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Monthly Archives: September 2006
I was recently browsing the web site of photo agency Anarchy Images, and I came across their requirements for new photographers. “Photographers may be required to complete additional training.” What kind of training, I wondered? (And how do my own skills measure up?) Anarchy founder Jason Pagan graciously took the time to explain in this unexpurgated look at his thoughts on the subject. When Jason was at Black Star, his duties included managing that famed agency’s internship program.
Wayne: What kind of shortcomings are you finding in the training of some photogs? What are you recommending to younger or emerging photographers whose skills are not up to the level you want?
Jason: I should start off by saying that there is no photographer so great [that they cannot] benefit from having their work critically reviewed periodically. That said, as part of the Anarchy Images standard contract, photographers may be required to take courses provided by Anarchy Images to remain affiliated with us. By including this clause in our contract, we are not only able to maintain very high standards but to constantly improve. In most cases an Anarchy Images Photographer will be teaching the course to his or her peers. These courses can range from “Laying out an Essay” to “Working with Multimedia” to “Finding a Fixer.” Some reasons for this requirement are to keep up with changing trends and technology.
As far as shortcomings I have been finding with photographers–and what a photographer can do about it–with the advent of digital photography many formerly required skills have been “lost”–or at least become rusty. This is in no way a tirade against digital photography, it’s simply an observation. One of the problems I have been finding is the lack of some intermediate and advanced skills. These skills include editing images, arranging images, waiting for the shot, consistency. I would consider basic skills your technical and camera operation (though there are different levels of these). At minimum a photographer needs to know how to get a sharp photo in most standard situations to fulfill “basic skills.” Much of what I am going to mention here I addressed in the internships I managed at Black Star.
1. Basic technical skills: take courses, read books. Learn every aspect of your camera, every button, every light, everything! Then shoot! shoot! shoot! And don’t stop until you can recreate any shot you want or least have a very good idea how.
2. Framing Shots/Waiting for a shot: Now is the time to stop shooting. Study photography books, I mean really study. Was the photographer kneeling? Sitting? Or face down in the mud when a certain shot was taken? What is the quality of light, angle? Now shoot incredibly sparingly. Limit yourself to one to three rolls (or their equivalent per self assignment), no more. When these are shot, no more! Even if you are only half done. Go home and review what you have shot. Did you miss anything because you had to go home? Good! Next time you will be more conscious of how much you are shooting. Try doing the same shots over from different angles: kneeling, standing, lying down, hell standing on your head if you have to! Understand what effects these changes have on your images. During this whole process, no cropping, no altering, use only one format.
Too many photographers want to shoot in multiple formats before having mastered a single format. My response to this is usually, “So you want to suck in multiple formats now?” Inevitably there is the “but so-and-so does it,” and of course the referred to photographer has usually been shooting for 40 years. My advice to young photographers is to master one thing at a time.
3. Editing: I have known many great photographers that were lousy editors. It’s a separate skill set. The biggest problem I find is “JGL Syndrome.” This is when photographers describe the importance of an image in terms of the larger social impact of the issue, or their personal emotions or how they had “Just Got Laid” and were really happy when they took the photo. Images should primarily be included in a selection for what was captured in the frame.
4. Arranging images: Images must flow together to expand on the story or event–not to showcase a photographer’s pretty pictures unless it is a portfolio group of singles. There are opening, detail, transitional, portrait, situational and closing shots. Learn how to use them and organize them.
The next two problems are my own personal pet peeves: consistency and horizontals. I will explain. Within the context of a single story or essay avoid mixing formats: BW with color, digital with film, 6×6 with 35MM or panoramic. This can be very visually jarring and distracting from the content from the images, which should be the primary focus. Yes, lots of photographers mix formats, but incredibly few of them do it well. Images can be inconsistent even when shot in a single format. A story or essay should have a natural flow, not jump back and forth between random situations and tonal levels (see problem#1). My other major pet peeve is “horizontals.” Yes, I said “horizontals”–rather, any full story or essay that is all horizontals. This is a pretty sure sign that the photographer that shot the story is either a hack or lazy. Yes, I said it! Common excuses:
* “I didn’t have any verticals I liked.” Then you did not shoot enough.
* “My slide show is not set up for verticals.” Then change your slide show.
* “Someone can just crop it.” You lazy bastard!
Art directors and photo editors need verticals for layout purposes. It shouldn’t be their job to correct something by cropping when you should have framed the shot in your viewfinder. In addition, whether hanging on a wall, in an exhibit, in the pages of a publication, or even a web slide show, verticals provide a simple visual cue to pause by breaking up the linear progression of images. Simple test: place 20 horizontal images in a slideshow and place 16 horizontal images and four vertical images spaced roughly evenly throughout in a different slideshow. Notice how much more easily it is to zoom through the 20 horizontals.
While these were not the only problems I ran into, I would say these were the biggest I have run into and the most common in terms of photographers having multiple of these problems and not having a clue that these were even problems.
Then of course there are a few schmucks that talk about “vision” and “style” with out any concept of what these are. In response to a photographer only shooting 18MM: “18MM is a lens not a style!” And “Vision” is much more then a loose concept, it is complete, it is done before the first shot is taken.
It may seem I am being overly harsh, and perhaps I am, but someone should be. I would like to add that working with the photographers is the greatest joy in what I have chosen to do, and when photographers take the time and effort to show the work they have labored so hard to create, I feel a responsibility to provide feedback that is constructive and useful. Too often, just giving out praise without critical observations can be more detrimental than the harshest criticism. When a portfolio is submitted to me I feel I owe the photographer the respect of real feedback, which many times can slow the portfolio review process. Anyone submitting a portfolio to me should expect real feedback, and if they can’t accept it they shouldn’t submit.
Susan Henderson is a Pushcart nominee, a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She recently helped judge the “20-Minute Stories Contest” at McSweeney’s. She is the former managing editor of literary magazine Night Train. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Extra, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, North Atlantic Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium, Other Voices, Amazon Shorts, The World Trade Center Memorial, and The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and professor. They live in New York with their two boys.
Wayne: When you were managing editor at Night Train, you were instrumental in getting the journal to write detailed responses to those writers who submitted manuscripts, regardless of whether their stories were being considered. Why was that important to you as an editor? As a writer?
Sue: Just the sheer volume of writers compared to a puny pool of readers makes publishing a mean game. And what you learn right away when you become an editor is that you’ll have to reject almost every story that comes your way. I “considered” maybe one in every 800 submissions, and only a small fraction of those stories were published. There’s no way around sending out thousands of rejections if you’re putting out a great magazine.
But before you’re an editor, you’re a human being–and a human being who knows what goes into writing a story. That submission you get is a little corner of someone’s life or imagination, and it just seems like you want to treat that with care.
Submitting to a magazine, for a lot of people, is like being in the junior high cafeteria, holding a lunch tray, and there’s nowhere to sit, and you’re afraid if you ask for a seat no one will scoot over. I didn’t want to be a part of making anyone feel that way. So, if I laughed when I read someone’s story, I told them so. And if I noticed that sentence they worked on for three days, I let them know. Why not?
The other thing I tried to do via my rejection letters was to open doors. I know 60 or 70 literary magazines like the back of my hand. If someone sent us a story that was a perfect fit for some contest I knew of, it took all of two minutes of my time to give them the contact information. If I can help save someone another year of knocking on the wrong doors, I’d feel like some kind of a jerk for not speaking up.
It’s also good business sense to be kind. Everyone who submits to you is a potential reader and subscriber to your magazine. The trick, of course, is balancing all of this with how it burdens the staff. The hardest thing about running a magazine, harder than raising the funds, is keeping the morale and work production high with the staff. The editors need as much care as the writers.
Wayne: What are the biggest misconceptions most writers have about the submission process? On the other hand, what could most journals do better?
Sue: I think the biggest misconception is that print magazines carry more weight than online magazines. I can’t tell you how many people found agents and big fan bases through the most unlikely web publications. The thing is, people will actually read those magazines. You get into, say Prairie Schooner, and people will shout hooray for you, but how many go and buy that issue when it comes out two years later with your story in it?
Most magazines fall apart in marketing. My feeling is that if you take a writer’s story, you owe it to them to find an audience.
Wayne: In your short story “Motorhead,” there are a lot of what we might call mementos: songs, titles, recollection of memories. Donato, for instance, at one point asks Lucy: “Why do you keep everything?” Can you talk about how mementos are important to you as a writer, both in how you embed them in stories and how you use them in the actual creative/writing process?
Sue: Most every character I write about is emotionally repressed. I love to write about stoics who are not physically affectionate, not real talkers. So how they treat and store and clean various objects becomes part of the dialogue. And in Motorhead, Lucy expresses her affection for Donato by what she steals from him, what she hoards. She’ll lose that relationship because she can’t say that she cares, but the reader knows she’s saying what she can in her own way.
Wayne: There are a number of books and authors mentioned in the story, but can I ask you why you choose specifically to make “The Lottery” and Let Us Praise Famous Men two of Lucy’s reading touchstones?
Sue: I started having a lot of trouble in school beginning around third grade. I finished my work too soon and then all hell would break loose. So my teachers started pulling me out of class and just giving me books to read. Those were the first two books that really struck me, when I said, Wow! But in elementary school, there’s not a lot of kids who want to spend recess talking about Shirley Jackson or James Agee. I wanted to show that dissonance in Motorhead, how books both save this girl and make her odd and separate from her peers.
This is a pattern I noticed repeating itself with my oldest son. He would stand there in his pull-ups, wanting to talk about the issues of time warp in the Narnia books. This didn’t make him many friends, and it hurts when you see your kid on the outside wanting to be invited in but not wanting to play soldiers or Hoppity-Hop. The funny thing is, the moment–years and years later–when he finally made a best friend who was just like him, all they wanted to do was tell potty jokes together.
Wayne: Can you talk about why you decided to make Motorhead available through Amazon? How has the experience been so far?
Sue: Knowing me, it was an impulsive decision in the middle of the night. I will say that John Hart, who runs the Amazon Shorts program, is a really lovely guy, all the way through the process. That you found and read Motorhead is probably a sign that it’s successful. Availability is half the battle of getting read. Most of my stuff just sits as a comp on one of my bookshelves.
Wayne: You say you caused a lot of trouble in third grade. You’ve said before that this was also the time when you realized you wanted to be a writer. What was it about your teachers and your reading that planted this seed in your head?
Sue: I don’t know what makes a person become a writer–if you’re born a little wonky or if it’s some alignment of external factors. I was just a kid who noticed everything from eraser marks to pencil-holding styles to foot-tapping to baby powder dust to vacuum lines to ripped edges and so on, but often missed the lesson while I was invested in the random detail around me.
Third grade happened to be the year we learned how to write poetry and autobiographies. We watched the movie Animal Farm that year. And I was deeply in love with my teacher who was everything I still fall for today – a wounded soul who feels protective of me.
Wayne: Which other writers were influencing you then? Who do you include among your favorites now, and why?
Sue: My first influences were Laura Ingalls Wilder and Robert Louis Stevenson. Early on, I loved Dylan Thomas and James Dickey. My house was full of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, who are master writers. And Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, who are masters of pacing and emotional _expression. All of these people grounded my ear for story and rhythm.
My favorites now? I love too many. My number one is probably William Maxwell.
Wayne: I know you’re a huge fan of poetry. Can you talk about your favorite poets, and why they are important to you? I know you’re also inclusive enough in your definition of poetry to include a couple popular singers–and rappers! Can you also talk about why your concept of poetry is more inclusionary?
Sue: I have to say Dylan Thomas because he was my first. I love the Hemingway-like bluster of Dickey, the incisiveness of Cornealeus Eady, the tension between gruff and tender of Jim Daniels, the playfulness of Dr. Seuss, the boldness of Nikki Giovanni. Who’s the woman who wrote Vesper Sparrows? She’s wonderful. Homer and Virgil – I get absolutely dizzy over them.
I’ve loved rap since my first two Public Enemy albums, and love Eminem, especially when he’s tongue-in-cheek. Bob Dylan’s a genius. Kim Ritchie, Shawn Mullins, Lucinda Williams – incredible. And Cameron McGill. All great songwriters and wordsmiths.
As far as emerging writers, I’m a big fan of Tiff Holland and the crazy deadpan of Tao Lin. Not into obscure or plodding poetry, though. There’s a lot of it out there and I’m too impatient to wade through it.
Part III of the interview with photographer Andy Levin.
Wayne: You attributed your interest in New Orleans to a previous visit when you worked on A Day in the Life of America. You now make it your home. What about the city resonated with you?
Andy: I was attracted to the indigenous African-American culture and the music. It’s a very visual place, as you know. There is beauty amid great suffering, and I find that inspiring. The music and food aren’t bad, too. I had lived in New York for over 30 years, and everything looked the same to me. Much of the city that I loved was gone, replaced by something that resembled Disneyland—and then 9/11 happened. So I moved although I still have a place across from Magnum on 25th, just down the block from where Gene Smith lived on 6th.
It was very odd. I was here for one year before the storm. I thought I would have ten years to work the city, and then we were blown away a little more than a year later. Many of the people that I photographed are no longer here. I am afraid some may never come back.
Wayne: How has living there made it both easier and more difficult to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina? What kind of personal, emotional toll has the tragedy taken on you?
Andy: Unfortunately, a rather large one. It’s a feeling of great loss. This was a very special place, but it was a fragile, and often a brutally violent one. When the levee broke after Katrina, I photographed around the Bayou St. John where I lived, but after a day or so it was apparent that people needed help more than I needed to take photos. I pulled a canoe out of a neighbor’s yard and started helping my actor friend John Grimsley evacuate the elderly to the places where the helicopters could land. Of course, I was taking pictures all the time as I did this.
When rumors spread that boats taking survivors to hospitals had been fired on by roving gangs, I went into a neighbor’s house looking for a weapon but didn’t find one. I rowed my neighbors three miles in near 100-degree heat to within blocks of the Convention Center; we had to go around bloated corpses in the streets. My feet were blistered from being in the dirty floodwater, so I waited for Grimsley to bring them over there and come back. We had no idea what was going on in the Convention Center, and of course some great images were made there a few days later by Dallas newspaper photographers, local shooters from Baton Rouge, and New Yorkers like my friend Alan Chin.
The working press did a great job in New Orleans in the short term, and the photography was both heartbreaking and exemplary. Long term the press has been disappointing, but that’s another story, isn’t it?
Eventually, I was forced to leave New Orleans because the conditions were deteriorating, drove to NYC with my dog, and then returned with a press pass just before Hurricane Rita reflooded parts of the city, Two weeks later I was arrested for a for going into my neighbor’s house and was taken to Hunt State Penitentiary for a week. My picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times when I stood in handcuffs before a judge at Camp Amtrak, the railroad station converted into a temporary jail. Time Magazine had called Contact [Press Images] the evening before and wanted me to shoot for them that weekend.
In the end, I lost the place I was living in, my dog, and I still haven’t got back my camera equipment and computer, all of which was taken by the police as “evidence.” The case against me is still pending, along with 6,000 other cases that are backlogged in the courts here. It’s a scary situation.
For a while after I was busy with some assignments, and I did two large stories for Time that were well received. But now that things have slowed down, the reality of my situation is creeping back in. And my consciousness has changed as a result of the events here, especially my perception of the government. New Orleans will never be the same, that’s for certain. In some ways I don’t think America will ever be the same.
Wayne: In what ways, specifically, has the press disappointed you in their coverage of Katrina? What does this say to you about today’s photojournalists and photo editor?
Andy: Over at a ceremony at the Lower Ninth Ward the other day, the press photographers really created an event of their own and I think that when you have that many cameras things happen for the wrong reason. There is a lot of pressure on photographers to get “the shot,” as Alan Chin calls it, the shot being a preconceived notion of what is supposed to be happening, that will satisfy an editor back in New York. We need to bury “the shot” once and for all. “The shot” and “the story” are the anathema of meaningful journalism. Maybe I will organize a Jazz Funeral for both of them.
The press in general is reactive. Rather than really dig into the causes of a problem, they just report on what others say or do. The press should be all the government for its failures here, investigating instead of reporting. We need more investigative journalism.
Wayne: Why has your interest in digital photography waned?
Andy: I want to get back to that ‘50s thing. Black and white is a mindset, and it requires those canisters of film and going through the mechanical process.
Wayne: You have made an effort to explore forms like video, for instance, when you created your video essay “Aftermath,” about the attack on the World Trade Center . Why did you decide to work with video instead of working in stills? How well versed in other media do you think photographers should be?
Andy: The video was a one time thing for me. It was my way of working through the emotion of being a New Yorker in months after the attack, at a time when I was not interested in still images. I learned to edit using Final Cut Pro, and eventually put the piece together and got it shown nationally on the anniversary of the attack. I learned a lot about the power of words, and how words and images can work together to create something meaningful. It’s a personal decision as to how far one wants to go in that direction–but I am looking forward to a retro movement in photography, getting back to film and silver gelatin prints and to looking at photographs in galleries or books. It happened with music and vinyl and I think it will happen in photography too.
Part II of the interview with photographer Andy Levin.
Wayne: How did you end up at Black Star? What did you learn from your time at the agency? Any good stories about Howard Chapnick?
Andy: Black Star had represented my father for some pictures he had taken on Jackie Kennedy when he had interviewed her just after JFK’s election as President, and the Chapnicks also lived in Long Beach. I worked at the mailroom at Black Star in 1968 when I was just out of high school. In 1973, after I graduated from college, Howard gave me a job in the library. It paid $70 a week, and I sublet an apartment from one of the photographer’s girlfriends in Little Italy. My job was to “key word” the pictures onto index cards that might read “Vietnam War/Central Park/Demonstrations” or something like that. I would type in the photographers name and the folder number. It gave me a chance to see a lot of great photography, especially the civil rights pictures of Charles Moore, Flip Schulke and Steve Schapiro. I sometimes think that my work in New Orleans is a logical extension of that tradition.
Howard loved opera and was a big gambler. He would sit behind his desk in the old office on Park Avenue South and make his picks for the pro football games and sing opera. He would tug at his ears. When I arrived at Black Star they hadn’t brought in any new photographers for a long time. Howard had been burned a few times, gone out on a limb and was let down, and the agency was relying on old-timers like Flip Schulke, Charles Moore, Fred Ward, Dennis Brack and John Launois. Howard took a chance on me, and my modest success with New York Magazine and Time gave him confidence, and he started corresponding with a photographer working in New Mexico who turned out to be Jim Nachtwey. Chris Morris was at this time working in the library, with his girlfriend Jackie, who is now married to Gilles Peress. Nachtwey was followed by Anthony Suau, and then the Turnley brothers, and Joe Rodriguez who also worked in the library. Unfortunately, the agency was not able to hold onto any of us. It’s too bad because that was quite a talented group, and I was fortunate to be a part of that.
Howard helped a lot of people and deserves all the respect he gets. He was truly one of a kind. I owe him a great deal for giving me that first chance. I appreciate what he and people like Phil Rosen, Sal Catalano and Ben Chapnick did for me. Also John Loengard at Life Magazine really helped me out, as well as Karen Mullarkey at New York and later Newsweek.
Wayne: Why were the Black Star civil rights photographs important to you? Why do you think they most resonated with you?
Andy: How could they not resonate with me? They are great photographs. They shocked the world.
We need to remember that blacks were lynched in America even after World War II; and it was less than 50 years ago that our schools were integrated. Yet we were a “democracy,” and we lived under “the” Constitution all that those years. And if we don’t remember that, it can happen again. The word “democracy” has little meaning if it is subverted by special interests and cronyism, and politicians use racism to polarize us. People will hang from trees again—this time it might be Arabs, who knows?
We need to learn how to get along. That’s why I like New Orleans. It’s a strange place in that way, because everyone is a mix. New Orleans is much more integrated than New York. Up North everyone is politically “correct.” Not so in New Orleans. We talk about race all the time. It’s an acceptable dinner table conversation. Black men and women have white fathers.
Wayne: How did you become involved with the Day in the Life book projects? Any particular challenges in any of the assignments that stand out in your memory? How important were the experiences in your development as a photographer?
Andy: I met Ric Smolan when Karen Mullarkey was working at New York Magazine and hired me to work on “A Night in the Life of New York.” This was just after Ric produced “A Day in the Life of Australia,” and he and David Cohen invited me to the Canada project shortly after. I ended up doing the rest of the series. It was a great experience, and I got to meet a lot of very talented people like David Harvey, Reza, Abbas, Gerd Ludwig, John Loengard, Eli Reed, Alex Webb, Sarah Leen, Misha Erwitt and his sister Jennifer, Ric’s wife. My style and interest in every day life was well suited to these projects, and I was usually well represented in the books, and this gave me a lot of self-confidence. Those books were a rolling party before a day of very hard work. I remember flying to Tokyo non-stop with about 50 other photographers. Another time we flew from JFK to London to Bangkok—first class, I might add. Ric didn’t pay much, but we went in style.
Wayne: What is your personal take on why we have seen so many incarnations of Life Magazine over the years? What will the photo magazine of tomorrow look like?
Andy: Life defined America with the camera, and America loved the camera. But it was a different country then; people seemed more tolerant and bit less polarized, and less emotional about their differences. There isn’t a Life because that country doesn’t exist any longer. The country has fragmented, and this is evidenced in the media, and on the Internet.
Needless to say Life offered great possibilities for photographers—especially for the generation before mine. I had the opportunity to do a black and white story for John Loengard on the farm crisis in Nebraska in the early ‘80s. They gave me five weeks to shoot the story, it was a great luxury… After David Friend took over they put me on the masthead as a contributing photographer, although in all honesty my best stuff was invariably not used. But that’s the way the business works.
Wayne: Your thought that no real national picture magazine exists today because our country is more fragmented than it has ever been has a lot of resonance. Technology seems to have compounded this fragmentation (cable TV and its hundreds of channels, and lower expense of online publications). What does this fragmentation mean for the future of photo essays?
Andy: That’s easy, Wayne, there are not too many photo essays, and precious few photography books. I am self-driven and actuated. People will catch up to my work sooner or later or never.. Here is what I do, you either like it or you don’t. But it’s important to me. That’s all that counts. I met Matt Rose, a Times-Picayune photographer yesterday, and he remembered my name from a huge group show on Katrina at the New Orleans Museum of Art. He didn’t know me from Adam, but the work had an effect on him. That made my day.
Andy Levin, a former contributing photographer to Life Magazine, started his career as a staff photographer at Black Star in 1977. His work has won numerous awards, including a 1983 photo essay on Nebraska farmers for Life Magazine that took a first place in the National Press Photographers Association annual contest. He has participated in 15 Day in the Life book projects. A native of New York, Andy now makes his home in New Orleans , where he has devoted himself to documenting and participating in the city’s reconstruction. His work has appeared in Time, National Geographic, The New York Times, Newsweek, GQ, Rolling Stone, U.S. News & World Report, Fortune, Popular Photography, American Photographer, Paris Match and People.
Wayne: You have said that your father was an avid photographer who brought people like Weegee, Cartier-Bresson and Paul Schutzer back to the family home in Long Island. How did your father’s photographic interests influence your own? What are your memories of these visits by such well-known photographers?
Andy: My father was a writer, and he was very passionate about photography. He had a Rollei and later a Nikon SP, and photographed our family when we lived in Europe in the ‘50s. I think this made me comfortable with cameras; being photographed and photographing people was natural to me. My Dad made thousands of 4×6 black and white prints that I used to sort through as a kid, and I was influenced by his 1950s style. A few years ago I went back through his negatives and printed them, which was quite interesting, working on those old negatives.
Paul Schutzer was a close family friend, and his death on an Israeli halftrack in the Yom Kippur war struck home. It may be the reason I have never been very interested in war photography, or at least bought into the romanticism about it that seems pervasive these days.
Wayne: What do you mean by 1950s style?
Andy: To me 1950s style is shooting in black and white, using 50mm and 35mm lenses, and with rangefinder cameras or at least manual focus cameras.
Wayne: Do you remember your first camera? How much were you shooting when you were young? What did you do during your formative years to develop your eye and skills?
Andy: I took pictures with my Dad’s Rollei when I was six. There were some shots of my grandfather that seemed to capture his personality, and I got a lot of encouragement from the family after that, but I wasn’t really all that interested in photography until my early 20s.
Wayne: Where in Europe did your family live? What was it like working on the old family negatives?
Andy: We lived in Italy, England and Spain. My father was writing for men’s magazines at the time, so he moved the family over by ship, bought a car and traveled around. We lived in Positano when it was still a village, and spent a lot of time with local families and friends. As I said, I began to print some of the negatives about 10 years ago as a sort of therapy. Technically some of the “negs” were very thin so it was tough to get any contrast through them. Emotionally, as a 50-year-old man printing pictures of myself at five or six, I had to come to terms with the course of my own life, the mental illness of my mother, their divorce and the early death of my Dad. Hopefully, I can put these online as a slideshow at some time in the future.
Wayne: How did the turmoil of your early life affect and color the way you document life now as an older man?
Andy: We lived in Long Beach, [Long Island], and the beach was always a sanctuary for me. This was very much on my mind when I spent all that time at Coney Island and traveled to India to shoot there. My mother had live-in maids from Jamaica, Trinidad and Alabama, who took care of me when she was depressed. They were almost part of our family, or at least it seemed that way to me as a young boy. When she disappeared emotionally, they helped me. I owe them a great debt for that. I think living in proximity to these women gave me a familiarity with African-American culture that shows in my life and my work.
Wayne: Which, if any, of the photographers to your home were among your influences? Any other favorite photographers? What did you learn from them?
Andy: I was only three when Weegee and Cartier-Bresson came around, so I don’t remember them, but the atmosphere of photography was very much a part of the house. Weegee was in the back of my mind when I spent all those years in Coney Island. Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, William Klein, Gene Smith, and, of course, Cartier-Bresson. My work is very much about rhythm and movement, and about living in the moment. I started the Coney Island project in the mid-80s when I was doing a lot of magazine work and needed a personal project that would allow me to use different voices and experiment with different ways of framing shots. I bought Gilles Peress “Telex-Iran: In the Name of Revolution,” thought it was a very important book, with an ambiguous style that is very truthful, at least in my opinion. That book began a whole style of photography. Gilles really began that tilting thing.
Wayne: How did you use Coney Island to experiment with “different voices?”
Andy: That’s just a way of saying that I wanted freedom. It was personal work, and I did it for myself. If I wanted to experiment with tilting the camera, or odd framing, that was the place. I enjoy taking pictures and interacting with strangers so I would jump on the F train every day that I could, mostly in the summer, sometimes just to get out of that summer heat. And I printed all my own work.
I tend to be obsessive, and in retrospect maybe I should have opened up to other subjects, but I am very proud of that Coney Island work. Hopefully more people will get a chance to see it now. I still haven’t had a show in NY.
Wayne: What do you mean by the need to “open up?”
Andy: I think I had the resources in the late ‘80s to do more self-assigned work.
Wayne: Can you explain what you mean by “rhythm and movement?”
Andy: I am very interested in music, and in having photographs that work poly-rhythmically, like Cuban rumba, which I studied up in Spanish Harlem and played in Tomkins Square Park with my Puerto Rican friends. I love Gary Winogrand’s stuff from New York. I find it very musical.
I also admire work that has soul. Bruce Davidson’s work had a lot of soul.
Wayne: Can you talk more about “soul?” Besides Davidson, what other photographers have it? If you’re willing to name names, which photographers do not have it?
Andy: As far as soul goes, there is “soul” in a strictly ethnic sense and I think of. Gordon Parks and Eli Reed and especially Chester Higgins. And there is “soul” in the sense of a depth of emotion, and perhaps an inner belief. Stevie Wonder performed here in New Orleans last week and did a song called “Heaven Help Us.”
“Heaven help the child who hasn’t got a home. Heaven help the girl who walks the street alone. Heaven help the roses if the bombs begin to fall. Heaven help us all. Heaven help the boy who won’t live to 21. Heaven help the man who sold that boy a gun. Heaven help those with their back against the wall. Heaven help us all.”
So soul is about compassion—even for those who oppress us. Anyone with a camera and a big heart has soul. Gene Smith comes to mind. Who hasn’t got soul? Bruce Gilden. I thought his stuff on Haiti was garbage. Either that or they are great photos, and he is just a disturbed person.