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By Paul Loomis exclusively for ASX, Interview conducted on Monday, February 11th, 2013

Antoinette De Jong and Robert Knoth are the authors of a book called “Poppy: The Trails of Afghan Heroin” that has transformed the way we think about photojournalism.  It doesn’t fall victim to the reporter’s myopia of five hundred word stories three times a week, nor does it follow the western media’s coverage of religious extremism.  Instead it does something that is magical, and that we at ASX have not seen a book of photojournalism do before.  It opens a world that you rarely consider and shows you its pulsing red insides.

Knoth and De Jong are married, and have worked together for many years.  They are from the Netherlands, and have learned to share the task of explaining their project harmoniously.  When they speak, they seem to leave some for the other to finish.

A search for their names on the Internet is little good, you merely find them on Dutch television shows, and maybe encounter a blurb about one or the other.  For us, after reading Poppy, this internet silence was Pynchonesque mystery, and so when they responded to our request for an interview, we were elated. We were not disappointed.

 

ASX: You were both photojournalists before you left the world of commercial journalism and started working on Poppy and other projects.  What led you set out on your own?

De Jong:  I worked in newsrooms for a long time before finally quitting my job and going to India.  From there I went to Afghanistan because at the time, in the 1990s, everyone was telling me how beautiful it was, and saying how much I would love it.  The best times of my life have been in Afghanistan.  Riding through the mountains there on horseback, you just can’t beat it.  I became fascinated.

Knoth: I think it was when I was in Pakistan after 9/11 and then suddenly 3000 journalists showed up all looking for a story.

De Jong: Yes, I had the same experience.  I had been working in Afghanistan, and I was mostly the only person there.  When there are no other journalists you are free to pursue the stories that you feel are important, but when everyone shows up you cannot sell your story, because then there is only one narrative and everyone wants to tell the same tale.

Knoth: It becomes very focused on just a few things, like religious extremism, terrorist groups, attacks, the Taliban, and Afghans beating their wives.  These kinds of stories are what everyone is after.  That was one of the reasons that I began leaning towards these long-term projects instead of the daily news.  When you write three stories a week they are bite sized, and no one knows what is going on in the larger picture.  With Poppy, we were able to cover so much more.

ASX:  As a child I lived in the Netherlands, and it was a very peaceful, idyllic time of my childhood.  What do you think drove you to get on the plane to Somalia or Afghanistan for the first time and go so far away from that European safety?

Knoth: We both grew up in the Netherlands and had very happy childhoods.  My grandfather was a military man actually, as were other people in my family.  My grandfather had a travel agency in the 1920s.  He organized trips all over the world and was one of the first people to take tourists to Africa, the Middle East, and the United States.  He was also a great photographer, a lot better than me. So I think it’s in your blood sometimes, a little bit of gene programming. 

I went to Somalia in 1993 simply because the opportunity arose, and while we were coming over the city I saw a UN convoy moving very fast through Mogadishu.  Then when I stepped off onto the runway I was almost run over by a UN tank, and there were all of these smiling Somalis asking “Whose he? Why is he here?”  I just thought it was a big mistake, almost turned around and got back on the plane, but I ended up staying.  Some people can do this kind of work and some people can’t.

ASX: Which conflicts have you covered for the international press, before starting on the Poppy project?

Somalia in the 1990s, starting in 1994, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tamil conflict in the 1990s, Kosovo, Sudan  and others.

ASX: Somalia gets a lot of press as one of the wildest places in the world.  I think a lot of westerners couldn’t even imagine going there.  Describe a typical day of reporting there, what should a visitor never do there?

De Jong: (laughing) Walk around alone on the street! That’s something you shouldn’t do.

But a typical day there, well, I would always be sick!  Usually I never got sick, and Robert was the one who was sick everywhere we went, but in Somalia it was me.  So I would wake up, boil the water, filter the water, chlorinate the water and then boil it again, and then still get sick!  Then we would go out with our translator and try to take some photographs and talk to some people.  I remember that almost every day there Robert would reach for his camera in the street, and almost in exactly choreographed motion, these little boys would reach down to pick up rocks to throw at him (laughing), it was just hilarious.

Knoth: Its true!  Also in Somalia it never is a smart thing to offend anybody. That might get you killed on the spot, conflicts over work and payment included.  In this case it’s a bit of a story: Weeks before our arrival in the region of Geddo in Western Somalia everyone was already aware that we were coming. We were warned that quite a few people were already competing with each other to provide us with a car and fixer to earn some cash. If you pick one, you piss off the others, who then might pressurize you in working with them.

Before our arrival we already had arranged a safe fixer and car, while landing at the airstrip of Bardera we already saw other cars waiting for us. One of them was Abdi, a nephew of the king of the Marehan clan, which we found out later.  Off course Abdi wanted to work with us, guaranteeing our safety, and he was not inclined to let us go. We managed  telling him that we already had another team, which took a while.

The next day, just when we thought we would not see him again, Abdi returned triumphantly. With him was an old man who was introduced to us as ‘the king of the Marehan.’ Abdi handed us a letter starting with: “Read this letter carefully, it is good for you.”  The king of the Marehan recommended we work with Abdi. If not, the letter read, our safety could not be guaranteed. After a quick discussion amongst ourselves we promised to work with Abdi tomorrow, after which they left. Within half an hour we were on our way to Garbahaarrey, knowing that it would be rather suicidal to return to Bardera any time soon. It’s like being in the Godfather. Offers you can’t refuse.

But I love Somalia.  The people there, they are incredible.  They have this wonderful sense of humor, a playfulness about them, and they really know how to enjoy life.  For them, the fact that you are a westerner isn’t important, it often plays a complicating  role when working in Africa.  It’s a fabulous country.

 

 

ASX: So in all of these countries you must have spent a lot of time finding the right people to talk to. Did you have a method?  Or more broadly, how did you do it?  For example in Afghanistan when you were photographing people working in the illegal poppy fields they seem very relaxed and unconcerned.  This is the case for many people and situations you’ve photographed.  Is there a strategy that works consistently?

De Jong: Just walking in the street and getting to know people is a great way to do it.  You get invited into homes, invited to eat, and people tell you stories.  We prefer to stay in one place for a longer period of time rather than go to five places in the same period.  And always we are looking for people who, by sharing the details of their lives with us, tell the region’s story.

Knoth: An excellent translator is the most important thing. They not only translate but they also introduce you to people in the community.  But no, there is no method that works consistently everywhere.  Working in Afghanistan is completely different than working in Somalia.  The only consistent thing is that you must have someone to break the ice between you and the community. 

De Jong: We also try to always have fun wherever we go.  With the people working in the poppy fields we have a good time, we laugh, and take their pictures.  This is the same everywhere we go. 

ASX: What kind of camera(s) do you use?

Knoth: I have always used film cameras for a few reasons.  A Hasselblad, a few others.  When you go to Afghanistan with digital cameras you run out of batteries in a few days, and then you’re in trouble with no electricity available.  Film cameras also tend to be lighter, and we try to travel as light as possible.  Then you don’t seem as official or as much like a journalist.  Your not holding the newest digital camera.  People tend to forget about you and allow you to work, they don’t give you the same respect and they are more natural. 

De Jong: I shot video the last time we were in Afghanistan with a 200 Euro flip camera.  It was small, lightweight and cheap, but the footage was good and that is what’s important.  One of our translators in Somalia used to make fun of Robert all of time for using these old cameras.  He couldn’t understand why a westerner would use old equipment.

ASX: Poppy is a powerful book, and much of this power comes from how succinct it is.  Although very large, it distills a vast amount of information into a single volume.  Did you have a method for synthesizing so many years of reporting into a single book, once all of the work was done?

Knoth: This was one of the most horrible parts of the entire project.  We agonized over what to include and what to leave out for almost three years.  This project spanned twenty years of our lives, and when you look at it you might think that we set out to do it, that we began with a plan.  But no, there was no plan, we merely realized at some point, several years ago, that we had worked in the region long enough to see something really large and unique.  We saw that it was many of the countries or issued we had been reporting on were in various ways connected and decided to make a book.

De Jong: Of course there were many arguments over what to include and what to throw out.  We both had things that were very important to us.

Knoth: Yes we fought a bit didn’t we?  But after going through 1000 or so rolls of film, maybe more, we had come out with a series of photographs, around 1500, that we felt showed our experience.  Then the book designer got involved, and we gave him what we had.  After he’d looked at it we asked him if it made sense and he said no, he had no idea what had happened or what we’d seen. It made no sense at all. So he broke it up into these epochs, sort of trails that we’d travelled, and suddenly it all began to come together.  That was around a year before the book was published.

The photos were incredibly difficult to choose from because we had all kinds of formats.  I have shot in these regions with large format black and white, with my Hasselblad, with 35mm color, and then Antoinette with an old Olympus 1,her flip camera and a digital Canon, so the mediums really were incredibly diverse.  At one time this might have been unacceptable, but now with the internet, you could even shoot pictures with a cell phone camera, the aesthetic standard has been seriously altered.  We threw out all of the aesthetic photos and focused only on the story. That was a very important part of the process.  We discarded everything that was merely beautiful and had nothing to say.

De Jong: Combining all those different formats also worked well to provide an element of fiction to the book, and at times an almost surreal feeling. As far as keeping it succinct, rather than going in depth on some issues, we felt it was more important to paint a mosaic. Often you only need to hint at something or suggest something in a few words and images. That can already show the fluidity of events and explain the chains and networks and how it’s all connected. We wanted to provide a high density of all sorts of information that seemingly had nothing to do with each other and then peel off the layers and allow the reader to see the story emerging.

We split it up in three layers: first a historical timeline, second our own observations/reportage elements and diary fragments, and the third was captions/extra information related to the pictures shown. And then the main text. Each element was needed to understand the others.  For each country we started to collect information, roughly from the beginning of the Afghan civil War in 1972 till 2011. So it was quite methodical.

ASX: That confirms my initial suspicion that all of the images are highly curated and none are lightly placed. One of the photographs I remember best best from the entire book is the one of Mamik, the blind girl you photographed first in 2001, and again in 2009.  Her transformation was so tragic, and it is one that reveals the desolation and poverty that drives so many people in Afghanistan to cultivate poppy.  Have you seen her again?  Can you talk a bit about your relationship with her?

De Jong: Yes, Mamik’s image was one I was absolutely convinced had to be in the book.  When we first met her we were riding on horseback, not even in trucks, through the mountain communities who were experiencing a terrible drought.  There were many fresh children’s graves.  All of the men had gone off to Pakistan, to Iran, or to Kabul to find work because nothing could be grown any more in the villages.  There were only women and children and old people, and many of the old had stopped eating in order to save food for the children and their mothers.  It was devastating.

When I met Mamik the vulnerability of her position was immediately clear.  There was no medical care for her, and only her friend to take care of her in these very difficult conditions.  She said it herself; she said that she didn’t know what she would do without her friend.

And when we came back almost ten years later, her friend had been married off to another village, and Mamik had to live with her brother and there she was pretty much confined to the house, without anyone helping her. She had no hope left. I thought her position was like that of much of population and in that sense it helps to explain the context of life in Afghanistan.

ASX: When I saw the first picture I thought that you understood her situation much better than she did, and that the horror of that second picture is part of life’s fundamental horror. In that second photograph she has been finally introduced to her own reality.  I thought too that she in many ways represents many of the people in the book, people who participate in the global drug trade because from their situation it is a very viable, reasonable option.  I kept having this reaction to Poppy as I was reading and viewing the photographs, realizing that people react in a logical way to their surroundings, and that if I were them I would almost certainly do exactly the same thing.  I would become involved in the drug trade if it was my only option.

De Jong:  I’m glad you said that, because throughout the book we tried very hard not to be judgmental, to show people in the places they live with their options around them.  This was very difficult, and I worry sometimes that to some people the book might seem a judgment on those it depicts.

Knoth: The heroin trade in Afghanistan set off in the 1980s, as way of funding the Mujahedeen which received large sums of money and weapons from the West and the Saudis, and being quite aware of the fact that they were dealing in opium and heroin on a large scale. Much to the chagrin of the DEA they were not allowed to go after these cartel.  From Afghanistan the drug trade  started to tap into this emerging global network and it has continue to grow ever since. Millions of people now depend on it.

Drugs have become an integral part of our economic system and drugs have been a byproduct of modern warfare since the dirty wars in South East Asia in the 50ties and 60ties.

ASX: This sort of brings us to my next question.  I live in Mexico City, and Mexico has an enormous drug trafficking problem.  I had a friend who was a journalist here in the city, and who sadly died in mysterious circumstances shortly after I met him.  Before he did, he told me that the only option when it came to drugs was to put them in the hands of Governments and Corporations, who he claimed were only potentially evil when they were not regulated, in order to keep them from falling into the hands of criminals, who in his opinion represented a legitimate evil.  After tracing the effects of an extremely powerful (politically and physically) drug, what policies would you urge Western governments, who have drug consumption problems, and other governments, who have drug production and trafficking problems, to pursue?  Do those policies include legalization and taxation?

De Jong: We tend to support legalization, but reluctantly. It’s not going to be the silver bullet, there will always be a parallel market, but it will reduce a lot of the negative side effects, crime, healthcare issues and addiction. We think it is difficult to implement smart policies.  For example the semi-legal marijuana laws in the Netherlands have had some serious drawbacks, and are now playing out in organized crime and violence.  So yes to legalization, but with great care.

 ASX:  So that is one option, if governments decide to legalize, but for many Western governments that does not seem like a political reality within the next several decades.  Do you envision any kind of decline in the global drug trade in the next 50 years?  One precipitated, perhaps, by more advanced surveillance and enforcement methods by governments?  Or will the drug problem grow as new markets open up in the developing world?

Knoth: It is quite impossible to contain the flow of drugs or any other goods for that matter. Much if it having to do with scale.  New technologies and developments have allowed us to increase the scale in/of which we do things and also at a cheaper price.  Container ships can now carry up to 11.000 containers: in less than 10 years’ time the amount goods transported more than doubled from 332 million tons to 828 million tons. It’s impossible to check everything. At the same time drug cartels clog the judicial system with drug runners, often tipping off the police themselves while the big shipment bribe their way through. Another example are IED’s, they are cheap to produce, so in Afghanistan the Taliban have figured out that while planting one IED has little effect, planting a hundred of them is a very effective way of taking on an opponent who in terms of resources is vastly superior. The same goes for human traffickers, counterfeiting goods, etc. Scale has been an effective strategy for the ‘little men to take on the strong men’ so to speak, and to obstruct the entire system of control. The fact that crime has gone transnational makes it even worse since governments are restricted to operate within their own countries. The US and NATO logical response is drones and special forces operating in more than a hundred countries in a desperate attempt to stem the growing anarchy.

Whether that is the smartest response is a different matter altogether.

ASX: In Mexico the Narcos have more planes and better guns than the police.

Knoth: Right, they are being outspent.  It’s a matter of money. 

ASX: On the back of “Poppy” the first line is “In the 21st century, globalization has opened up the world for better or for worse.”  This question is simple, and at some point everyone decides it for themselves.  For you, globalization is ultimately what kind of force?  Do you fear its impacts or believe in its liberating power?

Knoth: Well I don’t know, it’s very difficult to say, I think it’s both.  For me it’s both.  It’s much better than the cold war.  (laughs)…  It has improved the lives of millions, if not billions of people though, without a doubt.  On the other hand some of the consequences we have seen are very dire.

De Jong: Absolutely, it’s very complicated and very difficult to understand as a phenomena.  Poppy is a result of it though, in many ways.  Its coverage, its expanse, which you have mentioned, was only possible with the Internet. But 21st century globalisation is a process of transformation, as it was in late 19th century when we moved from an agricultural society towards an industrial society.

Knoth: Back then it also led to massive instability eventually leading to WW1 and WWII. At the moment the chaos around us is growing as well. So maybe it’s time to start looking at what is going from a different perspective, the economic rationale behind it instead of religious extremism vs democracy. Our book is an attempt to do that. If anything Poppy is about transformation.

De Jong: Without the Internet… you’ve mentioned your debt to the Internet in terms of what you are aware of and what information is available to you, we are the same.  The amount of information that we were able to integrate into Poppy would not have been possible without the net.  Our research phase was enormous, and honestly I don’t think the series of realizations that made such a huge portrait possible would have ever been set into motion without the enormous amount of data at our fingertips. 

Knoth: There something called data journalism now, where you don’t listen to anyone, you don’t read the papers, you just look at massive amounts of data.  And frequently what you see in that data is completely different from what everyone is saying.  Poppy is somewhat like that.

ASX:  It actually makes more sense to me now, the book does.  Now that you’ve mentioned your debt to the Internet and its ability to put so much information at your fingertips, I recognize Poppy as a very unique object of our age.  I said repeatedly that I really know of no other book like it.  I think it is singular in its scope and perspective and in the vast amounts of information it synthesizes.  An impressive achievement.  What’s next?

Knoth: That’s still uncertain. We have some ideas for new work. We have carefully considered a film adaptation of Poppy, but that is still not much more than a plan.  We are continuing with Fukushima, and some other smaller projects. Right now we don’t have anything planned on the scale of Poppy. I guess Poppy is just once in a lifetime given the scope and depth of the project. It’s actually quite difficult to decide what is next in that sense.

 

 



















 

(All rights reserved. Text @ ASX and Paul Loomis. Images @ Antoinette De Jong and Robert Knoth)

The post ASX EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW – “Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth” (2012) appeared first on ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography & Culture.

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Critics can’t seem to decide whether Alex Prager’s photography evokes the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s or even 80s. The truth is Prager’s film and photography draws on cinematic and visual cues from every decade. While William Eggleston, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Guy Bourdin have all been said to colour her work, Prager melds the palette of Hollywood’s golden yesteryears to her own ends. Prager-land has become a dark fantasy world where timeless themes subvert and sidestep period and categorisation.

See her new exhibition ‘Compulsion’ at Yancey Richardson in Los Angeles from April 5th, M+B in New York from April 7th or Michael Hoppen Contemporary in London from April 20th. fourthandmain.com/journal

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Antoine d’Agata – Anticorps – Te zien van 26 mei t/m 2 september 2012 in het Fotomuseum Den Haag - http://www.fotomuseumdenhaag.nl

Antoine d’Agata – Anticorps – On view from 26 May until 2 September 2012 at The Hague Museum of Photography - http://www.fotomuseumdenhaag.nl/en

Video: Studio Gerrit Schreurs

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 Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult   A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand (1970)

Originally Published in Image Magazine by George Eastman House – Vol. 15, No. 2, July, 1972

Transcribed and Edited by Dennis Longwell

“In an artistic work of true beauty the content ought to be nil, the form everything. . . . The secret of great artists is that they cancel matter through form; the more imposing the matter is in itself, the greater its obstinacy in striving to emphasize its own particular effect, the more the spectator inclines to lose himself immediately in the matter, so much more triumphant is the art which brings it into subjection and enforces its own sovereign power.”

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805).

 

“Art is the supreme game which the will plays with itself. . . .”

Susan Sontag, (1933- ).

 

Rochester Institute of Technology, October 9, 1970. 

Garry Winogrand (1928- ) spent two days in Rochester, New York, in October, 1970. On Friday, the 9th, he was the guest of the Rochester Institute of Technology. On Saturday, the 10th, he visited the Visual Studies Workshop, also in Rochester. The format was identical on both occasions: Winogrand, without comment, showed slides of his latest work and then answered questions from the student audiences. All in all, he talked for over five hours. The following transcript, edited from a tape recording of the proceedings, represents but one idea among the many ideas that were touched on.2

 

I saw a photograph that—there’s a photograph that had “Kodak” and there’s a kid holding a dog—

GW: Yeah.

—and the people kind of wandering in and out. Now, it might be due to my own ignorance or something, but could you give me like a straight answer as to what you’re trying to say in that photograph?

GW: I have nothing to say.

Nothing to say? Then why do you print it?

GW: I don’t have anything to say in any picture.

Why do you print it if it has no meaning?

GW: With that particular picture—ah, I’m interested in the space and I maybe can learn something about photography. That’s what I get from photographs; if I’m lucky, I can learn something.

Then you’re trying to reveal something about space?

GW: I’m not revealing anything.

Then what do you think is the purpose of the photograph if you’re not revealing anything.

 

 Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult   A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand (1970)

 

GW: My education.

Then what’s the purpose of that? That’s what I’m trying to find out.

GW: That’s the answer. That’s really the answer…

Yesterday at R.I.T. somebody asked you what are you trying to say in a certain picture and you said you weren’t trying to say anything. He jumped to the conclusion that it was meaningless and if it was meaningless why did you bother to print it and they seemed very confused about this. Could you tell me what—/ think I know what you’re saying and I like it but I—

GW: Tell me.

I can’t tell you, but if you’d do it again I might get a closer idea.

GW: My only interest in photographing is photography. That’s really the answer.

In other words it isn’t social comment, it isn’t ah—

GW: When you photograph—there’s [sic] things in a photograph. Right?

Yeah.

GW: So this can’t help but be a document or whatever you want to call it. It’s automatic. I mean if you photograph a cake of soap, in the package or out of it, it goes without saying—

But that’s not what you’re concerned about. I mean, your concern is photography.

GW: That’s it. And I have to photograph where I am.

If you were somewhere else—if for some reason you went to Arizona or Alaska, would you photograph—

GW: Then that’s what the pictures would look like, whatever those places look like.

Is your choice of subject matter just limited by where you are, by the fact that you live in New York?

GW: Yeah, I mean there are pictures in here from California and some other places, too.

Yeah. But you return to certain things, though, which have more to do than just with place. Like you’ve got a thing about dogs no matter where they are.

GW: Dogs are everyplace.

You’ve got a thing about, say, personal injury.

GW: That has to do with photography—I’m not interested in injuries. Believe me I’m not.

What about the reoccurrence of, say, oh, monkeys which goes back—

GW: Listen, it’s interesting;but it’s interesting for photographic reasons, really.

What are photographic reasons?

GW: Basically, I mean, ah—well, let’s say that for me anyway when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states—which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let’s say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey—if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you’ve got a very real problem taking place in the photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?

 

 Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult   A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand (1970)

Utah, 1964

Are you saying then that your primary concern is a kind of formal one?

GW: Of course.

In what sense “formal?” Getting things on the page? Filling up the space?

GW: You can’t help doing that either; I mean, it just automatically happens when you make an exposure.

Well, then I don’t understand what the “formal” problem is.

GW: It’s, ah—

—to make it not look formal.

GW: No, sorry. . . . You’ve got a number of things that take place that are peculiar to still photography. One: how a picture looks—what you photograph is responsible for how a photograph looks. In other words, it’s responsible for the form.

It, or are you?

GW: What you photograph is responsible for how a photograph looks —the form, the design, whatever word you want to use. Because of that there’s no way a photograph has to look … in a sense. There are no formal rules of design that can apply. In other words, a photograph can look anyway. It just depends basically on what you photograph.

Well, the choice of the 28 mm. lens over a 50 mm. is going to give you a different looking photograph.

GW: It makes the problem—it ups the ante in a way, if you want to put it that way. You have more to contend with. Maybe it makes the problem a little bit more interesting.

I always feel very precarious when I look at your images. I feel like I’m falling over. Is that because you’re not—you don’t use a view-finder?

GW: I don’t know why you feel the way you feel. . . . What are you asking?

Actually, what I’m asking is do you often shoot without using your viewfinder?

GW: I never shoot without using the viewfinder—Oh, yes, there’ll be a few times,—I may have to hold the camera up over my head because for just physical reasons, but very rarely does that ever work.

Are you conscious of that?

GW: Of what?

Of sort of an off-kilter thing happening?

GW: Oh, yeah, sure. I pretty much know what I’m doing.

Is that an attempt to solve a photographic problem?

GW: Generally it’s to make one. Another reason can be just because physically I might have trouble to get what I want to include in [the frame] in, you know, just physically. And that’s a good reason.

I’m wondering what, like, your concern with this is. Why photography?

GW: I told you before. It’s, ah—the thing itself is fascinating. The game, let’s say, of trying to state photographic problems is, for me, absolutely fascinating.

You keep trying to know more and more about the game?

GW: I’m trying to learn more and more about what’s possible, you know —really, I am answering your question.

Yeah

GW: I’m not dissembling.

Any change in your work you would attribute to somehow learning— the learning process?

GW: Yeah. I think if I did a tight editing, let’s say, of this bunch [of photographs], I’d say I’m a different photographer here than from those animals or whatever.3

Were the animals done in a concentrated period of time or did they just kind of pop up as you—

GW: Basically, they were done in a relatively concentrated period of time. I mean, I wasn’t just working on them. But, I’d say I can safely say over a year’s—about a year I went on—yeah, when I knew I had a game to play there. . . .

Do you look at a lot of other people’s photographs?

 

 Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult   A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand (1970)

 

GW: Sure. I look at photographs.

Whose photographs do you find interesting?

GW: Quickly, off the top of my head: Atget, Brassai, Kertesz, Weston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Bresson.

Do you like them for different reasons or do you find a reason?

GW: I learn from them. I can learn from them.

On the problem level, do you feel they’ve solved a problem and you think, “Thank God, I don’t have to do that?”

GW: It’s not a question of solving. It’s a question of stating.

Stating?

GW: Yeah. You don’t solve anything ever, really. You simply state a problem which, when you’re lucky, gives you some idea of what possible problems you can—it indicates, you know, your future headaches.

But that’s all related to the idea of the “game”—it’s being a “game”?

GW: Whatever word you want to use—you want to use “work”? Use the word “work.”

Work—play—

GW: I use the word “play”; but you understand the word “play”—if you ever watch children play—what do you observe when you watch children play? You know, they’re dead serious. They’re not on vacation.

If the problem you’re working on now is the contest between form and content, what was the problem before?

GW: It’s always—every photograph, every—somehow bang of the shutter—basically, I’m playing the “game” in a way.

When you first started photographing what was your, like primary interest in picking up the camera? Did you like people?

GW: No, the process, really. I really liked—it was a very crazy thing to me, I mean, this business of being uncertain that it would come out. I still enjoy—I still don’t understand why when you put a piece of paper in a tray with solution in it, it comes up. It’s still, in a sense, magic to me. It’s a funny thing, you know. I’ve got two kids, and when they were very young, they used to come in the darkroom and I thought they’d be astounded by that. Nothing. When they got a little older, then they got astounded by it. . . .

Is it relevant to ask what you were doing before you began to take pictures?

GW: I don’t know. … I had a camera but I had no darkroom facilities, nothing like that was available. And so, you know, I shot a roll of film, I sent it in, and stuff like that. And I was painting. I was studying painting which is not valid because it’s ridiculous to talk about it. But I was at Columbia [University] and they had a camera club. I think I registered there for the fall term. And so I found out about this camera club and they told me they had this darkroom available twenty-four hours a day. And I’d never done any darkroom work, so I went down. It must have been two weeks after I started there and, I’d say, give it another week and I never went back to class. I’m telling you, it was basically the process. . . .4

Well, like let’s say, [Robert] Frank’s book of photographs—5

GW: What about it?

You talked about learning from—

GW: Yeah—

—his stuff—

GW: I hope I did. I learned—

I’m interested to learn, like, when you looked in the book, like, do you think there’s anything you can say afterwards what, you know, “I learned” or what might be different in your work afterward?

GW: Well, let’s put it—you have to talk, speak about photographs, specific photographs. . . . Let’s say, primarily—let’s say Walker Evans in a general sense was maybe the first man who, in his book, states that you could—or rather the work states that America was a place to photograph in. Just on that level. Of course, there’s much more about those photographs; they’re astounding.6

You think you can get different things from a specific photograph?

GW: Yeah, you can go into your own mumbo-jumbo.

Would you go into a mumbo-jumbo about [Robert] Frank’s photograph of the flag or would you just look at it?

GW: That photograph doesn’t interest me that much. There are photographs in there far more interesting. The gasoline station photograph would be.7

Would you go into a mumbo-jumbo or would you just look at it?

GW: That [the gasoline station] photograph, in the first place, is an exercise in, ah—it’s a lesson, number one, in just camera operation, in a sense. It’s a lesson in how responsible that machine is for how photographs can look. Begin with that. To me that was one of the most important pictures in the book. It’s also a photograph of nothing, there’s nothing happening there. I mean, the subject matter has no dramatic ability of its own whatsoever and yet somehow it looks, what it is, it’s the most mundane—and there’s nothing happening, there’s no physical action.

You get the feeling that he played the game very well?

GW: Extremely well. That he could conceive of that being a photograph in the first place, is, ah—I don’t know if he, on any conscious level, thinks in terms of this “game” or whatever. And I certainly don’t really, in a conscious way, worry about it when I’m working. The contest between form and content is what, is what art is about— it’s art history. That’s what basically everybody has ever contended with. The problem is uniquely complex in still photography.

 

 Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult   A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand (1970)

 

How so?

GW: Well, in terms of what a camera does. Again, you go back to that original idea that what you photograph is responsible for how it [the photograph] looks. And it’s not plastic, in a way. The problem is unique in photographic terms.

Well, if what you photograph is responsible for what it looks like, what if ten people take a photograph of the same thing?

GW: The same way? If they’re standing in the same place, the same kind of lens on the camera, the same film, the right exposure and their cameras are in the same position? It would be the same picture—The camera’s dumb, it don’t [sic] care who’s pushing the button. It doesn’t know—

What is it, say, in a picture that makes it interesting instead of dead; what makes it alive instead of dead?

GW: Well, let’s say—let’s go back to that gasoline picture. . . . Let’s say, [it's] the photographer’s understanding of possibilities. Let me say something else. When he [Robert Frank] took that photograph he couldn’t possibly know—he just could not know that it would work, that it would be a photograph. He knew he probably had a chance. In other words, he cannot know what that’s going to look like as a photograph. I mean, understanding fully that he’s going to render what he sees, he still does not know what it’s going to look like as a photograph. Something, the fact of photographing something changes—I mean, when you photograph—if I photograph you I don’t have you, I have a photograph of you. It’s got its own thing. That’s really what photography, still photography, is about. In the simplest sentence, I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed. Basically, that’s why I photograph, in the simplest language. That’s the beginning of it and then we get to play the games.

But the thing that’s intriguing is not really knowing what the result is going to be like.

GW: Of course. What I know bores me. You know, you get into the business of commercial photography, and that’s all you do is photograph what you know. That’s what you’re hired for. And it’s very easy to make successful photographs—-it’s very easy. I’m a good craftsman and I can have this particular intention: let’s say, I want a photograph that’s going to push a certain button in an audience, to make them laugh or love, feel warm or hate or what—I know how to do this. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do that, to make successful photographs. It’s a bore. I certainly never wanted to be a photographer to bore myself. It’s no fun—life is too short. . . .

Do you shoot pool?

GW: What?

Do you shoot pool?

GW: I have, yeah. I was good. Ah, yeah, why?

I shoot pool, I don’t know— [tape unclear]

GW: There was a time in my life when I lived in one [a pool room?], you know when I was a kid. Once in a while I get a chance—

I feel the same thing, like how you’re talking about photography— I don’t know— I can’t—

GW: All right.

You feel you’ve been hustled in a pool room. . . . Are there any other things that relate photographically that are not necessarily other photographs? By this I mean, do you ever get ideas—not ideas—is your education ever expanded by an interest in something else other than photography?

GW: I would think so. A heck of a lot. Reading and music and painting and sculpture and other stuff. Basketball, baseball, hockey, etc. Certainly, you know, you can always learn from some—from somebody else’s—from some intelligence. I think. I hope. Nobody exists in a vacuum. Where do you come from? The first time I really got out of New York as a photographer was in 1955 and I wanted to go around the country photographing. And a friend of mine at that time, I was talking to him about it—a guy named Dan Weiner.8 I don’t know if you know his name. He’s dead now. [He] asked me if I had ever seen Walker Evans’ book and I said, no. I had never heard of Walker Evans. He said, if you’re going around the country, take a look at the book. And he did me a big fat favor.

And then it’s funny, I forget what year when Robert Frank’s book came out. He was working pretty much around that time, ’55 or whenever it was. And there were photographs in there, particularly that gas station photograph, that I learned an immense amount from. I mean, I hope I learned. At least, I feel very responsible . . . [tape unclear].

What you’re responding to, is it the quality of the intelligence that states the problem?

GW: Yeah, I don’t give a rap about gasoline stations. . .

 

NOTES

1. Schiller is quoted by Roland Rood in his book, Color and Light in Painting, New York: Columbia University Press, 1941, p. 8. Miss Sontag’s statement appears in her essay, “On Style,” from her book, Against Interpretation, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, fourth printing, 1969, p. 33.
2. It is hoped that the interview will seem to the reader to have happened exactly as it is printed. While the questions and responses occurred in the order in which they appear, large sections—some as long as an hour—have been removed from the text. Four dots (. . . .) have been used to indicate omissions.
3. Garry Winogrand, The Animals, with an afterword by John Szarkowski, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1969.
4. Winogrand studied painting at City College of New York and Columbia University, 1947-48. He began to photograph in the U.S. Air Force during World War II when he worked as a weather forecaster. He studied photography with Alexey Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research in 1951. See: Camera, vol. 51, no. 2, Feb., 1972, p. 41; Documentary Photography, New York: Time-Life Books, 1972, p. 190.
5. Robert Frank, Les Americains, textes reunis et presentes par Alain Bosquet, Paris: Encyclopedic Essentielle, 1958; Robert Frank, The Americans, Introduction by Jack Kerouac, New York: Grove Press, 1959; Robert Frank, The Americans, Introduction by Jack Kerouac, New York: Grossman, revised edition, 1969. 6. Walker Evans, American Photographs, With an essay by Lincoln Kerstein, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1938.
7. See page 89 in the French edition; the American editions are unpaged.
8. Dan Weiner (1919-1959). See: Documentary Photography, New York: Time-Life Books, 1972, p. 112; Cornell Capa, ed., The Concerned Photographer, New York: Grossman, 1968, unp.

www.geh.org

 

ASX CHANNEL: GARRY WINOGRAND

 

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 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)

Interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson – Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)

HCB: To me, photography is a simultaneous recognition in a fraction of a second of a significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of form which gives that event its proper expression. I believe that, for reactive living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds: the one inside us, and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

But this takes care only of a content of a picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a rigorous geometrical organization of interplay of surfaces, lines and values. It is in this organization alone, that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.

First I would like to say that it is only a rule I established in myself, a certain discipline, but it is not a school, it’s not a.. it’s very personal. And I think that we cannot separate what we have to say from the way we have to say it, how to speak.

Photography is in a way a mental process. We have to know what to, be clear, on what we want to say. Our conceptions, our, what we think of a certain situation, a certain problem. Photography is a way of writing it, of drawing, making sketches of it. And in the form, things are offered to us in daily life. We have to be alert and know when to pick the moment which is significant. Then, it’s just intuition. It’s instinct. We don’t know why, we press at a certain moment. It comes, it is there, it’s given. Take it. Everything is there, it is a question of chance, but you have to pick and force chance to come to you. There’s a certain will.

 

 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Madrid, 1933
 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Volcano of Popocatepetl, Mexico, 1964

The creative part of photography is very short. A painter can elaborate, a writer can, but as it’s given, we have to pick that moment, the decisive moment, it is there. Ah! I’ve seen this, I’ve been there. I’ve seen that.

When I started photography in 1930 there were hardly any picture magazines, there was no market. And I was taking pictures (..) things that struck me, interested me. I was keeping a kind of diary. And I still do keep a photography diary. And later, there were magazines, and working for magazines, you have to work for yourself, always for yourself, you express yourself. With magazines, they put you into contact with events important in the world, and you have a possibility of speaking to a very large audience.

Interviewer: Does that in any way affect your attitude toward a story when you’re working for a large audience? Or do you still follow your own precepts, it’s still the same intuition in a way?

HCB: It is the same intuition. You have to know in which framework you have to tell your story for the magazine, but you must not work for the magazine..you work for yourself, and the story. Communication has to be very (? diarational ? )..

Interviewer: Of course you are communicating. For example, you’ve made various photographic essays on different countries. When you come into a country do you live there for some time? Do you try to feel the…

HCB: You can’t rush in and out. It takes time to understand, to have a feeling of a place. You have a general idea of a country, but when you get there, you realize that your preconceived idea was right or wrong, but you mustn’t push the preconceived idea you had. No, reality speaks, and your impressions. And it’s very important, the first impression has to be very fresh – just like when you see the face of somebody for the first time, you have a feeling. Maybe after, you say, oh, I was wrong. Because I didn’t take notice of certain things, a certain smile, something, and a country is the same thing.

Interviewer: I wonder if you could possibly give an example. For example, your work on India. Which we in the West have some sort of exotic preconceptions about. Was that changed quite a bit when you first got there, and did that affect your work and your approach to the people?

 

 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Berlin, 1931
 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Arsila, Spanish Morocco, 1933

HCB: It’s a thing that comes through your system little by little, it’s not sudden. It can be sudden..you have to live there, you have to know people, you have to establish relations, you have to be on the same level with people. You can’t come as a judge and uh, you have to get close to people, you have to be warm. You have to like people. You mustn’t be cruel, you mustn’t be hard, you mustn’t be tough, because it bounces back on yourself. You can express all that you feel, you can be shocked, you can be humorous, you can be less tender, all the sentiments you can express.

Interviewer: And that’s all there in your attitude, it shows up in what you pick, I suppose. Well, in your approach, do you take many pictures, for example, of one incident or subject, or do you wait perhaps for that..

HCB: It depends, there’s no rule, there’s no..it depends, it depends. You have to be subtle and supple at the same time. Fit, exactly.

Interviewer: You’ve been known for never cropping your photos. Do you want to say anything about that?

HCB: About cropping? Uh, I said in that forward, we have to have a feeling for the geometry of the relation of shapes, like in any plastic medium. And I think that you place yourself in time, we’re dealing with time, and with space. Just like you pick a right moment in an expression, you pick your right spot, also. I will get closer, or further, there’s an emphasis on the subject, and if the relations, the interplay of lines is correct, well, it is there. If it’s not correct it’s not by cropping in the darkroom and making all sorts of tricks that you improve it. If a picture is mediocre, well it remains mediocre. The thing is done, once for all.

Interviewer: Well I guess that goes back to your intuition. It has to be there, completely..

HCB: Yes. And for technique, technique is not a thing in the abstract. You can’t evade it. The technique has to be something to express what you want to say. You have to master your own technique, to know your tools to say what you have to say. Technique doesn’t exist in the (abstract)..you have to know your lenses, but it’s not that difficult. You learn it very quickly. It’s like a typist mustn’t look at his keyboard, and then he types. But then, when he knows how to type he’s concerned only with what he has to say, it’s the same thing. You mustn’t use a light meter, you have to know exactly what, to weigh the light. A cook doesn’t take a scale to know how much salt you should put in a cake. The salt you put to give, to enhance the sugar. It’s intuition, it’s instinctive, and it’s the same thing.

Interviewer: I think that applies to all forms of expression, the technique has to be completely assimilated.

 

 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Calle Cuauhtemoctzin, Mexico City, 1934
 Henri Cartier Bresson   Famous Photographers Tell How (1958)Hyères, France, 1932

HCB: I think so. Yes.

Interviewer: Now, for example as a photographer, you yourself, the basic thing you want to do is communicate, I suppose like any artist in any field.

HCB: Yes, communication has been an important thing. You want to give something, and to know that it is accepted. It’s not recognition. Recognition..in a way, success is dangerous. Success can affect us.

Interviewer: In what way, you mean..

HCB: Success is in a way as unjust as lack of success. What is important (becomes the recognition.) You want to give something to know that somebody will accept it. In fact, when you love somebody, somebody will not turn you down, your love is accepted. And this is communication to me. To give something which is..

Interviewer: To give and then be requited.

HCB: Yes. And not recognition.

Interviewer: I wonder if you can talk about some technical aspects of photography.

HCB: We don’t need very big equipment. Practically I work all the time with a 50 mm, a very wide open lens, because I never know if I’m going to be in a dark room taking a picture in this moment and outside in full bright sun the next moment. So…

Interviewer: The compactness has become very important..small cameras..

HCB: It is very important. And people don’t notice you so much.

Interviewer: In the old days when they had colloidal plates and whatnot..

HCB: I think with the 50 mm you can cover a large number of things. Sometimes, especially for landscape, you need a 90 mm because it cuts all the foreground which is not that interesting. But this you don’t decide beforehand…I’m going to work with such a lens..no. It depends on the subject. The subject guides you, it’s there. Your frame, you see it, it’s a recognition of a certain geometrical order, as well as of the subject.

It’s a question sometimes people put. “Which is your favorite picture?” And I must say the important picture is the next one you’re going to take. We’re not curators of our work. The important is to think about the next subject. Photography is a way of living. To me, my camera is an extension of my eye. I keep it all the time with me. But, everything depends on the way we live, what we like and our attitude toward life. What we are, in fact.

(Photographer Erica McDonald transcribed this interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson from the Candid Recordings audio of Famous Photographers Tell How, 1958)

http://www.ericamcdonaldphoto.com/

You can hear the audio recording at:

http://tedbarron.com/BWF-June-2009/23-Henri-Cartier-Bresson.mp3


ASX CHANNEL: HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON


All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher

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In our latest photo essay made in collaboration with Magnum Photos, we follow Bruce Gilden to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Bruce Gilden first traveled to Haiti in 1984 and made 19 trips over the course of 10 years, culminating in his book titled, quite simply, “Haiti”. In February and March 2010, he went back to Port-au-Prince to witness firsthand what had happened in the wake of the earthquake. What he found was a city destroyed and people who are poor of everything but grace, pride and a distinctive soul. During his most recent trip this past September, he went back to document a refugee camp that has sprung up across the street from the half-destroyed presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince. In this video, Gilden shares his audio, video and photo captures of this neighborhood of decorated huts built out of scavenged corrugated tin and cardboard, recreated with all the elements of Haitian life as if the people knew right away that this temporary settlement would be their long term home.

You can also read our interview with Bruce Gilden on the Leica blog: bit.ly/BGSpirit

 

ASX CHANNEL: BRUCE GILDEN

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Seine überlebensgroßen Porträtfotos machten Thomas Ruff weltberühmt. Jetzt zeigt eine Ausstellung in Münster seine Leidenschaft für das Weltall. Unter dem Titel “Stellar Landscapes” sind Aufnahmen zu sehen, die uns neue Welten eröffnen.Zum Beispiel, wenn der Künstler Fotos der NASA bearbeitet. Der Zuschauer meint, selbst durchs All zu reisen. KULTUR.21 trifft Thomas Ruff.

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