Thursday, June 14, 2007

Conversations with Contemporary Photographers

Often when a photographer speaks publicly at a lecture or during an interview, the promise of something meaningful to be learned is strong. This promise is even stronger if the artist happens to be of legendary status within the medium.

There often is an air of hanging onto the artist’s words so tightly that it is inevitable that it slips into disappointment or at worst, outright boredom and seat rustling. Generally artists do not seem to have much to say publicly or are not willing to reveal much beyond basic process and a good side story. Or perhaps the expectations of the audience are too grand. After all, if words were so important, they would be writers and not visual artists.

They can be very entertaining though. Recently during a talk with William Klein and Max Kozloff at the International Center of Photography, a woman in a front row seat left after the first ten minutes of the interview and Klein proceeded to call after her, playing the part of an injured ego to much laughter from the audience. When a second woman in the front row, who was wearing a dress that barely contained her voluptuousness, got up to leave, Klein introduced her as “Ms. Cleavage of the ICP.” Beyond those few humorous moments, Klein mostly ignored or tended to not understand Kozloff’s line of questioning and the interview drifted slightly towards the embarrassing. All that I can remember, besides the “Ms. Cleavage” incident, is a story about Chris Marker and another longer winded one about Alain Resnais buying comic books for outrageous sums of money in the 1950’s.

An extreme example of the disappointment one can experience, was when the New York Public Library held a talk between Robert Frank and Howard Norman. After seeing the end result, there was perhaps a collective wish from the audience that it had just been cancelled.

The book Conversations with Contemporary Photographers published by Umbrage Editions in 2005 brings together nine interviews from a surprising range of contemporary artists who are forthcoming on a variety of topics. Joan Fontcuberta, Graciela Iturbide, Max Pam, Duane Michals, Miguel Rio-Branco, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Alex Webb, Bernard Plossu and Javier Vallhonrat all discuss their art, backgrounds, and experiences with different interviewers.

Each conversation is lengthy and usually weighs in at approximately 30 pages of small sized type. Due to the length, the interviewer and subject are allowed to digress into tangents that fall outside the norm of a formulaic interview. These are conversations that ebb and flow and allow for a more interesting read, allowing for the personalities of the artists to surface.

Duane Michaels has his moment sparring against what he perceives to be the pretentiousness in much of recent contemporary photographic art. P.L. diCorcia discusses the demands of the art world and being labeled a mid-career artist. Graciela Iturbide shares memories of assisting Manuel Alvarez Bravo and discusses cultural differences in attitude towards photography in the countries she has photographed.

These interviews have many moments of insight into the medium that promotes further discussion or thought. At other times though (perhaps I am cynical) I feel that some of the process of any interview is spent with the artist creating an image of themselves. In fact, that is what is separately interesting to me about this type of book. How artists speak, and how they have developed the way in which they speak about their art and process. To me, this often reveals what I perceive as their comfort level with their relationship to the medium and their work.

In the end, I think Philip-Lorca diCorcia indirectly expressed this best at one point in his interview when he says: “The deepest motivation for a lot of artists is obviously the one they all share: Their great fear they are a fraud.”

Book Available Here (Conversations)


jennifer said...

Artists talk differently in an audience filled with other artists. I've always found those ICP lectures frustrating because of the mixed interests--they seem more about promoting the museum (ie raising money) than about encouraging an open, honest, dialogue between people making work.

One of my favorite interviews between photographers is the one between Thomas Demand and Vik Muniz in Issue 8 of Blindspot magazine (i could only find an exceprt)

they are obviously both brilliant men and interesting artists, but the best part of the interview is that they seem genuinely excited by their conversation, and finding a common ground.

That PL diCorcia quote is perfect, and perfectly reassuring somehow.

Anonymous said...

I always love the non photography stuff at lectures.
Do you know how James Natchwey relaxes for instance? (Fishing),
Do you know, (yes you Jeff) what Elliott Erwitt's favorite number is? (number 8)and do you know the weirdest thing Philip Lorca Di Corcia has ever signed at a talk? (a frisbee)...
The best talks I have ever heard were by Joel Meyerowitz and Joel Sternfeld, and what is the bet that Joel Peter-Witkin is pretty good too?

Anonymous said...

You reminded me that Sternfeld is a great...great public speaker. I saw him at Cooper a few years back and my socks flew off.

I always thought James Nachtwey relaxed by doing taxidermy.

Anonymous said...

I remember in the fall of 2005 going to hear Richard Prince and Stephen Shore at Cooper Union with Glenn O'Brien from Interview Magazine. Prince talked about hanging out with O'Brien and what muscle cars he owned. They did this as a selection of his photos and paintings showed over and over again on the screen - they never mentioned photography. I actually think it worked since the photos spoke for themselves and I got some insight into his personality. also there the same day was Stephen Shore who mainly talked about his youth - not going to school and hanging out at the Factory with Warhol.

The moral is - if I ever moderate a public appearance by a photographer I am not sure I would even ask her or him about photography - that is something the eyes will get.

Matt Weber said...

The Robert Frank lecture was very painful, but the worst part for me,
was the ovation for Steidl after he
announced his 5 year "deal" with
Frank. Might as well have been
Scott Boras bragging about how
he signed A-Rod...

By far, the best speaker I've seen
was Joel Meyerowitz describing his
year at ground zero. One interesting
anecdote after another...

Anonymous said...

I saw Joel Meyerowitz speak about Cartier-Bresson during a tribute at APAD a couple years back and he was really good. Spoke a lot about working the streets and how he and Tony Ray Jones watched Bresson work a parade. He has his rap down to a science.

Anonymous said...

Howard Norman as in "The Bird Artist", Howard Norman???

Anonymous said...

Yep...The Bird Artist, Museum Guard..."that" Howard Norman.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the comments of "Anonymous" above, I saw Joel-Peter Witkin speak about 25 years ago and I have never seen a more obnoxious, pretentious bastard in my life.

Anonymous said...

Dear Stuart, thanks for that.
I was starting to worry that good speaking was just a 'Joel thing'...

Joel-Peter Witkin looked obnoxious and pretentious?... What did he sound like, what did he say, to rattle you so much?