writings blog

Interview: Patrick Joust

- "Self-taught photographer ... with a little help from my friends". Tell us how you got into photography and how has been the journey so far?

For most of my life I didn’t take pictures beyond the standard snapshots everyone takes. Once I did get into photography, shortly after college, it was a completely solo undertaking. One of the things that appealed to me about it was that I could do it alone. That’s still a big part of it, but friends have played an important role in how things have developed. Both people I know in person and the many I’ve interacted with online have helped me get better and figure out what I want to create. I know that’s the case for a lot of photographers, if not all, but I think it’s important not to take for granted.

- You have a diverse but coherent body of work that circulates around a particular theme. Tell us a little about the concept behind your work.

Thanks! In most cases the work has driven the concept rather than the concept the work. I didn’t start out with an idea for a photography project. Everything started pretty humbly and it’s stayed that way. More recently, I might go out to take some pictures that will fit in with others to make a “whole” but I’m still mostly driven by a less well defined desire to build on what I’ve done, to give myself more material. I get the feeling that a lot of serious photographers might frown on this idea, but I often think of the work I’m making as something closer to a visual diary. Any projects that might be created are drawn from that larger collection of images, rather than started as a project.

I haven’t sought to create an overarching concept for whatever it is I’m building. I’m happy for it to be a bit ambiguous. That might be a copout but I don’t want to risk over-explaining, especially if I have trouble explaining it to myself. However, my work does reflect a lot of how I feel and think and speculating on some of that is interesting, at least for me. Alienation, beauty, decay, the state of humanity, racism, classism, environmental issues, political issues in general, the meaning of life :) ...all are some of the things I think about. There’s also a fantasy element that’s a strong part of it.

I rewatched Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker recently. I like the feel of that kind of science fiction. It doesn’t need to embellish too much to create a new world. It’s a beautiful film made in one of the most traditionally unbeautiful places, an industrial wasteland. It works largely from found elements and clever improvisation, making the most of the material in front of the lens. Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a different kind of movie overall, also works in that way. These are approaches to seeing that I greatly admire. I don’t want to conflate cinema with photography, but closely focusing in on key elements and sequencing them together to make something new is a lot of what photography is about for me.

There’s a lot said about the subjective nature of photography. That’s certainly something I would agree with but I like to go further by not just acknowledging my own subjectivity but completely embracing it. I’m comfortable with the idea of trusting in the narrowness of my own experience. I don’t advocate rejecting or ignoring outside influences, which would be both undesirable and impossible, but it’s also important not to let yourself be overwhelmed or to be overly reverent of what others have done. It’s important to leave room for your own ideas, recognizing that they were not formed in a vacuum.

Right now those ideas include a number of loose projects. One is kind of an overall view of America, something that takes inspiration from work like Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, pulling together various places I’ve been (Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, etc.) into one tighter body of work that says something about how I feel about the here and now. Another project relates to walls and divisions in American society that I’m calling “Division and Gold.” I’m also thinking about a “Baltimore” book of mostly portraits. The last one has actually evolved into a working rough draft.

- You work predominately in Baltimore and Pennsylvania, among other places. What is the relationship to those places and what is the nature of the projects?

Proximity plays as big a part in it as anything. I live right in the middle of Baltimore. I can walk outside and find interesting things or people to photograph without trying too hard. Maryland’s a small state and Pennsylvania isn’t far away. I’m from California originally but moved to rural south central Pennsylvania when I was a teenager. I never really felt at home, but that’s where I spent high school and college. Now I love going back to Pennsylvania, both to photograph but also because I enjoy so many things about the state. It’s a dense environment for someone with my interests. I never feel like I’m coming home, but rather returning with greater appreciation and a sharper eye.

My work in Baltimore is by far the most comprehensive though and my experience here has helped to shape my worldview. I keep wanting to make links between the work I produce here and other places I visit. I mentioned how I can just walk out my door to go to take pictures. Part of what makes that so engaging are the contrasts. If I look left, and on my own block, I can see a relatively well cared for and beautiful old neighborhood, where I can walk to restaurants, libraries, concert venues, etc. To my right are empty lots and decrepit row homes, the result of redlining policy, other forms of racism, the war on the poor, etc. These lines between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods are certainly striking and Baltimore has famously been shown as a city with the worse kinds of “urban” problems, but while I find myself reminded of this daily, I don’t see things differently once I leave town and go to other cities or rural areas in the country. In many cases the divisions are all the more obvious.

Even though I’m interested in lines and divisions, I find myself photographing a lot more in economically challenged areas. That’s not at all uncommon for a lot of photographers. I often question my motivations. I’m not always satisfied with my answers but I think a lot of it has to do with seeking out what is special in those areas. This process really got started for me when I first moved to Baltimore as an Americorps volunteer. Since my work, mostly tutoring children, brought me to the less touristed parts of the city, I was able to actually experience these areas and learn to appreciate them. I had no reason to visit them before, but since that time I’ve always wanted to go back. As a society, we’re used to condemning whole neighborhoods, towns and cities, but when you go to these places, not just read about them but go there, you can find a lot of originality and beauty that isn’t present in the homogenized outlands of suburban America.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the work of Simon Norfolk and his approach to war photography. Long before I made pictures I had a love for classical European painting. I spent a lot of time going to art museums, even skipping school to see the Vermeer exhibit when it came to the National Gallery in the 90’s. There are a lot of different artists I’ve been interested in, but painters like JMW Turner, Claude Lorraine, Hubert Robert, Caspar David Friedrich and Giovanni Panini, with their depictions of real and fanciful ruins, drew me in from a young age. I’m still attracted to those images. Simon Norfolk harkens back to that kind of imagery with his depictions of the toll of war on much of Afghanistan. His photos are beautiful and yet these images, recorded in the best light and reflecting the natural attributes of the land, are records of epic tragedy. Even though the word “war” is too often thrown around in our vocabulary for things that it's not, the waste that has been laid to so many cities and towns, in the United States, is similar, though the process is clearly more subtle. Part of my attraction to the places I photograph in east and west Baltimore, Schuylkill County, or areas around Pittsburgh is the simultaneous beauty that these places possess, in their semi-ruined state, but also how that state represents the tragedy of racism, classism and uncontrolled capitalism. I feel contradictory emotions. The attraction is a kind of trap. I appreciate the beauty and how places in a state of decay can convey a sense of timelessness, but I’m also forced to think of the history that led to these conditions and my own part in that process. These aren’t Roman or Anasazi ruins, they’re part of a present reality, history that’s still in the process of being made.

In contrast to ancient ruins, most of these places aren’t empty. They’re not ghost towns. People live there. There is a deeper beauty reflective in people’s determination to make a home for themselves wherever they are. While it’s harder for me to do, especially when I leave Baltimore, it’s important for the work to also capture the people I see and to collaborate with them in some way, however brief. What I like about portraits is that it’s not just me framing the shot, but a joint endeavor between subject and photographer. Even though I’m editing the photos later, the collaboration allows for an honest outside influence on the work.

- Do you believe there is a significant difference in the impact and result of the work when one is ingrained and familiar with the place he photographs, in relation to a photographer visiting a particular place to make photographs?

It certainly can make a difference. However, living directly in the place you want to make images can sometimes prevent you from seeing things “fresh.” Though I think I’m pretty good at fighting that inclination, I can still sometimes feel a little worn out if I don’t get a chance to find myself somewhere new. I don’t travel all that much, compared to many people I know, but I do it enough that it helps me appreciate Baltimore more when I come back. Also, even though I love Baltimore and have lived here longer than anywhere else, I still feel a sense of distance from it. East coast cities can often take a long time to absorb outsiders. That being said, I don’t know if I want to be “absorbed.” There’s a part of me that needs to have something between me and reality. I take some comfort in how the camera can make me feel close but also feel apart.

A lot depends as well on what you are trying to achieve with your images. Someone like Robert Frank didn’t get to know, in any intimate way, most of the places he traveled in order to create The Americans. That didn’t matter because he was able to convey something more broadly profound. Since making photographs is a visual process, the excitement of seeing something for the first time and responding to it is very powerful. It’s what drives a lot of photographers and certainly me. You can also be someone like Milton Rogovin or Vivian Maier, both of whom travelled, but also did most of their work in their respective cities of Buffalo and Chicago. If you’re embedded in a place you can’t help but tell a very different story than someone who is just passing through.

I value both approaches. I like the idea of being pulled out of my home to literally stretch my horizons, but I also appreciate the opportunity to delve deeper into areas I think I already know.

- A lot of your images are at night and of a particular and mysterious mood, oscillating between the surreal, cinematic and psychological. Is the approach more of an inner exploration of self or a particular and alternative interpretation of a place?

I really appreciate this question because it nicely encapsulates what I’m trying to do, much of the time. My approach is as much about inner exploration as it is about creating an alternative view of a place. I’ve had a lot of interest in magical realism in literature and, without being too forced, I’ve tried something similar with a lot of my photography. As I've already mentioned, I embrace the subjective role of photography and how the images you take, select, and sequence can be arranged to convey a sense or an idea.

I often find myself thinking of certain scenes that I find and how they might fit it in with others. Geography can be a natural way to classify images, but it’s been less important to me in recent years. Much of the time I’m trying to create a new geography out of these various places. I like having the sense of the real and surreal in the same image, but even more importantly, in the thread of images I might put together.

In literature, magical realism doesn’t divorce itself from reality, in many ways it’s all the more entrenched in it. The whole point, or at least what I take from it, is to be able to use the magic to reawaken our sense of the real, to knock us out of the lull we are in when we encounter everyday life and situations. That’s something of what I’d like to do with much of my photography.

- How long have you been working on the Baltimore project and the others that concentrate in your area and are these ongoing? Also, talk about some of the challenges that you encountered and overcome while making the projects.

I’ve been photographing in Baltimore since 2002 and I hope to continue doing so indefinitely. Both my wife and I are pretty entrenched in this city. It feels weird sometimes to think that we might live here for the rest of our lives, but that’s not a negative for me. I love this city. It’s beautiful. It feels like an amazing opportunity to photograph here, or make art of some kind, for decades to come. I think I will have really achieved something if I can do that. It’s easy to get distracted, but my goal is to stay engaged and keep producing work. If I’m flexible enough I think it’s an achievable goal.

- Which photographers, artist, authors and the like, have been your influences and where do you derive inspiration to constantly produce new work?

I mentioned several already. Rather than attempting to be comprehensive I’ll mention ones I’ve been thinking about the most lately. Greg Girard is someone I’ve mentioned to a lot of people. He has a new book coming out soon. I already mentioned Milton Rogovin, but I’ll mention him again because I don’t think enough people know about his amazing life’s work. Maude Schuyler Clay’s portrait work is often on my mind. I’ve also been really into the work of Justine Kurland, and her approach to doing work and having a sense of balance in her life. She has a new book too.

I’ve been inspired a lot by the movies. Early Spielberg movies, Jean Luc Goddard, Terrence Malick, Luis Bunuel, were all big influences long before I started taking pictures. Movies like The Conversation, Parallax View, A Man for All Seasons, Don’t Look Now, Henvy V, Killer of Sheep, are all ones that have really stuck with me.

Music is a big influence as well. My mom introduced me to classical music when I was a kid and that’s still a big part of my life. I like a lot of different music and have many friends with varying tastes and that’s something I appreciate. I don’t know if any of the music influences the work, but it certainly inspires.

- Considering a very dense and competitive marketplace, how do you manage to promote your work and maintain an aesthetic that makes you work distinct?

I don’t think of myself as being in a marketplace, which probably helps. I want people to view my work and it’s been very gratifying that it’s gotten such positive attention over the years. The attention I have gotten has been a motivating factor to keep producing the work though I try not to let it dictate everything I do. The best thing I’ve done to promote my work is to continue doing it and to set personal goals for what I want to achieve. Those goals often don’t have anything to do with traditional ideas of success. I’m honestly just pretty thrilled that I’m able to make work that I can look back on months or years later and be proud of and that other people are excited about too. I know that certain pictures will be very popular and others less so, but It’s important that I create what I want to, regardless of popularity. I like the examples of Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, photographers and movie makers who did what they had to in order to create their own vision. Whether that vision caught on or was recognized was secondary to the need to create. If what you’re doing comes before all the rest, that’s bound to help or at least it’s nice to think so.

Because of the saturation of images right now, luck has something to do with getting recognition as well. That’s always been a factor, but it’s even more so now. I see a lot of good work that doesn’t get the attention it should. We’re in an unprecedented time when so much great art is being created. The Internet is at the heart of that, of course, and there is certainly plenty of repetition that goes along with this explosion, but I think that there is truly an amazing amount of worthwhile activity to get engaged in. It’s just not possible to keep up with it all, even in the most superficial way. A lot of things follow the standard restrictions of the “art market” which can make things more exclusive than ever. It’s important for artists and art lovers to follow their own instincts as much as possible, to see what’s going on around them, not just what gets featured or anointed.

- What do you consider to be a successful image and what is the importance, if any, of working on a theme rather than making single images that do not relate?

I have long thought more in terms of how a group of images work together rather than in terms of single images. When I’m hanging work or sharing on social media, I like to arrange images together in some way, playing with themes loosely.

I use social media as a way of gauging whether images I make come across the way I want them to. This isn’t always easy but in the absence of formal critiques, I use what I have. It especially helps when I know I’ve engaged, in some way, artists whose work I like and admire. I certainly do plenty of self-editing, but I think the opportunity that social media provides, as part of the editing process, is valuable. It’s not just about showing off. You can use those resources to improve your work.

- What advice would you give to students or someone that is interested in picking up photography?

One of the best responses I’ve seen from artists in terms of advice is the importance of continuing to do work and making sure you accommodate that need even if it sometimes threatens to inconvenience you or others. For me, there really doesn’t seem to be a choice. I must keep making work so what I try to do is arrange my life in such a way as to make that possible. As I’ve achieved a small level of success, it’s also meant that I’ve had to weigh some opportunities with others and make choices about what I pursue. For instance I was asked recently to curate a photography show. I was flattered to be asked but when I gave it more thought I realized I didn’t have the desire or time for that. That being said, sometimes doing something different, something that you weren’t planning on, can have a stimulating effect and steer the work in an interesting direction. It’s not always easy to decide which is the best call to make but again, making sure that you leave time for your work (and to decompress), is important.

- What is your opinion about the current state of American photography in all its manifestations?

I read recently about how there weren’t enough artists documenting Trump’s America. It was an article focusing on the work of Danny Lyon and while it was interesting and I love Danny Lyon’s work, I thought the author’s premise, that there essentially weren’t artists around willing to do work like Lyon, was incorrect. I’m not bringing this up to talk about Trump but just to say that there are a lot of images being taken recording many aspects of our society but you might have to do a little work to find it. It’s not going to just wash over us in a facebook feed or mainstream press. I’m amazed at just how much great work is being done in Baltimore alone. The work is out there. I think that’s probably obvious for any of us who are really interested not just in our own photographic work, but that of others, but I think it’s important to realize that we’re also in our own bubble. We can’t take it for granted that much of this is reaching the mainstream.

The issue has less to do with what’s being created but with what’s being consumed. We live in a time of extraordinary access, because of the Internet, to so many things, but one of the biggest issues is the tendency of so many of us to only consume news, entertainment and conspiracy theories that are tailored to our own specific interests. We have access to all the great books but we’re not reading them, we’re playing games and swiping through things quickly on our devices. It can be hard to find a larger view or contradictory views of all that is going on. Consumer culture has a stronger grip on us than ever and it’s a constant distraction. There are plenty of photographers of all stripes creating compelling images, but they’re not reaching audiences the way that some photographers like Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks or Mary Ellen Mark did. Amazing photo essays are being created all the time, but they’re seen by hundreds or thousands, not millions. I’m not sure what individual photographers can do about that issue since it’s just a small part of a larger problem. The good news though is that whether audiences are interested or ready for it, the work is there and it’s beautiful. I find myself constantly inspired by what I see others creating. I feel very lucky to be alive in such a culturally rich environment where so much in the arts is easily accessible.


Interview: Yoav Friedlander

- I am always fascinated by a photographer’s hybrid background and how that inspires and influences their work. Tell us a little about your journey from the Holy Land to Queens (I think you are in Queens?) and how this transition influenced your work.

This is an essential question to ask because the transition from Israel, the Holy Land, to Queens not only influenced my work, it redefined it. There are two parts to my background, one that I had control over and the one which I was born into. I was born in Jerusalem in 1985 after my Grandfather lost his family in Auschwitz, survived the Holocaust, fought with the British Brigades and then joined the Israeli army when the country was established. I was born after 3 big wars - Independence 48’, Six Day War 67’ and Yom Kippur 73’- all of which posed a threat to the existence of my birth country and the latter, my father, had fought himself during his army service. But then I was born, after. Every piece of land in sight is multilayered with history, conflicts and ethos. Supposedly I am the continuation of thousands of years of Jewish history and traditions and then I decided to leave everything that everyone was fighting so hard for and move to the U.S. - now that’s a burden. The transition in my perception worked in both directions - how I started seeing Israel, and how I stopped seeing America. Because Israel was right in front of me for 26 years of my life I couldn’t see beyond the given layers of context. For each place there is a picture that name’s it and relate it to the history of the place - it is an unquestioned given fact that shaped my perception. Across the ocean was America but through the television set it seemed so close. In Israel we try being like the Americans that we see on television - we copy, imitate and embed an American like culture into our own culture based on movies, television and pictures. We ended up being Americanized through the surface layer - which is the one that can be mediated. Only when I moved to the United States I started comparing 26 years of America through pictures to the own the pictures are based on. Understanding that we are often being exposed to a place through a contextualizing image of it first, and before physically being in that place, changed my perception. These revelations made me doubt my perception of my homeland. I know wanted to use photography and make photographs that investigate the process in which a mediated place becomes iconic and familiar under a certain context. My work then shifted its focus towards the influence of photography on our perception of our reality and history. It was then when I first explored photography through miniatures and scale models - which are a great tool to explore the idea of similarity through the indexicality and the concept of the copy, and what that copy can still contain from its origin. The transition completely made me the photographer I am today, and I am not sure that if I had chosen any other path I would have discovered what I have discovered today.

- You have served in the Israeli army and looking at A Form of View project I see entities, which relate to your experiences in the army. Tell us a about your concept behind this body of work.

The part in A Form of View you are asking about derives from memories that are on a spectrum between personal memories to collective memories that are also highly influenced by common signifiers - too much of a big word for visual ingredients that many remember vividly, and also derives from places that have restricted access and sparsely photographed and are indeed related to the armed conflict - and also related to fears.

Some of the images, for example Camera Lucida which is of the gas mask on the bed attempts to recall memories that exist both as a personal memory that is based on one's own experience and which at the same time is part of a collective memory - when they share a similar memory with a great part of the people in Israel from the same period. Not every visual memory that falls into these criteria is as interesting to explore through its recreation first as miniature and then as a picture. I am searching for memories that were also influenced by photographs and beyond the photograph the restriction on what we can’t see. Camera Lucida is a recreation of my childhood room during the first Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm. We were fearing Biological or Chemical warfare from Saddam Hussein and we were supplied with gas masks and instructed to close the shutters and “seal” the windows using packing tape - specifically brown packing tape - everyone remember the brown packing tape.

I was a kid sitting in a room with my gas mask on and shutters down hearing the siren go on and off as the news anchor used the code word to get into the sealed rooms and put our gas masks on. Isolated in a room with a television being the only window to the outside world reality became a floating place. The war was as far as it was near. Through the television set the war was outside of the room, but since we were never hit it was as if it never happened.

We all share few things in common from Israel and of the First Gulf War - closed shutters, brown packing tape, fears that were never realized and a television set with Public Broadcasting station that mediated the same pictures to all of us at once. These memories are both personal and collective and represent a war that happened for many only through the television set while experiencing it as if it was right outside the Camera Lucida. Many years later and during my mandatory service in the army reality has flipped. Then in Camera Obscura - my recreation of a drone control room from the second Lebanon war- we were bombing somewhere else, and it all happened on LCD screens.

A hit on the screen represents a destroyed target in reality - somewhere far - not really a proxy war but very close to be one. Camera Lucida and Camera Obscura represent a deep exploration both of the personal and hopefully collective influence of the mediation of conflict and its great part in our perception of our reality. Things we see affect us perhaps more than things we touch. We are afraid most from the things that are least likely to happen to us.

The other point of interest that I mentioned above is places with restricted access and that often only fragmented pieces of televised documents or occasional photographs are the public access to them. Places of restricted access fascinate us and being exposed to partial visual evidences of their existence we use our imagination to glue together these places that are inaccessible to us. For me there are places from my service in the army that I had a chance to visit or utilize but are no longer accessible to me. My memories of these places are inseparable from my army service and experience, and I am drawn into revisiting these locations, rethink their function in the construction of my perception and understanding of the reality of the conflict. It may sound overly complicated, but I am trying to cheat and recreate a restricted space and place in a scale model based on a collection of photographs or visual evidences of these places to gain access and revisit these places, while at the same time rethink their layered meaning.

One of these places is a miniature of the Israeli Army’s urban warfare training facility named ‘Chicago’ in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Just to clarify the name probably derives from the common Hebrew phrase ‘Chicago’ that refers to a situation where shots are fired everywhere, and historically points at the actual city of Chicago, Illinois as it was mediated through television probably in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There are several aspects of Chicago that I was interested in exploring. The photograph exposes a space that functions as a simulation of urban, house-to-house, warfare and the space in the photograph represents a potential Palestinian home into which the soldiers will enter expecting close range encounters with the enemy. For the majority of Israeli soldiers this type of a training facility will be their first so-called visit to a Palestinian home - or at least its simulation. When making this model and photograph I realized that the training facility contextualizes the Palestinian home as a battleground.

To expand on that, growing up in a settlement near Jerusalem, Maale Adummim, the Palestinian village was a hill apart from us and only a split in the road far - turn left and you enter Maale Adummim, turn right and you are in Azariya. For 26 years I saw these buildings on the hill next to my hometown from afar, and not once in my entire life did I visit inside any of them. Palestinian families typically build a building for the entire broad family, over the span of several years. They populate the house while it is still bare concrete and sometimes with no glass windows installed. One of the things that for many years distinguished the Palestinian and Arab architecture in Israel was the arched window while the Israelis use rectangular ones.

If you look carefully at my photograph of Chicago you will start seeing the visual signifiers that trigger the understanding for the Israeli soldier that he is inside a Palestinian home. First it is the arched concrete window frame and after the bare concrete interior. The accumulation of these aspects invokes the realization that Chicago is similar in its function to photographs and photography - it is an indexical representation of a place and its scale under a specific context.

I made a miniature of Chicago to investigate its functionality and effect on soldiers perception and the Israeli army created Chicago to train soldier to familiarize themselves with combat inside real Palestinian houses. The Israeli Army’s practical use of bare concrete for economical reasons also accidentally recreated the building style of the Palestinian home that due to low funds remains bare for years until there is enough money to finish the exterior. My immediate goal is to gain access through the scale model, build it based on the surface layer visual instructions given in photographs, and make a photograph of it that will mimic the immersive sense of space that we are accustomed to from seeing our world through photographs.

- Cliché, but who cares so, why a view camera? Why film? I ask because your work is deliberately created, highly personal and symbolic. Why go through the process when you can appropriate all these images from other sources and still portray your message?

You say cliché, and maybe I am romantic about it, but for me the view camera is the right tool for the job. Maybe I can do everything that you mention by appropriating other images but the truth is that my work is the result of a thought process that certain aspects inspire. Appropriating existing images is using the same cycle of materials; I have an urge to add material to this pool of images. I am unashamed of being romantic about the view camera and film. I can’t shoot 150 versions of a photograph because I cannot afford it. With a view camera I need to make one or two that count. It makes them feel precious and important and inspires me to look more at what I photograph and less at the camera. I like working slow, and it seems that the tools we use inspire our approach towards our actions using them.

Now to the technical part; the optic distortions of color and geometrical types in smaller cameras are very visible to me. The sharpness of landscapes just doesn’t really exist on these smaller cameras in my experience. The ability to do shift, tilt rise and be unlimited in how close I can focus since I can stretch the bellows indefinitely - all of these just don’t meet any parallel in the digital world. I am not willing to compromise on the quality and flexibility that I have with the view camera. We are seeing photography that follows the concept of one size fits all while photography used to be a medium that could be customized.

I might move to the digital realm when it will offer something in return - if I will give in now, no one will remember that there was other types of photography. We must not forget that photography was scaled down to the 35mm camera for certain purposes of mobility speed, and not necessarily for the quality it offered. That said, some of the most important photographs of all times where shot on 35mm cameras.

- What are some of the similarities and differences you witness when photographing in the United States and Israel and where do you derive inspiration from when photographing in each place?

The biggest difference between here in the U.S. and back in Israel for me is that here I am not driven by fear. Yes we in Israel are considered to be the oppressors, the conquerors, but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t feel free to go through areas populated with Palestinian or Arab Israeli populations. In the settlement that I grew up in there was a mall. Palestinians from the nearby village and even Jordanians that drove for a shopping day were visiting that mall frequently. Never in my lifetime, not even once, was there any hostility towards them. They were coming into town and except for the security check in the entrance there wasn’t anything going on that could cause any friction. I on the other hand would think twice before entering the nearby village. I would think ahead when going on a walk in the hills next to my hometown calculating escape routes and possible surprise attacks. I know it sounds very dramatic on my behalf, but it is the way things are.

This situation led me to photograph the land in Israel from the perspective of the road margins reflecting on my childhood understanding of the areas I grew up in, fantasizing on climbing hills that for my entire life remained out of reach. I am not complaining here just trying to explain how the perception of a land might be shaped by the lack of accessibility and its view from a distance. This is where the greatest similarity, in my view, between Israel and the U.S enters to the equation.

Although I am not driven by fears here, again and again I encounter an invisible fence that limits the landscape’s accessibility; they are the ‘POSTED PRIVATE PROPERTY’ signs. It is the privatization of the land that led me back to the shoulders of the road, observing a landscape that I seen for so many years through pictures and now again I am close but also far. I am not interested in the emotional effect it has on me but rather in the role it plays in the shape of one’s perception.

- You are the also the editor of Float Magazine. Tell us about this endeavor, what the magazine is about and any future plans you might have.

Float was established as a magazine with no funds - we didn’t want money to dictate content and we didn’t want ads. Also we wanted a magazine that mitigates the work of known masters with that of emerging photographers. We don’t have a deadline; we don’t try to play and pretend as if we are some big magazine. Our attempt is to be a critical, serious and alternative to other platforms. We are still trying to figure out who we are and what we offer. I think that our bigger goal - and this is where my bigger partner in crime, Dana Stirling, comes in–is to make a gallery space that is also a library for photography books. We support and welcome people for whom photography is not just a tool but a medium that inspires them.

- Through your work I get the sense of an alternative and subjective documentation of issues past and present. There is a lot of push in creating something new; the after documentary and photojournalism, a push on innovation and the ordinary and cliché, “This has been done before”. I have been pondering for a while the idea that we do have a lot of trends; I fear that we might lack substance. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Trends fetishize the success of certain images and try to replicate the impact of these prototype images. The problem as you mentioned is the lack of substance. Trend is a nice word for other more problematic things - lack of originality, lack of ingenuity, lack of imagination. To be clear I am not talking about the trends that turned into traditions in the old culture where a work of some kind inspired other similar works exploring the same subject matter and shared visual similarities. I am referring to trends that are viral, that are at the surface layer imitated by appearances with no meaning attached. There is nothing underneath the surface of these trends, and it equals the use of the word “like” as a substance for many words and many feelings.

In the creative world there is always a tension between the new and the old - the success of the old burdens, those who produce currently, and if they choose in making something new the burden is the fear of failing in a new path. But there is no such thing as new, because nothing we create is separated from the world we experience prior to our own work. It seems that for some, making something that doesn’t look like anything - amorphic, chaotic, alien, abstract - they reach the realms of the promised new, as if they uncover the unseen.

It is funny to refer to physics, but ‘nothing’ always exists in comparison with ‘something’. The unfamiliar is dependent on the familiar. Something only appears to be new because we compare it to what already exists, or simply because we forgot it already existed. It is arrogant to think that we can transcend the world that we are part of. I see a great problem in the viral trend because usually things that are easy to adopt and adapt are temporary and superficial - too easy - they don’t attempt to explore beneath the immediate surface.

If everybody creates no one listens. If everyone makes the same thing, we become one dimensional. We are limited and cannot be aware of everything that is simultaneously being made to make an impression on our perception. The viral trend throws critical thinking out of the window. It turns us into an army of zombies doing mob justice to the visual form. We can be a complex society with many virtues or we can be a herd that craves for attention. The turn of the camera towards the self, and the rise of the selfie clarifies that people are in denial of the existence of the fabric of society - the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. When we put ourselves in the center society crumbles, culture crumbles, because our uniqueness should contribute to the greater good, the selfie is empty of content.

Now to tackle the “this has been done before”, the great wall. To solve this equation simply - what we think we are recreating that has been done before is revisioned when made in the present. Because time marches forward we constantly forget the past and misunderstand the context in which things happened and created. There is a great deal of importance to explore, which questions the conclusions of the past. We make something again just to realize its importance in leading us to a present moment and to understand that we can never really make the same thing as before.

- What photographers have inspired and what motivates you to produce work on a regular basis?

Different photographers inspired me for many different and wonderful reasons - Josef Kudelka for his complete control over transforming the world using a camera; David Levinthal that turned the camera to be a projection of a child’s imaginative brain, and later using the same vision for darker subjects; Andrew L Moore that I have the privilege working with that taught me how architecture of interiors and exteriors can unfold into immersive photographs, and how to capture all the details of a grand structure paying respect to the time that left its marks; Lynn Cohen with her “deceptively quiet” images of interiors that make you think - how the hell did she manage to find and document these places; and lastly Robert Capa with his falling soldier photograph that so many years later we are still debating its realness.

My motivation usually is collision of thoughts. I am usually unprepared for an idea for a photograph, at least when it comes to down to my miniatures. I need things to happen, to see places, to hear voices. I need to be upset by something - usually anger is the thing that triggers my greatest inspiration for making Art. I also like working on certain things that do not fit in any body of work and are not part of a series. I strongly resist the requirements that photographs should be part of a series to make a statement. If something inspires me to make a comment unrelated to anything else I am working on I will be very motivated to pursue it.

- What advice would you give to students and emerging photographers in order to create a successful body of work?

Look at the works that inspire you the most, think of how much you appreciate the different great aspects of great works of art - the quality, the context, the reasoning, the historical importance, the commitment in which they were made. Ask yourself if what you make can stand up to these standards. You cannot afford making mediocre work. Be self-critical, be prepared to change direction and don’t write your thesis down before making the work itself. You don’t have to make something like other people do just because it is trend - be true to your own experience of life - the work should be a projection of how you interpret the world that we cannot do the same.

- Do you find purpose in social media and sharing your work for exposure together with a pastiche of unrelated imagery, and how do you go about promoting your work, considering a very dense marketplace especially in NYC?

There is no right answer to that. The marketplace in NYC is not only dense it is charged with so many different interests - it is a jungle of obstacles. I had some close calls on being represented by a Chelsea gallery, and it all fell apart for the fact my work is considered “too dark” - there is nothing I can change to fix this problem. I define my goals based on the reasons I make my work. I don’t care about the money, I don’t see the photographs as a currency, and I wouldn’t care if I sell any more work to the end of my life. The only thing I want is to show a printed photograph of mine to as many people as I can, and make an impression on their perception. I want to be there for every person who sees my work and have a dialogue - they might argue against it, and if that happens they will probably teach me something new, but if I can give back to the culture I live in I will consider my work as a success. For now I am putting my work on social media, knowing that they immediately disappear in an ocean of selfies, brunches, and other body parts, but for the future I might leave social media simply because it doesn’t seem that anyone truly communicates anything. I am uninspired to share my part in making photography into nonsense.

- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography both in historical and contemporary terms, and do you believe there is adequate criticism in our field? Yes there were no blogs when John Szarkowski was around, and now for better or for worse everyone writes and analyzes, but... Thoughts?

Now everybody ‘like’s” photography. It seems that museums and galleries are confused by popularity, and popularity defines a work’s worth. I personally believe that there are gifted people that can deeply analyze and critique work, and others that can deeply understand the contextual and historical importance of certain photographers and their works, and those make wonderful curators. Instead of bashing many and use examples of the worse I will mention two of those who I greatly appreciate - Maurice Berger that curated an amazing exhibition about CBS at the Jewish Museum, and which is a sharp critique of the involvement of money in promotion of art in museums and art galleries, and Joel Smith who curated last year’s show of Emmet Gowin’s work at the Morgan Library. These two definitely have the credentials to critique and analyze deeply.

What I see online is a pursue for popularity. Maybe in the past the club of John Szarkowski was too exclusive, but it seems that the majority of write-ups on photography are superficial. Photographers and critics claim that photographs do literally what their caption and description claim they are out to do - for me it is too simplistic. I won’t get anymore specific than that because actual criticism and freedom of thought is not that welcomed in our field.


by Niko J Kallianiotis

Interview: Dimitri Mellos

- A Greek in New York City is by itself the ingredient to start this conversation. Can you talk a little on the cultural divide between Greece and New York and how that had shaped and influenced your visual sensibilities and personality.

It’s an interesting question. As a street photographer, one of the cultural differences that stand out is the fact that New Yorkers tend to be much more nonchalant about being photographed on the street than Greeks are. Greeks tend to be quite suspicious of photographers, and very vocal in their protestations if they don’t like what you’re doing, and this makes the work of the street photographer especially challenging there. However, to answer this question on a more substantive level: my own position as an immigrant and foreigner, and therefore a de facto outsider of sorts, ties very well with my identity and practice as a street photographer. The street photographer is a “participant outsider” par excellence, and this is paralleled in my own hybrid cultural identity, my position of suspended animation between two cultures, partially at home in both but not completely at home in either. In that way, I believe that my status as a transplant in New York has fostered my photographic work, also, not least, because photography has been a way for me to appropriate my adopted home and truly make it my own. It’s ironic that I probably know the streets of New York better than most native New Yorkers, thanks to my photographic peregrinations.

- I feel in your "I speak of the city" and "imagined communities" projects a connecting thread representing a personal struggle on the former and the desire to assimilate on the later. Can you comment briefly about these two projects?

Well, I am not sure about the personal struggle aspect… but perhaps my previous comment speaks to this. New York made me a street photographer – not only because part of my agenda, when coming to this city, had been to try and walk in the footsteps (literally and metaphorically) of the great New York street photographers that I admired; but also because, by transplanting myself to a new place, all of a sudden I was seeing the world with new eyes – I was hungry to look and see. So definitely my more “pure” street photography, as exemplified in the “I speak of the city” project, also entails an element of coming to feel at home in a new place, appropriating the city and making a home in it through photography. The “imagined communities” project has to do with the parades, street fairs, etc. of New York’s multiplicity of ethnicities and communities. I think what intrigues me about these celebrations of cultural identity is the fact that all these communities are very invested in, and proud of, their cultural uniqueness, but at the same time they all share the identity of being New Yorkers and Americans – it’s a fine balance, rather than a straightforward desire to fully assimilate. Likewise, on a personal level, these public displays of culture speak to me because they express this desire to find a new, composite identity, rather than blindly assimilate.

- We both share the unique experience of photographing both in Greece and the States. Is there an emotional component significant to your visual language, and your approach when working in New York or Greece? Aesthetically, I see a significant difference. Please talk a little about that.

On a practical level, as mentioned earlier, it is somewhat easier to do street photography in New York (not that street photography is ever easy, but at least in New York it’s possible – in Greece, it often seems altogether impossible, because people tend to get quite suspicious and edgy when they see a stranger with a camera). This is one reason that I have not done much urban street photography in Greece. Another reason is that I really became a photographer after moving to New York – I have not spent enough time in Greece as a photographer, apart from short trips, to have been able to pursue street photography more intensively there. So, part of the reason my themes have been different in New York and Greece has to do with these more superficial parameters. During vacations in Greece I have tended to travel more in the countryside, and consequently I have photographed more in rural areas. Part of this was a by-product of the fact that I go back to Greece on vacation, but part of it was a conscious choice, a desire to re-connect with the country I grew up in, to discover and rediscover it through photography. As for the visual language, I think the differences arise organically, in response to the subject matter and my own emotions. In a way, form follows content. Thus, my landscape photos from Greece tend to evoke something more static but also more serene, and also a sense of melancholy and nostalgia. These elements, mirrored in the form of the photos as much as in their content, are certainly there in the landscape itself, but perhaps also partly projected onto it by me.

- New York City has been photographed in depth by so many photographers. Do you think there is something missing from the immense archive? Also, what are some of the difficulties you have encountered while photographing in the Big Apple, and how do you overcome the cliche in order to produce a body of work that is distinct both in style and personal vision?

Well, that is precisely the challenge in photographing New York. It’s an immensely interesting place for a street photographer, but the flip side of this is precisely that it has been photographed so much already, so it is very challenging to add something interesting and original to that archive and visual language. I am not sure whether something is missing from it, but I guess my photographing is a way of trying to find out. In a sense, there is nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes – but, at the same time, everything is always new, the world renews itself every moment, so there is always an incentive to keep looking. As for how I overcome clichés, I am not sure I could answer this question in words – if I occasionally do, my photographs themselves provide a better answer. I am not evading the question – I genuinely don’t know how it’s done. Every good photograph is a miracle, as Koudelka so aptly put it. Obviously, with time and hard work I have started developing a personal style, but this is something that has emerged organically and unconsciously, not something that I chose programmatically – so it would be hard to put it into words, as it is not the result of following a clearly-defined set of rules; it is not painting-by-numbers.

- Where do you find inspiration for your work and is your background in psychology an important component to your work, and why?

There is no better inspiration that just keeping one’s eyes open (not just literally, but metaphorically – being interested in, and fascinated by, the world). Inspiration comes from outside, at least in my case. As far as my background in psychology is concerned, it definitely does not inform my photography in any intentional or conscious way. However, I would say that my involvement in both psychology and photography share some common sources; they both spring from certain characteristics of my personality that inform and motivate both endeavors – primarily an interest in the outside world and the lives of others, a respectful and limitless curiosity, and a desire to connect with what lies outside myself.

- What is your intent in communicating the work with the public?

To become really rich and famous, of course – what else?! Joking aside, naturally there is an element of pride and personal satisfaction when one’s work resonates with other people – it’s also nice to receive some outside confirmation that the work is good, so you know you’re not delusional when you think so yourself! But the main reason is that, for me, the whole point about photography is affirming and celebrating the real world as it is; street photography in particular is about noticing what is around us in our everyday reality, and distilling the magic and the poetry out of the mundane. Many people, for whatever reason, seem to be pretty oblivious to their surroundings, especially so now, when everyone seems to be glued to their smartphone screens all the time. So my intent in showing my work is to inspire people to keep their eyes open, to pay attention to the world around them. I like a quote from Sherlock Holmes: “I see no more than you do, but I’ve trained myself to notice what I see.” I want to inspire people to train themselves likewise.

- Your photographs stand on their own but also work as part of a broader narrative. Are you interested in the nuances of the single image or a more linear narrative?

Well, primarily I am interested in strong single images. After all, every photo narrative, no matter how extensive, starts with one individual image. Of course, it also depends on my agenda and intent at any given time. So, if I am working on a specific documentary project, the emphasis will be on a story, a more linear kind of narrative. Having said that, even in terms of my personal work (for example the street work), I am definitely interested in building up sets of pictures that stand together as a whole, and that may be more than the sum of the individual photos. But my working method is to allow my work to dictate these thematic sets or projects; I prefer my projects to emerge organically and almost accidentally out of strong individual photos. By this I mean that I don’t usually set out with a plan to start photographing a particular theme; but once I notice in my work that there are thematic or stylistic elements that could bring certain photos together so as to form a coherent set, I may then start being a little more on the lookout for new photos that would fit well with that theme. Ultimately, however, in my work happenstance and serendipity rule – what kind of photos I come up with, and whether they cohere to form a narrative, are matters that are, at the end of the day, always dictated by the outside world.

- What are your thoughts on the mindset of creating something "new" in the field of photography - specifically street photography and documentary?

This is a very important and difficult question, and the answer will have to be somewhat complicated. I’m not really interested in creating anything “new” as such. What I mean by that is that I am not interested in novelty for novelty’s sake. It seems nowadays as if novelty is sometimes considered the highest artistic value, trumping all others. That is certainly the case with a lot of contemporary visual art and conceptual art. And often, novelty is also equated with shock value. I find that sort of novelty kind of cheap and too easy, and in fact condescending to the audience. So in terms of my own work, I am not interested in making a name for myself by creating a radically new style. I am a traditionalist. I consider my work to be part of a long photographic tradition, and that means that I aspire to incrementally build on what came before, and hopefully add my own small contribution to the canon of street photography. But I believe this could only happen in the context of a dialogue with my predecessors (and contemporaries), and dialogue implies a give-and-take, not a radical displacement of the past. In other words, I sincerely hope that my work may be seen as adding something to the tradition of street photography, but whatever that may be will have to emerge gradually and discreetly. On another level, though, every photograph is something radically new – a never-to-be-repeated moment of life. This is especially so in the case of street photography, since the street photographer has absolutely no control over the flow of life he observes and photographs - the moment is always gone so quickly. As Koudelka said, every good photo is a miracle.

- Do you believe the criticism in contemporary photography today is adequate and how important do you think this is for the development of the medium and its historical trajectory?

I don’t really feel qualified to answer this question, as I feel I don’t have enough time to keep up with enough of contemporary photography and, even more so, contemporary criticism. Especially with the limitless availability of stuff online, I think it’s easy to fall into a rabbit hole of looking at photos or reading about photography instead of spending enough time photographing, so I have to prioritize. Having said that, based on my limited exposure to what’s being written and discussed, I feel that occasionally (especially nowadays, due to the echo-chamber effect of the web and social media) critical taste becomes a matter of fashion rather than independent, discerning thinking. Especially in the domain of street photography, I feel that a lot of what is touted as successful contemporary street photography actually does a disservice to the genre and its history. I say this in full knowledge that, in doing so, I readily expose myself to the danger of being diagnosed with a case of sour grapes. So be it – I am confident enough of my own work and critical thinking to be willing to take that risk.

- What advise would you give to students and emerging photographers especially those interested in street photography?

My advice would be very simple – keep your eyes open, walk around, and work, work, work. Be interested in the world, not in yourself.

- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography?

Again, I don’t feel qualified enough to answer this question. Obviously, there is a lot of interesting work being created, but I hardly manage to keep up. I think the advent of digital has been a mixed blessing, as it has become incredibly easy to produce huge amounts of photos, and this cornucopia of images sometimes dulls people’s sensitivity. Also, I get the impression that what’s in vogue these days is mostly conceptual work, or work emphasizing the photographer’s inner world or the microcosm of their friends and family, at the expense of the outer world, our common reality. I am not very interested in that – I prize photography as a means of expanding one’s horizons, rather than engaging in artistic navel-gazing. I feel quite lonely in this artistic context, as my work is decidedly (and not accidentally) old-fashioned – but to each his own.

Interview: Jennifer McClure

- Overall your work encompasses a coherent theme and a particular tone. Can you talk a little about the nuances of you work?

I only recently realized that there is a consistent theme in my work. I don’t set out to make similar types of stories. I start a project because I have something that nags at my brain and my heart, a question that keeps me up at night. Apparently, I think a lot about how we connect as human beings--about what it means to be alone and what it takes to be with someone else.

- Primarily your work concentrates on self-portraits. I find very interesting the fact that although you are photographing yourself, it feels that you are documenting the life of another person. Elements of fiction and reality are present but also an emotional extensive narrative. Can you talk a little about story, and execution of those portraits? What is the level of difficultly when going beyond the standard self-representation?

When I’m doing self-portraits, I always have to imagine a narrative. If I try to shoot without one, the portraits seem boring to me. The character is always based on my self and my experiences, but there is definitely a separation that has to occur when one is both the subject and the artist. I find myself thinking about “her” and where “she” needs to be in the frame. I set up the beginning of the story but I never know where it will go. I have to shoot through all the expected and clichéd plot progressions and then the real ideas start to come. And that’s the exciting part, to see where we all end up. Sometimes that never happens. I have many, many shoots that weren’t able to go beyond the standard.

- Is there a connection, or progression between “Laws of Silence” and “You Who Never Arrived” and the “Singles” series? I think there is definitely a consistent aesthetic approach in all of these projects. How important are the aesthetics of your work in delivering your message and why?

“You Who Never Arrived” is an exploration of my failed relationships. I thought I would find out what was wrong with all the men I dated, and of course I realized that I was the reason I had never been in a long-term relationship. “Laws of Silence” looks at why I have so much fear about making such a connection and whether the pressure to be in a relationship came from an actual desire or an internalized expectation. The Singles Series (so far) seems to be about acceptance as well as really examining all of the excuses we use to avoid putting ourselves out there. I don’t intentionally use aesthetics to convey the message. I only know that I like dramatic, cinematic lighting and not too much clutter in the frame, which does give all the projects some consistency.

- Is ‘Singles” inspired or connected from any of your previous projects? I ask this because in one of your previous projects you are investigating your own past relationships and single status at that time, and in “Singles” you are delving into the relationship status of stranger.

The Singles are definitely inspired by the others. I might never get married and I wanted to look at all sides of that situation. I want to see people who are happily single and people who never give up. All of the stories are fascinating. And sometimes I can only realize that something I say to myself is a little off base when I hear someone else say the same thing out loud. I’m learning how to be much nicer to myself.

- How difficult it was to find singles to photograph and are the subjects strangers or people you know? Please talk about the process and the interaction between you and then in delivering such an emotional body of work?

It’s very hard to find singles. I do both strangers and friends. I get a lot of rejections, which doesn’t bother me. There are dark times where I tell myself that the reason I’m single is because I’m inherently unlovable, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I’m not sure I could meet with someone and be honest about my insecurities and then make a portrait. I’m always blown away when someone agrees to this. I definitely have an easier time when people are solid and positive about being single. But then again, I think all of our feelings change about the situation on any given day. It’s a spectrum of emotions, and probably the same spectrum that people in relationships are feeling. I have to be careful not to impose a point of view on someone. I really try to make each shot a collaboration. We talk ahead of time about how people feel about their situation and come up with a concept together. And we actually spend most of the time talking, not so much shooting. I think it helps for people to have the subject on their minds, and then the emotions show in their body language and their expressions. I don’t give a ton of direction, but I do try to find the right setting and light to fit the mood.

- There is a contemporary trend in thematic work that concentrates on the meaning behind the work deprived of any aesthetic considerations. Your work is ingrained both with aesthetic qualities and meaning that I believe makes it utterly successful. What is your opinion on the current trend?

Meaning is very important, especially when we are so inundated with images these days. Digital photography makes taking a technically perfect and beautiful photograph much easier for everyone. And if a photo is not perfect right away, we can filter and manipulate it until it is. Some aesthetically gorgeous photographs leave me cold, though I appreciate the effort behind them. Other photos become better to me when I know the story behind them. I like to know that a photographer is thinking on a level that goes beyond visually pleasing. I love smart conceptual photographs, ones that I think about long after I’ve stopped looking at them.

- Your images, like life, are very poetic, dreamy and feel as they are inspired by literature. Is reading an important constituent in your collective work?

Absolutely. I love poetry and short stories. I love the craft involved in conveying powerful emotions in shorter forms. It’s not easy. Sometimes one sentence or phrase can give form to something that’s been circling in my brain for months. I don’t consciously try to make that happen in my photographs, but every now and then it does.

- Where do you find inspiration for your work and who is your favorite photographer and why?

I watch a lot of movies. I also watch a lot of series these days, because the lighting in shows like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” is phenomenal. The emotional inspiration usually comes from something that’s happening in my own life, but I take visual cues from great directors. I wouldn’t be able to pick one favorite at all. The photographers who first inspired me to take pictures were Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems and Diane Arbus. They were all able to imply a story that was happening just outside the frame.

- What advise would you give to students and emerging photographers in order to create a successful body of work?

I would tell them to follow their hearts when making a body of work. We’re all curious about something, and we all have passions and obsessions. Make a project about those. And be prepared to learn something, to find something new. I was a TA for Amy Arbus for a while, and she would tell her students that if the project turned out exactly the way they thought it would, then they had failed. Something unexpected has to happen. I wholeheartedly agree. It’s so important to be open throughout the course of a project, to give up some control.

- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography and the work that is promoted by photography dedicated platforms and social media?

I think we’re at a very interesting time in photography. Conceptual photography is really taking off. Many people are making photographs that are mostly about physical and digital constructions, and the actual print is just an artifact. At the same time, many people are using old techniques in new ways that are still very much about process and creating unique physical objects. And then there are documentary photographers and photojournalists who are required to really flex their artistic muscles in order to stand out from a crowd of cell phone observers. In the end, I think the best photography is still about telling a good story. There are so many photography platforms available for promoting all of these different kinds of work. People have to do research and be persistent about getting their work on the right platforms. We make the work we have to make and worry later about where it goes. Everything has a place.


Interview: Mike Froio

- You have been working on the Railroad project for approximately ten years. Can you please discuss the nature of the project from its inception to its current state.

When I started the project From the Mainline, I was looking for something that connected a number of different personal interests, something big that I could dive into in phases and that would provide a sort of long-term return creatively. The railroad is what initially led me to pick up a camera, I wanted to get back to the subject but not in the sense of the trains themselves, I instead wanted to focus on the surviving infrastructure and landscape. I chose the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) because of its historical significance and the amount of surviving elements that would provide visual clues to juxtapose its past and current importance. My initial approach was pretty simple, go out and follow the railroad between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh exploring the railroad right of way and the places the railroad served.

Between trips I took a lot of time to look at the work and figure out what was missing, what the project needed to convey the scale and significance of the PRR. I turned to the historical work of William H. Rau, a commercial photographer who was commissioned in the 1890s by the PRR to illustrate the railroad for marketing purposes. The work really struck me on both a technical and conceptual level. Here you had a photographer who was looking at the pinnacle of transportation and engineering utilizing a medium that was also coming into its own. Photographing a railroad that spanned the wilds of western PA, a corridor of modernity that was the lifeline for industry and people alike, an engineered landscape very different from its surroundings. It was Rau’s work and others like him that enlightened me to just how significant the railroad was, not just in the sense of the their engineering accomplishments but also how towns and industry flourished because of the railroad’s presence. In addition to Rau the writing of Harvard Landscape Studies professor John Stilgoe helped to better understand the physical, cultural and social impact the railroads had, and how to sort of recognize these attributes in my own work. From this research my approach became more informed, thus did the work. I was beginning to realize my photographs along with writing and historical resources could do a more effective job in telling the story of the railroad and the towns it served. It was the story of America’s rise in the industrial revolution, developing the east and concurring the west. My role is to illustrate and disseminate the layers of history along this engineered landscape. Utilizing both the exhibition format and a more in depth blog format allows the work to be both creative and historically informative, something that really appeals to my creative approach. Like the photographers before me who were hired to document the American scene, I continue a tradition in celebrating one of the most important transportation networks in the United States and how it remains a different but vital part of the American landscape.

- There is a consistency in the aesthetic decisions and a timeless quality in the work. Can you talk briefly about your concept behind those aesthetic decisions?

Photography is great medium in that for me it is still part science, part creativity and make no mistake about it, the two are closely related. I typically work with a view camera, which lends itself to a slow methodical way of making pictures. The process, from lens selection, composition, exposure, development, scans and print is all very intuitive, very intentional. Recently I have introduced digital capture into the mix and even that is treated the same way. I have preferences in what light I like to work in, though sometimes beggars can’t be choosers, when you are 100 miles from home and railroad officials have committed to you for the day you have to make due with what you’re given. Being a good photographer means knowing the limits of your materials and how to manipulate what you have to get it to fit your visual aesthetic. I prefer black and white, I tend to print a little dark and a little flat, I like my work to be void of people, not because I don’t like them, but really because its about the timeless quality of these landscapes. The hand of industry and the railroads is implied, it doesn’t always need to be seen.

- I find in the mood and testimony of the photographs a link to the current industrial situation in small town America. Is there a connection towards that territory or is the project strictly based on the documentation of the PRR?

Like many other photographers in this genre I am not trying to make a political statement I am simply conveying the information to the viewer (though that sounds a bit oversimplified). Yes the work is about the railroad, but if you don’t connect it to the landscape it travels and the industry it serves or once served you are missing the point. The landscape and the railroad developed for two reasons, need and opportunity, there is a very important relationship between the two, and when industry or the railroad left small towns, it brought despair, hardship and wave of social and economical issues.

I was in Mingo Junction, Ohio on a trip once, home to a massive Wheeling-Pitt steel plant and part of the PRR mainline to St Louis. I stopped to ask a gas station attendant if I could use the property to make a photograph of the mill, his reply was, “take all the pictures you want, the mill just closed yesterday, over 500 people are without jobs now”. I haven’t been back since, but I bet its different, I bet its pretty sad, but you know what, I’ve been to the towns where the mill still works, its not much different these days, the culture has changed. The owners of these mills are often international corporations, they aren’t building communities to attract employees anymore, and they are barely treading water to stay alive in cutthroat markets. In the ten years I have been doing this I have seen whole neighborhoods disappear, mills close, even rail lines abandoned, its part of the life cycle and unfortunately some parts of the country suffer from it more while others are insulated from just how bad it gets when the jobs leave town. The railroad is literally the string that threads together modern economies and those of the past, its an essential part to understanding the importance and heritage of these places and one of biggest reasons I embarked on this project.

- From where do you derive inspiration for your work and what are some of the difficulties working on a project of such a large scale?

My inspiration comes from a number of sources. Photographically I can ramble off a dozen or more photographers: Walker Evans, Frank Gohlke, David Plowden, William Clift, William Rau, Carleton Watkins… the list goes on. But I also draw inspiration from the virtually nameless photographers, illustrators and graphic artists who worked for the railroads at various capacities. Graphic artists that captivated the fascination of potential travelers in brilliant full color adds, illustrators that sold albums of lithographs highlighting scenic vistas along the mainline. Company photographers who were the day-to-day people chronicling the less than glamorous life of small towns and railroad construction and maintenance, anonymous photos of natural disasters and even the occasional train wreck. They captured the energy, excitement and details of life along the line; for this project it is often the historical imagery that feeds the creative imagination.

As far as working on a large-scale project, I don’t see any issues to it; it’s like a long-term investment. In this day and age people have such a short attention span I often wonder if I am shooting myself in the foot, but our quest in life is to do something you enjoy and be excited about right? Well, guess what… I still am after 10 years. When I am not excited anymore, I’ll stop and move on, but honestly with the depth of history of the PRR and the landscape it travels I don’t see myself loosing interest anytime soon. For me its not just about making art, it’s about preservation and that is not always something that happens overnight.

- What are your intentions in communicating the work with the public and how do you promote and distinguish your work among a dense photographic community?

While I target the photographic community, most of my aim is toward a larger audience. I accomplish this through the usual mix of social media, email campaigns, and networking. Last year I had the opportunity to put together an exhibition for the Monmouth Museum in Lincroft, NJ, a sort of a visual history of the last 100 years of railroading. It was great to put my work in the context of some the photographers in my top ten list of all time favorites, it was also fun to put together a show that had a level of visual sophistication that transcended a show of just a bunch of “train pictures” as some people would dismiss it as.

I try to distinguish my work as being creative but also historically minded. I haven’t seen too many people with the level of commitment to a subject like this who have the balance between a good photographic and historical aesthetic, but as you said this is very saturated market. I am certainly not the only one reinventing the wheel.

- How is the work received among the preservation community, considering the historical component?

In the historical field abroad the work has been received with open arms, and I am forever grateful for that. These are people that have worked so hard to preserve so many facets of the late Pennsylvania Railroad and many others, some even worked from the railroads at one point or another. I was born 8 years after the company’s demise; I am just going on imagination and my visual ability to present historical facts and images along side my own perception of the railroad. To me the recognition from the historical community is more important and far more gratifying than making it big in the art world, it’s a diverse group of people who never cease to amaze me with their generosity, intellect and conversation.

- What is your advice to students and emerging photographers?

Don’t let a rejection set you back, present yourself as a professional and work as such. Even if it’s an assignment that doesn’t peak your personal interest dive into it head on, you might learn something. If you want to work in the field or be successful stick to your passion and always look to different mediums to expand your outlook on a given subject.

- What is your opinion on the current state of American Photography, and the work that is promoted by photography dedicated platforms and social media nowadays?

I think it’s the same as it was 100 years ago. There are a lot of talented photographers out there, some rise to the top, some stay in the middle and others go unknown. The difference today is technology has leveled the playing field to a certain degree, but in reality, if you want to be successful you need to be visually literate and able to convey an idea in your own creative and unique way. That goes for creative or commercial work. Social media floods us with visual resources day in and day out, most of its crap, a few get lucky, but you can always pick out the professionals in their imagery, composition and professionalism.