Thursday, March 5, 2009

Q & A with Jeff Ladd

Jeff Ladd lives in New York City, where he is an active photographer as well as the author of 5b4 and a co-founder of Errata Editions. His photos can be found online here, here, and here.

B: Can you briefly trace your photographic path? When did you first become interested in it? Was there any special teacher or photographer who grabbed you initially?

JL: My "path" in the medium was really stumbled upon. When I graduated from high school I had no real direction other than I was good at skateboarding. I was a bad student and the idea of college wasn't really on my mind. A girlfriend of mine was attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City and she was the real motivating factor in my applying to that school. I had an "interest" in photography but not one strong enough to commit to a four year, and somewhat costly, education. My parents supported my decision but also sensed that I just wanted to be with my girlfriend in NYC and school was a convenient excuse. They were absolutely right.

New York City, 2000, Jeff Ladd

Once in school though I quickly became very dedicated while studying with Lois Conner, Joseph Lawton and Thomas Roma. Sid Kaplan, Robert Frank's printer, was my printing instructor and he instilled a love of darkroom work in me. Books were the other motivating factor. I discovered photobooks in the school library and it changed my entire outlook on the medium as to the possibilities.

B: Reading 5b4 and other examples of your writing, it's hard to imagine you were a bad student with no direction. At the very least you must've had a love of reading or a sense that you wanted to head in a literary direction?

JL: Truthfully I barely graduated from high school. I know it sounds implausible but the first book I remember reading seriously and enjoying was Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and that was around 1987. I am not kidding, I'm a total late bloomer. I hadn't written a word until about 5 years ago.

I owe my extreme shift towards acquiring knowledge to one person, Lee Ellickson. He is a film-maker I met around 1992 just by chance. He needed someone to print some photos to be used as props in a film and a mutual friend put us in touch. He was supposed to pick up the photos at my apartment in Manhattan at 8pm and he arrived at 11:30pm. I barely remember asking him what his film was about and we wound up talking till around 4:00am. He seemed to know everything about everything I was becoming interested in; film, literature, theater, music, art, everything cultural. There was very little that I could sense that Lee didn't have a strong knowledge of. After knowing him for a while I got tired of not understanding 90% of what he was referencing in conversation so I got to work finding out what he was talking about. He introduced me to a much bigger world and it's been 16 years discovery. He lives in Uganda now and started the first film festival there Amakula Kampala International Film Festival.

Lee Elickson, 1995, Jeff Ladd

B: What is your process for making personal work?

JL: The process itself is almost mechanical. I photograph, develop the film, edit and make 8x10 work prints. Interesting images get hung up for a few weeks in my studio with magnets on a metal wall. Those that I like after living with them I enlarge to 16X20 which is my standard print size. Since I am a printer, technically proficient and can now work very quickly, it all is rather painless for me to have stacks of prints. I develop film and print at least once a week. I need to see what is happening.

I don't really consider anything I do as cut and dry projects which makes it hard for me to present anything to the world in a timely manner. I get interested and explore for a while on one thing but at the same time I am making other pictures. At the time I was shooting a lot in the subways I was also photographing non-peopled landscapes with a panoramic camera in Jersey City and Brooklyn.

Howard Beach, Brooklyn, 1991, Jeff Ladd

B: Do you always have a camera with you or do you set aside dedicated blocks of time to shoot?

JL: I have created a schedule which allows a lot of free time. I've mostly made my living as a printmaker for other artists, working two or three days a week at most so that allowed me to have more time to photograph and I can say that I have taken advantage of that time. I enjoy coming home exhausted with several rolls in my pocket. Whether the pictures are good or not, I know I am doing something. Photography is a physical act and it requires a lot of time. I don't know of any photographers who balance a full time job and their own work. When you are interested in trying to grab at fleeting moments, obviously the more time you spend increases your chances a bit.

The kind of work I do, which is simply just putting myself in the way of life - street photography for lack of a better term - seemed interesting to me from the start but it is not the kind of photos I made early on, I was timid and afraid to take pictures of strangers when I most wanted to.

I remember I was in class with Thomas Roma and he was the one that made me realize that this was a big problem. He was critiquing some portraits of old people I made in the street with a 6X9 camera and he bluntly asked me if those photos were interesting enough to make me leave my naked girlfriend in bed in order to go out and make them. They weren't - to a 19 or 20 year old male not much was - but I got his point. That's when I started photographing in nightclubs and looking at my own lust and that of others. That's the time my pictures became more about my interest and ultimately about me. Things became very interesting after that.

B: Part of the street photographer's outlook is that good photos can happen anywhere. Have you found that to be true in your own work?

JL: Good photos can happen anywhere but I wouldn't want to have to depend on a place like Medford, NJ where my parents live to provide day after day. They may happen there but life is short and I don't have the patience of a saint. What I love about New York is that the refresh rate is very high. The same street corner with every light change has potential and a photographer can blend into the crowd.

Backi Jarak, Serbia, 2001, Jeff Ladd

B: So you think certain subjects or scenes are intrinsically more interesting photographically? Or is the visual universe a pure democracy of equal photographic opportunity?

JL: That depends on who is making the photos. For me, I like a lot of work that is totally opposite from mine but I know that I am more apt to be impressed if someone has dealt with, say, a crowd of people without it being controlled and they have done it well. I know that it is hard enough to photograph a tree let alone a constantly changing group of people who are acting of their own will. Photography is a three-way collaboration between an artist, the medium and the world. When those three align in any picture it's a near miracle.

I like William Eggleston for that very reason of, as you say, "democracy of equal photographic opportunity" because he seems to be able to make pictures anywhere and they mostly have a strong consistency. He's the only photographer I know who can do that. I can't. I try to make photos everywhere but I rarely print any of them.

B: I'm drawn to the phrase "near miracle" in reference to photography. Are you religious? As a street photographer, what is your understanding of unexplained coincidences?

JL: No, although I did have a Catholic wedding in Mexico on the part of my wife's family.

New York City, 1997, Jeff Ladd

The inherent nature of photography is to still information so it can be stared at. When you can stare at things and draw new relationships those "unexplained coincidences" can seem to derive from a grander sense of order bordering on the mystical. It is just the chaos of life. That is what I am interested in. Creating a new sense of order from that chaos. What the "real" world can offer is far more interesting than what I can think up and create on my own. That is what compels me to keep making photos and not trying to construct them from scratch.

B: You're saying that there is no "grander sense of order"? I'm not sure I agree. I think that behind the surface flux there IS a strange order. I wouldn't call it mystical but my deepest instinct is that it is not simply created by us photographers casting frames around things. It is there for us to find and that search is what drives my photography. When you capture a scene perfectly don't you have an inkling that you're tapping into some broader order? You raise your camera to your eye just as a person walks perfectly into the composition. That may be chance but don't you feel there's something more to it? Otherwise, why photograph?

JL: It's an interesting thought but I don't feel I am tapping into anything like that when photographing. I guess if I were to venture into that conversation I'd say that higher mathematics are the ultimate order, language of god, etc. but I think I am free to move therefore if everyone is free to move when they decide then chaos is the result. I think in the case of photography there can be a lot read into photos when, as I mentioned before, the nature of the medium is "stilling time." I think the world is full of lyrical but unordered connections which are happening whether a camera is present or not. Many however are made entirely by the camera and that is what fascinates me.

I will admit that sometimes I do feel one beat behind the world. Meaning that I will sense that something interesting is about to happen and I won't be able to get to where I think i need to be standing in time. Or a car passes just as I want to make a photo and obscures everything. You wish a person would linger for one more second and they don't. Other times I feel completely in tune with what is going on. I think though that has to do with when I achieve a lack of self-awareness and can concentrate better and just plainly observe and work.

B: So what are you looking for when you're out shooting?

JL: I really don't look for anything. I can't predict what is going to be out there so it is actually pointless, limiting actually, for me to go looking for specifics. I learned early on through Lois Conner and Tom Roma to trust instincts and respond accordingly. I am much more interested in the slight dip of a shoulder than anything dramatic like a fistfight. It is a bit of a cliche, especially in this day and age of many graduate schools, but I really try to discover something while I am photographing. I wouldn't be able to continue photographing if I knew the results were going to be the same.

B: I realize you can't know what you will photograph before you find it. But surely some scenes seem more promising photographically than others. To take your example, the slight dip of a shoulder might be something that catches your eye. I guess what I am trying to ask is, can your visual taste be generalized somehow? For example, what made you stop and photograph this scene?

San Cristobal, Mexico, 2006, Jeff Ladd

JL: This was in San Cristobal in Chiapas. It was a great corner with an elevated sidewalk and a nice phone pole. The light was nice and down the street was a market so many people would walk in the same direction. I liked the corner a lot and the church wall in the background. I hoped at some point it would be "peopled" interestingly. I am often drawn to a place and work it until something happens. Most of the time nothing does. It's like a great stage with nothing going on.

For instance, on the corner of 38th street and 7th avenue in Manhattan, at the right time of day, the sun reflects off a building further uptown and produces this great reflected light that hits people on what would be the shadowed side. It's a wonderful spot with a double light source. I photographed there for months. I made one good vertical photo there of a guy holding a newspaper in both hands. That's a spot I am drawn to for the light but the light itself is not enough of a subject for me.

B: How about this one?

New York City, 2007, Jeff Ladd

JL: I was drawn to that one mostly because the pigeon didn't fly away when I got close. I think it was sick. That and the light and shadow but only later realized how nicely it compliments the bird's markings.

B: Let's go back in time a bit to this photo.

New York City, 1990, Jeff Ladd

By my calculations you made this photo when you were 21 or 22. It seems like a remarkably mature photograph to be making at that age. The women are in just the right pose and position, and all the straight lines set up a lot of subtly pleasing echoes. Can you describe how you made this photograph?

JL:I was of that age, 21 or 22. Mature? I remember being drawn to the shirtless guy standing in the bed of the dumptruck and making several frames trying variations with different people walking by. I remember liking the sledgehammer leaning against the truck and that I could manage to stand where the shadow of the light pole was interesting. This is one of the earliest photos I made that I still think holds up.

When explained I think it doesn't seem too mature. I was drawn to a shirtless guy standing in the bed of a dumptruck. That is something that many people would be drawn to. It is not exactly subtle. I did manage a good frame from it but the small details of; the look of the passing woman, the small mound of dirt on the asphalt, the light-pole shadow leading in the direction of the man, and the word "pass" written on the truck all went unnoticed until the print was made.

B: How about this one from around that same period?

New York City, 1991, Jeff Ladd

JL: This is obviously one of the nightclub photographs I mentioned I started making before. Handheld flash and a 28mm lens was my usual equipment. I was very eager to explore a lot of territory. I was shooting a lot, completely immersed in the medium. I would shoot in the street or subway during the day and then three or four nights a week I would go out to various nightclubs, sometimes a few per night. In the beginning I made a fake press pass and would call to be put on the guest list. After a while the bouncers would recognize me and let me in without going through the hassle of calling ahead. If one club was dead I would move on to the next.

This was shot in the old Limelight club on 6th avenue in NYC. It was an old church that had parties from Wednesday night through the weekend. I liked it simply because it was so large and had many different rooms and areas. What I loved about the clubs is that a photographer could go almost completely unnoticed because there is so much distraction with the music and flashing lights. I could really take a moment to figure out where I had to be standing without being self-conscious at all.

Both of these early photos you specify, especially this one, are solid images that I still like after all these years but they do embrace what I consider very early instincts on my part. A guy standing in a dumptruck or a couple embracing in a nightclub with another man covering his face with his hands are big gestures that can initially make for interesting pictures. My criteria for photographs has just deepened since then. I am competent at filling the frame with additional information that often contributes greatly to the appeal of the image but in the end, this photo is a bit of a cliche. What I actually enjoy more now is the women and their reflections in the mirrors at the top.

I don't mean to belittle my pictures but after almost twenty years very few of anyone's photographs stand up with hundreds of viewings. That basic fact is simply what crushes some and inspires others.

B: What do you think you're looking for now that you weren't looking for then?

JL: I think I have tried to raise the level of my game by making photographs that are more subtle. Again, the dip of the shoulder versus a fight. I certainly have been more informed by working and by the work by others to know what I am up against and how to approach things differently but it is a bit like steering a ship. I still get attracted by grand gestures but it is the smaller more common ones that I wind up printing.

B: Most of your work appears to be shot on film and printed traditionally in a darkroom. What is it about this process (in contrast to digital capture/inkjet print) that attracts you?

JL: That is simply how I learned, using the traditional film process. I use rangefinder cameras and right now the digital rangefinders available are shit so until they work that out I'll stick with Tri-X. I have no nostalgic hold on film or claim its superiority, I have some really good digital photos I made on the street but I just haven't worked out the printing aspect yet. I see almost no difference whether you shoot film or digital. You are making pictures. That is all that counts.

I do love printing my own work in the darkroom. That isn't a burden. Learning calibration and finding the right paper to be printing on digitally, is however.

Benares, 1998, Jeff Ladd

B: Which photographers are most important to you?

JL: That's always changing. Years ago I would have named the usual suspects; Winogrand, Frank, Friedlander, Levitt, Klein, Koudelka. I still love all of them but I am now more apt to look at Michael Schmidt or David Goldblatt's work. Rarely does my interest in the other artists directly correlate with what I am pursuing. It is still informing but in a different manner.

B: What about nonphotographic artists?

JL: I like a lot of work across a large spectrum from; Ben Shahn, Mark Tansey, Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Dieter Roth, Gordon Matta-Clark, Walid Raad. Don't get me started on graphic design or film.

B: Which photographers confound you? Which ones do not appeal in any way?

JL: I sold my Joel-Peter Witkin books.

B: Joel-Peter Witkin raises the topic of the fine art photography world, a bubble which is generally tough for street photographers to penetrate. What sort of acceptance have your photos received? Have you put much effort into promoting your work or is it mostly for yourself?

JL: I don't think anyone pursues this kind of work with even the glimmer of expectation that the "art world" will embrace them. Even Winogrand, who had a long relationship with the art world didn't sell his prints for much and it has taken 20 years after his death for them to fetch even moderate prices. Work like this is a hard sell. This is not so discouraging to me. I understand how that market operates and I respect it. I don't like a lot of what I see and think a good portion won't stand the test of time but so it goes with my own photographs. I have trouble giving them away. Street work in particular has a hard time seeming "new" so why settle on Jeffrey Ladd or Blake Andrews when you can buy Klein, Winogrand or Levitt?

Backi Jarak, Serbia, 2001, Jeff Ladd

I photograph for myself and have had a very healthy exhibition record as a result. I don't sell many prints at all. I will probably always spend more money than I will get in return but I am happy with what I produce. I am a notoriously bad self-promoter bordering on self-destructive. I write on my now very popular photobook blog 5B4 Photography and Books under my cat's name, Mr. Whiskets. Need I say more?

B: In addition to 5b4 you're a publisher now. Do you ever anticipate publishing your own work? Surely as a book-lover it's crossed your mind.

JL: Of course I have thought about it but that is a while off. When we started Errata it was to do the book series on photobooks. That project may not lose all our money right from the start because there is a healthy audience. If we started off with Jeff Ladd's book or Ed Grazda's book, we would just be spending money with little return to put towards other books. That isn't being pessimistic as much as realistic. I have a strong ego and confidence in my work but I also see how it exists in the world as a commodity - which books are, at least in part. It will happen someday but I am in no rush.

B: I'll finish with a loaded question: Why do you photograph?

JL: It always sounds pretentious when people say they need to take pictures. I fell in love with the process and the freedom it provides. I am sure if something else came along that filled those needs as pleasantly then that might become my new passion. After all, I have had 8 or 9 very serious relationships in my life and have fallen out of love before so I can't say that it won't happen with this. It's very hard to imagine but possible.


Anonymous said...

Lovely, a great read.

Unknown said...

Great read. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Good questions, good answers.

Thanks guys.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this, thanks both.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jeff and Blake for letting us sit in on your conversation.

Nils Jorgensen said...

A good read.

plechl said...

great stuff. these shots are beautiful. the photo from Benares is intoxicating with its man and dog mirror and all those posts. jeff says when he graduated high school he was good at skateboarding. i wonder if he ever tried to shoot from the board in NYC? sucks how the financial compensation for such good work is so lacking.

Anonymous said...

That you for that. Great stuff in there for people who are still coming to grips with the whole ethos.

Anonymous said...

Great read. I discovered your blog just now. I'm a street photographer myself and I'm glad that there are still many truly talented people sticking to the craft in spite of the ebb in its popularity that further limited ways to market the photos and actually make a living off of it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Excellent read. There's so much in what Jeff says that I can relate to, right down to the involvement in publishing.

Anonymous said...

A great read, fabulous photographs, and the truth!

Anonymous said...

For David,

No I never tried photographing while skating. I have made photographs from a bus or out of cab windows though.

Skating and taking photos demand attention to different things. I think it'd be nearly impossible.

فيسبوك said...

thats a so cool blog thanks

j_castro said...

Great read, I enjoyed a lot. Thanks to both of you.

Jeff made me think of Sam Abel's concept of "microcomposition". When I read it I thought finally someone had found a word for what I (we!) do when photographing, finding the spot and waiting for the picture to happen.

LAD said...

inspiring !

Joseph Bayot said...

This was a pleasure to read. Thank you!

DAD said...

Mom & I are proud of you. Of both your work and your ability to express. Keep it up!

Unknown said...