Category Archives: Interviews

Laugh Track: An Interview with William T. Oree

William T. Oree is serving twelve years to life at Attica Correctional Facility. He is the founder, writer, and editor of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, a self-published prison comedy magazine; his work has also been published in The Harvard Lampoon. He and his comedy writing partner are shopping a pilot script called PEN * PALS to production companies in Los Angeles. He is the inventor of “jailhouse comedy,” a blend of edgy, often raw humor with a little Shakespeare thrown in for good measure.

The Hedgehog Review: Obviously, your current situation informs much of your work. What do you use about prison in your comedy or theater performances?
William Oree: In the comedy genre I created, jailhouse, I have to be authentic. I have to tell the truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of incarceration. I write and perform material that is raw, zany, and politically incorrect. This truth would speak volumes in any forum, but especially so in prison.

Tell us about some of the topics that you want to address in your comedy.
I have had great success cloaking highly charged political, social, racial, and sexual issues in comedy. I have addressed everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to prison rape. I don’t mock the seriousness of these issues. Instead, I expose the racial divide that is at the center of so much of what I treat comically.

For example, I wrote a sketch for the “Disturbed Recesses of My Mind” issue of The Harvard Lampoon (May 2016) in which I relate the travails of a man who was arrested for sucking out the fillings of all the fruit pies in his neighborhood supermarket. He was arrested and prosecuted but neither the judge nor the district attorney recognized that he had a sugar addiction. They saw his actions solely as a crime for which incarceration was the only recourse. Thus, the idea of addiction became neither a medical nor a health issue but a social problem for which the only solution was going to prison. To me, it is comically obvious that what this guy needs is treatment not a jail cell.

In that same issue of the Harvard Lampoon, I had a piece, “Save America: One Crackhead at a Time,” in which I challenged society to address substance abuse through a skit about a family who invites a crackhead into their home and he gradually begins to relieve them of all their creature comforts. The point is dressed in humor, but I wanted to shock the audience into recognizing that they can address society’s ills by being proactive, no matter how silly it might seem.

Are there any subjects that you just won’t touch? Why not?
My sister was murdered under conditions inaccurately described as “domestic violence.” I find no humor in violence against women and children. When it comes to interfering in other people’s relationships, my instinct tells me to get involved—I’ve had heated arguments with many other prisoners who disagree. Many simply turn a blind eye to domestic violence. Sad. At the same time, I have to add that many of my fellow inmates have said that they would interfere to help a woman or child being attacked by a “stranger.”

What was your life like growing up?
I’m not sure if I ever grew up. My childhood was marred by two suicide attempts, the murder of my teenage sister, living with alcoholic parents, being in the foster care system, and the lack of hot running water. Because of my family’s situation, I became a sort of family “hero,” developing certain survival skills and protecting my siblings from starvation, molestation, exploitation, physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse, and the shame associated with being the children of alcoholics. I became an unashamed liar and a thief, stealing to put food on the table. I essentially sacrificed my childhood for the well-being of my family.

How did you end up in Attica?
Two reasons: I escaped from a New York City jail where I was being held for trial. Also, I received a twelve-years-to-life sentence for being a habitual offender—in New York, three or more felony convictions qualifies you for a life sentence.

Did you do theater or stand-up on the outside? If so, in what sorts of circumstances?
My theatrical training started in my youth. As a child of alcoholic parents, I developed the ability to adopt different personas in order to protect my family. For example, when confronted with bill collectors and landlords I’d do all the talking for my parents. From an early age, I seemed to be able to make people trust me and I became a skilled liar. I discovered that adults will usually listen to a child’s pleas when they won’t listen to those of a grown-up. I recall practicing how to sound like a responsible, middle-class, educated adult.

By the time I got to high school, I was active in drama club. If I didn’t get a speaking part in the school play, I worked as a stagehand. I learned how to be a stage manager and lighting designer. After high school, I started a break-dancing troupe, the Max Factors. We later moved to the Boston/Cambridge area to perform. Break-dancing was new, and we made a name for ourselves performing at the many colleges and universities in that area. But break-dancing didn’t last too long and, lucky for me, I knew how to network. Through my connections, I found odd jobs at local college drama departments and I worked as a lighting assistant and stage manager assistant. I eventually received a stage management internship at American Repertory Theater, but I walked off the job after insisting their techniques were inferior. Still, I made friends with a movie actor there who worked as an understudy for the role of stand-up comic. He invited me for drinks at open-mic night at a local comedy club. A few drinks later, I was onstage telling the story of my life and making people laugh. Unfortunately, when I returned to the club the next week, I was unprepared and failed to get even a giggle.

Who were your role models? How were you influenced by these people?
One was a police officer who taught me how to act my age—I was twelve—when I was trying to act like a thirty-something. Also, there was the founder of the Fortune Society who taught me to create an opportunity where there were none. [Since 1967, The Fortune Society has worked to assist ex-offenders as they return to society.] And there was the neighborhood crackhead who taught me that my life should not be defined by how many times I’d be knocked down, but by how many times I get up. Last but not least, a stand-up comedian who taught me to write, rewrite, and rewrite again.

You have said “to be an effective comedian, I have to meet the audience where they are.” Can you say a little more about this?
To be effective in comedy, you must know your audience. My audience is literally a tough crowd. Murderers, drug lords, thugs, and lost souls. Because my audience is in a state of psychological, sociological, and physical captivity, I have to craft my sets accordingly. I can’t simply tell jokes.

You can never be sure of what will work with a jailhouse audience. If the day before, the correctional staff assaulted a well-loved and respected inmate, the mood of the population could be restless and belligerent. Part of my craft is knowing how to elucidate the sordidness of daily prison life with humor. Truly, a tough task! I have to mix it up—a sketch here, a narrative there, followed by some Shakespeare, or something polemical. Because my audience is fluid, I have to move like water!

When you specialize in jailhouse comedy, there’s an abundance of material all around. I often say, jokingly, that I perform under duress—you can’t afford to bomb before an Attica audience. These guys have killed for less! But seriously.… In my comedy, I can address many distasteful prison conditions: strip-frisking, cavity searches—I’ve gotten a lot of laughs on that one, believe it or not! The jailhouse brand of humor emerged from just this kind of raw and edgy material.

As a performer, how do you keep people interested in what you are doing?
I have discovered that the average time a prisoner will engage with my routine is between five and fifteen minutes. That’s why I never lead with my best stuff. I often employ a strategy that works up the audience by sprinkling my sets with diatribes about current social or political topics. Polemics are alive and well in prison. This is often the means by which prisoners relieve their aggression in a safe and healthy manner. If all else fails, I pull out a few monologues by Shakespeare—you’d be amazed how much prisoners appreciate iambic pentameter. Plus, peel back the layers on just about any Shakespeare character and you’ll discover a polemical impetus.

In your work in Attica, you depend on collaboration, with fellow inmates and colleagues on the outside. What sort of collaborations have you had with people on the outside?
I collaborate with anyone willing to match my commitment to performance. At present, I am working with another prisoner who has started a performing artist program in another facility. He is awesome! I’m also working with a volunteer community college professor and the artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival [an opera festival in Cooperstown, New York] to make Attica’s theater arts program a success. The Glimmerglass opera company has performed twice for the prisoners in Attica and I think this led to the prison administration’s approval of our performing arts project. My writing partner, Sierra Katow, is a Harvard graduate who appeared on the NBC reality television show Last Comic Standing in 2015. I wrote to her out of the blue and she wrote back, requesting samples of my work. Today, we write sitcom pilots together.

Tell us about your theater arts program at Attica. What was the origin of the program and its goals?
The Glimmerglass opera performances at Attica helped the prison administration recognize the value of a theatrical arts program. But I also campaigned for three years to get the program approved. During that time, I performed Shakespeare at as many inmate events as I could. Finally, I became recognized and acknowledged for my dramatic abilities. I think it helped to be able to show the administration that I had the promise of assistance from a fellow inmate and a drama professor and Glimmerglass’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello.

We recently received approval from Attica administrators to move ahead with the program. I have many goals for the program, but my primary objective is to establish an empathetic and caring community through theater arts. In a healthier environment, therapeutic ideas, such as conflict resolution, just work better. I have seen countless instances of how drama can be successful in helping people explore personal issues.

Recently, you performed Shakespeare at an Attica event. What was that like?
That performance took place at the Attica Lifers Organization picnic. I performed Mark Antony’s speech over the body of Julius Caesar, beginning with “But yesterday the word of Caesar might / Have stood against the world. Now lies he there, / And none so poor to do him reverence…. ” and going on to “Oh, now you weep, and, I perceive, you feel / The dint of pity. These are gracious drops.” I became so caught up that I actually had tears in my eyes. But it was wonderful—the prisoners loved it, the outside guest loved it. Even the corrections officers applauded—that was a first. I was just happy to be able to get through the scene without having the white bedsheets fall from my shoulders!

You are working with a partner on the outside to develop a cable show. Are there any developments on that project that you would like to share?
My comedy writing partner has decided to shop our PEN*PALS sitcom pilot script to a few production companies in Los Angeles. While I do a lot of writing, Sierra does all the heavy lifting. I am honored and blessed to have a professional partnership with her. She also edits my self-published magazine called The Prisoner’s Lampoon which specializes in jailhouse comedy. Before we send out any edition of The Prisoner’s Lampoon, we send out samples to introduce its rather unorthodox content. We do this because my work has been labeled “objurgating”—to which I respond that an objurgating title obfuscates the obstreperous nature of jailhouse comedy.

How have you found that performing changes the discussion when it comes to certain issues? Have there been times when your approach seemed to go nowhere? Why do you think that was?
Some time back, I wrote a dramatic piece about Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. In the piece, I reversed the roles, having George Zimmerman in a hoodie walking through Trayvon Martin’s neighborhood. This went nowhere. Naturally, I knew that in a correctional facility where half the population is black and more than a third Latino a subject like this might be too delicate to address at all. But I wondered: What if I had written this piece as a comedy sketch? Would it have been more successful?

In the final analysis, we are all prisoners in one form or another. Whether in our careers, in personal relationships, or in our ties to the “good life” (home, car, education, family, financial security)—we believe we have freedom of choice, but do we really?

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The Murderer’s Reckoning:
An Interview with John J. Lennon

 

john and mom CROP_FLAT5

John J. Lennon’s essay “The Murderer’s Mother” appears in our 2016 summer issue. In this interview, Lennon, who is incarcerated at Attica for a drug-related murder, tells us more about his background, how he came to writing, and what it’s like to be a journalist behind bars.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): What was life like growing up?

John J. Lennon (JJL): I grew up poor, with a single mother, in a Brooklyn housing project. But I had more opportunities than most kids in the projects because my mother made money running hot dog stands. She was able to send me away to boarding school from fifth to eighth grade. It was mostly upper class, privileged kids, about thirty of us, living in a mansion on the Hudson River. In the seventh grade, I won second prize in an essay-writing contest. They gave me a $75 savings bond. (Two years later, I would swipe it from my mom’s drawer, cash it at a discount, and buy drugs.) Things got bad in my adolescent years. I’d learned my real father committed suicide and then we moved to Hell’s Kitchen. Mom enrolled me in public school, and all of a sudden, life was much less sheltered. At the time, the reputation of a murderous Irish mob called the Westies—most of whom were sent away to federal prison in the 1980s—seemed to rule the neighborhood.

Just to give you a flavor of the time, here’s a short anecdote: It was 1991 when I first met Danny, a then-thirty-something Westie who had somehow managed to avoid indictment. My friend Terrence and I were holding down our street corner. Full of swagger with dark hair and blue eyes, Danny winked at me when he walked by, “What’s up, kid?” “You know,” Terrence told me after he passed by, “Danny killed a guy before.” When I heard that, it wasn’t just fear I felt, but admiration, too. It was then that I began to see murder more as a revered deed among gangsters than as the mortal sin it was among civilians.

THR: Tell us more about the crime that sent you to prison.

JJL: Alex, the man I killed, was, like me, in the drug game. At the outset, the murder was about money, drugs, and respect. As sick as it sounds, it was also about this need for me to complete my image. (I think many murders committed within gangster culture have a lot to do with broken boys and young men who want to earn status in a subculture that they otherwise cannot earn in mainstream culture.) I shot Alex several times with an AR-15 while he sat in a car, then dumped his body off a pier. It was a terrible crime, for which I’m deeply sorry. This all happened in December 2001. Continue reading

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Release and Attack, Speed and Drag:
An Interview with Rosamond Casey

Mandelbrodt’s Nights, 1995, acrylic on glass, collage, from “Regions of the Will”

Rosamond Casey’s painting, Tabula Sacra, appeared in our spring issue accompanying the article “Vocation in the Valley.”  A painter, calligrapher, and teacher based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Casey recently spoke to THR about this painting and her other work.

The Hedgehog Review (THR): In describing your work, you have said “I excavate recognized systems—a man’s suit, the alphabet, cultural personas—fracturing them under examination so they can be set free, made transparent, or rendered slack.” What do you mean by the idea of “slackness”? Can you describe a project in which this was revealed? Did this elicit any particular response (sadness, disappointment, or dread)?

Initiation, photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Initiation, from “Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill,” 2008; photograph, acrylic paint on plexiglass, brass.

Rosamond Casey (RC): “Slack” is the condition of an object lying spread out to be examined. In order to grasp the meaning of a thing it has to be taken apart visually, and emptied of its regular blood flow, its habit of being, the way it’s used to being seen. As the observer of the thing, I have to come to the project in a similar condition, a little bit empty and dumb. To understand the weight, proportions, and contours of a thing like a man’s suit (an object that held my interest because it was both ordinary and engorged with meaning and has survived centuries of fine-tuning with no fundamental breakdown of its form and function), I have to turn it around in my hands, consider the scope of its cultural reach, recall my own primal sensory reactions to the look, smell, and feel of it, dissect its interior lining, understand its high structure and flaccid motion as it moves down the street in a wind. Many small art projects accompany this stage of getting to know the object and they all inevitably get thrown out. I never doubt that the object will eventually be recharged and give itself up to a deeper interpretation by the time the work is presented in a gallery. The project was ultimately called Men in Suits: A Day on the Hill (above).

THR: Can you describe how you came to focus on kinetics in art, that is, the impulses of fixing/stabilizing and liberating/releasing?

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

“Sixteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“ by Wallace Stevens; calligraphy

RC: I came to art early through an interest in the kinetics of shaping letters and designing text. I continued my commission work as a calligrapher, but in my painting I shed the text and focused just on the kinetic, rhythmic messaging of lines in space. The possibilities of pure expressive line led me to invent new hand tools that would allow those gestures of paint to take on the illusion of three-dimensional form. The speed and pressure under which the wet painted strokes were made created undulating surfaces on glass panels that looked like natural deposits formed by wind, water, and slow growth. The character of the kinetic energy of the stroke determined the form. All this information came from studying calligraphic forms and understanding principles of touch—release and attack, speed and drag.

THR: Your interest in the art and craft of bookmaking—whether in your calligraphy, papermaking, or book art—emphasizes the physical object and the artist’s hand. Your work in acrylics on glass (below) calls for a special kind of engagement with paint and surface. Through your installations, you encourage viewers to take part in the art. You are in effect drawing attention to the “thingness” of art. What role does the material aspect of art and artistic creation represent for you? Continue reading

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Enchanted Embroidery: An Interview with Hinke Schreuders

Two works by Amsterdam-based artist Hinke Schreuders appear in our fall issue, both using appropriated images affixed to linen and enhanced by embroidery. We asked the artist a few questions about her work.

schreuders view on paper2

view on paper #2, 2014, Hinke Schreuders

Please describe how you choose an image. What do you look for? 

I think I choose images intuitively, but since I have a degree in art, of course, this intuition is based on things I learned at art school and during my practice as an artist. The images of landscapes need to have a certain iconic quality, as well as stillness and some mystery. The use of landscapes is relatively new in my work, but as for the images on which women are depicted, yes, they do have certain characteristics I return to again and again.

The women, for example, almost never look in the camera, but seem to be distracted by something happening that is not in our view. This makes for a kind of suspense or suggestion that adds something new to the existing picture. After I altered them, the women seem to be distracted or seduced by something outside the image; they may look confused or worried where before they were plain, careless mannequins.

 

You must spend a great deal of time looking through old magazines, journals, calendars, and other ephemera. How does the concept of repurposing or recycling enter in to your work? Can you say a little about your experience interacting with mass-produced, printed materials?

The concept of repurposing does not, for me, have a meaning in itself. What is important, however, is that the prints I choose provide a starting point, as opposed to working on a blank canvas. I like it that there is something present that I can react to and make my own by adding or obscuring elements.

The fact that the photos are printed pages from old magazines does make for a vulnerable working surface, since the paper usually is old, yellowed, and somewhat brittle. I like it that this quality emphasizes the human and personal vulnerability that exists as a subject in my work. Continue reading

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An Interview With Alan Jacobs

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Over at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon has been hosting a discussion of Dr. Alan Jacobs’s “79 Theses on Technology.” Jacobs also held a seminar here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture to discuss his theses. We sent him some questions about his project, and he graciously took the time to answer them.

The Hedgehog Review: You’ve written seventy-nine aphorisms, or “theses for disputation,” on the Internet and technology more generally. Why this form? What does it open up about this particular topic?

Alan Jacobs: The form of the presentation—theses for disputation, as opposed to, say, an academic article—arises from a combination of humility and laziness. Humility because the disciplines relevant to the human experience of digital technology—psychology, sociology, theological anthropology, computer science, interaction design, neuroscience, behavioral economics, etc.—are so wildly varied that no one can possibly master (or even have an adequate familiarity with) them all, so that it makes sense to present one’s ideas as open to dispute or refutation. Laziness because I don’t have the time or energy to support all these ridiculous claims, and therefore will escape accountability by saying “I’m just interested in what you people think.”

THR: Thesis 1: “Everything begins with attention.” Every time I read this I go “hmmm…everything?” so I will ask: Everything?

AJ: Well…yes. If we’re thinking technology and personhood, and especially technologies of knowledge, in a context in which few if any technologies are definitively mandated—most of us could get jobs that did not involve the use of a computer if we really, really wanted to—then the best place to begin, I think, is by asking where my attention is going and why it’s going there.

THR: Thesis 26: “Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.” A platform like Medium seems to be attempting to do just this, though on a popular level rather than a scholarly one. Is this representative of the direction you are hoping online publishing will go?

AJ: No. On Medium, commentary is definitely secondary. You don’t see the comments unless you specifically choose to click on them, and even then only the comments that are explicitly approved by the author. Medium is an extremely author-centered technology. (I understand why the designers took that direction, especially given that toxic wasteland that almost all comment threads have become. But still.) Continue reading

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The Politics of Spectacle in Putin’s Russia: An Interview with Peter Pomerantsev

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The British filmmaker, journalist, and author Peter Pomerantsev was recently in the United States to lecture on Vladimir Putin’s use of culture and information to advance his domestic and international agenda. He stopped by our editorial office to discuss his most recent book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

The Hedgehog Review: Peter, your book, which I very much enjoyed, could also have plausibly been subtitled,  “What I learned while working in Putin’s culture industry.” But before you go into what you learned from that experience, could you tell us a little about what you did and how you got into what you were doing?

Peter Pomerantsev: Sure. I worked as a TV producer in Moscow. I had finished university in Edinburgh and film school in Moscow, and I was looking for a job, and there was just a lot more work in Russia than there was in Britain.

THR: This was the early 2000s, right?

PP: Yes, during the oil boom, when Moscow was a very happening place. Russia was the fastest-growing TV market in Europe, and there was just more opportunity to progress faster—to start making, directing, and producing programs and films rather than just assisting. It also seemed a very exciting place to be—the place, in many ways. It was a bit like Elizabethan England or New York in the Roaring Twenties. There was a real “Jazz Age” feel about it. There was a hint of menace, but the menace at that point seemed intriguing. Not like now, when it just seems threatening.

THR:. And, so, who did you start working for exactly?

PP: I worked with Russian TV channels, an entertainment channel. It was already, by 2006, morally déclassé to work in news. There were quite a lot of Westerners who had come over, working as bankers, international developers, and consultants. And there were also a lot of media people who had come over to teach the Russians how to make Western-style TV. I worked with an entertainment channel, which was explicitly apolitical. And it was my job to make a 120 million Russians laugh and cry.

So we did. This channel brought the reality show to Russia, and it brought the sitcom to Russia. The ratings were very good. The mood at the channel was sort of culturally punkish, but it was very, very successful, and rolling in gas money. And everybody who was working there was, like, twelve. The head of the channel was a thirty-something. Continue reading

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A Connoisseur of Vanishing Acts: An Interview With John Rosenthal

The Hedgehog Review: Our forthcoming fall issue includes a photo essay with the work of, among others, American photographer John Rosenthal. John, please describe your background and how you came to photography.

John Rosenthal (JR): My route to photography was so circuitous I can hardly follow it. In my twenties, I taught literature at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro and UNC–Chapel Hill and, during the summers, acted in stock theaters. In 1970, after the Kent State killings, I was one of the leaders of the strike that closed down the university. To the administration, I became a persona non grata, and, in the fall, I was told that my lectures were being monitored. Who needed it? So I quit.

Coney Island, New York, 1974; courtesy of the artist

Coney Island, New York, 1974; courtesy of the artist

My then-wife and I moved to Rethymnon, Crete, where I borrowed a camera and began to photograph everything—the people, the children, the rocks, the sheep, the fog over the Mediterranean. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved it. When we returned to America, I bought a Pentax and, when it got dark, I set up a darkroom in my kitchen. One night, I watched a new photograph rising up out of the developer. It was a photograph of two men, one of them shirtless, standing in front of a small fire on the beach at Coney Island (left). Behind them, in the distance, a ferris wheel and roller-coaster seemed to drift in the mist. I thought, okay, this is good, call yourself a photographer.

 

THR: Are there any photographers whose work has made a deep impact on you? Have you encountered any particular mentors or teachers?

JR: Literature brought me to photography, but not right away. I had to learn somewhere that what you see isn’t all there is, and I learned it by reading. Even though Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a book, it created in my mind images that were brighter and more distilled than anything my eyes could see. But more specifically, in the late 1960s, my late friend and mentor, Jean Morrison, a poet, photographer, and teacher, sat me down and said he wanted to show me something. Then he handed me a book of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, saying “Don’t look fast. Don’t assume you know what you’re looking at. They’re complicated.” I knew nothing about the art of photography. I’d never heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank or Diane Arbus. Probably, I’d seen Ansel Adams’s photographs of Yosemite, but I didn’t care about them.

Now, I found myself looking at a 1938 black-and-white photograph [Cartier-Bresson’s On the Banks of the Marne] of two plump, middle-aged couples sitting on the bank of the Marne, enjoying a picnic. Dirty plates, an empty bottle of wine, newspapers, a picnic basket, forks. In the river, two boats were tethered to the shore by two poles. In one of the boats, three fishing rods were propped up, dangling their lines in the river. A woman in a skirt and slip was chewing on chicken bone. One of the men, in suspenders, was refilling his wine glass, his face with its Charlie Chaplin moustache turned sideways to the camera. The other three were turned away from the camera, facing the river. The photograph’s composition was as relaxed as the picnic, but it managed to convey a culture, a society, a landscape, and, above all, the texture of friendship. The photograph, which was both an inward and outward fact, both a metaphor and itself, was a poetic act of consciousness. That year I learned to read the complex language of a photograph, and that opened up Robert Frank’s America, Diane Arbus’s creepy wonderment, and the beautiful elusiveness of Eugène Atget.

 

THR: You have said, “To be a photographer is to be a connoisseur of vanishing acts.” Please say a little more about this evocative statement.

JR: Well, when I first began to photograph in lower Manhattan, I found myself drawn to things like bottles of seltzer water stacked in wooden crates, dusty bread-shop windows, Ukrainian men playing backgammon in Tompkins Square, movie marquees on 42nd Street, a ship in the window of an Italian seamen’s club on Mulberry Street. There was nothing self-conscious or intentionally documentary about these photographs. They were the city I’d fallen in love with. To me, New York’s dynamic urban beauty was equal to the views at any number of litter-free national parks.

Then the city sanitized itself, real-estate prices soared, and a lot of New York disappeared to make room for the yuppies. Only then did I realize that what I’d been photographing was the imperiled city.

It turned out, to my surprise, that those early photographs are now considered documents. New York the way it used to be. Unlike Ansel Adams’s High Sierra mountains, which will stay put for a very long time, my photographs of New York in the 1970s deal almost exclusively with landscapes and moods that have largely vanished.

 

THR: Whether deliberate or unintentional, a photograph almost always conveys a particular story or connotation of a subject. What are your views on the ethics of photography?

JR: Photographing people, strangers especially, can be a very tricky thing to do, ethically tricky, even if it’s now a universal cellphone activity. And photographing pre-adolescent children as if they were seducing the camera brings the problem to a darker level. I think a clever person with a camera can be very dangerous. A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything). It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty. I recall a photograph I saw many years ago—I won’t say who took it—of a woman in a mink coat staring into a glittering jewelry store window on Madison Avenue. She may have been idling away her time, as the rich often do, or she may have been returning home from a hospital visit to a friend who was ill. Her expression was haughty. The mink coat made it so. The photographer, of course, knew nothing about this woman, but she had turned her into a symbol of the bored rich. She’d played into a collective hunch about women in mink coats on Madison Avenue, and many viewers have undoubtedly nodded their heads at this faux profundity.

Of course, there are many occasions in which a stranger is the person you photographed, but that’s because they’ve already been reduced. They are holding a sign. They are angry. They want attention badly. And sometimes strangers simply want or need a photographer to tell their story. But, generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.

 

THR: You have described how people see a divide between the verbal and the visual. As both a teacher—and one for whom literature led to photography—and a visual artist, you would seem to straddle this divide. Is this divide real? Why or why not?

Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, 2003; courtesy of the artist

Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, 2003; courtesy of the artist

JR: Frankly, I think the verbal/visual thing is an empty distinction that exempts writers from looking at Hopper’s paintings and painters from reading Faulkner’s books. But we need both kinds of artists in our lives! Yet I know that photography is connected to storytelling in a way that painting isn’t. I recognize that. Photographs—if we are to know the mind of the photographer and not just the cleverness of his image—need to exist in some kind of continuum, which can often be transformed into a narrative. Think of Robert Frank’s influential book of photographs The Americans (1958), a purely visual poem describing an America haunted by its own loneliness. It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction for The Americans.

 

THR: You have described photography as “the deep surprise of living in the ordinary world.” How have you overcome complacency or habit in order to remain in a state of wonder?

JR: Nowadays I think “wonder” is more of a capacity than a state-of-being. If you remain in a state of wonder, how could you develop any sort of wit? You’d end up like that terrible innocent, Harold Skimpole, in Bleak House.

Coronado, Ocala, Florida, 1986; courtesy of the artist

Coronado, Ocala, Florida, 1986; courtesy of the artist

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t seasons of wonder. Becoming of a photographer in the early seventies was like living in that season. My first marriage was ending in North Carolina, I’d quit teaching, I had no money, and here I was, walking around Tompkins Square on the Lower East Side, looking for the right photograph. It was as if I was wandering through an undiscovered country, not exactly lost, even though I had no idea what I’d encounter on the next block. I mean, suddenly my job consisted of looking at things and photographing them in such a way that someone else would say “Yes!” What a wonderful thing to do! Of course, aesthetic and moral questions were a kind of energy. What should I photograph? Should I look at it widely or narrowly? What are the limits of intrusion? How do I learn to slow down enough to truly look? Not having developed my own way of looking at things, I pretended, at least half the time, that I was Cartier-Bresson, and I looked for images that would contain his kind of information. Sometimes I’d see something that I liked, a bar on a corner with sunlight falling sideways on the street, and I’d just wait around for something else to happen, like a dog running by. Then the dog would run by, and I’d take the photograph, and I’d take a deep breath because I knew I was getting it.

Of course later on, when I was finally taking my own photographs, not Cartier-Bresson’s, I exchanged that early wonder for patience and know-how. That was necessary.

But the capacity for wonder doesn’t go away. In 2007, when I saw the Lower 9th Ward [in New Orleans] for the first time, I felt the same way I’d felt in 1970s in lower Manhattan. Here was a story that hadn’t been told. Other stories had been told about it, but not the one I wanted to tell. Once again, I was on fire.

 

THR: So your work in New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina brought you back to the fundamental reasons for becoming a photographer. What were those fundamentals? How did you approach this project knowing that some many people were visiting the city with more prurient intent as “disaster tourists”?

JR: When my wife and I visited New Orleans in February 2007, I had no intention of photographing the Lower 9th Ward or, for that matter, any of the breached levee zones. We were there to see a city that was, once again, opening up its doors. All I knew about the Lower 9th Ward—and I learned it while the Lower 9th was filling up with water—was that the media invariably linked it to poverty and crime. Then, the Lower 9th was underwater and people drowned, and now, in 2007, it was uninhabited. I’d seen the disaster and post-disaster photographs. End of story. New Orleans wasn’t my city.

St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 9th Ward, New Orleans, 2007; courtesy of the artist

St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 9th Ward, New Orleans, 2007; courtesy of the artist

But when a local friend drove me through what remained of the Lower 9th Ward, I was shocked. Not just by its eerie silence and emptiness, although that was shocking enough. No, it was more of a mental surprise: That the Lower 9th wasn’t anything like what I’d been led to believe. It wasn’t a slum; it was a working-class neighborhood full of bungalows. There was an elementary school named after Louis Armstrong. There were churches, once full of worshipers, with wooden doors falling off their hinges. There were abandoned homes, baking in bacteria, homes that had once been lovingly tended. You could still see that. But such care was pointless now, tragically so. People, I saw, had loved this place, and soon everything was going to be demolished. The only sound I heard in the Lower 9th Ward was the rumble of dump trucks and the crunching of wood.

The collapse of the distinction between “us” and “them” is the beginning of real documentary work. It is also one of the journeys consciousness is required to take. If you don’t take it, you’re probably a propagandist.

I decided to archive the loss, to memorialize it, before everything was gone. Photographs do that very well. They’re a fine, if modest, consolation. They testify to what has been and what will be no more, and this testimony matters. I hoped my photographs would tell a story about possession and loss, community and separation. I’d photograph only the evidence. Small things. This was someone’s home. These were the bulletin boards in someone’s kindergarten class. Everything I photographed then has since been carted away.

In 2008, on the third anniversary of Katrina, the New Orleans African-American Museum held an exhibit of my Lower 9th Ward photographs. I believe that if the photographs had pretended to know more than they had a right to know, had tried, say, to capture the sorrowful faces of the dispossessed, the invitation would never have been extended.

 

THR: How do you reconcile photography’s mechanical or technical aspects with its potential for expressiveness? Has there ever been an instance in which your expertise as a photographer has failed to capture the moment you saw with the naked eye?

JR: Well, one’s proficiency—as a photographer using technical equipment—improves over time. You learn what you’re doing, and the odds of capturing what you want improve. Your timing gets better. You can anticipate, if not always what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” then at least the indecisive moment you’ve been looking for. I know this sounds a little crazy, but on the deepest level of expression, I don’t think it matters if you’re holding a pen or a camera. “I’m an artist,” John Lennon said, “and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”

Expertise, however, is different from proficiency, especially, in the arts, where it is only approximate. Creativity, of the highest sort, has its seasons. It waxes and wanes. A photographer with expertise, one who consistently produces expert images, is probably a wedding photographer. My goal as an artist is to avoid predictability and to create fresh images. So I have to keep finding a way to slide away from my own expertise, and to realign my sights.

Some photographers take the same photograph over and over¸ and that requires a kind of expertise. It’s a way of making a living.

 

THR: Can you tell us about what sort of equipment you use? Do you prefer traditional film or digital cameras? If you use a digital camera, have there been any modifications in your methods or your approach?

JR: Well, I should start off by saying that I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for a while now. Probably out of necessity. I spend as much time working on digital prints as I used to spend in the darkroom, but now I don’t have to stand on my bad left foot.

In my case, switching from film to digital was a matter of convenience, and that’s about it. Even though I am using a new technology, the reasons why I take photographs haven’t changed. The digital camera is, really, just a camera, and the world I want to photograph is the same old world. The old challenge remains unchanged: to use my camera to disclose some sort of hidden meaning that lies below our common awareness. A poet’s task, neither more nor less. So I trained myself to look closely for the little thing that nobody was paying attention to, the quiet thing that didn’t want to give away its secret importance. An unmade bed. A chessboard in Tompkins Square after a rainstorm. Something you might walk right by.

I guess I have faith that the actual world, as it is, is enough. It’s my guiding principle. I think that if I move things around in my photographs, arrange expressions, say, or digitally create a dream effect, then I won’t meet the criterion of perception that I’ve set for myself. I want to distill reality, not modify it with software.

Of course I’m describing only one approach to image-making—one that I inherited from a certain time and place. It’s just the way I do things. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other ways of considering and making photographs. It’s just mine.

John Rosenthal’s New Orleans photographs will appear in AFTER: The Silence of the Lower 9th Ward (Safe Harbor Books, forthcoming 2015). See more of his work at www.johnrosenthal.com.

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Recombinant Approaches: Talking With Nancy Goldring

The Hedgehog Review: In our just-published 2014 summer issue, we include two works by Nancy Goldring, The Traveler Remembers_Friday and Borobudur_Broken Heads. Nancy, you describe these as foto-projections. Can you say a little more about your process on these works?

Nancy Goldring: While my personal approach to making art has remained relatively consistent over the last 40 years, it is important to understand that I have no prescription or formulaic system. Rather, I have contrived a way of working that will generate the images I have in mind. The process is therefore always evolving, based on invention and discovery.

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© Nancy Goldring, The Traveler Remembers_Friday, 1987, Cibachrome foto-projection; courtesy of the artist

Generally, to develop my thought or render the image, I begin the process with sketches and, ultimately, a finished pencil drawing. I then transpose that drawing into a low relief, using paper, cloth, mylar, threads, etc. Using multiple slide projectors, I project fragments of slides that I have taken previously in situ back onto the relief, which functions as a kind of screen. Working in the dark with a large-format camera, I photograph the model with the superimposed projections to produce what I have called “foto-projections.” Each image, therefore, has the same relief model as its architecture and different slide information. The sequence of foto-projections suggests various modes of looking—contemplation, rumination, or reverie.

THR: What is your art background? Formative experiences?

NG: Though I was always drawing as a child growing up in St. Louis, I never officially studied art, opting for Art History in college. (Art wasn’t an acceptable major at the time.) Perhaps most formative was my experience studying in Florence, first at the university and later on a Fulbright Scholarship.

I spent most of my time with what would now be called “conceptual architects.” It was an exciting moment during which traditional categories were being challenged and boundaries between disciplines were beginning to dissolve—for example, one didn’t have to be a photographer to incorporate photography into one’s work or an architect to produce images of “place.” We were all intensely politically engaged. Perhaps naively, together we proposed new approaches to making art, believing that artists and architects could collaborate to transform public space without relinquishing our individual artistic endeavors. It was an exciting (if short-lived) moment, and the two years in Italy had a profound affect on my way of thinking and working when I returned to the US.

And then there was the Renaissance. I have long been exploring ways of representing the three-dimensional world on a flat surface or in relief form. In Italy, I was able to research the origins of linear perspective first-hand (the subject of my Fulbright). By examining and elaborating on that system in my work, I hope to reveal its basic cultural meanings and to ponder its stunning irrationality, while proposing new ways of describing space inclusive of time.

Also important in my formation was my encounter with the late art historian Leo Steinberg in the early 1970s. He is the writer I most admire, and his early support of my work encouraged me profoundly. His focus on “looking,” together with his unrivalled use of language and breadth of culture helped form my thinking about making art.

THR: It seems that your work has many influences—surrealism, pictorialism, photo montage, collage, even video. Can you tell us more about your artistic influences?

NG: I have always been intrigued by syncretic images. So rather than specific “isms” or particular media, it might be more accurate to say that I am interested in recombinant approaches. Does it really matter whether it is a painting or a photograph? I find American viewers are most interested in how images are made, but I am more concerned with finding an appropriate language for the image—whatever medium works best.

And rather than looking at general trends or movements, which are useful designations but always diminish the individual work of art, I feel more comfortable thinking about how specific artists have affected my vision. The art works from which I have learned most or with whom I have found affinities span an enormous gamut—from Assyrian reliefs to the base of the Obelisk of Theodosius from 390 A.D. to Piero della Francesca, Parmigianino, and Mondrian. The early work of Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, and James Turrell were as important as that of architects Alessandro Anselmi and Massimo Scolari. Perhaps the artist/architect Michael Webb of the group Archigram [an innovative group of architects working in London in the 1960s], whose exquisite drawings grapple with notions of infinite space while focusing on the quotidian, has had one of the most profound effects on my image-making.

On another level, much of my work also connects with what I am reading almost like osmosis, it seeps in subliminally—whether the poetry of Wallace Stevens, the writings of anthropologist Michael Taussig, or the novels of Javier Marias. I may borrow a title of a poem or deploy a structural device from someone—and allow it to find a visual equivalent.

THR: Describe how you use the idea of layers in your work.

NG: I don’t think of them so much as layers but rather as alterations in the surface of things. By shifting the weather or state of mind—by changing the sky, the shadows, the scale, or the proximity of the viewer—I can alter one’s experience of the place. The diverse images in a series are all “true.” The trick is to make the projected layers meld into a cohesive, convincing image of place—whether an actual locus or merely a moment from a dream remembered—that resonates with the original site and that reveals aspects of the place in a way that a single snapshot can’t. When the projections work, they all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle—creating a credible, if implausible world.

THR: Much of your work has come out of traveling. How does being an artist influence your perceptions of other cultures? How does what you see and experience abroad enter your work?

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© Nancy Goldring, Borobudur_Broken Heads, 1992, Cibachrome foto-projection; courtesy of the artist

NG: I began traveling when I was 15 and never stopped. Because most of my work comes from what I see around me, if I am in New York City, Peridenya, Sri Lanka, or Sarteano in Tuscany, my work involves finding a way to evoke, depict, or represent what I experience in that place. Though careful observation comes first, my process involves research: detecting palimpsests in the architecture or observing how people move and inhabit the place. Of course as an outsider, one can never fully understand the history and culture of another place, but perhaps my work can be understood as document of the attempt to do so. It also registers where art fails to achieve full understanding. And perhaps its tiny successes indicate the importance of the attempt.

For example, the series Place Without Description (an inversion of the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens) conjures a site I visited in western China near the border with Burma.  From my perch high over the Yangtze River, I had observed how a secluded Tibetan monastery presides over the valley. Having spent time grappling with the Chinese modes of representation, I tried to experience this highly spiritualized site through non-western eyes. As I did so, a different kind of relationship with the natural world emerged, as the viewer, untrammeled by a western perspective system that privileges a single vantage point, is allowed wander freely into the natural landscape.

THR: Have you recovered from the damage done to your studio by Hurricane Sandy? Has this experience had an effect on how you work or has it entered your work in some way?

NG: I try not to think about it too much since the loss of 34 years of work is unfathomable. There was a moment, though, in which the destruction felt almost liberating—as if I could free myself from the past to better concentrate on things current. There seemed no point to trying to salvage work that had been submerged for a week under nine feet of asbestos-contaminated briney water, and I could only move on. I set up a temporary studio in a friend’s loft and got back to work.

The night of the storm and the early morning after I spent drawing what I had seen from the window: horizontal driving rain and a chaos of swirling lumber threatening to shatter my window. I had just completed a series titled Urban Amnesia based on the view out my studio window onto the Hudson. In this earlier piece, I examined the way urban growth often destroys any sense of historical continuity and personal memory tied to place.  Using the drawings inspired by the storm and the same view from my window, I developed a new series that I called Urban Alchemy. My intent was to evoke the sea-change that took place with the hurricane. I had never before attempted to record an actual event of such magnitude. The city had become vulnerable and its fragile infrastructure incapable of self defense.

I had also lost the studio where I had been projecting for 30 years with all of its customized equipment. Urban Alchemy is the first piece made in my new (too small) workspace in a friend’s loft. Having lost the studio, it occurred to me to wonder if I needed to continue this intricate and labor-intensive way of making art. Should I find another way to work? Urban Alchemy answered that question for me.

THR: Tell us about some new work you are doing.

NG: At present, I am in the midst of the final shoot of Sea Saw, a piece I began last summer while in a small town in Puglia, Polignano al Mare. Every day, I drew the view from my balcony carved into a dramatic cliff high over the sea. I couldn’t fit the spectacular view with its ever-expanding horizon onto the page—the drawing pad felt much too restrictive. To suggest its breadth, I turned the pad 45 degrees so that the horizon sliced the page diagonally. The images invert the built townscape and the rocky natural setting to mimic the kind of dizzying precariousness that I felt in my perch over the sea. I hope to finish it by the fall to present the series at a conference on Italian landscape at the University of Leicester.

THR: What sort of contemporary cultural trends, if any, find their way into your art?

The contemporary trends that might affect me directly are those most promoted in the highly commercialized art worlds of New York and at the international art fairs. I find it difficult to generalize about these “trends” packaged like fast food for easy consumption. The trends I appreciate most are those smaller voices—work that can be found by lifting up rocks. The emergence of alternative online publications represents a positive force, especially for many younger artists whose goal isn’t to fit into the system, but to offer alternative ways.

It is good news that one can see abstract painting again. There is a certain level of abstraction in what I do—I would situate the vision somewhere at the edge of abstraction like Mondrian’s Pier and Ocean paintings. I feel as if my hybrid process is in itself a sort of abstraction or a way of abstracting from perception and, therefore, the renaissance of this less literal form of representation and depiction promises new space for growth.

My work has often been shown in exhibitions with “conceptual” artists. I share in common with them the notion of working in series or non-narrative sequences because it generates propositions about art and questions the nature of making it. For reasons that I will never fathom, conceptual artists today generally believe that one must relinquish the visual in order to focus of the concept. I have little in common with this strain and see no reason why visual thought should be considered a distraction from “the idea.” One hopes mere looking can become a transformative experience uniting thought and feeling.

See more of Nancy Goldring’s work at her website. Leann Davis Alspaugh is the managing editor of The Hedgehog Review. Our summer issue is available now at select Barnes & Noble bookstores or at www.hedgehogreview.com.

 

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