|Photo by Edward Mapplethorpe|
Sergio Purtell is a photographer and printer based in Brooklyn, NY.
SP: I was born in Santiago in 1955. My mother was born in Brazil; her mother was Chilean-German, her father an immigrant from Moldova. The family moved back to Chile when my mother was quite young. She was from a large family....5 siblings. All of them lived in Santiago (the largest city in Chile, with a population of about 3 million when I lived there), and her mother had a small urban farm on the outskirts of the city. Chile had also been hit by the Great Depression, and my grandfather had lost everything. My mother, the youngest, had to pitch in to help the family get by. When I was very young, my mother and I shared a house with one of her sisters and her son. My cousin and I, both only children, grew up like brothers.
What about your father?
My father was from the U.S., Massachusetts to be exact. His mother was from an old Yankee family, his father born in Boston to parents straight from Ireland. My joke is that my artistic talent is from my dad, as he was a bit of a con-artist!
Was he an actual artist too?
Not Really. His grandfather was an Irish immigrant, probably escaping famine or poverty to find a better life for himself. His grandfather had married a Yankee woman from Whitman, a town in Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Her ancestors go back to the beginning of the US. My father had two sisters. For reasons that are still a mystery, my father was given for adoption when he was two or three — and that is when his troubles began. He ran away many times, and by late adolescence had joined the merchant marines and experienced the world, hopping from one vessel to the next. On one of those stops his ship docked in New Bedford. He met and married a local and thus my half-brother came to be. But he could never stand still —he would sign onto a ship, disappearing for months, traveling the world and leaving his wife and my half-brother to fend for themselves. His wife eventually divorced him. Much later, when I tracked down my father and found out about my half-brother, I realized what a lonely life my father had — constantly on the move, trying to find the unconditional love he never experienced.
By the time I caught up with him in 1974/75, he had been a globe trotting merchant marine, a tailor, a furrier, an appliances salesman, a baptist minister but more importantly a con artist. In the mid 50’s he came up with a whole new scheme. He found out that Peron, the Argentinian dictator, loved Harley-Davidson motorcycles. So he wrote to Harley-Davidson, pleading with them to donate one of his bikes. He would use it on a trip he had planned, starting in Fairbanks Alaska and culminating at the end of America, arriving in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the red carpet would be rolled out for him by his new buddy Peron. “Wild Bill”, as his friends in the US called him, would become an instant celebrity.
None of this happened. Harley Davidson would not give him a free motorcycle. They claimed they had given too many that year, or maybe they sniffed a con artist. Nevertheless, he purchased his own bike, only affording the smallest and lightest one. In those days, superhighways didn't exist. The Pan-American highway was a two lane dirt road for the most part, and many times one would have to get into a small vessel to cross the water where the “highway” would abruptly end. There were dense forests in the mato grosso where there was no road whatsoever. He made it as far as the Northern part of Chile, an area called the Atacama Desert, which is the driest desert in the world. I suppose it must have been disappointing to his ego, specially after the Odyssey style journey he had just clocked. He made his way to Santiago by train. His plan was to then travel to Valparaiso to jump on a ship that would take him back home.
In Santiago, he met my mother who was working at a travel agency. They got married, traveled a bit in Chile, and pregnant, ended up in Arica, the farthest northern city in Chile. There he said goodbye, as he would be returning to the US to close his affairs. He never came back. I never actually met my father.
|from Real II|
Yeah, an interesting guy with a million stories, but a crappy father!
His loss. Were you artistic as a kid?
The first memory I have of my visual interest in the world came from travels with my mother’s brothers. My Uncle Jacobo drove a 1960s Messerschmitt, which looked like a cockpit of a small plane and the passenger sat directly behind the driver. He would drive me through the streets of Santiago, allowing the city to flash past my eyes in what seemed a completely exposed capsule (time, sight, and memory all merged into one creating forms and shapes that were engraved in my cortex). Uncle Guillermo drove a cargo truck that he took on long hauls up and down the PanAmerican Highway which runs north and south on the skinny Chilean geography. He would take me along sometimes. On these trips I started to understand the idea of narrative; the truck was slower and moved through the lonely landscape giving my mind room to stretch and articulate thoughts.
The last of my early visual schooling was when I landed in boarding school at age twelve. My mom, being a single parent, was too busy working to be looking after me, so enrolled me in a boarding school in the city. My trips back and forth from school on the weekends were done on public transportation, buses which careened through the city, creating a daredevil quality about them because of the speed and carelessness at which they traveled. I began to take mental notes of my travels: the shape of houses, the public gestures of the people, the shape of clouds, the quality of light, and all this perfectly framed by the bus window, the tableau changing every second. It was an all boys school fashioned in structure to English public schools, where students remain with the same class (30 students or so) through the 5 years, so I developed friendships that I still maintain through WhatsApp to this day.
Toward the end of my high school years I was ready to break free and go as far as I could. I think because of the restrictions I felt then, I took the opportunity to go to the US the first time in early 1972 as an exchange student with the American Field Service, to the small town of Hamilton, Ohio, near the Kentucky border. I spoke very little English, so I had a lot to learn both the language and the vast cultural differences. When I arrived I had total culture shock. Even though I grew up in a city of 3 million, in a lot of ways Santiago felt provincial, even in comparison to smaller American cities I experienced later, like New Bedford, Providence and New Haven. After one semester there, I went back to Santiago to graduate high school and start college, studying architecture. I left Chile again in 1973. The political situation was very dicey. I got out right before the coup d’état and military took over the government, killing the democratically elected Socialist president. This time I came to stay, as there were few possibilities to be an artist within a military dictatorship. My mother stayed behind, as did her whole family. So I was on my own!
I returned to Ohio because my exchange program family invited me to stay with them if I ever came back to the US. I took classes at a local community college, paying my way by doing a lot of menial jobs: I pumped gas, washed and waxed cars, did yard work for a landscaper, flipped burgers at McDonalds and worked at a foundry. In the process of filing to claim my citizenship (which I could as the son of an American), I found that I had a half-brother, who was 15 years older (and was as unaware of me as I was of him). Through luck, since he has the same name as my father, he was contacted by the immigration office...he called me, and without further ado, had me hop on a bus and relocate to Mattapoisett, Massachusetts where he lived with his wife, mother, and four young sons.
As someone who has experienced the threat of an authoritarian regime, do you think there are parallels between the US now under Trump and Chile under Pinochet?
I went through one of my most educational and formative periods while in boarding school. It was the late 60’s, early 70’s. The world was in a political upheaval: the cold war, nuclear threats and conflict in Vietnam, the fight for Civil Rights, the assassinations of JFK and MLK. It was one of the most tumultuous and divisive decades in world history, maybe until now. Riots, protests, and social movements. The youth around the world became increasingly involved in causes such as anti-poverty, anti-war, and anti-censorship to rally behind.
At school, we would protest by taking over the classroom, locking ourselves in and blocking the teachers or the schools authorities from coming in. We would go out in the streets to demonstrate, and get into fights with the police and sometimes get arrested. At the same time we would help build houses for those in need. We were experiencing radical changes which in turn radicalized us, giving us a world perspective. Salvador Allende, a physician and a Socialist was elected the 28th president of Chile November 1970. He was the first Socialist to be elected president in a liberal democracy in Latin America. He pledged to move Chile to socialism within a constitutional framework; Chile’s workers and the poor were entitled to a better life — not only with economic security but to experience “the joy of living.” He maintained Chile’s right to its own resources.
These views proved too much for those who held power in the U.S. The CIA, Kissinger and Nixon backed the military dictator Augusto Pinochet, installed on September 11, 1973 (my first 9/11), the day Allende was murdered. It was not until later that we Chileans (and the world) found out that the U.S. had helped the Chilean military stage the coup, with the sole reason to protect their interests. Anaconda, the biggest producer of copper in the world, was fully controlled and owned by U.S. interests at the time.
I left Chile right before the imminent dictatorship (in June of 73) and was young enough to be able to start a new life elsewhere, and lucky to be able to claim citizenship in the US ....but my mother and all my relatives remained. I was able to visit them as the borders were not closed. Life in Chile at that time for anyone that did not support the dictatorship was a nightmare and over 3000 people died or went desaparecidos. Stadiums became almost the equivalent of concentration camps where people were dumped after being arrested, tortured and killed. I have friends that lost their lives, and family members that were harassed.
|from Real IV|
On one of my trips I was arrested for making pictures by six heavily armed riot police and put on a bus where several men lay on their stomach, handcuffed, their mouths taped. The police roughed me up, took my camera and camera bag, and proceeded to pull all the film out the cartridge, exposing it to the light. As they were shoving me towards the back of the bus an officer entered the bus and asked who I was. I responded “I am an American citizen” and once he looked at my passport I was quickly removed from the bus. Outside there were many people waiting—crying, asking about the welfare of their loved ones. I realized my sudden freedom was due at that moment to the power of the U.S. I don’t know what happened to those poor men.
How worried should we be about America’s current political direction?
Before the 2016 election, for the first time in my 47 years of living in the US, I sensed a shift that started first with rhetoric and then with political actions. If you’ve experienced fascism or totalitarian regime you understand that there is a clear path taken, with predictable steps. Once people are hooked and have embarked in its trajectory it is hard to get off. I started warning acquaintances. I remember warning that Trump was going to win the election, and I got into some heated debates with friends. My wife started calling me Trotsky. During one of those exchanges I was asked to leave a friend’s house because he felt I was being condescending. I tried to explain that I had already experienced what we were about to engage in if Trump was elected (a few people reached out after the election to say “you were right”).
Early warnings signs of fascism: Powerful and continuing nationalism, disdain for human rights, identification of enemies as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, rampant sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with national security, religion and government intertwined, corporate power protected, suppression of labor power, disdain for intellectuals & the arts, obsession with crime & punishment, rampant cronyism & corruption, fraudulent elections.
So yes, there are parallels. A lot of thinkers believe that democracy is in decline in this country, and around the world there is fear that we are heading back to the 1920s and 30s when the US retracted from the world arena and countries all over pursued their own interests. German and Italian fascists began deconstructing legal systems of justice that had been in place for a long time. Our president’s disrespect for the truth, increased acceptance of dehumanizing slander, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and all of this as normal public debate. We may not be there yet but the signposts are familiar to a time when fascism happened faster than anyone could predict.
My question is, as our country the U.S. isolates itself by building a steel wall to the south — Is it to keep people out or to keep Americans in?
How did you first get into photography?
My brother Bill was very keen on education, and encouraged me to attend Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMASS Dartmouth). I enrolled at SMU with the goal of eventually moving to Boston to study architecture at MIT. My brother encouraged me to take some of the electives at SMU to improve my English skills. I started by taking art history, figure drawing, graphic design and three -dimensional design, but also took a class in photography and quickly realized that was my calling.
A fellow student transferred to RISD, and encouraged me to do the same. While at RISD I also worked: loading and unloading trucks for UPS (Teamsters local union 57), as a butcher at the meat department at Fernandez supermarkets and a monitor at Benson Hall, the photo building. I graduated with a BA in 1980...and then, newly married to a fellow RISDite, went straight to graduate school at Yale.
|from Moral I|
How did you choose Yale for grad school?
Honestly I did not know the significance of RISD, or an Ivy League college like Yale. Most of my life has been dictated by my intuition and not by a preconceived master plan. Otherwise I probably would have never left Chile. My mom did not have deep pockets, she was a CPA and stayed close to home. Education was important to her. She was the only one of her siblings to get a college degree, attending night school and working by day. Of course my father never lifted a finger to help us.
I graduated from Yale in 1982, then taught at a few local colleges, lecturing on the history of photography and teaching darkroom technique. At the same time I exhibited my work throughout Europe, a place that at the time was more interested in my work than here in the U.S. (It was in the summers during college/graduate school/teaching that I took most of the photographs in Moral and Gestures, and hence, Love’s Labour).
But I found that I needed more life experience, and frankly, needed to make more money to pay off my student loans. My marriage was short so, newly divorced, I left New Haven for NYC in 1985 or 1986 (can’t remember the exact date!).
I had started printing for the Walker Evans estate once I graduated from Yale. The estate was run by John Hill, who had been the head of the Graduate photo department at Yale for a couple of years before Tod Papageorge. (Walker Evans having started the Graduate Photo Department at Yale.) Between that and the teaching gigs, I also started assisting John who did work as a commercial photographer doing annual reports. John lived near New Haven but shared a loft with Amos Chan and Philip Lorca DiCorcia. When I relocated to NYC, I moved to a loft with a friend from New Haven in the same area where John, Amos and Phillip had their space. By pure coincidence I ended up living in Tod Papageorge’s loft that was being rented by a classmate from Yale. By then Tod had long moved to New Haven.
There was a little darkroom in the loft, so it made sense to start up a printing business from there. I also worked for a jewelry maker and an art mover. At the same time I tried my hand at commercial photography, assisting Philip Lorca DiCorcia (who had graduated from Yale in 1979) and eventually having clients of my own — shooting for design studios, advertising campaigns, downtown magazines like Paper, and publishers throughout the late 1980s into the 1990s. But after a time I felt like I had to give up too much of my creative freedom for a financial reward. After a decade of that, I put all my effort into the printing business, now called Black and White on White.
I married my wife Melanie in 1995. We met in 1992 while I was doing the photography for an educational publisher of high school text books (she was one of the designers), at a studio started by a Romanian graphic designer who had been at Yale. We moved from the loft in Tribeca to Brooklyn shortly after 9/11, in November 2001, and moved the business to Bushwick in 2010.
What inspired you to take that first photo class while living with your brother?
First photo class was an elective...still thinking I would be an architect. But once I picked up a camera that was it. I was hooked.
What do you think it was about photography that hooked you immediately?
It was the immediacy, the ability to capture subtle gestures. The camera is a tool that records, in fractions of seconds, the world as it presents itself. It is a way of preserving segments of time where reality is discovered, not constructed. When I took photography in college as an elective course, and made that first print, it was more than just magic to have a full idea realized in just a few minutes. It was exalting. I have always been interested in the world. I learned from it by being physically planted on it. I can’t explain my curiosity, I just know that was my way of learning by being present and doing. I immediately embraced photography’s exacting, literal description that gives it a life in metaphor. I remember buying my first camera –– a Canon FTb SLR — at a small camera store close to the campus in Massachusetts. My first pictures were probably no different than anyone else’s, but to me each picture felt like a gift, almost like I had not made it, but as if I were the vehicle.
You never shot any photos during your time in Chile?
I started photographing in Chile once I started at RISD, studying photography full time. I had two friends there...we were the “Latin trio"...Laura Cohen was from Mexico and Iraida Icaza from Panama...we took an epic trip together, photographing in all three places.
|from Gestures I|
Looks like fun. When you went on that trip you were still relatively young as a photographer. Just a few years into it?
Yes, I had really just started to understand what was possible.
Are these the pictures in the Gestures I section of your site?
Yes...I believe we went on one of our winter breaks. Late 70s...
Your website is a bit overwhelming. First of all because it has SOOO many photos. And second because there are no captions or supporting information, just a few loosely labeled sections. Maybe that's part of the plan? Anyway, it is helpful for me to tease out some of the projects and piece together where and when they're from.
Gestures: From 1978 trough 2008 with probably a gap of 10 to 12 years
Moral: From 1980 through 2008 with probably a gap of 15 years
Real: From 2008 to the present.
I suppose I haven't added captions or supporting information on the website as I was more more interested in getting my work out there. There was no real commercial interest in my work. Not many books, few exhibitions and even fewer sales and I don’t think its been because I didn’t have the provenance or dates in my web site. It’s funny, because once I finished building it around 2000, I sent the link to a few colleagues and got mostly very positive responses (Mark Steinmetz said wow so many pictures). It may be because I’m a photographer’s photographer. I am not trying to be the latest flavor of the month, or chasing the art market. I make pictures the way I do because I respect the medium, I know its history and appreciate the fact that I get to roam around and see things that most people either take for granted or never see. Like Robert Adams says in his book Beauty in Photography, his ideas are not fashionable and post structuralists and post modernists might think of his work as antiquated but to him 'the job of the photographer ... is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope.’' A picture without form doesn’t have foundation and without foundation one can not expect to build life upon it. There is a larger order in the world — call it spirituality, mindfulness or just sheer luck, and one has just to stand still long enough to see.
|from Moral II|
Do you remember who your photographic influences were in those early years? Either teachers or books or general inspirations?
I’m trying to think back to that time. Once I was at Yale for graduate studies, I would say Atget, Brassai, Evans, Kertesz, Bresson, Frank, Koudelka, Freedlander, Winogrand, Wessel, Papageorge. I think any good photographer, or for that matter any artist has to know the history of their medium — and then go through the motions of influence until one finds one’s unique voice. If left to my own devices, and with money not being an issue, and if the love of my life — my wife — was not in my life, I would just disappear in the word and make pictures 24/7 365 days a year. I am more interested in the making and the doing in the physical world, what I call reality, than anything else. Unfortunately not all of us get to do exactly what we want to in life. On the other hand we do what we can.
I can also say it is hard to pinpoint if my making pictures of the world with discernment illustrates fact or artifice. It is the beauty of how a photographer can create doubt or persuade us of a compelling new set of clues and symbols bearing on the argument of who we are. Specific places, and a bit of luck are the pivotal creative forces in the universe, that is why we have to collaborate since life will always outsmart us.
You’ve mentioned luck a few times. What do you think luck is? What role does it play for you in photography? And in life in general?
Luck is when our expectations of something materializes, or comes true. My personal belief is that by being mindful and in the moment, all the possibilities that life offers are possible — or at least by presenting themselves, it is up to us to decide what to do with them. If we go into the world with preconceived ideas (putting the carriage in front of the horse) or notions, one most likely ends up disappointed. At the time I was making the pictures for Love’s Labour there was no large conceptual plan —- I have always operated from an instinctual place, and physically I have learned to move in an elliptical lyrical style, allowing fate or destiny to guide me and put me mindfully were I needed to be. I’ve tried working conceptually and most of the time I’ve been disappointed with the results, although a lot of artists work that way and are perfectly happy with that process. If we choose the world as our narrative canvas we’ll never be disappointed because life’s flux never stops changing, especially for us humans on this planet. As much as we try to control it, we live with the illusion that we can — especially those that control large amounts of wealth or have political superiority, who act like they have all the answers to life's important questions or problems, and constantly feel that their ego is personally responsible for how the world is shaped — until the guillotine arrives to town.
For instance, I am lucky that my father was a gambler — not in the literal sense, but that he came up with some crazy idea and a narrative for it and with all the odds against him, he still made that trip and met my mother. So I am lucky that they met and had me, otherwise there wouldn’t be the book Love’s Labour, which to me encompasses the struggles of my ancestors who moved around the world to find a better opportunity than the one they faced. Or were men like my father trying to escape the choices they had been given, spending life wandering the world to find happiness?
|from Moral II|
I am incredibly lucky that I found my wife Melanie. I met her eldest sister Debbie at SMU. She was an Illustration Major, but we were in different crowds. Melanie started RISD the year I graduated. RISD had a wild Halloween party where all the students tried to outdo each other with their costumes, it made for a perfect life theater that I loved to photograph. So although at Yale. I travelled back to Providence to make pictures of the party. More than a decade later, Melanie and I were dating in NYC and somehow we started to talk about those Halloween parties, and realized we had RISD friends in common — so I brought out my contact sheets and a magnifying glass and passed them to her. She quickly found pictures of her and friends. I had been just a few feet from her, yet we were not supposed to meet yet. When she brought me home to see her parents, she said “I am bringing my boyfriend Sergio” and her sister Debbie said, “I knew someone named Sergio at SMU”. Sheer luck, or master plan?
Did you have any teachers or fellow students at RISD who were especially memorable or influential?
I would say that in the late ’70s the RISD photo department was trying to reinvent itself. A bit of RISD history: in 1961, RISD decided to establish a degree program in photography and hired photographer Harry Callahan from the Institute of Design in Chicago where he had taught from 1946–61. In 1971, Callahan hired his former Chicago ID colleague, Aaron Siskind, and the two men taught together for five years until Siskind retired. Harry Callahan had trained and taught under the New Bauhaus influence of Moholy-Nagy. Callahan served as the department head from 1970 to 1971, (retiring altogether in 1976). He was followed by Bert Beaver (1972-1980) and later Gary Metz who was hired from the University of Colorado. When I attended RISD, Callahan would receive selected students at his house, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Mark Cohen was one of my instructors for one semester, and Wendy MacNeil, who taught graduate students at that time, opened her door to me. I was friendly with Francesca Woodman. Gary Metz was in charge of the graduate students. Some well known photographers that have graduated from RISD: Emmet Gowin, Bill Burke (who is my client), Linda Connor, Jim Dow, Francesca Woodman, David Benjamin Sherry, Deana Lawson.
Coincidentally, the department was housed in Benson Hall, which was named after one of Richard Benson’s ancestors (not sure which one!). Richard later became one of my mentors. He showed me all I know about printing. His intelligence, optimism, brilliance, generosity of spirit and just an all around terrific man, was a gift to have had.
Did you ever explore some of the darker corners of Providence while at RISD?
I have a lot of pictures from my days at RISD. A good portion of the work on my website under GESTURE comes from my days in Providence. Because I photographed downtown and around the school, I was approached by the team doing the yearbook to use pictures I had made to illustrate the student life in and around campus. I think most of Providence was dark in those days, it was the 70’s so the city was seedier and unkept; age gave it not necessarily a sense of mystery but an unsettling tone.
|from Real III|
Was RISD worthwhile?
My experiences at RISD and Yale were life changing. One day in my senior year at RISD, I walked into Benson Hall to fulfill my duties as a monitor (checking students ID’s, having them sign in-sign out, etc) when a new poster grabbed my attention. There was a striking picture of Greece. Underneath it said “Study photography in Greece with Tod Papageorge”.
I had been introduced to the photographer Constantine Manos by his book A Greek Portfolio. Manos was born in South Carolina, lived in the Boston area and was a Magnum Photographer. In his pictures, shot with a Leica camera and printed with a black border in the style of Cartier Bresson, there was a sense of stillness. Not the circus wire act of Bresson — people were still, a lot were older with a few pictures of children sprinkled throughout, not many of strong, healthy, working people, as if they all had left for better jobs in other more wealthy European countries. It looked like a hard life, but there is no anger on their faces — resignation perhaps, but more so acceptance, exhaustion. That sense of serious responsibility hit a nerve with me and put me back in touch with the country I had recently left — a country that fought so hard for its Democracy, and its democratically elected socialist president, only to have it chopped at the knees.
Tod’s picture in the poster looked totally the opposite. An Island in the Mediterranean, an abundance of light, everything sparkled. The people were the same as in Manos book, yet the Manos plates were printed dark and heavy. In them life’s weight was palpable and unbearable. After going to the library and seeing a few more of Tod’s pictures, I found them intelligent, eloquent, literary, poetic; their form graceful. It was then that I realized I wanted to study with him if I could, so I applied to the workshop in Greece, but it was cancelled at the last minute. Somehow, and don’t ask me how since there was not internet at the time and I had no academic connections, I found that Tod taught at the Yale graduate program, I applied and got in.
Was Yale worthwhile?
Absolutely. Who doesn’t want full attention to ones work for two years with a small class of 5 to 6 students per year?
What did you learn there?
When I was accepted to Yale I was told that I had an unusually strong portfolio, but RISD’s way of talking about photography (art talk) did not apply at Yale. My skills on how to discuss the medium during crits were not up to par, and Tod wasted no time in letting me know this. If I remember correctly, he straight out said “Was I trying to say it in Spanish or English, and what do feelings have to do with photography?” For me that became the area where I put most of my effort.
The teachers with the most influence on my career are Tod Papageorge, Richard Benson and Frank Gohlke. We had invited guests like Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Robert Adams, Joseph Koudelka, Larry Fink, Henry Wessel, Lee Friedlander — and they all left quite an impression on me. And to give you a chronological history, Philip Lorca DiCorcia graduated in 1979, I graduated in 1982, Mark Steinmetz,1986 and Gregory Crewdson in 1988.
What did you learn from Mark Steinmetz?
Mark was accepted to Yale as I was graduating, and he then decided to take a couple of years off to go to the west coast and hang out with Garry Winograd. Although we were roommates briefly (after my divorce I needed a roommate, and he hadn't left for the coast yet), other than us both studying from the same teachers at Yale, we didn't overlap as colleagues. I remember running into him at Central Park and in Paris, after that I might have seen him after an opening, or at Susan Lipper’s home at a party, but I lost contact with him once he moved down South, and then much later we reconnected and he started having BWonW print his larger prints..
Your style of printing shares some similarities with both Steinmetz and Papageorge. How much did you influence or teach each other?
I had that magical experience, when at SMU, of putting the exposed white sheet of paper into chemicals and having that latent image appear. It was mind-boggling — as much as it was explained to me beforehand, it still felt mystical. My professors at SMU realized that I had been bitten by the photographic bug and couldn’t get enough. I would spend 8 hours straight in the darkroom. Fortunately the graduate darkroom had 3 enlargers and lots of privacy and I was given a key so I could go in and print any time I wanted. Then I would go to load and unload trucks for UPS (how I paid for tuition and living expenses).
Printing came easy to me and I was never criticized for it — if anything Richard constantly praised my skill, as did Tod. I think the style of printing for mid-tones was a little bit of that time. I remember that Richard gave me a piece of material used in offset printing that was the equivalent of a double 00 filter that I would use to flash the print as a final touch to fill in any potential too bright highlight. Also I would split filter my prints. I can tell you that all this was incredibly tedious and time consuming, but in the end it would yield these beautifully open prints, with every possible midtown and a touch of black in the shadow areas and compressed highlights.
In earlier emails you expressed some ambivalence about the value of photographic education. “We have too many photographers with too many degrees.” Can you expound on that thought? Do you think MFAs are overvalued? Do you think it was valuable for yourself personally?
I now quote Harry Callahan: “I really didn’t have much to teach. I didn’t even believe in it. I felt so strongly that everybody had to find their own way. And nobody can teach you your own way......In terms of art, the only real answer that I know of is to do it. If you don’t do it, you don’t know what might happen.”
I don’t see photography getting better because of MFAs or doctorates. When I hire employees to work at BWonW I now ask them, if they don’t already have one, will you be going back to school to get an MFA? if they say to me yes, then I ask them why, and 100% of the time the answer is “because I want to teach.” There is over a trillion in student debt and the best anyone can get for a teaching job presently is as an adjunct, with no serious possibility for a full time job, no benefits. Forget tenure, and after 6 years you are asked to move on.
|from Moral I|
For me, I can’t say if it was valuable or not, because if I made any decision differently than the one I made, we would not be having this conversation. I would not be married to my lovely wife, I would not have made a book titled Love’s Labour. When I fell in love with photography I was not thinking about fame, notoriety, success, money, and that if I got a degree from Yale I surely would have it all, or I could drop it as I met people at a party “I went to Yale, what about you”. I just don’t think like that, yet that is all around us and people work so hard to try to get those things — and when they do, a lot of the time they feel as empty as when they started.
In a capitalist model the carrot is always dangling in front of us and some will do anything to get it. No wonder we are in the state we are in. I am grateful everyday for what I have, but I know that in the end I can’t take it with me.
There is a large gap in your gallery record between the mid-1980s and mid-2010s, which I think overlaps with getting your printing business up and running. Were you making photos for yourself during that time, and just not sharing them? Or did you take a break from photography?
I did take a break from trying to get my work shown and published. I found it difficult to juggle the printing business and working on my own personal projects, especially in the early years when I was still establishing the business...and then having to move it several times due to the crazy real estate situation of NYC. It helped when I finally moved to a large space out in Bushwick, where it has been for over ten years.
I thought I would outgrow wanting to photograph, but the world was there, beckoning. So I realized I had to re-create a world in which I could make the kind of photographs I wanted to make. At this same time three people came to me with printing projects that propelled me to action. The first was Tod Papageorge, who was back in the game after many years of teaching. (Interestingly enough, in an interview Tod was asked why he had not shown work in galleries since the 80’s, and he answered “Because nobody asked.”)
Haha, that’s always been my excuse.
It was such an honor to print his masterpiece A Passage Through Eden (exhibited at PaceMacGill with a book printed by Steidl) and then American Sports,1970 or, How We Spent the War in Vietnam (Aperture) and more recently On the Acropolis. Then Larry Clark needed prints because he was having a second edition of Tulsa printed and finally, Richard Benson recommended me to reprint some of Paul Strand’s Mexican Portfolio for Aperture.
With these projects I was forcefully reminded of my love of photography. At the same time I became immersed in the writings of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. His obsessive narrative and literary rebelliousness, dense with violence and despair, struck a chord with me. With these influences I started working on Real.
You’ve printed for a variety of photographers using both darkroom methods and modern inkjet. I think I might know the answer to this question but I’ll ask it anyway. Which method do you personally prefer and why?
I still print my own work as silver gelatin prints, optically (or analog as some photographers like to refer to it.) Fortunately, through the years I have been accumulating equipment that allows us to make silver gelatin prints as large as 56X120” which is quite the luxury, and pigment prints up to 60X120”. We mount and frame as well. All this allows us to produce complete exhibitions for fine art photographers. Some current and past clients I have had a the pleasure to work with, in no particular order: LaToya Ruby Frazier, Fazal Sheik, Wendy Ewald, Dayanita Singh, Susan Lipper, Larry Clark, An-My Le, Bill Burke, Collier Schorr, the estates of Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and George Platt Lynes, David Benjamin Sherry, Sage Sohier, Sihirin Neshat, Zoe Leonard, Dana Lawson, Justine Kurland, Tod Papageorge, and Mark Steinmetz.
It turns out I have an old Aperture with some of your pictures from your European adventures. They’re all great but only one wound up in the Love’s Labour book. I’m curious why the others weren’t included, and what your selection process was for the book.
Yes, Aperture 101 from 1985. I attended an opening for Tod Papageorge of his work in Central Park at the Daniel Wolf Gallery (DW was the originator of the Getty Museum’s acquisition of some of the most important photographic collections in the world). A friend whom I had met in Paris was there, and introduced me to Mark Holborn, who was the editor of Aperture at the time. She forgot to mention who he was, just said “this is Mark” (and I am glad she didn’t as I would have been too nervous to have had a normal conversation with him). I remember we spoke about Peru and Latin America. Mark wanted to travel to that part of the world and I had been to some of those places. After a friendly conversation we shook hands and said good bye. Next day my friend called me and said “Mark wants to look at your work”. I said why, who is he? and then she revealed who he was. I called him and dropped some prints at Aperture... next thing I knew I had pictures in the magazine, and with good company if I may say so.
|spread from Aperture 101, 1985|
Wonderful story! I think your anecdote may hint at the broader changes in Aperture’s style since 1985. Something like that would be impossible today.
True! Now to answer the second part of the question. There were 4 pictures published in the magazine under the title Public Postures. One of those pictures is in the book (page 25, the girl at the edge of the fountain mimicking the gesture of a statue behind her, a dog seen from behind drinking the fountains water.) The topless woman laying on the grass, stretching one leg over her head, roller blades behind her and a man laying not too far from her — Gregory wanted that picture included but I thought, I am an old white guy and the state of politics today would get me into trouble, so we took it out. I wanted the one of a man and two women laying on the beach, with a black dog lurking in the background, but Gregory kept on taking it out for some reason so we left it out. Gregory never saw the one of the young girl on her hands and knees, wearing one black glove and black underwear at the edge of a fountain, with her mother’s leg coming in from the right edge of the frame. This photograph is not on the website as it now seems inappropriate.
Gregory first saw my work on the website. He made his selection from Moral and wanted to call the book Moral: Europe. Because my site doesn’t state the locations/dates, he started including images from the US and Latin America. When I told Gregory he’d selected images that were not made in Europe, he said it doesn’t matter, so I thought I should come up with a different title, things are too political right now and Moral might be misconstrued. Eventually the selection of images was indeed all from Europe, but I started working with the idea of love, and remembered Shakespeare’s play, one of his first, with love in the title. Hence, Love’s Labour. A labor of love, as well!
The two of us had about 19 rounds of layouts, trying to agree on the selection of images and their sequencing. Tod Papageorge saw one of the rounds and said, “this looks like the classic tale of a young man’s journey”, and that helped shape it a bit. Gregory also picked up on the water and the literary threads, and in the middle of the back and forth I added 2 or 3 sculptures....after that it was about fine tuning and final compromise.
What sort of photos have you been shooting lately?
I began photographing Melanie’s family when I met her in 1992. It’s a project loosely base on “The Snap Shot” an Aperture book published in 1974 (with work from Emmet Gowin, Gus Kayafas, Garry Winogrand, Henry Wessel, Nancy Rexroth, Bill Zupo-Dane, Tod Papageorge, Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Lee Friedlander, Joel Meyerowitz, Richard Albertine and Robert Frank.) Tod Papageorge has a great essay in there. He makes a strong argument for what we know vernacularly as the family photo album, where he coins or brings up the word snapshot, a new form which many photographers use presently without even knowing it. Most of these images make the picture subject its center, the pictures slightly off kilter. I quote Tod “The eye which created the family album was the heart’s eye, and by its innocence its very love blindness.”
|from Real I|
My family project is all color, shot with point-and-shoot cameras. I started with film that I would take to the drugstore to get the film developed, with two sets of 4X6” quick prints — one set I would distribute to the family, and the second I would keep to see what I was doing. All this work would end up in a large trunk neatly cataloged by Melanie. Eventually I moved to digital. That is a 28 year on-going project.
Starting around 2005 or 2006 I started shooting black and white film again. I went out into the streets of NYC when the weather was good, but it wasn’t until after Obama got elected and the housing crisis of 2008 (one good thing, one bad), that I started shooting again regularly. I shoot with a 4X5” William Littman Polaroid conversion range finder film camera. I call this project Real, you can view a lot of it on the website.
How has the pandemic affected your process?
I didn't shoot at all during the pandemic’s start. I had a heart attack in 2017 that almost killed me (no warnings), with emergency quadruple bypass surgery, and I just turned 65, so I am among the vulnerable and have been playing it safe. Also, I’ve been working hard at not losing the printing business, so like the cobbler’s son my work always comes second. These last few weeks, with NYC being lower risk, and the weather being conducive to photographing, I have ventured out again.
I continue expanding on the Real project that has been going on for 12 years now and of course my wife Melanie’s family, in where her nephews and nieces are getting married and having children so I continue to make pictures of them (once we get to see them again!).
All photos above by Sergio Purtell unless otherwise noted.