Sunday, April 7, 2019

Q & A with Charles Traub

Photo: SVA
Charles Traub is a photographer and teacher based in New York City.

BA: Congrats on the new book Taradiddle. That put you back on my radar recently but I have some of your other books. I've been a fan for a while.

CT: Thanks for your support and interest. Much appreciated.

How did first get started in photography?

Like the cliché, my father gave me a camera - A Brownie Hawkeye, when I was about ten. He was from central Illinois. I grew up in Louisville, KY. We had to travel to the flat plains of his childhood home to visit an ailing grandmother. We frequently did it; it was a long trip, 5-6 hours. When we reached the Illinois line, west of Indianapolis he would always exclaim "We're in the land of Lincoln. Isn't it beautiful!" In my petulant retort I would say, "No, Kentucky is beautiful. Rolling and green. And Lincoln was from Kentucky." My father would predictably come back with "Son, you just don't see the beauty. It's in the horizon."

So you didn't appreciate the flat fields of Illinois, the horizon line. Do you think that comes through in your photos? To me they have a certain amount of congestion, which I'm tempted to trace back to growing up in thick hilly Kentucky. You think there's any connection there? I sometimes wonder the same about Friedlander who grew up in thick hilly woods in Washington, and stuffs his pictures with all sorts of material, almost like a bird nest.

Swirling Water, Kentucky, 1970
Clearly we never escape our roots, no pun intended (if you look at my landscapes). Very early on, I think in the Kentucky/Illinois days, I realized that photography was my means of bringing order to the visual reality of my environments. It allowed me to aestheticise in the frame that which seemed so haphazard as I passed through wherever I was. That could have been the suburban strip, or the frantic streets of the city, or the dense impenetrable thicket of a rural landscape.

Skip forward eight or so years. I find myself at the University of Illinois in the middle of what I considered the desolate landscape. It was the family school. Everyone went there —mother, father, etc. I never felt comfortable in that landscape. 

Skip a couple years again and I'm an English major with a Journalism minor. It's my senior year, last semester, and I'm about to go into the Peace Corps. My father has died and left me another camera - a Leica IIIF. 

A serious camera. 

I thought it might be smart to learn how to use it. Something told me not to do it in the Journalism department.

What sort of photographer was your father? 

He was a rank amateur.

The best kind!

He did use it for some medical purposes as he was doing some medical research.

OK, back to senior year...

Anyway, I trundled over to the Cranart Art building, perhaps unconsciously aware that the medium had much more interest as an art form rather than the kind of hack photojournalism that was being taught at the university. As I went down the stairs to the photo area which was in the basement, as all such were in those days, above the transom hung a large panoramic photo of the Illinois landscape. It stunned me. My god, that's what my father was talking about: the horizon line. The rest is sort of history. Art Sinsabaugh was my teacher.

He was at University of Illinois?

Yep, for many years. I only had him for one semester - My last.

Well that was a lucky connection.

It was indeed. I went into the Peace Corps, but was terminated because of a bad accident. Had to go back to Louisville for some surgery and healing. Guess what? I had to duck into graduate school to avoid the draft.

This was during Vietnam?

Yup, Vietnam. Met Bob Daugherty

I don't know that name. A photographer?

Daugherty was a designer, photographer, and former student of Walker Evans and head of the University of Louisville art department. A few years later he became director of George Eastman House. Shortly after I met Ralph Eugene Meatyard and became a member of the Lexington Camera Club. Gene was really my first mentor. He gave me a show in his optician shop.

I love his pictures.

I loved them too. I was very fortunate to find in such an unlikely city a community of serious people who were serious about the possibilities of the medium.

Lexington was for grad school? 

No, I went to the University of Louisville but I got drafted in 1969. Johnson did away with the graduate deferments.

Yale Press, 2016
I'm sure you've seen this but there was a recent book and show about Lexington and the photo community there. Very interesting arts scene.

Yes, I'm in the book. It was really a wonderful time, except for the threat of being drafted which happened in due course. Johnson was trying to prove there was no favoritism so inevitably a lot of college grads ended up in the infantry.

I'm trying to get the timeline straight. Were you making photos at this time?

Yes, I started making photos in late '67 and was making photos until being drafted in '69. My first wife was killed during my time in the Peace Corps.

I'm sorry.

Despite a good deal of tragedy from the Peace Corps and an uncertain future I suddenly had a stoke of good luck. Two weeks from going to Vietnam with a rifle in my hand I had a colitis attack; it was a condition from my childhood acting up. I had to shit in the middle of a mock battlefield, with live machine guns firing overhead as we crawled through barbed wire. The next day I was sent to sick call and because of the graces of a wonderful internist I found myself back on the block, discharged. 

Picked up the phone and called Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design and told him I'd like to study with him. I gave him my history and sent some prints. And then the next conversation "Okay, bub, come on up in September."

How did you know about him?

The photo world was quite small and if you were serious and curious, it was easy to find out who was who. After all, Sinsabaugh had been Siskind's student. Please also remember all of these masters were connected through the founding of SPE in, I think, 1962. The Midwest was not a hinterland for our medium.

You certainly had some all-star mentors along the way. 

Good teachers allow you to simply develop, to work, emulate, but at the same time direct you away from their own meta. 

When did you first feel like you had found your own vision, beyond what they could teach you?

from The Chicago Period, 1968-1977

I think my vision really formed after grad school in '71. While I was working in 4x5 format and very interested in the edge to edge texture and tactility of the landscape I discovered I was actually equally interested in all the artifacts of the human figure - how we display ourselves in everyday life - the toss of one's hair really was no different than the shake of a bramble. I started to rely more on my SL66 Rolleiflex as the means of getting in close and detailed. People became my interest. I liked touching them with the camera. I shot the Beach body of work, other street works, and Parties in the early 1970s. I also went to Louisiana with my colleague Doug Baz to do a massive 7 month documentary of Cajun country.

Some of that is in the Gitterman book you sent...

No, not the Cajun work, the 6x6 Street and Beach work. The Cajun work combined not only landscape but people, events, and all of the same mixture of interests. After forty years it is finally going to be exhibited in the Historic New Orleans Collection in March 2020. A new monograph of that work is under production too.

from Cajun Document, 1974

Getting back to my style, By '74 I started experimenting in color. "Real world witness" - the ironies, serendipity and chance encounters with people brought about by the very presence of the camera and me with the other - became my hallmark.

...and it seems you began standing further back?

Yes, but not always. The environment in which things and people were encountered added to the humor and irony of the situation.

This is just an outsider's perspective but to me your earlier stuff seems more concerned with texture/pattern/form than later when you were more oriented toward narrative. 

Oh! I am one who believes that every photograph has an embedded narrative. Certainly any body or series works has a narrative. Further I am one who doesn't really like the separations made between the intent and means of making photographs. That is to say, I don't give any particular value to the terminology, too loosely and sometimes overly exclusively used. Words like - fine art photography, conceptual image making, documentary, tableaux etc. The lens and screen arts is a matrix for all kinds of creative discourse. To build silos by labeling can only be limiting to how we expand our practice. It is ridiculous to think that any serious photographer/artist/documentarian, what-have-you, is not conceptual.

I agree. Labels are confining. I hate the term "street photography". I'm not even sure what it is anymore.

I forgot to mention that one, street photography. That is the worst of them all. Does that mean I don't photograph in a room? Does that mean I don't photograph in the woods? Does that mean I don't photograph in the studio? How ridiculous this label is!

from Dolce Via, Italy in the 1980s
I didn't mean my question to pigeonhole you into this or that style. I was just generally curious about the direction of your photography over decades. Maybe you could take a stab at it. How would you describe the shift in how you make photos since the 1970s?

Color added a great deal. I realized one couldn't look at the real world and find the subtleties that stimulated me by abstracting everything to black and white. I am interested in what is there in front of me. What I discover as I pass from one place, or one person, to another. What's there to be photographed? Color has information, detail, fact and even symbolic logic.

My photography approach is similar. Photography rooted in observation. I think that approach is waning, at least among high end art photographers.

Everything wanes sooner or later. But I think what I call "real world witness" photography is coming back. The contrived is getting to be too facile, or complicated for complication's sake. The world is always changing. It is in constant flux, and the discovery of what's out there with the lens always leads one on further quest. What is found is really much more phenomenal than that which can be constructed.

Maybe photography is a flux-avoidance mechanism? "Freeze!"

Don't forget, at least any photograph but particularly those made in the real world always seem to have more value as time moves on - because if nothing else they are historical records. A detail of something that a later generation may need, or at least find of interest. All photographs ultimately have value as information.

from In The Still Life

You're pretty involved in educating young photographers. Do you try to teach an observation-based style? Most of what I see coming out of grad school is the opposite.

No, we try to teach our students how to look, how to think, and define their own voice. If that sounds too simplistic it is because we deliberately do not espouse any one orthodoxy or ideology. The lens and screen arts are ever expanding and the digital practice is at the heart of practically every creative gesture. My program prides itself on allowing students to explore that which truly stimulates them. Indeed they often follow certain trends and the faculty here will often respond critically and try to get them to stretch beyond whatever they may have seen on the cover of the latest art magazine. While my faculty is very diverse in their practices, my own interest is working working with observation itself.

I don't want any student to copy a faculty member, or faculty members to make a protégé of their student. But inevitably teachers do influence how students think about their own creative work. The trick is to lead them to waters, but not to let them waddle in muddy water.

I get that. It's important to let photographers find their own way of expression. But do you notice a general tendency in that voice as a generational thing? Say you were a young student going to grad school today. Do you think you'd have developed the style you have now? Or be influenced in a more conceptual direction? The people who taught you, Siskind, Sinsabaugh etc, were documentary observers. Surely that had some influence, no matter how much they tried to keep from being dogmatic.

Well again, I don't accept the term "conceptual". I am quite sure if one is serious about working through a thesis idea, which is required by most graduate schools, they have applied a great deal of thinking, research and practice to their endeavor.

If you read about Siskind you will see he thought of himself as abstract expressionist and that he was very "conceptual" and thoughtful about his reasons to make the kind of pictures he made. He never doubted that he was an artist, but he was proud to call himself a photographer.

Didn't mean to imply he or any of them weren't thoughtful.

What I am getting at is the idea that separated the kind of photographer I became from the journeyman practice of the time was that we were invested in finding meaning, personal discovery, and coherence that would constitute a body of work, a style, a way of saying something about what we beheld that works something like poetry.

from Taradiddle, 2018
Thus to answer your question, I suspect I might very well, as a student today, come to the same ways of working as I was originally inclined. I am a relatively hyperactive person. The joy of going out and making pictures - here there and anywhere - is a way of channeling my energy and putting my thinking, as well as experience, into coherent forms.

Maybe "conceptual" is a problematic word. Perhaps "project-based" is more descriptive? For example, your book Taradiddle contains images made with no ultimate project in mind (I think?). The photos are just based in the act of seeing and shooting. That's the thing I'm trying to get at, which seems less common now.

The past couple of years I've been seeing more students trying to get back into "shooting". But there is an inherent problem in the nature of graduate school that forces a student to do what is called a project, something that has a thesis, a kind of beginning and an end, a body of work that can be evaluated. This surely limited, to some degree, the spirit of the wanderer and the wanderlust that drives a more mature way of seeing in the real world.

The point of the graduate school project/thesis, is to give the student discipline, to help them understand what it means to work, and work out, their concerns in a consistent and disciplined manner. It's not a perfect pedagogy, but it does allow the student to understand what it means to be a working artist, and it is only the beginning of a creative career which, if determined, liberates itself once it leaves the ivory tower.

I was flipping through your book Lunchtime and surprised to see what looks like Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Cornell Capa among the faces. No caption or explanation. What's the story there?

from Lunchtime
Did you see also Mary Allen Mark? and Lartigue? 

I can't spot ME Mark. I will look closer tonight.

They were just more characters encountered during the period I was doing candid street portraits. Andre Kertesz is there also and William Holden. They are no captions on any of the pictures because I didn’t see celebrities and notables as such, but rather just persons encountered in the course of everyday life.

Did you just bump into them? Or arrange a portrait?

Nothing was arranged, they were just seen in passing in France and also on the streets in the US. Of course I knew who they were. Perhaps more telling is a story of about how I did not photograph Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on 5th Ave and 57th street and Yoko Ono and John Lennon, all of whom stopped to pose for me. That story has been told a number of times.

I think if you'd included them in Lunchtime they would've been easily spotted. But the photographers you did include are just on the verge of anonymous (at least with the general public, and probably many photographers as well) so they almost pass unnoticed. They are sort of like easter eggs hidden in the mix. 

That's the point. I wanted basic spontaneous encounters. To look at the person as a personality met in passing. By personality I mean a distinct individual. All the people in the collection are unique in their presentation of self. 

Was there any reaction to their inclusion in the book? I tried to look up contemporary reviews but no one seems to mention it.

Blake, I think you are the first person who really identified them, or asked about them!

Oh well, I guess it had to happen at some point. By including them I think maybe you intended a hidden message, hoping it would be picked up somewhere? And I guess it wasn't. Same with most hidden messages.

Not really. It was just part of my collection of caricatures. It is fun now that you have discovered this little secret.

Was there any reaction from the photographers included? I suppose some of them are gone now. But at the time?

No. I don't think so. Several of those pictures are already in the collection of ICP. I gave them the ones with Cornell right after his death. You know, when you are not trying to celebrate somebody famous but looking at them as humans, something of our commonality inevitably comes out. While each person is physically and visually different we are all just basically alike when encountered out of context. That might be really the point of the book, isn't it?

It's an odd book. Honestly I had skimmed it a few times in the bookstore but without really picking up on the pairings. I think that twist makes it more intriguing. It's a kind of statement about humans and generality. I have a little pet theory —which is completely wrong, of course— that there are only about 50 people in the world and I keep running into the same ones over and over. Many people I meet give me that feeling, a strong resemblance to someone from my past.

I think you are exactly right. If we were all naked on the street we probably we would not even take much notice after a while.

But someone wearing pants might cause a stir...

from Skid Row

I'm going to send you a mockup of a new book called Skid Row. In black and white I photographed in the late '70s the occupants of the Bowery and in Uptown Chicago. In the end despite the fact that they have "fallen" they are indeed people we know.

So you're working on a new book? You just put one out.

Yes and I've got about 4 in the works. A lot of work that hasn't been seen but also some contemporary. You have to realize that I have been photographing for the past 50 years. 

...and now it's easier to make books than before. 

SKID ROW is in the works with Steidl.

Are you still pretty active making photos? Do you set aside regular photo outings? Or what is your process? 

One would always want to have more time to wander, meander, hit the road, whatever. But while I do not have a routine per se, every journey I make is more or less, really, to photograph, and that includes a walkabout in the city or simple two-day road trip over the Spring Break. If you are a photographer you are always photographing, and by the way, Blake, I really appreciate the kinds of questions you are asking. It is clear you know how to look.

Thanks. I guess my questions come from someone who's doing the same thing. I'm pretty much always looking for photos. 

If you look at my Instagram cellphone feed you will find a lot of ideas and sketches of a whole new order.
Would you label yourself a "street photographer". I know that's a messy phrase. Feel free to interpret as you want.

I think we covered this before, but NO, I hate this term. What does it means? I only photograph in the street? I don't photograph in a room? Other terms are bad too, Conceptual photography, Straight photography, Fine art photography is the worst. These terms keep people from expanding. Silo people. And overly simplify the great matrix that the lens and screen arts holds for all disciplines and all creative thinking. If I had to make a statement for the kind of work I do I would use "a real-world witness" to everything I do.

How about the phrase Taradiddle which implies a lie or untruth. Do you think photographs are deceptive?

Or course whatever is framed and caught in the still is certainly taken out of context. It is a reality, but it's the photographer's reality, and even better put, the camera's reality. All of this is not to say there isn't truth in it, so it is only a little white lie.

"Little White Lies". I once titled a show with that phrase.

So you agree with me.

Yes, the twist of photography that most interests me is the translation from reality, and especially when the two things seem to differ. But it's maybe a fine line between the good photos which do this, and simple visual trickery, which is less interesting. Optical illusions are fascinating but only to a point.

Once again you've hit the nail on its head, at least for me. As I've been quoted many times, it's the serendipity of the discovery of something more unique, exciting, bizarre or unrevealed that is the reward of photographing in the real world. Nothing I could construct would have the same import.

It also depends a bit on the audience. Some people will see a photo the way you intended. And some won't (circling back to the Lunchtime book and its hidden easter eggs). Do you have a reliable group of friends or colleagues to share work with? A nice small audience you can count on for feedback, like a photo group?

I don't have a photo group any more but I certainly did as a young photographer and I do believe that aspiring image makers ought to meet with each other to show and tell as much as possible. 

From New York On The Edge
I think the place most of these meetings take place now is online. Do you feel a physical meeting is more valuable? Or can an online meeting provide the same feedback?

I am a chairperson in a major graduate department with wonderful students, colleagues and staff, who feed my understanding of the medium all the time. I certainly don't work in a vacuum and people like Yoav Friedlander, who is typing this as we speak, Blake Ogden, Brenda Hung and other members of my immediate SVA community react all the time to things of mine they see. It is indeed important that one get out of their bubble.

I think Instagram can actually be useful to expand beyond the bubble. Because most of the people on there aren't photographers, so it's sometimes a good place to gauge general reactions. But of course social media isn't always the most trustworthy feedback.

I am always surprised when I show something to someone who isn't immediately in the field but is intelligent and curious, when they discover something in an image that I hadn't really seen or thought about. A good work of art speaks in many ways to different and many people.

You said you don't have a photo group "any more". What happened to the group?

Frankly I never had that kind of a group in New York. I had it when I first started in Lexington, Kentucky with Eugene Meatyard and others, and later in Chicago when groups of former graduate students would meet to share work. I must say also because I am in an active place daily it is pretty easy for me to ask the questions I want to ask and not have to have a formal structure. There comes a point also where you really do know what you are doing. Too many voices can set you astray and a good artist has to be decisive at some point.

How did your photos reach the attention of Steidl? And can you tell me a bit about this new book.

Very good question. I can't remember exactly!

You should've taken a photo of the moment, lol.

I think I showed him a different project a few years ago. And I visited him once to show him several others of which was this one. I am not going to tell you about the book. Instead I will send you a mockup and see what you have to say. It goes to the previous question. I value your ideas and view.

It sounds like you've been digging some into your archives and pulling out unseen stuff. I'm sure there's a lot of it. Are there some older things you've rediscovered which you've completely reevaluated. Either stuff you loved which you now don't like so much, or vice versa? Those types of projects seem to open doors, at least for me. The ones which don't stay in one place in my mind.

So much of what one's doing in one life time is ended up unseen in boxes. Let's face it, we really don't do it for a specific audience. We do it because we need to do it, because we like doing it, and because it's what we do. But of course we want people to see it and we think we have something to say to others and as you said the book is much easier to do now so why not do them and get these things out of the boxes? Without sounding pompous I am always surprised how much I like something today that I wouldn't have been so sure about in another era.

from Indecent Exposure

Honestly, I feel much more sure and knowledgeable than I ever had and I ever did. It is a function of age, perhaps some wisdom, and most important, not caring really about judgment - I'll take what I get.

Wise advice. So maybe the thing to do is just stick all your photos in boxes until your 70s? (just kidding).

Well that's probably the option of most artists. But it is nice to have an audience whenever possible. Remember everybody thinks they are a photographer and even an artist and there are lots of good ones out there. The art world has its own peculiar issues regarding commodity and while there are so-called collectors out there aren't really many great ones. By the way - I have the largest collection in the world of Charles Traubs.

You've cornered the market.


What are the "peculiar issues regarding commodity"?

I am sure you really have your own understanding of the art world.

I'm pretty cynical. But open to ideas.

It really is about a select few who may or may not have great talent, who may or may not be really original, but who get anointed for whatever connection, happenstance or fair reason. A recent survey really did note rather profoundly that your connections matter more than anything

Networking. Same as any business. 

But the issue at heart is really a matter of creating a product that commoditizes with "value" for a very elite. If knowledgable or not knowledgable they are very wealthy people.

I dunno. I see that whole world as pretty tangential to making photos. I guess it's a way to make it financially viable. But beyond that it doesn't have much to do with the creative process. So the "stored in boxes until 70s" method still has potential, haha. 

from No Perfect Heroes

Every gallery and every museum wants to find a dead artist to discover or rediscover. Aging must be a good career move.

I actually think photographers get too caught up in careerism. Trying to sell photos, get X's attention, make a name as an artist. All that stuff is pretty secondary. The core act is to make photos.

Absolutely? But you need to make a living.

True. Probably the best way to pursue an art career is to be a hedge fund manager or something. Make a pile of cash, then just focus on art without all the marketing bullshit.

Why do you think I've been an educator most of my life? Though I like it.

Well don't tell the kids not to pursue an art career. That'd kill the industry.

(All photos above © Charles Traub unless otherwise noted.)


Don Hudson said...

Ha! "Aging must be a good career move." Loved the discourse Blake

Stan B. said...

Prolific, insightful and always evolving... the work, and the interview!

John said...

B I like your interviews because you don't get into the psycho babble that so much art writing goes to. Simple q's and a's in plain language, but that does start to get to the heart of the issue.

though I do wish you'd invert the bold answers. hello from raleigh nc.

Federico Rubio said...

Thanks Blake! Great interview as usual.