From ‘Son’ by Christopher Anderson
Why show it ?
Interview with Christopher Anderson
By Baptiste Lignel, December 2, 2012, Paris
Baptiste Lignel- You seem to have a dilemma about your project “Son”…
Cristopher Anderson – I’m constantly conflicted and still conflicted about showing pictures of my son at all, that maybe later he will resent. In particular, there is a picture of him naked, as a baby. I would like to think that I am smart enough to have given that enough thought, but it’s as if I had blocked out the thought process, subconsciously.
BL – At the moment you took the picture, or when you decided to show it?
CA – Making those pictures was actually quite organic. I didn’t set out to do a body of work about my family, it wasn’t until I was half way into it or more that I realized that maybe there was an actual project. Like any parent, I was making pictures of my child. And if there is anything interesting in the pictures it is because you feel that it is organic and intimate. And the moment I became conscious that it was becoming a project, the images were not interesting anymore, because they felt like me trying to make nice pictures.
It happened slowly, I took some pictures, then I would like one or two, show them to a friend or a colleague to see what they thought, then you show it to a little wider audience, and the next thing you know the work is out there. It slipped through your fingers, and now it has a life of its own, it does not belong to you anymore. Then you make a conscious decision to show it, and to publish it.
There is one photograph in particular of my son naked, seen from the back, and it is a picture I made when he was quite young, but because of the angle and somehow his physique, he looks older than he really is. I never thought of it as being controversial until other people started pointing it out.
BL – Has there been controversy about this picture?
CA – Not a whole lot, but it’s an issue that comes up, and that I’m aware of. And some times I wonder: “have I pimped my kid out ? Or am I profiting from my child’s young flesh in a way?”. And I’ve talked a lot about it with my wife.
BL – What was her take on it?
CA – Well there are also pictures of her that are quite revealing as well… She is French so she is used to a little more exposure than a North American woman, perhaps. It’s more than her being naked, it’s me sharing with the world very intimate moments of our life.
BL – You start making pictures as any parent would, and then you make the conscious decision to show it and publish it, how did she –or other people in your family- feel about that second step?
CA – She gave me the approval to do it, but it was a little bit odd for her. Especially as she is a photo editor at Newsweek magazine, so she meets a lot of young photographers who come to show their portfolios and often they look at her and realize “oh, I’ve seen you before, you must be Chris Anderson’s wife”. A lot of people actually do the joke “I didn’t recognize you with all those cloths on…”. But we’ve gone past that.
Not too long ago, I went back to her and asked to have that conversation again, because I was wondering: “did I really give you the opportunity to really say no? Was I genuine in asking for your approval?”.
It’s too late now. The book is not published, but the work is out there, and you can’t pull it back. That’s the other thing about this day and age, is that the work is out on the internet, and it’s like wildfire.
But how did it go for you?
BL – In my case the scenario is a little bit more complex, because -and it is something that you don’t actually see in the book- there are two mothers. So I had to get approval from both of them. Before setting to work on any editing, I went to see the first mother to get her OK, otherwise any work put in would be wasted.
It is an issue. Both showing the mothers, and the children in a way, as you said, they will not resent later. But my kids are older so they were able to express what they thought about the whole thing. And this debate about nudity, which is really what we were talking about, was important. They were around ten when I did the book so very self conscious, conscious of their bodies, and being shown naked meant something to them.
One evening we had an important “meeting”, with both mothers and the kids. I had just completed a first edit with the publisher, and I put it on the table for discussion. The kids wanted one of the photos out, and the mothers agreed, but there is another one that they wanted out, but all the parents felt it was ok to keep it in.
That issue was very important to me, and I’ve explained that to them quite often: after the excesses that we’ve seen in the 90’s, after Sally Mann’s book, and so many other people being arrested on the grounds of child pornography, all of which was led by the conservative Christian movement, it felt necessary to me to include pictures of naked children. Because that’s the way things are, that’s the way our family behaves, and that’s the way children are. To be truthful to the situation it felt important for me, a male photographer, such as you, to say “this is normal, this is ok”.
From ‘Ce qui demeure’ by Baptiste Lignel
CA – There is something about the fact that we are so obsessed with hiding it that actually makes the problem worse. Instead of being natural and comfortable with it. Kids are naked a lot. And if you are shocked by that, man, you have a problem…
I actually met Sally Mann recently when I showed the work at Look 3 Festival, where she was giving a lecture. I had made a decision to not show anymore pictures after my kid got 2 years old, leaving the decision to be shown naked to him, for later on. Not that I think there is any problem with it, but just that he should decide. And I talked to Sally Mann about that, and she said “don’t take anymore pictures of your kids, just don’t do it. It’s too much grief.”. I think she’s had a really tough time over the years, facing so much criticism that she felt it is just not worth it.
It is one of my big fears. Now at the Magnum Gallery, you walk in and there are those two pictures, one of my wife naked, and the one of Atlas from behind. They are my two favorite pictures of the whole series, but they always make me wonder “how can I show this?”. And perhaps that’s what makes them interesting, is because they cross that line of intimacy. That’s what both our projects are about, about intimacy. And that’s what makes the work interesting, and that’s also what makes it sort of difficult to share.
BL – Which leads to the question: why share it? In any form…
CA – I don’t have a very good answer for that. Other than I’m a photographer, that’s what I do, that’s the way I express myself.
BL – But surely there are other images groups of images that you don’t show. And this project you could have decided to keep for your private circle.
CA – My answer is filled with holes, my logic is swiss cheese, I realize, but to me this is the most important work of my life to date. It was as if everything I’ve done up until this point has been to prepare me to make those pictures. So this work is not just another body of work, it is a culmination of my entire life.
BL – This is important. Tell me how that project fits in with or relates to the other projects.
CA – I’ve spent the last fifteen years with the title of “War photographer”, going to the other ends of the earth, to photographs stories of other people, looking for photographic intimacy from people that I didn’t know. In Afghanistan, which could not be further away from what I grew up in, which was milk and toast Texas. My father was an evangelical preacher, and I grew up in a very conservative and religious environment. My family is not right wing, born again, or that kind of thing, but the environment, the town, the culture that I grew up in were conservative, and I became a photographer, really, to escape that.
Then all of sudden you have a child, which is a crazy experience, because it is at the same time the most intimate and unique experience a person can have, and it is also the most common and universal experience a person can have. Then I was having this internal dialogue: “I’ve been going off to Afghanistan, and now I’ve come the full circle, where I’m not running away from home anymore, I want to be at my home. I want to understand myself through my family”.
At the same time I had my son, my father became ill, which got me thinking about very basic issues of life, death, the seasonal nature of life, and my own mortality. I understood then what I had been running from, I understood part of why I was out searching for meaning through photographing others in faraway places. Now I am looking at who I am right here, rather than trying to find myself somewhere else.
And I realize this may sound like navel-gazing stuff…
BL – You could have been navel-gazing in Afghanistan, or in Venezuela, and you weren’t, and now you are turning your gaze from the outside to the inside, so I’m still not sure how this project is the culmination of the rest of your work…
CA – When I was in faraway places, if there is one photographic thread, what I was really talking about was human emotions. My work wasn’t about Venezuela, or wars. I was always looking for the human spirit, and the human emotions, and ultimately, intimacy. And I was trying to find that visually, in faraway places.
BL – And in conflict zones…
CA – You find out some things about yourself in conflict zones, how you react to fear, how you relate to people in those circumstances. Photographically, if you are looking for human emotions, going to a place where those are stripped pretty bare, makes it a little bit easier. If you are looking for human emotions, go to a war and you will find that.
Then I realized that I was looking for that thing in the wrong place, it is right here. The “MEANING OF LIFE” is here, and now I understand it. But I had to go through the whole process to become conscious of it. I don’t go to conflict zones any more. I am officially semi-retired as I call it.
I have worked in the function of a photojournalist, but I never was one. Journalism was an excuse for me to go in those places, I was simply trying to understand something about the world by looking at it and photographing it. Which is a personal thing. The images I was making were for me. They weren’t about me, but they were for me. Photography was always a way to explain the world to myself rather than explain it to someone else. So all the previous projects were meant to prepare me to look at my own life. And even though the images I’ve chosen are very intimate, they are also universal. It’s an experience that is very universal: death, new life, love, watching someone you love grow old.
There is one picture that late Tim Hetherington, a good friend of mine, loved very much, of my wife Marion in the kitchen in the morning with flowers in the foreground, she is a pretty girl, and she is pretty in the picture, but you can also see her aging… In the picture you sort of feel time passing, but not in a regretful way.
But you photographed for nine years for the book “Ce qui demeure”, right?
BL – The situation was very similar to yours, I didn’t set out to do a book. I made pictures and showed them to my circle of friends, and after the tenth time someone asked me when the book was coming out, I stopped to actually consider the question. But there is a difference to your approach, this book is only a “Volume 1”, when for you it seems to be a self contained two year project, right?
CA – Yes, that particular project of my and my son, and me as the son is closed. As I said because I don’t want to use his image anymore, and because the pictures were not organic any longer.
BL – Which is similar to what happened to me after my book came out. I stopped photographing them for about a year, because I too had lost the spontaneity, I was thinking in terms of the next volume…
CA – Well maybe I’ll come back to it some day as well, after a break, but right now I’m expanding out from my immediate family to New York, on which I’ve been working this past year. This adopted city already starts showing in “Son”, actually. It is an extension of this newfound curiosity to what is close to me. It is the first time I am interested in photographing in America.
There is actually one picture of Atlas after he was two, in the story I did for the September 11th issue of the New Yorker. The whole portfolio was a reflection on how New York has changed, dealing with ideas of resiliency and remembrance, and I wanted to end on a picture that looked to the future. A hopeful picture of a friend of ours lifting my son up in the air, and you see the skyline of Manhattan behind, which formerly had the twin towers. And if you look closely, the guy has a tattoo on his arm that says “Hope”.
From ‘Son’ by Christopher Anderson
BL – One thing that makes your project stand out from other similar ones is the inclusion of your father in the story. What were the reactions from him and the family when you decided to do that?
CA – I haven’t really had the discussion with him yet… He is aware that I’m photographing him, he is aware of what I’m photographing, he is aware that it’s a part of a book. I don’t think he realized that the body of work would be so directly about him. There are difficult pictures. Like this one where he is getting radiation therapy, and he looks old, it’s not a flattering picture.
My parents are very supportive, I’m their son, and they think my work is great. But I haven’t had that conversation yet: “are you really ok with me showing this picture?”… I’ve had it with my wife, but not with my father. Which is an interesting dynamic. But I know there’s a part of me that has been stalling from this conversation, which I will have to have before I do a book, obviously.
BL – Why did you choose not to include him in the exhibition?
CA – The way it is constructed in the book sequence right now, the narration follows a theme of seasons. We start with the autumn, and we build to winter, which is where I deal with my father’s illness, before we move on to the spring, which is obviously promising. It takes a certain rhythm of sequenced pictures to build sense, which felt difficult to achieve in a small gallery with limited wall space, so I found it easier to keep that part of it out and focus on my son, which is essentially what the project is about.
BL – But, again, what makes this project specific and different is the dual meaning of the word “son”.
CA – I still wonder if it was a mistake not to include it. Maybe it was just out of laziness, not wanting to put in the effort necessary to solve the problem. Because it is complicated. Hanging the show as it is was complicated. It just so happens that some of my favorite images are kind of similar, so you start putting them on a wall and they are saying nothing, they are redundant.
The images of my father would have made a break, but the three or four images of him are really heavy. Maybe it would have made the show more powerful, but I was afraid that it would be this one thing that didn’t fit.
BL – Talking about the exhibition, why did you choose to have such large prints?
CA – The geek in me likes the art of printing, I take pleasure in that. And if you are into the mechanics of that, those mechanics become more complicated and fun, when you go up in size. I’ve kind of imagined the book to be small, and perhaps because I want the book to be small I want the prints to be big.
I think there is something that happens when you are looking at something so intimate at that size. The pictures are fairly simple, graphically simple, they are not layered compositions. And there is something about looking at a human body at such a scale. It almost makes you feel like you were there with the person.
BL – As you are putting out something that is so intimate, maybe it called for a presentation which was intimate as well. Also in a couple of images, the figure is larger than life, introducing another possible element of discomfort. Your kid in the ray of light, for instance, is three or four times his natural size; so it is more than just being naked, it is also the size.
CA – It was a choice to steer it away from “oh, you are just looking at my family album”. By printing so large, it abstracts the images to a certain degree, making it feel universal in that sense.
BL – This concern of going “beyond the simple family album” brings us back to the initial question –that I had for my own project-: “why show it at all?”, and “why is it of interest to anyone beyond your family?”. Finally how does it become universal, or does it?
CA – Part of the question has to assume that Art, or Photography has to have an instructive purpose. And this story has an instructive purpose. Not in a journalistic way, not even really in a documentary sense. So if there is something interesting in the work to share, it is a feeling, an intimacy, a magic that happens in a photograph that allows one to feel connected to life. And it sounds like the most worn out subject on the planet, but it is worn out because it is universal.
So I’m not sure why show it. Is it to instruct the viewer, or because I need to tell a story? I don’t have a great logic other than it’s important to me, and it’s beautiful and maybe there is a desire to shout my happiness from the rooftop. God that sounds cheesy, but does it have to be much more complicated than that? I’m not sure. Why did you do this book?
BL – I asked that question smiling, because I’ve been asked that quite a few times, and the answer is complicated. Is it about something universal, then there would be not dates, and no names, or is it about something more specific, close to an autobiographical project, and then how interesting is that? My aim in the book was to talk about childhood, conceptually, a life experience that is shared by everyone. It so happens that I am using my own children to represent that concept, but they could be other children. And the fact is that there are few faces, it is less about them specifically grown up as it is about being a child and being carefree, in nature, interacting with their mothers. So that’s the balance that I was going for.
And for that I really needed the input of the publisher, Dominique Gaessler, from Trans Photographic Press. The work is so intimate, and literally biographical, that it was difficult to step back and look at the work for the work’s sake, and look at the images for what they are, and group them in a coherent sequence within a book! It was something I would have been incapable of doing alone.
Interestingly, my father also had a heart problem a few years back, and I photographed him in the hospital and he was ok with it, but he made it very clear that it was for our private use. And when I set about working on the project on my kids, even though he was not against it, he didn’t understand why I would I want to share that intimacy and who would it interest?
CA – So you don’t have the answer either.
BL – I was kind of counting on you… and you let me down.
From ‘Son’ by Christopher Anderson
CA – What I’m interested in in photography is certainly not the aesthetics, and for the most parts not the concepts either, what I’m interested in mostly is what I call the “being John Malkovich factor”. You take an elevator to the 7th and ½ flour, and through a door you get to be inside John Malkovich’s head, look through his eyes. That, to me, is what is interesting about photography, being able to look through the eyes of someone else. The only way you can experience how someone else’s mind works, by seeing what they see, seeing what they choose to look at. A unique experience we have of connecting as humans.
Then when I show pictures, especially in this context, it is because I want to share the way I see, and through the images someone else has the experience of looking through my eyes.
I guess it is also the path that I’ve chosen, to express myself through photographs. So the question should be, why not show these pictures, or why show any other pictures instead of these pictures? If those are my most important pictures, if those are my favorite pictures, that’s what I should show.
BL – You realize that we are now part of an actual genre of photography? The photographer looking at their family. What are the examples that you relate to the most in that area?
CA – I would include Eugene Richard’s “Explodining to life”, and even “Dorchester days”, to me is autobiographical. Then of course Sally Mann. But even William Eggleston, in some if his pictures of the people he is connecting with, they are not necessarily his children, but they are the people that he lives his life with.
BL – If you go down that road, we’ll end up including most of living photographers!
CA – So we are a sub genre then.
BL – And it so happens that in your project you combine two: the sub genre of photographers looking at their kids, and the one of photographers looking at their parents.
CA – So now I’m a sub sub genre.
So which are some examples that you liked?
BL – First was Sally Mann, also because her book “Immediate family” came out when I was studying in New York, and I witnessed the whole drama and controversy first hand. Then I really liked Larry Towell’s “The world from my front porch”, in large parts because of the quality of his writing. Going so far back to the origins of the land, his settling there with his wife, then on to his children, he pieces together an amazing narrative which takes the form of photography at some point in the book.
About the parents, there is the book by Philip Toledano that I enjoyed, but most of all Larry Sultan’s “Picture from home”.
CA – That’s a fantastic one. I can’t deny that influence. And actually that’s the book that almost makes you think that maybe you shouldn’t show those pictures!
BL – Now it seems to be fashionable. In France, we see so many such projects coming out right now.
CA – I look at a lot of emerging photographer’s portfolios, and I have seen an explosion of the “here I am doing my intimate essay about my personal life”.
BL – But don’t you feel that this trend –that we are a part of- is really narcissistic?
CA – Yeah.
Then taking photographs and showing them to people takes a certain leap of the ego.
But I didn’t think your book was narcissistic.
BL – I tried to avoid that, but it was a concern.
That perhaps leads to a question that goes beyond those two projects, which is: why make a book? What is the purpose of making a book?
CA – I love the craft of bookmaking, on all levels, from sequencing, to the choice of paper, to construction, etc… To me it is the ultimate form of any work. It will sit there and the gallery show is only a reference to that. I almost don’t think of the audience when I’m thinking of a book, I’m only thinking about how to best say what it is that I am trying to say. Of course I hope there’s an audience that buys it because I don’t want to go broke, or I want a publisher to be willing to publish me the next time.
The intention is not the audience. The intention of a book is always to put the work in its best form.
I guess the more complicated question would be “why put it on a gallery wall?”, which would be harder for me to answer. Besides the fact that there is a reality, which is that I make a living from selling images. Sometimes I sell them in the form of prints, sometimes I sell them in the form of licensed images. The ugly, needy, greedy reality of it, is that it is a commerce in the end. Then saying this and thinking that there is a picture of my son’s ass on the wall, is a horrible thought. But you swallow hard and move past this.
BL – So where are you at now in the process of making the book “Son”?
CA – We have not started layouts, or production. I have a working dummy, but it is very simple and does not flesh out my ideas about design yet, a certain austerity that I want in the book. “Capitolio” was sort of an experiment in many ways, of how far you could go on printed paper. I want this one to be more of a photobook, and not a book that uses photography.
Ramon Reverté from RM Editions does really great books, he is very knowledgeable of the history of bookmaking, and I was just so lucky to publish with him before. I showed him the “Son” work first, because he was my publisher, but his focus is more specifically on Latin America. I will probably show him the next projects, because I’m kind of loyal that way. I don’t care so much who the publisher is as long as they do good stuff, and we get along well. So this book will be done with Aperture. There is a great new energy there now, with Chris Boot, who does wonderful books. So this might be a good new collaboration.
BL – Do you think this project is as narrative as “Capitolio”?
CA – As of right now, yes, it is constructed with a similar spirit. I’m very concerned with what a picture means to the picture that precedes it and to the one that follows it.
BL – “Capitolio” is very cinematic in its narrative.
CA – That was the whole idea of the book. I was trying to recreate cinema on paper, and I discovered the limitations of that. There are some things that work well, and some things that don’t. But it was a fun experiment, and I’m glad that I tried it.
BL – Let’s make the question more general, going back to what we said before about photographing far away and photographing at home, I was wondering if it leads to a different narrative. In one case acting as a photojournalist, bound by expectations of story telling, and not so much in the latter case.
CA – If “Capitolio” is constructed like a Mexican snuff film, of film noir, then “Son” will be more of a poem.
I still think there is a beginning and an end, I still think that the sequencing is crucial, especially as I am playing with the notion of seasons. Through the book we move from season to season, although the images are not chronological, they might be spiritually chronological, I guess. In order to build to the end, which is probably “everything is ok”…
So, yes, absolutely narrative, but with a different structure to achieve that. “Capitolio” was all about chaos, and slamming images together, you don’t know where one starts and the other ends, sometimes pictures begin on one page, and finish on the next page, it was about speed. A flip book in a sense, I wanted people to look at the book in one sitting. It is a book that makes no sense if you pick it up and look at a random picture in the middle of it. You might fall on a picture that is not that great of a photograph, but is there for purposes of connective tissue or sequencing, but it’s not meant to be all superior photography.
The book “Son” will be different because all the pictures are chosen very carefully as photographs. So this time it will work if you open it up randomly, I think. Yet I am obsessed with the notion of sequencing images, it is certainly what I am the most interested in these days. How images work together rather than images by themselves.
From ‘Ce qui demeure’ by Baptiste Lignel
BL – Well that is one of the big pleasures of making a book, isn’t it? The page before, the page after, and how that fits in the larger sequence. It’s exciting!
CA – What was your thought process for the sequencing of your book?
BL – It was done mostly with the publisher, and we first worked on small segments of a few images that worked well together -like paragraphs- and then sequencing those is a wider narrative, sort of zooming out to the scale of the whole book. Knowing that we did not care for chronology, which gave us the freedom to focus on sequencing images for their formal qualities, along with the meaning they conveyed.
It was the second book I was doing with Dominique Gaessler, and I think I really did not know what a photo book was actually about before actually making one with him.
I think it is also very important to acknowledge the fact that it is a book, which you did very strongly with “Capitolio”. That it is not a series of bound prints. That the book has a gutter for instance, which will dictate many layout choices, such as having images spread over two pages or not. It is important to work with the physical constraints of the book format, it is important not to avoid them.
It is funny because I’ve gotten remarks about that, specifically, people being annoyed by the images overlapping the gutter, and my answer was always simply: “get the print! If what you want is a single image on a white sheet of paper, the print is here for you!”.
Everything matters in a book, the paper, the size, everything.
CA – Let me ask you this: what are your regrets about “Ce qui demeure”? There’s always something that you whish you had done differently.
BL – No.
When you were flipping throw it just now, there was one image I was not so sure about, but it is probably there for a sequencing purpose. But, no, I’m very happy with all aspects of it. The construction, the paper, the size. I wanted a small and simple object, easy to manipulate –hence the soft cover- and not pretentious in its form, on the contrary “inviting” for the viewer. But I’ve heard so many photographers frustrated with their books, so I’m very aware of how lucky I am.
CA – I am happy with “Capitolio” as well, but there are a couple of choices that I made consciously that I think may have been the wrong ones. The paper for instance. We ended up going for this very beautiful and high-end coated paper, but the way I had made the dummy was with an uncoated, low-end paper that felt rough. At the very last moment, when it came to decide which paper to go with, we had made tests on both papers and I was seduced by how good it looked on the fancy paper. And now looking back I think it would have been better with the rough paper…
BL – Well you can do that in twenty years, when you’ll do the reprint !
Christoper Anderson at Magnum Gallery, Paris, France – 2/14/12-4/14/12
Baptiste Lignel – www.otra-vista.com
Christopher Anderson – www.christopherandersonphoto.com
Trans Photographic Press – http://www.transphotographic.com/
Aperture – http://www.aperture.org/