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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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