Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Q & A with Rick Schatzberg

Rick Schatzberg is a photographer based in Brooklyn and Norfolk, CT, and the author of the recent monograph The Boys.

BA: I’m curious to learn about your path to photography. As I understand it, you took it up later in life. Can you kind of sketch out how that happened?

RS: Early in life I thought I'd be a musician. First, singer/songwriter stuff, but later graduated to jazz. I was involved in the avant-garde jazz scene in the 70s. I played French horn with Cecil Taylor's jazz ensemble in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I moved to NYC when Cecil did, and I played piano and horn for a few years with various musicians in the downtown jazz loft scene. That was a pretty stimulating time musically in NY, with punk at CBGBs just down the street from some of the better known jazz lofts; hip-hop Uptown; Latin Salsa everywhere; disco; new forms of classical music pioneered by Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and others; performer/composers like Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk; New Wave bands like Talking Heads and Television playing at the Mudd Club. I was living in a loft in Tribeca, where we played music all the time. That’s just below SOHO, and so though I was aware that there was a real art scene there, I didn’t know very much about it.

At a certain point in my mid 20s I recognized I didn't have the chops—and never would—to play jazz at such a serious level. Having immersed myself in serious music, I had no interest in returning to pop music, and so I entered the business world to make a living. 

BA: Wow! You say you didn’t have the chops but you were playing with Cecil Taylor. He wouldn’t suffer chumps, so you’d already attained a pretty serious level. Did you feel you’d plateaued? 

RS: Cecil’s Ensemble was essentially a jazz orchestra with roughly 25-30 musicians. Not like a classical orchestra consisting largely of string sections, but instead sections of woodwinds (mostly saxophones), brass, percussion, etc. I was proficient enough to play the parts in my section and to contribute to the whole, and I really loved the music. I also played in much smaller groups (duos, trios, quartets, etc). I eventually concluded that if I spent all my waking hours practicing and studying my craft, I still wouldn’t achieve the mastery necessary to truly participate in that world. People often say that talent—compared to consistent hard work—is overrated. That may be true, but only to a point. I think I understood where that point was, and have never regretted the decision to walk away from that life. I do feel I gained insights from those experiences that have stayed with me. I learned how to really listen to music; how new artistic expression evolves from traditional forms both incrementally and sometimes in quantum leaps; about the synthesis of wildly different inputs to make something new and powerful; and about the dedication it takes to accomplish anything worthwhile.

While still playing music up through the early 80s I was working part-time at the Village Voice in the art/production area to support myself. When I stopped playing music I transitioned to a small book-publishing company where I got a job as production manager.  Then I got a chance to join a start-up in the early 80s (unrelated to publishing) that took off. I started as the junior guy but over the years became a senior executive in what grew to be a Fortune 50 company. I retired early, spent more time with family and also went back to school mostly studying history and political science. After seven years, when our kids were in college and high school, I was recruited by a former boss to co-found a startup. This I did for just a few years, and we sold it. While still there, I became fairly obsessed with photography. So when I could get out of the corporate world for good, I just focused on that. I took some classes at ICP and then enrolled in a six-week intensive program with Tom Roma at Columbia University, which was great and really opened my eyes. My conception of photography up until then had been pretty much stuck in a mid-20th century aesthetic. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment and all that. Which was fine so far as it went, but so narrow and limited. I then enrolled in a full-time program at ICP where I learned to shoot film and work in both the B&W and color darkrooms. So many excellent teachers there! I also learned to use a large format camera (4x5), taking classes with Joshua Lutz and Justine Kurland. I graduated from ICP in 2015. For the next year and a half or so I worked only with color film, and in 2017 I started in Hartford Art School's MFA program. I was becoming increasingly interested in the photobook as a medium. Hartford placed a great emphasis on photobooks, and it seemed like this was a good environment to advance my work.

BA: You said you became “ obsessed with photography”. Roughly what year was that. And how did it happen?

RS: I think it was around 2008. But my wife and I had been interested in photography for a long time, and occasionally bought something for ourselves as an anniversary present. My wife, Marilyn, was the photo intern for the Village Voice when we met, under Fred McDarrah and Sylvia Plachy. She worked freelance and also shot for Country Music, Rolling Stone, and several other magazines. (She never loved the hustle of free-lance work and gave it up in the mid-80s.) 

I started taking pictures when I was out mountain biking, just with my cell phone. I began experimenting with various apps to process these images and share them on social media. From there both the cameras and the places I’d shoot kept expanding: first to a "micro 4/3", then a full-frame digital, next a mirrorless digital, then medium format film, and finally 4 x 5 film. But I am now in the process of selling my film equipment and transitioning to medium format digital.

BA: What kind of photos do you and Marilyn collect? Any examples?

RS: We are not what I’d call serious collectors, but we do have a few nice photographs. I think the first photos we bought were in Santa Fe in the early 80s, work by Meridel Rubenstein and David Michael Kennedy. Other examples: We have a couple Louis Stettner prints from the 40s; a few Jack Spencer photos; a beautiful Roy DeCarava photograph of John Coltrane and Elvin Jones; a well-known image by Albelardo Morell; a striking color image by Yola Monakhov Stockton, who was a teacher of mine at Columbia. Once I started paying for art school and making my own work we stopped buying photographs, and I began acquiring photobooks—which by now have taken over the house. (These I regard more as part of a working library rather than as a “collection;” I don’t obsess over first editions.) Recently, we acquired a beautiful palladium print from Andrea Modica’s Treadwell series as an anniversary present to ourselves. We are pretty much out of wall space, but if I were to somehow manage to add more, Mark Steinmetz and Alessandra Sanguinetti would be high up on my list.

BA: Would you say that Marilyn’s photography influenced you? 

RS: I don’t think so. She was mostly shooting musicians in the 70s and early 80s like REM, Irma Thomas, Sun Ra, etc. She was also hand-tinting images (pre-Photoshop). She did great work, but it wasn’t anything I could see myself doing.

BA: Does she give you feedback now on current work?

RS: Absolutely! I am always interested in her opinion, and she’s very frank. For my work in The Boys, she helped me make my self-portraits, which were pretty awkward to do myself on a large format camera.

BA: What do you think was it that first pulled you into photography? Did you ever take photos before 2008, either as a kid or earlier in life? 

RS: Starting in high school and college I did make photographs. But music was my obsession. By the time I was playing jazz I was practicing 6 hours a day and playing with others at night. When there wasn’t music, I was reading. Just no room to be serious about photography.

BA: It doesn't always have to be serious, lol.

RS: I think I was an all-or-nothing type of guy back then. When I stopped playing horn I never picked it up again.

BA: I thought the early color photos in The Boys might be yours. But judging by this info, they were not. Where did you source those photos?

RS: A couple of the snapshots were mine. But mostly they're of uncertain authorship. Each of us, our girlfriends, friends of friends, ex-wives snapped pictures. I actually love that uncertainty; they sort of belong to the milieu. This is in stark contrast to the 4x5 portrait sessions, which were scheduled, lengthy, and carefully considered. I found most of the old snapshots in several of the guys’ photo albums or in boxes of their stuff. There are also a couple that I downloaded online from social media—they’re the ones in the book that are obviously pixelated—where the original prints couldn’t be found. I scanned dozens of the snapshots and then sent them to my book designer, SYB, to make the selections. I felt that it might be better for someone who had no emotional attachment to the subjects or the place (SYB is Dutch) to make these choices. I made some additions and deletions, but for the most part went with his selections.

BA: Maybe you still have some all-or-nothing component in your personality? After you became interested in photography you did plunge ahead full steam. Studying at ICP, Hartford, etc.

RS: That is true, I tend to immerse myself in whatever I get involved in. I think I’ve always been fascinated by pictures, but when I studied at Columbia and ICP, I became aware how much I didn’t know, and I had a sense of urgency about filling in all the gaps. And I also wanted to develop some real skills. Once I embark on a specific photographic project, fascination turns to obsession. Which may be why I feel I need to leave some space between projects now.

BA: What did you think of Hartford?

RS: Getting an MFA at age 65 is not an easy proposition. I can’t say I “enjoyed” that experience, but it surely made me a better photographer. The pedagogical approach is fairly typical of a certain type of MFA program: tear you down and build you back up—and repeat. I think that’s harder when you get to a certain age—or maybe I just have a thin skin. I’m the type who mostly remembers negative criticism. I think what I really was looking for was a mentor, and that’s not at all what art school was about. The university teaching model of mentor and student working in collaboration from the days of Minor White and Ben Shahn in places like Black Mountain College is now long gone.

BA: I have a friend Doug Lowell who did the Hartford MFA later in life, maybe in his late 50s? He graduated in 2012. 

RS: I know a lot of the alumni—or at least their work— but not Doug. I am in touch with many, and am in a crit group with some, informally led by Tim Carpenter who was in Hartford’s first graduating class around ten years ago.

BA: That's one of the perks of an MFA program. It creates an automatic peer group. Or least it can.

BA: Did you ever find a mentor? 

RS: Not really. Alec Soth was an early supporter of the work when no one else felt very supportive. But Alec was a guest reviewer at Hartford, and present in the summer sessions only. When I had my first fully designed PDF for The Boys, he was the first person I sent it to. His enthusiasm for it really gave me confidence when I later presented it to my instructors and peers. I also had a second year advisor, Michael Vahrenwald, who was supportive and made many insightful suggestions. 

BA: Did Hartford make you a better photographer?

RS: Well, for one thing, you are continually turning in work and getting feedback from instructors, guest reviewers, and peers. For that 2 1/2 year period you are only thinking about, looking at, and making photographs. I think that in grad school, one of the challenges of making work that you hope to eventually present to the world is interpreting and deciding what to do with the near constant and often contradictory feedback you receive. You go to art school to not be limited by your inclinations. But there’s also the danger of gearing your work for approval of teachers and fellow students. In the end, I had to absorb what was helpful and discard what wasn’t; making that distinction was sometimes a confusing struggle.

I should also say that the “design” of the Hartford program is pretty ingenious, and program director Robert Lyons deserves the credit for this. It’s “low-residency,” which means you live and work wherever you want, and students live in many different states and countries. You turn in new work every two weeks online, and have regular crits via Skype (maybe Zoom these days?). That includes an hour long one-on-one crit every two weeks with your advisor, as well as monthly small-group crits combining 1st and 2nd year students who share the same advisor. Then there are the two-week in-person residencies, which occur 3 times a year in various places. Hartford and Berlin are always destinations, but other locations can vary from year to year. The connection to Berlin is very strong, and it results in a much less insular view of the photo world than Americans tend to have. Spending time with curator Thomas Weski and photographer Ute Mahler, for example, was a great gift. (Since I graduated there have also been residencies in Tokyo.) A lot happens during these residencies, which are very intense, including long crits and studio visits. Lastly, it’s a photobook-oriented program, and so thinking about the book form,  editing, sequencing, and making book dummies all play a prominent role. 

BA: Is the crit group with Tim Carpenter similar? How does that function?

RS: The current crit group has anywhere between 15-30 people. Not all Hartford alum. The critiques are much less harsh than at Hartford, but generally substantive. 

BA: Holy crap, that's a big group! Everyone shows work each time? In person?

RS: Usually 2-3 people show work at each crit, over a 2-3 hour session. It's been on zoom since the pandemic, but in-person (NYC) prior. I expect it'll shrink in size a bit when it's live again.

BA: I had a good group locally. But it has fizzled during pandemic. We tried Zooming but it wasn't the same at all. I have to say I really despise Zoom. 

RS: Yeah, I get that! But the advantage is that you can create a group that is geographically far flung.

BA: I am always curious how others do it.

RS: Prior to the pandemic, the group was oriented towards looking at prints, and I am sure it will eventually be again in the future. 

BA: We are print/book focused too. A few people bring laptops. But mostly we are old school analogue types. Which made the Zoom transition tougher.

RS: Somehow we made the transition. Tim is the driving force, and we have one or two people who volunteer to handle the logistics for a time, and after a while that rotates.

BA: Nice. Did the crit group help you with The Boys?

RS: No. I made a book dummy of The Boys at Hartford as my thesis project. When I graduated I spent the next one and a half years or so refining the work before finding a publisher.

BA: Did it change much during that time?

RS: In some ways it did, though I didn’t add any new photos. I worked with SYB to make a number of design changes, including the book’s trim size (for the third time). Most of those changes were intended to simplify the design, so that the only major design conceit would be the gatefolds which reveal the portraits when opened. I re-edited all the text (working with my text editor) and wrote a couple of entirely new text "chapters” (or “fragments” as I like to call them) towards the end of the book. This required a degree of reflection and perspective I didn’t have time for in the rush of making work while in grad school. I also re-worked all the post processing from scratch for the two-dozen portraits and the handful of streetscapes and still lifes. Then, when I thought my work was finished and that I only needed to find someone to contribute the afterword, two more friends who are in the book died in the space of 6 weeks. I added the "Coda" to reflect that.

RS: That section kind of completes the book. I know it sucks to lose friends. But in a way the book couldn't have finished without that event.

RS: I wouldn’t say it couldn’t have been finished without those deaths, but it certainly added a sad symmetry to the arc of the book’s story.

BA: What was it like to ask your friends for a portrait session? For most of your lives they hadn't known you as a photographer. And all of the sudden you're making a book and want them to pose. Did anyone express surprise?

RS: They all knew I was heavily involved in photography the last 8-10 years. I had made a Blurb book at the end of ICP for a project I called Twenty Two North, which most saw, and one of the guys (Fred, the one who died last), got involved in that project a bit, helping me scout locations. Several friends went to the exhibitions of that work. 

I initially introduced the idea of making everyone’s portrait after the funeral of our friend Jon. He was the second in this group to die in a nine month period. I suggested we make photographs while there were still a dozen of us to be photographed, and that seemed like a good idea to everyone.

BA: Did the request to be photographed bare-chested add another dynamic?

RS: That didn’t come up until a bit later in the process, after I’d already had a couple portrait sessions. I tried a few approaches. At first I was making more environmental portraits, which put them in the context of the times: their homes, yards, neighborhoods, clothes, etc. I was also trying different cameras. I made some portraits with a hand held medium format camera, using both color and black and white film. After reevaluating the first group of images and talking with my advisor at Hartford, I made three consequential decisions. First, I would use a large format camera because with all its fussy rituals and traditions, I thought it would feel more performative and serious. I hoped that would amplify the psychological intensity surrounding the project. Second, I would photograph each man in front of a blank wall, to isolate them, to make them seem exposed. The idea was that the portraits would stand in stark contrast to the snapshots, which are all so lively, silly, and context-rich. Third, and to get to your question, I would photograph at least some of the men bare-chested, for a couple of reasons. I wanted to show vulnerability. I also simply wanted to describe the skin of 64 year old men using Portra 400 4x5 film. I couldn’t recall seeing that elsewhere. 

My friends were game. There was one friend who would only agree to be photographed shirtless if he could approve of the photo before publication, so I didn’t even bother to have him pose shirtless. 

BA: I’m sure you've shown the book to the people in it. Can you characterize their reactions? 

RS: It’s funny, all the time I was making the work, I was thinking less about the reactions of the people in the book than I was about viewers who don’t know the subjects or the place we’re from. Obviously, this work is radically specific: a very particular group of white guys of a particular generation, raised in a very particular American suburban community. From the outset though, my feeling was that if this work isn’t felt to be universal on some level, then it’s a failure. Mortality, after all, is the bedrock of our biology. 

During the photo sessions my friends and I discussed the deeper underlying themes of the project – aging, loss, memory, mortality, long-lasting friendship. These conversations helped to create the atmosphere we needed to portray vulnerability. I also explained that I planned to use the work as the basis of my master’s thesis, so they understood that there would be a critical audience beyond our circle. Their attitudes went from gracious acceptance to genuine interest. It was as though they became partners with a stake in the outcome. It was clear that I would be making unheroic portraits that might not be flattering, and they understood that there was a good reason for doing so.

That said, it was not a true collaboration because the power to select specific portraits for use in the book was mine alone. My friends did not even see the images I was choosing between, nor did they know how I would ultimately deploy them. They trusted me. It was important to assert my authorial voice, but without entirely drowning out the voices of my friends, which they asserted through the written word, their snapshots, and their gestures in the portraits.

When the work was complete I sent the PDF to all my friends who are in the book, and suddenly I was apprehensive. Fortunately, they were extremely happy with it. They understand that it's my version of things, my particular way of telling this story, but they feel like these friendships have been duly noted for posterity. They also like that it honors our four friends who have died (actually five, counting Andy who died in 1977 and is referenced in the text and a couple of snapshots) . They have enjoyed reading the reviews these past nine months, seeing the reactions of critics, just as they were interested in Rick Moody’s essay about the work. The photo sessions themselves have become part of our shared history as well. It felt ceremonial, as though we were eulogizing our friends who died, but also creating a "certificate of presence" at the same time, to steal a Roland Barthes phrase. It also simply provided a good reason to get together.

BA: I think your friends look pretty good actually. A few battle scars and wrinkles, but all things considered they are in good shape. They are somewhat of an anomaly actually, compared to the poor health of average Americans. And the group itself is an anomaly. I mean, the fact that you still regularly communicate with a tight group of friends from childhood is very unusual. You are fortunate.

RS: The group is an anomaly, that's for sure. Boys/men in American culture are presumed to be emotionally illiterate, right? As for health, remember 4 of 14 are dead. A few more are dealing with some pretty serious chronic conditions.

BA: How often do you guys get together now?

RS: The pandemic put an end to face-to-face for the most part, though that's changing now. Before and during the pandemic though there have been texts and emails almost daily. But not as one large group, mostly in pairs or threes. When we do get together in person it's mostly in sub-sets. As many as 8 of us if we're very lucky, but more often in twos and threes. There's a guy in FL, one in Pittsburgh, one in NH, one now in Oaxaca, Mexico, and the rest in the NY area (Brooklyn, Jersey, LI). So it has been catch as catch can. We always know what's going on with one another though. 

BA: One thing that comes across in the book is a general upbeat vibe. All your friends are smiling and hugging and laughing. I know that's partially due to your archival selection. You chose certain photos for a certain mood. But still, it puts this nostalgic haze of bliss over the past. Maybe that's drug related too, who knows?

RS: Photo selection, sure, but I also think pictures were usually taken when we were having fun. And humor has always been a very big thing with these guys. A way of not taking ourselves too seriously all the time. As for nostalgia, I don't really think of the work as nostalgic. Of course every viewer/reader gets to have their own sense about things like that.

BA: Nostalgia is kind of a nasty word in photoland. I think it is suspected as a counter to intellectual rigor. But I have no problem with nostalgia. Most old snaps have some element of that and it usually makes them better IMO.

RS: Nostalgia is often associated with "sentimentality,”—those were the days!—which may be even worse in photo land! But those words not exactly synonymous. I feel that the almost forensic nature of the portraits grounds the work in the present. But for some viewers I’ve heard from, the immediate connection to the work is nostalgia for their youth or that time or place. For others, typically younger readers and often European, it may be “anemoia”: nostalgia for a time or place you’ve never known. (Photography is good at evoking this.) But the portraits of a bunch of isolated old guys inevitably bring you back to reality.

BA: How did Rick Moody get involved? 

RS: I was advised by Alec Soth to get a "real" writer to do my essay. I decided—at the advice of another person I know who heads a literary publishing house—to consider a fiction writer. I'm not sure why he suggested that but the idea appealed to me. Rick Moody and I have a mutual friend, and so I asked Joe if he would mind forwarding the PDF to Rick to see if he'd be interested. I heard back directly from Rick in under a day! It was a good match.

BA: Why did Soth suggest a “real” writer? Is that just general advice? Or did it pertain to your project in particular?

RS: I don’t think it pertained to my project in particular, but to the type of contemporary photobook that aims to create a world, to convey a story. These types of photobooks, which are abundant these days, stand in contrast to books that are collections of individual pictures, or to comprehensive retrospective accounts of an artist’s work. Alec said he thought it was a mistake to only consider other photographers or critics for the task of appending an essay to the type of photobook I was making. He suggested that it’d be a good idea to get well-known photographers or critics to write blurbs, but not the essay. In contrast, for a comprehensive retrospective monograph covering an artist’s career, he thought curators and critics can provide important and insightful essays, and I completely agree with that. 

BA: And how did you connect with Powerhouse?

RS: I sent my PDF to a zillion publishers, and got some interest from a few. But a photographer friend knew some people at PH and she reached out to them. I thought they'd be a good choice because they were willing to share the production costs, and they wanted to print around 1,500 books. I know most photobooks are done in smaller quantities, around 500 or so. But as a "hybrid”—a photo-memoir— I thought that my book might be of interest to people who don't normally buy photobooks, and so a larger print run would make sense. I mean, I was publishing to be read, and I didn't care about the being able to say early on that the edition was sold out quickly.

BA: Has that target audience materialized? Do you think it's appealing to the "hybrid memoir" crowd? I always think of photobooks as such a nerdy insider thing. Like the only people who could possibly care are photographers. But I know that's not always the case.

RS: You're probably right. I've gotten a lot of reviews in photo journals or by photography writers in more mainstream outlets, but only in a couple of more traditional literary outlets (Literary Hub and NY Journal of Books). The photo-to-text ratio is too high towards the former for The NY Times, LA Review of Books, NY Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement.  So if there even is such a thing as a “hybrid memoir crowd,” they wouldn’t know about the book.

BA: There was a Vogue piece. That's crossover.

RS: Vogue Italia, yeah. Rica Cerbarano is great. I wonder who reads her columns though. Just us photo nerds, probably.

BA: I have no idea. To me the book falls pretty easily into "photobook" category. It is picture heavy. There are some texts but they feel secondary. So it seems naturally aimed at the photo crowd.

RS: To quote Alec Soth, “… and that’s one of the great struggles with combining pictures and words. Do you find a photographic audience? Do you find a literary audience? In the end, it’s kind of neither one, very often.” For me, the text isn’t secondary, even though it’s only about 4,000 words. But again, every reader/viewer forms their own opinions about a work once it’s released.

BA: You just gotta do your thing. All the audience targeting is just a guessing game.

RS: I agree, and I made the book I had to make. I am not second-guessing that.

BA: I’m sure Cecil Taylor ran into the same marketing issue. Who buys jazz albums? Other jazz musicians. Or extreme music nerds. Not much general crossover.

RS: Perhaps. But Cecil was a genius.

BA: Genius doesn't count for shit selling product

RS: True, at least in the short run. In Cecil’s case, he has earned his place in music history, and so he will be listened to and studied over the long haul. With respect to photobooks that combine images and text, I do feel that a lot of photobook aficionados don't like text much, especially if it is assigned the task of helping carry the weight of the narrative. I think it was Roland Barthes who said that the linguistic message, when used as an anchor, directs us towards a meaning selected in advance. So there's that. That was the prevailing sentiment at Hartford, in my opinion. Personally I think it depends on the text itself and how/where it sits in a photobook. 

BA: I tend to respond viscerally to pictures. Sometimes text can interfere with that. So I think it needs to be introduced in a very deliberate way, or else it can just run wild through the viewer's brain. That's not to say writing and photos can't coexist. It's just a delicate balance.

RS: It is a delicate balance. And book design becomes very important then. You also have to assume that many people won’t read a photobook from front to back, as they would a literary text. So I was conscious of writing text “fragments” that could read in any order. 

BA: Even something as simple as a caption can really color the interpretation of an image.

RS: I specifically didn't want my text to function as extended captions, nor were the photographs intended to just illustrate the text. My goal was for the images and words to exist on equal terms, each telling stories in their own way. Photographs are all surface, two-dimensional exteriors. The viewer is invited to imagine the nature of the subject or of the photographer and to fill in the before and after. This, in part, is what makes good images so powerful and memorable. But pictures can’t really convey a deep truth about the person photographed; we really know absolutely nothing about them. Text can articulate an interior space, where memories, ideas, and feelings are pieced together and can be told. “Interiority—the kingdom the camera never captures,” to quote poet and memoirist, Mary Karr.

BA: I think the book works well in this aspect. It is mostly pictures but there's enough backstory to fill in the history.

RS: Thank you, Blake.

(All photos above © Rick Schatzberg)

1 comment:

Luppolo Francesco said...

A contemporary tale of a man who tackles important issues such as timeless friendship. Nice interview.