|Self Portrait, 1973|
Peter Brown Leighton is a photographer based in Lampasas, TX.
PBL: I had no idea you were so visible on the web. How is it that the Internet is supposed to somehow bring information we really need and want closer to hand, but in reality makes it so much harder to find?
BA: Haha, mixed blessings. I'm sort of a half breed. Half my life was before the internet, half after. I remember how difficult it used to be just to locate a song you wanted to hear. Or to find a tattered old Playboy. After years and years struggling to track down information, now everything is suddenly available. Everything! But it's sometimes too much. Hard to wade through. But since you're doing just that I should take a moment to say thanks for looking through all those old IG photos. I think basically every photographer has the same root desire. Just someone to look at their photos. From Cartier-Bresson to Joe Schmoe it's the same desire. So thanks for doing that.
IG’s not nearly as good as a hard copy print or book in the hand, but I starve for good photography and finding a concentration of it in one spot has been inspirational. And I agree, we want someone to look at, and "get” our work, but I also look for inspiration.
"I starve for good photography". Hmmm. Where do you normally feed the hunger? What are some reliable places? Or reliable photographers?
Yeah, I’m not sure what “good” photography is anymore. At my age, 72, I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of more images across a broader cultural spectrum than, say, when I was still in my twenties. I’m not claiming that I can better identify what’s worth glomming onto because I’m older, only that what inspires me now is often different from when I was much younger. I’m certainly more ecumenical now. As you say, there’s a lot of stuff out there.
Where did you look for good photography when you were younger? How has your taste in photo consumption changed since then?
Most of my life has been spent outside of creative communities. So there’s that. For me, the input has come from museums, brick and mortar galleries, and online. To a lesser extent, events like Fotofest in Houston. Not books so much because I can’t afford them.
Do you have access to a good photo library. A university or something?
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas has one of the largest photography archives in the world. Early 19th century work to Magnum. Soup to nuts. On occasion, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has something going on. Anne Tucker, who’s retired now, assembled one of the very best twentieth century photography collections there.
One of the quirkiest archives around is in San Marcos, not far from Austin. The Wittliff Collection. Bill Wittliff wrote the screenplay and directed the miniseries Lonesome Dove back in the day. He was also a photographer and over time assembled an eclectic collection of mostly southwestern photographers that Texas State University acquired a few years ago. The space allocated to it is intimate and really amenable to viewing.
There’s also a decades old photography gallery still operating in Austin. The Stephen Clark Gallery. It’s tiny and ramshackle, occupying an old house on some of the priciest real estate still left un-highrised in the downtown area. Stephen and Witliff were partners. Witliff died last year. So I don’t know how much longer Stephen will stay in operation. He has an established collector base and doesn’t really show new artists. Visiting him is like stepping into the past. He has stories to tell.
Also, Austin has one of the best independent book stores left standing, Book People downtown. They don’t have a great selection of photo books, but I’ve been known to stop by there and spend an afternoon with what they do have. Browsing is encouraged. I love the vibe.
I also have a friend, Jace Graf, who makes these elegant presentation boxes for artist’s editions and rare books for people who can afford them. He’s also a book maker, so he teams up occasionally with photographers to do limited edition books. There’s also a traditional print maker and letter press operator in the same little complex. All of these older arts-centric businesses are under fire by real estate speculators and the COVID now. I’m afraid many of them won’t be around much longer.
Finally, in terms of inspiration, when I was twenty, just getting into photography, the Time-Life photography series was my holy bible. Also, photography mags, back then, especially “Creative Camera”. Its issues featuring Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Duane Michals, and Ralph Gibson are ones I still vividly remember. I was shooting all the time in those days, and when I wasn’t shooting, I was in the darkroom. But those days are long gone.
Haha, that’s been my life since the late 1990s.
Count your blessings.
The Southwest Craft Center in San Antonio (now the Southwest School of Art) where I worked and lived in the early 70s had previously been a nunnery, built in the 1850s. I slept in a nun’s cell, and lived like a monk there for a couple of years. When I married, my wife lived there too. The school was just getting off the ground, things were very fluid and the creative vibe was intense.
Since then I haven’t had many interactions, say, like the ones you’ve had the good fortune to have. There’s just nothing grass roots like the photo culture in Eugene and Portland in my area and no one I’m aware of around who approaches photography the same way I do. I’ve lived most of my adult life in and around Austin and San Antonio (excepting a short stint in Santa Fe, NM, eight years in Corpus Christi, 5 years in Ecuador). Sometimes shooting, sometimes not. Always taking photos in my head though.
As far as photo consumption, my primary tastes haven’t changed from the 1960s and ’70s. Arrested development maybe. The trend in photography toward mannerism and self-absorption that took hold later on in the ’70s and seems to have held the high ground ever since, doesn’t interest me that much. Cindy Sherman’s work, for example, the first time I saw it, I was baffled in terms of how much influence her work has had on the medium.
Has your opinion on it changed at all?
I believe that when the eye, the camera and the execution of the print all come together that’s when photography happens. If the results require some sort of academic treatise to support them in order to be understood, or if they’re primarily serving as ballast for a book design, I’m open to it, but you have to work harder to capture my interest. There’s an old phrase: Don’t trust the teller, trust the tale. If one’s work is so far removed from the average viewer’s capacity to engage, I have to wonder what’s the point, and once that happens, for me, the party’s usually over. Craft is important. Admittedly, I’ve only seen a couple of Sherman’s prints on the wall. How should I say it: They weren’t masterfully executed. The same with a Chuck Close exhibit I saw in Austin several years ago. Considering who they were, I was expecting greater attention being paid to the quality of their finished work.
I’m not sure the high end of contemporary photography is aimed at the average viewer. I think it’s aimed at collectors.
Yeah, whoever they are. So much conceptual work comes across as too holy, clever and trendy, or self-referential. The beauty of photography lies in its power to communicate in a way that hadn’t existed before its invention. It’s the only art form, where we can instantaneously turn our minds inside out and save that instant visually to share with others later on. Anyone can do it. Not everyone can do it well. Some minds are more interesting than others. But the visual conversations we have all tap into the same wiring in our brains. Once the conversation begins mutating into something requiring an interpreter, I stop listening. Probably why I never went to graduate school.
I did a Google search on categories of photography recently and turned up over 380 million links. Picking a site at random, it listed 50 photographic categories. Back in the day, Beaumont Newhall’s four categories were like the 10 commandments.
What were the four categories?
Straight (Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, etc.), formalistic (my interpretation: all form and no content-think Man Ray’s solarized images), documentary (only the facts, ma’am), and equivalent (charged with emotional content and inner meanings, Stieglitz Cloud series).
My point is that, whatever the labels, photography is a medium communicating in a common language whose reason for being is defined in the eye of the beholder. It’s truly a democratic art form, perhaps, the most democratic next to drawing with pencil and paper. And, like every good democracy, it has evolved into something chaotic and unruly. I get that.
Dave Hickey wrote that “Bad taste is the only real taste.” What he means is that “good taste” is defined by our culture’s gatekeepers. They calculate its value which then trickles down for the rest of us to deal with. This has proven difficult with “fine art” photography because its underpinnings are still young and evolving, its practices and permutations are so disparate and widespread, and the bandwidth for filtering out and funneling the best of it through the zeitgeist, much less categorizing it, is so narrow.
John Szarkowski’s job was simple compared to what curators are faced with today and will be in the future. There’s no there there. It’s everywhere.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here other than if there is a “there” there, it exists in the land of vernacular photography. I would submit that if millions of people hadn’t adopted the brownie camera back in the day, folks wouldn’t be using cell phones as cameras now. It’s also plausible that “street” photographers like you wouldn’t have evolved the same way, however you want to define what street is. You and others of like mind, in my opinion, are direct descendants of one of history’s first mass adoptions of a highly complex, transformational technology.
I'm not comfortable with the label "street photographer". I don’t feel it fits me very well.
I don’t think it fits you or anyone else today who’s committed to shooting and interpreting reality unfolding at an organic level–and elevating that exercise to artistic practice. Calling that “street” is a disservice to the work.
The great thing about the Internet is that location doesn’t matter so much anymore. You can access creative community from anywhere.
“Creative community” is an idealistic term and a fleeting reality. And I don’t mean that negatively. And I don’t think the way you’re using it is the way I’m reacting to it. To be sure, we all yearn to share with others who “get” us and challenge us on some level or another. There is a maze of options a mile wide and an inch deep available on the web to address that need. I prefer the Mariana Trench though. The only creative content-related websites, aside from your blog, that I’ve returned to repeatedly have been Tumblr and IG, but they both have their limitations. Among them time. I’d rather be working on a problem I’m having with an image than spending an hour looking at stuff that doesn’t inspire me, just to find one or two things that do.
Still, the web is essential. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to sustain what little visibility my work does have. And that’s a positive.
On the other hand, as cultural consumers we’ve, also, grown increasingly accustomed to thinking of “online art” as somehow surfacing from a separate gene pool from art in the real world. In the real world, we can see the actual artifact and study it, and might even purchase a limited edition print that validates its rarity and value. Online a ubiquitous, “just good enough” digital copy of the same image, accrues value only if it’s “liked”, after being viewed only for a few seconds on Pinterest or IG or wherever.
It serves only as social currency, not only viewed as art but as a quick and dirty trigger for human contact. This notion begs the much larger question of how art in general will be valued in society in the future: How will the concepts of art for art’s sake, art for the engagement of community and shared values, and/or art for the sake of making a living resolve themselves into something sustainable for the artist–and for society in general? I don’t know the answers other than I know they aren’t going to all be found on the internet.
Let's go back to square one. Japan?
My father was stationed there after the war. I was born in California and shipped over with my mother and older brother at 6 months. We arrived in 1949. It seemed odd to me later in life that neither of my parents talked about the impact the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on them. I seriously wondered about this after they passed. It was one of the things motivating me to do the “Man Lives Through Plutonium Blast” Series.
Anyway, by the time I was 6 years old, my brother, who's into spreadsheets, had tallied that we'd lived in 26 different places till we finally settled down: us being military brats and our mother eventually being a single mom with kids in tow.
26 different countries?
There was some mention in an interview that your parents had a less artistic path charted for you?
My mother offered medicine, architecture, law, or accounting as career possibilities. She didn't want me to turn out like my father. A writer who tried and failed to make a living from writing early on. He wound up later becoming a (m)ad man in NYC, to my mother’s way of thinking a less than savory occupation. So any artistic inclinations emerging in me were registered with some concern.
From age 7 until I was 18 I lived in a small, very conservative Texas town. Mary Martin, who played Peter Pan on Broadway in the ’50s was born there. When I was in grade school, the Peter Pan Peanut Butter people donated a huge fiberglass statue of their logo to our city park. The only other statue in the city at that time was one of a Civil War soldier on the town square. We didn’t desegregate until 1965. We were so whitbread that until then I’d never met an African American. Or a Hispanic. I didn’t know anyone who was catholic or jewish. I didn’t understand what being queer meant. I’d never heard of the Pill. There were 90 people in my 1966 senior class. By my calculation, 25% wound up getting pregnant or marrying someone they had gotten pregnant. I left town the day after graduating to enter the larger world, as John Fowles wrote, “handsomely equipped to fail.”
I thought your father was in the service? He was a writer too?
My father was a WW2 vet, tank commander. European theater, then Japan, Germany, Korea, the Middle East. When WW2 ended, he left the military for a couple of years to write. When my brother was born he re-upped to make ends meet and made the Army a career. He was stationed at the UN building in the late 1950’s in NYC, and got into trouble off-hours with a waitress, a trans couple and some heroin. A perfect storm of bad choices. He was given the option of retiring honorably or facing a court-martial. Thus, his shift to civilian life and advertising. My dad was a piece of work, but a smart, charming guy. First time I ever spent any real time with him I was 21.
The waitress thing was while he was married?
No, he and my mom split in the early 50s. He remarried a couple of times more, but could never stick the landing. He had a roving eye.
Roving eye makes life interesting. But acting on it leads to trouble. I think if there were no beautiful women in the world, life would be more boring.
Yeah, I inherited that inclination from one of the best.
Haha, young men look at young women. Or young men. Or trans. Or whatever turns them on. And vice versa.
I agree although I think I would have been more productive as a young man without that notion as a guiding principle.
How'd your family wind up in Texas?
My mother was from Brownwood, TX, so when she split from my dad, in Germany at the time, we moved back to Brownwood, then to Ft. Worth. Then to Weatherford, TX, where she married my stepdad. Total opposite of my father.
He was a country doctor. Very respected in the community, but stern and depressive. Uncommunicative. No curiosity. Not a good match.
Not a good match with you, or with the marriage?
Certainly not with me. Being the son of a country doc then was like being the son of a small-town preacher. We had to project a certain image that we didn’t really own. The marriage itself lasted 30 plus years, but eventually, my mom divorced him. She was a trooper putting up with him for as long as she did.
What was your mom like?
She was an only child. Beautiful. Intelligent. Extraverted. Driven to succeed as a woman in a man's world. If she were twenty today, I doubt she would have children. She'd have a career instead. When she divorced my stepdad, she opened a successful real estate agency. She’d been a good mother, but not a great mom, meaning that my friends all called their mothers: Mom. I never called mine that. “Mother” was the moniker. More formal. Less intimate. She wasn’t the touchy-feely type. That said, she never complained, shouldered the responsibility over the long haul for both my brother and I, and made choices against her grain she wouldn’t have made had we not been around.
And she imagined a more respectable path for you? What did your mom think of the path you chose? How did/does she react to your photos?
Yes, she definitely imagined a more respectable path. At the same time, once I left the nest and she’d done her job, she became very hands-off, sink or swim, and rarely commented on my career choices or any of the problems I created for myself. When she died I found several of my early prints stored in a box in her closet. I came to realize that my work must have meant something to her, even if she never mentioned it. Parents are a strange breed of cat. I cringe when I think back now about how naive I was before becoming one.
I take note that you just gave me permission to stop editing and just write. I appreciate that. Editing is a force of habit.
Stream of consciousness...Go...
Fuck editing. I mean it has a place. But not in the creative act. Banished!
I saw the original typewritten On the Road roll of manuscript at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin once. Talk about not editing.
Were there a lot of typos?
Literal cut and paste all over the place. It was fascinating and all the pages were glued together to make one long sheet. I’m too lazy for that. I was made for the computer.
I wonder what Kerouac would do with a word processor. Probably "fix" all the good parts.
That's an interesting thought. My feelings about computing are that a technology designed to simulate perfection is counter-intuitive to the way I naturally do things. So, for example, I've never tried to use a computer to make art according to software developers like Adobe or Apple. My goal instead has been to forge a process that I could use intuitively and without thinking. Like typing. So, I put aside reading how-tos early on in my practice and found my own way. Kerouac would have done the same I reckon. We both would have made terrible teachers.
Have you used a typewriter much? I mean back before computers?
I had an old manual Royal for years. Cast Iron. Beautiful touch. Lost it somewhere along the way. Losing things along the way. That's how I wound up giving up photography back in the day: left my Leica and 3 months worth of undeveloped film on a Greyhound bus. I wasn't in a very good mental state when that happened and went fuck it. I'm done.
Tell me more...
Complicated. I was living in Austin in the warehouse district in an art gallery with a couple of potters, before buying up abandoned warehouses there and turning them into bars became a thing. Unexpectedly I came into some money, so I bought an Ameripass, a 3 month, go-anywhere-in-the-US Greyhound bus ticket, aiming to document the shit out of America. Things didn't go as expected. Drugs might have been involved.
Let's see: There were Black Mollies back then, which were a potent form of amphetamine. Often mixed with coke, and the folks I ran with were just those kinds of guys. The downsides were brutal. I proved I wasn't Neal Cassidy on that journey.
Not then, but peyote and mescaline, mostly, when I did mind-altering drugs. I never did acid…that I know of. Pot, of course. PCP once, Qualuudes. White Crosses. No hard drugs like heroin. Alcohol to balance everything out. Like today, I guess, when one went through a Rimbaud phase back then there was a lot to choose from. Especially if you were a waiter, which is the way I was making my living then. For the most part, I was an equal opportunity user.
Rimbaud. Wasn't he into Absinthe?
Ha. Yeah, mostly. I think he dabbled in other things too. But Absinthe stand-alone would have been enough. Have you ever had a sip?
Can't remember, possibly. Wormwood? Is that the same stuff?
Yup, eats your brain. Frenchman in a little town tried to get me to do a shot back in the day. Scared me. I was never comfortable with drugs actually. I tended to fight their effects rather than give into them. Not a good formula for sustaining long term creativity.
OK, back to the lost film. Kids let this be a lesson. Don't do drugs or you'll lose 3 months of film.
Yeah, I’d echo that.
That's a huge bummer about losing it. So you just said fuck it and walked away? What about all those photos?
Gone. I’ve lost all of my negatives from my earliest years actually. I have no record of that part of my photo past–except for this photograph (attached to this email, selfportrait.jpg) and a couple of others. Maybe that's why I'm so obsessed with leaving a record now. It's more than just wanting people to look, it’s also about leaving a coherent body of work behind.
Where'd the earlier negs go?
They were left with a friend at his apartment when I took off on a road trip, again back in the day. He moved in the meantime and didn’t bother to take any of my stuff with him.
Oh shit, how many negs?
Tons. Interestingly, my "teacher/mentor" in photography, whose archive is in the Dolph Briscoe Archive of American History at U of Texas, probably put some of my negs in with his stuff at one point. So I might have something out there, just not with my name on it.
I had a similar situation in college. I stored a bunch of stuff in the attic of an apartment we were going to rent for the upcoming year. But over the summer one of my roommates thought it was old trash and tossed everything. My snowboard, a bunch of clothes. But the worst loss was a huge stash of homemade cassettes. Irreplaceable.
Ah, those cassette mixtapes. Another creative pastime whose technological underpinnings are no longer widely supported. I loved the process. I lot of good stuff has been left behind in the wake of the tech tsunami. As to your assessment about losing one’s work. Losing mine was a bummer. This was a period when both my mother and I believed I was going to hell in a handbasket. One of her favorite phrases.
Well you did go the dark side with all the artists and weirdos. So she was right in a way. I just Googled Brownwood, Texas. It's right in the dead center of the state. You couldn't put a pin on a map any more centered.
Brownwood claims to be the beating heart of Texas. My grandfather owned a marina on Lake Brownwood. He produced one of the first water ski shows in the state there, if not in the country. This would have been the early 1950’s. My brother and I were on skis waving at strangers when we were still in kindergarten. In March this year, Brownwood had one of the highest per capita COVID fatality rates in Texas. All hail DT. Which they, in fact, do there. It’s weird.
Tell me where your writing gene, by the way, comes from. It seems to flow naturally from you.
The gene? It’s the old nature or nurture question.
What do you think? One or other or both?
I think it's both. I think writing is a bit like photography in that it's hard to be a writer unless you're a reader. Same with photography. It's tough to make photos unless you're consuming art and images and creative material. So that's the nurture side. The nature side? Very tough to get a handle on. Where I was going with that is that I've always been an obsessive reader. So I think that feeds my writing "gene”.
I agree. And it’s hard to parse where it all comes from when it just flows out of you. Culturally we tend to promote the idea that if you follow your “bliss” you’ll eventually find a proper fit for talents like yours. What I’ve experienced instead is that a lot of us want to become something we’re not really suited for, but go for it anyway, a la American Idol. Or, even if we’re naturally endowed with a talent, many still struggle to find a suitable economic fit for exercising it. I think artists are the canaries in the cultural coal mine in this regard.
I’ve never seen American Idol but my kids watch AGT, which is similar. I think most of the acts are talented in technical terms. But their taste is just godawful. It’s saccharine, unadventurous, restrained. I think there’s a comparison somewhere in there to photography. But I’m not sure how to express it without sounding like a dick.
And the ones who make it on the show are only a small minority who’ve made it past the myriad auditions and gatekeepers. Hundreds, if not thousands of applicants never make it. The celebrity aspect of our media culture is so seductive. Constant exposure to it seems to lead many of us to believe we have to become famous somehow in order to exist.
Do you think you've found what you're suited for?
Not sure. I've always felt like an outsider. I manage that pretty well. I like being me. I haven’t always. Progress is being made.
My favorite photographers are all "outsiders". Without exception.
Mine too. What’s that about? To photograph what we see and not necessarily what other people are used to seeing or want to see doesn’t necessarily make for a robust economic model-if you want to make a living doing it.
You're saying there's no way make money doing what you love? I agree that it's very difficult but not impossible. Maybe there are 30,000 people in the world who could fit in that box? You’ve got professional athletes, writers, actors, a few stray creatives, maybe 200 photographers in the mix.
Ha! Yeah, it can be done! Let’s see 8 billion people on the planet. 30,000 creatives and athletes actually making a living. That’s .000040 of the population who have a shot.
And yet, art, I think, is one of those contradictory things that separates humanity from, say, the chimpanzees. Never would our primate cousins commit calories to engage in an activity that provided so little in terms of survival. Humans, on the other hand, rely on the written and visual arts, theater, dance, music, and philosophy, none obviously essential to the basic survival of the species, to symbolize our superiority and dominion over everything else on the planet. Go figure.
Anyway, back to outsiders. I've tended to sell work mostly by accident. I have no marketing plan. One of your previous interviews was with Chris Shaw. He had no problem selling. For me, marketing and selling are excruciating. I’ve always made my way blending in, observing, and then synthesizing what I’ve seen. The fine art photography “game” isn’t played that way. I’ve been suiting up since 2011 and still don’t get how its rules are in any way compatible with the making of art. It seems to me that they’re rigged so that the least likely player to score any points is always going to be the artist.
I would figure, btw, there have to be only a handful of fine art photography collectors in the world. Whoever and wherever they are, I have no idea.
I don't know who the collectors are either. But it's hard to devote much mental energy there. I don't know who buys pork belly options or high-tech futures either. It's the same game. They exist in their own world. Better to worry about this one.
What do you mean "playing the fine art photography game"? What does that look like in practice?
This is what I’ve observed: The 2008 recession put the final nail in the careers of not only a lot of photographers but also of all the ancillaries in the industry. Suddenly, many of these folks started marketing workshops, became photography app developers, opened consultancies and online galleries (charging fees for submissions), and became festival reviewers. Brick and mortar galleries closed. And the few remaining rarely offered stipends or developmental support-while still taking 50% of everyone’s sales. Blue Sky in your neck of the woods being one of those rare exceptions.
Meanwhile, MFA programs have been churning out more and more art photographer wannabes who in the past at least have seemed to have the wherewithal to invest in all of the above. Some of them have talent or business acumen, or both, who are mixed in with many others who don’t. Festival and seminar groupies abound. Without exception, though, anyone who wants to play the “game” today will undoubtedly hit more than one paywall along the way.
In short, what I’m describing is really a massive, antiquated house (currently on fire) in which artists/photographers, who want to make art a career, are expected to live and pay rent in order to receive recognition. At this point, my thinking is that their concerns should shift from, say, strategizing about ways to survive a series of vacuous 20-minute portfolio reviews (which they’ve paid to endure) to instead finding a way out of the building they’re in before it burns to the ground.
If 2008 was a nail, 2020 is shaping up to be a fucking missile.
Until the coronavirus hit, the model I’ve just described has, at least, seemed to pay the bills for a lot of folks who aren’t artists. Inefficient and misaligned as that seems to me. In doing so, the model’s gatekeepers have too often passed over some of the most interesting work out there in favor of maintaining a self-perpetuating mediocracy willing and able to pay the costs of entry.
This is just an observation. Not an accusation. There’s an old Latin saying: “The senators are all good men, but the senate is a beast.” Such is the case here. Fundamentally, the situation in the arts is the same as it ever was, I think. Except, given our current political climate, perhaps not the same.
We pay 20-30 bucks for two of us to get past security in a museum these days, more if we want to see the touring exhibits too. And the experience is rarely worth it, too crowded (or was before COVID) and not conducive to contemplative viewing. I visit some favorite venues, when I can, aside from the Ransom Center (free admission), smaller ones and more out of the way: the Menil in Houston (free admission) and the McNay in San Antonio come to mind.
Most of your work I'm familiar with involves composite imagery. I'm curious if you devoted much time to so-called "straight" photography. And if so, when you evolved to your current practice.
Back in the 70s of course I was analog all the way: All the usual heavyweights in photography being models back then. Most of my digital work until 2005 or so was graphics-based though. Digital photo tech wasn’t mature enough till the mid-aughts for its components (cameras, printers, inks, software) to compete in the same ballpark with their analog competitors. I’m not enough of a connoisseur to debate the particulars of digital versus analog, so I have nothing provocative to offer about which is superior. If the work is well done, and exists in the physical world, i.e., on paper, then I’ll most likely appreciate it no matter how it came about. I’m pretty easy that way. That said, I rarely see much overtly digital work that I find appealing. The image is everything. If the digital process gets in the way, I’m not a fan. Even though I’ve been guilty of crossing that line myself on more than one occasion.
I bought my first digital camera in 2006. I'd been photographing occasionally over the years (I even had a small darkroom for a while in the late-eighties) but didn’t begin practicing seriously again till the aughts.
The digital composites I did in the mid-’90s were photography-based for the most part, but rendered to look more like traditional art prints. To that end, I used to reserve a viewing room at the Ransom Center, checking out traditional prints from their collection to study. I knew I’d never be able to equal traditional print quality, but I wanted to try to get as close as I could digitally. Some of my early work is interesting because I didn’t have a printer then that could print those images the way I’d rendered them to file. I had to wait until the early aughts when I bought a 6-color Epson to find out whether or not what I’d conceived on screen was viable.
As far as straight, vernacular-related photography: I knew picking it back up after so many years that I wasn’t going to be pushing any boundaries. I was too far behind the curve to express anything even close to what was already being much better said. For me, shooting straight has been for pleasure, putting my head in a different space, and to justify, at least in my mind, the composite work I do. I think of that work as, not photography, but about photography. I feel like I do have something to say in that space so that’s where I’ve concentrated my efforts.
By 2006, I had acquired a decent digital skillset, had a lifelong reverence for photography, and possessed a large collection of snapshots. I wanted to do a project that would include all of the above elements, but I was stuck on the particulars.
In 2007, I read about a collection of snapshots being exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington. That exhibition, I thought, marked the end of an era. The Kodak Moment was over. So much so that the National Gallery was mounting an exhibit of found anonymous snapshots and elevating them to the level of art. A few years later, Kodak declared chapter 11.
There was a lot of churn in the photo world at the time. The shift from analog to digital was well underway. Some pros and serious amateurs weren’t about to switch and were being really vocal and hardline about it online. The equivalent, I suppose, of ranting about why you’re not going to wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic. In the midst of that is when the idea occurred to me of deconstructing found snapshots depicting mundane, 20th-century life, and creating fake photographs from the pieces and parts to comment on the widespread disruptions happening in the 21st century. That, I thought, would be a challenge, technically and conceptually, and worth my while.
The result was a series of imaginary snapshots, hopefully seamless, that the viewer wouldn’t recognize as digitally constructed at first. I intended for the prints to be modest in appearance and close to snapshot size instead of huge like so much photographic work shown in galleries today. And I wanted them to be accessible and entertaining, while operating on a deeper and more ambiguous level if someone wanted to go there. Along the way, I wrote a fictional back story as a guide to account for the collection’s existence.
All of this transpired over a ten year period of back and forth, this and that, and one thing and another.
It would be amazing to print them on old paper as “authentic” snapshots, dogeared and dirty, maybe 4 x 6 or smallish? Have you ever considered something like that?
I’ve certainly thought about experimenting with alternative approaches. The costs of moving in those directions are just too great for me to take on. That said, a few years ago, I did a 3 day workshop on photogravure. I really dug the idea of taking digitally assembled photomontages based on analog snapshots, exposing them to contemporary polymer film, and printing the result on a traditional intaglio press. Back to the future.
I loved the process, and managed to walk away with one decent print. I would’ve liked to do more but again, the trial and error learning curve was pretty steep and the costs too rich for my blood.
And now you’ve started shooting the streets again? No composites?
Right, no composites: I posted 3 on IG today. They’re not analog though. I use a little fixed lens Fuji. Less than $500. Point and shoot. Nothing special, but it does the job.
Those were straight? No captions. No info. On IG it's hard to tell. But maybe that's the point?
Yes. And true. Which begs the question: What are the rules governing a body of work these days when former boundaries, dictated as much by technical limitations as anything else, no longer exist? And what about sequencing? There are folks willing to leg wrestle over that one. Or book design? Should the photography book be about its design, how it’s put together, or about the quality and reproduction of its contents? And what the fuck does narrative even mean today when I’ve seen it deployed in more different ways than the word “fuck”? How do you curate an avalanche? How will curators and archivists in the future even begin to parse our time period so that what they’re looking at makes some kind of sense?
Today's photography curators haven’t done so well on that account. Not their fault. They’ve been overwhelmed and underprepared–given that so much has changed in their lifetimes–and continues to change. Not to mention, curatorial training seems to require a label and category for everything. How do you attach labels to a cultural stream of consciousness as extended as ours has become?
Good questions. I have no idea.
Ha! Who does? No one I know. A curator once told me I needed to refer to my images as “reconstructed photography”. Look that one up on Google and you’ll find out way more about nipple and breast reconstruction than anything I’m doing.
"How will people curate this in the future?" Perhaps that question has been bypassed? Creativity has been funneled into the present. Then gone. Instagram seems the embodiment of this outlook. Streaming images exist for a second then gone. Perhaps the entire idea of historic summation is kaput? Museums kaput? Collections kaput? Curators kaput?
I think our species’ impulse to curate is too strong to be completely sublimated. IG is for today, something will replace it sooner or later and history will out. Years from now excavating our time period will provide boundless opportunities for digital archivists and curators, not to mention their counterparts on the hard copy side. That is if we’re able to keep the threads of civilization intact.
Yes, of course Instagram will fade away at some point. But the idea of instantaneous sharing, and living in a moment with little historical context or anchor, I think is here to stay. Maybe Ram Dass would approve?
Yes, he would. In that sense, in the hands of someone with focus and intention, an IG account could become like a Buddhist sand painting always in the process of becoming, never completed. Interesting thought that.
I believe the Plutonium Blast IG is fairly new. What motivated you to begin that account?
It is new. I had another one that got shut down along with my FB account, because I had, according to someone, or some algorithm, at FB, “violated community standards” on both platforms. A blessing as far as I'm concerned because I’ve encountered several serious photographers this time around on IG who I hadn’t known existed before. Had no idea photographers like you were out there.
Please don't label me a "serious" photographer. I reject that label. I'll accept "Committed" or "Photofreak" or "Driven". But "serious"? It reeks of orthodoxy.
I also hate the word "strong" in relation to creative work. Again, what the fuck does that even mean? So, okay, to your point, I’ll go with committed rather than, say, compulsive.
Hmm. Do you really expect yours or anyone's photos to survive in 1,000 years?
Anything is possible. Archeologists are finding paper-based work today more than 1k years old. My work probably won’t survive but why not your archive a thousand years from now? The Blake Andrews Codex. It’s got legs.
This thread of our conversation does raise the question: Why do we even do what we do, all things considered. Winogrand apparently left thousands of rolls of film undeveloped at the end. He wasn’t curating his work, he wasn’t printing. Talk about “committed” to something: He was shooting obsessively, seeming not to care about any end result. Camus called activity like this fishing in a bathtub. What's the point if you’re not going to catch any fish? The point, to me, is that, given all of the things I could be doing, practicing the one vocation I’m passionate about is the most rational thing I could be doing at this time in my life. No matter what.
For whatever the reasons, folks are always going to be making art of some kind, and, in tandem, others at some point are going to be curating and critiquing their output. My belief is that some of what survives the disruption of our time will be preserved somehow, and in the future what remains will be carefully studied. The past 100 years or so have been among the most critical in humanity’s history. There’s no way the work of folks like the ones you’ve been interviewing is going to be ignored if it survives. It’s too much of our time to be dismissed. The best “street” images are like popular music that bubbles up from the churn below and not from the top down. They’re inextricably embedded in the culture. On the other hand, having done a few portfolio events now, I would bet most of the work reviewed at them won’t stand up as well to historical scrutiny.
Which portfolio reviews? And why? Your impressions? Surely after attending a few and sharing your work here and there, you must realize no one gives a shit? Not about your work specifically but about photos as photos. I mean, those reviews are based on developing a collector base and climbing the ladder to photography as ART. They don't have much of an inner life. It's about building audience. Networking. Collectors. Gatekeepers, etc. Fuck all of em. That's the only decision that makes sense really, for me anyway.
I've done Fotofest twice. And Center in Santa Fe once. Then the random review here and there. I've gotten a few exhibits from those experiences to be sure. But I’ve certainly questioned the motivations, enthusiasm, and expertise of some of my reviewers, along with the efficacy of a 20-minute review. It's like speed dating. And, for me, engaging at that level of artificiality is about as satisfying as eating styrofoam peanuts.
I went to my first Fotofest in 2014 because my wife made me. It didn't make sense to her that I had all this work and no outlet. I relented because I was curious about the contemporary photo world and how my work might measure up. I had no idea what I was doing or what to expect. I took 5 portfolios, mostly straight. I was advised by a curator at the beginning though to only show Man Lives Through Plutonium Blast, which I wasn't planning on showing at all. It was work that I didn’t think photography reviewers would relate to. To say I was surprised that it was well-received would be an understatement. Received well enough for me to think, naively, that maybe if I continued signing up for events like Fotofest, I could eventually sell enough work to at least cover my digital darkroom costs. That would have been a huge win in my book.
So, initially, that was the plan: Try to get more exposure, work the crowd, do exhibitions, spend some dough on a high priced consultant, and the sales and collectors would come. Don’t laugh.
What’s actually happened is that the handful of collectors I’ve attracted haven’t provided near enough support to cover the additional exhibition costs I’ve incurred, much less covered my normal day-to-day expenses. Instead, I’ve earned some recognition, I’ve learned a hell of a lot about how the cards are stacked against young artists in the art trade, I’ve spent less than I would have on an MFA, and in the process have more confidence in my own work.
Now we’ve circled back around to where we began: As you’ve already said, at the most basic level, all I’ve really wanted is to do well crafted work that someone somewhere might appreciate. George Saunders, a short fiction writer, describes his stories as black boxes that he hopes people will enter in one frame of mind and leave in another. That's an apt description of how I felt when I ran across your work. The individual images were captivating and the cohesiveness of the work in total, your command of voice over all has never wavered. It’s brilliant stuff.
One positive to come out of your 2014 Fotofest experience is that it did get the work I out there. At Blue Sky, for example, which is where I first encountered it. Great show! Give your wife a pat on the back for making you do Fotofest, which led you to me. What does she think of your photos?
My wife has been a supporter of mine for 45 years, and consistently overestimates my brilliance.
I think, for a photograph to work, it has to provoke some kind of emotional response that starts at the brain stem and works its way up. I sat with Gerhard Steidl a couple of years ago. He was in Houston setting up the Robert Frank newsprint show at the Houston Center for Photography. I was one of twelve in the seminar. The topic was photo book publishing. The first thing he said was none of you will ever publish with anyone of my caliber. He then spent less than 5 minutes per person looking at our portfolios. My maquette was one of the last ones he looked at. Everyone else’s had been pretty much the same sort of work and he’d been pretty dismissive of what he'd seen up to that point. When he got to mine, he immediately perked up, and said, “Brilliant. I haven't seen work like this before. You will never find a publisher for it.”
His response was visceral. I caught him at the right time in the right place. Best left-handed compliment I’ve ever received.
I saw that Frank show at Blue Sky. It was great. The best part was that they burned the whole thing after. No collectors. No money. Just gone. I think there was some sort of dance ritual involved?
Exactly, but, as I recall, it was also a great way to promote Steidl's reissue of The Americans. So there's always an angle. Yeah, I think from Houston the next stop was Portland.
Anyway, that's Robert Frank. He can do whatever the fuck he wants. He doesn't have to worry about how his photos fit into this or that genre or collector base. That's good guidance in my book, even if we aren't in his position.
I didn't stick around for the ritual dance. The crowd was pretty hoity-toity. So the dance probably was too.
I just Googled Lampasas, TX and it seems very close to Brownwood. After all your travels you've come back to the nest.
Not intentionally. We’re close to Austin where my wife and I have children. Austin is unaffordable these days. But yeah, small town Texas isn't a stretch for us. We can talk the talk and walk the walk. Small town folks are nicer than big city dwellers on the whole, as long as you don't ruffle their cultural feathers. Lampasas is the kind of town where the first question they ask when they meet you is "Do you have a church home?" There’s also still a hanging tree here that everyone knows about but no one mentions in polite conversation.
Alright, I'll ask. Do you have a church home?
Nope. But, again, I grew up in a small town with a church on every corner, so bring it on.
Tell me a little bit about your vernacular snapshot collection.
Really started collecting in my twenties. I still have some of those. Then you could pick up a snapshot in junk shop for a nickel. Now not so much. Although I've found some cheaper shops around Lampasas that are starting to keep a watch out for me.
I typically won’t mess with an already great snap. I save those in a separate archive. When I started working on the Plutonium Blast series I looked for pieces and parts in images that weren’t otherwise exceptional, backgrounds, faces, body language. I’d digitally remove those elements and catalog them for compositing later. I have no idea how many snapshots I have. Thousands? I prefer to randomly access them when I work so that I’m engaged more intuitively rather than with some idea and specific imagery in mind. So, while my digital storage is more orderly, I keep all my hard copy source images mixed up loose leaf in boxes.
How do you decide which ones to alter? And how to you decide which images to add?
I don't know. Typically, what I’m looking for are a very few ordinary elements that when combined, completely transform into something interesting.
The best ones just happen. They’re the ones that are more ambiguous and tend to operate on more than one level. I’m not consciously trying to make that happen. It just does. Much like your work, in a way. I’m just taking a different route to get there.
When I started using Photoshop, I wanted to reach a point where I wasn't thinking about what I was doing, I was just doing. The learning curve at first was pretty steep and unforgiving. I screwed up a lot. Early versions of Photoshop didn’t have an “undo” function. And I had to use a mouse and trackballs for editing. So instead of undoing, I did a lot of starting over. Now the software is much more flexible, the equipment is better and I’ve progressed to the point where I can focus on the image and not the software. One step leads to another.
You say you start with flawed images. And it seems you revel in the flaws. The little dog ears and scratches and minor defects which makes photos look "real". I too am attracted to imperfection. I can't really describe why. But perfection seems the enemy.
No question. Again, my approach to Photoshop was to aim for imperfection, not perfection. That's been my mantra: “Aim, Grasshopper, for perfect imperfection.”
Do you know the Daido Moriyama book Bye Bye Photography?
Bye Bye Photography? No, but my photobook knowledge and collection pales in comparison to yours. I've always put my money into supplies and keeping up with the technology. I’ll check out Bye Bye Photography. Maybe the answer lies there.
How to make work perfectly imperfect? What's the answer?
When I was around ten most of my community outings began with a big Om circle, everyone joining hands and chanting for maybe 10-15 minutes? It seemed normal at the time but looking back, hmm. Buncha California hippies on a different plane. Haha, I wish I had photos.
Wow! Hopefully, that was a positive for you.
Yeah, it was great. I have fond memories. But at the time I didn't know what was happening. Kids will go with whatever adults lay on them. Very accepting.
I can understand that. The resilience of childhood. The further away from it, I get the more I appreciate the childhood I had.
Summers we used to swim naked every day in a muddy pond, kids, grownups, frogs, everyone. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But if that same scene happened today it would probably generate a different reaction.
I did a 10 day Vipassana meditation course in 1988. Literally changed my life. I'm a big believer in the power of the well-disciplined mind. While not necessarily a disciplined practitioner.
What changed after your Vipassana course?
Having experienced a plane of existence beyond what I had previously known as consciousness, probably sounds trite, but somehow I physically and mentally shifted to a less frantic lifestyle after that. I’d never experienced anything like it, not even on drugs. It wasn’t a religious awakening, but spiritual maybe. I don't know. It's like ghosts. You can tell me all about them but I'll only believe in them when I see one. I experienced something during that course that was comparable.
I've never seen a ghost but several close trustworthy friends have. Not sure what to do with that info.
I've had the same experience with a friend who disappeared for several weeks and claimed to be abducted by aliens.
Who can say what really happened?
These days that's a pretty critical question and right now some of the answers are pretty scary.
I try to remain open to the experience of everyone, and myself also. Even if the cumulative account is absurd.
My conclusion is that the cumulative account by definition will always be absurd.
Do you ever shoot photos around where you live in Lampasas?
I try to do special events here where they'll be a crowd. They have a festival in the summer called Spring Ho! I kid you not. I’m mean, first, it’s not spring and hot as hell, and second, Ho?
It's great for shooting though. Pet parade, beauty pageant (Seriously, how would you like your daughter to be crowned Miss Spring Ho), floats, beer and barbecue. I also shoot in Austin when I can. It's been awhile because of covid. Lately, our conversations have inspired me to look back at some old 80s/90s work.
Why do you need a crowd? What is there about people that attracts you?
Invisibility. People are less uptight about someone carrying a camera around in a crowd when everyone else is taking pictures with their cell phones. Although that phenomenon poses its own set of issues in terms of capturing anything without a cellphone in it.
I really like bearing witness to the oddities of human behavior that most of the time most of us don’t notice. I think like anybody attempting to do vernacular work at a higher level, it’s all about capturing something intriguing only you can see and everybody else has missed.
I've never felt like people are uptight about my camera, and I pretty much carry it always. But I think maybe people are now more uptight about being photographed. But I haven't been shooting as long as you. Do you think it was different back in the 1970s. Less awareness/suspicion of being photographed?
There's a difference, I think, depending on location and circumstance. Everybody is shooting in Europe. I didn't feel out of place doing the same. Photographing in the rural southwest, I've been challenged a few times. Some of these folks seem to feel like they're being spied on through their TVs. They see a guy with a camera who doesn't look like them and they get their backs up. It was easier in the 70s and 80s when people weren’t quite as paranoid about Big Brother.
I remember a critique of Winogrand’s later work, many years ago now, claiming that when he left NYC and moved to Austin to teach at the University of Texas, the quality of his work dropped off. The reasoning was that not only did he leave a milieu he was familiar with in the urban east but that it was just more difficult to shoot in wide open spaces. I think, now that more of his later work is out there, that argument doesn’t hold water. But, personally, I do find shooting in a denser space, whether more congested with people or architecture or whatever, is better for me.
You don't "look like them"?
I’m sure I’m projecting, but I imagine that I look to them like a liberal with a camera. Stealing conservative souls.
Haha, what's a liberal look like? I guess that's a loaded question. The more people I see out in the world, the less sure I am of my ability to sight-judge anyone. Even liberals.
Here again, we’re stuck using binary labels. I’ve never considered myself a liberal or a conservative and only in the past few years have become more politically aware. Fault me for not paying attention. If I were to label myself, I’d say I was a lapsed idealist. Political party of one. I wear horn rimmed glasses though and don't wear boots or starch my Wranglers. Rural Texas fashion is pretty uniform, considering how libertarian and independent everyone claims to be. If you don’t look MAGA, you must be from the city. I try to tone it down by just wearing t-shirts and jeans. But the horn rims are a tip off.
People with glasses are liberal? But what about the spare neo-con who happens to be myopic?Never mind. Just playing devil's advocate. I know that there are visual cues which everyone displays, sometimes unconsciously. And if you are a photographer you're probably tuned in to those things more than most people. Because little details like glasses and boots and maybe an odd UFO in the corner are often what makes a photo.
Again, I may read way too much into my invasion of someone’s privacy when I’m taking their picture. It’s definitely something I’m sensitive to. I’m much less concerned about it when I’m shooting in an urban setting. Rural folk, at least in the Texas heartland, are typically more private, and more suspicious of a camera toting stranger these days, especially one who’s taking pictures of things that don’t make sense to them.
We have relatives who live in far west Texas, who literally only get their news from Fox, Drudge, and Rush. Imagine what their mental map of the outside world must look like, how that configures their brains and their understanding of how the world works. The term myopic neo-cons is a redundancy. In Texas, we might as well change the state’s name to Myopia. Many here still believe the covid can be explained away as a hoax. They believe the numbers are rigged. Plus, only minorities and the elderly are dying anyway. Right? It’s a culling of the herd. Darwin at his best. More lately, it’s been the optimistic line: “Children aren’t contagious, open the schools” or the fatalistic: “I’d rather die than wear a mask”.
Three weeks ago, we had 10 Covid cases in Lampasas. We're now up to 57 and counting, including the mayor.
57 cases just in Lampasas?
How worried are you about your health?
I vacillate. Mostly I feel like we're doing due diligence and not taking any chances. I didn't do Spring Ho! this year. I have a close friend in her late 40s in San Antonio, who came down with it early on. Kicked her ass. She's okay now as far as I know, but she definitely confirms that just because most of us will survive it if we get it, it’s still going to be a painful and scary ride.
The uncertainty of it all is what's starting to eat at everyone, I think. At least, the ones taking it seriously. The population of the county our west Texas relatives live in is around 1000 people. Lots of square miles, few people. They’ve had 70 cases. They thought the covid was a hoax until their 80 year old doctor, the only one around, and his wife, came down with it. Now they’re starting to come to grips with the idea that it’s for real, but at this point what are you going to do? Their way of life is contingent on everything opening back up. They simply aren’t able to wrap their minds around any other option.
"The most outrageous lies are the ones about Covid 19. Everyone is lying. The CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors, not all but most ,that we are told to trust. I think it's all about the election and keeping the economy from coming back, which is about the election. I'm sick of it." This was a quote by Chuck Woolery retweeted by Trump recently. Speaking of hoaxes.
Yeah, and Trump can kiss my ass. Just finished my first beer. And crushed the can against my forehead.
I’m trying to form a mental image now. It’s not very liberal, lol.
People believe what they want to believe. I think the current situation, where truth is amorphous and everything feels unsure, plays right into the hands of whoever is in power. It happens to be Trump but it's the same situation fostered by authoritarians throughout history. It's difficult to control firmly established truths, but much easier to control a fluid situation with conflicting ideas.
Trump is certainly a master, not at controlling the truth, but at muddying the waters so much that, while the truth may be out there, no one can agree on exactly where or what it is, much less base rational decisions on it.
As photographers, we manipulate truth, of course. Just in the way we frame things. You do that in your work. Commenters often want to know what’s going in your images. You raise questions, not only about what reality is, but you also encourage the viewer to reframe their notions of reality, to step outside of routine thought processes and think differently about the environments they’re occupying. Or not. Maybe I’m just making shit up after beer number two.
Hmm. Do you think of your collages as "fake"
Yes, I do, but I also think of them as putting a reverse spin on a cue ball to get the nine ball in the pocket without scratching. Creating photographs, even if they’re fake, that make ordinary people, who are inundated by pictures on a daily basis, stop and wonder and, maybe, even think a little more deeply these days, seems like a decent thing to do. Can something be authentic and still be "fake". There's a question.
What's your answer?
I think authenticity is something to aspire to in the kind of work I do. Tricky that. To not manipulate just for the sake of manipulation. "Oh, look what I did. That's cool."
Here's what I think your pictures play with. When a person looks at a photo, the natural instinct is to figure it out. What's happening? What was the original scene? Everyone does that, from people looking at family albums to curators at MoMA. You are directly intervening in that process, and cutting out the connection to the original scene, but not in an obvious way. So it creates this sense of absurdity or confusion, or ??? Just sends the brain off into another place.
I agree. That's the general idea. Scrambling reality and putting the pieces and parts in a photograph in a way to not only emotionally provoke the viewer but to nudge them to think a little bit about what it was in the image that triggered their reaction. Sometimes I’m more obvious about my interventions than others. It depends.
It almost goes back to the Trumpian worldview. When facts are uncertain and everything is questionable, it opens some space up for interpretation. And maybe for Art?
Art, in some form, is what's often provoked or encouraged us out of jams before-or at least has given us cautionary tales to look back on. So, yes, uncertain times generate huge creative/destructive yins and yangs that make it really difficult to rationally account for what’s going on. It’s disorienting to suddenly have to consider so many new ways of looking at what was once the same old thing. At the very least, as artists, or whatever we are, we should take advantage of this embarrassment of riches and make the work we do be accessible and mean something.
Does that tie into the Tom Wright experience with auto-destructive art? On your site you talk about destroying guitars and a path to creation.
Good question about Tom and the Metzger ethos. Metzger identified with destruction. He was Jewish, came of age in WW2, and knew something about destruction. Pete Townsend and Tom were one step removed from his generation-and not Jewish. They absorbed what they wanted from him and transformed it into something else. Pre-punk nihilism that sold millions of records. One might say Metzger was more truthful and authentic than Townsend or Tom. There's a lot of mythology around all of that-about the truth of how authentically these two really embraced Metzger’s ethos. Tom certainly did at a visceral level. You’re born, you rock and roll, then die young. There was nothing intellectual about his take on what Metzger was doing. Townsend on the other hand, recognized in auto-destruction a hook when he saw it, along with a way to dramatize and package his ambitions. And he was smart enough to find his way to the marketplace with it. And that's really what rock and roll, and popular culture, have always been about.
But that was then and this is now. I'm not sure rock and roll really matters that much anymore or how the music industry works these days. Or how most musicians today are able to survive for that matter.
What is rock about? The hook? Or death?
It's interesting you refer to Tom in terms of rock. But he was basically a photographer, right? But maybe he approached photography with a rock attitude?
In his mind, he was a rocker who happened to carry a camera around and knew how to use it. Always a bridesmaid never a bride. He was okay with that. He knew he wasn’t going to be a bona fide guitar slinging member of the emerging 60s rock pantheon; just like growing up, I knew I wouldn’t be be a football hero like my older brother. At the time, though, at the high school crossroads, I would have traded a couple of pints of soul for a shot of football glory and cheerleader love.
Tom, in fact, had a great eye and when he was relatively sober, his work, I thought, was exceptional. And considerable. But, he was a much more complicated person than I was willing or able at that age to comprehend. He was ten years older, and I was pretty naive, and looking for uncomplicated answers to complicated questions.
In Tom, I believed I’d found a guru. But like the old saying goes: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. I had to get past that stage in our relationship, before I could look back and really appreciate what a value add he had been. The moral to the story is that were it not for Tom I would never have exposed a roll of film and developed it myself or taken photographs and made prints that opened up a whole new world for me. He was a catalyst if nothing else. People be complex. And when personal histories intertwine, there's a lot of room for contradiction and interpretation. I’ll leave it at that.
"He would never be a bride." What clarify that more?
Never being a bride just means that Tom really would have preferred to be Pete Townsend, not just the anonymous guy who would introduce Townsend to the blues back in the early 60s.
I went to a party in 1981 in Santa Fe right after the Eagles had broken up. Glenn Frey was there. At the time I didn’t know the names of any of the Eagles’ band members and no one at the party had identified him as such. Anyway, we were running out of beer and Frey and I volunteered to go get some more. During our drive to the store, he casually mentioned he’d been making his living in a successful band without naming it, but that what he’d really wished he’d done with his life was be a professional baseball player. I just assumed by “successful band” he meant some popular, local bar band. Later, when I learned who he was, I thought what the fuck? If this guy isn’t content with the direction his life took, what’s the point?
You mean Tom was more of a teacher/mentor figure? He wanted to be in the background. And did not push his own photos out there?
No, if he'd had his choice, he would have been on stage performing not taking pictures of the performance. According to him, he went to art school in England as a lark. Got into the photography department at Ealing College because the plastic arts folks wouldn’t accept him. He saw photography as his way into the music scene evolving in England in the early 60’s. He wasn't passionate about photography per se, other than as a means to an end. And that's not the way I felt about what I was doing. He did give me encouragement and permission to be an artist and a photographer, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say he had been a mentor. He was more like a force of nature. A jaded rock and roll Zorba, maybe.
Photography as a means to an end. I feel like that phrase could describe a lot of what's happened to photography over the past 20 years or so.
I wouldn't disagree. Annie Leibovitz would be a role model for that idea.
What was it like shooting in Ecuador?
Ecuadorians in popular tourist locations don't like having their pictures taken. Usually that means by tourists with big honking cameras around their necks, looking for the same shot a million other people have already taken. I never had a problem shooting because I always carried my camera unobtrusively in my hand and treated the Ecuadorians with respect.
From a photographic standpoint, on the equator, the sun follows the same trajectory, year round. That was a little disorienting at first. I’ve always liked shooting in the spring and fall because the light is more mellow. In Ecuador the light never changed. Always the same and pretty harsh.
I lived in a small town about 20 minutes from Quito. We were at 7500 feet. Quito at 9000 altitude. When we built our casa, I was able to plan a studio for me to work in for the first time. Most of “Man Lives Through Plutonium Blast" came together there. Simple life. No car. Every day in the Ecuadorian highlands is pretty much a perfect day, 65 to 75 degrees. No need for AC, or heat. You could call it a 5 year artist's residency. We’d never planned on staying there forever, and when the government started getting shaky around 2016, we left.
You built a house there? From scratch?
Live and learn. We built in a 3 story house in new complex where the footprint was fixed but the floor plans could be anything you wanted. My studio was on the third floor with an with incredible of the highlands. The building process wasn't easy. We were still young and adventurous enough then to take something like that on. Wouldn't do it again today.
What year was that?
I was there in 2014. I spent a week there with my father in law. Mostly in Quito but we rented a car and made some side trips. And also Galapagos.
We would have been there then. Wish we'd already been connected. We could have shown you guys some really good stuff. We never did Galapagos. Since we were permanent residents, we could have travelled there at half price, but we kept putting it off until it was too late. We did, though, manage to visit several places off the tourist map that I would deem “authentic”. Most of my photos from there are more geared toward daily life though. Not much exotic or scenic.
Haha, we were just tourists. No hope of being authentic, which maybe took some pressure off. But I still very much enjoyed it, although I can't say I got any truly great photos there. My father in law was fun to travel with. I think maybe he was a bit like Tom Wright (just speculation, never met him). He had kind of a rock and roll attitude toward life. Not in an art sense. But in just an everyday, face the world sense. There was no bullshit with him. He was 100% himself. Which sometimes came across as foolish, especially in a foreign country. But he absolutely didn’t care, which made it fine. Anyway we survived.
I went on a few long trips with him and it was always the same. No plans. No reservations. No guidebook. Just show up and see what happens. So we showed up in Quito at like 11 pm, with no map, no cellphones, no idea where we were. No Spanish. Just drove around until we bumped into a hotel by chance, then sign-languaged our way into a room for the night. The whole trip was like that.
I've taken note of your father-in-law just from your photos of him and your approach to shooting him. He seemed like that kind of guy. I guess, there are good Zorbas and not so good Zorbas. Your father in law seems like he was one of the good ones.
He did have some Zorba traits
Zorbas are Zorbas.
How did you choose Ecuador to move to?
Ecuador was inexpensive: low cost of living, their currency was the US dollar, so no confusion over conversions, and, at the time, it had a relatively high level of economic growth and prosperity. We didn't want to live with a bunch of Americans though. That's why we picked the town where we finally settled. More locals there and Europeans. Very few Americanos to speak of.
How's your Spanish?
Espanol es muy malo. We were fluent in what we called "taxi" Spanish.
Who's We. You and your wife? Did your kids live there?
Just me and Sjanna, my wife. Kids came to visit. I may have already mentioned that we have 8 between us. Ay yi yi.
Any photographers in the bunch?
Not a one. No footsteps following in mine.
Sjanna was the wife you remarried?
Yes, Sjanna is my first and last wife. 35 years or so separating the two marriages. We didn't have any children together.
How did you guys get back together?
The internet. Where else these days? We were both going through divorces. She looked me up on Google, found my website, where I'd recently posted a portrait of her I'd done decades before, and she contacted me. We discovered that 35 years did not a difference make. Relationships can be delicate, fragile and enduring. All at the same time. Enough of our hard edges had been worn off for us to realize we had actually been right for each other all along. Such is life.
Wow. Marriage is complicated
Fools rush in, and so forth... I think committing to an intimate relationship is the hardest thing anyone can do. No question. Especially in a world where the options are infinite. Googling “mail order brides” turns up almost 14 million links.
There's this myth that gets floated in popular culture about soulmates and a sort of completist theory of relationships. A lot of movies have that structure. But, I just dunno. I think life is less formulaic
Agreed. I grew up believing in 30 minute episodes of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. A linear path through life and finding enduring true love along the way were givens. Turned out that growing up was really nothing but one rude awakening after another.
Life has only gotten more complicated since then. I wouldn’t want to be young today, no matter what the “Okay Boomers” say. And I t seems to me branding young people as “entitled” is just another way of saying that we've failed them as a society.
Wait, we've failed the youth?
Ah, yes, for the young the chaos theory is nothing but a butterfly launching from a beautiful flower. Let them live in 2nd Life and eat Soylent Green. Tastes just like a hamburger.
What was it like reuniting with someone after such a long time?
As if it were yesterday with a lot more nuanced, experiential baggage to sort through. We’d both traveled some roads with potholes and it had been decades since we'd even known where the other other one was.
Weird. Is she in any of your photos?
A few contemporary straight ones. I also have two portraits of her when we were young that I've always thought were among my best and that I’ve always kept safe.
What does she think of those photos? Or of your photography in general?
She's a beautiful woman and someone who has, in some respects, never been completely comfortable with that aspect of who she is. The camera loves her but she’s never been terribly enamored of the images of her the camera produces. Of my photography in general? She very much believes in my work. And isn’t happy that the world hasn’t fallen in line for me like it has for Annie Leibovitz.
To which you reply?
I don’t know if I could do the things Annie Leibovitz has done in order to be as successful. I mean, if your goal in life is to speak what's in your heart and mind in a way that consistently reveals itself in the work you do, then self-promotion becomes a slippery slope, especially in a marketplace glutted with content that sells primarily on the basis of how well one promotes oneself. All I’ve ever hoped for is that I might sell a certain number of prints commensurate with the amount of recognition I receive, based, not on me, but on the quality of my work.
If I were a band, and a thousand people came to one of my shows and liked my music, in theory, some percentage of the crowd would wind up buying a CD before they left. Right? In the visual arts, the shows are free and rarely does anyone purchase anything before they leave. I know that’s comparing apples to oranges, but still...
Hmmm, I’m thinking this is probably the first time anyone has ever tried to make the case that even musicians have it better than they do.
We met a guy in Ecuador, a ceramicist, via a friend. He was from NYC. And, coincidentally, knew the Woodman’s, parents of Francesca. His commitment to his work was fanatical. Over the years, he struggled and sacrificed to make ends meet. His work was large in scale and avant-garde, not mainstream. He managed to get by on teaching, the occasional commission, and grants. The work itself, while critically admired, never sold enough to sustain him and his family. In the early 1980s, he had purchased a bare bones warehouse in Brooklyn as a studio for 60 grand. Just before we met him, he’d sold the building for $6 million and was building a new studio and home in Hudson Valley. Today, you can buy one of his coffee cups online for $75. I begrudge him not.
Everybody’s got a story. I’m not the only one who walks a tightrope everyday. It is what it is, as they say. I’ll shut up now other than to say you did tell me earlier to just go with it.
Your basic challenge, the Annie Leibovitz challenge, is how or if to promote one's work. I guess this goes back to Tom Wright and the destructive impulse. I mean, not everyone can be Annie Liebovitz. The question is, (maybe for your wife) why anyone would want to be her. That's probably a nihilist answer. I mean, I've basically given up on anyone caring about my photos, and on promotion, shows, etc. Which is maybe a form of submission. Or else freedom?
I choose freedom! Another tightrope strung between two tall buildings. Don't get me started on the “crowd sourcerers” gathered down below.
Well democracy has nothing to do with art. Nor does money. All three should be kept at arm's length. Art is not a popularity contest. Seems pretty obvious. But democracy is, literally.
The Korean government spends a billion $ a year on the arts. Last time I looked we spent around 360 million in the U.S.. Our society exists in a cultural paradox. I suspect, for the most part, most societies probably always have. We approach nurturing the arts in about the same fashion as we've managed the covid pandemic. The Koreans, on the other hand, seem to have done pretty well with managing covid and their cultural exports too. I don't know the answers, but I know Guggenhiem Fellowships and MacArthur Genius Grants aren't the solutions when it comes to nurturing popular culture.
There’s a lot of churn in the world right now. We’re living in a serious transitional moment, I think. Like the Cambrian Explosion, 500 million years ago. Dominant species evolved, flourished, died out and were replaced by others more quickly than they ever had before. From that, the foundation for every animal species today was laid. I think we’re witnessing a similar thing currently happening across the arts landscape. Art forms and their supporting infrastructures over the past 125 years have been popping up and dying out with increasing frequency, only to be replaced by new paradigms, which isn’t to say something better. The circle of life spins ever faster. Round and round she goes. And where she stops nobody knows.
Hmm, that's an interesting view. Artistic fitness and evolution. But what makes art fit for survival? and (maybe the more important question) what about all the the art which has value but weaker adaptive fitness?
As Chance the Gardner said In Being There: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”
You're basically advocating more public funds into the arts. Would that actually change anything in terms of content? I'm not so sure
Not necessarily. I certainly wouldn't be opposed to more top down financial support for the arts funneled into local communities. But I'm more of an advocate for the funding and promotion of zero cost liberal arts education and the training of life skills in young people. That will never happen, so not to worry. I agree, neither public funding or the promotion of liberal arts educations would necessarily change the amount, kinds of, or quality of the content being created, but, to my way of thinking, right now we’re severing and digging up roots and not taking care of the garden at all.
South Korea has lots of public arts funds. What photos have been generated? I guess I'm generally skeptical of public arts, and commissions, and MFAs, and training programs, and all the bullshit. I think it amounts to not much. Art comes up from below. I think topdown programming and funding is less effective.
Photography is popular in Korea, but not one of its popular exports. That said, when I was in a group show there, they flew me over, put me up in a nice hotel, paid for my meals, and took me on cultural tours in a fine automobile. I don't know if that's the right way to go. All I'm saying is that it beats paying for everything myself in the states. Gravy train? Perhaps…but I’d rather ride the train occasionally rather than hitchhike all the time.
What did you think of Korea. In 5 words?
Would love to go again.
Did you meet any interesting photographers?
Hmmm. The most interesting was John Chervinsky, who was in the show.
Oh yeah, He had a show in Portland about 10 years ago which was great. Stuck in my head, amid all the other shows. It's interesting he's not Korean.
As I reread your question, I realized you were asking about Korean photographers in general. Only one of the participants in the exhibit was. And she was living in NYC at the time.
Since the COVID, she and her husband, a Guatemalan photographer, have moved to Seoul. As far as Korean photographers, no, I can’t say anyone stuck out. What did stick was how deeply photography practice has penetrated the creative zeitgeist there. Reservations had to be made to attend our artist’s talks because of the demand. Even so, the audience was made up of regular folks, only a few peacocks, and none of the art snob vibe I usually encounter when I go to an art opening here. People were very respectful and intent on the work.
Each attendee got a raffle number when they arrived. Each artist had contributed a print or one of their books as a prize. When the drawings were held and the winners were announced, they would scream and jump around and literally run up to the podium. Then, they would insist on getting a picture with their artist. I was dumbfounded. It all felt so genuine and unpretentious. And fun.
I asked because I am trying to get a sense what's happening in Korea. Who knows? It’s a blank for me. When I was in Japan a few years ago I got a private glimpse of this tiny but very active photo world which is exploding in Japan. But it’s very ingrown and hard to penetrate from outside its borders. So I guess even the Internet has limits. I think many cities are probably like that. Unless you're there it's hard to tap in.
Yeah, I get that sense from your interview with John Sypal. VERY intense photo culture in Japan. In Korea, the intensity is all in terms of popular commitment, interest, and practice but less deep and rich, maybe, as, say, Japan. At least from what I saw there (and I really didn’t see that much). I was only in Busan and didn’t make it to Seoul, where there was probably a much larger contingent of creative practitioners showing work.
If it makes you feel any better there's no intense photo culture anywhere, outside of a few major cities...I thought it was funny you mentioned Eugene and Portland earlier as photo meccas.
I get that. NYC would like to lay claim to being the world’s photo mecca, right? Maybe it is. I don’t know. As I’ve already observed, viewed through my lens: your description of Eugene and the grid project and the camaraderie generated certainly exceeds anything that's happening in Austin. There are some pros around shooting stuff but grassroots practitioners are so far underground as to be invisible.
The University of Texas a few years back purged most of its photography faculty and shifted away from craft to a more conceptual approach, which I think really crippled the local photography community. There are still some of the old guard around, but again, you have to dig to find them. An ex-professor named Mark Goodman comes to mind. Good guy, doing yeoman’s work back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I just tried to access his website. It’s no longer live.
You interviewed Scott Hurst in San Antonio not too long ago. He might disagree, but my take is that the culture there is also virtually nonexistent. Houston: All hat, no cattle. Dallas: Comatose. I mean very few practitioners are around that I’m aware of to offer hope, inspire, or nurture. That said, Precision Camera in Austin is perhaps the most successful camera store in the state and is packed with gear heads every time I go in there. So, commercially, the medium seems to be alive and kicking. As an art form, though, not so much.
On the other hand, France, Spain, Germany, England: There seems to be some spark in those countries. Maybe? At least that’s been my take. But, of course, at my age and given the covid and my country of origin, the chances of my being allowed back into Europe or anywhere else outside of the U.S. of A. these day are pretty slim. For that matter, given the rate of infection in Texas now, I would imagine I would be viewed with considerable suspicion even in NYC.
All photos above @Peter Brown Leighton