Category Archives: Interview

On Making a Photo Book

Stacy Oborn discusses the process of self publishing a photo book with Elijah Gowin and James Luckett.

What I found intriguing, and worth posting here, was that between Elijah and James I had examples of the two extreme options left to the photographer interested in self-publishing an art monograph. Eljiah was going the whole-hog, no-expenses-spared, best press in the world, best paper, total authorial control route; while James is counted among the much more vast population of photographers casting a hopeful lot with one of the various print-on-demand publishers on the scene these days. I decided to talk with both of them about their projects and processes, fits and starts, and share what I learned here.

Stefan Rohner Interview, Part II

Stefan Rohner is an Ibiza-based photographer.

Wayne: You say that you were able to put down your paint brushes because you came to feel more at peace. Why does photography reflect that inner peace better for you than painting does? What motivated your transition from inspirations such as the Junge Wilde movement–with its quick, decisive strokes–to the more deliberate pace of something like portraiture, which requires you to be deliberate and get to know your subjects?

Stefan: As I said, painting was sort of a liberation for me: very self centered.There was no one else involved. It was something that came from inside me and had to be let out. Painting is a philosophical process, a process that goes on until the work is finished. Some paintings you never finish, since your ideas and feelings change constantly.

To me photography is different. I took it up in a different stage of my life, when I was ready to let go of myself and get in more profound contact with other human beings. It’s like a binary, two ways, from me to the one being portrayed, and from him to me. To me, photography is “easier.” It is less abstract. When you portray a human being with a camera, in most cases you create a reproduction of an image, whereas in painting you are influenced far more by your own feelings, way of view.

Wayne: In what ways do you collaborate artistically with your wife Carina?

Stefan: When I started in portraiture, Carina was my first model, she had to put up
with both my negative and positive emotions, depending if things went wrong or right. I was training myself with her as my model, testing my patience and hers, trying to figure out composition, emotion, light. When we worked on taking pictures, we went through very strong emotions. I was never satisfied. Later, though, when I saw the negatives, I would become happy again.

Wayne: Many of your portraits are gritty and less glamorized, yet they are still beautiful, since you seem to capture the dignity of your subjects. How fair is that characterization? What do you do to capture that sense? How do you choose your subjects, and how do you reach that level of understanding with them? What must a photographer do to establish that kind of rapport?

Stefan: In our world we are surrounded by glamorized images, superficial advertisments in magazines, TV and so on, so there is no need to produce more of this stuff. I agree with you about the characterization. I like to show strong “characters,” fascinating people like Otix, a musician and DJ. Or Alice… when I met her she wanted “glamorized,” “nice” looking pictures–no way, not with me.

Most of my models are friends, neighbors, normal people. It is important to make your model comfortable. There has to be trust between the model and the photographer; the photographer has to have respect for the model. With some people you get to that in a short time; with others you need to communicate over a longer period to establish a relaxed and trusting relationship.

Juan was surprised when I told him that I wanted to photograph him, I made it clear that he was a very interesting personality, it took me some days to convince him. He thought that he was ugly and old. He owns a piece of land in the middle of the town, where he lives in a trailer and rents parking spaces–a wonderful experience to sit there and hear stories told. You also learn a lot about life from these people.

Yanny, a Russian artist who grew up in New York, has lived in Ibiza for 35 years. Mora, another artist. Most of these people are existentialists, they live their own lives on the border of ordered society, that’s what I love, what I admire. When I edit the work I make, I try to show them as strong characters, as interesting personalities. I try to show what makes them interesting to me.

Wayne: Speaking of subjects, some of your most notable photographs are of your daughter Ariel. In some of your photos of her, she is this wonderful blur of activity. In others, she is still and angelic. How deliberate or systematic is your photography of her–of your other family members? How much of it is simply capturing certain moments? And what advantages or disadvantages are there in knowing a subject that well? Since you wife Carina is also a photographer, she likewise spends time documenting Ariel’s life. How different, photographically, do you and Carina see Ariel?

Stefan: Thank you, Wayne. With Ariél there is nothing serious involved. Never. I think that around 95 percent of the pictures of her are quick snapshots, just snippets of daily life. She has known for a long time when she feels like being photographed: if she does not feel like it, she quickly tells us to fuck off. Everything is just normal, no advantages or disadvantages, it is just love! It flows alone….

I don’t know if there is a difference (stylistically) between Carina and me in taking pictures of our children. We are around them everyday. We spend a lot of time together, in different activities. We take pictures when we feel like it. The most important thing is to respect the children’s wish to be photographed or not. Other than that there’s no limitation or imposition.

Wayne: One of your latest series is “The King is Coming: A Journey through Morocco.” What inspired you to document Morocco?

Stefan: I have been traveling to Morocco for more than four years now. Every time I go, I spend time with people in their homes, becoming part–even if only for a short time–of their lives, events, such as weddings. Every time we go back I bring them prints of the pictures I’ve taken. We talk as well as we can, eat together, spend time together. Morocco is wonderful. The people, once you get to know them and respect their way of life, are warm and open. In this last series, though, I took a step back. I wanted to be less involved as a photographer. I wanted to be more of an observer, with less communication, less a dreamy and romantic mood than my work in India, just showing the place.

Wayne: What inspired the creation of Ball Saal? What do you see as its over-arching mission, and what kind of need was there for this kind of group?

Stefan: When I started to take photography more seriously, of course, I also started to have a look around, to see what others did, if there was a way to exchange experiences, ideas, points of view. What I found was disappointing–not because I didn’t find good photography, but because of the superficiality most photography sites were based on. The more nice comments you wrote, the better your own pictures supposedly became.

There are a lot of great photographers out there, our goal at Ball-Saal is to show their work, be it through the monthly exhibitions or through active membership and participation, exchange honest and open critiques, and share our knowledge in an open workshop forum in order to help those who want to learn and take their passion for photography one step further. We don’t care about style, so anybody who applies for membership is welcome, she or he just needs a strong portfolio.

Wayne: You have mentioned a number of painters who have inspired you, but which photographers have been your greatest inspirations, and in what ways?

Stefan: When I started seriously with my first portrait work I did it with a digital camera. Then I found the work of Mary Ellen Mark and Anton Corbijn and asked myself how they got that nice square format! That’s when I learned about 120mm film, bought a used Hasselblad and started to develop my own film. Before this I trained my eyes for a long time by photographing my portraits with a regular, digital 35mm camera, like I would use the square format; I simply cropped the pictures later in Photoshop. Just recently I found the work of the Spanish photographer Alberto Garcia Alix, I think he is a very interesting photographer.

When diving deeper into photography I found Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, I started to buy books, for example “The Italians” by Bruno Barbey. What impressed me most was “Gypsies” by Joseph Koudelka and “The Mennonites” by Larry Towell. I bought more books and a rangefinder camera, went out in the streets to catch daily life and decisive moments. I left portraiture aside and dove fully into street photography.Street is fun! To briefly meet people, talk to them or just run around without communicating–catching emotion and moments.There is never repetition, the moments are always new.

Stefan Rohner Interview, Part I

Stefan Rohner is an Ibiza, Spain-based photographer. He is a member of the photo agency Anarchy Images. He was inspired to create Ball Saal, a a cooperative gallery he founded with Andreas Hering. Stefan’s work has appeared at the Galerie Lichtpunkt in Munich. He has taught at the International Summer School of Photography (ISSP) at the Petersburg Photo Workshops. His latest exhibit is “The King is Coming,” a journey through Morocco.

Wayne: Can you talk about growing up in Germany. What was your childhood like?

Stefan: I grew up with my parents and siblings in a village outside the big cities, at the border of Lake Constance. The area has a beautiful landscape, but a rather conservative, closed environment. I very much enjoyed the journeys to Italy, where I went on holidays every summer—since my mother was born and raised in Italy, and I grew up bilingual—all the antique viewings, cathedrals, museums, sculptures and paintings. The feeling of the old cities with the warmth of the Italian people left an important mark in my youth.

Wayne: How did you get started in painting? What kind of exposure did you have to the arts, and when and where did your interest in the visual arts begin?

Stefan: At the end of my school studies I met a very interesting arts professor; he was a great inspiration to me. He opened my eyes to painting and sculpture, he also introduced me to the wonderful world of classical music. At the time I was around 17 to 19 years old. With him I made my first steps with brush, canvas and plaster. Later here on Ibiza I started working with wood, using a chainsaw and an axe, influenced by Georg Baselitz‘s sculptures.

Wayne: How did you end up leaving the Lake Constance area? What kind of painting do you do these days?

Stefan: At the age of 21, I moved from Southern Germany to Berlin, escaping from the conservative surroundings I lived in, escaping from the organized ‘everything has to have its order’ society, breaking out from my parents’ house, and going to see the ‘big world’ outside of the small, provincial town. Berlin was great: galleries, museums, independent arts, artists from all over the world. Everything I saw influenced me, sunk inside me. I started to paint a little more seriously. I loved the Junge Wilde movement: big big canvases, big brushes, quick and wild paintings. I loved [Rainer] Fetting, [Helmut] Middendorf, Salome, they had a huge influence on me. Later I found Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz.

Painting was a way to find my own way, to find the sense of life. Why do we live? There must be something more than only the conservative values that our society instills in us as we grow up—at least better than those I grew up with. After four grey and cold winters I left Berlin and Germany. I came here to Ibiza for work reasons, but I kept on painting, still looking for the sense of life. Painting was very important to me. I turned to it whenever I felt bad inside, whenever I was depressed or heartsick. Later on in Ibiza, I became influenced by Soutine, Miquel Barceló and Bernhard Heisig.

I am not painting anymore. I feel more at peace inside, an important reason for this is my wife Carina [Berlingeri]. ‘Thank you’ to her! I also felt that when I reached the point where I knew how to do certain things, how to form a picture, how to compose it, how to express myself, I stop, I want to go new ways. One of those was letting go of painting and taking photography seriously. I had taken pictures when I was in Berlin—I got an old Nikon FM2 at a flea market—but I never took photography seriously until some years ago. Back then, I never developed any film myself, nor printed pictures, just looked at them on the contact sheets I got back from the shops.

Wayne: The Galerie Lichpunkt has said that you enjoy the encounter with the “living document.” How do painting and photography compare for you, especially for portraiture?

Stefan: I remember only painting two to three portraits ever. Most of the time I was lost in some abstract fantasy world inspired by music or by the work of other painters. For my human portraiture I need time: time to establish a relationship to the photographic subject, time to get to know her or him, time to build up reciprocal trust, get to feel secure, lose fears and shyness—on both sides.

Both the photographer and the one being photographed must feel good, feel free. It can also happen that at the first encounter no picture is made, that there have to be several meetings to establish the trust I am speaking of. Other times it happens quickly. Every person is different, has her or his own times, reacts differently to the camera. To me, as a photographer, the most important things are the emotions of the model; they have to be positive and open. If somebody doesn’t want to be photographed I respect that wish and don’t take pictures. No problem at all. So painting is a mere expression of myself and my feelings, photography on the other side is an interaction with the other human being in front of the lens.

Wayne: In explaining your photography, your fellow Ball Saal member Edward van Herk has said that painting taught you about “structure, grain and strong composition.” How exactly has each of those concepts translated into your photography?

Stefan: I love grain and structure. In some of my paintings I experimented with sand and plaster, giving more structure and making the surface more alive, more vivid. Strong composition to me has graphical order. With a well-ordered graphical composition you can create wonderful depth, space and room, have an interesting, three-dimensional photograph. This is one of the reasons I still do my black and white work with film, the end result on fiber paper is still an unique thing, structure, grain, gloss and depth, wonderful. It also is a beautiful feeling to hold in your hands a piece of art made all by yourself, from the beginning to the end, handcrafted, there’s no machine that can give you such a feeling. A strong character adds also a lot to a picture, we are all unique and beautiful human beings in our own way, I like to capture this uniqueness, one part of it, keeping that moment alive forever. 

Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews

Through my blog, I have had the good fortune to interview a number of interesting, accomplished photographers. The links are scattered across this blog, however, and anyone new to the series would be hard pressed to find and read them in one place. I have thought about pulling the interviews together into a book. If you know a small press publisher who might be interested, please let me know. I have also toyed with the idea of collecting the interviews as a publish on demand (POD) or electronic book. (If you were one of my interview subjects, and you do not want to participate in this project, please let me know.) This blog entry will serve as my placeholder as I gather the links and compile them into more readable chapters. I have another interview or two lined up, but suggestions on that front would be welcomed as well.

Through the Looking Glass: Photographer Interviews
Introduction
Jon Anderson (Interview and Photo Tips & Techniques)
Velibor Bozovic
Hal Buell
Kitra Cahana
Nana Chen
Alan Chin (profile)
James Whitlow Delano
Hugo Infante
Andy Levin
John Loomis
Brad Mangin
Jessie Mann
Allen Murayabashi
Jason Pagan
John Vink

Mark Sarvas Interview

Mark Sarvas hosts The Elegant Variation, which has been frequently cited as one of the top literary blogs. As a screenwriter, he has worked for HBO, Showtime and Warner Brothers. His fiction has appeared in Troika Magazine, The Wisconsin Review, Apostrophe, Thought Magazine and Pindeldyboz, while his book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Modern Word, Boldtype and the Los Angeles Review. Mark is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He recently sold his first novel Harry, Revised to Bloomsbury.

Wayne: You were born in New York, and you are a graduate of New York University. What about Los Angeles took you to the West Coast and turned you into an Angeleno (more than 20 years and counting)? How much of an influence was the screenwriting career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of your idols?

Mark: Like oh-so-many-others, I came to Casablanca for the waters. Oh, sorry – wrong picture. I came out here in 1986 hoping, like everyone else in this town not interested in acting, to write for film and TV. As for what turned me into an Angeleno, it began with some tough love from a dear friend. I spent the first year here bitching about how inferior everything was to New York, and one day he quite literally whirled on me and said, “Then shut up and go home!” It was bracing, let me tell you. And I decided to make the effort to get to know something about this place, to try to find my way, and now, with the exception of Paris, there’s nowhere else I can see myself living. From the beaches to the downtown library, I’ve found diversity and energy here that rivals any American city. It truly is a 21st century city. As for Fitzgerald, the truth is that at that age – I was 22 – I didn’t really know much about his life which, in retrospect, is probably a good thing, right? The screenwriting life didn’t exactly agree with him, though it doesn’t agree with most people – though seldom to such extreme ill effect. But if I had known, I might have stayed put in New York.

Wayne: Why has The Great Gatsby been so influential on you? Why is it a novel you reread every year, and how has your understanding of the novel—and Fitzgerald evolved?

Mark: Well, it was, simply, the first book that made me want to write. (Fitzgerald has much to answer for.) I remember days after I finished it, I sat down and wrote my first short story, one I haven’t had the nerve to go back and look at in more than ten years but I remember it as little more than a feeble Fitzgerald knock-off called “Imperfect Impressions.” As for Gatsby itself, I came to the book later than most. People usually are taught it in high school, but I wasn’t. A friend gave it to me in college because, he said, I reminded him of Gatsby. Which I realize now probably isn’t such a great thing – the man is a bit of mess, no? – but back then I was kind of flattered. And that was sort of it for about ten years or so, at which point I picked it up again and, of course, it was entirely different to my thirty-something eyes. And I marveled at the experience of returning to something I thought I knew so well and finding it so new – something I came to feel was the essential criterion of “Great Art.” And so I wanted to see if that trend would hold up. And so I read it again. And again. And as I did, I was getting older and, one hopes, wiser and so the themes of loss and the past become more resonant. (I still cry every time I read the famous shirts scene.) But I was also learning about writing, learning about reading, and so it went through distinct phases. Recently, I’ve read it almost purely as a novelist, trying to understand Fitzgerald’s choices, admiring his remarkable style and even coming to grips with the parts of the book I don’t think work so well. That was a big deal, to have the courage of one’s convictions to take on not just an idolized (and idealized) work but a part of the canon.

Wayne: You have said that you are “troubled by how much the book business continues to emulate the worst aspects of Hollywood; the search for the blockbuster, the focus on the widest possible common denominator; marketers in charge of making creative decisions; the lamentable fixation with Young And Attractive.” Yet you’re not above a good James Bond book or flick. How do you reconcile the two views? Which authors get the mix right?

Mark: I think there is absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with a superiorly crafted piece of pure entertainment. Bond, yes, and I’d throw something like Indiana Jones or the Bourne films into that mix. It was, in fact, the wish to create just such entertainments that brought me here in the first place. I don’t think art and entertainment need (or should) be mutually exclusive. What I object to is how shoddy the process has become – it’s all focus groups and dozens of writers and too many idiot development executives and eventually the singular vision is diluted to the point of sheer tedium. And that’s regrettable in any medium. Where I see that similar trend in publishing is in huge advances for books by young attractive authors that are clearly not merited by the content of the work. It’s a chase of novelty and marketability but it comes at the expense of substance – how many twenty-year olds really have something interesting to say about the world? Some but not a lot. Still, the hype machine ends up kicking in and these books often do well – something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, people buy out of curiosity “So young! So attractive! So much money!” – leading to more of the same next time around, but they’re often just lousy books. Technically proficient perhaps (though not always) but absent any sense of a lived life inhabiting the pages. (Of course, maybe I’m just bitter since I’m no longer young and was never attractive.) As for who gets it right, I think people could do much worse than to look to Graham Greene, who had both his serious books and what he called his “entertainments.” I also admire – no surprise here – what John Banville has done with his Benjamin Black novel Christine Falls, in which it’s a real pleasure to observe the not entirely dignified spectacle of a serious author having the time of his life.

Wayne: On your site, you explain how you got the title “The Elegant Variation (TEV).” Essentially, you are referring to fiction that too consciously calls attention to itself. What else─beyond your criticism of mass and crass, does your selection of this title say about your view on today’s literary scene? On literature in general?

Mark: It’s interesting to see how the name of the blog is received and interpreted. The most common response is “Wow, what a cool name!” But I didn’t really intend it as a comment on the literary scene – although that’s admirably provocative and I might just make that my story from now on. Rather, it was really intended as a bit of self-deprecating humor. Blogs exist, after all, to more or less call attention to themselves. It seemed amusing to name a literary blog after a literary faux pas, suggesting that its proprietor wasn’t taking himself all that seriously.

Wayne: You talked about how other literary blogs inspired you to start a literary blog of your own. Why did you feel the need to add your voice to the world of literary critics? Why blog about literature and not one of your other—what you call—”obsessions” (cycling, the Beatles, Tintin)? What has surprised you most about the evolution of TEV?

Mark: It’s important to think about the context of the blogosphere in October 2003 when I launched TEV. There were a handful of established book blogs – Maud Newton, Moorishgirl, Book Slut and The Literary Saloon – and none were paying much attention to the Los Angeles literary scene which seemed to me, if not yet thriving, definitely up and coming. And my tastes, though similar to some of these bloggers, traveled toward some areas that I didn’t see getting as much attention, and I suspected my somewhat rambunctious sensibility was different enough, and I’ve never been shy so I just sort of elbowed my way into what seemed to be an interesting and lively conversation taking place online. As for my other obsessions, they’re amusing diversions but I don’t think any of them would, on their own, be interesting enough to sustain a daily blog – although there are surely blogs about cycling, Tintin and The Beatles. But I suspect even I would find those tiresome as a steady diet. As for what’s surprised me most, honestly, it’s been how visible the blog has become. In truth, I think I was just a beneficiary of lucky timing – as I said, the pool was much less crowded when I leapt in, so it was perhaps easier to make a splash. Now there are thousands of blogs about books and some of them are quite good but there’s no time to get to most of them. If I had been doing exactly the same thing I’ve always done but had started last year, I doubt my voice would have risen above the din of the crowd. The other great surprise is how well received my more personal posts are. I’ve always assumed people couldn’t care less about my personal life but those entries often generate the deepest comments threads.

Wayne: You have mentioned how useful TEV has been to you in meeting other writers, bibliophiles and people whose intellect you have found stimulating. How has that been useful to your writing? Your novel writing in particular?

Mark: I think it’s a given that when you move in circles that challenge or inspire you, it’s bound to have an effect. And you’ve got a wider, built-in support system to encourage you on when you’re doing something that really seems to work, like the feedback I got on my recent week devoted to David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk. As for the novel side, the most illuminating thing for me was the de-mystification of the novelist. I’ve gotten to know many of these men and women who are so formidable on the page but when you speak to them in real life, they suffer from precisely the same anxieties and struggles that you do, and that’s very reassuring. And, finally, it’s nice simply to have loads of remarkably smart people to turn to when I have a question – which I frequently do!

Wayne: Despite the fact that you blog frequently, you have said that you are at heart a private person. Still, you share glimpses into your family life (your family’s roots in Hungary, stories about your parents) and some of your “obsessions.” How fair is it to ascribe some of the popularity of the literary blog to the fact that readers get to know bloggers like you more intimately than they do more traditional book reviewers? How else does sharing tidbits about your personal life help or hinder your ability to share your thoughts on the books you review?

Mark: Very interesting question, partially addressed above but worth delving into. First, not to get too Clintonian, but it probably helps to define “private” and “personal,” at least for the sake of this discussion. Perhaps one might substitute “intimate” for “personal.” There are plenty of bloggers out there who are wholly comfortable using their blogs as a sort of confessional, and although it can make for genuinely fascinating reading, I suspect I’m, at heart, simply a bit too fastidious to be that publicly open. So I might, for example, blog about my mother in the form of MOTEV posts, but it will be within parameters that can be accepted as at least mildly literary, or entertaining without being especially revealing. That said, whenever I’m asked “What makes a successful blog?” I always answer that it’s about voice. It’s about whatever it is that makes that blogger’s perspective unique and interesting and that, often, is personal. For me, there will always be a boundary that keeps the deeply personal away from the blog – unless (and this is the one exception) there’s a clear, literary connection. That’s where I’m willing to delve a bit and expose more. The essay I wrote remembering my writing teacher Steven Corbin is an example of that. As for the last part, I don’t think it has much of an impact one way or another on reviewing books. We are all the sum of our prejudices and predispositions, and anyone coming to a book review should necessarily assume that the author of the review has a point of view, even if it’s not represented in a specific review.

Wayne: The tone of literary blogs generally seems to be more intimate than that of traditional book reviews. At times, you are more of a confidante to your readers, and that seems to lead to remarks that are more off-the-cuff than those that might appear in the weekend newspapers. That tone has gotten you into some public spats with some well-known writers. How has that reaction surprised you? I am sure you feel that you need to be as upfront in your reviews as possible, but how, if at all, have these incidents taught you to be more measured in your reviews? You have said, for instance, that: “It’s easy to be careless and unintentionally destructive or hurtful and one must exercise constant vigilance.”

Mark: Again, we need to make some distinctions here. Actual “reviews” constitute a very small part of what I do at TEV – I do more of that in other venues – and specific rules apply there. I try to ensure that my actual reviews are always measured and carefully considered. But as for the daily commentary at TEV, well that’s a bit more no-holds-barred, and that’s the part that’s resulted in these spats. (Nothing I’ve ever written in a review, at TEV or elsewhere, has led to any trouble that I know of.) What’s surprised me the most, honestly, has been that anyone had been paying attention. My two most infamous spats – with Steve Almond and the n+1 editors – took me aback primarily because the ferocity of their replies seemed all out of proportion to any offenses I might have given. (With Almond, in particular, the blog was so new I had no notion that anyone outside of my family was reading.) But we’re all grown ups and if I criticize someone, they have the absolute right to criticize back (although I was surprised by the dishonesty that both these “foes” employed). That said, my quote that you note about constant vigilance was something of an outgrowth of those experiences, a recognition of the fact that people do, in fact, pay attention to what I’m saying, and when I’m critical, there are flesh and blood people at the other end of that criticism – people who in most cases (though not, in my opinion, these two) are coming from a position of good faith with respect to the work they do. And I’ve tried to take that into consideration, to make sure my criticisms can’t be perceived as personal but are focused on the work, and to try to follow the golden rule just a wee bit more than I have. I suppose that’s called growing up. That said, when someone like Richard Ford makes a willfully idiotic statement for all to read, I’ll still reserve the right to step up and call him a dipshit. I hope I don’t ever get too polite for that.

Wayne: Despite the fact that literary blogs are often used as an example of how traditional book review pages are dying, you and other literary bloggers frequently quote from those pages. You have said that it seems de rigeur for others to blast the New York Times Book Review, but you yourself admire the publication. Which book review pages do you admire and why? Any specific reviewers?

Mark: We don’t only quote from them, we contribute to them! I think the New York Review of Books and Bookforum are the two best American book reviews out there and should be on the bedside table of any serious fiction reader. I also think TLS and London Review of Books are superb. They are unfailingly serious, thoughtful, insightful. They’re given breathing space and assigned to writers who are elegant and inventive. At BEA, Heidi Julavits said that “Eight hundred word reviews are bullshit,” and although that might be overstating it a bit, it’s only a bit. There’s nothing quite like the luxury of space in which to flex one’s critical muscles. Among the daily papers, I think Oscar Villalon does fine work with the San Francisco Chronicle. The Boston Globe and Washington Post also offer above par coverage. The Nation and The Atlantic do quite well, as does the New Yorker. As for specific reviewers, my admiration of James Wood is scarcely a secret. I’d also add Daniel Mendelsohn and Louis Menand into the top ranks of critics. I think Michael Gorra is consistently thoughtful; I also admire Stephen Metcalf, Ruth Franklin, Walter Kirn and Adam Kirsch (when he’s not writing about blogs). Richard Eder, too. If we stretch the list to include the likes of Cynthia Ozick, and Joyce Carol Oates, then I could go on and on an on … What is common to all these great critics, I think, is considering works in their context – taking a long view, whether of an author’s entire body of work or the state of a genre. It’s about running long and deep and having the chops to full it off.

Wayne: Among the interviews you have done for TEV, which have been your favorites? Are there any specific thoughts that you have gleaned that have accelerated your own development as a writer? Who is on your short list of authors that you still want to interview?

Mark: My favorite – again, for obvious reasons – is my interview with John Banville. It was such a treat to be able to sit down across a lunch table and talk for hours … though it took a half bottle of Sancerre before I finally calmed down! (All I could think was, “Jesus Christ, I’m sitting here with John-fucking-Banville.”) I also have a real fondness for my interview with Andrew Sean Greer because it was my first extended TEV interview and suggested to some what the medium was capable of. To repeat what I’ve said above, I don’t think I gleaned anything specific other than the very reassuring fact that even The Great Man himself has doubts and frustrations. I do remember a lovely, encouraging moment in the cab on the way to the train station. Banville, very courteously, asked me about my novel. I said “Well, the truth is, I expected to write this literary, profound Banvillean debut and, instead, I’ve written this slightly squalid, trivial black comedy.” And he leaned in and conspiratorially said (imagine a gentle Irish lilt), “Oh no, that’s much better.” Which was hugely encouraging. My short list is pretty long because I’ve done so few interviews. The problem is to do them properly really is quite a lot of work and I can be a perfectionist. And when the Robert Birnbaums of the world do it so well, it’s more fun for me to sit back and read. But, in no particular order, I’d love to talk to Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Toni Morrison, James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn and … and … and …

Wayne: In many of your interviews and reviews, it is clear that you have absorbed much of the respective oeuvres. How systematic are you in your reading?

Mark: Well that’s one nice thing about being obsessive – you tend to do your homework. The problem is that it’s thorough – occasionally exhaustively so – without being especially systematic. Sometimes – like in the case of my James Wilcox review for the New York Times – I’m unfamiliar with a writer and so to review it properly, I’ll read all his work. (Nine books for that review but it was my Times debut so I was on best behavior.) It’s certainly easier – though often less interesting – to review first novels. Other times, I’m fortunate enough to dovetail an existing interest with an piece I’m writing. For example, I’ve got an essay in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review about Tom Stoppard’s first and only novel. It was my first chance to write a bit longer – about 1500 words – and in that case, I already knew Stoppard’s oeuvre quite well so I was able to deploy some of that knowledge in writing the essay. And still other times, I might simply latch onto something that piques my interest and read away until I drop. I’ve actually just begun reading a pile of books that constitutes research for my next novel, so I suppose that represents some kind of system, though it’s not fully revealed itself yet. For all the knocks blogs get about sloppiness, I do try to do my homework and know what I’m talking about. Otherwise, thereof one must remain silent …

Wayne: You are closing on four years as a literary blogger. What keeps you going?

Mark: I find the conversation endlessly fascinating and rewarding. And I’m flattered and honored to be a part of it. Or at least to be tolerated.

Curtis L. Carter Interview, Part I

Curtis L. Carter was the founding director of the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University. He is a professor of aesthetics at Marquette and an arts consultant. Curtis has written widely about dance and its intersection with the visual arts. He has written about “Invented Worlds: the Photographs of Waswo X. Waswo.” I first became interested in Curtis’ work after reading his introduction to “Faces of Modern Dance: Barbara Morgan,” which he curated for the Haggerty Museum.

Curtis also has curated “Romanticism and Cynicism in Contemporary Art” (“a coda to the East Village art movement of the 1980s”), “Keith Haring: Artist of the People” in Milan, Italy, “Hockey Seen” and “Jean Fautrier.” He is currently working to curate “Wifredo Lam in North American Collections,” which opens in Milwaukee in October; the exhibition will also travel to Miami, Long Beach and Saint Petersberg.

Wayne: Can you talk about what spurred your interest in visual arts and dance? What is it about the combination of the two that appeals to you? Which artists have most inspired you?

Curtis: My interest in visual arts began through visiting museums in New York, Chicago and eventually across the world. Although I am a strongly verbal person, the visual languages of photography, painting, especially video have always seemed essential means of understanding the world. They are “ways of world making” that expand the mind in ways that extend beyond the domains of word and text.

As for dance, it has been an important part of my being from childhood on. I enjoy dancing and this interest eventually led me to pay attention to dance as a form of art. This interest began with ballet, but as soon as I saw modern dance the interest expanded immediately to embrace the works of Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and many other variations. The conceptual elements of post-modern dancers such as Meredith Monk, Twyla Tharp, Pina Bausch were compelling in a different sense. Their incorporation of theater, concept, and movement with a social edge was especially attractive to my philosophical interests.

A more serious interest in writing about dance occurred when I saw the work of Merce Cunningham and John Cage around 1970. This prompted me to be curious about how to write about dance. I knew how to write criticism for theater and film and visual arts, but was baffled by dance. Nevertheless, I wrote some reviews. A chance meeting with dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen in the mountains near Boulder, Colorado in 1971 at the American Society for Aesthetics Annual Meeting led to the opportunity to receive a Critic’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I asked Cohen, who was the leading authority on dance criticism, aesthetics, and history how one goes about writing on dance. She replied by asking if I had ever written about dance. I sent her my reviews and she asked me to join her Dance Critic’s Fellowship group at Connecticut College that summer. The Workshop took place at the Connecticut College American Dance Festival where the major modern and contemporary dance groups of the time performed. Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin, Jose Limon, and others. The resident critics included Marcia Segal, Deborah Jowitt, Clive Barnes, and others. We wrote and discussed each others’ works and attended classes in criticism, movement, dance history with Cohen, effort shape, and had sessions with the choreographers. Once, while having lunch with Anna Halprin she invited me to sit on the stage during her group’s performance of a wild piece called “Animal Ritual.” I accepted and sat amidst the ritual dance which included nude dancers and wrote the weekly review for the New London newspaper. The other critics in the group declined to join me, but were envious of the experience. I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal from the experience.

The Belgian artist Jan Fabre, who works in performance, contemporary theater pieces and the visual arts provided an important bridge for me between dance and visual arts. I met Fabre in Ghent, Belgium at a conference on “Art in Culture” in 1980. At the time Fabre was doing visual arts in various media, solo performace works in the anti-art mode of Marcel Duchamp. He moved on to theater pieces including dance and theater with an edge. His choreography was decidedly anti-choreography, but had a compelling force. His ability to move with great originality and aesthetic power across the various media made me see better the connections between the various art forms and helped form a link between the visual arts and dance.

My meeting with Barbara Morgan in the mid 1980s occurred at the retirement party of New York Times dance critic John Martin. Martha Graham, Morgan, and most of the luminaries of the dance world were present. Morgan was more interested in talking philosophy than the ceremonies. She invited me to join her the next day at her studio in Scarsdale. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until her death. Morgan was a close friend of Martha Graham based in part on their mutual appreciation of the culture and the land of the South West Native Americans. They shared an aesthetic that allowed them to transfer the energies of bodily movement emerging from actual bodies transformed by Graham’s choreography into the visual images of Morgan’s photography.

Wayne: How did you come to curatorial work, and how did you first become involved with the Haggerty Museum?

Curtis: The Haggerty Museum began as an idea in my head. I was the initiator of the museum from the planning stages in the late 1970s and participated in funding and planning efforts leading to its opening in 1984. I served as Founding Director and Chief Curator from 1984 to 2007. I have always believed that the arts have a central role in education. It seemed to me that a university education ought to include access on the campus to visual experiences made possible through the development of a permanent collection and a challenging exhibition program bringing contemporary arts as well as older art forms to inform the students and the community of the many riches available through art. The museum thus served as a base not only for visual arts but brought performance art, dance, music, and theater performances to the campus. The format was widely encompassing and included many international artists as well as artists reflecting cultural differences. One of the themes that interested me was the role of art in social change. A forum bringing together community leaders in the arts with public officials, corporate leaders became a regular part of the museum’s annual program.

Curating appeals to me as a creative experience that draws upon such a wide range of conceptual and visual skills. A visual exhibition, like a book, is a vehicle for ideas. If accompanied by a catalogue, it has the potential to affect both visual and verbal audiences. Curating is especially appealing because it encompasses such a wide range of skills: research, writing, designincluding organization of the works, color choices, lighting, diplomacy in negotiating for loans, communication with the press, and even fund raising, because it is likely to be read by a much broader range of people than an academic text. It has the potential to communicate on many levels. All of these present interesting challenges.

John Vink Interview, Part III

Part III of the interview with photojournalist John Vink, a W. Eugene Smith Award-Winner and member of Magnum Photos.

Wayne: You talked about how the financial difficulties at Vu helped spur you to transition to Magnum. What was that transition like? How different were the two agencies? How has the agency been important to the furthering of your goals? What are the biggest misconceptions that outsiders have of Magnum?

John: As I said I quit Vu before applying to Magnum, as I thought that was a clearer position in regard to Vu. I didn’t want to be perceived as a traitor, so I told Christian Caujolle beforehand about me leaving Vu and trying to get into Magnum. The risk was of course that Magnum would not take me, in which case I was out there on my own, because it would have been a bit strange to go back to Vu… Luckily, it worked out and I spent the next four years passing through the required purgatory steps to become a full member of the Magnum cooperative. I had applied once to Magnum in 1985 already, but that was way too early, and I was not mature enough at that time.

In retrospect the Vu episode probably was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the biggest move ahead in my “career.” It really revealed me to the business world in France and also to myself. It gave me the self-assurance I would need to be accepted by Magnum later on.

The difference between Vu and Magnum was switching from a small dynamic and quite iconoclastic place where things were run in a fairly emotional and messy French way to a much heavier, more complex structure with a comparatively huge multinational network of offices and agents with heavy traditions and loaded to the brim with icons. I must say I had a very hard time adapting (and in fact, after being a full member for 10 years, probably still have not completely adapted). Things have changed quite a lot these days and nominees are much better taken care of to find out about the mechanisms of the beast, but at the time I felt kind of dropped into a big machine without anyone telling me how it would work. It was up to me to find out.

To make things more difficult there were quite violent tensions between the three main offices at the time, due to cultural differences, personal histories and because of crippled internal communications (no email). Although some of those tensions still remain (you can’t rewrite cultural identity or history) they are definitely less of a burden today because communications have improved (yes, now we do use email!) and because if we want to survive we have to get along and stick together to face the world out there.

In 1994 Magnum was also at a pivotal stage, at the very beginning of a switch from an analog to a digital distribution. It took ages to implement this, partly because of our inexperience in that area at the time, because most members were computer illiterate, except for Carl De Keyzer, a couple of others and me, because we were early in wanting to do the switch compared to many other agencies, and because of our specific and complex way of being organised which had to be translated into a digital system. Our data management was written from scratch, tailor made to our needs and has cost us several tons of money (amongst which 5 percent of our photographer’s share, still today). If we hadn’t done that Magnum would not be there today. It is as simple as that. I think it is the biggest managerial achievement of the agency ever. We are still free. Freedom is expensive…

The improvement of the Magnum machine is the thing which helps me most in achieving my goals, as having an efficient and up to date sales tool brings in better money with which I can continue working on my projects. But otherwise Magnum never really provided direct support for any of my projects. I was for example very disappointed by the fact that not one portfolio was published about my refugees work at the time when there was the exhibition at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris in 1994. Not entirely Magnum’s fault of course but I was really expecting the Magnum machine to be more efficient and supportive for its new nominee at the time. That cold shower made me understand right from the start that I had to keep relying on my own and not count on Magnum too much.

As for the misconceptions outsiders may have about Magnum? I should know about what they exactly think first. The biggest misconception I had would turn around the term “cooperative.” My own (probably romantic) view of a cooperative is a generous place where ideas, energy and goods are equally shared in order to produce intellectual and material improvements for the members. I shouldn’t be romantic, shut my big mouth and be happy with what I can get…

Wayne: You said you felt a need to leave Belgium, but what has been the common thread about where you have lived since you left? In particular, what is it about Cambodia that has attracted you and compelled you to stay?

John: The only other place I lived in besides Belgium and Cambodia was Paris for a few years. Well, sort of… Just like when I was in Belgium I was home three months a year and travelling the rest of the time. Now the big difference with today in Phnom Penh is that I am at home all the time, being somewhere else without having to travel (and saving a lot of money in travel expenses)… Some of the reasons why I am staying specifically in Cambodia can be found further down, but not travelling anymore also gives me the chance to build some serious/ normal relationships.

Wayne: What has been most pivotal to you in forming your ideas about what constitutes a story? You mentioned Gene Smith; how, if at all, did he influence you? From what other art forms have you drawn ideas? How is multi-media affecting your ideas on this front? What are the limits and possibilities of multi-media for the still photographer?

John: Before I even knew I would be a photographer or a photojournalist I was also fed with the books about Tintin.

And I guess that these Belgian comic books about a reporter and his dog having thrilling adventures at the four corners of the world, drawn with great accuracy by Hergé in a style called “la ligne claire” (the clear line) have unconsciously taught me how to construct a story and what are the elements that keep it together and “entertaining”: beginning, rythm, progression, climax, plot, suspense, end, characters, etc… It also taught me to try and make pictures with great depth of field…

People like Gene Smith, Gene Richards, Gilles Peress, Larry Towell and so many other photographers have in fact only translated in photography what I more or less already learned through Tintin about constructing a story.

But when I was a kid my parents also showed me paintings by Pieter Brueghel (here: “The Triumph of Death”)

Jeroen Bosch (Here: “Hell” from the tryptich “Garden of delights”)

Jan Van Eyck (Here: “Virgin with the chandelier”)

…and other Flemish painters… Imagine what stories you can make up in your mind as a small kid when you see people being skinned alive in hell?

Later there was Wassily Kandinsky:

Or Joan Mirò (Woman Dreaming of Escape. 1945)

That is the power of painting: so many stories, so many informations, in one and only frame.

Photography usually needs more than one frame, at least with the kind of photography I am doing. That is perhaps the limitation / asset of my photography. It seems that the more I go ahead, the more I have to have pictures relying on another one, that one picture on its own loses some of its power if it is not part of a thread. That the thread is what my pictures are about. And it somehow makes sense as I have been favouring the story as opposed to anything else for so many years.

To build that thread is a matter of collecting bits and pieces, left and right, without apparent immediate connection. It’s like a craftsman making the pieces of a puzzle he has the concept about but not the final image. The tricky part is not to forget to collect one piece or another, as a seemingly unimportant situation may in fact be crucial to the understanding of other parts of the story. For example during my first trip to Cambodia in 1989 I completely overlooked the fact that I had to take pictures of the empty streets of Phnom Penh, of the twilight just before curfew, of the absence of circulation. In retrospect it is the most obvious change with today and those pictures I did not take could have been coming in handy at one point.

 

But you also have to keep an open mind and at the same time be strict and coherent regarding the concept. You have to adapt the concept in the light of what you encounter but at the same time keep an eye on the initial idea. It is only at the very end, when the story is finished (but is it ever finished?), when you look at the outcome that you start piecing things together and try to convey and reconcile both what your initial idea was and what changes you found with the initial idea during the quest for bits and pieces. I mean: you learn a lot about things during the collection process, you refined the initial idea and therefore you have to integrate that in the final result.

 

With me the initial idea grows usually out of some other story. It doesn’t come out of the blue. It’s more of a maze. That’s how I very often end up working on several stories simultaneously, because suddenly an interesting situation leads me to initiate a new thread. The decision to pursue one thread or another and how I do it is probably as far as I will go in revealing my feelings about a situation. I never use the “I” word in my stories. The “I” word would only be a distraction.

 

The multimedia thing is just a logical extension of the storytelling and is realistically possible only since a few years thanks to the internet and broadband (which I don’t have by the way). It is adding a range of informations to the photographs. If done properly it helps in apprehending…

Wayne: You use the term “paroxysm” to talk about what draws you to a story. What do you mean by the word, especially in light of your coverage of the dislocations to people, especially those relating to the most elemental (famine and drought, land grabbing), and how powerless and poor are most affected by those dislocations? Can you also talk about the concept with regards to your story on Terre Rouge relocation?

John: I used paroxysm in the sense of crisis, when things go out of hand, when common rules don’t apply anymore. When things are being deconstructed, torn apart and when journalists pop up from all over. I usually come after the paroxysm, the crisis, when things are in suspension or settle down, when things are being rebuilt, reconstructed.

True that the particular case of relocations of people in Cambodia are to be considered a crisis, but compared to what happened before that in the country, one can also see it as a (painfull) part of the reconstruction of Cambodia as a “normal” country. I wouldn’t want to sound cynical, but the basic idea I have behind everything I am doing here in Cambodia is documenting the reconstruction of the country after the Khmer Rouge regime. What does it take to recover from near-total destruction, be it infrastructural, moral, social? Every single story I am doing on Cambodia can be seen from that perspective. The Terre Rouge relocation is just one chapter in the Quest for Land, a story about land issues in Cambodia I am working on, and that in turn is just part of another story about the reconstruction of Cambodia, just like the several other stories I am doing evolving around the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Imagine documenting a country being rebuilt from scratch…

That is why I stay here. And that is why I will stay for quite some more time…

CAMBODIA. Kep (Kampot). 13/04/2003