Category Archives: Interview

Kevin Scott’s “Behind the Tech”

In his photographic project “Behind the Tech,” Kevin Scott portrays the “relatively unknown” technologists who “make our modern lives possible.” “The Behind the Tech project’s singular purpose is to acknowledge the makers of technology and what they do.”

What is the genesis of your project? I read that you started by photographing a number of women with whom you have worked over the years? What was the seed? How has the project expanded?

With Behind the Tech, I had been thinking for a while about how important role models are for us as we imagine what we could be in the future. Role models have always been important to me. Just seeing someone who at some point was like me, who could do something I thought was hard or impossible, always gives me hope that I could do that thing too. For little kids in particular, technology can be this very abstract thing, but showing them that there are folks who look like them, who make the technology that they use, I think is a very powerful thing. But when you think about the people in tech who we celebrate, whose faces are well known, they are interesting, but not representative of the faces actually behind the technology. I wanted to do something that showed the diverse faces, and that shared the diverse stories of the folks who I see on a day-to-day basis trying to make the world a little bit better with technology. And by doing so, I hope that I can help a few people find role models, inspiration, and their own path to a better future.

I started Behind the Tech in July of 2016. I had a free chunk of time for the first time in a decade, and I decided that I was going to start by asking a bunch of folks I knew if they would sit for a portrait for this project. I then asked the AnitaB.org Institute, which runs the Grace Hopper Celebration, if I could set up a temporary portrait studio on the GHC exhibition floor to do some portrait sittings for conference attendees. After that I had a pretty long list of folks to photograph. I contracted with a recent Stanford Classics Ph.D. graduate to help write some of the profiles. Now that we’ve got a bunch of interesting content, we’re starting to try to promote the project a bit.

How did you decide on your lens and lighting choices for this project? Why did you choose to shoot it in black and white? Are there any photographers from whom you got inspiration for those choices? How would you say it differs from your usual shooting choices?

There are a bunch of portrait photographers I admire. Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon might be my three favorites. I love how Newman was able to use environment in this incredibly graphical way in his portraits. Lindbergh is a genius at getting people to relax, and I love how organic and natural all of his portraits seem. And Platon is my favorite photographer. He uses the face and the human body in such strikingly graphical ways.

I think that a lot of my shooting choices are influenced by these three. I always shoot black and white to accentuate the graphical nature of face and form. I tend to favor lighting and processing that creates contrast, again to try to give portraits a graphical quality. But I also try really hard to capture the subject as they are, not an idea of who they should be, which means no hair and makeup, no major retouching, and spending a lot of time getting the subject comfortable before and during shooting.

These photos were shot with a 120mm macro lens on a Phase One Medium format camera. It’s a brilliantly sharp lens that allows for close focus, and a comfortable space between me and the subject. I had a couple of lighting setups, although I almost always try to shoot with one light. The setup I used most often was an Elinchrom Rotalux Deep Octa modifier positioned above and angled down toward the subject, just out of the shot.

You are said to speak to your subjects as you photograph them. How much of that is your interest in them as technologists, and how much of that is your way of working as a photographer (making them feel at ease)?

It’s both. I always chat with my subjects as I’m photographing them to try to capture glimpses of their real selves, not a conception of how I think they should look. When I set up I’ll frame the subject, then move out from behind the camera, and chat with them while I’m firing shots with a remote trigger. Every 10 frames or so I’ll recheck framing and focus and continue this way until I think we’re done with whatever conversation that we’re having. Keeping them focused on me rather than the camera has made my portraiture a lot better, IMO. And on top of that, I’m genuinely interested in everyone I photograph. I wouldn’t photograph them if I weren’t interested in learning more about them.

What kind of technical training have you had as a photographer, and what have you taught yourself along the way?

I’ve done some workshops [Ralph Gibson] and online courses over the years, but most of what I’ve learned has been through reading, talking with photographers when I get the chance, looking at a lot of photography and trying to imagine how photographers made the images that I admired, and then a lot of trial and error.

Which documentaries have been influential on you?

In terms of documentaries, the Salgado biopic “Salt of the Earth” was really influential, as was “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light,” and “Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens.”

It is interesting that one of your motivations to do “Behind the Tech” is because you wanted to highlight people in technology whom you believe deserve more attention, especially when Platon, of your inspirations, is known for a project like “Power: Portraits of World Leaders.” Platon has said that one of the reasons why he chooses the lighting he does is due to the limits of time he has with his subjects. Similarly, you have had short periods of time with some of your subjects, for instance, when you caught some of them during the Grace Hopper Celebration. Beyond that practical consideration, though, why do you like, what you called the “strikingly graphical” approach of Platon?

I really admire Platon for a bunch of reasons. The portraits themselves are striking: the contrast; the posing; the interesting use of perspective; the things that he does with hands. I’m a big fan of the work that he does with Human Rights Watch and in furtherance of human rights in general. The work that he’s done with Dr. Denis Mukwege and Panzi Hospital in the Congo is heartbreaking and a powerful call to action for all of us.

On lighting, I wonder if Platon’s choices were of necessity in the beginning, and are now his preference because of the simple beauty of single-light setups. In the Netflix documentary of his work, Abstract: The Art of Design, he was shooting a portrait of Colin Powell in his studio in New York City, where he could have used any setup he liked, and was using the same black backdrop and overhead, shoot-through umbrella keylight that he seems to use so often. I definitely feel that affinity with my single-light setup, even when I am in the studio with every tool imaginable at my disposal it’s the thing I most often go to.

Platon and Lindbergh both often seem to work fairly tightly in their portraiture, choosing to focus on face and posture to convey character. Lindbergh backs out sometimes to show some scene, though it often seems to be as a way of accenting the person he is portraying rather than conveying anything thematically. However, you said you also like the way that Arnold Newman uses the environments of his subjects when he portrays them. Any favorite Newman works? And in what ways might we see the influence of Newman’s approach in this project, or in your future work?

Newman’s portrait of Stravinsky at his piano is one of my absolute favorite pieces of art. I don’t know that I’m so much influenced by Newman as inspired by him. I’ve tried to shoot environmental portraits before and can’t even begin to approach his genius in getting subject and environment to reinforce and complement one other. Whenever I try, the background invariably distracts from the individual. But I’m going to keep trying. I love this idea that a portrait can be a bit of a self-contained biography of a subject, and that subject accompanied by environment might make you ask a different set of questions about an image.

Besides your motivation to do this “Behind the Tech” project, how else has your background in technology [Scott is the Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft] informed and colored your choices as a photographer? In what ways, if any, for instance, does it make you a more technically-inclined photographer, and how has that both helped and hindered your photography? You mentioned that you like to shoot subjects whom you like or admire, but how else do you make sure to overcome the “gadget (camera) freak” mentality of some technologists to properly focus on your subjects?

I think that having a background in math and physics and engineering has helped with thinking about the tools and technical bits of photography as a system, and for me at least has made it quick to ramp up on new things and understand how things work. Which is great because honestly I want all of the technical bits to disappear into the background and to be able to focus my attention on the subject. One of the reasons that I do photography is for the conversation with the subject, thinking about a composition, visualizing the image I would like to capture without having my eye at a viewfinder, all of that is like a release from the technical stuff that I do for my day job.

I haven’t always been this zen. Focusing too much on gadgets and gear has definitely been a distraction in the past. I still enjoy the tools of photography. But, I was in a workshop with Ralph Gibson once and just blown away by what he was able to do with a Leica M, a 50mm lens, natural light, and his eye. And if you look at the amazing images that my three photography heroes make, it’s not because they are shooting with peak technology and complex setups. I think that for some folks, perhaps especially techies, it’s hard getting to the point where you understand that you, not your gear, is the most significant factor in making an image. In a way it makes you very vulnerable. But if you can’t get past it, you will always be focused on the wrong thing. (No pun intended.)

Why are you drawn to portraiture?

Among Arnold Newman, Peter Lindbergh, and Platon’s works, are there specific images that stand out for as inspirations and/or for your admiration and why?

Newman’s Stravinsky portraits, his portrait of Kurt Goedel, and the one of Leonard Bernstein I think are really amazing. The Stravinsky and Goedel portraits are spare, beautifully composed, with both of these geniuses sitting with the instrument of their art: Stravinsky at the piano where he would compose; Goedel in front of a literal blank slate where he might prove his next great theorem. The Bernstein portrait begs so many questions. What is Bernstein thinking? He’s perhaps known most for his conducting, but it’s just him, a score, and empty orchestra in the image. Is that a reflection on his disappointment that he wasn’t better known for his work as a composer? It just seems to capture something about Bernstein’s inner conflict that we know from the historical record was a real thing.

I love so much of Peter Lindbergh’s work. His 2017 Pirelli Calendar is really great in my opinion. I’m not a huge fan of the Pirelli Calendar in general, but Lindbergh’s 2017 I think is really powerful, and shows these rare glimpses of these celebrated women with little or no makeup, no retouching, no ridiculous wardrobe. They are just themselves, and for many of them, who have been photographed countless times, these are my favorite portrayals of them in portraiture.

I’ve already talked a bit about Platon, but some of my specific favorite portraits are the one of Willie Nelson hugging his guitar, the one of the mother at the grave of her son, a Muslim-American soldier killed in Iraq, the one of Jon Snowden with the US Flag, and the one of Sylvester Stallone smoking the cigar. The images of the grieving mother and of Snowden with the flag are just extremely well-done images of the juxtaposition of extremely emotional elements, and are obviously intended to provoke a strong emotion in the viewer. The other two are harder to explain, but both in addition to their technical qualities which I think are remarkable, also convey this sense of raw emotion.

 

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Cindy Chin Interview

Cindy Chin: Interview

Cindy Chin is CEO and founder of CLC Advisors. Cindy is an advisor to several startups. She is a member of NASA’s 2016 Datanauts class, one of NASA’s Women in Data open innovation program initiatives. She is a former consultant for McKinsey & Company, Coopers & Lybrand, LLC (now PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Strategic Hotels & Resorts.

From when and where does your interest in technology stem?

My interest in technology actually began at home. Both my parents worked in semiconductors and telecommunications. As a child, I got to witness the birth of the Internet and navigate it at its introduction into the marketplace. I remember a time when there were very few web pages, and it’s been exciting to see how technology has grown and the various cycles it has undergone.

Who are your favorite science and science fiction writers, and why?

I used to love C.S. Lewis as a kid. Then I graduated to J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings are still relevant today. I feel like every time you re-read his books in the context of life experience and different stages of your life, you learn something completely new. Or at least your understanding of life and its placement in time.

I am also a Dan Brown fan. He puts adventure into his fiction, which can sometimes be construed as science fiction because of his use of time in the stories. History, religion, and science are deeply intertwined, and he has a way of writing relevant big human challenges into his narratives.

Again, I want to revisit Douglas Adams, Stephen Hawking, some of Brian Cox‘s books, and a few other scientists. Also, non-scientists, including Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto on Industrial Society and Its Future. He was also known as the Unabomber but apparently he wrote this wild manifesto about the dangers and consequences of technology and mobile phones on the human race, relevant topic matters today. I am not condoning the hurt and actions of what he did to lead to the ending of human life, but understanding the psychology is of great interest. It’s only 33 pages.

Why your interest in space exploration?

Interest in space exploration began when I was a girl—and from the books I read. I used to sketch the schematics of the Space Shuttle, and my Dad and I would have conversations about astronomy, quantum physics and all things related to the universe.

As an adult, the interest and passion was reintroduced by an invitation from NASA during its transition and [the] end of the 35-year Space Shuttle program. I was invited to join NASA Social in the Mojave Desert in Southern California at NASA Armstrong Flight Space Center (known as NASA Dryden at the time) at Edwards Air Force Base on the final flight of Space Shuttle Endeavor from Kennedy Space Center to California. It started with that, then the Space Shuttle Atlantis transition at Kennedy Space Center and several other NASA Social events.

Currently, I am a member of the NASA’s open data initiative called NASA Datanauts that operates out of the office of NASA’s CIO [Chief Information Officer.]. The initiative is to encourage the education and exploration of data science through the use of NASA’s 32,000+ open datasets.

How did you become involved in NASA Datanauts, and why do you remain involved?

I learned about the NASA Datanauts after hearing about them during the White House State of Women Summit that First Lady at the time Michelle Obama hosted. I had read about the panel of women in STEM, which included NASA’s Beth Beck, who works out of the NASA CIO’s Office. I thought about the need of women in tech, but in particular data science and coding. My daughter codes at school, and I thought that if I wanted to continue to keep up with her and her education, I should learn coding. She’s a huge inspiration for me.

I recently gave a presentation about the future of space travel with NASA Johnson’s Chief Knowledge Architect David Meza on board a Lufthansa 747 flight [Lufthansa Flying Lab video]. LH405 from JFK to Frankfurt while traveling to the dmexco Conference in Cologne. Giving a talk at 33,000 feet or 10,000 meters up in the air is an experience that I will never forget and even more exciting that it was about space and its digital transformation! [dmexco panel on digital transformation of the space industry  (video) Cindy organized and co-created with German astronaut Dr. Thomas Reiter and David Meza (NASA Johnson. dmexco TV interview (video).]

Which technologies around Big Data most excite you right now and why?

I’m just beginning to learn about all the technology and tools that are available right now. It can be overwhelming to decide where to start, but having an understanding of where your fundamental strengths are is very helpful. For instance, I am a visual person, and photography is one of my passions. So, it would be natural that data visualization or modeling is pretty cool. When you’re working with space data, it’s incredibly inspirational.

Currently, I am learning about repositories like GitHub, coding languages like Python and R, and also data taxonomies and tidy data. They’re all tools to help organize over 32,000 data sets that NASA has opened up, and I am excited to see what people around the world will do with that data. It’s only a subset in learning how to navigate the dataverse, not to mention that sometimes data will “lie” to you, as fellow Datanauts and guru Karen Lopez reminds us, but to really look at where the sources come from. Keywords, or in social media what we would call “hashtags,” are integral in sourcing the data. Now, let’s add Blockchain into the mix and AI—it becomes almost three-dimensional and that is just super cool to me.

Where do you stand on the Elon Musk vs. Mark Zuckerberg divide on the potential benefits and dangers of AI?

The conversations and debate on artificial intelligence are just beginning. We are on the surface of a deep exploration of the cause and effect of AI in technology, and it is a natural progression for there to be contrary or opposing views and debate. It only shows responsibility as leaders in technology.

Personally, I don’t have a position on AI yet, because I am still learning, researching, and acquiring information, but media tends to amplify or exaggerate hot topics to bring it into the news cycle. I have to commend both Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg for participating in the debate and adding to the engagement of others. AI will also be democratized like the Internet.

I do recommend watching this video of Dr. Anastassia Lauterbach in her interview about being a board director and her viewpoints on AI in her upcoming book that will be out later this Fall.

Why was it important to you to go to Juilliard to study piano as an adult student? How has it impacted you professionally as well?

Music has been in my life since a very young age. It’s something that I’ve carried with me coming to the United States as an immigrant and learning how to adapt to my new homeland and expression. I was classically and competitively-trained. I stopped playing when I was 17 years old, and I found that even after I stopped to pursue more scientific and academic pursuits, I missed it. I would listen to music all the time, especially studying for exams. I work best with classical music, and I have had some of the most productive moments and best ideas sitting in on a New York Philharmonic rehearsal.

Studying at Juilliard came to me in the most fascinating of stories. It pretty much involved Daniel Barenboim, The Metropolitan Opera House, High Society patron Mercedes Bass, and The New York Times. It’s a story that’s told much better in person, and I am looking for a venue to give it. At the end, there were placement auditions, I auditioned and got accepted in the intermediate-advanced piano masterclass where we studied Beethoven and Chopin with professor Lisa Kovalik, and it was the most creative, artistic, and rewarding thing I could have done of myself as a young mom. Again, music was there when I needed it.

Juilliard itself has not impacted me professionally in a direct way, but my involvement with music and the performing arts has. The study of music gave me a foundation, fundamental knowledge, and language to describe the importance of the arts to society. It’s simply from my own love of all types of music that has led me to opportunities to serve on steering committees or boards on both coasts and overseas, or the years of training helped to really understand it at the highest levels. That time of service and engagement has opened doors professionally and, more importantly, the ability to leave a legacy in the work and conversations over the years. My daughter’s generation and beyond will benefit from it.

Who are your favorite pianists and piano composers?

My favorite pianists are Vladimir Horowitz, Yefim Bronfman who is incredibly kind and lovely. (I envy his big fingers!), Manny Ax whose equally generous and kind, and Alfred Brendel. But of all, I would wish to see Martha Argerich play Schumann one day.

My favorite piano composers are Mozart, who is like visiting with a childhood friend of mine when I hear his music, the “3 B’”s: Beethoven and his depth, Bach and his structure, and Brahms in his romantic period expressions, Chopin, and Schubert. Rachmaninoff is a beast, but my hands are too small to ever perform his music. And who doesn’t love Tchaikovsky? So many choices, but I also love jazz and pop music too. It’s universal, and it’s in my nature to be curious.

Tell us about the technology entrepreneurs whom you admire most.

Honestly, there are few tech entrepreneurs whom I truly admire. I respect them and their abilities to create and grow a company, but I admire more the scientists who created the foundations in which we can operate our tech. The Internet pioneers, some of whom I know and are friends or colleagues. So I guess Bill and Melinda Gates fall under that category and they’ve moved beyond tech to really make a difference with humanity. They also have true character. Entrepreneurs are people like everyone else. They are not gods. And if the U.S. Air Force decides to take down global GPS, then our smartphones would stop functioning as it is. Let’s just say, I’m grateful that we live in another age of creation and innovation across several sectors, energy, technology and humanity.

Please tell us about CLC Advisors. What kind of companies do you target, and what services do you provide? What would be an ideal client or investment for you?

So what is strategy? It is choosing a unique and valuable position rooted in systems of activities that are more difficult to match in the economic basis of competitive advantage to the level of the specific activities that a company performs. At CLC Advisors, our advisory and strategy consulting practice operates in strategic partnerships and knowledge sharing, we produce case studies, white papers, create bespoke innovation workshops and private salons globally during conference events bringing business and thought leaders together, social media consulting services, and I am often asked to speak at conferences across the globe from Boston to Beijing to Bulgaria.

I look for private investors, VCs, LPs, investment banks or private equity firms who are interested in investing in the global startup ecosystem, and I strategically align them with established entrepreneurs and founding teams of startups who are doing things with frontier technologies with the ability and talent to start, grow and scale great companies, all with a social impact component for the betterment and benefit of humanity. The startup stages are usually pre-seed, who have already raised $500,000 in capital in a “Friends & Family” round to Series B, often who are missing business management experience and need the expertise to bring them to the next level. Many startups lack the longer-term view on strategic growth and the ability to execute on business plans. That’s where we step in, and we also hold a board position as well.

The verticals that I operate in are under the Smart Cities umbrella, which can touch upon sustainability, green tech, energy, IoT and Big Data, as well as aerospace and aviation. Imagine, what would it take to get to Mars and then to survive on it? Can any of those things be done here on our own planet? There are a lot of big problems to solve before we get there, and thanks to Elon Musk—he is really driving new markets and another wave of entrepreneurship on a completely different level.

Lastly, diversity is a key criteria that I also look for. If there are no women or minorities in the company, I will pass on the startup or investor unless they demonstrate an earnest desire to change that ratio.

An ideal client is a private investor, group of investors, or VC who is interested in this space and who does not yet have the sector expert knowledge on what to look for. Many corporate VCs have entered into the venture capital realm and have a long runway time to learn, observe and research in the markets. I’ve been in this for years now and have spent the time in researching which geographical locations are working on these frontier technologies and are ahead of the rest. I hope to release a case study or white paper for clients on this soon.

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.