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)