Friday, September 21, 2018

Q & A & A & Q & Q & A with Mark Shapiro

Mark Shapiro (photo: Bret Brookshire)
Mark Shapiro is a photographer based in Austin.

Mark Shapiro: I'm in one of those periods of relative calm lately. Won't last though.

Blake Andrews: Why not?

Always some crisis or another: car breakdown, equipment not working right, odd ache or pain, that kind of thing.

Hmm. I have that same sense of foreboding always hanging over me. Kind of a neurotic Jewish thing maybe? Like, the other shoe is always about to drop...

Yes, a combination of neurotic stuff mixed with valid apprehensions. The shoe to drop is exactly it.

Get the photos NOW. The world might end soon.

Yes, shoot and get the pictures seen. I've finally put my work on a website. It goes back to 1979 and very little of it has been seen before, so now that it's out I do feel an urgency about it.

What kindled your drive to put them online now? Was there some life event?

I shot from 1979 through 1988, but hardly showed the pictures. After '88 I always had in mind that "someday" I'll bring the pictures out, try to make some books, and return to shooting too, but I kept getting absorbed in other fields of interest. Then in 2012, a friend of mine got curious to look at the pictures, and he encouraged me to get back to it. Then I got a digital camera, which led to finding out that I can make inkjet prints, and then finding out I could scan the negs. Stephen Shore has mentioned that digital allows him to more precisely dodge and burn his original pictures. And I found that out too. There's a lot more exactness of rendering in the digital process, and that really drew me in.

When I first became aware of digital I maintained that prints or books are the sine qua non, not the computer screen. Everyone's monitor is different in quality and brightness and contrast, so your pictures are subject to the vagaries of bad monitors, bad settings, and in general the distraction of the computer interface. But I wanted my work to be seen on the Internet. So I came to the idea that at least my own calibrated monitor can be a kind of "platonic" standard and that there is a tacit disclaimer that the pictures might not look the way they are meant to look on other displays or as they would look definitively in prints.

The sections that really appeal to me are the older black and white pictures in downtown L.A.

I worry that the newer stuff will get overlooked and the older stuff will be liked too much for its "long ago" quality.

Do you think there's any truth to that worry?

I think there is. For my objectives, it's got to be about the photography more than about the era. But of course each person will take the pictures in his or her own way and I couldn't presume to control that.

The new stuff that starts in 2012 is in Austin instead of L.A. Austin opened up a different story for me. In L.A., except for the punk scene, I was already generally familiar with what I was shooting; I already knew that there were those kinds of street scenes. In Austin, even though I live here, I'm still more like a visitor. I've encountered a different culture, a different scene – more extroverted and more into celebration and partying. My Austin stuff shows how I've extended many of the ideas from the older period – in terms of both point of view and technique. I think there's a lot to offer in the comparison between the L.A. work and the Austin work.

Anyway, with the L.A. work, downtown was one of the areas I shot, but I don't think of the downtown shots as separate, though I recognize that they epitomize my shooting in that period.

Why did you stop photographing in 1988?

That's the question I was afraid you'd ask. Stopping was a mistake. I regret it. It was a combination: Fed up spending all that time and money; money that I needed to survive. Tired of being in the darkroom, sloshing liquids all night. And I got interested in studying music again.

Did you ever exhibit your photos in print form when you were making them in the 1980s?

It wasn't my focus. I was more intent on shooting and building the work up into a whole, into a full set. But I was asked to do a couple of minor solo shows. Not even off-off-off-Broadway. We're talking off-off-off-off-Broadway. And there were some newspaper and magazine assignments.

This was in L.A.?

Mostly L.A., yeah.

What drove you to make that body of work?

As far as downtown in particular, I was fascinated with downtown since I was a kid when my father sometimes took me there on Saturday afternoons to go to the Central Library. Seeing all the kinds of people and the buildings – the character of it compared with my tract house neighborhood. Everything was in books for me then – history, current affairs and stuff like that – but seeing downtown excited me and gave me appreciation of my own city. So when I took up shooting seriously, naturally I went downtown.

What was your shooting process?

In my early teens, in 1966, I read Feininger about the basics of exposure and depth of field and things like that, so when I first started shooting seriously in 1979, I had some basis. Later I happened to meet Graham Howe and he hipped me to overexpose/underdevelop and the base plus fog test. So I got more systematic and my exposures and negatives got more consistent right then.

And shoot as much as possible anywhere you happen to be; go to good places like downtown; and go to events that seem promising. In the summer of 1979 I got a cheap room in a hotel mostly for transients – the Imperial at 9th and Grand – and a job on the graveyard shift at a bookstore/newsstand at 5th and Hill. So I was right there to shoot days and early evenings. I could sustain that economically for about a year. Then I had to cut back, but I still shot as regularly as I could for up to '88.

Where did you like to shoot downtown?

Hands down, the best spot was the southwest corner of 6th and Broadway. Because the Los Angeles Diamond Company (not to be confused with the Diamond Center) had lights in the store that looked like the stars in the sky. But Broadway in general too. Also, places like 5th and Flower for business and banking people.

Did you see other photographers out shooting? Winogrand? Anthony Hernandez?

I didn't run into other photographers much. I went shooting a fair amount with the photographer Ron Kelley who at the time was a graduate student at UCLA. Events – parades and election parties and things like that. A while later I met Winogrand at UCLA, and sometimes ran into him on the street. But, funny thing, as far as I know, Winogrand didn't gravitate much to downtown. And not a lot of downtown on his contact sheets. (I looked over nearly all the contacts before they shipped to Szarkowski, since I made a great many of them.) At UCLA I once ran into Anthony Hernandez, but not downtown, though of course he'd been shooting there since the '60s. Funny you mention Hernandez. I've been looking at his book lately, and I'm enthralled with the gorgeous large format color work. I love how he makes things that are ordinarily thought of as inconsequential or ignoble into monumental views.

Why do you think Winogrand avoided downtown?

I don't know that he avoided it, but my impression is that he didn't go there as often as his other favorite places: Hollywood Boulevard, Rodeo Drive, and the Venice boardwalk on weekends. I don't know why not downtown. Maybe parking.

It's very strange to me that so few photographers have made a solid series or shot much in downtown L.A. I think you were one of the first to make a body of work there. 

I can't be among the first? Maybe not downtown specifically, but, for example, Max Yavno and others in much earlier decades, I think.

He shot more in San Francisco, no? My friend Bruce Hall shot a lot on Broadway in the mid-1980s. He says he never saw anyone else shoot there.

I'll check him out. There were people shooting; you just didn't run into them often; maybe shooting different days of the week.

I've been visiting L.A. annually for the past few years. Downtown is just flat out amazing. So much potential there! And I suspect it maybe hasn't changed a lot since you shot there. Actually it's beginning to change now.

I visited last year for four days of shooting. There wasn't commuter rail in the '80s, but now it's a dream setup: Ride the rail to one of many locations you might pick from the transit map, shoot out the window, then spend your day wherever: Downtown, Long Beach, East L.A. Get home, download, and spend the evening editing your haul.

What had changed downtown when you went back?

Just for example, Broadway. The L.A. Diamond Company is boarded up now; those "stars in the skies" no more. Things like that. Yet Broadway has retained its basic character – the way the stores and the sidewalk almost merge so that's it's like one big bazaar.

And I guess L.A. has changed in the same way other places have. Increasing homogeneity, diminishing character. Though compared with some other big cities, except in pockets, L.A. didn't have profound character anyway.

What do you mean no profound character?

I'm at a disadvantage talking about L.A., because I'm from L.A. Naturally I'm critical. L.A. has great character in many of its particulars, and the vastness of it – the natural, manmade, and demographic scope of it – is dizzying. But overall it's dull, superficial, and venal. It was always about strip malls even before the invention of the strip mall. And, for example, the influence of the entertainment industry on the local mentality. All the cliche things people say about L.A., all the jokes about it - they're true. I mean, what would anyone say is the character of Los Angeles? Go stand on the sidewalk at the intersection of Olympic and Westwood, for example. Three strip malls (one of them ESPECIALLY ugly) and a gas station. Tell me what that is supposed to be about. Granted, that is our fate in most cities, except in L.A. it's worse, more of it, and spread over endless miles.

And people on their phones. People mugging for the camera. People pestering you to take their picture. It is harder now.

Harder to make candid photos? Is there more awareness of cameras?

Harder to take pictures of people, yes, I think. This is really old news for me to mention, but so many people on their cell phones is a real downer. You can make a good shot of someone on a cell phone, so it's not ruled out, but so many people on the phones, all over the background, does make it harder. There's something about the fact that the person is wrapped up in a world in their phone that is not in the immediate scene of your photo. But I try to weave it in as best I can when it can't be avoided.

My rough impression is that some cities are better than others. The more urbane, tougher or older the town, the better. In those places, people have the basic common sense that "Sure, there are photographers who take pictures of people in public for news stories and magazines and things", so they don't feel a need to look at the camera and spread their arms and say, "Take my picture!"

How's Austin in that sense?

Austin is worse than L.A. and some other towns I've visited in the last few years. Austin is so self-super-hyped up. But there are enough people in Austin who do have that everyday desirable quality of just going right by you, "guy taking pictures, whatever."

But your comment referred to something deeper I think. A general awareness of cameras? A desire to interact with them?

I think so. Again, I'm not adding anything new to the discussion about this, but everyone has a camera in their hand and there's mass preoccupation with putting the pictures on the InstantChat, so when some people see a shooter, they think it's natural that they should be demonstrative in whatever way to be the star of the shot. And, yeah, interaction. For them the taking of the picture is a transaction that's like an Internet token. A token interaction that affirms their selfhood as posted on the social media.

Back to the '80s, did you show your work to other photographers?

I took a class in the spring of 1979 with Judith Golden. Her advice, as basic as it was, was the best advice in photography I ever got: She said that I was on to something, that I have a point of view and humor, and just keep doing it. Also some people who were kind enough to look at my pictures were Patrick Nagatani and Scott Rankin. But that was early, so I hadn't yet put together the work as a "body". Then I took a class with Winogrand. He introduced me to Marvin Israel and I showed him some stuff, and then shot assignments for him; also some freelancing for the L.A. Times and the L.A. Herald Examiner.

Funny thing related to Winogrand. There was a certain picture of mine he liked a lot. Later the city of Los Angeles had a photo contest to celebrate the city's 200th birthday, with twelve very nice, generous cash prizes. So I entered the picture Winogrand liked. But the judges awarded only four prizes; they felt that the other entries were not worthy enough, even though the city would have been just as happy to give out all twelve prizes. The prizes went to more ostentatious pieces – big arbitrary collages and things like that. Not something so humble as a single black and white 11x14. So the picture Winogrand liked lost.

Which photo was it?

The picture at Wilshire and Fairfax of the woman in the jaggedy stripped "barrel" wrap and the people and the department store window in front of her.

I sense some grievance even forty years later!

I didn't mind losing in itself. Of course it's fair that the judges exercise their discretion. And, of course, that Winogrand liked a certain picture doesn't then entitle it to automatic acclaim. But that the judges wouldn't deign to include a full set of winners. I find it funny that my picture was deemed not better than nothing.

But surely you can't get hung up on that stuff. Most judges don't know shit about photography. That's photo 101, right? They're just making it up as they go, looking around at what's already acclaimed. I don't have much faith in experts. It's like a musician getting upset over the Grammies. Why waste a second thinking about that?

Exactly about the Grammies. But some anecdotes put certain things in life in sharp relief.

Looking back now at those 1980s photos, would you pick different favorites now?

The sets on my site are a new edit. Most of the ones that were keeper prints in the '80s are still in. Also included are a lot of pictures I chose back in the '80s but never got around to printing. And some I hadn't noticed back then. And I dropped a few that seem weak to me now.

Do your early favorites still hit you like they did? 

Some have gone up and others down. Over time I've put them through a few stages of self-critical evaluation based on new things I'm learning all the time. But each time, when the smoke has cleared, they seem to come out about the same as always. Organizing them for display on the website has led me to more appreciation of the motifs and themes that run as connections among them.

What about the Punk series, which you shot around that time. What drew you to that scene?

Another student at UCLA saw some of my pictures and said, "A lot of action, you should shoot the punks". I didn't know what the punks were. Only vaguely. I even misunderstood what punk rock was: I thought it meant very young teenagers in a band (as in "punk" meaning a young bratty kid of no account). But he told me there were people beating one another and things like that. And I said, "Yes, that's for me." So I went.

Went where?

First I went to Madame Wong's West. And that was a dud. It was just a band wearing shirts with triangles and neon colors and stuff. So I knew that wasn't it. My next outing was to the Starwood and it was X and also the Plugz. That was better, but still not it.

Wait, X wasn't it? I love X! Exene Cervenka is in one of your photos.

I don't mean musically about X. I mean the crowd wasn't as rowdy as I was expecting. X is probably not the band for that. Then I went to the Starwood again, and it was the Weirdos, and that was good – the slam dancing and the toughness. Then Baces Hall with Black Flag. And that was excellent. Not so much beatings but a ritualistic crashing of bodies and random swinging of arms and fists. And there was a riot with the police too. So, jackpot. Then shortly after, the Hong Kong Cafe with Fear; by the end of the night the punks half trashed the place. When I saw the slam dance compositions from that night as I was hanging the rolls in the dryer I decided I would keep shooting this. But still not yet with a sense that it would be its own project.

There's an interesting twist about how the photographs have affected my memories: Flash forward to a few years ago when I scanned the negatives and prepared the images in the photo editing program. I found not only could I digitally dodge and burn the scans in more detail than you can with a negative in an enlarger, but I needed to. Otherwise, the tones don't come out right – they don't "hang together".

So when I made the digital images from the scans, I spent a lot more time with each picture than I ever had before. And after many nights of this, in my mind I started to transport back to being there with the punks. I was "reliving it large" you might say. And what happened was that this mental experience was more intense than the actual original experience. This is kind of the opposite of the rule that if you wait long enough to edit then your judgement will be better, more objective, less effected by your original enthusiasm when you took the pictures.

So when I think back now about that night at the Hong Kong Cafe, one of the first punk shows I shot, I am prone to conflate my enthusiasm now (which is "Holy Mother, I love this!") with a more detached feeling I had at that time. It was great fun and I did come to love it, but I was more intent on attending to all the routine things you have to do to get good shots.

What are those routine things?

Looking for content, looking for compositions, looking at backgrounds, getting into positions for shots, making your way through crowds, ordinary interactions with people, changing aperture and flash distance modes, focusing, reloading (pacing shots so that you avoid reloading during peak action), worrying how much is left in your battery pack.

"Holy Mother, I love this!" What did you love? The scene? The music? Both?

The whole time I shot that scene, my feelings were mixed. And a lot of the time it was boring. Waiting for bands to get ready. Hanging out after hours when things were not happening , no good shots seeming to be on the verge of formation. Feeling immured in those shitty clubs, with decrepitude everywhere, noisy with godawful loud sound checks, close and humid with the sweat of the crowd.

Since I was in my early teens, my love has been jazz. For me, jazz is the great truth and beauty in this world. Jazz means everything to me – as art, music, individual and cultural expression, spirit, standards of craft and honesty. So I first went to the punk not for the music, only for the shooting. But as I went to the shows, more and more I got into it. It appealed to my anti-conformism, my conflict with authority; I appreciated that these young people were willing to put themselves out there like that. And the sense of punk menace and drama fascinated me, the anarchic spectacle. And the despair and darkness I mentioned. And I was drawn to slam and the release of aggression in general (though sometimes it was beyond bounds). And the humor and wit in the lyrics. And the idea of art being something "nasty" and "ugly" in its way too. Art should be allowed to contain anything – even anti-social expression. And sometimes punk really rocks and you can't help but get caught up in it.

Do you think there's some crossover with jazz music?

Of course, there are always musicians who are combining things like punk and jazz.

Sure, some musicians cross boundaries. But the question was more about the pure forms. In their platonic ideals they seem to represent opposing ends in music. Jazz is about connoisseurship, technique, achievement. Punk is about rebelling against all that stuff. I think for someone invested in jazz, it might take a leap to sink into punk.

I don't think of jazz that way. Technique and achievement of course are important, but emotion, spirit, and most important – musicality. Virtuosity is highly valued in jazz, but you need that great technical mastery not usually for its own sake but rather to fulfill the special musicality that jazz offers. Connoisseurship would be jazz record collectors, I guess. Yes, it's important to have a good sense of what makes great jazz, but most important for me is the listening experience itself – that beautiful trance it puts you in.

Punk can put you in a trance too. So there's that. But some punk bands took pride in being anti-musical. The Sex Pistols could barely play their instruments. That seems very opposed to the aim of jazz. 

Jazz and punk are different in that way. But, for example, 'Never Mind The Bollocks' rocks. I don't know enough about it to opine as to their musicianship, and maybe their stance was anti-musicianship, I don't know, but it rocks.

Yup. It does.

Dead Kennedys were tight. Lots of punk has more technique than they might admit. And my impression is that over the decades, technique has become much more valued.

I think a lot of this applies to photography too. When photography gets too perfect it becomes boring. It needs some punk spirit to infuse it with life. Imperfection. Or atonality. Or however you want to phrase it. I think that's there in jazz too, but jazz more often falls into the trap of highbrow achievement.

Perfection in music and in photography is a fascinating and important subject. I think I know what you mean about some photographs being too neat and tidy. On a lot of subjects, my view is that there's not a simple answer; things can go either way. For example, someone might say they like actors who are very subtle and express a lot with great economy. So we might jump to say, "Yeah, that's really the mark of a great actor." But then we step back and realize that there are other actors who play it very broad, very demonstrative, and we love that too. So I think we appreciate the different personalities in the work of different photographers. Some are very studied and others are wild and wooly, and the continuum between. And funny you mention the analogy with music, because sometimes when I have a decision point to go neat or to go rough, I think, "What would my jazz heroes do? What would Sonny Clark do when he's writing a tune? Would he want to make it as tight and groovy as possible or rougher around the edges?" And it's usually the former. So, yeah, I think my photography is closer to jazz than to punk in that sense.

What other punk bands did you like from back in the day?

For my money, the best performances were by the Adolescents. With Tony Cadena each set was a whole emotional saga. And the songs like Amoeba were killer. But I liked most of the bands. Circle Jerks were another favorite. Black Flag, of course. Fear always put on a great show; great songs and great shtick. In fact, those bands kinda formed a "big four" in the scene.

Were the Adolescents in your photos? 

Ha. I'm busted. No shot of the Adolescents that I chose for the set. There is a shot of Steve Soto and Rikk Agnew, but it's not a concert shot. I'm pretty sure I do have some good shots of Tony Cadena, just not in this set. In the set there are shots of Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks, Weirdos, Exene, Black Randy, and a lot of others. I'd like to do another section: just musician shots, four to a page, but that puts me over budget.

For the book?

Yeah, but gotta raise the money for printing to make it happen. The old saying, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." I say, "Photography is easy, funding is hard."

You seemed to have some implicit agreement to shoot them in the halls or after the show or wherever. What was the arrangement?

Just shoot away. Even the portraits pretty much formed themselves in the moment. A few exceptions though. For example, that shot of Roger Rogerson of the Circle Jerks – I asked him to stand in front of those pipes. I think some of the portraits of the fans let you in on the sweetness of some of those kids. A lot of what went on was sweet and goofy, not always so tough.

I was not inclined to do the usual thing – composition-less pictures of punks making silly faces for the camera and that kind of thing. On the other hand, I wasn't  just patronizing, "Hey look how great punk is!" I think when you look at the photos you get that they were taken by someone who had an appreciation of the subject. 

How much were you taking part in the shows? Were you on the sidelines shooting? Or more involved as a participant? 

Not a participant much. But at Baces Hall, early in the night, I was shooting from the floor, and this guy must have seen that I'd have a better position from the stage, because without me even asking him, he boosted me up; Suddenly I felt someone pushing my butt and lifting me in the air and onto the stage where indeed I had a good angle. So from that moment I felt that some of these kids were cool. (I say 'kids' without condescension.) And I did develop bonhomie (that's an odd word to use connected with punk) with a lot of them. A couple of times, I put the camera in the bag, stashed it behind an amp on stage, and joined the slam dancing. I couldn't resist.

When a big concert came along, suddenly there would be hundreds and hundreds of kids you never saw before. Some of them would get hostile to me – leaping out of the slam directly at me. But then the guys who knew me would stand beside me tough, as if to say to the newbie, "You wanna go at the photographer, then you come through me first." So I wasn't a participant, but I came to be regarded as belonging.

But the slam dancing was the main thing for me photographically. The slam is its own thread woven through the sequence.

Yeah those slam dances must have been photo gold. Does that stuff still happen anymore? I'm not in the punk scene. 

Even in the '70s and '80s, the transition to hardcore, the "beach punks", slam and the physical aggression were disapproved by some people from the original punk phase. In Austin, I've been shooting punk concerts and hardcore metal; and slam is still happening, but it is more contained; it's friendlier. And the audience is more diverse, so there's not that concentrated intensity. Still, there are a lot of terrific bands, fun crowds, and the concerts are great.

The activity in your photos is so raw and vital. Is that gone now?

About the rawness and vitality, I wanted to render it with as much delineation and sharpness as 35mm could provide given those circumstances. So it had to be strobe on camera. Not the kind of blurry, low light look that one might associate with the rawness of punk. From the beginning, I knew it was important that a lot of the shots be from the floor, shooting the slam from just a few feet away, so that you get the faces straight on. And you get all those forms made by the arms and legs. The faces and the forms were the main thing. And the forms even more than the faces, because before 1986 I edited from negs – no contact sheets. Anyway, yes, I immediately saw the slam as a perfect opportunity.

Why no contacts?

From the beginning, I just naturally worked directly from the negatives. And cheaper.

I thought you were gonna say burnt out after printing all the Winogrand contacts.

Yeah, I sure was glad when we finished the Winogrand contacts and we could move on... Anyway, I've always been confident I could pick my shots from negs. Especially since forms were what motivated me most.

Did you gain a new respect for the importance of contacts after printing so many of Winogrand's?

It would have been impractical and an impossible strain for Szarkowski, Papageorge and Roma to edit from the negatives. In general, yes, it would be hard for someone to edit from only another photographer's negatives. But working on my own shots, while it was imperfect to edit from negs, it was feasible.

You're better than me. I need to see contacts to judge negs.

Your pictures are so different from mine. I couldn't imagine editing your pictures without contacts and work prints. Your pictures turn on such delicate relationships. Delicate but not fragile.

Well I could say the same about yours, or about any unplanned photo. The difference between a hit and a fail is often very slim. It might turn on just a tiny sliver of the photo being this or that. I think yours are that way too. Like your old black and white photos with several faces caught in the crowd. The synchronicity across the frame is uncanny. I know how hard it is to shoot those situations well. If just one little thing is off the whole thing falls down. Yours don't, and I'm impressed you can see which ones work without contacts.

I think the difference is that with your pictures one first sees the whole frame, then, after a beat, one sees the synchronicity in the details, and that exquisite aha then "radiates" back out so that we see how beautifully the synchronicity resides in the whole frame. With a lot of mine, I think you see the basic subject and concept of the picture first, and then you see the details, sometimes synchronicities.

But back to contacts, I used to kind of mistrust editing from contacts. You have a shot where the form doesn't seem strong on the neg, but it's got other features you do see on the contact or blowup – facial expressions, textures, etc. So I would feel it was kinda "cheating" to rely on those other aspects. Because composition is king. But over time I've become less rigid. Anyway, editing from contacts is better, but editing from negs is okay too.

You made a comment about going back to your old photos with digital tools, and the improved ease of toning/dodging/burning/etc. And it made me wonder if such "improvements" are always desirable. What do you think?

I think they are definitely for the good. I'm attempting to get the clearest and most detailed rendering that I can from the negative. Also, judiciously working with tones – making them beautiful in the relationships among them – is for me part of the creativity. I dodged and burned under the enlarger to get the best interpretation of the negative. And now digital allows me to do that in even greater detail. And the digital scan itself has already departed from the negative: Local gradation is different. Midtone contrast different. Everything. So you have to address that with the digital tools. In certain ways the result may be similar to the enlarger print and in certain ways even better. But when I work digitally, even though I have a memory of the enlarger print (sometimes looking right at), I make the digital version fresh, not already determined by how the enlarger print looked. I trust that I have a better eye now than I did thirty years ago, so conscience demands that I make the images the way I see them now.

That's not quite was I was getting at. Let me put it another way. If we were doing this as a live recorded interview it would be full of "uhs" and pauses and background noise, etc. Which we could clean up later in text edit. But perhaps some of that stuff might serve a purpose? As an essential document? 

The equivalent in photography might be dust specs or muddy tonality or something. Or in punk rock it might be a sort of feeling, which roots the experience. I understand the benefits of the new tools. But I'm questioning what might be lost, or if it's ever worth examining. We were discussing punk rock before where imperfection seems central to the expression.

I don't think of dust spots and things like that as involved in what I mean to communicate with pictures. My purpose is not to document aberrations or vagaries in the process. I am the author of the picture; I don't have to accept the whims of whatever dust or other detractions might occur. About punk, the photographs are not meant to convey that they are themselves incorporated into the values or essence of punk or anything like that. They are my visual concept and my own emotional reaction applied to the subject matter. The photos don't have to match punk music in regard to things like rawness or crudeness, etc. Anyway, detail across the tonal range, clear, sharp pictures give you more information, more energy, and better show the spirit of hardcore punk, because you can better SEE the people and events that are depicted.

What about when you listen to a vinyl record with occasional blips and imperfections. Is that enjoyable? Or more enjoyable than an mp3? Or watching a film with dust scratches during the opening numbers spiral? (I think they can add those in post now.)

I don't like scratches on a record. What I enjoy is the sound of the instruments; the scratches may be tolerated but, for me, they're not an attraction. The scratches aren't inherent in the musicians' artistic goals. Mp3 is so obviously lossy and doesn't offer any advantage over good vinyl. But with an enlarger print versus a digital image, they each have their advantages.

What do you think of Daido Moriyama's photos?

I can understand a basis for appreciation, but it's not what I usually gravitate toward. How about you?

Honestly I'm not a huge fan of his work. He has some great individual photos, but they tend to get lost in his oeuvre because his editing style is very loose. I understand that's part of his aesthetic, along with the grain/blur thing. He's an existential photographer with a very diaristic approach. But that style is less appealing for me than some other photographers who put more emphasis on individual photos.

I am curious about his contrast and grain. Is it a product of how one would ordinarily achieve that look (push the film and double down by using high contrast paper) or is there something more specific going on? 

Not sure.

I take it you asked me about him to see how I would comment about someone far from "perfectionistic". I like a lot of different kinds of photography, including the "loose" approach; and I can work that way sometimes too; it's just not my usual approach. Take Eugene Smith, for example: I like a some of his great pictures, but I'm more interested in Pittsburgh in the style of Teenie Harris than in the style of Eugene Smith.

I'm curious about your job as a music curator.

I design music programs that are played in stores and restaurants and things like that. I choose the tracks and how they should sequence.

How do you choose the tracks and the sequence?

There are two different kinds of programs: (1) A program exclusively for a certain business. (2) A "library" program that any business can use. The library programs are usually a certain music genre. I do mostly jazz programs. With (1) I consult with the client about what atmosphere they want and what kind of music would work. It can be a combination of different genres in a blend. Or it can be a single genre. Then I choose songs that fit the assignment. With (2) I fill out a set of songs that best covers the genre itself.

How do you source the music? Do you choose personal favorites, deep tracks? Or are you more constrained by the audience?

The sequencing is done by setting a pattern among the genres, patterns for the energies and other qualities of the songs. It's not always just favorites. Every program is different. I try always to choose the best songs given the purpose of the program. For most programs, I am trusted to choose good music – recognizable or deep cut.

Sounds pretty fun.

Definitely not a bad not way to make a living. It's exciting to discover great music of many kinds that I hadn't known before, and also deeply gratifying to listen yet again to tracks I've loved for a lifetime. I do a good job, I'm appreciated, and I love the people I work with.

I do a weekly radio show. The tension between recognizability and adventure is always at play. But it caters to non-commercial settings. If I played my show in the background of stores or public settings, business would immediately plunge!

Great. You're hired! 

I also do a radio show here in Austin. That's a jazz show – just an hour a month (three other guys each do the show on other weeks.) 

The radio programmer has two aspects to express himself: The overall set of songs, and the juxtaposition from one song to the next. The juxtapositions, for me, are the real creative aspect. How that one song ends and the other starts and the effect you create with that.

Is it different with your show versus your job? Less constraints?

At work, it's a much broader range of music. The show, on the other hand, is a personal statement. Your show is comes from the University of Oregon?

Yes it's on the college station here, which is one of the last holdouts for freewheeling adventurous audio

Same with the Austin station. We have virtually complete freedom to play what we want. It's a beautiful thing. I deeply respect the station (KOOP); it's true community radio – run by the volunteer show hosts and anyone who wants to get involved. It's an heroic and truly noble effort. I cherish the idealism.

I focus a lot on song segues. It takes a bit of effort to make them completely disjointed, which is often the effect I'm going for.

I like the idea of disjointed segues. This is where creativity is not limited to rules.

I'm sure you've considered this but photography can work according to the same logic. Sequence of photos and juxtaposition between images can be very influential.

Mark Shapiro, 1986-1988 (partial sequence shown)

It depends on the set of pictures. Some sets need more specific sequencing and others not as much. The dilemma I come upon is this: I see that I can make a really decisive juxtaposition as the pictures relate in a strong or highly suggestive way. But I sometimes I think that I don't want to be so overt; maybe instead let the viewer find those connections herself.

With a radio audience they're trapped! They can't skip ahead or back. They're locked in place. Whereas with a photobook or stack of prints there's more liberty. Context is everything. If you put photos in a book you're implying a specific sequence (even though the reader has some freedom) which maybe corresponds to a radio show format. But most photos out in the world aren't received in that format. They gotta survive on their own, like singles.

Exactly. The photo has a dual role that way.

I often play two songs at once if I think they might go together, and sometimes even if I don't. In photo terms it's like a double exposure. Sigh...I guess there's a reason random double exposures died out as a trend in the 70s, along with Prog.

One time by mistake I played two songs at once. By amazing luck, it sounded pretty good actually!

Mistakes often show the way forward.

By the way, the sequencing on my website is merely provisional. I think the pictures work together as sets, but there are a lot of nice things I can do with sequencing later. Yet the sequencing of the punk section is pretty good as is. There are subthreads through the main sequence: Slam, musicians, hanging out, portraits. And there's a beginning-middle-end arc to the whole thing.

The book is where you'll pin down the sequence. Scary.

What do you mean scary?

I mean that the process of putting photos in a book is akin to setting them in stone, a semi-permanent step. Maybe the fact that I find that step "scary" says something about me? That I have trouble committing? Or taking the plunge past irreversibility? I don't know. I tend to enjoy the state of being surrounded by loose work prints, open to constant rearrangement or reassessment. Books scare me.

I feel similar, but I think for different reasons. You enjoy the flux, while I tend to seek definiteness. But I hesitate to commit because I worry that I might have overlooked possible ways of making it better. There are 100 factorial ways to sequence 100 photos. A staggering number, maybe greater than all the atoms in the universe or something like that?

For me, the first thing about sequencing is to avoid bad juxtapositions. One photo that is too much like another or whatever the case. To make a really quick provisional sequence, first I put the photos in random order, then I move them around to avoid bad juxtapositions. Then maybe pick a few very choice, impactful juxtapositions, then let the rest of it basically settle where it is. But that's only provisional. Later I would go in more intentionally.

Do you apply the same rules to song sequencing?

On my radio show, I play with different kinds of sequencing, and it's a different approach from photos. Sometimes with music, I'll play pretty similar tracks next to one another, to illustrate the relationship or the influence of one musician on another. Last Saturday I played two different takes of the same song from the new Coltrane album. On one take he plays tenor; on the other take he plays soprano, same song.

Sounds similar to the way Robert Adams constructs photo books.

He's working in a context of showing fine distinctions among different views. I think?

He will sometimes show a sequence of the same scene from a few different viewpoints. Like the Coltrane example. The sequence is never clear. And extremely powerful. A good dynamic.

It's all guidelines or tendencies more than rules. Every situation is different.

Yes, that's what makes it fun. On my (now inactive) Tumblr, I sequenced roughly one thousand photos according to various themes, forms, patterns, etc. I'd post one every day or so. As with songs on the radio, the transitions are sometimes as jarring as the material itself. But I found that with Tumblr the effect was watered down because of the way streaming content coalesces into a larger feed.

Blake Andrews, One month of sequenced Penonomen

I don't like streams that go on and on and on. I like Penonomen back and forth between thumbnail view and stream view. I know that's not the intended presentation; but I like the convenience of thumbnails for going back to certain pictures.

I agree the image stream format can be off-putting. But since that is the dominant format of the web now, I've tried to cram my photos into that context. For some photos it works well but for others, especially larger projects and images that need context, it doesn't work well at all. I'm still trying to find my way through it, mostly now through Instagram. If I don't think about it too hard it can be fun to just let loose and immerse in the pure random sea of images.

I did find somewhere else the picture of the magazine on the restaurant table and the missing piece of sidewalk out the window. I love that picture. I miss your website. It was a tour de force. Usually I don't like when photographers group their work in categories like "Lineups", "Chameleon", etc. But with your pictures it worked excellently.

The labels on my old website were pretty raw, and sometimes clumsy, and always made after the fact of the images. I used to have a catchphrase there "Shoot First, Ask Questions Later", which in terms of web categories meant that seeing and capturing photos always came first, with no thought of how they'd later be clustered. Which is still how I do it. 

I feel a bit sheepish about some of those categories from the old site (Lineups, Chameleons, etc.) because many of them date back to the early 2000s when I first made my site, and when I'd only been shooting less than a decade. So my vision and my thinking were much more literal then, sometimes too literal. You can see that especially in the Lineups, which are essentially exercises in graphic design, without much deeper content. When I felt myself going down that rabbit hole and just seeking pure forms interacting, I decided to pull back from that. This was around when I switched from SLR to rangefinder, which aided the transition.

The particular way you use various ideas (almost as if gambits) fascinates me — synchronicity, rhyme, lineup, camouflage, continuation, ambiguity, mistaken identification, disorientation, overlap, juxtaposition, concatenation, anomaly, figure/ground, optical illusion. There are a lot of photographers who've been using lineups especially (and some of their pictures are great too), but you have so many that clearly excel. It's about the timing in which the viewer recognizes the synchronicity. Too soon and it's too obvious. Too late and it seems anti-climactic. How conscious of the devices are you when you compose? My impression is that it is usually conscious, but a good number of times it is only discovered later on the contacts or work prints?

My general goal is to approach all photo ops with an open mind. No expectations, no device, no preconceptions. In my ideal world I would have no style and no one would be able to associate any specific photo with my inclinations. 

Of course this is much easier said that done. There's no escaping the self. So what usually happens instead is I rely on an evolving bag of tricks to help me digest what I'm seeing. One of those "tricks" for many years has been formal pattern recognition. I love to match visual congruencies. It can be a bit of a trap for me.

As for seeing stuff later on contact sheets, that often happens too, and it's usually more exciting. The photos which I don't really remember taking but which surprise me later seem like a gift from above, some sort of sign that I'm on the right track. Those little hints are always welcome because honestly I sometimes have my doubts.

I agree about preconceptions. Each time I go out to shoot, I remind myself not to pre-plan what the pictures will look like. When I get to the shoot, I start forming ideas about how to make good and/or interesting pictures, but not in advance, and never (or as little as possible) do I have an editorial point of view while shooting. A lot of my pictures do have a point of view, but not from having decided beforehand.

Yes, the balance between control and serendipity is a constant presence. It is always in the back of my mind when editing, and sometimes while shooting.

Same here. Exactly. It's at the core of being a photographer.

I wish there were a place to look at more of your photos together in a comprehensive set. The car set and the animal set you have now on In-Public don't include so many of your other great pictures.

My basic problem, which I'm sure you can relate to, is that photography is a high volume endeavor. I shoot a ton, and this means that any static site (like In-Public) gets old after a few weeks. That's one reason I don't have a website.  I am two years behind negs, developing four rolls every day, and I will never catch up. So that's just the basic state of things. A static website can't handle it. Instagram gets closer to the daily flow, but it's still just a tiny window. Don't get me wrong. I like my photos which are online. But I don't think they're very representative. And maybe that's okay, because nothing will ever be truly representative. 

In the end it all comes back to the fact that there's a limited audience for photography. A website? Why put all this effort and work into showcasing web photos when very few people give a shit? Not to sound too cynical but that's essentially the equation facing most amateurs like you and me. You can try and subvert the situation by playing the art game, but then you're going to spend a lot of your time on non-photographic stuff. Achievement in art is like achievement in life. The people who are successful generally combine skill with extreme careerist drive. For better or for worse, I don't have that drive. All I care about is making photos. I know that sounds like a dumb cliche but it's kinda true. 

Yes, that is the rub: Making the pictures is one thing, and promoting oneself is quite another. I very personally identify with a lot of what you just said, including the meta about it.

By "amateurs" I think you mean that we don't make our livelihood through photography. But it needs to be stressed that, in another sense, we are the opposite of amateurs. It's obvious that photography is at the core of who you are. And you might guess that, except when I'm on a (twenty four year!) hiatus, I'm at it pretty assiduously too.

I mean "amateur" in the best sense, and in its literal sense (amateur = lover). In my opinion, the vast bulk of important photos have been made by amateurs and/or under amateur circumstances. I think this is one thing which separates photography from other highly skilled endeavors. With most other pursuits – music, writing, painting, law, medicine, sports, etc. – the highest achievements are generally made by professionals. In photography that equation is turned on its head. The professionals are basically the service industry, while the best photographs are consistently taken by non-professionals. So "amateur", or lover, is the highest form of praise in my opinion.

Speaking of photo lovers, how was the Winogrand project for you?

Winogrand died in '84. In '86 I caught word that Tom Consilvio, his friend and printer, would be developing and making the contact sheets of the thousands of rolls left behind – either not contracted or not developed – and that he'd need people to help him. He was building the lab where it would be done. So I went there and got onboard as part of a three man crew to make the contact sheets. Consilvio developed the film, then later made the prints, but he wasn't part of making the contacts. Meanwhile, he was working on the lab to make it a full service custom lab open to the public.

This was in L.A.?

In L.A. Silver Lab. (I joked that it should have been called 'Quicksilver', because Tom was mercurial.) A storefront at 814 North La Brea, a block up from Melrose. Consilvio built a really beautiful lab. Two darkrooms (later three plus a film processing room with a black and white machine processor he built). Wooden sinks. The very best enlargers. Print washing and drying area. Finishing area, wooden front counter. And a lounge area up front. And he was generous to allow me to make my own prints after-hours (with my own paper; I used different paper from him anyway). So my workflow during '86 to '88 was so much better. That lab was stylin' for me.

I worked on the contacts from beginning to end. It was a very minor and virtually anonymous role in the project, but it was meaningful for me, as it should be. I was able to study the contacts before they shipped to New York. And Consilvio was extremely generous to let me choose whatever negs I wanted to make prints from, to decorate the lab. The prints had no part whatsoever in the process of making the show and the book, but it was rewarding for me to print those negatives. I chose the bartender with the cat, the girl lifted from the taxi, the man looking at a coin in his hand, and some others.

So let me get the process straight. You were making contact prints. But if you came across an interesting negative you'd pull it aside for a print?

As we accumulated one box of contacts after another, I'd go through the boxes; with a loupe I'd look at the shots on all the sheets. Then I would make note of some shots and get the negs to print them.

Where are those prints now?

I don't know. I left them there when I left the lab. I imagine they were trashed at some point after Tom died and the lab was sold. Eventually the lab itself was dismantled. I didn't keep any of the prints I made. I would consider it rogue.

Just to clarify, the contact sheets you were making were from freshly developed negs that no one had seen before, including Winogrand himself? It must've been exciting seeing the negs first. Like, who knows what could be there?

Winogrand died with thousands of rolls that had been developed but not contacted. And thousands that had not been developed. We made the contacts of all of them.

Did you have any way to alert someone if you liked a certain negative. Or was it all in Szarkowski's hands?

I would not have presumed to put my two cents in about the shots. Editing was up to Szarkowski, Papageorge and Roma.

Some people say how bad Winogrand's shooting was for that period. And true, there are sheet after sheet of not even remotely interesting shots. But there are gems. I was happy to see Szarkowski choose the cat/bartender and girl/taxi. And, if I'm not mistaken, Rubinfien (or Dyer?) chose the man/coin. But there are shots that I think are gems that none of the curators have seemed to use.

If we've learned anything since that show it's that crowd sourcing can sometimes produce unexpectedly strong curations. Give any ten photographers those contacts and each one would pick a completely different show. So the Szarkowski model seems to be waning. The converse is that Szarkowski built Winogrand. Without a strong curatorial voice he'd have been nothing, just another forgotten film junkie. So who knows. 

Szarkowski is a hero as hero can be for me in photography. He's the best writer I've ever read on the subject. And he made some great photographs himself. But I didn't like that he essentially dissed Winogrand (granted, in a larger context of praising him). Szarkowski complained how onerous was the tedium of going through so many pointless exposures. True, the sheets are numbing; but the artist is not responsible for bad pictures not displayed, only for what is displayed. So Szarkowski's gripe about it is not relevant to the final product. It's not a question of whether Winogrand had high keeper/reject ratio. It should be only: What are the good shots that Szarkowski found? Stuff about Winogrand meanwhile shooting aimlessly is not the point. Szarkowski didn't mean to disservice Winogrand, but that was the effect of the essay that contained the badly premised complaining.

What's your own impression of Winogrand's late work?

There's a lot of Winogrand that I don't care for, from different periods. That's not a judgement meant to convince anyone one way or another. Just my own taste. On the other hand, he made so many great pictures that I love. And great in such an individualistic way. And he and some of his contemporaries were brave to go out on a limb like that. Sometimes I wonder whether they were brave or whether they weren't even thinking in those terms but were just naturally making the work that was coming out of them. And what he had to say about photography, and how he said it (though I disagree with his stance that photographs have no narrative capability). I can't emphasize enough how enormous Winogrand's contribution is.

Well, duh. Some days he's my favorite photographer. His photos are as astonishing as they are misunderstood. I think most people see them as random garbage shots, which is wonderful! There is a contingent of people that just don't get it, and I love that. I savor disagreement. It's what makes the world go around, especially the art world. It gives me extra confidence that the "experts" are possibly wrong. Not necessarily wrong. But their view is only one among many. 

I think people overlook how intimate and personal looking at a photograph is.

It can be. What I cherish above all is personal taste. If I like a photo, fine. I like it. And if you like another, that's fine. But too often opinions are pushed around by supposed authorities saying what's good. That's bullshit.

I love art, and some parts of the art world, and I don't mean to cast it all in a negative light. I guess my main beef is that many people seem too willing to subsume their own taste to outside influence. When you add market dynamics to this situation, it creates a huge stinking mess. But I'm no longer very angry about it. It is what it is, and I think it may be counterproductive to let that stuff seep into your process.

You said you're working on new techniques (adding to your "bag of tricks"). How would you describe those new approaches? Since you're two years behind, I guess you won't see what your new approach is looking like until a couple years later? Or maybe sometimes you develop/proof out of chronological order? 

It's hard to quantify what the new tricks are beyond saying generally that my visual style is constantly changing, along with all other aspects of aging. As for staying current and general technique, I always process and print negatives chronologically. It's the only way to keep some semblance of order. Otherwise my photos would be even more of a clusterfuck than they are.

I sometimes think consciously about new approaches but mostly they arrive on their own as accumulations of small insights. It's fun when you suddenly catch on that you're doing something new.

Sorry that this is a rote question, but I am curious: Who are your favorite 20th century photographers? 21st century photographers? 

Sorry to give a rote answer but my two favorites from the 20th century are Friedlander and Winogrand. I admire their work ethic, their distinctive voices, and of course the individual photos, from which I've learned plenty. Along with those two I could name a lost list of other 20th century photographers, mostly the usual suspects.

It's hard to think of a photography with the level of imagination and creativity in so many different kids of picture making situations as Friedlander.

Some 21st century favorites (with slight 20th century overlap): Alec Soth, Mark Steinmetz, Sage Sohier, Huger Foote, Jason Fulford, Curran Hatleberg, Vanessa Winship, Gerry Johanssen, Jeff Mermelstein off the top of my head. There are many others. Generally I like photographers with a strong personal voice, who can speak visually through their photos, without a lot of extra info required.

Yeah, Sage Sohier and Mark Steinmetz. So many others, including Jason Eskenazi, Emil Gautallin, Sergio Purtell (except for his overly flat contrast, though I understand his philosophical reason). And especially Pinkhassov. 

In my core, I'm probably closest to Weegee. Not including folks we already , mentioned, and leaving out so many, forgive my usual suspects obviousness: O'Sullivan, Ansel Adams (but not his later printing style) , Cartier-Bresson, Weston, Evans, Russell Lee, Siskind, Callahan, Duncan, Frank, Riboud, McCullin, Burroughs, Arbus, Avedon, Vink, Killip, Peress, Salgado, Nachtwey, Misrach, Sternfeld, Papageorge, Wessel (especially for technical quality).

I can see the Weegee connection. I love his photos. I suppose he was the exception that proves my rule about amateurs. Most of his photos were professionally motivated. But they're still amazing.

Recently I was reading your bio at In-Public. You said your first years were peripatetic in a VW bus. Does that mean your parents were hippies? 

My parents were on the tail-end of the hippie thing, as it spun off into back-to-the-landers. The bus years happened when they were getting settled in California, and making a few cross country trips in the process.

What was it like growing up? 

I was blessed with an idyllic childhood. We lived in a beautiful area, in a very progressive community, and I was allowed a lot of freedom to explore. A potential pitfall for many rural environments is that they can be culturally stifling. But my little corner of Northern California circumvented that for a while in the '70s with an influx of highly educated and idealistic neo-pioneers. Ideas and music and drugs and tolerance and dirt and skin were in steady supply. It was Little House On The Prairie meets Greenwich Village. The best of both worlds, and also the worst.

What do you mean by worst?

I lived in a hippie bubble. I had very little interaction with other races, immigrants, mass transit, cultural institutions, the stuff that most people deal with every day, that enriches and forms the fabric of basic society. So I had to figure out all that stuff later. For my entire childhood I can't remember ever locking our house or our car. My first week living in a city, Providence, I leaned my bike against the corner drugstore while I popped inside for a soda. When I came back out five minutes later it was gone. That was an instant education on locks. 

When I see people leaving a bike unlocked, I go right up to tell them to put the  lock on it, otherwise they're foolish. Same thing with people who leave their purse or bag in a shopping cart – not to be turning their back looking at the shelves while their bag is ripe for the picking like that.

Yeah, well, lesson learned. The lock thing just speaks to the fact I was like Tarzan transplanted into civilization, with a lot of catching up to do. Plus I grew up with the usual small-town stuff, a less than rigorous education, germs, etc. Staph and lice and scabies were always circulating among the school children.

Egads, call the CDC.

The closest office was a thousand miles away.

I grew up in a tract house neighborhood in Sun Valley, a suburb within incorporated Los Angeles in the northeast San Fernando Valley. A range from middle level professionals to working class. But I think predominately in the upper end of the lower middle class. So upper lower middle class. Mostly Christian European-American, but some Jewish families, and a good number of Mexican-Americans, some Japanese-Americans, one African-American family, and a few native Americans. So I was lucky in that way. But not yet the kind of diversity where you have Korean, Vietnamese, Guatemalan, etc. Generally there was tolerance, but some racism, with Mexican-Americans taking the brunt, and as a target myself, I can attest that there was plenty of anti-Semitism too. 

Later I lived in different parts of L.A.: Hollywood, East Hollywood, Silver Lake, West L.A.

One thing which characterized my parents and their community was a rejection of common mores. The national affinity for marketing, celebrity, promotional culture, conspicuous consumption, authoritarianism, mediation, keeping up with the Joneses, etc. In short, all the traits which define mainstream America, and are now perfectly embodied in our sorry excuse for a president, created a culture from which they wanted out. So they moved to a place as far removed as possible, both physically and psychogeographically. 

I have a similar outlook. I'm quite skeptical of mainstream culture, and a similar mentality is very present in Eugene. It's one thing that attracted me here. Sometimes I feel like an anachronism. The spirit of exploration and wandering which characterized much of the 1970s has mostly disappeared in contemporary culture. Society seems incredibly goal-oriented now, in one way or another. Also missing is a sense of reverence or awe.

And that influenced your photography too.

I like to explore. I don't like boundaries. I don't like rules. I guess some parts of me have never grown up.  

You mentioned LSD in your bio. What influence did it have on you? 

I only experimented with it over the course of a few short years during adolescence but it has had a lasting impact. The immediate effect was I lost interest in personal appearance, hygiene, fashion, and all the little meaningless shit that teens sometimes get lost in. That was a blessing. In the longer timeframe, I think my psychedelic experiences made me a little less sure about everything I thought I knew. I became generally more open-minded and receptive to alternate thoughts and people and situations. Since most of the major fuckups in the world are created by highly confident people, maybe it's good to be a bit unsure sometimes. Not all who wander are lost.

Photographically, I think it's had less impact. My style photography tends to be very literal and very visual. It's just me with a pair of eyes walking around, and I don't think my sober eyes see things very differently than pre-LSD sober eyes. I've tried taking photos under various mind-altering substances, and most of those photos turn out terrible. 

As a kid, I doubted and criticized my school teachers, and got in trouble for it. So I guess it was inevitable that I would take acid when I reached my late teens. I wouldn't have predicted it though, because the first I ever heard of it was a 1965 episode of the TV show "The Defenders" where they enacted an LSD trip and the character commits suicide, and that was not attractive to me.

Only five years later, my friend told me about tripping. So I researched it by reading everything – The Doors Of Perception and all that (I'm a nut that way – I hardly do anything without researching first). When I took my first trip, I swallowed the pill thinking, "If it's good enough for Aldous Huxley, it's good enough for me."  

After tripping through the night, just starting to wind down, I wandered outside and ended up on Hollywood Boulevard on a Sunday morning. And there were tanks and soldiers, and a movie crew and big lights and cranes, and all kinds of crazy things – all up and down Hollywood Boulevard. I couldn't tell whether it was real or my tripping. Later the Mazursky movie Alex In Wonderland came out with a scene of an acid trip on Hollywood Boulevard, and I realized that what I saw was mostly real after all; I had been on an LSD trip watching the filming of an LSD trip.

Unlike pot, things you experience on LSD can have a deep lasting affect. One thing that stayed with me from that Alex In Wonderland morning was a greater appreciation of complexity and even confusion in art. 

I had a fair number of trips, some of them "cosmic", but eventually I got into a stretch of bad trips – horrifying nightmares, including being in a concentration camp. Then, in a series of attempts, the drug wouldn't affect me. But in my last trip, in 1973, I had the most profound "ontological" experience.  Not only did I lose my ego, but I reached a pinnacle in which I transcended even the law of non-contradiction. When I came down, I realized that I could never top that – it was the end of tripping for me.  

But I agree with everything you said about opening the mind. For photography, for me, dreams are more important. Especially lucid dreaming. In lucid dreams I marvel at the dazzling visual world, especially the textures of everything. And I dream scenes of vast, complicated industrial cities and other sweeping scenes – things I want to take pictures of. But those dreams are more inspiration than practical advice.

Sounds like I need to see that movie.

You took Environmental Studies in college. What drew you to that? A passion for conservation and protection? 

It could probably be traced once again to my childhood. I grew up during the timber wars. Old growth redwoods were under threat. Most people I knew were basically eco-radicals, either galvanized by that issue or a generally anti-corporate spirit. So I grew interested in environmental issues, and they are still my primary political concern. E.S. was my college major, and I worked in that field for a few years after. I was young and idealistic, and it made sense at the time. Save the world, bla bla bla. 

But I've come to accept that civilization is kinda fucked. Minor tweaks in greenhouse emissions, recycling, mileage standards, saving a few acres here and there. Everything helps, but in the end it's just a few fingers in the dyke. The people in power, who could potentially create change, are incredibly careless and ignorant and short-sighted. Sorry to be such a cynic. Maybe it cycles back to an earlier thought: Get the photos NOW. The world might end soon. 

The irony is that through photography I've managed to find my way back to "environmental studies." What I do now every day is study my environment visually.

I forgot who it was said, "A few decades from now they'll say about this decade: Why was anyone talking about ANYTHING other than climate?"

We'll see.

During your teens you were into math. (I'm also interested in mathematics. Mainly mathematical logic and set theory.) What drew you to math? Does it relate to your photography?

I don't know. I've been a left-brained person forever. It's just how I'm built. It relates to photography in the way I see patterns and shapes and formality. Many of my photos are basically math problems, putting layers and spacing into certain permutations. 

One of the things I love about math (and jazz) is the honesty. There's no faking it. No emperor's new clothes. That can be applied to photography too. 

Hmm. Well I think math is probably more honest than photography.

In '97 you bought a house and in '98 sold a print. So you were able to pay off a big part of the mortgage. 

Haha! I wish. Yeah, speaking of math problems...

Anyway, you were only 29 when you bought a house but weren't yet married. How did that come about? Was owning a home a special objective for you?

Back in the mid 1990s Portland was fairly affordable. So buying a house was kind of a no-brainer at the time. It was not a special objective. Tabatha (my girlfriend/future wife) was the main instigator. After that I guess marriage seemed like the next logical step.

How did you happen to move to Portland right after graduating from Brown? 

After school I was ready to move back to the West Coast, and Portland seemed like an interesting place. I'd been there a few times and gotten a good vibe. Back then no one was moving there. I knew no one in the city, and everything there was unexplored. So it seemed attractive. 

Later you moved to Eugene. 

Long story short, but basically we had a young growing family in a small house in Portland. We needed more space. So we cast the search net for a new house kinda wide around the Portland area, carefully avoiding the suburbs, and didn't find much. A listing for a dome house in Eugene put that area on our radar. Then we looked closer at Eugene, and wound up finding a nice piece of property here on the city outskirts which immediately felt good. The land reminds me some of California where I grew up, with a mix of meadow and forest, and good sun. So we bought the land, built a house, and boom. Here we are. We escaped Portland just as it was getting out of control. 

But do you miss Portland nevertheless? 

The thing I miss most about Portland are the close friends I made there. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. I also miss the photo scene there, since Eugene's photo community is much less developed. But I don't miss Portland's traffic or its self-absorption, or its insatiable need to rebuild itself. 

Sounds similar to Austin, famously. When I first came to Austin, my first night here, I went to a bar downtown, just starting an exploration of the city. A woman struck up a conversation with me and asked me where I'm from. I told her I came from L.A. She said, "Oh, your one of THOSE." I said, "One of what?" She said, "the encroachers." I thought that was unfair. But within a couple of years, I understood what she meant. I admire Austin, though. There's a fierce determination to preserve tolerance, liberality, non-conformity and open expression. In that way, I fit in, but in other ways, I'm so out of place. 

Portland stole Austin's bumper sticker. So they'll always have that connection.

What cities (U.S. or the world) would you most like to spend more time photographing?

It doesn't matter too much. I can make photos anywhere. There are a zillion cities I've never visited, so any one of them would work for me. I can spend five hours exploring one block. So a whole city is more than I need. Any place is fine. Fargo, Atlanta, Rochester, San Diego, whatever. Even a small town somewhere. I'm not picky. I will find good material any place that feels authentic (except suburbs), so long as it feels fresh and unexplored.

Yeah, your imagination is resourceful. I do the same in Austin. But I need to shoot other cities sometimes. For shooting I prefer cities that feel more worn. The industrial Midwest interests me a lot more than the sunny Southwest. 

I have more projects I want to do here in Austin, but I want to be shooting elsewhere too. Risking cliche here, but I feel my best shooting is ahead of me – because I understand more and I can push myself to go deeper.

All photos above © Mark Shapiro unless otherwise noted. Big thanks to Mark Shapiro for his help editing our chats into final form.


Stan B. said...

Fun & Educational!

Didi S. said...

Engrossing conversation full of tasty food for thought and fabulous photos. Thanks to you both for sharing.

Don Hudson said...

An amazing body of work, both then and now...thanks Blake

markalor said...

Sharp interview. His punk series is other-worldly.

Marilyn Andrews said...

Who interviewed who? Learned a lot about your childhood, Blake. Neither of you mentioned Berenice Abbott or Helen Levitt as a favorite 20th c photographer?

Jim Pintos said...

Mark Shapiro has an incredible eye and sounds like a wild, interesting dude. Looking forward to seeing more information about his book!

Hernan Zenteno said...

Excellent chat. Being from other country there are some things that I can't catch. What I enjoy more is that your conversation make me know some punk bands I didn't heard before here and some photographers too. Winogrand late work, edition, music and photography and several common considerations about maintained me hooked. Now I'm enjoying Mark Shapiro website, thanks for let me known his work. Ah, by the way, there are some professional photographers that share amateur heart, first years of Trent Parke for example. I think Erwitt have that too.

Nishad said...

Love the fact that Mark interview you back. Thanks to both of you for putting this together and sharing. So much food for thought :)

Firstgen said...

Never seen MS's stuff before, the Internet's a cool thing, thanks BA!