Thursday, April 16, 2020

Q & A with Chris Shaw

Chris Shaw is a photographer based in Paris.

How is the crazy pandemic treating you?

One hour a day outside allowed with a written attestation and id.

Yikes, that's more strict than here. We are sheltering in place. But no paper authority required.

Where, Portland?

I am in Eugene, about 2 hours south of Portland. A smaller city. Fairly spread out so it's easy to avoid crowds.


No, it's actually quite beautiful out. Which is a dilemma because when it's nice I feel the need to go explore with my camera. But I know I shouldn’t.. I have been shooting a bit lately, just in parks and outskirts away from people. But anyway, about you...I know a bit from your books and from a few things I've read online. But not much really. I'm curious how you first got into photography. When did you take your first meaningful photos?

Meaningful? Erm, haha, well I was a working grunt in a factory in Hamilton, Ontario. Laid off. I walked into a library and picked up a photo book and saw a reproduction of Ikko Narrahara’s picture of two dustbins suspended in mid air… and that was it. I thought photography’s going to save me… I thought. I need to study this… Looked into going to Rochester (too expensive) so shipped back to the UK and my local higher education college where I got a small grant from the government as a mature student (24). All that’s gone now. It’s like the USA… Anyway Tom Wood was the teaching there and Martin Parr was living there so it was where I was supposed to be in 1984. I took some pictures on a beach I lived on in Greece that summer and some documentary type pics in nearby Liverpool.

Ikko Narraha, Two Garbage Cans, Indian Village, 1972

So before you saw that Ikko Narrahara photo you'd never taken any photos? Did you have any artistic or creative leanings before that?

None But it was like I had the realization right there right then people worked at jobs they hated and wonderful to do something I loved and it was just this overwhelming feeling this is for me.

Awesome. Sounds like you found your calling. Or it found you. Most people aren't so lucky in that regard. Was there a time between that initial lightbulb moment and art school where you took photos on your own? Or did you immediately plunge into academia?

Haha, academia? I was taught by Tom Wood, initially developing my first film with him. It was called a BTEC course. It was basically a technicians course but Tom was teaching there so heavily documentary influenced. Right away he pointed out too me that I was unusual in presenting notebooks which had prit-sticked pictures in them. So I did the BTEC and then a degree in photography at Farnham (West Surrey College of Art) where Parr and Graham were teaching.

What was your impression of Tom Wood as a teacher?

from Life As A Night Porter, 2006

Hard! Wash those reels and when I didn’t put the reels to my nose like a dog. I always did wash my reels thoroughly after that (the smell of fixer not good!) 

What about as a photographer?

Looking For Love (Chelsea Reach nightclub photos) is a classic. He works hard.

So he taught you about developing film. But surely you learned from him too about how to see?

Less so, unless I wanted to see like August Sander or Lee Friedlander.

What does that mean? You think Tom Wood is too refined?

I don’t mean it in a bad way. It was good education.

No, nothing bad. Just trying to figure out how his style might relate to yours. Or what you picked up from him.

Of course I began taking photos in the Leica M3 typical style. But because I was from there and he wasn’t, that was the difference really. And the street was a big influence from him. Also I had Klein’s book.

I can definitely see Klein in your photos. What other photographers or books were you looking at back then which help point you in the right direction?

Point Of No Return, from Weeds of Wallasey, 2007-2012

The Japanese came later, before the night porter book, when I renewed my awareness of Eikoh Hosoe and Narrahara. But at that time it was William Klein /Danny Lyon /East 100st Bruce Davidson. That was big. I tried to go and live in the local ghetto and do that. Haha, I was so naive!

Can you tell me briefly about your experience living in the local ghetto?

Ghetto maybe too harsh a word really, but I moved into a flat in Liverpool 8 with a girlfriend and I started photographing people and places around where we lived. I befriended people who later burgled my place —that upset me at the time, haha Now I just love them anyway! They didn’t find my cameras buried under a mound of coats near the front door but they took the TV and stereo and also a box of 200 teabags (tea: that very English thing...) But they left two single teabags out —like after being robbed you really need a cup of tea! 

My girlfriend was upset, crying. The police came. We asked them to take fingerprints. They just looked at me and laughed, said what do you think this is, a murder enquiry? Of course in that area you couldn’t get insurance, so maybe it was ghetto. Like I would walk with a tripod down a local street called Granby where policemen only walked in twos with Alsatian dogs. I shiver now thinking about it but I was young then and led a charmed life. Nothing bad happened then.

What about Parr and Graham as teachers? What did you learn from them?

Paul was nice, Parr not so nice. He’s nicer now. It was color photography and I was taking black and white. But for me they where just redoing classic B/W photography in the guise of new British color topography, combining Brit doc with Eggleston/Shore, etc

A fair analysis. Did you learn something from them about how to approach and/or interact with people in preparation for photographing them? Or if not, where did you learn that skill?

I think I learned to be part of it or not to be part of it —two different approaches.

How do you find people to shoot? What is your relationship with them?

Retrospecting Sandy Hill, 2015

I gave people “free”prints. They told other people and then I photographed them (Retrospecting Sandy Hill). I acted like a fool and people didn’t care that I’d photographed them (Life As A Night Porter). Different strategies for different places.

It sounds like even when you were in school you were already intent on your own direction. Do you think photo school was worthwhile?

Yes, for me the equipment and free darkroom? Amazing! Learning to print. A library. Photographers like them at the top of their game teaching me. Can’t help but be enthused by that. I saw Martin Parr’s first exhibition of Last Resort at a converted bus-stop-like gallery and then it went worldwide. It was kind of like seeing the Beatles at the Cavern or something.

Very cool. I think he was maybe in just the right place and time, properly situated just as color photography was ready to explode. And of course very skilled.

Great business man.

You said that school had a darkroom and that you learned to print there. But your darkroom style defies conventional printing methods. You incorporate a lot of mistakes and stains and such. So maybe "learning to print better" was a backwards process for you? Or something like that. Trying to avoid getting better? Or more open to problems? Here's a question, From where you sit now, what makes a "good" print?

I always think about music virtuosos, you know, like Hendrix. He learned every style before he started doing his own thing. So before I made an aesthetic of bad printing I had to learn then unlearn the right way? If that makes any sense.


Ansel Adams zone system upside down back to front, but I know about Ansel!

from The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game, 2019

Maybe part of what makes your work stand out now is that photography has gone so strongly in the other direction. Most of what I see in the fine art photo world is so very carefully calibrated. Photographers tend to be control freaks, I think. Maybe the very idea of making photos is about control. Trying to capture the world like a bug in a jar.

I think there’s photography as fine art and straight photography. If you know how to print that automatically makes you an artist nowadays

Not sure I follow you…

Time. 20 years ago they were just craft skills. But the world’s become so digital with people looking at and through screens that the physical object now becomes more important.

I love to handle prints more than looking at screens. I think that’s maybe a vestige of me coming from similar era as you. I started with film and prints in the early 90s. There was no photography on screens then. Except maybe the occasional slide show with a Kodak carousel. But I’m not sure I agree everyone who prints is automatically an artist. Maybe…

Maybe not. But the obsession with tech is oppressive. I always think of Godard’s man from Alphaville film. Just one man going against the tide. To use old technology when everybody obsesses the new.

Atget used glass plate carriers well into the film era, like maybe 30 years into it. 

Records vs cds? All that stuff about technology always being an improvement not necessarily so.

Maybe in 50 years someone will raise the same arguments, comparing the good old days of digital photography with whatever they're doing in the future. Mindmeld vision or something?

After the chip implants to combat the virus we won’t be taking photos!

So what followed school for you? You said you spent time in Greece making photos? And in Liverpool? My understanding is that you spent several years hunkered down making photos on your own without much outside notice?

Well I did a lot of gallivanting when I was at college and crashed and burned when I hit the streets of London in 1992, becoming homeless and getting a job as a night porter in a hotel, mainly because they had staff accommodation. I was taking photos to keep me awake or something, lost art school artifice. I just had 2 minutes and 2 shots to capture something. I was about 10 years as a night porter before I had any success with photography..

I've got that book and I love it.

Basically just taking the same photo again and again and getting it eventually. Vertical and black and white the opposite of the horizontal color orthodoxy of the time, insane. Then black and white came back.

from Life As A Night Porter, 2006

How did that Night Porter work eventually get noticed?

It was like magical! I mean, I went to Arles then Houston Photo Fest portfolio review, but what really was funny and life changing was that I had entered the night porter prints into a fashion photography competition as a bit of a joke.  The judges were Alexander McQueen and Nick Night. They won 1st prize and about 10k in prize money which meant I could really fly and leave the hotels…Well, stay in them, not work in them!

How could those photos possibly fit into the fashion world? Doesn't compute.

Because they didn’t, and Alexander McQueen and Nick Night didn’t give a fuck. They just thought, interesting!

I’m trying to put together the timeline. So the money you won from the fashion prize allowed you to fly to Houston and Arles? Was that the order of things?

Basically, yep.

What was the reaction at Arles and Houston? Any bites? Or interest? Or valuable feedback at all?

Sure, I met Bill Hunt and Lesley Martin and Houston was a lot less competition than Arles. Houston was pay to play and the players just had money, not interesting portfolios. So I did stand out more. So Lesley Martin wanted to do it at Aperture and a month later I was in NYC.

So what happened with that? How'd it get from Aperture to Twin Palms?

Guy called Gus at the New Yorker said don’t sign anything before you meet Jack Woody. He’s in town.

Gus Powell?

Yes, Gus Powell. I said Jack who? I didn’t know a thing about publishers and the difference between them. Anyway I meet Gus and Jack at the Gramercy (b4 it got done up). Jack looks at my book dummy, says you’ll never do this with Aperture. I say “you’re wrong. I’m going in to sign tomorrow. They’re giving me two thousand dollars!” I went in the next day and one of the trustees who had to cosign the contract was off sick so I never signed. A week later Jack offered me $8k and said we’ll do it just like the dummy. I didn’t realize how unusual that was then, haha. That was before I got to know the whole nature of the game a lot of publishers hated me after that! I was not paying to play!

Life As A Night Porter, 2006

The night porter book has roughly the dimensions of 11 x 14 prints (kind of mammoth for a book!). Are the pages life-sized print scans?

Bigger!! Originals were 16 x 12 prints with a slight white frame. Originally print quality was going to be newspaperish as I had done a Xerox photocopy dummy 16 x 12. But then we took scans of my prints instead so the print quality was a lot better, but still had an “unclean”quality.

You said you didn’t really know what you were doing with publishers. Do you think your outsider/inexperienced status was part of your appeal to publishers?

I think I was trying to sell it. I wasn’t giving it away but I didn’t know the difference between different publishers in terms of quality and attitude. I started at the top with Twin Palms and thought the way they worked was the way everyone worked. You have to look at what they’ve published. They were above a whole bunch of pay-to-play publishers who depend on academics /teachers of photography who became institutionalized and are trying to get their work published to justify their “moribund academia” who pay publishers. 

Haha, publish or perish. As they say in academia.

So I guess I was coming from the “lower classes” showing the reality of the working poor and I wasn’t going to pay a publisher. But I always laugh at myself and my own bullshit belief system…I always say to Aaron Morel “You’re upstairs in the castle..and I’m out here in the fields..!”

How do you think social class plays a role in the world of photography generally?

In many ways it affected British documentary photography. Movement was very class conscious, an aspect of which was sending middle class southern photographers to photograph the working classes in the north of England. It was almost as if they never saw the middle classes in the north of England, ignoring the unpleasant fact that there are more poor people in London  than anywhere else in the UK. Class is a very British thing and very stifling, resembling Indian caste system. Regional accents are always disparaged. It's just he way it is, part of the landscape. But there is always the tendency in documentary photography practice to define working class people in a cruel way, to make people look bad if you like.

I think your experience trying to get your work out into the world is both encouraging and depressing. It shows the value of perseverance and hitting that lucky break. But still, even after all is said and done, the photos can't really do it on their own. They still require the verdict of kingmakers to get over the hump. Which is kind of a bummer.

Good Morning In Skodaville, 2019

It's a business.


Then I started selling prints. Cheaply to the right people and double or tripled when others came mentioning their names.

How can you run a business charging different rates to different people?

So it’s like Parr and Erik Kessels, Timothy Prus, they were early print buyers of mine at $200 a print. Then there’s the ones who come after them. You double the price. Because they have become your champions, have bought you cheap…History of art stuff.

Do you limit your print editions, or just make them when needed?

Editions of 15 or 16, usually 2 or 3 sizes.

The Parr/Kessels thing feeds into what I mentioned a minute ago. The prints have a certain value until someone like Parr buys one, and then it shoots up. I know it's a business, but it still seems crazy. I mean the print is the print, and some outsider's opinion of it should not change depending who owns it. In an ideal world, sigh…

But it’s a really difficult thing to do selling. Most people don’t like to do it. But it was kind of second nature to me. I’d spent years at a porter’s desk selling theatre tickets to hotel guests, etc.

You sell them directly with no gallery support? Yeah, that's a logistical nightmare

Galleries take 50% if you sell yourself you get 100% of it. Plus if you’re making the prints yourself in the 1st place that’s how you can sell them cheap. Because if you have to pay a printer to make your prints it’s a lot more difficult to do that.

When you make an edition of 15 or 16, how much do the prints vary? I assume each one is unique, especially if they incorporate handwriting. But it seems to me that's part of the darkroom appeal, which digital printing has a hard time approximating, because the fundamental nature of digital things is replication, not variance.

My thing in the last few years is too make book dummies with real fiber-based prints and sell them. They’re always valued if the book gets published. I mean, also I’ve never printed out an edition in one go it’s always been as I’ve sold them. Then I print another to replace the sold print. 

So if they're printed during different sessions, there’s even more variety between prints.

Probably to me and you, yes. There’s a thing about vintage prints. Vintage can mean printed with more enthusiasm!

I'm with you in spirit. I love the darkroom and I do all my own printing. I print like crazy. But of course there's almost no market for my photos, so it's a different situation.

But if you become successful you will sell everything so it’s important you have something to sell!

Um, I guess. Is that what you were telling yourself those 10 years working on Night Porter?

No, as I said photography was like keeping me sane it was like going to church. When I develop film or was in the darkroom it was helping me cope with shitty life.

What about Horizon Icons (the other book of yours I own)? Can you tell me a bit about your experience shooting that and getting it published?

I live in Paris and every November the circus comes to town —Paris Photo. In 2012 I was introduced to Gloria and Willard Huyck (sadly Gloria now deceased) an ex-Hollywood couple with a black and white collection (since sold to the Sekkers —Nan Goldin’s friends). They came to my place and I sold them a few prints. Willard liked Ikko Narrahara. I liked Ikko! He had a spare room at his Glendale home full of his prints…if I was ever in LA? I was more than welcome to stay…etc.

Horizon Icons, 2017

Like two weeks later I went. I’m there, he invited some people around for Sunday brunch. I sold some more prints, then he says I should see Daniel Connell (then curator at Palm Springs museum) and just like that I get an appointment and am showing him night porter prints, which he loves, but says can you do something around here? What’s around here? He mentions Joshua Tree and I pass through there on the way back to LAX. Get home, Google Joshua Tree arts and a residency programme pops up. I apply and spend two months, July /August 2013, in a house next to Joshua Tree National Park. I shipped in an enlarger in an adhoc darkroom in the house, took pictures just before and after sunrise (too hot afterwards), developed the films during the day and printed at night. When the prints dried I wrote acerbic diary-like comments on the prints. The prints would be later scanned and made into a book with Ines Bordas then at Adad books, now Silence Editions. Alison Mosshart the musician from the Kills wrote a foreword.

What have you been photographing lately during this pandemic?

Obsessed with a bridge near me.

Oh yeah I saw some of those early morning shots on Instagram. Are you shooting them b/w too?

No just the iPhone! Trying to put then together in a film strip way, but this is me taking a holiday from black and white.

What is it about the bridge that interests you? Are you forced there to avoid people? Or something else?

It’s the most photographed bridge in Paris right in front of the Louvre. I’m interested in being there when no tourists are, like now, and there’s no pollution. Also I think repetition is something that interests me doing something again and again.

How did you wind up living in Paris?

I had been living in a London housing association (rent control place). The local council had been trying to evict me for years so they could sell the place. My flatmates had moved out with the first eviction notice. I had successfully delayed this for 2 years before they changed tack and took me to court, not to evict me but to move someone in with me. This they won and moved a Cuban exile in with me. He was arrested by the police the first night, covered in blood, shouting at the moon. They came to my place —does he live here? Yes, I said. The next day I came to Paris for an exhibition of my night porter work, met a French woman, married and moved in with her. A year later it got very painful. I was praying to be back with the Cuban guy!! So I came back to the UK but up north where I did Weeds of Wallasey (Super Labo 2011). I had to come back to Paris for the divorce but also for photography. Paris is a black and white photography place and has always been. So I’ve been here since 2010.

Why are you taking a holiday from black and white? Is that something you've done before? I haven't seen much color work from you but maybe you explore that from time to time? What about iPhone? Is that a tool you've used much in a serious way?

No, I did shoot a lot of mini dvd cassettes 10 years ago. Then last year on eBay I bought 2 more cameras and started shooting again.. So then I always return to black and white after these holidays. It’s like I have to keep it playful and black and white seems very serious sometimes and I always return to my black and white practice renewed. 


Unknown said...

thanks blake-all the best!


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