“I mean I never took photography to be anything that I considered to be truthful.”
Dorian Devens and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Transcription of a conversation on The Speakeasy, WFMU.org, 2003
Dorian Devens: How did you get started in photography?
Philip-Lorca diCorcia: I was a student in an art college and it was more or less the first period of conceptual art in the mid 70’s and at that time I used it as a kind of documentation for conceptual projects and then when I finished going to art school I decided that, after a brief hiatus as a mail man, I would go to graduate school and then I concentrated on photography purely as a medium in and of itself, not as a means to other forms…
D: But, you were obviously very influenced by the conceptual art scene?
dC: Yeah, I was. I mean, the first photo class I ever took, if you asked a question, she just said, “Well, read the box,”. You know, there was no practical or formal training at all, and, it was all about ideas. Nobody really cared about the form.
D: Did you do your graduate studies at Yale?
dC: Yes, yes. And, that was quite a bit different. I think I was a bit of an anomaly at that point. They were still in a kind of rocks and ferns, Walker Evans, uh, black and white large format world then. And, Walker Evans had just died. They were in the process of a search for a replacement but his presence was still very strong there, which was not a problem for me… I mean, I totally respect him. But they didn’t have much tolerance for that kind of… at that time, I didn’t photograph people at all, and so, one shift that took place by going to graduate school was a move towards photographing people.
D: What had you been doing before that?
dC: Well, they were… for instance, one series was called “The Miracles of Everyday Life” and it was about how the elements manifest themselves in day to day activities like, a shower or a gas stove or refraction in water and things like that and I photographed them in a way that made it look mysterious but there were really no pictures of people. I did a whole series called “Suspense” which were things falling over… they were just normal scenes of a room or whatever but somewhere in it there would be things falling over. I guess when I first started using a flash because I had to stop the motion of a thing falling over and, uh, I would basically take a long pole or put a string on something and then yank it and quickly take the picture or smash it, you know, with a pole… whatever.
D: Sounds like you were getting some of the skills that you used with the flash in your later work…
dC: Well, not it wasn’t even that, it was just more an attitude, I mean I never took photography to be anything that I considered to be truthful. And, I think that was in general that attitude then. But, that was so much contradictory to the school of, let’s say, documentary photography, which was still probably the dominant one. I mean, I don’t think people can even remember now that photography as an art form in the mid-70’s really didn’t exist as anything like the form it does now.
D: So you could say this was the turning point in the history of photography where it was starting to become more representational of not reality but…
dC: Well, I think that with conceptualism, with a couple of generations of artists who were coming right out of graduate school, which there wasn’t always a graduate school in art, especially in photography. As a matter of fact, the photography department at Yale was a subdivision of the graphic design department until Walker Evans was given a Chair. And, I don’t know how long he had that. Even now, I think major universities don’t regard art degrees to be serious. They don’t think you have to go through the kind of rigors that a master’s degree in another discipline requires. That may be true, it’s another kind of rigor I guess. And you don’t wind up with a guaranteed income, as a matter of fact, you are almost guaranteed not to have one. So, there’s all sorts of risks involved in taking it on and I mean, I had no problem in that, I didn’t really want to go to graduate school, it was a huge recession then. I just kind of didn’t want to get a job.
“Tolerance isn’t always found in academic situations especially big, cumbersome, arrogant ones like Yale.”
D: It’s funny because Yale has turned out several significant conceptual or post modern photographers I guess you could say.
dC: It has, it has, and I think that is to the credit of the Chairman and um, the school itself. Tod Papageorge has been running it since I was a student there and he is not that type of photographer, and, the fact that he has allowed that to be nurtured in his department to the degree where the school is actually renowned for it at this point is a good thing. I mean, tolerance isn’t always found in academic situations especially big, cumbersome, arrogant ones like Yale.
D: At this time, were your major influences then not photographers?
dC: As far as the photography that I did, I think I wasn’t too much different than other people in what was the sort of initial period of post modernism, I used the media as the primary influence for what I did. And, I wasn’t really interested in my precursors in the photographic world.
D: Why do you suppose it took you time to get to photographing people? Was there some trepidation or did you just like the control you had with the objects better?
dC: I was working with ideas and somehow I didn’t put the two together or maybe I wasn’t mature enough to know what to say about a… one of the problems that I always had with photography and especially sort of “art star” photography is that very often it is generated by ideas and, these people don’t have a life. You know, they go to art school, they come to New York, they start on their career… you know, you can pick all sorts of topics that might seem to have a lot of gravity but you’ve never experienced any of it, and, it seemed to me that I didn’t really have a right at that age to be talking about the human condition having done nothing much more than gone to school.
D: That’s what we see what a lot of film makers now too…
dC: There is a certain amount of pretense but there’s also a lot of sophistication, and, I just didn’t want to do it because I had read about it and then there was all the French philosophers that got into it and Marshall McCluen, he’s been around for a long time but, there always seems to be a French philosopher being taught about in the art world… you know, it’s a sort of perpetual state. One dies and another one sprouts. At that time, they were talking about, you know, semiotics and you know, the world being basically, not a real thing but more of a representation of a real thing, and, people’s interpretation of reality was mediated by the media. And, that is largely true. And, you know, I think it’s quite valid to use the media and to criticize it as a lot of people did however indirectly.
D: While you were making this transition using inanimate objects to using people did you feel it was a natural thing or did you have any problems doing it?
dC: Well, one of the reasons I photographed my family when I first started doing it was because I could push them around. I didn’t feel uncomfortable about using them. And, I felt I knew something about them and what they represented in general. I never really tried make images which I felt were about my family members individual personalities so much, but they are, everybody’s a type I guess. And, part of making work that speaks to other people is a certain simplification. Unfortunately, that’s the nature of it, and as I’ve gotten older, you know, I’ve tried not to do that. But, when I first began, I think I was trying to make kind of archetypical characters in my depictions of people and, I would apply these archetypes to what I considered to be the most malleable people around and they were generally my family…
D: Now it seems you are able to put people into a context in which maybe the objects or settings would be more the archetype than the person…
“Alot of it is repetition, you know, you’ve established a kind of format then you apply that format over and over and over and over again until you get what you want.”
dC: Yeah I, for one thing, when I finish something I try and move on and I usually start by establishing certain interests and kind of framework to work within and then see where that leads me and just sort of the process of figuring out exactly how I’m going to approach a project is probably the interesting part about it for me and then there’s just, you know, the work part. Especially when you work serially as I have in the last years. Alot of it is repetition, you know, you’ve established a kind of format then you apply that format over and over and over and over again until you get what you want.
D: Within that body of work that you’re doing?
dC: Yeah, within that project and then when you feel like it’s tapped you just get out of it. Usually, that corresponds with a show and increasingly as I’m more well known that’s a regular occurrence, but it was almost, you know, a rarer occurrence as I was working in New York in the early years and when I first move here in 1981 and the I uh, everything was pretty sporadic until, I would say, the last 5 or 6 years. And, that somehow corresponded to a book that was published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1995 and I had gone away and I was living in Naples, and, when I came back the book had just been released and it really did change everything, and really it’s, I think a good lesson. And you can push, it seems as if you’ve been around for a long time and a lot of people know who you are and what you’re doing but, until there is some sort of media affirmation of it, a book, a large show, attention that goes beyond the closed circle that you travel in, the circle doesn’t get bigger that you’re travelling in. And, you’re basically just spinning around and around.
From A Storybook Life, 2003
D: When you left Yale was that when you got the NEA grant?
dC: I got a few… I got one almost immediately, it was kind of like they used to have these baby ones for emerging artists, I got two of those. And then I got a full on, you know, fat one.
D: And that was a point when you went to LA?
dC: Uh, well, the LA… it’s where I sort of started, I went to LA with more or less money from a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, the NEA was a great thing I have to say… when they were giving grants to individual artists, which they don’t do any more, it was a great encouragement. Even if, for instance, the early ones were not much money, certainly not enough to do a project, and even the major ones were, if you live in New York, not enough to go away and do anything without packing your bags and leaving your home, it was a form of affirmation at a point when people need to be encouraged because the New York art world is a pretty cruel one, and, you’re already working in a world that’s sort of like being a pop star. Pop stardom, once it’s established, is very hard to kill and it’s that same thing with artists and you know, there was a certain hierarchy and that hierarchy still remains to some degree even though most of these people’s work hasn’t changed at all and you know, you just, every time somebody has to list a famous, well known, renowned, respected art photographer it’s the same people every single time and it’s almost like the velvet ceiling or whatever, the… you know, it seems as if it shouldn’t be that way but there seems to be some strange form of… I don’t know, there’s no entropy working in the art world, it just never breaks down.
“Every time somebody has to list a famous, well known, renowned, respected art photographer it’s the same people every single time and it’s almost like the velvet ceiling or whatever…”
D: It’s kind of static in a way…
dC: It is! Because, surprisingly, it is supposed to be about change, it’s supposed to be about constantly renewing yourself, it’s supposed to be about, you know, a whole list of cliches which involve an evolution of some sort, intellectual, technical, whatever… but, I don’t see it much. I see people repeating themselves constantly and I don’t care, from really good ones like let’s say, Cindy Sherman, I mean, you could describe her work twenty years ago and you can describe it now and it’s exactly the same. Now, there are good parts to it and there are not so good parts to it and nobody denies how good she is or how influential she is but, as far as an evolution is concerned… I mean, you know, fruit flies have evolved further than her work has.
D: You’re own work has evolved from being series to now being actually, we’re going to get to the exhibition that’s up now, but the whole exhibition itself been has taken from your body of work and it itself is a work of art also… the book that goes with it also, The Storybook Life, I am talking about. I mean, you’ve created a narrative so that becomes the work of art itself also…
dC: Well, the reason that did the book was because I was offered the possibility of doing the book by other publishers and they wanted to do a kind of survey book, you know, the greatest hits, and I made a kind of deal, I’ll do that but first you have to let me do a kind of book that I want to do, which, I mean, the general idea at that time was a book that was an object in and of itself. I wasn’t sure exactly how that was going to be done, the form that it would take, then I started to think about it and, in the meantime, these publishers and everything started changing and the people I was working with came and went but, the initial form of the book was established and that really did evolve around a certain group of images which I knew would be included, and then starting to flesh that thing out by reviewing work that came from all sorts of different sources, the first and the last image in the book were established from the very beginning… the rest of it came rather easily I’d have to say, but it required that I review a lot of other work I had not looked at and not taken seriously and I never looked at any of the work that could be called ‘The Serial Work’, or any of the bodies of work that had been exhibited as bodies of work. The pictures that are somewhat redundant in this, I think there’s eight pictures that had been published before, of the seventy six, and they were from the pictures of my family or my friends, which I never considered to be a body of work, I mean, it’s an ongoing thing that I’ve always been doing and never stopped doing but I don’t consider it a serial project. And, I put them together and then it turned into a show because I just wanted it to be a show. I didn’t see any reason why not and I was offered a series of shows in Europe and I just said, what about this? And, there was no book at that time, so, they said fine. As a matter of fact, the first showing of that work was at the White Chapel Gallery in London and they never saw it when they said “okay”. They didn’t even know what they were approving. I mean, that’s how great they were. They just said, “okay, whatever you do, we trust you”. I never saw it on the wall because they were scans from negatives and I never saw all of the work together and the schedule was such that it was shipped, I saw it in pieces. It was shipped to be framed in London and I never saw it until I got there and it was hanging on the wall, the day the show was opening. I had seen dummies of the book, so, I knew how it worked as a book and I was very happy with that because I felt that it was true to the sense that I was trying to convey however vague that might be described but I wasn’t sure it was going to work as a show on the wall. It works in a different way, the show on the wall, so in a way, they turned out to split from one another, even though one is a product of the other I don’t think they have the same effect or work the same way.
D: In a way it sounds like the work, since it’s what came in between your series, it’s almost like the glue between your other work. It’s not really chronological in a literal sense but there is some form of chronology there.
dC: Since there is a narrative, I mean, there’s always an implied timeline to a narrative, and since that is not a chronological timeline in this, it’s not a survey either, but the timeline does have something to do with my consideration of the individual images, in some ways. You know, there are people who get actually younger and then old and then young again if you read this from page 1 to page 76 as I would like it to have been done. But, sometimes that’s not about seeing things in strict order… it’s about, you set up a situation and an idea and a suggestion in somebodies mind and then you, a few page later, refer back to it either in a formal sense or because it’s the same person and it’s not meant to really inform you in terms of some event. It’s meant to refer you to the first one so that you’re forced to reconsider your initial conception of the image, which is, a lot of what I was trying to play with in these and which, I still think is part of what I’ve always tried to do and that is to give the images a little bit more of an afterlife and it seems to me images… you know, one of the problems if you work in the media is that images are meant to live and die extremely rapidly. And, images are so competitive with other images around them, in magazines and in the world at large, people do, I think, have a hard time considering, even in a photobook, an image as anything more than a quick fix.
“And, images are so competitive with other images around them, in magazines and in the world at large, people do, I think, have a hard time considering, even in a photobook, an image as anything more than a quick fix.”
D: It’s like a sound bite…
dCL Right. And, you know, I try to counteract that in various ways and in some ways the sequencing of images in the book and the nature of the images themselves and the fact that some images are highly manipulated in the making of them and some are not at all and you know, you start to wonder which ones are and which ones aren’t so you can refer to the work on many different levels, I mean, there is the level of – what is this particular person saying to me on an emotional level, on a formal level, and what are both of these things telling me about what I myself do when I look at photographs, and media in general? And, you know I try to work with all of those things at the same time and I think… I would say it’s incumbent upon anybody who works in a medium that is basically mechanical to bring as much as you can to it on another level.
D: And intentionally or not you’re making the viewer aware of the process of creating a narrative and aware of the fact that they do create a narrative in their heads as they go along.
dC: I think, you know, in some ways it’s sort of tickling the unspoken assumptions that everybody carries and at the same time trying to use those to lead to… what I do consider to be an emotional place, not an intellectual place and I think that part of the content of this particular book… I mean, let’s face it, you put your father in the first image and the last image, they’re a year apart… the first one he is alive, the last one he is dead. I mean, that seems quite manipulative and heavy handed in a way. But, for me I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of it as a way to both, structure how I was thinking about the images as I edited the book but also to structure people’s… you know sort of book end their experience and reaction to the photographs with what I consider to be, you know, an essential event. Not just for me but for anybody. And, absolutes are hard to come by and that seemed to me to be a good one.
D: It seemed to me what I saw the show that was you’re framing device and with the large photos you’re sort of creating the work and you have this framing device, you’re working within the frame so you can create the narrative or whoever views it will create their narrative within that frame so it’s not just complete open-endedness.
dC: Yeah, it is, I mean the fact is that because in the show and the book their is no text. I don’t point out who the people are but I think almost everybody understands that I have some relationship to almost all of them. And, I have found that some people get annoyed that I don’t actually spell out the nature of that relationship. But, it seems to me that it is totally unnecessary… that if the work does what I want it to do, it doesn’t really require that you attach a name and a place to the people in it. I mean, it’s not as simple as a picture is worth a thousand words or anything that simplifies that. When anybody looks at a photograph if someone that they know, especially one that you’ve taken yourself, it is really difficult to separate your emotional to what you know about that person from the image. And, I was in a way trying to see if I could replicate in some way the emotional responses that I have to images of people without regard to whether I like the picture or not. I wanted to try and replicate that for someone else without giving them all the clues that I have, or, most people I know would have.
D: I guess when people are frustrated by that it’s because they are kind of wanting you to hold their hand through it for strong images they really expect you to give them this information.
dC: Oh yeah, people are so used to being spoon fed and especially with photographs and you know, as I said, it is my ambition to have the book be seen as an object which you can turn around, you know… ideally I would like it if it was done in sequence but that rarely happens. Most people start a book at the back but, it is meant to allow a response that changes over time and to have multiple levels of appreciation, hopefully. And basically, a lot of people are not going to be interested in that and I don’t speak to an audience that is that wide. But, I think I understand at this point, as I have been doing this for quite awhile, that a lot of people are hungry for something that just isn’t a sort of seratonin simulator or something. There are other synapses in the brain besides the pleasure wants.
D: It seems that it has a lot to do with how people are, I guess you’d say ‘trained’ or how the evolution of looking at pictures, hearing stories has come, or, to what point its come. I am not saying how far. Because, you could imagine that maybe people many years ago, not that your photos would have existed then, might have been able to deal with this in a different way. Now, we’re use to having everything really spelled out to us. Every piece of information is right there. You don’t have to do any thinking, you don’t have to make any associations… it’s always there. That’s why you walk away feeling nothing in the end. It’s like the Chinese food syndrome, an hour later, it’s like you never ate.
dC: Or the porno syndrome. (chuckle)
D: Is that the same? (laughter)
“I think that a lot of work tends to pretend that it’s using the same devices that it’s criticizing as a kind of double quality.”
dC: I sort of think of it as the same thing, I mean, you know, this sort of ubiquity of things that are extreme. I mean, one thing is that there are naked people, there is the intimation of sex I suppose in some of my pictures, but, it’s really, really veiled and I don’t think anywhere near what you get from the vast majority of work that is out there now. I think that a lot of work tends to pretend that it’s using the same devices that it’s criticizing as a kind of double quality. It can both be cheap and dumb and stupid and obvious and therefore sort of enjoyable and at the same time it’s supposedly talking about the condition of modern life which is cheap and dumb and stupid and obvious. And, too many artists try to get away with that…
D: Sort of a cop out… cashing in…
dC: Yeah, I can bottom feed all over the cultural pond and then serve it up on a platter in the art world and people are going to enjoy it in that they would never respond to if they had seen the same type of thing in its initial form. I just don’t play those games… I just don’t.
D: You had mentioned, when we started talking about “The Miracles of Everday Life”, that idea of mystery in things and then the suspense series it seems like that is something you’ve maintained throughout your career, keeping that openness for the viewer to go in and enter the work and actually experience it rather than just be this far away and see it.
dC: Well, I think that I’ve always been interested in the extremely commonplace and initially that might have been when I was, you know, sort of hot blooded as a student and I thought that it was kind of reaction to the way people considered… photography at that time was all about bringing it back home for the masses. You know, it was all about having an experience that you could not have in your own life, you know, voyeuristically through another person. Whether it be war or you know fashion models or sex or whatever form, I mean, that was the vast majority of the use of photography. And, I guess, I decided that in a way I was going to remove all those normal stimulants from the subject of my work. I pretty much kept to that the whole time. I mean, in almost all of the things that I have been photographing, with the exception of doing a fashion assignment maybe, have been something that anyone has access to… anyone. As a matter of fact, you know, it’s often been noted that they seem to point out things that are in front of your face but you never notice. And, that’s not necessarily the point. I just, I like to keep it to a very democratic position. I’m not doing anything that anybody can’t do.
D: You said it just disturbs some people that you used set up situations. Some of the pictures are street photography and some are not… and then here is this dichotomy you’re talking about between I guess sort of the photojournalistic school more or less and then the art school. Maybe you could say the non-fiction versus the fiction world of photography. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you set up these photos and the reactions people have when you explain this? Some of these look like they’re candid shots but they’re not and you said that some people are rather disturbed by that.
dC: Well, I don’t know, in regards to A Storybook Life, since most of that work has not been seen… not many people have had opportunities to have a reaction to it but in general, I think that there was a time, and increasingly that is not the case, when if you violated certain codes, people got annoyed. Even if it was sort of like jumping out from behind a door and surprising someone. You know, very often they react violently to that and it seemed to me that there was a whole entrenched world of photography which almost reacted violently to the fact that, not that I did it, or any of the other people who did the same kind of thing did it, it’s the fact that it was taken seriously. I don’t think they would have cared at all, it’s just that they saw the fact that there was interest in it. It was probably some form of a threat I think that they are invested in this concept of ‘truth’. Otherwise, I don’t think that they could possibly do what they do. I mean, I don’t think that it’s easy. I am not pretending that being a photojournalist is fun or easier to do than what I do or something like that. I think that they by necessity though have to believe in what they are doing in order to put up with it basically. And, I don’t know what the rewards are but I think they’re largely moral and, you know, morality is a very shifty thing. It depends on your point of view. And, a lot of people seem to think that truth is just really a matter of perception and I think that photojournalists have to believe that there is an absolute standard for it and they do not want to be questioned on that. And, any authoritative affirmation of some alternative way of seeing a photograph is a threat.
From A Storybook Life, 2003
D: They have to be kind of blinded to there own subjectivity…
dC: And the fact that, like let’s face it, there is nothing that is being said by any photojournalist that hasn’t been said a million times before. It’s just another example of man’s inhumanity to man or, you know, chaos, violence and you know, special moments. It’s good to be informed and maybe people need to see visual evidence of what’s going on but it’s been going on for centuries and the photographs themselves may differ but I think a corpse is a corpse is a corpse.
D: It’s funny because people can perfectly well accept a film being set up and being shot and still accept it as a story. I mean, maybe this is why there have been comparisons with your work to film, which I know you don’t really subscribe to.
“There is nothing that is being said by any photojournalist that hasn’t been said a million times before.”
dC: You know, the resistance to all of that, I mean for one thing, I am speaking about a period which is now gone. I think with the advent of digital, I mean, now the basic assumption is that anything can be changed. I mean, fifteen years ago, you had to cut and paste and there are programs with every little digital camera that retouch. And, I think it’s assumed that the media is highly malleable, and as a matter of fact, people are becoming more savvy and sort of read between the lines, okay, like you’re listening to CNN and you know you’re getting this point of view, and you’re reading the New York Times and you know you’re getting another point of view, and you’re reading the Post and… you know, that’s quite a sophisticated development for the United States. I think in Europe it’s always existed… there, you know, people pick their paper according to the political party that publishes it almost. In the United States people tended to think of the media as Walter Kronkite, and you know, like a kind of monolithic entity that was friendly and informative…
D: And motherly…
dC: And fatherly… and, I think they know now that it is a money making proposition and that they will probably tell you anything you want to hear if they can make more money.
D: And that omniscience you know was completely bogus.
dC: Yeah, now everybody knows now how the army lies and you know, it’s fed to the people through the media and that they may very well know but they don’t say anything, they don’t really seriously question government. You know, see it know, it’s kind of like just as Bush is starting to get a little… show signs of weaknesses, they’re all going to start jumping on him but before, they were too timid, they were too like afraid of losing an advertising account or whatever reason… they were basically saying the same things they’re saying now.
D: That’s disturbing… the corporate sponsorship.
dC: They are all corporations, I mean, you know it’s like you open the front section of the New York Times and if you took the percentage of paper that is an ad, and this is the international front section versus the part that is actual text I would be the ads are like two thirds of it.
D: A lot of works of art are becoming marketing devices. I mean, not just songs. I was talking to somebody recently and these films of the past are basically being re-released in theaters as a marketing device to sell a DVD, which is what I would kind of consider ass-backwards.
dC: I don’t know, I mean I can’t… this is what we were talking about before, you know, DVD’s, CD’s, MP3’s and like, JPG’s, MPG’s, it’s, it’s, you know, I can’t keep track of all the acronyms and you know, I got a 10 year old kid and he just toggles between MTV and sports when he is watching television for pleasure, and the way that he has to see the world, between the fact that it’s MTV, which is basically built upon cutting according to a Beatles song and how used to it we have gotten. And, how everything has to be speeded up that way and sport even which is kind of camera shifting constantly and then he is toggling between the two, you know, shifting back and forth constantly and you know, you kind of wonder about the attention span. I mean, he is perfectly capable and he can read as well as I could ever read and I don’t see any real effects. But, the mind that he has is very much different from the mind that I have and that has a lot to do with the way that he was brought up. I mean, I didn’t even have television when I was a kid. It was partly from having an overly liberal, I mean, politically liberal… it meant that having the television was the devil or something like that. And, now it is just that I find it incredibly boring. I mean, I can’t believe that people actually sit there and watch the stuff and talk about it. It’s another example of how much attention Americans place to garbage. I mean, I know perfectly intelligent people who will talk about Survivor and how crappy it is and all of that kind of stuff and yet they watch it every week.
“As I said, I don’t have to have a subject. I don’t have to worm my way into, you know, a crack house or get an invitation to fly around Air Force One for a month.”
D: Do you think that people who are brought up in this milieu are going to go through your show, A Storybook Life, or look at the book differently then someone who is from a different generation?
dC: Well, I don’t think so to tell the truth. The report from the gallery is that if at any one time, if there is a hundred people in the gallery, fifty of them are students. And, for whatever it was worth the kind of open thing that I had which was to just kind of stand around in the gallery for a day and there was one student after another who kind of came and wanted me to sign the book or something like that and tell me how much of an influence I had been on them. And, I hear it all the time and it’s almost like I get described as ‘the influential Philip-Lorca diCorcia’, like that is my first name. But, I think one of the reasons that is the case is that students, as I said about my own misgivings photographing people when I first started out, they don’t have much of a life. You know, they are sort of in a bubble. They are in a city they probably weren’t born in and in an environment that is temporary… meant to produce, at a particular and regular interval, work for the consumption of a teacher or whatever. They need ideas, they need to be fed something that they can wrap their head around and actually go out and you know, work with. And, since photography is so subject oriented… I think I offer them an alternative. As I said, I don’t have to have a subject. I don’t have to worm my way into, you know, a crack house or get an invitation to fly around Air Force One for a month. I can do it pretty much, and have always pretty much, been able to do it when I want, how I want, without actually, even now, talking to the people. That hasn’t always been the case but the last series, I did the street work, the Heads pictures… I didn’t even talk to the people. I had nothing to do with them. They were walking down the street. They were, for the most part, unaware of being photographed.
D: Was that a different feeling for you in doing that? A completely different experience?
dC: Uh, yeah. That’s the point. I mean, I try to keep going.
D: Was it scary at first?
dC: Not really, I mean I was surprised at how infrequently people respond when they realize they have been photographed. They usually realize it afterwards because the flash and they realize that something has happened. In certain countries when I was doing street pictures it was almost guaranteed that they would react. In Germany especially for instance, they would just about, you know, go and get a lawyer when they realize that I had taken their picture. But, actually in Europe it is illegal…
D: It is illegal?
dC: Yeah, to take someone’s picture without asking them and stuff like that. It’s not in the United States.
D: Only if you use them for advertising.
dC: If you use them for advertising or contextualize them in a way that is demeaning or defaming or whatever.
D: So, it was surprising to you that it was not that hard really to make the transition?
dC: The problem wasn’t making the pictures. After I had established the technique and worked it out. The problem is that when you have a sort of serial formula and you’re repeating, I mean I moved the lights, you know, I changed the formula around during the course of it but, the truth is that, because it is a redundant process it leads to redundant pictures. And, even though I might like one it’s too close to the other ones to be interesting as a series so the real problem comes in having either the patience or the perception to wait it out. You know, things do change and sometimes you’re not the thing that makes them change and that was part of what made it interesting to me is for years and years I controlled, you know, almost to a freakish degree most of the elements in the photograph. And then I started just giving up larger and larger chunks of that control and even to the point where I was giving up quite a lot to intuition when I did “A Storybook Life”. One of the reasons why it is difficult to explain a lot of thing about that book is that there is no explanation. Because, I started to learn that after living for over 50 years and working as a photographer for over 25 I could trust my intuition.
D: There is sort of a paradox in the street photography, the street work and the Heads, while it is more anonymous for you, you’re not really dealing with the subjects in a way that you were with the other work because you knew the people or had set up shots, you have to be closer in a way to the subject because you’re having to search out something and you’re not manipulating the frame in the same way. When you’re doing the set up shots, you have in your mind what you want to do and you can put the subject there. When you’re leaving it a bit to chance you’re having to connect in a different way… to the subject.
From A Storybook Life, 2003
dC: Yeah, you do and you’re responding to things that come from without rather than from within and, that is an interesting thing and you can build on it. I mean, you notice things that happen once and you know, then you can see it coming when it happens again. When you stand on the street, in the case of Street Works, that project I worked on for like 4 years in cities all over the world and I suppose you could say in a rather predictable conclusion that the world is largely the same place no matter where you go. But, it’s not really true, I had to pick very dense places in order for the way I work. If I were to work in a big Piazza or in a sparsely populated place, everyone would notice me and everyone would stare at me and I’d have all these photographs of people staring at the camera, which is definitely what I didn’t want. So, I necessarily had to go to places like Hong Kong or the most crowded section of whatever city I was in and some places didn’t work. But, you start to learn the code of the streets and, as I said, in keeping with my preference for low key material, if you stand on the street for hours on end in pretty much the same place, you see a lot of freaky things happening. There is a lot of retarded people out there, there are a lot of messed up people, there are a lot of homeless people. I never photographed any of that. I thought it would be cheap to do it for one and an obvious conclusion and somewhat exploitative. But, you do learn quite a lot. Especially since the Heads were all done in Times Square at a period of transition before it became Disney-fied totally. And, by the time I was out of there, I worked over a course of a two year period, I could only work in a sort of good weather on that, I saw it change quite a lot it was strange because it became a kind of like touristic crossroads and I would try to predict who was an American and who wasn’t and I couldn’t after awhile. Everybody starts to look the same and all young people have the same piercings and you know, whatever fad, whether its a wool cap, or Converse, you know, you start to see it and you know, everybody all over the world has the same thing on. It actually turns out that the only people who are the individuals are the nuts. And I suppose that could be the subject and the thesis of a project in an of itself. But, I didn’t feel that was a really worthy subject to tell the truth because that kind of globalization of culture is I think unspoken but no news.
“Especially since the Heads were all done in Times Square at a period of transition before it became Disney-fied totally.”
D: Were there any elements of surprise in doing the street work that you really liked as opposed to doing the set up shots?
dC: I really did like standing on the street for hours upon end and watching people. You have to concentrate very hard because it is part technical, but you can’t just stand there. I wasn’t an automatic process. I pressed the button to release the shutter, I released the flash or whatever, I had to decide what moment this should take place…
CONVERSATION WILL CONTINUE IN PART II.
Listen to the Audio: HERE