Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Q & A with Jesse Lenz

Jesse Lenz is a photographer based in rural Ohio, and the founding director of Chico Review, Charcoal Press, and Charcoal Book Club.

BA: Since both your books concentrate on your kids and home life, I’m hoping we can sketch out the basics. You have six kids? What is the age range? What’s your base in Ohio like? How many acres? What town is nearby? How rural?

JL: 6 kids: Dexter 12, Rowan 11, Howard 10, Luella 5, and twin 2 year olds Emmaline and Beauden. We’ve had 2 broods of kids that were 3 under 3 years old. We personally have 7 acres, but our land borders a nature preserve and my father-in-law farms and has something like 900 acres patchworked around the area. This area of Ohio isn't huge industrial farms, mostly small farms that help decrease the cost of raising cows. So they grow mostly feed for winter. The town of Wooster is only about 5 miles away and it’s a nice little college town. The College of Wooster is a really expensive private school that only kids from the NE attend, no one local.

Is that near where your wife grew up?

Yeah, it’s the house her family built and she grew up in. Most of her family lives within 2 miles. There are something like 15 grandsons / nephews that live within 2 miles of us.

How do you get along with them?

Family is family, you know. My wife is pretty close with her brothers and sisters. We all have big families and we are all busy but it’s good to have support. Helps me be able to go and do things without needing to worry about them when I'm gone.

from The Locusts by Jesse Lenz

I think there's a Tolstoy quote in there somewhere. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Totally. I have a soft spot for Russian / Eastern European writers, philosophers, film directors, photographers, etc. Maybe because I lived there as a kid, but I have all the same ingredients they had when making their work and this landscape is very similar plus the Amish really give you a feel of that work with all the horse & buggies and muddy roads. Where I live, Holmes County is the largest Amish population in the U.S.

You mentioned USSR. What the heck were you doing there? When/what/how?

My dad was a missionary/pastor. We moved to Latvia (Baltic Republic) about 6 months after they declared independence. He had a close friend from Bible school who had been living there the entire time doing underground church stuff in the USSR. When the curtain fell we moved to help out with him and an orphanage.

My dad ironically ended up running the home church for Nigerian and Ethiopian work immigrants. So I was in the Soviet Union surrounded by a bunch of Africans who all spoke amazing English. That’s who initially get me interested in music and drums as a kid. Kinda funny looking back at those photos from my childhood. Culture clash in many ways.

Sounds like an interesting childhood. So your family moved around according to your dad's work situation, called to various church engagements? 

We moved some, but after Latvia we came back to the states to live and we just traveled a lot from that base. 

What age were you while in USSR?

Hmmm…I think I was 6-8 there. I think.

How big was your own family? Siblings?

Just one older sister who seemed to think she was actually my mom not my sister. Always wanted a big family. Wanted brothers to beat up on and get beaten up by. I think that’s why I always ended up in bands traveling in vans and later started events. Always loved the chaos and bonding of big families.

from The Locusts by Jesse Lenz

You mentioned looking back on photos from childhood. Did your dad or mom take lots of pictures?

Just basic family stuff. My mom was very artistic but never pursued it. She taught me to draw. My dad taught me to love travel and to hate being someone else’s employee. 

Your dad's lessons seem to have taken. There's a real DIY spirit to your whole thing, the books, the lifestyle, your music producing, etc.

Yeah. It’s the only life I’ve ever really known. If something doesn't exist you have to build it. I grew up in shitty little towns so you had to build your own skate ramps, rent the roller rink and put on your own heavy metal shows, etc. There is no infrastructure, but also no red tape. If you can build it, they will come.

Traveling the world as a young kid, you also see how much being an outsider is good and bad. I think in photography we always think of the act of photographing as taking things when they travel. But when you travel you see that being an outsider who is genuinely interested in the place and people you are traveling through, how many people take you in as family. Touring in bands you get welcomed into so many stranger’s homes. People help you out when you’re broken down on the road, give you meals, let you crash in their basements. I think people want to be given the opportunity to be the kind of people they hope they are.

Do you feel fully accepted in the Ohio community where you live? Or do they still view you as an outsider?

No one really knows me here, which is why I like it. My in-laws still have no idea what I do.

How is that possible? You don't know anyone in the community?

I'm mostly known only as a person, but not as an "artist" or anything. I had a studio downtown in the back of a butcher shop that is also a bar. Some people remember I am the guy who had a marijuana tent turned inside out making it a darkroom lol. More people here know me as my wife’s husband. I often tell people I manage a warehouse for a living. It’s close to the truth and doesn't require explaining.

Can I assume you don't have a local photo community to shoot the shit with?

Ha ha no! But I like that. I prefer to hang out with foragers, bird watchers, hunters, etc.

Where do you turn for photo feedback?

The Chico Review and my small group of peers I know. I’ve always worked like that though. I need isolation 11 months out of the year. If I need feedback on something I’ll ring up one of the crew and talk for a few hours. 

You share your own work at Chico? I thought that was set up for others? 

It is, but all of us show each other work the day or two before the even begins and on the free day. Bryan, Matt, Igor, Todd, Ray, etc. We all have things we are working out and need thoughts on. 

But just once a year isn't much.

It’s enough. Stephen King talks about needing to write with the door closed to the world. When you get something to a place you like, that you've edited to death, then crack the door open and show it to a very tight group of people who know you and your work and who can speak to it. Then close the door again and finish it. 

I also think it’s too easy for photographers/artists in a place with a good local community to become very insular. To only hang out with people who talk about photography and not the content that should be inside of the photo. I think, specifically, photographers need to be more interested in life than photography. I came to photography because I loved the things I was photographing more than photography itself. I’m drawn to artists (in all walks) who are obsessed with life or their life and the photos are the byproduct. They help you realize when you’re making work that transcends the photo ghetto. If people here like a photo I took I know it’s touching something deeper. I think it’s good and a reality check. 

What's a reality check?

Not being around other artists or photographers. Being surrounded by people who do not care about the art world. Too many young artists feel the world owes them the right to be a "working artist" and yet they never spend time around anyone but other artists. Like student/peer reviews in school, when people get together to look at work but all they are doing is waiting to show theirs. Everyone is talking to hear themselves talk. None of the art is good. No one cares about it, even the people making it. But they talk and talk as if the world outside gives a shit. I always hated that. It's a circle jerk. Then they complain they can't sell work and people don't care about the arts.

Is Chico like that at times? 

Not so much. People at Chico are getting real hard critiques from established artists. That’s what you want. I was never interested in lateral reviews. Someone in the water, just like, can't pull you into a boat.

Chico Review

You certainly see people showing each other work on off time, but that’s mostly as a way for them to connect. I'll show you mine if you show me yours. They aren't looking for meaningful insight at that point, just excited to show a piece of their soul to someone new who gets it.

You used the term “photo ghetto”. I think what you mean is that you’re comfortable being an outsider, and keeping some distance from the whole scene. But isn’t there some irony in Chico’s stature? It’s one of the main review sites now. Attending Chico represents being invited to the club, yes?

I say photo ghetto in referring to insular clusters of photographers who aren't really doing anything besides talking. In music, we called them "scene kids". Kids that would dress the part, come to shows, hang out, but didn't really give two shits about the music. They wanted to be seen there, associated with it, but never really paid any attention or support it.

The Chico Review is the opposite of that. Only people making the work get in. It's not about writing an essay, checking the right boxes, or anything. It's about the photographs. Additionally, the way it’s set up helps it from getting stagnant because it’s a limited time, it costs money so you feel you gotta make the most of it, and you want to stand out so you gotta bring your A game. The "photo ghetto" is pickup basketball. The Chico Review are tryouts.

Many artistic communities I’ve found or participated in feel more like support groups. I want to be around people with forward movement. People that make me feel like I am behind and gotta get my shit together. Iron sharpening iron.

What's wrong with a support group?

Support is different from a support group. A coach/teammates can and should be supportive but push you really hard as well. A support group accepts you as you are even if you don't move forward or if you fall off the bandwagon.

I get together with some friends each month to touch base and share new work. It's pretty low pressure. The iron takes a loooooong time to sharpen. But for me it's a valuable resource. Sometimes we don't even talk photography. We just hang out and drink beers. I enjoy it.

Yep. Everyone has a different pace. I've always been in a hurry in life so I need things to move. The hanging and talking about life is actually a huge aspect of the Chico Review. Art is always taught best through a form of imprinting or apprenticeship over traditional education. How to live as an artist is actually the most important thing to learn.

I do think it's valuable to get outside feedback, no matter where it might come from. I mean, I get so caught up in my own photos sometimes that I can't really see them straight anymore. So outside opinions can be helpful.

Yes, feedback is huge, but I feel it’s important to have people speaking to your work that are in a position to pull you up out of the water and into a boat. I only want feedback from people who are better than me, people with more experience and wisdom, people who I respect in their own right first.

What did you study in college?

Graphic design. It was really the only art major other than art history that my school offered. But I never have done it for clients. Started illustrating for magazines before I graduated, but the background has helped me start every company and understand how to publish things. I was always making merch, CDs, albums, logos, etc.

Collage by Jesse Lenz

Maybe college is where your skepticism of peer review started? A college crit session can verge on self-parody.

Yeah. I just never had much time for it. People talking about work they did the hour before class, trying to act profound while clearly pulling it out of their ass. It actually prepares you pretty well for real life as a working artist. 

What do your college professors think of your photos now?

I actually did an exhibition at my old school this year. It was very fun. I’ve been really involved with them over the years. I think it’s important to give the kids there an example of how to make your own way. It’s a tiny state school in WV. If they want to be in the arts they need to see practical examples of how to do that and it doesn’t look how they think it would. My entire career started because I met an illustrator in the gallery there who was from Pittsburgh. We were the only ones in the gallery for his show. We talked punk rock and silkscreening. He made covers for Time magazine and such and actually hired me to help him my junior year, gave me my first list of contacts in the industry.

The circle is unbroken, or something like that.

I feel that a lot of what I like to do is just clear the smoke and mirrors from the art world. That’s a lot of what Chico is, being able to see how things really work. Ask questions from artists you respect when you’re just hanging out.

So how do things really work?

Like how money works, how you make a life as an artist, how do you pay your bills, etc. I realized early on that there isn't much of a way to make a living in fine art as a blue collar worker. Although a lot of folks think you can, they don't realize that even the folks who look like they are have a lot of side hustles or married to folks who do, lol. I think it helps to set priorities. You make money by doing things for other people. What you do for yourself, your personal work, almost never pays off financially. It’s important to know that’s how it has always worked. You might get lucky, but most likely you will only lose money with your own work. That’s OK. It’s not a job, it’s an addiction.

From a financial perspective I'm actually pretty cynical about the art world. I know there are a ton of great artists out there making cool stuff. But I think the world of money often works independently from that.

Art is a drug habit. You make for yourself in your basement. Some people are rich and famous with the same drug habit…but they aren't getting paid for that habit. You're building your life around the ability to sustain your habit.

You told Nick Tauro (podcast link?) that art is like heroin. I’ve actually never tried heroin. You?

Na. My uncle was a heroin addict. I know it’s too good to try, lol. People don't do it cuz it sucks.

I had a chance to smoke opium once on a trek in Thailand, but I passed. The chance never came up again, oh well.

Ha, man, that’s wild. I am a 110% kind a person. I have to pick my addictions wisely.

I'm not really a risk taker.

I am totally a jump and learn to fly later person.

from The Locusts by Jesse Lenz

How else could you wind up with 6 kids?

Ha ha! Well, we adopted one of our sons and we had twins… So we did cheat the math. From skateboarding I learned momentum is your friend. You get hurt way more if you go slow.

I’m curious about your kid photos. How do you approach those situations? Do you always have a camera when you're with them? Or do you set aside certain times to do that? How do you juggle still photography with shooting movies?

I have cameras everywhere. I don't have scheduled times or anything. The amazing thing about photographing your life and where you live is that everything that happens once, happens again and often again. Most things I photograph I have experienced many times before without a camera. I make mental notes of what’s happening, the weather, the light, etc and then act (photograph) when things line up. Like foraging for mushrooms, you know your mushroom spots but whether there are any is dependent on weather and time of year, but you gotta be ready when it all comes together. I will often shoot a little each day if I can. It might be of my kids, our animals, go for a hike and look for birds or mushrooms, or when I am cycling.  I choose the camera based on how I want to see that day or what feels like fun. If I get stagnant with how I see the world, I get a new camera or dust one off I haven't used in a while. Todd Hido told me a long time ago that if you want to change the way you see, change your apparatus.

What kind of cameras do you use? (Sorry to ask a techie question.)

Mostly rangefinders or twin lenses. I don't have any cameras with a battery. Well…Actually I do have a T4 and Ricoh GR1 so those are the only two battery ones. I have 3 Leicas, 2 Fuji 6x9s, Fuji g617, Rolleiflex, Graphlex, two Bolex 16mm film cameras, 3 Polaroids, Holga…you get the picture. Also many cameras that I used to shoot color with, which are in hibernation until that day comes again.

The photos in your books have a variety of aspects and sizes. Should I assume that's related to camera type?

from The Locusts by Jesse Lenz

Yep. It helps me to see the same scene with new perspective. The camera dictates the box you’re in that day: how close you can get, how easy it is to carry, what angles you can use, etc.

Are some of your kids more camera shy than others?

Not really… They've always been around cameras and artists their entire lives. Some like to show off, so the trick with them is getting them when they aren't hamming it up. Some are more introspective and kinda ignore me at this point, so for them it’s about having a moment with them and capturing something genuine. Like all photography, finding moments of transcendence is always hard, no matter what.

When my kids hit their teen years they became more resistant. And definitely more self conscious. There's a window in there around age 8 to 10ish where they are doing magical stuff all the time without being self conscious. 

Yeah. Those years are special. Growing up offers another kind of opportunity though. There is always a challenge. When photographing owls it is hard at first because you have to pursue them and they have to get to know you. Almost like dating them. With kids, I think there is an age where everything has to be more on their terms. It requires pursuit in the way they need it. But finding those moments there is even a bigger achievement and also the result of the relationship. I am actually very excited for the new kinds of pics teenage years will bring.

Owls are among the many birds in your books. Are they a stand-in for yourself? Like the overseer, silently watching?

Owls were one of the things that made me fall in love with this place. They also were something that brought back some of the mystical experiences I was lacking in my life. A kind of magical realism. An owl in many ways is like an angel and a demon. They live in our world, yet are invisible to us unless they allow you to see them. They are beautiful and terrifying apex predators. They are the link between our world and the spirit world in almost every mythology.

from The Seraphim by Jesse Lenz

What do you mean that mystical experiences were lacking in your life?

I grew up with a very real sense of magic, miracles, angles, demons and cosmic forces interacting with our daily lives as humans. After growing up and going through my own spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction, I yearned for experiences that made me feel that there was still magic left in this world. Not cheap tricks, but real magic. Experiences that transcend and confound modernity. Nature is exactly that. Nature is still where we are presented with the numinous.

Maybe that's where photography comes in. The translation of "reality" into 2D images almost always has some magical element. In fact that's the main appeal for me.

Yeah totally. I grew up with the cosmos and mythology as a real part of my daily life. That kind of feeling doesn't go away when you evolve your beliefs but you’re always looking for that greater story you are tied to.

Can you elaborate? 

Magical realism is pretty common as a child. When you mix that with a belief system that actually does posit that there are hidden forces in the world, that is a strong cocktail.

You mean Christianity?

In my case yes, but I think it applies to many. But I found that nature has always been the place that humans have experienced the ineffable, that so much of the feeling of what it means to be a child is to truly believe in magic. And that magic is real, it’s just real in a different way. I think when belief goes from literal belief into poetic truth/belief it’s stronger somehow and actually means more.

Childhood is kind of an open ended state of mind. You're still tying to piece reality together at that age and build a framework for it. And both your books have that primordial childhood worldview.

It’s because I desperately want to get back to that state of mind. It is all we know as kids, then we grow out of it. Then we have to choose to return, but it’s work. I think ultimately it’s about being fully present and believing that everything is worth your time and attention. I think. 

Something like Picasso's quote: “ It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.

Yes. I think it’s more of the idea of being enchanted like a child. Children are fully present. They are happy to sit and watch a spider spin a web. They inherently know the magic of the natural world. They are fully present in what they are doing. They dance without self consciousness, they love without fearing loss, etc. When you get older, you have to retrain yourself to give yourself fully to the universe, without fear while knowing there will be hurt and loss. It’s a choice.

I think there's some danger of romanticizing childhood. If you turn it into a dreamworld of innocence and eden, that glosses over the reality that kids are actually pretty savvy and real and part of the modern world.

from The Seraphim by Jesse Lenz

Well remember, Satan was in Eden. I’m not interested in portraying modern reality. I'm interested in nature and a childlike view of the world because I believe it is actually the antidote for the disenchantment of modernity.

I am a Romantic, but the Romantics emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience. You can't have intense emotion without tension: good and evil, love and loss, etc. I think it’s easy to make sentimental imagery of childhood, but those always feel sickly sweet. They never ring true. 

But you're creating a certain illusion, right? And it fits the contemporary world's view of children as innocent and running in meadows and with cute dirty cheeks, etc. It’s kind of a reactionary view in some ways.

I like to think of what I am trying to find is enchantment, not childhood innocence. You are right that the idea of innocence is easy to make cheesy. But if you think of childhood innocence in the way it’s portrayed in works of art like Forbidden Games, KES, etc, it's not about purity or lack of corruption. It is about being impervious. Children have the innate ability to stay enchanted despite the world around them. They are able to cope with death, loss, and pain without shrinking inside. Without becoming guarded. 

Contemporary media tends to view childhood through rose colored glasses. They're these innocent sprites running free, the garden of Eden before the fall, in a separate box from modern civilization and its evils. And I think that division is artificial, but I see it a lot in photographs of kids. Does that make sense?

Yes. I think the majority of work made about kids is sickly sweet. It is all nostalgic. I’m not interested in Eden without Satan. As you can see in the books, there is always a very real presence of death, loss, and pain. That’s that balance you bring back with you after growing up. It's a choice to approach life like a child again. People think the innocence of childhood is that you aren't exposed to terrible things, but actually it’s that you are, but you do not allow that hurt and pain to stop you from fully giving yourself to love and enchantment again.

What photobooks about families/children do you like? 

When I finally accepted this work was the hand I was dealt I decided I wanted to make work with my kids that felt like a sci-fi film or a sublime horror movie. I would say there really aren't any that I can directly reference that were doing what I wanted. I wanted Yamamoto's birds mixed with Trent Parke’s sci-fi surrealism, mixed with Larry Towell’s beauty and gentleness, mixed with Koudelka’s graphicness mixed with Miyazaki's animals, mixed with Bela Tarr's landscapes, mixed with Theo Angelopoulos' emotion. Every book and film I loved only felt like a piece in the puzzle. Films, music, and novels are way more influential to me. I think most photobooks show me what not to do. Like Stephen King says, reading bad books teaches you more about how to write good ones than reading good books, lol.

What do you think of Sally Mann's Immediate Family?

I love Sally's work now, it really grew on me. As a kid I didn't like it. I actually hated all art about families. I was way more into Peter Beard and adventure. I read her memoir before I ever really spent time with her work. I think that helped me. It was also as I was already a father.

Wait, you looked at that book as a kid? Did your parents have it?

In high school and college. She was certainly someone we learned about. Saw some images along with Joel-Peter Witkin and the Starn twins, etc. 

Talk about fantasy worlds.

Yeah man. That's what shaped me. But fantasy has always been one of my biggest influences. As Stephen King would say, “Kids, fiction is the truth inside the lie, and the truth of this fiction is simple enough: the magic exists.”

Art is an escape. I have no interest in the modern world or modernity. For me, the work I make is about finding a portal to see my own life where I inhabit a world full of magic. 

Is that why you shoot film instead of digital?

Yes, but also because I believe that the best art is discovered and not created. Michelangelo said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” For me art is about becoming a vessel for something to come through you. I need to listen to the work and see what it wants to be. Too many people get caught up in trying to make the work they are trying to make. They miss the work they are intuitively making. 

That is really on show when folks shoot digital because they get what they were trying to get and stop shooting. They quickly edit the image they were trying to make, and they move on. I will have months or even a year go by before I develop and look at my images. Then spend 3-4 years looking at them before I decide which fit in a new book. I look at a Dropbox folder instead of Instagram. Looking at 100s of images I’ve made every day and if I still want to look at one after years of doing that, it’s probably one that will last.

I hear what you're saying but I don't think the division is so clear cut. You can make thoughtful work shooting film or digital. Depends more on the person than the technology.

It’s not the medium itself. It’s the journey to it that ends up creating the significant differences. To me, it’s a filter. It’s one of 100 choices, but if someone has made that choice to shoot film in a long term personal project, it most likely means there will be many other choices along the way we have in common. WE are looking for something in our journey. The choice to shoot film isn't what makes a project good, but it’s a significant indicator that there are other commonalities.

I can talk about this for years…and people often focus on the wrong things. The choice to shoot film is usually the result of a deeper decision to give up control and become a conduit for the work. To listen to the work and not make demands on it.

from The Locusts by Jesse Lenz

I have yet to find more than a very few people shooting digital for interesting reasons. Usually: it’s cheaper, it’s more accessible, it’s quicker, it’s efficient. None are good reasons for making art. Makes sense if you’re a photojournalist maybe, but not art. Art is not efficient. 

To me it’s no different than the argument between CGI and practical effects. If you are making a film with practical effects there are so many limitations and obstacles to overcome that you end up making something unique and bizarre because of the certain set of limiting factors you have.

Well, film does tend to enforce a certain natural order on the sequence of creation.

Yep. It also enforces a certain amount of chaos and mystery that is important in the creation process. People don't argue about bronze sculpture vs. foam core.

Maybe they do in art school? I have no idea.

Nope, lol. Art doesn't ever make sense financially. It’s like an addiction but this is also an argument that is more about the roots of things. Most film directors I love shoot film. But that’s a decision that is in line with their process and how they work. Same with this. It’s a result of other life choices. So it acts as a filter not a miracle cure.

I like to think of photography more like fly fishing. People do that as a pastime, with no expectation of turning pro or making money or advancing in the fly fishing community or whatever. They just do it because that's what they do. Sometimes for many hours a week.

Yes, but the difference is even if you’re a "professional fly fisherman" you’re probably only getting paid to guide shitty fisherman around, lol. You don't get paid to just fish on your own on a beautiful day.

But it’s not about getting paid. These amateurs spend tons of money on fly fishing gear, and become experts at fly fishing, and pour energy into it. For what?

Because they love it. Because it’s an addiction. I agree. I am saying the money always comes from helping others or doing. Same with art. You make money by teaching others how to do it better, bringing them to new deep waters, showing them how to aspire to perfection. 

The thing which makes photography slightly different, and part of its insidious allure, is that photography is a marketable skill in contemporary society. Photojournalism, weddings, insurance claims, etc. It has all sorts of practical applications which give it a monetary dimension. In my mind it twists the whole enterprise. I'd love it to be more like fly fishing.

Yep, money comes from doing commercial work, teaching, assisting others publishing, promoting other people’s work. etc. Some can come from your own, if you’re lucky, but that is still often few and far between. I mean, blue collar work is always about doing shit for other people that they don't want to do or can't do. No different from architects and plumbers. The issue is that people think art is a career. It is a prestige industry like poetry. 

Poetry is a good model. It has absolutely no utility apart from being itself. In some ways poets have it easier than photographers. They never operate under the illusion they’ll strike it rich. 

You’re better off having an OnlyFans account that funds your art habit. I tell people all the time to be a wedding photographer to make money. It’s where the jobs are. Do that and afford to make your work. Your art should always be your mistress, your addiction. Should never be your job. It should be the thing you dream about doing and can't wait to get away to spend time with. Part of my job is removing the smoke and mirrors around the art world. A huge issue is that "art" has become institutionalized in the university system. It is taught like a job, like it’s a viable career. It’s an addiction.

So your book project is going to last for 7 books? If my math is right, 4 years between each one, then your kids will be in their thirties by the time you finish.

That’s the idea. I would love for it to continue my entire life, and maybe it will. But it’s good bookends because no matter what, when my twins leave my life will have a dramatic shift and that is a good thing and a sad thing. That’s actually why I decided to do 7 books. The math worked out and I like the number 7. It’s a good number.

Is this meant to be a legacy gift for your kids? Like, here ya go, here's your life story.

No, not at all. My work is not about my kids. They are actors in it. If anything, it’s "here is something I made from our life together that helped me cope and deal with the terror and beauty of life.”

What do your kids think of the two books so far?

I think kids (my kids) love that they are fully integrated in my life. Two of them helped me hang the show at my old school and they took people on tours of all the images and told them stories about it. My kids have never known anything but this. They think it’s strange when people parents work normal jobs. They each have a copy of the book with a love note written in it for them. I’ve seen them often looking at the books in their rooms. However, most kids, including mine, are way more interested in the critters and mushrooms in the books than the humans.

Your wife appears in only one picture in the books. Do you photograph her also?

I photograph her some, but our relationship has never really been about me photographing her. I think that might be something I do more after the kids. I like keeping the world of the books as overlapping concentric circles. The plane of interests and relationships to the world and people around the children will continue to grow as they do. Like in Peanuts you only see the legs of the parents. Because the world of children involves adults, but they aren't really fully part of that world. That will obviously change as the kids get older.

One thing that really stands out to me that I am trying to articulate is the difference between romanticizing and romance. Innocence as uncorrupted vs innocence as being impervious to disenchantment despite corruption.

I don't understand. Can you elaborate?

In short, romanticizing is usually thinking back to a time that was "better" while forgetting about all the negative things associated with it.

Nostalgia, in other words?

Yes. Nostalgia. However, the Romantics emphasized intense emotion as the authentic source of aesthetic experience. It was searching for experiences of sympathy, awe, wonder, and terror in addition to the "beautiful" and the "sublime”. The only way to have intense emotion is to have tension. Death and life. Pain and pleasure. Love and Loss. That said, 99% of all work about childhood is so much horse shit.

Haha, wait? Is that a self critique? Or are you thinking of other photobooks?

Other work. My work is perfect. ;)

I wouldn't agree that 99 percent is horse shit. Some of it is great. But I think it's hard for a parent to objectively judge photos of their own kids. Because there's so much emotional baggage involved. And also the intensity of experience. So it's almost impossible to see those photos the way others do. Maybe that is what leads to the horse shit.

Absolutely. I certainly think it’s one of the hardest things to do. I feel that is where distance from the work becomes really important. You can't select photos because they are a great photo of your kids. The photo has to transcend to become an archetype of all children. I think of it as one of the hardest types of art to edit, but one that is inherently more emotionally charged if you get it right. It’s also why I think of my kids as actors in a film I am making. Easier to kill your darlings if there is a bigger plot that is above the actor's performances. Directors have to cut great scenes all the time because they don't add to the film.

On the other hand maybe that's fine. Parents view the photos one way. Others see them another way. And that's ok. Maybe the problem is when you try to place those photos into a "fine art" setting where they might be out of place. I dunno, just thinking out loud.

Spread from The Seraphim by Jesse Lenz

Yeah, but if you’re making a book or film for people to buy/consume it has to connect to them. You gotta hook a reader. You can't expect the reader to already love or care about you and your ideas without earning it. I don't think enough artists think about that when thinking about putting their work into a book. They think, "I want a book. I want people to buy my work." When they should be thinking, "Would I buy this book if I saw it on a bookshelf?" I often say that I am the biggest consumer of my own work. I make it because no one else is making what I desire and need. Because I am making something that truly satisfies me, I know it will for others as well.

Yeah, that's a long and sticky subject. The idea of audience, and who you are making art for. And who gets to decide what is or isn't remembered or saved. 

Making art is a personal thing. Making a product you want people to buy is a commercial endeavor. It can be artistic and personal, but a consideration has to be made for the viewer if you're making a product like a book. But even with that, I find that often artists are making work that they don't even find interesting or exciting. Often they need to just keep going and know they will eventually come across something that really clicks, and that is the body of work to share with the world.

Maybe that's a good segue to Chico, which presents sort of a nexus between maker and viewer. It's where the rubber hits the road. I'm curious why the review is in Chico?

When I first discovered Chico Hot Springs one of the main things that blew my mind about its history and culture was that it is a place where there is no pecking order. I’ve seen movie stars drinking whiskey and hanging out with the rancher from down the road.

When did you first discover it? Is it near where you lived in Montana as a kid?

No. It was in my Collective Quarterly days. Chico was our home base for our Absaroka issue. 

For me events are always planned with the place in mind first. Chico was the place to bring a large group of people, from all walks of career and life and have a real experience together. One where once you arrive you are among peers and friends. You can talk to your artistic heroes while having margaritas in a hot springs, next to a family teaching their children to swim, next to a rancher next to a movie star, etc.

Is Chico on the Hollywood circuit?

No. But the good ones know about it. Jeff Bridges met his wife there shooting Rancho Deluxe. She was a waitress in the dining room. Harrison Ford used to land his plane on the road leading there and go drink in the springs with locals. Peckinpah, Harrison, and many others called it home as well.

I'm not a movie star but I visited with my family once about 10 years ago. It was on the drive to Yellowstone and we stopped to use the hot springs. Didn't see any celebrities. But I remember it was a cool spot.

It’s a place you leave a piece of your soul when you leave. It has real patina to it. Set and setting are really important to events. Your location is a secret weapon. It dictates memories and experience of attendees and speakers alike.

Maybe some of that relates to the romance/romanticizing thing. Still not sure I see the dichotomy. But it reminded me of a comment you made earlier. You said "I have no interest in the modern world or modernity". Feels like Chico might fit into that.

Yeah. I am interested in places of magic, that enchant regardless of the world around them. Places that exist in modern times yet feel wholly separate. Like they are their own universe. That's what The Collective Quarterly was all about, finding those places. I see my personal work as the same, but looking internally and locally to find it. Timelessness.

Photography makes that separation naturally. Every time you take a photo you're creating a separate parallel universe.

Exactly. That’s what I see as the unique magic of the medium, which is why I am drawn to work that leans into that, taking moments from the real world but yet feel set apart somehow. Transcendent, like they have left this plane of existence somehow, a portal into a parallel universe, one that feels almost more real to our soul, like a DMT trip.

Speaking of portals into parallel universes, was your home in Ohio in the path of Eclipse April 8th? I know it made a big sweep through Ohio. 

YES! It is unbelievable! 

Very cool. I went to Maine to see it. The one in 2017 passed through Oregon. Blew my mind. mistress. Love Maine. We've almost moved so many times.

Cool, where in Maine did you want to move?

Penobscot Bay. The islands: Deer Isle, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Isle au Haut. It’s where Jon Levitt is too.

Those places weren't in the eclipse path, haha. But still a nice state to move to.

Although I think it’s best for me as the place I dream about and can't wait to go. Never live, but always dream about. Hence mistress. I think it’s good to have those places. Love and longing and all that.

You said that art was your mistress. I guess it's ok to have more than one.

Same concept.

The thing that I like about total solar eclipses is that they can't be photographed. I mean, of course you can aim a camera at them. But the experience of the eclipse can’t be captured in a picture. 

Yeah totally. It’s something that is meant for experience and a sense of wonder. The sublime. Moments that remind you of our place in the cosmos. Moments that shaped human perspectives over millennia. I like to think those moments connect us to our ancestors in deep ways. They resonate in a sort of blood memory.

I know you get that feeling from photographing your family. What about other things? Are you actively shooting other subjects currently? Or is the family project the main thing now?

Well I see my "family project" as all the things I’m interested in. For example I am studying to become a Falconer. That is a personal thing I am very excited about, but also see how it fits into my work.

What does that involve? Are you going to keep a falcon as a pet?

They certainly aren't pets. You can never really domesticate a bird of prey. All you can do is partner with one, and help it have a more consistent diet by hunting with them. Photographing birds of prey hunting in such a personal and up close way, that is typically only possible with a trail cam. One of the coolest things is that at the beginning part of training and keeping a hawk or kestrel is you have to trap it / catch it in the wild. Once you are a Master Falconer you can work with injured animals and domesticated species as well: owls, etc.

What are the ethical implications?

To catching and hunting with a bird of prey?

Yeah, it seems like the animal might not appreciate it?

75% of all wild-hatched hawks and falcons die before becoming adults. Birds of prey have a very high mortality rate, especially going into their first winter. Most die. Some species it’s 9 out of every 10. Because you trap an immature falcon before the winter die-offs, there is no negative impact on the wild population.

from The Locusts by Jesse Lenz

It’s a pact between animal and human that goes back generations. Like humans and horses or chickens. You should watch the film KES by Ken Loach.

But horses have been domesticated for centuries. 

Yes, horses have been domesticated, but many people still capture and break wild horses.

Raptors are wilder, at least as I imagine them.

A raptor can never be domesticated. They are always wild. But you can train them and you become a team. Then you let them go after a certain amount of time.

How do you trap them?

Usually trapped during their first-year migration. They will have already developed many of the skills they need to survive in the wild but have to be handled enough until they can build a trust bond with the falconer. There are many trap types, but most are basically nets/cages that you bait, watch and wait. You have to watch your trap because if you leave a juvenile bird in a trap, other hawks will kill it and eat it.

The animals you use are in a huge abundance. Red-tailed hawks and kestrels. The others you do later on are injured wild animals or domesticated offspring. You are also usually deeply involved in education and teaching people about these birds and why they shouldn't be killed, etc.

I live just down the road from Cascade Raptor Center. It's one of the primary bird units on the west coast. Owls, eagles, vultures, etc. I think most birds wind up there originally as injured fowl. And they are gradually restored to health, and then some are released. But many can't live on their own and live there long term.

Yeah, exactly. I love raptor centers.

But that seems different than trapping a healthy young bird.

It’s all part of animal management. There was a huge decline in birds of prey starting in the 60s from uncontrolled pesticides use and such. Partnering with a falcon you increase the population.

So once you get the falconry license then it allows you to go out and adopt one?

It’s a long process. Getting a license allows you to find a sponsor. There is a minimum 24 month period you are an apprentice before you can become a General Falconer. Then I believe it’s 5 years until you can become a master and you can move up into more difficult species. It’s a really incredible program actually. The people that do it are really amazing.

That puts a new light on all the photos in your books of raptors and owls.

Yeah. I see it as a new aspect that will enable really unique photos that feel like a progression typical in life.

I think that process is closer to the way photography is taught in Japan. You sort of pick a mentor and study with them for a long time. Which can happen here sometimes in graduate school. But the US system is more institutionalized and academia based.

Yeah. I think that is the only way art can be taught. So much about art is (should be) about living an artist life, not preparing for a career.

I don't know if it’s the only way. But I think it's probably better for many people.

I just think the way art is taught here is so much about execution of projects. I think you can learn some basics of how to do things, but the deeper things about art are always taught through imprinting. Even in our system that’s how the best lessons are taught, through the professors’ lives… if you have good ones.

That's probably closer to the way music is learned and developed here. You don't necessarily go to school to study music for years. Instead you jam with friends, maybe you find a mentor, you play with others, etc. It's more experience based.

Totally. I mean there are academic programs…but no one really thinks those produce musicians that write music that moves the world. 

Not sure why photography has taken such a different track.

I think it is because photography was blue collar for so long, people haven't realized yet it’s not a job. Now that it is institutionalized it sells people a bill of goods that really isn't the way things are done anymore. University is good to have a network, which I feel is the most important thing schools can give, but most don't really do that very well. You’re still better off finding one person who takes you under their wing and introduces you to their network.

from The Seraphim by Jesse Lenz

I thought that was the primary reason for school?

It is, but I don't think young people understand that. Or at least I didn’t. I am very biased though. I think the institutional system is pretty antithetical to true artistic practice. Many great artists have to teach, which I understand, but those are your diamonds in the rough.

What if you didn't get your falcon license, and just went out and did it on your own? Trapped a bird, trained it, etc. Would that work? Or is the license pretty necessary?

Yeah I mean it’s a felony to do that, lol.

So it's illegal. But from a practical standpoint would it work?

Sure, it could, that's what KES is about. A young boy who loves birds and captures a kestrel. It’s based off the book A Kestrel for a Knave. It still requires reading about it from folks who came before you, which I guess is still a bit of an apprenticeship, passed down knowledge. You gotta keep the birds heathy and in shape. You'd probably go through a few birds before you figured it out.

You said “I think the institutional system is pretty antithetical to true artistic practice." I'm guessing most folks who show up to Chico have MFAs or some similar background. Isn't there some cognitive dissonance?

I think it’s probably half or less. We attract a lot of self taught folks or folks with a BFA in something completely different. However, I think it says something about the system if they need to come to our event after attending a highly rated MFA program. 

I was just guessing on the numbers. No firm data.

Most of the MFAs are young kids who have never really lived outside of a school environment. I think that’s my issue. Art is about processing life. Most of the work I see come out of that path is intellectual because there isn't any real life experience. That’s why I always loved the art made by photographers who often were not trained, but learned as they went because they had a job, and their job was to experience the world and come back with stories. I feel that’s why most "art" is un-relatable to most people.

Maybe. Of all the arts I think photography is probably the easiest to relate to.

Yes. Unless it’s all conceptual and not based on any real human emotion or experience. Which I feel is what the institutional system creates. You have to make photos to pass the class. You’re not making something out of the desperation that you have to get it out of your system, you’re doing it for a grade. 

You mentioned that your mom was an artist. What kind of art does she do?

Well I used that word loosely, but my mom can do anything: paint, draw, etc. She is a natural, but she was never supported or pushed to do it. She and I have always been able to communicate through art, films, music, etc. It was our language to understand each other. I could write a song about something I was going through and share it with her, and she could understand it. I could show her films that made me cry and we could connect without talking about it. I think maybe that is the genesis of so much of why I need art. It helps me understand myself and gives me a way to connect in a profound way that isn't cheapened by words and explanation. It’s like the Vulcan mind meld.

I heard someone else describe their art as an addiction recently. This guy Leonardo Drew gave a talk at the U of O, and he put it almost in those exact terms. He just had to make this stuff, and screw the consequences... Turned out well for him actually.

Yeah, that’s the irony. If you put first things first, second things follow. People are drawn to work that is a deep expression of the soul. To make that work, your soul needs to be desperately trying to say things. It’s not intellectual, it’s primal.

His art came from somewhere deep and weird.

That’s why I also like to say art is just like taking a shit. It’s something you have to do. It’s not pretty. It’s not a job, but sometimes people want to buy your shit...which is weird but flattering in a way. To me that is actually the invisible thread though every book in CBC. It’s the thread through every film I love.

Funny you say that. He had a piece in the museum here which looked like a huge wooden dinosaur took an explosive diarrhea shit on the wall. It was about 100 feet wide, full of wooden junk parts.

Ha ha ha. Amazing.  That is very cool. Bet that was an experience to stand in front of.

It was great.

215B by Lenardo Drew at Jordan Schnitzer Art Museum (Photo by Kemper Flood)

Why I love the practice of icon paintings. It’s about the mediative act. The focus on something bigger than yourself, channeling a powerful emotion that sometimes is captured in what you are making. When people see my books and they tell me the feelings it harmonized within them, it’s always the same feelings I was trying to get out of me while making it. Harmonization. Tuning forks. To harmonize with your soul so it is soothed. It’s why we listen to sad music when we are sad. Growing up in a Christian community there was always this idea that art should teach or tell you the truth. I react to that idea very badly. Which is why I don't like a lot of art these days. It’s preachy. It’s not resonant. I always feel strange, like I ran to the arts from religion. And now artists are trying to be moral teachers. Like everyone trying to be a youth pastor. All I want is unfiltered emotion, an outlet for feelings that society and our own minds don't allow us.

Preach brother...

Ha. I am an evangelist of a different doctrine I guess. My dad was right about me being destined to be a preacher.

Is that what he wanted you to be?

No, not at all. Just saw what I was, I guess. I always had words of prophecy over me as a child that I was going to be a pied piper of sorts. Gypsy curses are real I guess. It’s a similar story to Emmet Gowin. One of the reasons we bonded.

Wait, words of prophecy? Like how? 

Like growing up. Missionaries, preachers and people at different times felt moved and prophesied that over me. Probably hard to explain if you don't grow up with it. Words of prophecy and warning.

Maybe they knew something you didn’t?

There are many times these things happen and then pan out to be true, in ways you didn't expect. Things like this you can't explain. It’s why I can't fully pull myself from aspects of how I grew up. There are many incredible things we can't explain. It’s why I love the mystics, because it’s about learning to live with and love mystery, not explain things. Allow the experience to deepen a profound experience of life. Even in religion, I found that the western Christianity I was brought up in is very different from the eastern church and even the eastern European traditions that very much more fit with my understanding of art and mystery. A different path to the same place I guess.


Marilyn Andrews said...

Yes, in art school people DO argue about bronze versus foam core!

Fly on the Wall said...

This is such a great interview. I kept coming across short quotes that said so much. Thank you both for this one.