from the pretty much forgotten album Dylan and the Dead. But a guy I knew who was a source for live Dylan tapes started introducing me to the music a few months after Garcia was gone. It was just by chance, we were talking about jazz and John Coltrane who I also like a lot, and he started playing a Dead show from 1990 I think it was, when Garcia was using the midi synth system to make his guitar sound like other instruments, such as a sax or flute, and it was so intriguing and pleasurable.

You meet Deadheads in the oddest places. I didn't know you were into them. I went pretty far down that path when I was younger. Back in high school my girlfriend's dad was Dan Healy their sound guy. So she took me to my first shows. Then I wound up going to many more on my own, all the way up until 1995 when Jerry died. For me the Dead are a good example of taste shifting over time. I used to listen to them in a different way, more exhaustively. Now I need to be in the right mood and sort of unplug my normal music taste. Their music still has a place in my heart. I still can shift into that receiving mode. But it's not really my normal one.

Dan Healy is a legend in the Dead world! I listen to the Dead more than I look at photo books. Obviously I never went to shows. Not sure I would have liked the scene that much, but I guess there were all sorts there.  Although I would have loved to have been at some of the shows, especially when they played smaller venues in the earlier years. That's interesting how your taste for them has changed. I cannot imagine not being into them like I am. The music brings so much. I think it is that craving to be taken to that other place. Some people sky dive, some climb mountains, some take acid, and some go to see a Picasso painting. I listen to the Dead, and I take photographs.

I think it's odd to separate the music from the shows. For me the two things were so joined in the Dead experience. The music was almost like a sidebar to the whole scene. The spirit of the Deadheads and parking lot scene and sort of grassroots vibe. The Spinners! All of that was something I really keyed on in my teens and twenties. And it's still with me. But compartmentalized. The music can be great too. 

Yes, I think that side of the Dead is important and people have no idea about it unless you are into them.  

Do you know Michael David Murphy, the photographer based in Atlanta? He's another long time Deadhead (like I said, you never know) and he made an hour long track composed of Dead setbreaks/tuning interludes. There's no actual melody. It's pretty awesome as an art piece. It sort of symbolizes that whole scene for me. 

And maybe Murphy's piece ties it to the idea of impermanence and burning exhibit prints since the Dead defied recordings. They were really about the live experience and not about selling studio products. It's similar to your Haiku show in a way. They were the leading edge of crowd sourced content too. They invited folks to record shows. Then those recordings became their own little universe that came to define the Dead experience. It was very ground up grassroots content, not top down driven by curator or "expert". This was back in the 1970s. They were way ahead of the curve.

Yes, you've nailed it! I know of Michael D M. I used to read his street photography website. He always came across as a good guy. Where's he gone? 

He lives in Atlanta. His blog is gone but he's around. He runs the Atlanta Photo Festival. Two kids, married, etc.

Atlanta was always a good place for the Dead. They played some great shows there, including the final ones at The Omni in 95. For me the recording of shows somehow links to photography in terms of that collecting mentality and the idea of a tangible analogue thing existing.  Now there is a big Dead online community too which I take part in a bit when I have time, but there is something that feels a bit strange to be communicating online about the music with people when listening to it is such a tangible presence / experience. But there is a ton of music available online though and I have really got ahold of mind blowing shows because of the internet. 

What's wrong with online communication? Or online recordings? That seems like a natural step?

I'm not trying to condemn online communication. After all it allowed the Haiku show to happen and it has put us in touch.  I think maybe it's that I just don't feel very comfortable on it. For a while I tried out Instagram and felt like a fraud on it, and the same with Twitter which I use a bit. I don't really have nothing to say on these things really and just promote stuff I'm doing and I think people see that and it annoys some. I guess it's like going to a Dead show and not getting into it, just standing at the side watching.  

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I suspect everyone in social media does.

I don't know about that. I think some people love it and spend most of their time on it. Online recordings are good for stuff that's not available, but I would never download music if the CD is available. The same with photography really. There is something about looking at books or prints that feels such much more rewarding to me than looking at images on the screen. The computer just gets in the way somehow, both with consuming stuff and creating it. 

I don't really understand the difference between downloading and recording from a CD. It's still the same file, right? I agree the best form for photos is in some physical form, a book or a show. Sort of like the best form for music might be a physical concert setting. But for material that can't be accessed that way, which is most of it, the internet is the best distribution method ever designed. The whole world of photos and music is right there, everywhere, all the time.

Yes, it can be. When it comes to Dead downloads most are in Hi-Res Flac files. Actually they are supposedly better than a CD. But just having the music there on the computer is what doesn't sit right with me. I think again it comes down to the computer being the thing in-between which gets in the way. 

Immediate = unmediated. Computers = mediation. Computers = immediate. So go figure? Just brainstorming. Sorry.

I get your point and that its immediate but there is something not quite right about it. Once it was you had your photo book library and you had your records, tapes or CDs and you had your note book and pen and it was a more conscious and committed action to engage with them and experience them. Now it's just a click or a swipe or whatever you do. For instance, you still shoot film. That involves a commitment and has a certain experience which using a digital camera would not have.

I like film for creating images. But for absorbing outside content I often use screens. I realize it's a mediated experience. I realize it's maybe not the ideal version. And it has stupid pop up ads or whatever. I'm a big boy. I can sort through my content. 

I use screens too. It's damn hard not to.

Maybe you can tell me a little about your background. How did you first get into photography?

Mountain Music Of Kentucky
(Smithsonian/Folkways, 1960/1996)
It was the work of John Cohen that go me into photography.  For my BA in American Studies I wrote a thesis on bluegrass music. At that time, and still, I was really into American early country and old time music and I came across Cohen's album Mountain Music of Kentucky. It is said to be the first music album which includes a portfolio of photography in the album notes. Cohen wasn't just illustrating the musicians he recorded. He was telling a story of their way of life in the hills through photos and his written notes. I discovered that and thought, that's the sort of thing I want to do. Not really knowing much about John Cohen then, I figured it was all about folk music and discovered that there were degrees in folklore in North America. I had been in touch with Neil Rosenberg the bluegrass expert / scholar who was teaching in Newfoundland at the university. He'd left the US during Vietnam.

I just Googled John Cohen. So he was in The New Lost City Ramblers? I'm putting the pieces together now.

Yes, and he took the first photographs of Dylan and was friends with Frank and the Beats and he photographed the making of Pull My Daisy and Frank photographed the New Lost City Ramblers for their album covers on Folkways. 

I've got that Mountain Music of Kentucky album but didn't realize he was behind it. But I only own it digitally, not with liner notes. So there are photos too?

Yes, there are notes and some great photographs.  I only have the CD version, But I've seen the original album and at that size the photographs really work.  You may have seen that Steidl has been releasing Cohen's work in book form and all the photographs are included in one of the books. 

Reminds me of the Horenstein book Honky Tonk. Have you seen that? His best book.

I don't know that book. Will look it up. There is a pretty good book called Bluegrass Odyssey with photographs by Carl Fleischhauer and text by Neil Rosenberg.  

You mentioned Folklore. That's your undergrad degree?

Folklore was my MA in Newfoundland and I started a PhD but eventually left the programme to return to England to photograph the old-time farmers.

How would you define Folklore? Or folklore studies? 

Thats always a tricky question and something folklorists constantly grapple with. It's like anthropology but less interested in the social sciences and more interested in the arts. Folklorists look at cultural and artistic expression and communication in both tangible and intangible forms.

So you began interested in bluegrass music, then farming, and then began to photograph your subjects as part of your studies?

Even before John Cohen I was really into Alan Lomax and loved the idea of going out with a tape recorder to find folk singers, but I quickly discovered that all folk musicians were now seeing the commercial potential in what they did. There were no isolated old guys singing songs or playing a fiddle! Instead, after taking a class on "occupational folklife" I realized that the world I had wanted to escape from back in rural East Anglia had some interesting stuff happening. I also discovered the photographs of P.H. Emerson who photographed in rural East Anglia in the 1880s and 1890s. I wanted to find out what was left of the old ways of rural life in East Anglia, so I went back to photograph there and found what was the last of the small time farmers, mainly small old family farms who worked the land because it was the only way of life that they knew. 


from Field Work, Justin Partyka

What did you learn about them? Are they doing ok?

What I found essentially was a scattering of old guys who were continuing a tradition.  I was not interested in any of the back-to-the-land movement, or the fashionable organic farm start ups, but people who lived the life, and followed in the footsteps of the generations before them. A few of the farmers I photographed are now dead.  I still see some of the rest of them now and again. They are doing ok considering, such as the Wortley twins whose father Eric I became very good friends with. Eric died in 2011 at 102 years of age. 

What's your relationship to farming? Are there farmers in your family tree before you? Or rural settlement?

I have no direct connection to farming, although my dad's father came from a farming family in Poland. But he [my grandfather] died before I was born so I know very little about him. I grew up in a coastal village in Norfolk, but I was not into the sea. Instead my playground was the fields and woods and the local farm tracks where my friends and I would race our BMX bikes 

Well why do you think you were so curious about those communities? Both as a folklorist and later as a photographer? What is it that attracted you to those first John Cohen photos? And in general to those cultures?

There was certainly a nostalgia to it all really. Those Cohen photographs really spoke to me with their rawness and simplicity both in the subject matter and Cohen’s aesthetic, which was mirrored in the music he recorded. Why was I drawn to the farmers? I was looking for an authentic culture, I think, and I saw a similarity in their lives to the people Cohen photographed in the Kentucky hills: how people are connected to and shaped by the land around them.  But what is so interesting is that since the Brexit vote here, I see the rural landscape and way of life so differently. Now it represents something which I see as toxic. The idea of losing my EU citizenship and being trapped in this inward looking island is actually a devastating prospect. 

Hm. That's weird. For many photographers it's the opposite. They are drawn as outsiders to the exotic. They can't photograph things they feel too close to.

Yeah I know. But there are a few who photograph close to home….

You say you were looking for an "authentic" culture. Does that mean you view your own mainstream contemporary culture as inauthentic? If so, why?


from Saskatchewan, Justin Partyka
Yes, but it was okay when the freedom was there to leave easily whenever I wanted.  During the ten years I photographed the farmers I went to Saskatchewan and photographed there and made eight visits to Cadiz, Spain to photograph as well. The farmers I knew had never left the country and some of them had hardly left their village and there is and was something about that which I find very intriguing. To answer your question about contemporary culture I’ll quote Harry Dean Stanton: “At the middle of the mainstream lies mediocrity.

There's some truth in that. But it also reveals a strange sort of elitist removal. Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" quote, etc. Such sentiments always struck me as a bit sad and hypercritical. 

I don't think about all of these things in the same way anymore.  And society and culture has changed so much since I studied folklore.  When I moved back to the UK in 2003 nobody had an iPhone or social media.

There's an odd power imbalance with you flying back and forth across the ocean to photograph farmers without the ability to leave their village. That sort of goes to the nature of photography I think. It is by its very nature objectifying. It uses people. I use people. Full admission.

Yes, I agree with you completely.  It's complex and hard not to be a hypocrite with all this stuff. I admit, I embrace some things and reject others, often which run directly alongside them. 

OK, so what's "authentic" culture?

You are tough!

Just curious. I'm sure you've asked yourself that same question.

Yes of course and I guess it comes down to honesty and sincerity. Coming back to Brexit, it's made me ask some very hard questions about myself and what I value.

Switching gears, I saw something on your website about a Suffolk Salon where you share prints with other photographers. Can you tell me more about that?

The Suffolk Salon is a gathering that my girlfriend Bee and I host typically a couple of times a year during the winter. It's not quite how you describe it: usually we invite about 10-15 people to our house and serve food and a put on a slide show of my work. It's often themed, so we've done a Spanish one three or four times and we make Spanish food and I project photographs from Madrid and Cadiz and read from Laurie Lee's book about visiting those places and sometimes some Hemingway, and the music is sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead "Spanish Jam." 

What does Bee do?

She's a food anthropologist and illustrator. You can see her work at www.anciensfoodways.co and www.breadear.com

Sounds like you and Bee have similar interests. 

Yes and that’s nice to be able to inspire each other and discuss ideas about our work. Maybe we will even collaborate in the future. We've also done a Saskatchewan salon 2-3 times when our friend and writer Ken Mitchell is visiting from Regina. And a couple of East Anglian themed salons too.

Oh, I got it slightly wrong. So the Salons are more of a speaker/audience presentation than group seminar-style?

Yes, when the work is shown. But there is always lots of discussion after it over food and drink.

I was curious because I have a group here which does that. But I think it might be a form that's dying out with the competition from the internet. That's basically where most photo interaction happens now.

I think you mentioned your group before in an email or I read about it on the blog. It sounds very good and you have some good photographers in it if Missy Prince is part of it.

Yes, it's funny people react to Missy. Of course she's a very good photographer. But I think it's partly too that she has a strong online presence, so folks like you on the other side of the planet can know about her. The group has several other very strong shooters. Missy is just one. But the thing is, not many of the others give a shit about the internet. So we're sort of a locals-only gig, sharing prints in person without broadcasting beyond that. A few of us put occasional photos online. But that's about it. 

That sounds like a great group. I don't think that could happen like that here.  The photography community is so online / social media focused here it seems, with the occasional get togethers. But there may well be groups like you describe. In fact camera clubs in the UK are a bit like that I suppose.


from London, Justin Partyka
I'm sure a city the size of London has stuff like that going on. But you've got to watch out for the camera clubs. Their mediocrity will kill you. Oops. That sounded like something Harry Dean Stanton would say. Or Thoreau. But probably any group can work as long as there are people who you respect and can learn from and trust. And it sounds like you have a natural affinity for analogue stuff so an in-person group might be a good outlet for you.

I've shown my work at a few camera clubs as a quest speaker but it's never gone that well: they are all about rules and what I do doesn’t appear to fit those rules. I do have a natural affinity for analogue in everything. I struggle to figure out what photography is all about in this digital age.

When I was first developing as a photographer that group was my main peer support. It was the early days of the internet. I would share prints that way and not online. Then I got more involved online and went pretty far down that path with the blog, etc. In recent years I'm pulling back again going back to personal groups. I've let my Tumblr and website go to seed.

I like that idea of pulling back and I have always liked that side of you. It's good you don't have a website. Are you going to quit the blog sometime?  

Well, the blog basically died over the summer. I do it now sporadically but it's way less active than it once was. As for the future, who knows?

Don't you think websites can very easily become this thing that needs constantly feeding with content. And they can take up a lot of time. For instance that crazy chart you recently put up. That must have taken ages to figure out and create.

That's why I was never happy with my website. No matter how much I added to it or altered it, it always seemed out of date. I am always making new photos and the site never reflected what I was doing or shooting or thinking about in the present. That's just the nature of a website. It's a static thing. But at this point a simple Google Search basically offers the same goods, just not as carefully curated.

I guess the ideal would be that you could somehow put photographs out there into the internet without a website so a Google search brings them up. I guess somehow it will head that way and websites will be unnecessary. 

Yes that may be future but as I mentioned you lose the ability to curate. If people view you through just a random Google Search, who knows what they'll find or consider important? You lose control of your own story. An interesting method but not ideal. 

Do you think that you can see a difference in quality in the work of the older photographers who have little interest in the internet and who are not influenced by it? 

I think it's hard to measure shifting quality of photographers who don't put much online just because there's not much evidence to judge by. 

I ask that because last week I saw the new film about Robert Frank, Don't Blink and I've just got the new Friedlander Street book.

I haven't seen the film but I did see that book in the library. 

That's a great library you have if they already have that Friedlander book.  

It's the University of Oregon library here. They have an OK photo section. Ron Jude has begun to help curate the books. I think the selection will move in a more book-as-artwork direction.

Ron Jude, he's a interesting guy. Is he in your group?  

No, I've made some overtures to him since he moved here, but with not much response. My guess is he's not into groups.

What do you think of the Frank film or Friedlander book?

The Frank film is great. It's pretty rock and roll which I like very much.  Fast paced and edited very well and in an interesting way that shows Frank now and in the past. And the Friedlander book on first impression is amazing.  It really reveals that he's up there with the very best of street photography, perhaps even at the top. There are are number of photographs I have not seen before. Including some very recent ones from last year or two and it proves that Friedlander is still going out there with his Leica. 

I'm glad he's still going out but I don't like the Street book very much. Most of the best photos were ones I'd seen already. And the new stuff wasn't very strong to me.

I agree about the later work, but I think that is interesting.  I've been thinking about it today and I wonder if it was just a lot easier to photograph on the street in the 60s? Or is he just not as good? Had you seen the Friedlander pictures in the book from the 70s and 80s? I don't think I had. But I only have that big yellow book in terms of his street photography.


New York City, 1962, Lee Friedlander
I've seen a lot of Friedlander's work from the 70s and 80s, at least what's in books. I love that stuff. He was consistently ON. But I'm not sure dense urban street settings are his thing. 

You asked if older photographers who aren't online might change over time, and maybe Friedlander fits in that category. It's hard to tell his motivations or his thoughts, or what photos if any he is looking at or being influenced by. I don't know. I think it's hard for anyone to maintain a consistently high level shooting street photos, or doing anything like that which requires such concentration and stamina. 

I seem to remember reading or hearing you on a podcast talk about Eggleston's Paris book. 

Not a huge fan of that. Or his cloud book. But that's a slightly different animal since Eggleston is less about stamina than intuition.

Yes I know. Again it's interesting to me to see these photographers still working in later life and seeing what they produce.

Even Winogrand only had 20 good years. And no one could keep up with him. It's hard to know what he might've done had he lived longer, but I think he was generally declining in last few years. And maybe you can extrapolate to the broader street scene. Very few shooters have made consistently strong street photos over a period of more than twenty years. Almost everyone fades out. Or morphs into other forms. Or dies.

You are starting to make street photographers sound a bit like farmers! 

Street shooting might be like farming. Or maybe it's like pro sports. After 20 years in the game, everyone winds up retiring. Meyerowitz might've found the right path. He moved away from street shooting right near the top of his game. Then shifted to large format and excelled at that. Gotta keep moving...

Gossage still seems to be going strong. And Shore. That interview you had on the blog about revising Shore's locations was good. He's a photographer I never got into.

Shore and Gossage aren't really street shooters though. I'm not saying ALL photographers fade over time. Just street shooters.

I guess Shore isn't. Gossage is kind of, isn't he?

from Thirty-Two Inch Ruler, John Gossage
Gossage makes photos in public settings which I guess is a form of street shooting. But no people. It's a slower process. Not as athletic. Speaking of street, I saw some recent projects on your site that seemed more street-oriented than your work with farmers.

Once I really discovered what photography was all about, it was the photographers who made work on the streets which excited me and they still do. So I have always had an interest in making that kind of work. But the streets of East Anglia just never inspired me. So I made regular trips to Spain for a few years, and I've photographed in New York a little bit and in Toronto in the past.

How about London?

Last year I started photographing in London for the first time and have occasionally made more work there over the past year. I haven't developed the film yet. I think there are about 30 rolls now. And last year I also began working in France.

Do you approach the streets like a folklorist?

No, not at all. For a number of years I have not been photographing people at all.  Just landscapes and rural places.  And I would say that I approach the streets in the same way as I do a field or wood, the main concerns being light, color and composition. On the street there is just more going on which makes it more challenging and because of that it is more interesting ultimately. But I have to be in the right frame of mind to photograph on the street, especially in London. I've had times when I intended to photograph there but my mind was just switched off from the city environment. I think for me there is that barrier to break through when photographing on the street, not just dealing with the act of pointing a camera at strangers, but more simply just seeing photographs in the city amongst the surrounding urban chaos. 

Why haven't you developed the film?

There's a backlog mainly due to cost. Right now in the fridge I've got about 60 rolls of slide film that need processing and I have about 150 rolls of colour negative that need processing as well. Most of my work is unseen. Even the thousands of rolls of developed images, there is an editing backlog too.

Do you want it to be seen?

Yes, but at the moment if the choice is buy more film or pay for processing I buy film. I'm just being more selective about what I have developed at the moment. So I'm focusing on the work from France because that's what is exciting me. Although I don't like the idea of all that film sitting there unprocessed. And one of my priorities is to get the slide film developed over the winter.

Do you shoot any digital?

Not really. I have a Canon G9 camera but I've only shot video on it. I had a period when I was using an iPhone a little bit but the photographs felt so unimportant. I dabbled in Instagram but didn't really know what to do with it and now my iPhone is too outdated and most of the apps don't work, so it's essentially now just an email and podcast machine. I don't even use it as a phone anymore.


from Paris, Justin Partyka
Why is your work from France exciting you most right now? What is it about that place?

I'm really enjoying photographing there. I think it is the unfamiliar which is exciting me. But perhaps at the same time there is that nostalgia thing too. Much more than here in the UK, France for me is a fascinating mix of the old and the new battling it out in full force. It's a society that certainly has its problems, but visually for me right now it is very interesting and I think it has a lot to offer me.

You mentioned an attraction to nostalgia too when photographing the farmers. That's a tricky topic for photographers. By nature everything we do has a nostalgic potential because we're always working with the past, so it's always there. But the past is tough to harness without it taking over. Kind of like tech. How often do you go to France?

It's actually Bee who got the France interest off the ground. Almost 2 years ago she bought a little house there mainly because the house prices here are out of control.  So we are going as much as we can at the moment mainly to work on the house. But I photograph whenever I can on these trips.

Cool. Where's the house?

The house is in the south west, in the Charente region, just south of the city of Poitiers. It is in a small town. Great thing about it is that we can get there by train the entire way. The town’s station is just 5 minutes walk from the house.

1 comment:

microcord said...

Well this is full of good stuff to chew on. Thank you again, Blake.

Newspapers for pasting up for pop-up shows: Rob Hornstra has done this too.