“I have no problem with that. I don’t want to feign being intimate with somebody I meet 5 minutes ago.”
Interview with Richard Woodward, New York City, June 2007
RW: Let’s start with this new book, which is actually a series of books, and work backwards. How did the project originate?
PG: Well, my principal source was from reading Chekhov’s Short Stories, and the critical essays around those. A lot of people have tried to understand why this writing works so well, since in the stories there’s not much happening. They’re dealing with the simple, everyday things—in one of them a woman is combing her hair for six pages, remembering that night at the theater; in another a school teacher is coming home in a cart dreaming of meeting the landowner, who does ride past and they exchange a few pleasantries, but nothing more. But there’s something magical about how perfectly described they are, the transparency of what’s happening, without guff or show, simply described, with nothing proscribed.
I’ve been traveling around the States for a while now, and wanted to do something looser and freer, to take pictures of people at the most ordinary, everyday moments—cutting the grass or waiting for the bus, smoking cigarettes or traveling to and from the supermarket. I wanted to reflect Chekhov’s openness, his simple transparency; this was something I tried to move toward. I’m not, of course, literally illustrating Chekhov’s stories, but simply isolating a small rivulet of time. So, each of the individual books is a photographic short story, a filmic haiku. They are quite short, but complete in their own modest way.
RW: But difficult to convey, I would think, no? The layout must have been the crucial step.
PG: Yes, in terms of making them, it was a process of letting go of one’s own pretensions and not looking for this great summation picture of any given situation. For example, while photographing a man smoking at a bus stop in Vegas, I just had to slow down, take a step back, and realize that the moment before and the moment after are just as valuable as the instant when he takes the perfect drag on the cigarette.
The multiple book form is the most logical development of this—ten or twelve volumes each holding one or two stories within their pages; self-contained yet linked to each other. And I’m fortunate enough to have Michael Mack and Gerhard Steidl support this. One book has just a single picture in it; another has 64 pages of images taken at an intersection in New Orleans, watching life roll by.
RW: Where was the picture of the lawn mowing man taken? It’s fantastic.
PG: Thank you. it’s in Pittsburgh. That was one of my early road trips and I really wasn’t expecting much. When I set out I thought, I’ll never be able to do anything good, so I’ll just have fun, and see the country a bit. But then I saw this guy cutting the grass. It’s kind of perfect that his shirt is a riff on the American flag too.
RW: What I like about the work is that you are clearly dissatisfied with the confines of traditional documentary but you haven’t made the jump, as so many do, to video. You haven’t given into temptations…
PG: …like staging my work. I’ve never wanted to become a filmmaker. I’ve always seen the two major tropes in photography as the studio and the street. And I’m a street person. I don’t get tired of trying to understand and look at the wonderful amazing nature of what’s around us. Yes, I have dissatisfaction with classic documentary language. It was wonderful when it was invented. But it has to be alive, to grow, develop, just like the spoken word. We don’t speak the same way we spoke in 1938 or 1956, so why should we make pictures the same way?
RW: But the dissatisfaction of others, particularly with the narrative limitations of photography, has led them to add sound or moving image sequences. You seem determined—and happy—to stay within the boundaries.
PG: Well, some might see these books as leading toward building a narrative.
PG: Part of this is about the new flexibility of digital photography. You are able to shoot and shoot and then look at everything on screen. The technology does liberate people. You can get remarkable quality, close to 4×5, working on the street.
RW: But you are clearly an outsider and we never learn much about these people.
PG: I have no problem with that. I don’t want to feign being intimate with somebody I meet 5 minutes ago. I accept and embrace that so much in life is “ships passing in the dark.” The world is comprised of 99.9% strangers.
from Beyond Caring
“But I have more problems with the motives and uses of photojournalism — the clichéd stories they tell, or the way photography is used to service a written story.”
RW: Is that what you don’t like about photojournalism, the pretense of intimacy that is there?
PG: It’s undoubtedly there in some photojournalism. But I have more problems with the motives and uses of photojournalism — the clichéd stories they tell, or the way photography is used to service a written story. There is of course some great and rare exceptions that far exceed this criticism, but we have to be honest: so much in photography is pabulum, and aspires to nothing beyond well-worn vernacular.
RW: Let’s move backward. Who were the important photographers to you when you were starting out in England?
PG: The important photographers for me belong in that period from 1966 to 1976, mostly American, let’s say from “New Documents” to “New Topographics”. It was a profound creative period for photography. Szarkowski at MoMA radicalized things for photographers by creating an artistic territory to operate in that wasn’t there before. Before, you were either an editorial photographer working for magazines in a semi-documentary style, or a fine-art photographer making pictures of landscapes or nudes or rocks. He swept aside that division and showed that people like Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand were making the most profound photographic work of our time, and though it looked like ‘documentary,’ it was far more than that, and it didn’t belong in magazines, but in museums. This was transformative: bringing ‘documentary style’ work into the highest museum of our country. It’s little appreciated, but was perhaps Szarkowski’s greatest gift—recognizing and defining a new artistic space.
RW: How was that work translated for a man growing up in England?
PG: When I became aware of it in the mid 70s, it was through books. Hence my great emphasis on books in my work. Reading Public Relations, and the Diane Arbus monograph and Lee Friedlander books, was very important. I didn’t get Robert Frank at first, because it seemed almost photojournalistic, but strangely I got Eggleston right away.
“Sadly I belong to that naïve alternative culture of the 70s that rejected ‘careers.’ I did what most UK musicians and would-be rock stars did: I went on the dole.”
PG: It was an instinctual rather than an intellectual understanding. The first thing I saw of his was a promotional pamphlet for Election Eve. A friend came back from the states, and he gave me this brochure with six pictures in it. I was struck by his elliptical, tangential approach. So elegant and beautiful.
RW: So you were taking pictures by then?
PG: I learned how a camera works early on, maybe even in the Scouts… but there was no concept of what you could do with it. Seeing the work of Winogrand or Friedlander was like the proverbial light going on. The fact that you could say something profound about the world through photographs was a life-changing revelation.
RW: That’s a bold leap to make right out of the box, from the Scouts to understanding a Winogrand or Friedlander photograph.
PG: Well there were a few years between the two! I wouldn’t claim to understand everything about Winogrand’s work, though essays like Tod Papageorge’s in Public Relations are wonderful reading for anyone who cares about photography. One of the great things about this medium is that you don’t need to have an academic degree to get it; photography can be so visceral, it cuts right through language that way.
RW: Did you go out and try to take Eggleston pictures?
PG: Well, yes and no… (Laughs.) … the great open road journey photography doesn’t translate that well to the United Kingdom. It’s not that big. What I adapted was an amalgam of Eggleston and Robert Adams, and put that together with the classic British obsession with Social Critique. It became my own mash-up, if you will.
RW: Did you realize that you could have a career?
PG: A “career”—god no! Sadly I belong to that naïve alternative culture of the 70s that rejected “careers.” I did what most UK musicians and would-be rock stars did: I went on the dole. Oh, and I worked Saturdays in an arts bookshop, which meant I could order anything I wanted. I stocked the place with these amazing books: New Topographics catalogs, Robert Adams’ The New West, early Ed Ruscha books, etc. We never managed to sell any of them — they were all remaindered for 50c!
RW: But if you’re going to travel to Europe and Japan you must have figured out ways to support yourself.
from A Shimmer of Possibility
“I had shows in NYC galleries—but what happens is that you hit this resonant note and everyone wants you to repeat it.”
PG: You sleep on friend’s floors. I traveled in an old Mini — the original Mini — and I slept in the back of that for a long time. That was uncomfortable! I ate in truck driver’s cafes, and had a friend who found out-of-date film for me. Then you do some teaching and get a small grant. The documentary-style tradition is very strong in England. Eventually I met up with Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Graham Smith, John Davis.
Then my first book, A-1 The Great North Road came out in 1983. It was a journey along the main artery of the UK, much like Alec Soth did with the Mississippi recently. Large format color, landscapes, portraits, buildings, etc. The book proved quite poisonous to that black-and-white tradition. It’s been forgotten how radical it was to work within the social documentary tradition in color, at that time. Now it’s so commonplace, people wonder what was the issue?
Within four years I published three books: A1, Beyond Caring, and Troubled Land, driven by the boundless energy of youth, no doubt… but by 1987, we had this juggernaut of color documentary photography emerging in England; it had really taken off. Martin Parr switched to color, so did people like Tom Wood, and then our students, like Paul Seawright or Richard Billingham or Nick Waplington came along. So… I felt it was time to move on from that, before it became exhausted. For example, the mixing of landscape with war photography in Troubled Land was striking and quite successful —I had shows in NYC galleries—but what happens is that you hit this resonant note and everyone wants you to repeat it. I was invited to duplicate Troubled Land in Israel and South Africa. Commissions, dollars, travel, the whole nine yards. But I thought, I can’t do this. For better or worse, I’m one of those artists who once something is “proven,” have to drop it and find another way to scare myself.
RW: So you went to Europe?
PG: In the early to mid 80s I had made friends with a group of German photographers who were quite distinct from the Becher’s Dusseldorf school. They were mostly around Essen-Berlin: Volker Heinze, Joachim Brohm, Gosbert Adler, and Michael Schmidt too, who was running these workshops in Berlin and inviting people like John Gossage and Lewis Baltz to come over.
RW: It’s funny that that school is so unknown here. Michael Schmidt even had a one-man show at MoMA.
from A Shimmer of Possibility
John Gossage made a great comment that his books are the original work. It’s the summation of one’s endeavors—the book is the work. Now, a painter or a sculptor can have a catalogue of their work but… it’s completely different in photography. It is the exact thing—maybe a little smaller scale—but with a one-on-one dialogue when you read it.
PG: Yes, a great show and few remember it. It’s as though the Gursky show wiped out people’s under-standing of everything else in German Photography. Gursky is much more accessible. He goes for the jugular because it is about the ‘Great Photograph.’ Of course, he succeeds, but it’s recidivist, in a way. Photographers have been trying for years to make bodies of work where images work together to build up a coherent statement. It’s not about one great picture by Robert Adams; it’s about twenty or thirty pictures that form a sensitive, intelligent reflection of the world. It’s the same with Garry Winogrand, or Robert Frank. Gursky brings it back to that “wow” moment. It sort of undoes that way of working, and reduces things to the “What a great shot!” appreciation of photography. I’m a sucker for that as much as anyone, but want people to appreciate what Robert Adams does more so.
RW: So you were hanging out with these guys and going back and forth to Europe?
PG: I actually lived in England most of the time, but I would go stay with Volker in Essen or visit Michael in Berlin. I lived in Berlin one summer; actually one photograph in New Europe is inside Michael’s apartment. We all came and went. It was a reciprocal thing. Somehow I went from being part of this English group with Martin Parr et al, to being an honorary member of this German alliance. They became much more relevant to my way of working and seeing the world. My work grew quite a bit, as all of ours did in that grouping, and when it was finished, in 1992, I released the book New Europe. That was made for the opening exhibition for the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, but the book was never distributed here in the U.S. so it’s not so well known. Gerry Badger insisted it be included in The Photobook II so at least someone saw it.
RW: One of the paradoxes of our time, and I’ve discussed this with many people, is this explosion of photography books at the same time as the explosion in new media. Every photographer has his or her own website and gets their information on-line. And yet they all still want to make books. What is the enduring appeal?
PG: John Gossage made a great comment that his books are the original work. It’s the summation of one’s endeavors—the book is the work. Now, a painter or a sculptor can have a catalogue of their work but… it’s completely different in photography. It is the exact thing—maybe a little smaller scale—but with a one-on-one dialogue when you read it. Looking at a Nan Goldin book is quite different from viewing her photographs on the wall with other people around you. The book is personal and direct, from the artist to you, complete and faithful.
RW: That’s true. When you’re looking at images on-line, it’s a much more public experience than with a book. You’re part of a community and reading in a public square when you go to your computer.
PG: Yes, you’re right. It’s something I wonder about with A Shimmer of Possibility. Am I diffusing that intimate experience by doing twelve books with Steidl? Or am I taking it to the maximum degree by separating each piece of work into its own volume, allowing each story to have that precious moment of intimacy with you? So much art relies on the confidence transaction. I know this is different, doing ten or twelve books. I know it seems crazy, but I’m asking you to trust me and enjoy this quiet journey. Just slow down and look at this ordinary moment of life. See how beautiful it is, see how life flows around us, how everything shimmers with possibility.
ASX CHANNEL: Paul Graham
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(© Richard Woodward, 2007. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)