Thursday, September 7, 2023

Q & A with Kathryn McCool

Kathryn McCool is a photographer based in Castlemaine, Australia, and the author of the recent photobook P.North.

BA: Congrats on P.North. I love the photos but the book didn't tell me much about you. Can you please give me a brief bio? Where did you grow up? How did you get into photography? Etc.

KM: Thank you Blake. 

I grew up on a farm close to a small town named Bunnythorpe which came up around a power substation and the Glaxo factory. It was made up of a core population and then very much a shifting one too. Kids would turn up at the school for a term or two, it seems, and then they’d be gone. 

I think it was here that I really started looking at people around me. But of course we didn’t live in the town itself and so the mythologizing that went on in my head around the various townsfolk, grew pretty unchecked.

When I was in my late teens, my dad went to an auction and got a box lot of stuff and handed me a camera, a Ricoh, and I don’t think it even had a lens cap and he gave it to me to take on a bus trip to Wellington city. I walked around and took photos of people on the street because the only things I knew about photography is that you took photos of people on the street or at weddings or in school photos. 

How did your Wellington photos turn out? 

The photos were ok I think, in color, but not ok enough to recall any in particular apart from possibly one of a Rastafarian leaning against a wall.

Why did your dad give you a camera? Was he a photographer? 

No, he wasn’t a photographer.  It is still a mystery to me that he gave me the camera –he used to walk into our rooms and hand out sweets. On this day it was a camera. I’m glad of it though. I don’t know what else I could have done.

You said "the only thing I knew about photos is that you took photos of people on the street". Where did you come across that idea? 

HCB, Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954 

An exaggeration possibly, but it was a Time-Life book my mother had in the cupboard. I’d often look at this when I was pretty young. On the cover was the famous photo of the boy with the bottle of wine—the Cartier-Bresson one. I used to stare at that boy and wonder: who was he and where was he going and what was he going to do with that bottle of wine and where were his parents.

I love that photo. It's amazing that a mute image can travel around the world and inspire such questions. Where did your photo path lead next? Did you continue to use the Ricoh? 

Well, this is embarrassing. I kept the Ricoh in a paper bag and I left it behind on a beach one day and it turned out the best thing. I wasn't a very technically driven person and so to cover this shortcoming I realized I needed to have a better camera so that is when I saved up and bought the Rolleiflex. I was going to the library a lot then to look at photo books then and knew that Dorothea Lange used one and Arbus and Ans Westra too.

When was that? What age? 

I was 19-20 years old. 

Did you have any training at that time? Any friends or family into photography? 

I had no training. In 1987 I met Michael Stevenson and he was then a painter straight out of Elam School of Fine Art. Michael and I went on a trip photographing in the South Island and sometimes went driving just looking for stuff. We were very much into a very particular aesthetic, which he refers to as the Charismatic Pentecostal Aesthetic and we were quite dedicated to finding and describing it.  Our quest was ‘completely intuitive, completely experiential, and came with no external view.’ (Michael’s words).

What photos were you looking at then, or influenced by? 

I would say my main influences at this stage weren’t so much photographic but came from hanging out with M.Stevenson, music, literature, the Bible for instance, and paintings. I hadn’t really discovered William Eggleston then, for example. I got a few images together and applied to study photography at Elam.

Was this period the start of P.North? Did any of that work make it into the book? 

P.North started before this but work from this time also made it into the book. Then there are a couple of images that were shot in 2017 that are in P.North too. 


How did you find people and approach them? You said earlier "I think it was there that I really started looking at people around me." So you were a good observer. But it's not always easy translating that skill into photos. 

Sometimes the people I photographed were from nearby. The kids were neighbours or kids I babysat or the adults who were my landlords or the lady who did the hem of my school ball dress, etc. But also they were strangers as well. Strangers that I saw around the place often.

I would also spend a lot of time driving around looking. Sometimes it was hard to approach people and usually I’d have to think quickly about composition etc, as usually I only liked to use a few frames. Mostly, I knew immediately if it was working or not. 
It is interesting to see that many of the photos I deemed initially as failures, are now in P.North

Why did you call them failures? 

By failures I meant how it felt to me at the time of photographing them as I mostly didn't even attempt to make a proof sheet to see what they looked like. So I was writing them off before I even saw them. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t been so narrow in my approach. They seemed like they weren’t working as I didn't feel this certain thing when I was taking the photo. Then there were the photos that I made some mistake with either in shooting or developing: light leak, film incorrectly loaded, film not wound on – you name it. Or that they were trying to be artful. 


Did your assessment of those frames change over time? 

Yes, my opinion of them changed over time. I have, as a consequence, realized that I need to have something like a cooling off period of at least a year or two before I can look at the photo –to really see it and give it a chance. I am also ok with the mistakes- with the detritus that seems to populate my images.

What do you mean “trying to be artful”? One of my main attractions to the book is that the photos don't feel arty. They just seem like you pulled up, asked someone to stand there, shot the pic, done. Your visual approach seems natural and unaffected to me. 

Yes, they were mostly done how you describe but by artful I mean perhaps I was trying to compose too tightly or force something; maybe I could see myself trying to imitate something/someone. Hmm, don’t know really. Some of the artful ones didn’t make it into P.North besides.

Were they were shot around Bunnythorpe?  

They were shot around a number of places in NZ; Bunnythorpe and Palmerston North mostly and about four in Deniliquin in NSW and two in Queensland. 


Did you find photos generally by driving? I have a hard time seeing photo ops from a car. Far better luck walking, for me. 

I have flat feet! 

You have trouble walking? 

I like to drive. I see things, make a note and return to photograph them. I also go to events like rodeos, fairs and gatherings where it makes sense to people that I am photographing. Like I could be taking pics for the local paper although my camera is a giveaway that I’m not.

What kind of photos are you making now? 

I am still photographing people. Of course things have changed in the 35 or so years since P.North. It is harder to photograph. I am more indecisive. I overthink. I find it harder to approach people. But the work still has the similar sense of dislocation and vague time frame aspect to it. 

I have been looking at Mark Steinmetz's photographs and I have read a little about how he works and this has changed the way I see the potential of a sunny day, for example. I used to avoid putting too much emotion into my photographs by avoiding a type of light that could take over and become the central character of the photo. I saw it as disruptive and seductive. But now I see the potential of using light in a different way. 

I also have tried digital.

I love Mark Steinmetz.

Isn't he incredible? His photos are miraculous. I want to go to one his photo workshops. Too scared to.

You should do it.

I might lose my way if I did. 

What do you mean?

Risk someone calling my bluff I guess. I still see my work as a series of flukes or that my last good photo is exactly that. I think in a photo workshop you are expected to wander out, take photos and come back and show them. I go months between taking photos sometimes. 

I don't know what Steinmetz's workshop is like but somehow I imagine he could adapt to flukes. I mean all of the best photos are somewhat dependent on chance. And I think he probably realizes that. 

Also the workshop will need to be in a place that resonates with me. The latest is in Paris and all I can think of is that self portrait of Eggleston flaked out in his Parisian hotel room after days of taking no photos because he couldn't see past all the geraniums in pots on the windowsill kinda thing.

You've mentioned Eggleston a few times. Is he a major influence? What do you think of his pictures? 

I can’t say that he is an influence because I have no idea how he sees what he does. He has been a distraction. I’ve taken my share of Eggleston influenced photos and to this day I am not sure about them. I’ve seen In the Real World a few times and have decided to leave him alone. Like I don’t even try to wonder. He is a genius.

Once I went to Memphis and was walking around and some women became very suspicious of me and stopped me to ask what I was up to. I had no idea it was his neighbourhood. They thought I was casing the place but as soon as I mentioned his name they were like 'Oh Bill, yeah we know him. He lives over there. Want to come meet him, although he did go out last night…’ I declined. What could I ever think of to say to WE.

I had a chance to meet him last fall at a show in New York. But the book signing line was really long, so I said fuck it and spent the morning shooting photos instead. Story of my life, oh well. 

I reckon Eggleston would have approved of that response somehow! 

How did your book come about? 


My son Travis MacDonald is a painter and he urged me to think about making a book. I got the old negatives scanned and entered them into the Perimeter Small Book Competition. I was shortlisted and later approached to make a not so small book.. 

You share work with Travis. Does he get your photos? I'm asking as a fellow photographer who realizes the target audience is always tenuous. 

Yes, Travis gets them. And my son Jackson. They are my biggest editors and the conversation around each of our practices is an ongoing thing. I understand the tenuous thing too. BTW your review has changed some people’s (like family) opinions on my work too. So funny —they needed to be told how to view it. It’s beautifully written too.

Do you take photos of your kids? 

Yes, a few photos of the boys but as they got older they resisted. Lots of photos of them with hands in front of their faces. 

It's great that your kids can offer feedback. Do you give feedback on Travis’s paintings too? 

I am learning to wait to be asked.

What about the photo subjects in your book? Have you shown them the photos? Do you have a sense of how they respond to the images? 

The bulk of the subjects in my book I have no idea how to contact. Don’t have full name or some have deceased or moved —it has been 35 years. The ones who've seen the photos kind of don’t care.

The audience can be tenuous. Can we go back in time for a moment? What happened after Elam?

In 1989 I got into Elam in NZ and finished the year married, expecting a child and back living near Bunnythorpe - later moving back to Australia. So things took a dramatic turn and so did my sense of who I was and what I was doing, as you might imagine.  

Was that Travis MacDonald?

Yes, Travis, the best, followed by Jackson, the best. 1989 was an interesting year as it was also a year in a city and it became apparent that I wasn't good at living in cities. I had to go back down country in order to take the photos. We were required to make a hand-sewn book each term and so this is where the idea of a photobook and how it might look, first started for me. Travis has the books now —a bit wrecked but intact mostly.

Do they look anything like P.North?

They share some similarities. Small photos in a squarish book. Some text every now and then.

Why and when did you move to Australia? 

It wouldn't stop raining in the Manawatu in 1988 and it was not long after I had been completely dazzled by Paris, Texas so I sold my car and went to the nearest warm and blue place: Australia. I had a spell on a sheep station and then moved to a small town named Deniliquin and got this job. 

What was the job?

I was bringing the sheep over from the saleyards and feeding out in the lots so I saw things I’d rather not have seen and it took me a little while to forget them. If at all.  What was also difficult for me was the utter isolation socially. It was a hard place.

You said you weren't good at living in cities. And maybe you found the country life wrong too? Where are you most comfortable?

In my car.

That's a very American answer, lol. 

Yes!  Coming from a biggish family, my car was my room almost — the place you didn't have to share. But I have been thinking about walking during this conversation. Steinmetz describes photography as an athletic thing to do.

I grew up in a very rural setting like you, then moved to a city around age 18. I did that until my late 30s. Now I live near a small city, but in a country setting. Maybe it’s the best of both worlds? But personally I've usually found it harder to see photos in rural settings. Photographically I'm geared for urban material, or at least busy material

I can see that in your work for sure. Did you grow up in Oregon?

I grew up in Northern California. You mentioned my work but I have almost no photos online. Which work do you mean?

Well, I have seen some photos with your name on it —like the one of the car door walking down the street. Is that yours?

It’s possible but I’d have to see the photo to know. 

If I Google you, some photos come up that are very Bressonish decisive moment.

I can't complain about the comparison. I love HCB.

I am the biggest fan of BVM.

Bertien Van Manen?


She's awesome! I love her sense of color.

Bertien Van Manen, Moonshine, Mack, 2014
Moonshine is my favourite. (I sometimes wonder what my work might be like if I had been aware of BVM when I started shooting.)

Great book, and it feeds into the urban/rural discussion. Moonshine was shot in a mostly rural setting. And she was a complete stranger there, at least at first. So it might have been a tough place to find photos. At least it would be for me in that circumstance. But she really made something of it.

In Moonshine it looks like she likes to or at least knows how to, well, hang out. (Like Susan Lipper in Grapevine maybe.) That can be a helpful thing in some settings. You get a sense that she is very likeable. I have taken photos in that kind of place but in Alabama.

What were you doing in Alabama?

I shot a short doco on Sand Mountain in north Alabama. While I was filming I didn't make the transition to stills very easily so the photo record is a bit patchy. The doco is about an old musician named Cast King who was one of the last to record at the Sun Studios before it folded. It really was the vehicle by which I could see a part of the US that I had a longstanding curiosity about. So it is like a personal essay. Hand held and a bit rough.

I'll have to track that down. I know you've been involved in cinema as well as photography. And you mentioned Paris, Texas earlier. Was that film influential for you? Were you already making films when you saw it?

No, I wasn't making films. I was having enough trouble with just 1/125th of a sec, let alone anything longer.  Paris, Texas was way too big to be an influence; it was something else.  I got a video camera and more or less read the instructions on how to use it on the plane going over. My biggest lesson was watching Stranger Than Paradise by Jarmusch. He keeps it really simple in that film; camera on tripod, fixed focus, the slow pans. I looked at that film and thought ok I think I can do it. Of course the reason I thought I could make a film is because I had no idea what it took. Now that I know, I wouldn't ever make another.

Sand Mountain is it? Done?


Well, now I really have to see it.


What was your impression of the U.S.? Was it what you expected? 

My first impression of the US? I could say a lot about this. If you spent any time parked in front of the TV as a youngster, and I did, you already had a very involved impression of the place. I have to say I was smitten. And for so many reasons. But I found myself responding to this low hum of danger, not for myself, but for the people I encountered. Their lives were so difficult. So it was a complex contradiction of feelings. 

The U.S. for me is so infinitely photogenic and often I would be thinking, 'well right now it is like I am in a Stephen Shore or Joel Sternfeld  or  or  or…’. The fingerprints of the greats were everywhere but the minute I put the camera up to my eye, what I thought was there disappeared. It was exhilarating and depressing. Photography is hard work. I learned not to keep driving but to stay still and look deeper. I am hoping for an opportunity to go back to the U.S. again but with my Rollei and see what I can find.

Going back a few questions, when did you settle in Australia for good?

In 1994 with my family for what was thought to be a working holiday. Still here in a small town named Castlemaine. 

Is there a photo community there?

Yes, it’s called Instagram.

You also said you share work with your kids. Is that your main audience for feedback?

Yes. They are super sharp at discussing motives and nuance in my work and can weed out the weaker stuff and put words to an inarticulate feeling I might have about a photo. They were a major pre-edit voice in P.North.

You also referred to "family opinions" of your work. Not sure who that is or what they may have seen. But I thought it was kind of funny that a review could sway them so easily.

It was kind of a complicated thing. Photography in their mind was reserved for magazines, family, famous faces, and then of course weddings, etc. So when I showed up with the photos of the people down the road, they were confused. 

Do you think your book fundamentally changed how they think of photography?

I don't think they'd think about it much.

You also made a comment about how your subjects reacted to the book. "The ones who've seen the photos kind of don’t care."

I thought they somehow expected that they were going to look better than what the photo showed. 

Well that's just it. They DO look better than what the photo showed.

Hmmm. I mean what looks are ‘better’ than others?  A certain look/expression in a given moment that might be more appropriate than others but does that mean that it is a truer look? I did (and still do) shy away from showing people my photos. But mostly I’d say people were pleased to just be considered; to be looked at and photographed; to have been selected. And that is where the curiosity stopped really. Some even just waved the offer of the photo away.

Photography can be a very solitary pursuit sometimes.

Yes, it can and so makes conversations between photographers such an oasis. I actually think these photos are closer to self-portraits than anything else.

Can you elaborate on that?

I think I was not having a good run at being an adult at the time. Add to this the backwards gaze, of not wanting things to change. Add to this an eschatological angst. So I was drawn to the people and places that I thought were representative of those very strong feelings.

If P.North is a self portrait of you at 19ish, what about the more recent photos in the book? Does self-portraiture still apply?

Yes, it still applies. I now also see it as a far off country that is nowhere in particular. One person who bought the book said the photos made her homesick for a place she'd never been. 

The imaginary country of "P.North".

Yes. My time machine.

You briefly mentioned a fling with digital photography. And now you have swung back around to the Rollei again. What was your experience with digital?

I got a digital camera before my first US trip and I feel I was coerced into it by the whole,  'Well you have to get on-board as film to going to cease to exist'. I set off to the U.S. with an entry level camera and shot a lot, but at all low res. Mostly unusable really. I think my older way of shooting worked because it gave you fewer choices. And it also meant you weren’t holding something up to your face while trying to connect with someone. I mean it is interesting that the Rollei is held at gut level and that is the thing that works best in me. 

The Rollei worked for you. Why change?

Yeah. Mugged by digital, as a friend likes to say.

I've been shooting with roughly the same system since 1993. I'm a dinosaur. 

And what is that?

Small hand held cameras, 35 mm film, contacts, darkroom, work prints > show prints, etc.  Everyone else made the switch the digital at some point. But I never did. Analog works for me.


The jury is still out on that.

And you have exhibitions? You said there is not much online if at all.

I've had exhibitions but not much since pandemic. I'll send you a photo album if you want.

Really? That would be wonderful! Thank you.

One stray comment from our last chat left me curious. You mentioned the Bible as an influence. It made me wonder, are you religious?

Yes sir.

Do you think that comes through in your photos?

Do you?

I can put it this way. If you hadn't mentioned the Bible before I'd have no idea it was important to you.

Well, it is there. I was very much hooked into the elevation of the humble. It is in 1 Corinthians. Knowing this, does it change anything for you?

The photos, not so much. But there is that initial text in the book which I didn't really understand before. But now it has more context. And there is something from Ecclesiastes in the colophon which makes more sense now.

The editor really wanted to put that piece of text in. It is kind of like a word photo, that sounds obtuse but…

Why did you choose that particular quote? Was that important to you in some way? Does it describe the photos? 

I think it describes my understanding of faith. That we are known but also that the mystery of this is way bigger than what we can ever know. It to me, implies that we think God is like us. I think if he is like us, he wouldn't be much of a God.

I think there is a connection to Moonshine too. There’s a religious vibe in that book.

For sure. There is an urgency to people's lives in that part of the world. For example, there is a reason why some people took up snakes in churches there, even though they're more or less outlawed now.

One dimension where the Bible comes through P.North is in the focus on kids. Many of the photos show children. Which I'd dismissed before as maybe easy targets or friends or whatever. But they do convey a tone of  pre-fall innocence. I don't know the Bible well but I think there are several references to youth, children, renewal, rebirth, etc. Like, make way for the next wave of salvation or whatever. As for us grownups, we’re a lost cause, haha.

Yes, they do represent those things. And they are the portent of what is to happen, powerful teachers and also capable of malice. In my work they are the ones who pierce you with their gaze.

"The mystery of this is way bigger than what we can ever know. It to me implies that we think God is like us. I think if he is like us, he wouldn't be much of a God." I think that comment relates to photography. There's a common mistake of conflating what's in a photo with the photo itself. But they are two separate things. If the photo just repeated the thing in the photo, it wouldn't be much of a photo.


Maybe Walker Evans would disagree.

OOh I think he might. It is like that whole thing of the map being not the territory.

All photos above by Kathryn McCool unless otherwise noted.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Q & A with Carl Martin

Carl Martin (photo by Carol John)
Carl Martin is a photographer based in Athens, Georgia.

BA: What was your childhood like? Were you artsy as a kid?

CM: Ah, Athens, Alabama. Mostly played in the dirt, built dams. We had a good neighborhood, could just run or bike off in any direction and find what to do. I used to fiddle with mini-bikes. Freedom!

This was the sixties?

Yes, early sixties. Actually the whole decade.

Just to avoid confusion, Athens, AL is not where you live now, correct? Athens, GA is a separate place?

Yes, odd but good non-intended duplication.

Why so many Athens in that region?

I think they are in many states, NY, Ohio, etc that aspired to the Greek ideals. The popularity of Greek Revival architecture is another alliance of that sentiment?

I think the sense of freedom you mention is a natural doorway to photography. I mean, riding dirt bikes is almost the same mental activity as hunting photos. Or at least for me it's similar. So your mind was being prepped whether you knew it or not, haha. Were you active photographically in a more overt way back then?

Ok, funny enough, it was through dirt bikes that I fell in love with images. This is not how you may expect it to happen. I was transporting a mini bike in an enclosed U-Haul trailer. I was about 9 or 10, and all the pinholes in the side of the box I was in projected moving landscapes from outside as we drove. (I was in the back holding the bike because we didn’t have a way to tie it down.) Anyway, riding in a camera obscura, my mind was blown.

Sounds like fate. Did that incident steer you toward photographic activities?

And then Life magazine came also, very interesting image making time for our culture.

Do you remember specific photos from Life that sparked a response in you at the time?

Yes, I got a super crappy plastic camera shortly thereafter, and made some images that were kinda just blurry messes. I cannot know if I remember seeing images from then or if I know them because of their iconic status, but it seems like I remember seeing them then. I used to study the magazine.

Did the sixties/seventies youth culture movement affect you? Drugs/music/sex, all that stuff?

Of course, drugs and music were easy: sex much less so, we were so young.

Who is "we"? Did you have brothers/sisters/friends/community?

Yes, two older brothers, and different sets of friends. There were friends from home and friends at school. I went away to a boarding high school.

Where was boarding school? 

Chattanooga, TN.

Was that your choice?

Yes, I was dying to leave home. I went for 9th grade through graduation. The scene at home with the parents had kinda disintegrated, not a great space.  I also wanted to leave Athens, AL. It was a tiny seemingly cloistered place.

It's funny you mention boarding school. I'm reading a book now about a guy who was expelled from like 4 different boarding schools. A coming of age story. He eventually figured it out, but his description of boarding school is pretty harsh. How was your experience? Were you active in photography/art?

Yes, they had a darkroom. No instruction but I could spend time there feeling my way along. I really didn’t know anything about the mechanics of photography until the late '70s.

Why would they have a darkroom and no classes?

Maybe I wasn’t in the right club? Not sure, but I could use the place, develop film, and print RCs. I of course did not fit in the school itself. Very competitive place, which I wanted nothing to do with. You can always find your people though and I had a few really good friends.

You weren't competitive? Is that still how you are?

Yes, don’t we all want to find our own way?

What kinds of photos were you making at the time?

Trite cliches.

Gotta start somewhere, right?

I am happy to have started.

You must've developed some photo skills in high school to go from there to SVA?

I went to the Maine Photo workshops 78-79. They had two or three really good instructors there, Carson Graves and Craig Stevens were two. They had just gotten their MFAs from Ohio University. They were well grounded in the zone system and great photography, which was the basis of their instructions. I loved it and spent a year there prior to SVA.

Sounds great. Kind of a post-grad high school experience? When you mention zones I think of landscape photos and f/64 which doesn't match your work as I know it. Were you shooting more of that style back in the late '70s?

from Systems Of Organization

Not really. I love a good snapshot! But that doesn’t mean it cannot be considered and well exposed.

I just went to your site to see what you were shooting then, but the photos only start in the '90s. How would you describe your style and interests in that time period? Is “snapshot” a good word? Or was it something else?

I did spend a lot of energy rebelling against craft alone as quality of picture. I hated that that was a standard, which still applies today to some extent, by which to judge a good picture.

Well photography can be judged in a lot of ways. I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction against that word too: "Craft". But only because it often attaches to a style of photography which is staid and ponderous and boring. But it doesn't have to be that way. I think there's something to be said for photos as objects. Nice prints to view in person. That is a phenomenon that is fading IMHO.

Agree with the above statement, but I’ve realized it’s also not an either/or discussion.  A well crafted high quality image does not mean it is either a successful or unsuccessful image. I love Lartigue, for instance. The work is alive with discovery.

Lartigue was a stud. Are you still rebelling against craft?

I now embrace, after a long hard senseless battle, quality of image!!! I am of the opinion that a great strength of the medium is its ability to elucidate, as opposed to obfuscate

I'm not against a bit of obfuscation at times. I mean, Friedlander is probably my favorite photographer. You sound like more of an Evans guy?

However, the reverse is also true. Recently saw the Ralph Meatyard show at the Ogden in New Orleans, curated by a friend Richard McCabe, that was inspiring and super magic. He fostered his own unique visual dialogue that blew the difference of craft vs vision out of the picture. His work is so beyond the simplicity of that.

Wish I could've seen that. Sounds great. You wrote earlier, "don’t we all want to find our own way?" I think Meatyard certainly answers that question YES. 

Friedlander I love, Evans I am struck by his presence and sculpture-ness. Both contributed to our understanding of what is possible in the medium.

Can we jump back in the timeline for a moment. How was your experience at SVA? What sort of photos were you making then?

Of course school tears you apart and then you pick up the pieces to make something new. I enjoyed it. I studied with an artist Tad Yamashiro. He had been a commercial photographer in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Knew Diane Arbus and had worked with all the people we know of from the time. He had rejected commercialism by then and taught a path to find “artist self”. We spent two years talking / smoking in class. Looked at pictures occasionally. He was more of a linguist truthfully, and would toy and play with the hidden meanings of words and labels. I thought it was great, and did projects that were disconnected from marketplace…..

There was big difference from “photography” and “pictures.” Photography was in the service of something, the subject, the client, etc, and “pictures” were what we were trying to learn to make. I was using a number of different cameras I would find at thrift stores and flea markets. I wanted to say photography doesn’t have to be an exclusive rich person’s medium. Those cameras changed over the years, sometimes film was no longer made, etc. I was making photographs with buildings, then bridges, not so much people. I did shoot a lot of our friends / snapshots / plates of Indian food, which became the lasting body of work form my time in New York.

Reading between the lines, you seem resistant to the moneyed culture of high art and the associated world of commercial/pro photography.  Your teacher "rejected commercialism". Projects "disconnected from the marketplace." "Rich person's medium". Am I reading your sentiments correctly? Do you still have the same feelings, a longing for shall way say "pure" photography separate from the marketplace? And maybe the more interesting question: is a complete separation even possible? Was your fascination with flea market cameras a partial response? Against $? High Art? The hollow world of commodified collecting?

I would love for the marketplace to embrace my work, then and now, but I don’t want to waste the time I have left making anything that I think would be for a market. I would get it wrong anyhow. More specifically, I don’t think a separation is important anymore. That was a popular demarcation of authenticity in my early years, but I think the air is out of the ballon on that one, and rightfully so in today’s context. It’s much more of a plastic time now. I also think you (one) need (s) to follow the path you’re on. Right or wrong, it’s good.

Can you elaborate. What do you mean "the air is out of the balloon"?

Sorry, yes, discussion no longer needed. We all know the answer.

I realize the line between commerce and art can be blurry. But I do NOT trust the marketplace as a reliable arbiter of quality. It's proven incapable so many times.

Agreed, but I don’t have the bandwidth to even take it up as a fight. Or rather I want to spend my energy on my own progress, not railing against a meaningless cultural battle. Those marketers, shall we say, are just doing their own thing too. More power to them.

Did you stay in NY after SVA? Or did you move to Georgia right away?

I have a partner that I met in NY, right after SVA, and we stayed for about 10 years total. Had a baby about two years prior to leaving. We had super cheap rent in the village but it was kinda a trap, dark and small!! We visited friends who had gone to graduate school in Athens, GA on the most beautiful spring day ever. We were smitten, thought we would be here for 5 years max.

So it was at least partly a lifestyle decision? Starting a family, more space needed, etc. I see kids in some of your photographs. Is that your family?

from Towards Salvage

Yes. Most likely.

Or they could just be random kids who snuck into the house.

You have three? You are a pioneer!!

Not so much a pioneer. I mean, it's been done before I think? How many do you have?

Two men actually now, one grandson!!  GP’ing pretty great, he’s hitting terrible twos just now. Glad to visit!

Wow congrats. And like you I shot many photos of mine in childhood. 

Could be new book for you!

I had an exhibition of that work in 2016, and made a Magcloud zine. The project feels sort of closed, even though I still make new photos of them when I can. But two kids are out of the house now, so it’s different.

Sweet, how’s having all that space again? What are their ages?

I feel a chronic lack of space even with them gone. Photography can be a volume-intensive practice. I have SO many negatives, prints, books. My house is crowded, at least until my kids find permanent homes and we can convert their rooms. They’re 17, 20, and 22. 

You mentioned a whole ago some tension with your parents when you went off to boarding school. I'm assuming they eventually reconciled with your career path. Did it cause any arguments. Like, you're going to become a WHAT?

No, I never got any push back. I never did photography as a job. My dad was a general contractor. I grew up around and working job sites when I was older in the summers. My mom was an interior decorator. I always have done carpentry and construction work to make a living, and still do. Since we moved to Athens, we did a lot of architectural design / build. Some now too but for only a few clients. So my parents never were worried. And to be clear, I never had a real problem with either of them. They had problems between themselves.

Now I understand your photos of buildings in a slightly different light. I like them quite a bit, the way you fold structures visually to fit the frame.

Thank you! I decided about 10 years ago that the photography practice and the architecture practice was the same dialogue. And I relaxed about the fight between work and art. With the onset of the pandemic, photographing people didn’t feel right, nor particularly with the (lately) cultural awareness of inappropriate cultural appropriation. I turned my attention to more innate material, something within which I could find a process of discovery. A platform for discovery. Photographing people bears so much responsibility, I needed a material that had greater plasticity. 

I worked construction for a year out of college. Great job. I was just a gofer but I learned a ton!

Can be a good job, have to kinda enjoy the misery sometimes.

Well I was 23, young and energetic. Just point me toward a big pile of wood to stack or whatever and I was happy. No task is too miserable at that age, at least that was my experience.

I didn’t mind the work, and enjoyed the camaraderie. The crew always seemed to hold an alternative cultural option, which was refreshing.

You say "was". But you're still active in construction. You just did a concrete pour today, yes?

Yes, but I don’t have a day to day crew to hang with. We hire subs for specific things, and jobs don’t last forever. Some of the people we work with we have been working with for 30 years, and some are past employees, which we don’t have anymore. My daily dialogue is more of design and client collaboration, less communing with the crews, although that happens periodically.

Is working with concrete like photography at all? There's a patience factor while you wait for it to set up. And a perfection factor, and design, craft, etc. And once you shoot the photo you can't go back and alter it, same as a concrete pour. Sorry, I always bring everything back to photography

That’s funny! I will have to give it some thought. I am sure there are analogies. It is very satisfying as a job, when it's over.

What do you mean by “alternative culture option"?

Alternative as in counter-culture. Maybe not rebels per se, but people generally looking to find a path forward. Like myself, didn’t quite fit in to the ready answers re career options, who don’t always have the standard skillsets to follow a predetermined path, for whatever reasons. I am looking for a different dialogue these days, not so much unfocused counter-culture, fun as it was though.

It's funny you mention counter-culture as an alternative. I was raised in an environment where counter-culture was basically the dominant paradigm. There was no typical aspiration to lawyer/doctor/college/success, which (I think?) hangs over so much of today’s younger set looking forward. All ambitions were subverted. If you wore a tie you were suspect. Cops were suspect. New cars were suspect. Very few typical norms applied. It was great! When I wound up on a path with almost zero societal validation, I was well prepared, haha.

That’s fantastic! My upbringing was semi-counter-culture….I had no input from my folks about my plan forward. None- zero. My father-in-law however!

What was his input?

He was very supportive, but did question my aspirations of art as a career. It was not his bag. He was a corporate guy, and I completely understand his perspective. We didn’t have any problems about our diversions. He was cool in the end.

My folks were pretty similar. Not much direct guidance as far as college/career/life, etc. They put a lot of options in front of me, but never with any directives like "Do this". I think they had both experienced a more hands-on childhood, which kind of backfired. They both left the East Coast as soon as possible.

In the past our crews became families. In Brooklyn I worked with a crew for about 6 years, 5 days a week. That’s a hang!

Do you have something similar with photography, either in NY or in Athens now? Some community of likeminded souls you can meet and chat with, bounce ideas off?

Carl Martin (Fall Line Press, 2018)

My publisher at Fall Line Press and good friend Bill Boling and I have a good photo dialogue relationship. He has a great love of photo books and is an interesting photographer and artist in his own right. There is a nice little photo crowd in town here and Atlanta, but we don’t have big sit downs and discuss. The Humid here in Athens, Mark Steinmetz and Irina Rozovsky run it graciously, have fantastic guest lectures, organize group shows and events often. It’s sweet.

Do you ever shoot with other people?

No. I took a walk with Jason Fulford a couple of years ago, he took a few.

Oh yeah he lives in Atlanta or something? I don't really understand his photos. It might be informative to watch him shoot, to see what makes him stop, and how he approaches things. I think that gets at the nature of photography. It is a filtered process by nature, and the audience sees just the end result. And often the best photos work through ambiguity, by hiding information. So an experience like shooting together is a like an info immersion, where you can fill in some backstory. Maybe most photographers wouldn't welcome that? Who knows.

You may be right, I like your thinking. I may try to do that with a buddy. 

What do you think of Jason Fulford’s photos?

I think he's just going for the goofy, the unexpected object in the wrong place.

His pictures are goofy, yes. But I think that humor hides a more substantial subtext. That's the part that's mysterious to me. 

And I think he can intellectualize the result. There is a context within the books that can be bent around expectations also.

Speaking of goofy, tell me a little bit about Public Gesture.

Public Gesture has potential. I don’t think I got there with the body of work as a whole. A couple of images have a presence that is related to the power of the individual, that I still feel. I would find an interesting architectural site and wait for someone to step into it. I was going for a really abstract moment of site and person through an un-prescribed gesture. I wanted viewers to question the action and their momentary relation to the site. I was interested in getting people involved in the process, to create the moment. Some did a great enthusiastic job! I am not sure the results are wholly comprehensive, but there are a few good pictures.

from Public Gesture

What was your interaction?

I asked if they would create a movement or form that had no cultural reference. Like a recognizable wave or blowing a kiss, salute, etc.

No cultural reference? Dang, that's tough.

Maybe impossible, and there is the small but powerful black hole in the conceptual approach in this body of work! I did enjoy working with random people and I was always amazed that most said yes. Only a few turn downs.

This goes back to photos being a filtered view. They usually work best by excising information. I think the Public Gestures pictures change once you know what the directive was, and what they are trying to do. What about the other color portraits on your site, some of which are in your book. Did you give those subjects any directives?

Not really, I may have suggested to shift a bit, to find a slightly better context, angle or light. The earlier work was found, Public Gesture was created. Always the architecture plays a significant role. 

How so?

Architecture plays the role of scale and context. People can look large and looming, seemingly out of scale with the context. Rarely do they look more diminutive. The message is looming large in a small world. Athens and the surrounding communities are tiny places. I like the grass sidewalks, and the telephone poles erupting in the right of way.

Well you're encouraging that view by using a wide angle lens from close range, and centering.

Yes, the centering of subjects was an early camera limitation. It only focused in the center of the image and at a distance that includes most of the body. I do love wide angle!! When I got the better camera, a 6x6 that could actually focus, I outgrew the habit of centering.

from Men Of Georgia

Did you ever think of making the whole book portraits? Or was it always a plan to mix the subject matter?

I didn’t have a plan. I needed help! I was stuck, weighed down by the complexity and immensity of the edit, and the responsibility toward the people. There are very specific bodies of work that were all reordered and amalgamated for the book. When we were editing and working on the book we did consider three smaller books of specific groups. That seemed possibly cleaner but a longer shot to all of us. So we opted for the mix.

You'd already done 4 smaller books with Fall Line by this point I think?

The Free Fall. Those were fun. One came out every quarter year, so work had to be made on time. I was making new work for each issue.  I love a deadline. Free Fall was soft magazine format, not fine printing.

When you mentioned people looking large and looming out of scale a moment ago, I immediately thought of Arbus' Jewish Giant. I'm assuming you know the photo? What do you think of it?

Fantastic! Her giant was really a giant. And her midgets were really small people.  My subjects were not odd sized.

Arbus is on my mind because I was trying to write about Untitled recently. What do you think of that book? I can't quite decide what I think. I probably just need to let go and not worry about all the cultural baggage. 

Untitled is a pinnacle of subject matter for Diane. She sought oddity as a subject, always the humanity within that subject and how close we are all alike. The subjects of Untitled are the extreme. I speculate and read the bodies of her work that in the end it may have been too much for her. I think it was her last significant group of photos, is that correct ?

Yes, it was unfinished when she died.

I think it was finished! Acknowledged or not, that’s what we get. Like Turner’s later paintings, nothing but air and light. The prevailing thought is that they were unfinished, but I think they were!! He may not have known it.

Well you never know when the end will come. But Diane Arbus might be an exception.

Yes, she decided when it would end. I cannot help but link her last body of work with her death, but that may just be a convenient romantic notion to grab.

The way you described Untitled seems exploitative. She chose those people because they were "oddities"? That doesn't sound very caring. But perhaps it's ok if we accept that all portraiture involves a similar power dynamic?

Perhaps she was being exploitive in today’s grasp of it. I don’t think she thought she was at the time. I felt, and still feel, that the work is very empathetic and humane, and also very graphically revealing the subjects in all their humanness. She was a remarkable artist whose contributions shattered a lot of barriers. Photography as art, women artist, etc.

Diane Arbus, from Untitled

You've shot a lot of portraits. Do you think there's always an inherent power imbalance? The old myth about photographers stealing souls, or something similar? I mean Arbus might be the extreme example. She was ALWAYS in complete control of her subjects. But I think it might apply more broadly to all portraiture? Just a pet theory from someone who doesn't shoot many portraits. Although I have shot a lot of street photos of strangers in passing, and I think the same dynamic applies.

I don’t really think of making pictures of people as a power dynamic relationship. We, photographer and person being photographed, both contribute to the something being made. If anything I generally feel in service to the people I have found interesting and am working with. That may be why I have shifted to architecture as a working material. I can use it more freely. It’s not important how it is represented. I don’t think I am taking something from anyone. I think a street picture of people who are unaware of their picture being taken is another thing. But I also feel that the artist’s intent is the driver of “taking” or  “making” Your work seems to me to be about “making”. It reminded me today of William Klein’s work, the book that David Campany just did of his retrospective at ICP had a similar conversation that your work has.

Thanks, I'm happy to be compared to Klein, haha. The whole taking vs making thing just feels like semantic games to me. It's just words.

No, it’s everything I think.

OK, can you explain?

Good question!! I think it’s as simple as it sounds. What’s your attitude about making work? What are you after? What’s important about an image?

Taking, making, meh, whatever. For me photographs are about translating the visual world into a 2D frame which holds interest. I guess that's taking?


Why translate the world? Why make photos? Those are hard questions.

What are you trying to do with your photos? Or rather what are you trying to do in them?

Basic curiosity. I hate to revert to cliches but I think Winogrand said it best, "I take photographs to see what the world looks like photographed." 

Ok, cool. You are not interested in exploiting people within your frame. They are simply figures in a picture. It’s not about them, it’s about the picture. You are “making” work of the world. You are not taking the world.

Or you could look at it the opposite way. I'm using humans as passive elements for my own devious means. It’s taking. I try not to "take" photos which cast unwitting people in a deliberately unflattering way. But yes, what you said above is correct. I'm primarily interested in the photo, not the person in the photo. I think that might be true of most photographers? Open question.

Why devious? You are an artist that is making work, it’s not about them. I am making pictures that can redefine what photography is. Laughable but true!

I was just being cute. I should use another word besides devious. 

Words are dangerous, choose them well!

Secretive? Conniving? Manipulative?

No, none of those. You are not that. You are interested in making good pictures.

What do you mean your photos will "redefine what photography is"? 

I don’t know that I know. I think there is an extraordinary untapped potential within the photographic tool and material. I am looking. All photographers are different, all bring different ideologies and agendas to their work. Some photographers are manipulative, some are not. All the gamuts, all the kinds are out there.

True. I tend to push my own ideas onto the world, so when I think about other photographers I tend to assume they care most about images, and that the world comes second, and that they will frame or use or position that world in whatever way best suits their needs. That’s the inherent power dynamic I hinted at above. Photography objectifies by nature. Maybe you could call that taking? Or making? I don't know. Mine is admittedly a male view and a white privileged view. So there’s that too.

from Systems Of Organization

Yes, I see that as a right as an artist to make of your material as you need it to be. Not an inherent power grab. I cannot help that I am also a white male artist, but that doesn’t define what I am interested in doing, what gets me going in the morning. I have work to do. I don’t let my cultural identity keep me from my work. I don’t have the time. As an older artist, time is short.

Do you feel the clock ticking? Is that a presence in your artistic consciousness? I think Arbus felt it too maybe?

Not driving the process yet, but I can see it coming. I hopefully have another 20 years of productive time? My partner Carol John, a fantastic painter, is organizing her archive. Hers is extensive and the kids will not do it, or rather we don’t want to leave it to them to do. So we are both very conscious of what needs to happen as we wind down. She is acting on it.

Oh shit, painters have it rough. Everything takes up so much spaaaaace. Does she paint big or small? A photographer’s entire archive can fit on a thumb drive. NOT true for painters. But you know what the hardest art form to archive is? Concrete foundations, haha.

Concrete foundation forms are self archiving, yeah it’s all readable. Like a Rachel Whiteread, I love her work!! All the info is there.

You can get a lot done in 20 years. What’s next?

I hope so! I am still interested in a few more architecture pictures, I need to head down to Montgomery. It’s the beginning of a fall line that runs through Columbus, Macon, & Augusta. I find some great material along that regional line.

What's a fall line? 

A fall line is where the rivers from the mountains to the sea become unnavigable. There are elevation changes that signify the shift from coastal plain to the Piedmont.

That's my new fact of the day.

People coming up river would have to take the boats out of the water and traverse the land around the shoals or falls. It became a point of natural commercial activity. Goods were brought down from upland to be boated or barged downstream to market. The river is meaningless commercially now, but the towns had some heft, and still do in whatever ways they have reinvented themselves. The eastern fall line runs from Montgomery all the way to Maine.

So the towns shift in character as you move past the fall line?

The purpose of the town shifts because of its function. And the density of the town shifts. Fall line towns are still some of the biggest in the state.

Where is Athens in relation to the fall line?

We are in the upland a bit, in the Piedmont. The closest fall line is in Milledgeville.

Interesting. Yeah, that could make for a cool photo project. Just following that line, tracing human relics along the way.

I don’t know that I want that to be an academic approach to the work; but it’s tempting just because it’s also fascinating. Great stories sell books!

We skipped over Carol. What's her plan for all of her paintings?

painting by Carol John

She knows that if she doesn’t organize her work, it may disappear when she does. We both want it to be easy for someone to pick up a couple of folders and a hard drive to get a clear picture. If it still disappears it won’t be because we didn’t do our job. She just got included in New American Paintings, which is great! I’ll email you some for her work, her IG is @caroljohnstudio. She paints every day.


But that's just the thing. A couple of folders and a hard drive can't really capture physical paintings. I just looked up her website. Her photos kinda make my eyes hurt, in a good way like an optical illusion. Maybe it's my brain that hurts?

Some do, she wants to animate the canvas! She been on a really productive fun tear lately, making new dialogues and pushing it. I am very proud of her.

Does she want to make paintings or take them? 

She can only make. Tell me about your work since leaving Portland?

Work? More like play. Not much to it. I’ve been shooting/thinking/writing photos constantly for 25 years, before during after Portland. We touched earlier on art/commerce, etc. I’m in the far non-commerce camp. My photos are completely unmarketable and that’s fine. I've never shot any picture for money. No art school. I’m skeptical of that world. I do it just because it’s in me. I’m completely obsessed, photography photography photography.

Do you know Thomas Tullis in Atlanta? He has some similar strategies. He is always making photographs. 

I'll look him up.

I enjoyed your work in the Portland Elegy, Blake. Very free and constructed at the same time. Very well seen. Is that a 6/7?

The camera? No it's small format. Probably shot with a Konica or Nikon. I had a few cameras back then. I like the photos in Portland Elegy but the printing wasn't so good. I am partial to darkroom prints. It's hard to find a reproduction that can match it. 

Very hard to get good quality press printing, I need to know more. I would love to intern at a press to learn the language.

You mentioned "inappropriate cultural appropriation" a while back? Is that how you'd describe your portraiture?

Hopefully not a description of my portraiture! I mean that users will use if you let them, and the cultural shift that radiated out from the me-too movement brought an awareness of some other cultural abuses.  Hopefully in my portraits from the 1990s my intent is readable. I was interested in representing a largely ignored, at least in media at the time, part of our culture and community. I wanted these people to be seen.

The interpretation of your portraits probably depends on who's looking and when. I guess my question was a response to your description, which made it sound like you were backing off because of some perceived appropriation dynamic? I don't know. I'm bad at reading those cues and sometimes the political angles surprises me. But I think it's fair to say that photos of buildings are less charged with identity politics than portraiture. 

from Towards Salvage

I do think there are a lot of artist whose work is identity politics, and some are very good at it, RaMell Ross & Deana Lawson to name two. I don’t feel as if the need to represent the Black cultural here in Athens, GA, or the white, Latino Asian etc is as pressing as it once was either. I feel good about moving on, and I also feel good about taking up portraits again in the future too. I look forward to the right perspective to bring something back to the dialogue. 

I shoot a lot of buildings, and they are not always as innocent as you might think. There's often a creepiness/spying factor—maybe it’s maybe just in my head?—of me wandering around strange neighborhoods shooting yards and cars and possessions. I think some might view that activity with suspicion, understandably. I've been called out on occasion. I can defuse most situations. But sometimes it makes me wonder, why am I shooting this person's house?

You’ll note I work with a lot of small vacant commercial structures. No one is around. I don’t work with many houses, but some, and yes, it can feel bad, and sometimes dangerous.

Commercial properties are maybe easier. Less privatized? Shooting someone's home feels more like digging through their sock drawer or something.

Yes, encroachment, weird vibes. I feel the same way though photographing commercial structures. Has to be vacant, or at least after hours.

Can you switch back to portraiture pretty seamlessly? Or is it a more fundamental shift? Do you need to be in a certain mood to approach people vs buildings? 


I find myself within specific bodies of work, and haven’t been able to jump around. I am going to finish this and then I’ll figure out the next one. The funny thing I have found is that changing cameras or material or subject is just a mind trick. All the work is really the same thing. We are the same artist before and after, and are probably trying to do the same thing as before. 

As a photograph, these may not be the right words to describe what I am after, but if I am lucky, there is possibly a perspective where the structure looks maybe pulled apart and re-assembled. A conversation occurs between the building, the camera, the perspective and the print, it seems whole but the picture has a new odd sculptural presence and dynamic that I find really interesting. It takes a little time to find that conversation.  As a clue, I am a big fan of both Noguchi and Rachel Whiteread, for similar yet different reasons. Noguchi sculpted conversations: his work was about the proportional dialogues between surfaces, man-made and natural, rough / smooth & the intersections of mass and compressed space. Rachel's work is about compressed space, but reversed from Noguchi in that she turned negative space into an illogical massive positive sculpture. Both create pieces which have a presence that can be, for me, incredibly claustrophobic, full of tension and balance, at peace yet challenging all of our assumptions. I am physically affected by their work; I get the queasy gotta look / can't look sensation. That's a little nutty. 

Do you ever shoot the buildings that you design/build? 

No! Not interesting enough. I wish I could design as freely as I find. I want to build a little building shed / small shop and keep thinking I can have my way with it. Hopefully I can push it.

The easy solution to all of this would be to just gain permission first. Ask to shoot someone's house, or to enter it. Or ask for a portrait or whatever. But for me there is some element in non-asking which is fundamental to my process. It's the risk of being questioned, or confrontation maybe which adds just the right degree of uncertainty. If everything is too nailed down and planned, it's hard for me to make a good photo. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but for my process it is. I require an element of chance.

Run with it!

Or, depending on who's asking and with what weapon, run away. The most important photo equipment is a good comfortable pair of running shoes.

That’s funny! I have been enjoying the tripod work / process I have been doing, really trying to see how to bring these images to life. I have never done much of that prior, more always on the go. This work I am doing now, I’ll go back and retake when I can see if I have a problem, a dead image. I can give it another go. Maybe an asset of my age.

Which work is shot with a tripod?

framed print by Carl Martin

All the buildings. I have printed it 36” x 47”, fantastic scale and detail.

Hmm interesting. The portraits, no tripod?

Never a tripod with portraits.

Can you find the tripod spot quickly? Or do you find yourself moving here and there testing locations first?

Takes time, I have a digital camera, so I take many many pictures of the situation. Only one wins. Kinda cheating. And a ladder. I use a ladder.