Interviews

An Interview with Lucien Samaha (2013)

The ASX Team

June 27, 2013

TWA Jumbo Jets at JFK, 1984 courtesy of Lombard Freid Gallery

Vladimir Gintoff interviews Lucien Samaha for ASX, June 2013

I met Lucien Samaha at his studio-loft in the afternoon, for an interview that went past midnight. The photographer’s verve for storytelling and artistic wanderlust made leaving unimaginable. Samaha is a lean man in his fifties with deep-set eyes, ample gray-white beard, and a persona that is immediately welcoming. In a converted Tribeca loft, with white-washed tin ceilings, waxy oak floors, and lounge furniture, we leisurely sifted through thirty-plus years of history, pictures, and objects. For Samaha, adolescence in the suburbs of Washington DC segued into a career as a Trans World Airlines flight attendant in the late ‘70s, RIT student in the late ‘80s, Kodak guru in the early ‘90s, and DJMondo Lucien– renowned fixture of the Greatest Bar on Earth, on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center–in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, all the while taking pictures by the thousands. Samaha shares Winogrand’s preoccupation of, “photographing to find out what something will look like photographed.” Both have an inimitable zeal for the medium, which yields potential in any subject or circumstance.

Samaha’s Trans World Airlines photographs are currently the subject of an exhibition at Lombard Freid Gallery, Lucien Samaha: The Flight Attendant Years: 1978-1986. While taking these pictures, Samaha was simultaneously photographing on the streets of London and Rome, fashion in Milan, and night life in New York. Capitalizing on his globetrotter status, the photographer became a chronicler of the self. Delving into his archive, I was shown dozens of different projects, seen as books, prints, and on-screen. Samaha’s packrat tendencies have inspired endless collections, especially during flight attendant years, from which there are letters, hotel stationary, pins, luggage, flatware, manuals, and matchbooks. For the show at Lombard Freid, the artist made digital collages to show some of the relics and ephemera. Samaha has also set up a studio at the gallery, and photographed visiting flight attendants and the general public for three Saturdays in June.

The following is an abridged transcription of my many-hour discussion with the artist:

Vladimir Gintoff: First, explain the why and how of deciding to be a flight attendant.

Lucien Samaha: I grew up an “airline-brat.” My father was working for the airlines when I was born, and four of his brothers (there were five of them) worked for the airlines. So, I was exposed to that life very early on. I just thought that being a flight attendant was very exciting, and it was something I wanted to do. We discussed it when I was in high school; my parents were opposed to it, but as soon as I moved away from home at eighteen, I started applying to the airlines, and on the day I turned twenty I was hired by TWA.

VG: Well, of course, the jet-set idea is glamorous, or at the very least it was…

LS: Yes, going to exotic places. Like in the movies–in fact–TWA was also called the airline of the stars. If you watch All About Eve, there’s a great scene with a TWA DC3, that’s one of the planes that is on a bit of a incline. TWA was also owned by Howard Hughes so it was extremely well-known in Hollywood, and very glamorous.

VG: So you were hired at twenty, but what were you doing in the interim, after leaving home?

LS: I was working at a law-firm in Chicago. I had been living in the Washington DC suburbs, in Annandale, Virginia. Then I moved to the Midwest and lived with a friend who moved to Chicago to become a Flight Attendant for American Airlines. I knew him from my first job at Fairfax Hospital, where I was making micro-fiche of medical records. We lived in the suburbs, and I was making a living working at the law-firm, because you couldn’t be hired by the airlines until you were twenty.

VG: When you were applying to the airlines, did you envision the photo project that would result from the experience?

LS: Well, let’s return to my beginnings with photography. I started to study it in high school, in Virginia, at what was one of the first photography courses taught as part of an art program in the whole country. I had an amazing teacher, she was really influential on the class, and especially on me. Returning to my years as a flight attendant, I had hoped to combine the two, the role as a flight attendant with photography. Flying around the world and photographing, the opportunities were amazing. I never formally embarked on what I would call a project. Photography was the project. It’s a passport for me to get into different worlds, things I might not become a part of otherwise. And I don’t want to be perceived as an outsider, who comes in to steal images and then leaves (This is by no means any reflection on any sort of documentary photography or photojournalism for which I have a lot of respect). The photographs that resulted from my experience are about being a flight attendant and enjoying that life, and simultaneously a reflection on the medium itself. My careers have always been about what interested me and what I wanted to do with my life.  I didn’t want photography to run my life – like say with a photo-journalist or a studio photographer. Of course, it does in a way (run your life), but I’ve pursued my interests knowing that photography was always going to be there.

VG: Once you were accepted into TWA’s program, you began taking photographs almost immediately, and your peers seem extremely comfortable with your documentation, was this actually the case?

LS: It wasn’t unusual to photograph in those situations. In fact, there was another trainee in the program who was taking a lot of Polaroids. There are two images in the show at Lombard Freid that are Polaroids not taken by me but given to me as presents. If you look online, many flight attendants have private groups on Facebook and elsewhere, and a lot of people were taking a lot of pictures. These were people having fun at work, though I don’t know if any of them were “photographers” per se. I developed relationships with my peers who I trained with, and I didn’t just pull a camera out on the first day. The most common cameras at the time were 35mm SLRs, there weren’t yet any point-and-shoots, and so it became very obvious when you were taking pictures. Later on in the ‘80s I began using an Olympus XA. They were extremely small cameras, and they changed my life as a photographer. I became a snapshot photographer. I love that aesthetic and the ability to have a camera in your pocket all the time. There were even fewer barriers, it was more intimate.

Cat Eyes in the Gallery, 1985 courtesy of Lombard Freid Gallery

VG: The images have a certain diaristic quality to them. While you were photographing, was there a thought about what the outcome of such a comprehensive depiction might be?

LS: I see everything as a potential project. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew something would happen with the flight attendant pictures. I just didn’t know what or when, but I enjoyed doing it. Taking the pictures, that’s what is important to me. I also was thinking a lot about family photographs, of which I have a tremendous personal archive, and how those pictures often preserve moments of celebration. Here we were doing these remarkable things, like training for a water landing, in a pool, with the airline life-vests on, and it was clear that it was something worth documenting.

VG: Discussing familial imagery, were you thinking at all about the rise of intimate projects in the 1980s, when many photographers were photographing their personal surroundings and circumstances?

LS: At the time I was not thinking about photography as an art medium. It wasn’t until I became a student at RIT, after the flight attendant years, that I even discovered Nan Goldin. Prior to that, however, I was aware of the photographer Jaques Henri Lartigue. I loved his work, the intimacy and significance of photographing what was around him. It reminded me of photographs of my family and of the idea of documenting what you are most familiar with.

VG: That’s interesting because there seems to be an overlap with Peter Galassi’s 1991 MoMA exhibition, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort.

LS: Well, Larry Clark really blew my mind. The idea that you could be in a room where someone was getting the crap beaten out of them and be documenting it with photographs. Also, Donna Ferrato – she was photographing those horrible examples of domestic abuse and being invited in to act as a witness. Of course, in those situations, a really great photographer can be a fly on the wall. I’m a fan of the ‘60s school, Garry Winogrand and Robert Frank, and their methods. The way that photography becomes a way of interfacing with the world. The show at Lombard Freid is just the tip of the iceberg for my work. The thing that worries me is that people will see this show and think, “oh, the flight attendant.” I’m very fortunate to have been linked up with the gallery, because they understand my photography; a two hour studio visit with them ended up being a six hour studio visit. There’s a lot more work too, so eventually I will show more, but there has to be a departure point. With this show, I was thinking, “let’s make a wave,” and I think it will be. It’s timely, nostalgic – an era of “I wish” or “the good old days” – it’s a great starting point for reexamining my career.

VG: While you were working on these pictures were you also sharing them with your coworkers?

LS: No, in fact most of the photographs have never been seen by anyone but me. I’ve tried to get in touch with many of the people in the pictures, but have found it nearly impossible – even with the Internet. I’ve found two or three of them; mainly I just don’t want anyone to be surprised. In fact, as soon as I saw the pictures on the Huffington Post, specifically the picture of Lisa and Marianne lounging on their bed together – a very intimate moment, which I was fortunate to be a part of– I wondered, what if one day they’ll see these and say “oh my god,” and call me and say, “I’m suing you” or they’ll say, “I can’t believe we haven’t seen each other in thirty-five years!” So, hopefully if these do get out there I’ll be in touch with more people. The other sad thing is that most of my male friends from that time have died of AIDS, because it was the same period. Putting this work together was extremely nostalgic for me, and I while I hardly ever cry, it brought me to a very emotional state.

VG: Were you photographing constantly, or was there an ebb and flow to your involvement?

LS: The problem with a title like The Flight Attendant Years: 1978-1986, is that I was not only photographing as a flight attendant. I was photographing–the whole time. I could do a huge show of just the work I did on layovers – street photography in Paris, London, Rome, fashion photography in Milan; portraits of people who interested me, and who I’d become friends with – and that was a huge body of work happening in the same eight years. I’d be shooting in New York, taking pictures at night clubs–I was the house photographer at the Limelight–photographing Liberace, Shirley MacLaine, Grace Jones, in the bars hanging out, having drinks.

VG: Did you have the pictures already organized, or did you have to scan and edit in preparation for the show?

LS: I’ve been digitally scanning my work for about fifteen years now, and it’s a constant process. I’m still discovering old boxes of negatives that need to be archived. It’s fascinating because unlike digital, each roll of film is finite, and they weren’t always shot at one time or in one place. On strips of negatives there could be pictures in Paris, Rome, Cairo, or New York. My color negative film strip archive alone has 70,547 pictures in it right now. When I worked at Kodak, we discussed the future of technology. They were on the forefront of digital photography and way ahead of their time, but it was too expensive. They didn’t know how to manage it, and that’s why they’re out of the game now. Though they deserve credit for all their pioneering and innovation early on. At Kodak, we would sit at conference tables and wonder, how are we going to organize all these pictures in the future? So I got a head start on scanning.

VG: You were a student at RIT in the late ‘80s and then were hired by Kodak, how did the transition happen and what was your role at the company?

LS: TWA’s Flight Attendant union, IFFA,  went on strike against the company in 1986 – a corporate raider took over the airline, and salaries were being cut, especially for the flight attendants. I decided this was my initiative to do something else. I chose RIT because I wanted to go there after I graduated from high school. I was going to focus on photojournalism, but I didn’t like the guy who ran the department. So, I switched to technical photography, which included optics, physics, how photography works, how film is made, what are the different layers of a negative, and I found myself very interested in the science aspects of it. Kodak had been offering scholarships to students – usually chemists and physicists – but never photographers. But my first year there, they offered the first scholarship to a photography student. I think around 400 people applied for the scholarship that I ended up getting. Part of the agreement was that you would intern at Kodak for one summer. I was in an international department called “Worldwide Instructional Operations,” where people came from all over the world to learn about the new Kodak technologies. My official title was “Education Coordinator, Worldwide Instructional Operations, Professional Photography Division.” While I was fulfilling the terms of the scholarship, they asked if I would like to be part of the company’s digital research initiative. I was put on the launch team for the first digital camera. It was a bulky thing, but the quality was decent. The main problem was that it had trouble discerning the colors of fine patterns, so busy neckties would have rainbow moire patterns in the image. It was also very contrasty, very saturated, but a good prototype. There was a lot of buzz around it, but it was expensive and geared primarily to photojournalists. This way they could work in the field and send images via sat-phone instead of using chemistry and AP scanners.

VG: In 2004 you were selected by Walid Raad to be a finalist for the Nam June Paik award in Germany. What did this entail?

LS: An exhibition for the award is held every two years. Walid Raad was one of the initial curators that year, and he nominated me as a finalist to be considered for the prize. The 2004 exhibition was at the Phoenixhalle in Dortmund, Germany; it’s a gigantic, cavernous space formed in a re-purposed steel factory. For the show, I brought my then entire archive of 350,000 pictures–it has grown considerably since– and created a photo lounge, with sofas and huge projections. I was in the space almost everyday for two months, and the only artist-in-residence. My archive is organized by categories, so I would engage the visitors in conversation and our dialogue was a guide through the labyrinth of pictures. We would be talking and happen on keywords– snow, for instance– and I could queue up pictures of snow to be projected on the wall. The photographs inspired new topics for conversation, new categories, and this lead to more pictures; it was a very organic process. I call it photo-jockeying, like how a DJ adapts to the crowd he is playing for.

Lisa and Marianne, 1978 courtesy of Lombard Freid Gallery

VG: In an interview in Vienna, you were asked about your work’s connection to procedural art and relational aesthetics. Barrett Watten also touches on this in his essay, The Anecdote of Photography: Lucien Samaha and Experience, regarding your 2006 show at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, Gut ist was gefählt (good is what pleases). Could you comment on the unique overlap of photography and experiential art in your work?

LS: In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s I was dating a member of the Viennese artist group Gelatin (sometimes Gelitin).  At that time, specifically 1998, Gelatin had a show at Spencer Brownstone Gallery called Suck and Blow. For the installation they filled the gallery space with a giant plastic bag that could either contract on the inhabitants or expand to fill the space, and sort of “glue itself to the walls.” One of the concepts behind this project was questioning the experience of going into a gallery and running right out because you’re not interested in the art. My project was a reaction to similar ideas and the intention to keep people involved. Not just in the gallery, but also when they had left. By offering a choice of 91 photographs and allowing visitors to take one – these people were not just looking, they were shopping, which one of these images was “them,” for whatever reason. I gave them a kaleidoscope, from the first images I took in high school to my last picture before the show. It was a survey of my career as a photographer. Some people were there for an hour. It was a device for looking, and people became invested. There were no captions, no dates – nothing written about the images whatsoever. People who sent me images including my photograph were given a link to a site with all the photographs that were available for choosing, along with their contexts. The feedback became very interesting, seeing my photographs on refrigerators, in frames, etc. The people are participating in the art process and this adds value for everyone involved.

With archives that are exponential in volume and methods that foreshadow our camera-happy, iPhone age, the time is ripe to evaluate the career of Lucien Samaha. Always acting on his impulses, the artist has made a life of pictures. Samaha began photographing incessantly long before the age of social-media and our lust for constant self-documentation. His practices mirror what artist Trevor Paglen called “relational photography,” where the practice of taking pictures–the act itself–is more important than the results. The clause being that both Paglen and Samaha possess skills more expert and refined than many practicing photographers. Taking on a diaristic aesthetic with documentary precision and social implications, Samaha is a maverick of realms that have yet to be fully defined and explored artistically or photographically.

– Vladimir Gintoff

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(All Rights Reserved. Text @ ASX and Vladimir Gintoff, Images @ Lucien Samaha and courtesy of Lombard Freid Gallery)