Saturday, March 23, 2013

Q & A with Richard Kalvar

Richard Kalvar is a photographer based in Paris.

BA: Where did you grow up? 

RK: I grew up in Brooklyn (before it was fashionable). Lower middle class, only child. Good in school, which put me in contact with other kids good in school, which opened up my horizons.

Can I infer you were surrounded by people in Brooklyn? A ripe scenario for someone to shoot people later?

Well, it wasn't teeming Bombay, but Brooklyn's part of NYC, which has quite a few people. Where I grew up wasn't as dense as some other parts of the city, but I wasn't raised on a farm. My high school had 6000 students!

How would you briefly describe your adolescence as it relates to your later development into a photographer?

I had no interest in photography, and was a curious ignoramus with regards to art. But I loved playing with words and ideas with my friends, in ways that struck me at the time as deep and funny.  When I later fell into photography, one of the most wonderful things was that, without intending it, that playing found a natural outlet in taking pictures.

18th Arrondissement, Paris, 2001

Did your parents have any interest in photography or art?


What did they think of you becoming a photographer?

By the time I became a photographer my mother had died. My father thought anything I did was okay: photography or anything else. He thought I knew what I was doing, probably more than I thought that.

Did he understand your photos?

Not especially.

Do you wish he did, or does it matter to you?

I suppose it would have been nice, but it was beyond my expectations.

Maybe that's a general question too. Do you think most of the general populace gets what you do? Or is the audience composed more of photographers. Speaking of your street work here. 

I wouldn't generalize, although I guess photographers on the whole are probably looking more. But I know plenty of photographers who don't seem to have a clue about what I'm up to, or at least don't appreciate it (including Magnum colleagues). I also have had great reactions from people who have no connection whatsoever to photography. I think anyone can get it; they just have to look, which seems to be demanding a lot. By "street" I guess you mean my personal photography.

I'm glad you mentioned Magnum because that was my next question. What do they think of street photography? I know there's a range of personalities there. But some of them don't get it? By street I mean amateur unplanned candids.

As you say, there's quite a range. I get the feeling inside of Magnum and outside (especially outside) that a lot of people think it's an old-fashioned approach: not taking unposed pictures, but having my particular sensibility. I think that I do what I feel like doing, which may not follow contemporary fashions but which comes spontaneously from the heart, the guts and the brain. To me, that's what counts. 

You've written before about the division between your amateur work and professional stuff. I know Erwitt also makes a similar division. Is that common with Magnum? Most of the stuff on the site seems very professionally motivated. But maybe people have personal photos they don't want to share?
France, 1994

I've written a little about this in my brand new blog, in posts called Schizophrenia 1 and 2. I take pictures because I like to. I also have to make a living, and do that with my camera. It's a problem on many levels: how to focus on the important stuff, how to spend one's time and energy, possible contagion; but I'm an adult, and not independently wealthy, so I deal with it. I don't agree that on the Magnum site there's mostly "professional" stuff. You can find my best pictures, Erwitt's, Koudelka's, Parr's, etc. You can also find the other work. We're trying to show, but also to sell. Elliott, to my mind, mixes his very good professional pictures and his superb personal ones, not just on the site. I think that's a mistake, but smart viewers should be able to make the distinction.

Mixing personal and professional photos is a mistake?

In my humble opinion, mixing journalistic and advertising pictures with his unbelievable, for want of a better term, "street" photographs in the same book dilutes the force of the street stuff. But there's nothing wrong with doing professional and amateur work, and Erwitt is great at both. 

When you say many in Magnum feel Street is an old-fashioned approach, do you mean that many in the group don't wander around on their own looking for candids? Much of the work on the site seems assignment-driven. Not necessarily amateur or "street" motivated. I think it's true of the broader photo community in general. There is less room for un-tied photos, loose looking, which to me is a very fun part of photography.
New York, 1975

There are lots of ways of taking pictures, and always have been. At Magnum a majority of photographers did journalistic work, either for others or for themselves. The Cartier-Bresson crowd, which I guess I belong to, was always in a minority. For my personal work I've always felt like an outlier. And you can do personal work on assignment; it depends what the assignment is and who's doing the assigning.

What motivated you to get more active with the Magnum blog?

The site was redone, the possibility suddenly existed, and there was a lot of talk (or hot air) about each photographer controlling his own channel. I also had a few things to say that I rarely had a chance to express (mostly in interviews), so I thought I'd give it a try. It's a peculiar experience. Very few people make comments, so I have no idea if anyone is actually reading it. I don't know if it's a totally futile activity, but I do feel that I say some personal things that I think should interest a few people.

I know the feeling. It's like talking to a room blindfolded, not sure who's there. 

If anyone. Exactly.

Maybe sending photos out into the world is similar. 

Well, on the blog I also put up photographs, which correspond to and play off of the text, and since no one makes comments...

In your interview with Michael David Murphy in 2007 you described your photography as relatively unknown in the U.S. Has that changed? Have you had any shows in the U.S. since that interview? What are your thoughts on promoting your work?

I had a big retrospective show in Paris at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in 2007, and my book, Earthlings, was published at the same time in French and in English.  For many years I had been putting aside my good pictures, waiting for the right moment to spring them on the world. But when I went to the US to try to get an equivalent show, I felt like Rip Van Winkle, suddenly waking up to find that the world had moved on. No one was particularly interested, and I could barely get my foot through gallery doors.  It was a very humbling and not overly pleasant experience. I realized that I was paying the price for staying in my corner for twenty-five years, instead of going out and flogging myself.  I finally got a nice little show from Rose and Jay Deutsch at the Leica Gallery in New York, but I had been hoping for something bigger.

I think that there's so much photography out there that not many people pay attention to my pictures. I have a certain confidence in the value of what I do, but I'm not sure it's widely appreciated. I just wrote a blog post in which I said that I'm looking forward to enjoying recognition thirty years after my death.

The After-Death method seems to be one popular route to prominence. Look at all the current fuss over Winogrand. Or Vivian Maier recently. But it's tough to enjoy when you're...well, dead.

Winogrand had a lot of recognition during his lifetime (not always deserved, in my opinion). Vivian Meier, I believe, was not a misunderstood genius, but someone who chose, for whatever reasons, not to show her pictures.

Not a Winogrand fan?

I think Winogrand took an awful lot of pictures, including a lot of pretty bad ones. It's great that he had that obsession and drive (I wish I always had it), but he wasn't very disciplined in what he showed. When I take that kind of picture (I'm talking about the ones that don't work) I get angry with myself for not getting everything right. That didn't seem to stop him. 

I think you and Winogrand are probably looking for different things in a photo. His pictures are messy and imperfect. Yours are generally cleaner, with a more direct visual punch. A punctum to use an overused academic word. My 2-cent analysis.
Republican National Convention, 2012

Messy and imperfect for me is easy. That's an important word for me. Set-up pictures, photoshopped pictures, messy and imperfect pictures are easy; finding something that really works is hard. Good photographers know about that; not too many other people.

Maybe the hard part is creating messy/imperfect pictures that somehow work despite that. Like some of Winogrand. Or Nancy Rexroth comes to mind. Or Stephen Gill. Or Louis Faurer.

When looking at your own photos, how often do your own tastes match those of your audience? Are there certain photos of yours which have become iconic which you don't like that much? Or ones you like a lot which have never gained currency? Or do the tastes generally mesh?

I have a number of pictures that I think are particularly "photographic", i.e., they play with the nature of photography and its relation to reality. Those aren't the ones that seem to have the most success, but I think they're good. My dog picture, on the other hand, which has a lot of fans, is not my favorite. It's easier and anecdotal, but maybe not too deep.

14th Arrondissement, Paris, 1974

When you consider your photographic work as a whole, what meaning do you think it ultimately has for you or for others? Is it just about an observer catching beautiful moments? Or do you think those moments add up to some greater statement about the world? 

I'm trying to create little dramas that lead people to think, to feel, to dream, to fantasize, to smile… It's more than just catching beautiful moments; I want to fascinate, to hypnotize, to move my viewers.  Making greater statements about the world is not my thing. I think there's a coherence in the work that comes not from an overriding philosophy but from a consistent way of looking and feeling.

When you're out with a camera, what do you look for? I notice a fascination in various photos with bushes/hidden things, and also hand gestures. Maybe other things or scenes? Can you describe your process of looking?

I don't look for bushes or hands. I look for something that catches my interest, and I have no idea in advance what it might be. The next step is getting up the nerve to approach the subject without disrupting the scene or getting my face punched in. Then I might start taking a picture or two. In general, the result is pretty lousy, but every once in a while something unexpected happens (in reality, or in my brain) and I get excited. And then, even more rarely, I might succeed in making it into something special. 

One thing you mentioned in the Murphy interview is you always investigate conversations. Can you explain why?

That's true. They're good raw material for me, because they involve the interaction between people (or the lack of it), and that's what I like to play with. I like hands and bushes; it's just that I don't go out looking for them. But they often hit me over the head. 

St. Peter's Square, Rome, 1978

So what happens when you nail a good picture? Do you think there's some divine intervention? 

That might be a little strong... Let's just say that it's very satisfying. And nailing the picture is a two-step process: first photographing, then discovering if it really works on the contact sheet (or now on the computer screen). 

Are you religious at all? Not asking as a bible thumper but as a more general question about coincidences and hidden order in photos.

I'm not openly religious. I'm agnostic, with possibly a quiet tendency to feel a connection with something beyond.

And do you feel that connection through photography?

I feel that connection through anything that touches the heart, including photography. 

And by the way, getting back to Winogrand: he has a number of great pictures; I'm just annoyed at the photorrheia, and the low standards.

Photorrheia! Great term. 

Accurate, don't you think?

Which photo of his is your favorite?

I can't tell you, because I'd like to look at them in light of all that I've written above, to see whether I'm full of shit or not (not impossible). 

Maybe full of shit but at least not full of photorrheia.

That's for sure! Maybe photographically constipated, in fact.

Maybe if Winogrand had limited his output to 60 nice images he'd have a stronger legacy? I actually think much of his fame comes from the sheer irrationality of his Photorrheia. The idea that someone could just leave all that film untouched. It's a great American folktale.

By the way, for the last twenty minutes I've been trying to remember the name of his great contemporary, one of my favorite photographers. He did seemingly messy photographs that were brilliant and funny, always working on the edge of the messy and the banal. Help me! What's his name???

Hmm. That's not specific enough. Papageorge? Meyerowitz?

No, and no. But you're getting warmer. Also a Jewish name...

Alive now? Friedlander?

YES!!! Friedlander!

I love his work. Great stuff. Also prolific but more restrained than GW

Ah, the little cloud above the Yield sign. How banal! How wonderful! Sometimes too prolific (lousy factory pictures, for example) but when he's on, he's on.

I actually like the Factory Valley pix. Not a huge fan of his recent square stuff though.

I saw Friedlander's factory pictures for the first time about five years ago. I couldn't see what the possible interest was.

Different strokes for different folks.

Absolutely, although anyone who disagrees with me is obviously mistaken.

Speaking of other photographers I want to throw two more names out. You say in your In-Public bio that Paul Strand and Walker Evans "leave you cold." Can you elaborate a little? Can you pinpoint what it is in their work that you don't like?

It's not that I don't like them. I admire them, but I'm not moved by them. I love HCB, Robert Frank, Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Erwitt... I'm a sucker for heart and humor. I have a youngish colleague named Trente Parke that I really like, too. And others. 

What about Zoe Strauss? 

I only saw what she presented to Magnum last June. The jury (in my head) is still out.

Is she shaking up the old-boy network a bit?

I haven't been in contact with Zoe, since I'm not in New York. She'll probably wait until she's been made a member and has tenure before she shakes up the old-boy network.

Thinking about Evans, I'm not sure any of his photos really feed on emotion. He was much more intellectual. Sort of a walking breathing security camera. To me. But that's OK. I get intellect. It works.

Evans was very perceptive, very observant. But where's the schmaltz?

I think that was going to be his next book title: Where's The Schmaltz?
4th St., New York City, 1970

Can I ask about one specific photo, the woman eating a popsicle near the foot? That photo was sort of the entrée into your work for me. After I saw it I got very excited and looked up all your work. This was maybe 10 years ago. What was going on there?

First let me address the question "What was going on there?" in general. I try to avoid answering, because when I do, people generally stop looking and turn the page. If you kill the magic and the mystery, what's left but humdrum reality? But just between you and me and the millions of people who read your blog, there was a woman eating a popsicle, a guy playing the guitar, and a another one taking a sunbath on the roof of his beat-up station wagon. He was kind of beat up, too.

So you don't ever explain any of your photos. As a rule?

It's tempting to satisfy people's curiosity as to what was "really going on" in a scene, but it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If there's a mystery, the viewer should try to unravel it for him- or herself, subjectively, through intelligence, imagination and association.  I want people to keep looking, not just move on to the next thing.

Sounds like something Winogrand might say. That to explain the photo kills it. And I agree. But I'm still curious.

Of course you are! Keep looking! (Actually, what could I say beyond what I've said above?) Photography being a visual and not a verbal art, that's what a lot of photographers would say. Maybe conceptual photographers somewhat less.

That's part of the magic of photography. Look at a picture and you have no idea what was going on. The only thing you can know is what's visually depicted, and we all know photographers lie. That's where the fun comes in. To be able to tell a lie with "reality" is a very tough trick.

That's been my game from day one.

How do I know that's not a lie?

Aha! You are now caught in my web...

And you are caught in my web interview.


Ben said...

First, thanks for a great interview! Second, I think you both would appreciate Paul Graham's piece on ASX (if you have not already seen it):

And third, don't you know that Sticks and Stones one of Fridlander's best? (It helps to be an architect. ;-D)

Unknown said...

nice to read those thoughts

Dave said...

great interview with my fav photographer. hope I enjoy his work even more so in 30 years!

Bud Hines said...

Thanks for doing this interview with Richard Kalvar...I can identify with him on many levels. Maybe someday...

Tom Leininger said...

Here is another interview with Richard Kalvar.

Clara said...

Great interview , thank You! I've so much to learn and knowing this kind of things help a lot!

Alex said...

Great interview, thank you !

Anonymous said...

Great interview. I read Kalvar's blog, and some of his photographs make me laugh out loud.

Kay said...

Thanks for this interview!

david said...

I would be interested to know why Kalvar does not mention Alex Webb who is in my opinion
the genius of "street photography"...comments welcome..

Blake Andrews said...

Maybe there is more than one "genius" out there? There are several others in Magnum in addition to Webb who might qualify. But it's a short interview and he can't mention everyone.

Unknown said...

Blake and I both talk about Web at the very end of the chat.

Theo Stroomer said...

Really enjoyed this. It is neat to see some non-Earthlings (and color) photos in the mix. I appreciated the candor of your discussion of personal vs professional work.

Richard, (or anyone else who knows) where do you show your work in Paris? I would enjoy coming to see it on a coming visit.

Gregory Rusmana said...

Really enticing interview at all, foremost on the "magic and mistery" part. Would help me if there are questions regarding my crap photos, aha! Anyway thanks to Mr Andrew to let my Hero spoken here.