Saturday, July 10, 2010

Q & A with Joe Reifer and Troy Paiva

(Recently I chatted with California photographers Joe Reifer and Troy Paiva about abandonment porn, UrbEx, and long desert rides, among many other topics.)

Blake: I know each of you likes to photograph in abandoned spaces. What is it about those spaces that is attractive or photogenic?

Joe: Why is a junkyard dog a junkyard dog? It's a tough question. I feel like I can talk about abandonments all day long, but I'm not sure there's a one sentence explanation that I like. Troy wrote a book on urban exploration. Maybe he can summarize in a sentence.
Blake: It doesn't have to be one sentence. Just as an example, one type of photo you see a lot is the old beaten down barn. Maybe it was popularized with Walker Evans, I don't know. But that subject now seems to come up again and again. Is there some primal urge to shoot that?

Negro Cabin in Hale County, 1935, Walker Evans

Troy: It goes back much further than that. Humans have always been attracted to all ruins on some primal level.
Blake: But why?
Troy: It's just how we're wired as a species. Were explorers by nature, so we're always gonna explore the stuff left behind by our ancestors.
Blake: Is there something particularly attractive to decaying objects? I find myself attracted to broken fences and litter and general disrepair, but I probably wouldn't look at the same fence if it didn't have a hole in it. What is it about broken down things/abandoned things?
Joe: There is a meditative aspect to shooting things and places at the end of their lifespan. Confronting the ephemeral.

Exit Row, Troy Paiva

Troy: Yeah, humans brim with emotion when confronted with their mortality. But while the love of ruins is as old as civilization itself, I do think it's changed in the last 20 years. Today people are obsessed with the finite nature of our own civilization, not just ancient civilizations.

Blake: As opposed to 20 years ago?
Troy: Yes, the nature of ruins has changed.
Blake: How so?

Troy: Humans built (and abandoned) more structures in the 20th century than all the rest of human history combined. We invented and discarded whole ways of life, whole infrastructure systems. Modern ruins are totally different from ancient ones, because they are more familiar.
Joe: Historically there are times of building and times of decay. The seacoast fortifications near the Golden Gate Bridge show this continuum from the late 18th century up until the Cold War. Moving from canons, to bigger canons, to missile sites. Now we're in the time of abandoned missile sites.
Troy: And with the military base closures there's whole cities, just abandoned, all over the US.

Battery Davis at Fort Funston, Joe Reifer

Joe: It's the golden age of these types of ruins. Some of the places we've photographed in the last 5 years are already gone.
Blake: So you guys are sort of visual archeologists.
Troy: Inadvertently, yeah.
Joe: Troy and I have very different styles of documenting these places.

Troy: I'm more of an aesthetician than an archaeologist. I just wanna move people with purty pichers.
Blake: What about the terms abandonment porn or ruin porn? The word porn seems to reflect some addictive quality or unsavory quality.

Big Melons #13, Joe Reifer

Troy: It IS addictive as hell. And no question, it's considered unsavory by a large part of the populace.
Joe: Maybe it's because these places are exciting to some, but something to hide for others. The term certainly seems a bit pejorative. Always makes me think of Detroit. You know, the Disneyland of ruin porn?
Troy: Never heard of it.

Blake: Speaking of Detroit, Andrew Moore tackled that with his book Detroit Disassembled. Also, Will Steacy's Down These Mean Streets might be labeled ruin porn. So there definitely seems to be a movement afoot.
Troy: There's a LOT of ruin porn out there these days. The sheer volume of it out there indicates that the post-industrial generation just ‘gets it.’

from Andrew Moore's Detroit Disassembled

Blake: Is there something to the forbidden nature of what you're photographing that's attractive which could also explain the attraction of UrbEx? Do you guys ever do UrbEx without cameras, just to explore?
Troy: Sure, but I did that more when I was a kid. I've been exploring abandonments since the mid ‘70s and shooting them at night since 1989. If I find a location during the day now, I will certainly check it out, even if it's just to scout it, and shoot it later.
Joe: I try not to leave the house without a camera.
Troy: The term UrbEx wasn't coined until 1995.
Joe: Before that it was called "being a teenager." Some people just never grow out of it.

Blake: It's funny because when I was around 20 I used to do that stuff but I didn't know it had a name. It was more just a sense of exploration and illicit acts. I used to crawl around in sewers and locked buildings and fire escapes, and I think I climbed every building on campus in college.

Tilting with Venus, Joe Reifer

Joe: So Blake, what made you stop?
Blake: I got caught a few times, which wasn't fun. Then I got older, settled down, kids, etc. I guess I could still do it but don't have the same urge. But it's a good question. I'm not sure how to answer that.
Troy: Yeah, a VERY typical story. See, I just never grew out of it the way everyone else does. But you're right, almost every teen and pre-teen goes thru it, but once they get to be older and more responsible, it ends.
Joe: Getting chased around by security guards is not fun.
Troy: Chased by feral dogs is worse.

Blake: Troy, I read on your website that you usually get permission now before photographing a place. Does that take away some of the thrill?
Troy: Heh, I'm 49 now, a wizened old geezer. The thrill aspect of it has grown much less important over the years. Today it's more about capturing the atmosphere and feelings in these places than the thrill of sneaking in.

Lane Porn, Abandoned bowling alley, San Francisco, CA, Troy Paiva

Joe: Getting legitimate access is preferable, but sometimes, gray areas in accessing a site allow you to shoot first.

Troy: It’s just much easier. You don’t have to hide and worry about your lighting being seen. Plus you can publish the work without worry, if you have permission.
Blake: What about the nighttime aspect. How important is that?
Troy: That wonderful feeling of being small in a very large world that people get in Yosemite Valley? I get that in abandoned military bases and amusement parks. At night, all that emotion and feeling is amplified, times 10.
Joe: Shooting under the full moon is like having magic hour light for 7 hours, but you only have it 5 days per month.

Troy: Throw in the weather as a factor and it's actually a much smaller number than that. Plus you can't do this kinda lighting work during the day without a bazillion dollars worth of gear that you need 3 assistants to hump around and set up.

Joe: The atmosphere created by making long exposures under moonlight is integral to the blend of real and surreal that creates our photographic aesthetic. My work is the real with a touch of surreal, Troy turns real into the surreal.
Blake: How did you two meet?
Joe: Through a group of night shooters associated with the Nocturnes.
Troy: The interwebs opened my eyes to MANY new night shooters in the digital age. Joe and I just hit it off right away.
Joe: We went shooting at an abandoned dynamite plant. Troy was slinging a beat up Canon T90 on a tripod, a Mountain Dew, and a package of Sweet Tarts. That's all he had with him.

Troy: My teeth ache just thinking about it. That location is gone now.

Blake: Troy, how has the return to film been going? Is there anything about it you feel missing with digital, besides the headaches?
Troy: I think I'm pretty much done with film. As you say, it's a total pain in the ass for night work. Especially when you're light painting because of the lack of chimpability.
Joe: I like shooting 6x7 sometimes for 45 minute exposures. Film looks like night photography. Digital can look digital if you don't post-process carefully. I don't light paint a lot, so film would work fine for me.  But the exposures are twice as long due to reciprocity failure, so it's a productivity issue. Sometimes I carry 2 setups, but I probably need to get a porter or a burro.

Troy: My film hit-rate is much lower than digital. If I do 15 setups, I get 1 or 2 keepers with film. With digital, I get at least 10. The only thing that draws me to film is the ability to so 30- or 60-minute exposures.

Race Control, Troy Paiva

Blake: I know the productivity is lower. I guess what I was asking is if there's anything integral to film like its look or tangibility or rustic character that appeals. For people interested in abandoned ruins, maybe there is something appropriate about shooting them on an abandoned ruin material.
Troy: Rustic, I like that. You mean shitty looking?

Blake: Yeah, like an old barn.
Joe: Aren't you supposed to photograph those with a 4x5 camera and black and white film?
Troy: For many years, that was a big part of my ethos. The idea of shooting forgotten discarded junk with junk gear.
Blake: Like Stephen Gill's Hackney Wick.

Troy: Exactly, only I did it when he was still in diapers.

Joe: We've probably had 40+ photographers come through our night photography workshops, and nobody shoots film.
Troy: I shot all the work in my first book with a 40 year old flea market 35mm body, a few cheap no name lenses and $5 garage sale flashes. It all looks like Holga work. Dirty, soft, skronky. It suited the broken down subjects.
Blake: That sounds like another porn. Toy Camera porn. Definitely addictive.

Photo by Joe Reifer

Troy: Yeah, I did it long before the toy camera craze. It was definitely an intentional aesthetic. At the time other photographers kept telling me I HAD TO shoot with better gear, but feh. To me that lo-fi toy camera aesthetic, combined with night, fits ruin porn.

Blake: Why did you move away from that style?

Troy: The lo-fi cameras match the lo-fi aspect of the locations. I stopped shooting entirely in 2004 when all my E6 labs closed. Shooting film just became a pain in the ass. In 2005 I saw the first night work done on CMOS-sensored DSLRs that were noise free, so moved to digital. I'm still shooting with that same 5 year old Canon 20D, which you can now buy on the used market, for sofa cushion change, so it could be argued that I'm still shooting with lo-rent, orphan gear.
Blake: Tell me a little about the copy-cats.

Troy: [crickets chirping]
Joe: The first rule of night photography, is you don't talk about night photography.

Blake: I like that you don't seem to take yourselves too seriously. One thing that irks me about fine art photography is how un-humorous it can be. Long words and advanced degrees and all that stuff really bring it down.
Troy: Preaching to the choir. I’m an uneducated mongrel, so I have no idea how to approach the intelligentsia, except to let the work speak for me.

Blake: So, about copy-catting, were you two among the pioneers of the moonlit, colorgel style?
Joe: Troy is the guy. I don't use colors. I started doing night work after seeing Troy's first book in 2004.

Troy: Near as I can tell, I invented this specific aesthetic. Sure, night photography’s been around since the beginning of photography, and light painting, for almost as long, and we’ve already discussed the ancient attraction we all have to ruins, but I was the first person to take those 3 ideas and combine them. When I was starting out, I studied guys like Chip Simons and Bill Lesch, taking their color and light sensibility, and running with it in an entirely different direction.

Joe: I'm much more documentary.
Blake: How so?

Joe: No extreme wide angles. No colors. Subtle light painting only when necessary to highlight a subject or fill shadows.
Troy: Yeah, Joe's much more subtle than I am. Most people don't even realize that he's doing ANY light painting.

Joe: Most folks that want to learn this stuff are big fans of Troy's work.
Troy: Joe's influenced by the New Topographics thing and I am too, but I'm taking it to a much more artistic, theatrical and playful place.

Blake: Who do you like of the New Topographers, Joe?
Joe: There isn't anyone in New Topographics that I don't like. I'm really excited about the exhibit opening at SF MOMA in a couple of weeks!

Blake: I'm coming down for that next fall.
Troy: Yeah, anyone even remotely interested in what we’re discussing here should go to that.
Blake: I can see Baltz or maybe Adams as abandonment porn.
Joe: The Bechers are related to this genre. The photos are sometimes of functioning industry, but it's big rusty stuff.

Hilla and Bernd Becher

Blake: Oh yeah, the Bechers are abandonment porn stars.

Joe: Becher porn? Their later work is my favorite. When they step back a little bit and show more of the surrounding landscape. I'm also a big Lynne Cohen fan.

Blake: I want to switch gears a minute. Joe, I read an interview that you don't read the paper or watch the news. Sort of a willfulness to tune out the contemporary world that seems related to your interest in relics. Am I reading too much into that? Or is it more political, because the media is so slanted?
Joe: It's not politics. After working at a paper for a few years in the mid-90's, I did a news fast to cleanse my system. I'm just happier without it.

I love watching movies. If they had a Criterion Collection channel, maybe I'd get cable.

Troy: Me too, big movie hound.

Blake: What movies should photographers see?

Troy: Anything with Roger Deakins as the cinematographer. Wanna learn how light creates emotion? Study his work. And Vittorio Storaro, Juan Ruiz Anchia, James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, Michael Chapman, Conrad Hall, I could go on all day. I'm way more influenced by movies than I am by photographers. Rent "Visions of Light", the doc about cinematographers. I loved that.

Joe: Michelangelo Antonioni's recently re-issued Red Desert is stunning and features extensive shots in industrial settings. Jacques Tati is a master of the subtle detail -- his film Playtime is amazing. I've watched Jean-Pierre Melville's classic gangster noir Le Samourai many times just to study the cinematography.

Blake: What about bands named blank and the blanks?

Joe: It's a road trip game. Troy's favorite is Mike and the Mechanics.
Troy: Schweet. ? and the Mysterians too.
Joe: It's a 7 hour drive to the desert. We usually listen to a lot of Frank Zappa.
Blake: ...and the Mothers of Invention

Dirty Santa, Troy Paiva

Troy: Check out my band aid!
Joe: Exactly.
Blake: That sounds like a long ride.
Troy: I love the drive. I lived in Albuquerque for a time in the early 90s. Thinking I was gonna be right in the thick of the region and I wouldn't have to travel very far to shoot anymore. I ended up hardly shooting at all. The drive is a big part of the mental preparation of night shooting for me.

Blake: Are you saying the drive is integral to the photos? If the scenes were right nearby you couldn't shoot them?

Troy: No, that's overstating it, but this kind of night photography is about the distortion of time on a couple of levels: recording blocks of time actually tangible to humans, instead of the usual 1/125 of a second, and recording the entropical passage of time in these old, abandoned places.

So staying awake for 24 hours and driving 1000 miles adds another layer of time distortion to the whole project. I love the disorienting aspect of doing this work.

Joe: You gotta put your camera in front of something interesting, and I love the desert. By the time you get there, sometimes you're not sure if it's a dream or not. That's an interesting feeling that I'd like to photograph.


Anonymous said...

Great interview, thanks for that.

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