Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Q & A with Michael Northrup

After I mentioned Michael Northrup in an earlier post, he was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email. Northrup has been a practicing photographer for over 30 years. Beautiful Ecstasy is a collection his photographs published in 2003. His work can be seen online here (recent work) and here (earlier work).

BA: Why did you choose to sell the earlier work as stock photographs? This is a different path than many fine art photographers choose and I'm just wondering the advantages and disadvantages of it, compared to say marketing the work as fine art prints. Are you successful selling it as stock work? Do you feel it changes the work at all by stripping it of any context?

MN: As I went commercial in 1990 I found a whole new "appreciative" audience. I was in a bunch of group shows in University and small private galleries while teaching but nothing really came of it, even though you could say I had a somewhat successful exhibition record. I would send my work out and a month later get it back. I'd write it on my resume. The end. Going commercial I loved the fact that I actually got paid to do artwork, it would be seen by thousands and it was published. It was refreshing to be seen by designers who didn't care about a resume but who put all the weight on the work and not some track record. Things happened much faster in the design field than the art arena. I found showing to be very sleepy, rarely a sale. A catalog isn't really "publishing". Very few people see the work. And galleries schedule their shows at a numbingly slow rate. As I would interview at design firms for photo jobs I found they loved the challenging art work much more than the slick commercial work. Sometimes a job would use my existing work and so I decided to make everything available on a stock site. That site also serves as an idea springboard for designers looking for solutions. And if they couldn't actually use that specific image, often I could do something similar that hooked into the problem. So the Strobophoto site served both art and commerce. I mean it's not about the frame or the matt board, or your resume, or a slick presentation or putting some snappy titles to the work. IT'S JUST ABOUT THE FRICKIN IMAGE!!! and I can't drive that point enough. I really don't sell off that site but it brings people to the work and sometimes ends in a sale once I'm contacted. As for context, they're created in a way that shows things already out of context.

I'm curious if your "snapshot" aesthetic, for lack of a better word, has made it hard for your work to gain acceptance in the fine art photo community, and if so does that bear on your decision to market your work as stock. Sort of a thumb in the nose to the fine art world? Or maybe I have it all wrong and galleries have welcomed your work?

Well I must admit I do have a big thumb in the "eye" of those fine art types and your question was perceptive. Yes, I'm somewhat shunned. But when they do bite, they bite hard. I found this out when after 15 years of commercial work I took my most personal images to 2 fine art portfolio review organizations 2005 and 2006, Photolucida in Portland and Fotofest in Houston. I was (negatively) blown away by most of the work I saw. It was a lot of travel and landscape as I'd seen a thousand times before. Much of the work was of things with no real point. Then there was other work that relied so heavily on some concept that the images were inconsequential. Then there was work that was so self conscious and geared toward "showing in a gallery" that it had a kind of gallery slickness that was more about show than substance. Then there were those who put EVERYTHING in their work on being big. Instead of traveling light to these reviews, some were bringing these gigantic images that needed to be laid out on the floor. WTF!! Showing my work at these things either got hugs near tears of enjoyment and praise but more often I got a blank stare.

I think one of the things that reduces my audience is that my work is not wrapped in a nice neat package. If you want to look at it as a series, it's an ongoing, never ending, 30 year running series that's more narrative and autobiographical than anything. It's about those quirky moments in my everyday life that somehow, once photographed, makes a lasting image that is somehow compelling. When I make a photograph it's more about "seeing" than "thinking".

I'm glad you see the structure in my images instead of just the objects. For me structure is key even if it looks loose. At the risk of sounding like I'm name dropping I've got to share with you those people I had a chance to spend some intimate study time with back in the early 70's so you might see the underlying influences in my work. My last term in undergrad at Ohio University I traveled to California to study with Jack Welpott and Judy Dater living with them for 3 months. Through them I was introduced to Frederick Sommer and spent a couple weeks with him in Prescott, Ariz. Then a year later I worked in Boston for a few months and wrote Minor White that I would like to meet him. At our first meeting he asked if I'd like to join his private study group at his house in Arlington. I was greatly influenced by these people and figured a way to spin all that in my own aesthetic.

Which other photographers have been important to you?

I'm all over the place with that question. Like Nirvana, I didn't like Walker Evans until several years after seeing his work in Photo History. I can't get into the Starn Twins or Cindy Sherman at all. Barbara Kruger was pretty heavy and an interesting bridge between fine art photo and graphic design. Joel Peter Witkin's work is beautiful. Frederick Sommer had a huge brain. Weston was important. Diane Arbus go to me. I love the spirit in Les Krims work. Then there was a burst of people using the "on camera flash" aesthetically during the late 70's early 80's. that influenced me. I've shot with flash loving its affect for years and years. These days I can't get a handle on any one person there's so many photographers out there. As a NY designer once told me, "I could throw a nickel out the window and hit 5 photographers with it".

I find it interesting that many of the photographers you refer to as influences and reference points have done work that on its face is very unlike yours. Weston, Minor White, Welpott, Sommer, etc. these were folks using a tripod with large format b/w focusing on formal previsualized images, seemingly the opposite of your spontaneous wide-angle handheld flash style.

Around 1970 when most everyone were using 35mm I was working with the view camera. And at some point during that time I was mimicking White, Welpott, and Sommer. I think I pulled all those influences forward and kind of streamlined them. I dropped the view camera for an easier, quicker medium format camera. And I gave up natural light for the flash. Then other contemporaries started influencing me. But without some degree of those formal elements that Weston and others dealt with, for me, my images would be lacking. Also the wide angle lens was not used for effect but because it more closely matched my peripheral vision.

Perhaps the thread that connects your work to theirs is that all of you are primarily interested in exploring the nature of photography itself rather than using photography as a blunt instrument to promote external ideas.

Man you hit the nail on the head here. Conceptual work and especially conceptual work that is done in "series" is the hot ticket and the anti christ of my work. I don't work in series and I rarely work with preconcepts. Creating work for a show as a series is kind of like mass producing one idea. For me my focus is one picture at a time. It's always about "the photograph". For me ideas are secondary to the image itself.

Whereas Winogrand photographed to see what things would look like photographed, you seem to be taking that a step further, asking "What would it look like if I flashed it at wide angle [threw something in front of it] and photographed it?" That is, you're more actively creating a disturbance in your subject matter. I'm thinking of the shot of traffic cones in snow, and the painting on the wall with reflected glare. These are great photos and I'm wondering what caused you to take them since it must've been difficult to know how they would turn out.

There's a little Winogrand in me and I'm always photographing to see what things look like photographed. Mark Cohen was an early influence, as was Les Krims as was Edward Weston and Minor White. Very early I thought I would like to find a place in my work that brought Les Krims and Edward Weston together (kind of being an informal formalist?) I think most photographers, after 30 years at it, have a pretty good idea how things will photograph. As for those orange barrels in the snow, I knew exactly how that would come out. Now with digital, I can see exactly how an image is "coming out" right then.
And I've got to note that I absolutely embraced the digital camera. I can't stand the photo process anymore after being completely submersed in it for 20 years. I like working in a lighted room, in a nice big open room, no fumes, no more chemical poisoning through the skin, no more loading a reel.... such a waste of time for a beginning student to learn all that crap. IT'S ABOUT THE FRICKIN IMAGE! and for the life of me I can't see how loading a tank and adjusting enlargers, easels, etc. help with making a meaningful image.

Within the snapshot aesthetic, there is a pretty fine line between shots which work and ones which don't. The photo depends on coordinated forms, and a misplaced arm or eyeball looking the wrong way can ruin the entire thing. When a photo does work, it seems not just miraculous but almost willed into being by some hidden universal order. I'm talking about the photos you see on the contact sheet and just go, "Holy Crap! How did those things line up! That's beyond chance!" What do you think makes these shots happen? Is the photographer tapping into some higher order, or is it just pure chance, or what? Does a belief in god help? Not help?

It's magic. I've tried to reshoot some things feeling I'm close to getting it right. But I can never seem to get whatever was making that first image work. It's luck and a lot of just looking for this stuff. Case in point this photo

I carried a 3 ft match around with me in the car and waited for something to work it into. I came on this kid raking and burning leaves. I threw that match up maybe 2 or 3 times. But the way it aligned with his rake, the zig zag of the flames, the match head at the start/top of the fire, and the way it looks like his pants are burning... all that just came together in one of 3 shots. It was effortless as it is with most of my shots that work. I've got to admit this happens frequently enough that I think I'm just "plugged into" something. Maybe I'm just finally plugging into "me". That's why almost all my personal work is from my daily life. It's like when something happens that's greater than fiction, and someone says, "you can't make this stuff up". That's kind of how I see my daily life, greater than fiction.

Your more recent work, on the second site you showed me, seems less snapshotty. The lighting is generally more even, the framing more careful, less concerned with the moment. Would you agree with that assessment? Is there something in the work now that you felt was missing in the snapshot style, that caused you to plan things out more in your recent work?

That's very perceptive. Yes the light is getting more even and there's more concern with composition. I never really aligned entirely to the "snapshot" aesthetic but that's where most of the magic lies. I always had this underlying concern for compostion that I'm sure was influenced by Welpott, Sommer, and White. To me the image is held up by its structure. Also composition helps to piece together the story.

You tend to cut off a lot of heads and also show many people in masks. Is that just toying with photographic possibilities or is it more of an intentional reference to photo and art history, to Meatyard, EJ Bellocq, Peter-Witkin, etc? I guess what I'm asking is, is there some archetypal image of headlessness that, perhaps unconsciously, drives you to take those sorts of photos? Playing with the nature of identity and disguise? Or are they just fun snapshots? Or both?

The cutting off of the heads came from being more interested in body gesture in the environment than being portrait. When you take the person out of it bodies and gesture become more narrative. And it pulls a little context out of things. Also eyes tell too much. The mask thing is more coincidental than anything. But I do like obscuring things. I love the flatness of the photo.

What were the circumstances of getting Beautiful Ecstasy published? Did J & L approach you or vice versa?

Here is where I was blessed. One of my best friends in this life is Paul Sahre, a great graphic designer with a great reputation, especially in book design. Paul and I met in Baltimore during the 5 or so years he lived here in the 90''s. We formed a great friendship that followed him when he moved to NYC around 1998. So Paul, who had been interested in my earlier lightpainting work, was by the later 90's getting me to re-examine my earlier work. He thought there was a lot more soul and a lot more of me in that work. And as I began to show that older black and white and color work around to more designers the reaction was fantastic. That experience got me back on track and is the way I continue to shoot.

So around 2000 Paul met and did some work with Jason Fulford, another photographer, who had just finished his first book and had been traveling trying to get it into bookstores, museums, and distributors. In so doing he made some valuable contacts. So he decided to publish more photographers whose aesthetic had a certain quality that he identified with. Finally Paul got Jason to take a look at my work and the next thing I knew they were down here going through boxes of images. They showed me the ones they were interested in taking and in a few weeks I had a dummy book sent to me. Paul and Jason did everything. The deal was I pay for the printing and Jason does everything else, including flying to Korea for a press check. Paul's idea was not to do a monograph. He was more interested in it being, poetic, open ended and it was "about the book as much as the work" so you could look at this as a collaboration. Paul wanted it to just be images, no words..... the words are in the images. He also did something that shocks the fine art types. He ran the gutter down the middle of each image. And although that's kind of destructive to the image, since it was done on every image, it became a design element and it played with the fact that I almost always center the main subject.

I like the photos of Pam. Will these be published as a book at some point? How much of an active participant was she in the photos? I mean, did she come up with poses and props on her own or did you prompt her, or both?

I pray The Pam Book happens. She was a great participant, very responsive, and would come up with stuff. Mostly I would initiate the shot. But after 9 years of marriage I wore her out with it. As for the kids it greatly depends on their age. The more self conscious they are the fewer shots you'll get. Early teens is usually tough.

Did your shooting ever interfere with your relationship with your family? Were you ever so intent on getting a certain shot that you were less mentally present as a husband or father?

I've never forgotten a story about, I think, Dorthea Lange. There was an event she always regretted. When her daughter was about 5 they were having a picnic and her daughter was running around picking flowers. When she returned with a boquet and started to hand it to her mom, Dorthea leaned back and away and put her camera between her and daughter and snapped the picture. She always regretted not having reached out to receive her daughters gift. I don't remember my shooting my family had any negative effect at any time or at least it was so rare I can't think of a moment. More often it would do more to get my daughter and me together. She loved having her picture taken. I think in the long run though, over the years, it wore my wife out. By our 9th year of marriage she was completely uninterested in posing anymore. But in recent conversations with her she said that my photographing made her feel important and was flattery.

You made a mention of shooting all digital. What are your general reactions to the digital age? Is there anything about film that is lacking with the switch to digital? How do you store/sort all your film archives?

In the late 90's I was so tired of the photo process that I was barely shooting. When digital came out I embraced it and it got me going again. I was now processing images in a 25 foot wide room with 15ft ceilings and beautiful light cascading in..... instead of a dank little compromised room in the basement, or under some narrow stair well, or inside some tiny closet, the only space you can find to make light safe. The only thing I miss about film is the lattitude, the range of values. Digital still can't match it, especially in the whites. But as for control, digital is supreme. Commercially it was a godsend. Clients could see the work as it's being shot and walk away with a little disk full of hours of work. And for their clients to view I can take the disc to my studio and post it on the internet in a matter of minutes so that anyone in the world on the internet can see it.

As for my archive it's deteriorating rapidly, especially the color work done in the first years that the process was simplified and stable and made readily available to the public, 1980. There was grit in a lot of the water in some of the places I lived over the years and it scarred many negatives. The scans allowed me to save some good images that would have been impossible to repair via the darkroom. Around 2002 I bought a good high end scanner to save my archive. It took 2 years scanning at least 5 days a week for 6 to 8 hrs a day. I selected any image that could possibly be bought by anyone. I made a raw scan and a tiff cleaned and balanced for output that was as big as I could get it, around 36"X29"@360dpi. I've made 2 copies of all the scans and have them stored at 2 different locations. I store on drives with everything backed up on disc.

I'm curious how the ability with digital to see images right after you shoot them has impacted your editing process? Many photographers (me among them) find it helpful to separate shooting and editing by waiting a week or longer between shooting and looking at photos, so that the memory of the shoot doesn't prejudice the interpretation of the photos. Is that at all an issue for you?

I use the viewing screen on the digital camera for immediate viewing primarily to check exposures or motion. I don't review them on the back of the camera to decide if it was worth taking. I do that later on the computer when there's more to see and more time to consider. I'm not sure about that week delay in seeing the image as helping much, although distancing one's self from the act of making the picture does give a little more objectivity in decision making. In fact I think if you have to wait a week to see your work that you're loosing valuable time. One of the things I hated about the process was waiting for the contact sheet. And that 1" image is a pretty crappy format to use for editing. I once asked Fred Sommer if he ever gets real excited when composing an image. He responded, "If I do I immediately have a martini."


Anonymous said...

wow! freaking great interview! read it once, reading it again. thanks blake! this is really fresh blogging. - dp

Anonymous said...

Great interview Blake.
Have ordered the book.
Looking forward to checking out more of Mr Northrup.