Jon Anderson is a photographer / writer who divides his time between St. Domingo and New York. Members of the photojournalism forum Lightstalkers know him as someone who generously devotes a lot of time and effort to answering the questions of aspiring photographers. Jon studied literature and history at Columbia University, before leaving to become a photojournalist, eventually to be represented by the photo agency Black Star.
Jon is working on a “documentary trilogy tentatively entitled Memories of Underdevelopment, which looks at traditional Caribbean culture and the transition from agrarianism to urban consumer capitalism.” He is also writing a travel narrative called “Letters from the New World.”
Wayne: Can you talk about why you decided to study literature in school instead of photography? Where did photography rank among your interests at the time? And how did you make the transition from literature to photography?
Jon: I came to photography by chance, which is appropriate, I suppose, since the form of photography that I practice depends largely on the hazards of life.
Were it left up to my teachers at the time, I might never have pursued photography, since I was judged to be deficient in the skills that are required of a visual artist. I have always been drawn to literature, it comes easily to me, and I was an English major in college. But I took several courses in Art History as well as a drawing course, and while I came to understand the vocabulary of a painting or a sketch, I never mastered its expression. I remember once when the class was drawing from a nude model, and the teacher passed from one student to the next, diligently commenting on the progress of each. When it came to my turn, he silently passed me by. He never offered me a comment during the whole term!
After travelling around Europe for a while I conceived the idea of continuing my literary studies there, obtained a master’s degree, and then returned to the States and studied at Columbia University. In the middle of teaching and writing my dissertation, on the Victorian social novel and the effect of urbanism and new scientific theories, I was diverted from a career as a professor when I happened to step inside a bookstore in Austin, Texas, where I had gone to give a lecture on urban history. I picked up a book of portraits by Mapplethorpe and was impressed by the luminous quality of these images (I later learned the trick behind this kind of lighting, which is used a lot in fashion photography, but at the time I had no idea what could produce such a look). Many of my friends had already graduated and were beginning their careers as junior professors in various colleges around the country, and I determined to capture their likenesses on film. I had played with cameras, of course, since I was a kid, but I never worked at it; in fact, my brother was the one who created a photo lab in the bathroom. I shot a Brownie, but lackadaisically. This time however the hooks were in me.
I had a friend show me how to develop film and make prints, and once I saw that image reveal itself in the developing tray, I was enthralled. I don’t think that young photographers today can understand the magic of that moment, the alchemy of photography, since the instantaneity and lilliputian immateriality of the digital image that is betrayed in the chimping is just so lacking in revelatory power. In the lab, I am a conjurer; at my desk, in front of a computer, I am nothing more than a technician.
I returned home, set up a studio of sorts in my small apartment, with nice wraparound light bounced back into my huge north-facing window from the whitewashed wall across alley. I photographed everyone and anyone who would visit me. I also did still lifes (a couple of which I still have because they are kind of surreal), nudes, and some landscapes. Mostly I shot medium format. But I hadn’t found the source of my compulsion; I was simply following in the usual wake of all black and white photographers before me, perfecting my control of the negative, experimenting with different films and chemicals. I gobbled imagery: Strand, Sander, Evans, Model, Arbus, Karsh, Penn, and a host of others whose work was centered on portraiture. But then I made a discovery about myself and a different sort of photography.
I started looking at the work of people like Garry Winogrand, which I didn’t quite “get,” but I knew that I had finally found something that welded all my interests into one consummate activity or practice: street photography. At the same time, I was wandering around the streets of New York, in between long bouts of writing or teaching, and following the homeless people around, observing them. I slowly began to snap pics of them, but tentatively, shyly. I had no idea about how to engage them yet. I began to figure out, however, that what interested me was the way that people lived rather than esoteric formal composition under controlled studio conditions, so I started exploring the city’s subcultures: the shanty towns, the ghettoes, and the prostitutes down in the Meat Market. It so happens that I was walking around down there one day, after having paged through Danny Lyon’s photographs of disappearing New York, and I decided to capture this remarkable neighborhood full of decaying meat, blood, cobblestone streets and hollow loft buildings. At one point, a prostitute accosted me and asked if I wanted to take her pic – for a price. But on closer examination, I realized that in fact she was a he. Naturally, I was curious, and I started walking around there more often in the hopes that these people would accept my presence and eventually allow me to photograph them. After some jockeying back and forth, I was finally surrounded by them all one day and they asked me to snap a pic of one of their friends who was flying high on crack. Diane, with her pants down past her knees, was stumbling up and down the sidewalk, next to various painted signs advertising meat, and I just couldn’t resist. At the time I was shooting with a Fuji 6×9, which yields a nice big neg, and after quietly pressing the shutter button, I had one of my first real pictures. After that I became the “official” photographer of the House of La Too Much – some of these characters, and they were indeed characters, had appeared the famous film Paris Burning, about the whole drag queen scene. I was fascinated by them, and began hanging out with them at all hours. It was a pretty dicey neighborhood in those days, scary at night – Stella Macartney and the beautiful people were not to settle there for another eight years at least. I never got many very “close” images, but I did get some excellent portraits, and I began to feel my way, gropingly, toward the path I was later to follow.
The other story I pursued around this time concerned the shantytown that used to exist under the FDR in between the Bridges, right across from the New York Post building. These people also fascinated me, not only because of their extreme poverty but also because of their rebelliousness, their refusal to assimilate to mainstream culture, and their self-deprecating humor – one of the guys I came to know, named Mark, had a realty sign, “For Sale,” hung outside his shanty. Many of these guys were in fact quite smart. There was one guy that everyone in the community called “Mad Mac” – because he was paranoid and schizophrenic (or perhaps just bipolar). He had this fantasy that women and the FBI were in league to get him. I spent some time with him and took a good photograph of him in his shanty, with his reflection in the mirror, and a temporary girlfriend sitting outside the doorway. He appears quite isolated and tortured. Yet the shack was a marvel of engineering: it had a postal box, a fence and porch, and a periscope for spying on people outside. Plus he had axles built into the bottom frame, so he could attach wheels and cart the house away. A photographer who teaches at Cooper Union, Margaret Morton, has some pictures of his shack, but she never published any pix of the man, so far as I know. One day he asked me if I were from the FBI, and I knew that our relationship had come to an end.
The shantytown series was my first real inkling that I might in fact have a future in photography and that my strengths lay in getting close to people and rendering their lives in a visual narrative. The narrative aspect was very important. My entire training in literature had produced a very strong sense of narrative structure and its significance in our lives, and what I had learned duriing all those years reading 19th century realist novels was easily transferred into my new activity. In fact, though my path appeared to be a completely fortuitous meandering journey up till then, it turned out, on hindsight, to be quite purposeful and in a sense, destined. While I seemed to be drifting, there was a definite pattern to it all.
I left school behind – just upped and left. My friends were nonplussed. They kept asking me what I was going to do, whether I had an “eye” (though by then they were all asking for portraits), and urged me to finish my schooling. I realized that I had been in school for a very long period of my life, and that I had learned just about all it had to teach me – which was a considerable amount. Some photographers seem to be happy with a bit of vocational training before assuming their career – but many of the photographers that I admire – Salgado, Towell, Nachtwey and others – all have training in the liberal arts or in some other discipline which in turn seems to have nurtured their photography, giving them ideas and broadening their imaginations. Technique is one thing, but ideas come from a broad knowledge of culture. Anyway, I discovered that everything I was studying in school – urbanism, poverty, marginal subcultures, social conflict (all of which form the main themes of Balzac, Dickens, Zola) – was there right in front of me, and instead of spending my life writing books about other peoples’ achievements, I wanted to produce books that people would read. Poverty and social conflict, outside of war, became my main themes, but I always kept an eye on the larger theme of culture, of how people lived. Ultimately, that is what interests me most, and the camera I carry is like a passport into other people’s worlds. I discovered at some point that my eye was connected to my heart: as Don McCullin has said, “photography is not seeing, it is feeling.” But I also discovered eventually, after all my efforts to learn technique, to perfect my shooting and printing, to learn about color in addition to black and white – that the best means of developing your visual sense, your formal _expression, is to make mistakes. By breaking the rules I came to understand what a bit of Tri-X and a portable camera were capable of creating, and I came to favor an eclectic approach, one that varied with the prevailing circumstances.
It may be that photography, or rather Street Photography – a genre that depends on the accidental significance of chance events – taught me to give up rationalizing so much, give up control over the object world, and instead learn to swim with the currents, take what comes, rely on intuition and feeling. The experience of shooting for me is very zen-like: you peer through that little viewfinder, you find a connection to the scene before you, and you become that scene, you merge with it somehow. It is a very visceral and engaged experience; anyone who has shot archery and read Herrigel’s book will know just what I am talking about. But the key for me was that it was a very different experience from the excessive rationality and verbal discourse I practiced at school. I transferred a lot of the ideas I was working with into my new activities, but I treated them in a new medium and a very different M.O. Course, it is not fair to leave it there: my verbal skills have been a tremendous help to me, allowing me to write essays that accompany my photographs, and also to write grant applications, which, if they are successful, help me to work on the stories I really care about.