Dennis Darling is an Austin-based photographer and professor at the University of Texas who has inspired generations of photojournalists.
You’ve done a lot of traveling and covered widely different subject matter. What drives that?
It’s curiosity. When I came to UT, I came on a tenure track, which means in six years if you haven’t proven yourself to their satisfaction, they ask you to leave after the seventh. So I saved a few hundred dollars a month. I figured that would give me enough if I didn’t get tenure, or if I did get tenure I would ask for time off and go travel. A lot of those pictures I send out [in the email retrospective], I haven’t seen at all. They were just contact sheets. They were from that trip in ‘86 or ‘87 where I got tenure and bought a one-way ticket around the world with no particular thing in mind.
For $2000 back then, you could buy a ticket, good for 365 days and, as long as you were heading in the same direction, you fly where ever. It was nice to be able to wake up in Malaysia and say, “Today I want to go to Thailand,” and just go on a whim.
There was no agenda?
None. I went to Ireland and then England and then flew to Delhi because I had been to Europe a lot at that point. I was out seven months, I think. This was before the Internet. It was hard travel. I went to make a phone call from Katmandu to the US and they said come back Thursday and this was Monday. They had one wire coming into this place and you had to make an appointment and they’d put you in a booth and could call for ‘x’ amount of minutes.
It proved to me that I could probably go anywhere and do anything I wanted to by myself – that I didn’t need any support. I went into the jungles of Borneo, I went into Burma when it was still Communist. I went up into the golden triangle in Laos and Thailand. I did all these weird-ass things, and for the most part, I didn’t take any pictures. I just did things that interested me. I didn’t photograph everything I ever saw. Most of the stuff I did [photograph], were things that I wanted to remember, not necessarily an interesting picture.
All my negatives fit into four shoe boxes.
All my negatives fit into four shoe boxes. I throw them all away, all the jobs I ever done. When I got out of college I worked for Whittle Communications which owns all these college life magazines, but they also own Esquire. I worked for Parent Magazine. I used to have pages of [negatives] of breast feeding mothers and people and playgrounds. I just went through my negatives again and threw away another basket full of them. Hopefully, in the next decade when I’m old and grayer, I’ll have just one shoe box that I can pass down say, “Here’s what I’m proud of,” and the rest of it doesn’t even matter.
Any surprises in going back through that work?
The surprises are the subject matter I’ve been able to get in to. And I don’t know why that interests me. Probably Catholic school full of people in strange uniforms, violence, and intolerance. It just gave me a taste for exploring those themes. Take a woman, dress her in wool and tell her she can’t have sex for the rest of her life – that will make somebody mean. They got a chip on their woolen shoulder. The thing I value the most is having a sense of history – the Holocaust, the Mexican-American men that fought in the Mexican revolution, a series I did for Texas Monthly, or the WWII veterans, or any number of the other things I’ve done. I’ve had this desire to photograph things that will survive and be important somewhere down the line to somebody else.
Did you have that sense of history in the making when you were photographing the KKK or motorcycle gangs in the ’60s and ’70s?
I don’t know. I’m drawn to the darker side – the people who create the darkness or the people that suffer from it. I didn’t realize this until recently – I had photographed the American Nazi Party and now I’m doing Holocaust survivors. I guess if you live long enough you end up back where you started.
I’ve seen one of your Nazi Party portraits from your email list and your portraits from Terezín. It strikes me that they are both nonjudgmental depictions. The way you approach the darkness is still respectful.
Yeah. I’m not there to judge. I have opinions but I’m not interested in what makes people tick, just to show that they’re ticking. One Jewish friend of mine…I showed her the Nazi portraits and she says, “You showed those SOB’s for what they really are.” I show the same picture to the Nazi’s and they say,” Great! You really show us the way we are,” and they give the prints to their families.
I’m drawn to the darker side – the people who create the darkness or the people that suffer from it.
So the photograph is a neutral document.
That’s important. It’s easy to photograph somebody in an awkward position. Newspapers do this all the time. They’ll find the most unflattering pose for somebody that they’re in opposition to – some politician with his mouth open or an awkward look. It’s easy to do that in subtle and not so subtle ways. Someone picking their nose or itching their butt. It’s harder to convey that kind of sinister existence or survivors that have overcome obstacles that live to be 90. It’s harder to convey, in a subtle way, that people can then draw their own conclusions. I hope [the viewers] are interested enough to follow through and go beyond the pictures and learn something about what the pictures are of. Maybe not to learn more, but to whet their curiosity. Whether they learn anything or not, I don’t know. I have plenty of pictures that are not flattering to the Klan but I choose not to use them. I think you can be opinionated in a civil, and not mean-spirited way, but that’s not en vogue at the moment.
I’m basically a crappy technician and a lot of my negatives aren’t good negatives, but I occasionally hit on something. I credit that to my sense of design and proportion rather than my photographic skills. I should be going to digital. I’m the perfect candidate to take digital pictures because I’m crappy at doing that other stuff. But I do and it takes a lot of work to make it work.
That’s why I’m sending out all these things I haven’t seen before, because I didn’t have the energy to screw around in the darkroom with a 35mm frame that’s 40 years old. But now you have Photoshop, spot the dust electronically, burn, dodge, and make prints. The technology has caught up with my inept-ability. It’s starting to gel now. And that was the impetus for this email thing. I knew I could send 100 or 200 photographs that I’ve never seen larger than an inch tall. The technology made it possible.
I’d been thinking about this for a long time. Last year I tried to make a picture a week and it lasted about four weeks. I just couldn’t do it and schedule it around school to get in the studio, the PTA or my wife’s travel. Then I thought I can send one out a week that even I haven’t seen.
I look at these contact sheets and I think, I don’t remember that at all. There’s one coming up that’s a grab shot, it’s called Garbage Can Cowboy, Venice. It’s this guy walking with a little pistol.
Garbage bag cowboy, Venice,Italy, winter 1992
He’s got a mask on and this ugly looking hat and he has a garbage bag over him with a star on it. I looked at that picture and said, “This is really weird.” Its’ not a great picture, just a weird picture. It needed a lot of work, it was on a gray cloudy day at dusk, and I’m sure I just said there’s no way I’m going to get grade 4.5 paper and screw around with burning and dodging on that thing, it’s never going to come out. Now it took 15 minutes and I have a decent print of it. But there’s lots of them like that, with vague recollections or no recollection at all.
Do you need an intern?
I have my share of student help. I have various TA’s, four or five a year that work for me, and they have an aversion to work. Ha ha. They want the money but they don’t want to do anything. It takes more time to manage them than just do it myself. And what would they do?
Make scans of the negatives? Are you afraid of how they would handle them?
I handle the negatives terribly. I’m, like, eating a ham sandwich while I’m doing it. I shouldn’t say this, but I don’t even measure my chemistry. I think about film the same way I think about cooking. If it says a cup, it’s sort of a cup, could be a little more or less, and a pinch of sugar. Not that I’m a great cook, but I’m a decent cook and I bake well. It’s a unique experience each time, and sometimes it works and sometimes the souffle comes out flat. I’ve got a lot of flat souffles on gelatin.
How did your project on Terezín begin?
I was sent to Brazil on study abroad and I hated it because it was so rough and tumble. It was impossible to take a group out with cameras and expensive equipment. I was in Salvador, the third largest city and the old slave capitol. It was 100% black and I’m 100% white, there’s no body whiter than me but Queen Elizabeth. It was difficult [to shoot] because of the poverty. We had five years worth of salary for a local around our necks. We didn’t lose anything but some pick-pocketed money. When asked to go back again, I said, “No. What else you got?” And they said Prague.
Doris Grozdanovicova, photographed in front of the former military hospital where her mother died - Terezin Ghetto, Terezin, Czech Republic, June 2012
I didn’t even know about Terezín, but I hopped a ride with another study abroad group because they had an extra seat. I went to Dachau 25 years earlier and got interested in the Holocaust then. I started taking my students out to Terezín and then started looking for survivors to talk to my students when we went out there.
The thing about Terezín that’s interesting is, unlike most of the camps that were wooden barracks, the Germans took over a 17 century fortress town and kicked all the residents out, turned it inside out, and made the town the prison. It was a beautiful architecture done in the 1700’s baroque and 1800’s empire style, all in really good shape. It had churches and stores – all that stuff became barracks. A town of six or seven thousand turned into a town of 70 thousand when it was a prison. They were putting people up in the attics.
There was an inordinate amount of people with creative talent that were held there. Because of where they were drawing from – Bohemia – there were a lot of composers, artists, sculptors, musicians, and dancers all in that one place. And because it was not a death camp, but more of a concentration or holding tank, the Germans allowed them to perform for each other and perform for them.
They had these things called “friendly evenings” where the kids would perform little children’s operas, or, one of the people I photographed, the 108-year-old woman in London, she was a concert pianist. She played 100 performances while she was in Terezín for over four years. Because of that, Terezín has this reputation of being almost a country club. By comparison to Auschwitz it probably was. They were doing these performances, but also getting shot and hung in the lower fortress below the town, brutalized and then sent off to other camps. It has a lot more survivors than Auschwitz. People survived Terezín in one way or another.
I went over there in the spring to attend this conference of survivors, and I didn’t get many takers because I don’t speak Czech. But I did meet a woman who was a filmmaker and producer. She had done some documentary work about WWII. She knew all the people, so I hired her to make connections for me and act as translator. I was able to photograph a lot of people, almost two dozen, in a short period of time when I was there this summer. They trusted her. Now they are asking for pictures for their newsletter, but it took a year to get to that point. I plan on going back a couple of more times. There’s reputed to be 400-600 people left, although at this point most of the people left were children at the time.
What’s it like working with the survivors of the Holocaust?
It’s a little stressful. You’re dealing with these people that, for the most part, most of their families perished. It was arbitrary – you go, you stay. If you could do something for the war effort or entertain the Nazis, you could stay, or you were a good cook, or whatever. It was capricious. So a lot of times people would go there as a family and then the family would be whittled away with each transport so they would be the only person surviving from the entire family. They would be shipped off, usually to Auschwitz because it was the closest camp to the east.
That’s stressful to say, “Would you mind coming back to this hospital where your mother died when you were 12 or 13?”
Is there a lot of survivor guilt?
Not so much survivor guilt, but I feel sort of guilty because I’ve been trying to photograph these people in locations that are significant to their history. Some of them are feeble or have medical conditions and can’t leave their apartments. If I can, I try to talk them into going some place that has some kind of meaning, good or bad. That’s stressful to say, “Would you mind coming back to this hospital where your mother died when you were 12 or 13?” They generally come.
The woman that I brought out to the hospital was the first person I met 6 years ago that got me interested in the project. I was on quite good, friendly terms with her, but she wouldn’t go into the hospital. She would stand out in front of it, but would not go in. It’s that kind of thing.
It’s not like the photos I take here – portraits just for fun of somebody dressed up in trash or recycled goods. Everyday there I’d wake up with a black cloud over my bed – oh, another survivor, but there was a bigger cloud if I wasn’t able to photograph them. It’s a contest against the clock. I’ve already had one of them die. I had written her about photographing her a couple of times. I didn’t hear back. I wrote back in the summer and she didn’t reply again. My fixer then said, “You know, she died last week.”
Everyday there I’d wake up with a black cloud over my bed – oh, another survivor, but there was a bigger cloud if I wasn’t able to photograph them.
A lot of the sites are also being destroyed. I photographed a lot of stuff in the train yard because its scheduled to be an office building soon. I missed photographing the foundation of the old barracks because they got bulldozed. Prague’s expanding so they’re going to these sites that used to be on the outskirts of the downtown area that are now in the downtown area. They’re vanishing. Terezín is falling down.
Some of the buildings I was let in hadn’t been opened in 40 years. Me and my fixer would go out there and the city manager would come and open up this huge barracks that was two blocks of ruined buildings and would let us in, lock the door, and say,”Call me when you want to get out.” We’d be locked in there. It’s fascinating. I look forward to working more on it.
What’s next with the project?
I’m doing this thing in the fall, just as an add on component to a musical performance at bass concert hall for three days, ‘The Music of Terezín’, some of the music that was written and performed at Terezín.’
Do you only shoot medium format? Some of the Terezín stuff looked like a panoramic format…
I guess I do. I don’t have a 35mm. The pano I’ve had since I was a student is called a Brooks Veriwide. It’s the old Graflex back with a Super Angulon lens, so it’s in essence a 4×5 camera – you have to cock the shutter, shoot, advance the film. You have to consciously move from one frame to another or you get double exposures. It’s as close to shooting with a 4×5, except the film holders, as you can get on a 2.25 camera. There are only 8 pictures on a roll, 4×9 or something. The Super Angulon lens is made for at least a 4×5 camera or a 5×7, so you’re only getting the center of the lens – you don’t get that wrap distortion. It’s 101 degrees which is about what two eyes see next to one together. I like it a lot.
The drawbacks are the largest aperture is 5.6, so you’re always need light. The depth of field is critical, and that’s why I take 12 frames instead of two. You’re not actually focusing because it’s a rangefinder. You just set the distance. Sometimes you just get their ear in focus. That’s a challenge just to make a picture. Of the 12 pictures I have, 4 photos are bracketed not for exposure but for depth of field – it goes 2 feet, 6.6 feet, 16 feet and infinity. Outside it’s easy with bright light, but inside – there’s one in the warehouse – I was shooting at 8th of a second and holding real still.
You’ve been a professor at UT for 30 years. What have you learned from watching generations of students go into the profession?
I came in Pampers and I’m leaving in Depends. Got the whole bowel cycle. Haha. You would think it would be interesting, but no. The students are less curious about things now. It’s that trophy generation that wants everything handed to them. “Can you tell me who to contact?” Instead of going out and making contacts themselves. I think the digital age adds to that. Maybe laziness is too harsh a word, but complacency where, “Oh yeah, I’ll just take 25 shots and get one instead of take one and getting one.” I’m not enamored by digital photography. I still shoot film.
I think digital tends to trivialize some aspects of photography and gives the students a mystical sense that they don’t have to think to much about what they’re doing. In some cases that’s very good. I don’t own a digital camera but I have one on loan from Olympus that I do street photography with.
I think digital tends to trivialize some aspects of photography and gives the students a mystical sense that they don’t have to think to much about what they’re doing.
I don’t have to think. I know it’s going to focus and it’s going to make the right exposure. I’ve never shot it on anything but Program mode. It’s good exercise. Like photographic batting practice. Bunting or something. Not hitting home runs but bunting. Making pictures.
[Digital] is counter to everything I learned in school. And I think that what I teach is not the hardware and software of photography, but the seeing. You can walk two blocks from my classroom and see the Gutenberg Bible. The same graphic principles in that book apply to a web screen, or a magazine page, or a photograph – the rule of thirds, this, that, and the other. Those doesn’t change, just the technology changes. The technology makes people think they actually know more or better than they actually do.
How do you get students to get beyond technology to the basis of seeing?
I don’t know if they can do that. I just think the good ones will. You really can’t teach photography, and what you really can’t teach that photographers need, is curiosity. You cannot teach curiosity. If you’re not curious about life then you’re just spinning your wheels.
You really can’t teach photography, and what you really can’t teach that photographers need, is curiosity.
What is it about the trophy generation that contributed to this lack of curiosity? Is it the ability to Google anything we want?
Probably so, and people like me that spoil their children. They say, “Oh, you need milk? Here let me do that for you.” Instead of, “Go get the milk yourself and learn how to open the cap.” The photographers now – some of them are very, very good. And the ones that are tend to be multi-talented with interest in photography, design, fashion, art. But the people that just want to make pictures and work for National Geographic, they’re not interesting people.
Students aren’t very interesting. I used to hang out with students, maybe because I was more their own age at one time. I still hang out with them, but the pool I hang out with – either I’ve become more discriminating or they are less interesting, or both – but they tend to not be very demanding about what you teach them and what they want to learn. They want things presented in an easy to absorb or consume fashion, which is unfortunate.
Photojournalism, or art in general, is the journey rather than the destination. Sometimes there’s never any destination, sometimes ‘no destination’ is conceived by the photographer. It’s getting moving in some direction, but not to a place where you can sit. This generation is destination-heavy and journey-light.
[The] trophy generation wants everything handed to them. “Can you tell me who to contact?” Instead of going out and making contacts themselves.
You’ve said in other interviews that you’re an ‘occasional photographer’ and there’s no reason to photograph all the time. What’s up with that?
I take single pictures. I do series too, but each one can, hopefully, stand by themselves. I’ve done day-in-the-life, I’ve worked for newspapers and magazines and all that stuff. If I get one good picture that’s all I want each time I go out and raise the camera up. I’m not documenting everything around me. I look at these photo books and I think, how did that person ever get someone to publish that series of pictures? There’s only one or two good ones in there!
For the Holocaust series, I try not to waste people’s time and do three hour shoots. Most people have a very low tolerance and diminishing returns happens about 3 or 4 minutes after you make the first picture. Nobody’s taken their picture three or four times in a row and they think, you got it. Digital contributes to that, you can take 15-20 pictures in 10 seconds, but should you?
I took 20 frames tops for each person in the Holocaust series over a 15 or 20 minute period of time. My friend Michael O’Brien did that book ‘Hard Ground.’ He took two pictures, just two exposures for each person. People have to think more and shoot less, but the way the equipment and camera manufacturers and all that business goes, they tend to shoot far more and think very little, except how to put some kind of filter on it at the end. I’m really just an old fart. People who throw parts of their picture out of focus or throw on an effect – it’s trying to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. So I don’t carry anything but a camera and a light meter, and only occasionally.
Do you ever assign your students to shoot film?
UT just got rid of our darkroom. It just closed down. The rooms are still there, but there’s nothing in them. This is a nice time to be a traditionalist though because you can do some very un-traditional things, if that makes sense. I can use a material that basically hasn’t changed since the 1890’s – the film – in a camera that was built in the mid-20th century, and use 21st century technology for finishing, scanning, and making the print. You cover 150 years of photography to make that one picture. It’s an opportunity that other people haven’t had. There were no bridges from daguerreotype to tintype but now there are bridges that you can go back and forth between technologies and centuries. Someone like Robb Kendrick does tintypes. He has the originals, scans them, and then digital prints made on Iris printers. The opportunities to use old processes are great, you just have to have a vision, not Nikon’s vision or Canon’s vision of how things should look.
I can use a material that basically hasn’t changed since the 1890’s – the film – in a camera that was built in the mid-20th century, and use 21st century technology for finishing, scanning, and making the print. You cover 150 years of photography to make that one picture.
Your background is in art. What does the art approach add to a straight photojournalism program?
It probably doesn’t add anything. It probably prevents students from getting a decent job. Haha. But again going back to those basic principles. The Parthenon looks like it does because of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man (man with hands outstretched). The 35 mm frame, the piece of paper you write on, the windows you look out of, they’re all based on a ratio found in all art, something that we’re hard wired for. If you can get those basic principles across and have them applicable to the technology of the present time, then that’s the art influence.
Some people intuitively have an art background without even knowing it, and some people you can send to the Art Institute of Chicago for 10 years and they’ll come away with not much more than they went in with.
What’s difference between those people?
Curiosity probably. People do not look at things anymore. I have a 12-foot bulletin board in my office full of stuff that I put there so I could look up on occasion and be inspired. It always shows up in my photographs some where along the line. It might take a year, two years, or five years, or it might be the next photograph I take, but those things I stick up there for inspiration have an influence. But people hardly ever look, unless it’s a website or something on Facebook. They’re more interested in Facebook than Jansen’s History of Art. Even when they have something that highly suggests they might look at something beyond Facebook – subject matter they might be photographing, to see what’s been done beforehand – they don’t do it. They don’t take the opportunity. The technology is there but most of them don’t use it. They have no links to the past, it’s all future.
Are they reinventing the wheel?
It’s not even a wheel. It’s like a square wheel, or a reinvention of the sled.
Not to get completely off-topic, but does that have ramifications politically and historically, that we’ve lost the ability to learn from our past?
Well, I don’t know that we’ve lost the ability, we’ve lost the interest. These students that I have, they have a fragile grasp of anything over a few years before they were born, which was at this point, 1990.
Who are you inspired by?
Lots of people. How I learned lighting was to study Irving Penn. He’s a master of lighting and incredibly old school. For all his money, he had a studio on the roof in a New York building with window light. He had a camera, oftentimes an old Rollei, and a window. Sometimes he had some rolled-up carpet to put over a table to make it softer.
Richard Avedon I like because he’s adventurous, but he’s got a mean streak. I’ve met him a few times and went out to dinner with him years ago. I didn’t like him as a person, but I liked him as a photographer.
Is there a photograph you wanted to make that didn’t work out? An assignment that went horribly wrong or remarkably right?
Most of them go horribly wrong. It’s like Christmas, going out on assignment. It’s never what you think it’s going to be. It’s usually far better, or it’s a tie, or a pair of socks, or a sweater from your mother. My mother gives me a sweater every year. I’m from upstate New York. I haven’t lived there since 1967 but she gives me a sweater every year. I give it to Goodwill. You go down there in January, you’ll find a brand new sweater sitting on the shelf from the D. Darling collection.
Some assignments have gone terribly wrong, but then when you throw the negatives away you don’t ever remember. It’s a form of photographic amnesia. In ‘Desperate Pleasures’, a retrospective up to that time in the early ’80s, I wrote to not look at the book as if I had started as a child prodigy in photography. I destroyed all the Cro-Magnon Darling’s from the early years. Nobody sees, nobody knows.
Is that important for the photographer’s psyche, you think? To destroy the failures?
It is for mine. People, like Michael O’Brien, he’s got every single negative he’s ever taken. His garage is full of racks. He looks at mine and I’ve got three boxes on the shelf. He says, “What’s that?” I said, “My negatives.” “Yeah, but where’s the rest of them?” “That’s them. That’s it. That’s all.”
I don’t see any reason to have anything you’re not proud of lurking around in the wings. It never gets any better. Sometimes I’ll look through and find something like the Garbage Can Cowboy, but it’s there because at some point I made the value judgment that there might be something in the future. For the most part I’m a fairly good editor. And it’s from art experience and life drawing classes and all this stuff where you know that was a step you have to take. I have a sculptor friend that does bronzes. They’re worth thousands of dollars, and people ask him, “How long did it take you to do that?” And he says, “60 years.”
Everything you do, you have to take one step before you take the next. Without that step you couldn’t take the next, or, if you took the next, you’d stumble. But you don’t have to save your baby shoes or the sneakers you wore in third grade. They’ve done their job and out they go. The mistakes I made ten years ago, I’ve internalized it, and processed it, and hopefully I won’t make it again, but I don’t have to keep that mistake around to haunt me. And so it goes.
Everything you do, you have to take one step before you take the next. Without that step you couldn’t take the next, or, if you took the next, you’d stumble. But you don’t have to save your baby shoes or the sneakers you wore in third grade.
You’ve said you’re an ‘Under the Radar’ photographer. What does that mean?
I don’t have a website. I’ve never tweeted. I’ve never even texted. I have a job. All young photographers want to be famous, but I came to the conclusion a long time ago that it was too much work. You always have to be out there selling yourself. It’s just something I don’t want to spend my time doing. I’d rather be drinking a beer on the patio watching fireflies than emailing people to show them my portfolio. I’m lazy when it comes to publicity and if it happens, it happens. I’m not adverse to talking about stuff, I just don’t want to have to go and pursue it.
Not to draw a direct comparison, but I love those historic caches of photos like those of Vivian Meyer. Those archives that surface where someone spent their life diligently documenting – it’s a historical legacy because it’s an effort, sustained over a period of decades, and leaves evidence of a unique personal experience.
I have some of those same outfits she wore. With the purse and everything. I’m a little bit of a nanny, too. Ha Ha. I feel that way, too. It’s a past-time that I have, photography. I don’t watch sports. With a name like Darling, I got a dispensation at birth about being interested in athletic events. I tend not to watch TV, except the news. I don’t go to movies. I mean, I’m really dull, but I hang out with exciting people, and that’s the reason I’m able to hang out with them. They don’t see any threat. I come in with a single camera and a roll of film. No lights, no generators. I spend my time doing art and thinking about pictures and sometimes taking actual pictures. Other people go to sports bars, I go to Klan rallies.
Any advice you give to young photographers?
It depends on what they want to do. If they want to take pictures like mine, I would say get a job that’s not related to photography at all. In the past I’d say get a teaching job, but those don’t exist anymore. Old farts like me just landed someplace and then stayed. Everyone I know that teaches at other schools are my age and they’ve been there forever.
But if they want to do it just as a hobby or past time or whatever, I would say be curious and adventurous and go out and find things. I don’t see any reason for making pictures that somebody else can make five minutes later. The things that I photograph are the right time and the right place and they won’t happen again just the way they happened. The Klan in the ’70s turned into people in camouflage living in Idaho in the Aryan Nation. It’s not that I look for those things, but I’m somehow drawn to those situations.
I don’t see any reason for making pictures that somebody else can make five minutes later.
What’s an example of something someone could take five minutes later? Shadows and landscapes?
Oh, music. Every student wants to photograph bands. How boring. They want to photograph them performing. All musicians look alike, all stages look alike, they do the same thing over and over again, they play the same songs, they use the same instruments. That’s a case where they’ll go and make xeroxes of what they’ve already seen. There’s plenty of stuff out there. Look for the last of the line, the last munchkin from the Wizard of Oz, the last WWI vets. Things like that.
There’s things happening now that won’t happen again. I think there’s value in that. That particularly interests me because it goes beyond just making a document, it captures a piece of living history, the last thread. You’ve got to combine photography with your interests, even if it’s sports. If you’re sitting watching a Dallas Cowboys game, there’s things happening, the world is passing you by while you’re wasting your time.
Your portraits are very connected and some of them were the results of short-term rapport built in foreign countries. How do you approach people?
The problem with foreign countries, and the advantage, it’s a double-edged sword. I speak no other languages. I can order a beer and identify two body parts in Spanish. Other than that I’m verbally bankrupt after I leave the border. So you’re relegated to making animal noises or drawing pictures on the back of envelopes.
The pictures in foreign countries look differently than the ones I make here. The girls in Mexico, I didn’t talk to them at all, that was seeing something, approaching them, being non-threatening, making a picture and then you can say ‘Thank you.’
Mountain Mist, Main Plaza, Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico 1996
You just have to approach people in a non-threatening fashion. Lots of time I hold my hand out like I do for dogs, let them sniff me and then I pee on their leg. Ha ha. They might say ‘Fuck-off’, but I don’t know it because I don’t know ‘fuck-off’ in Spanish. So I wave and leave. That’s the advantage, you have no idea what they’re saying about you after you leave.
I think you have to be honest with them and tell them what you want, what you need, what you’re going to do with the stuff. I always send somebody back a picture. That helps when they get something back. I would suggest that.
[People] might say ‘Fuck-off’, but I don’t know it because I don’t know ‘fuck-off’ in Spanish. So I wave and leave. That’s the advantage, you have no idea what they’re saying about you after you leave.
I don’t know. Plastics. I think there’s a big future in that. Ha ha. I’d like to finish off this Terezín thing. I have no projects in the wings, but that’s generally how I operate. They just come up, you know? It could be almost anything.
Right now I’m doing this crap, well it’s not crap, it’s lighthearted stuff. Stuff I know I can do with hands tied behind my back. Pictures of women with wings or tattooed people or whatever. I’ve done it before. Because I’m married and I have two kids, 10 and 12, and they have school and I have commitments to PTA, or this or that, and it limits my travel. It prevents me from doing something more meaty. What I do here I like, but it’s photographic batting practice – hit a few balls to the outfield and some of them go over the fence. It’s necessary to occasionally shoot because you get rusty.
I would like to do a series of different portraits once a week again. I’d love to go out to the Mormon thing in West Texas, the FLDS, to photograph those women that dress the same way with those hairdos all the same way. I would love to do that. I would give a collection of prints to anyone that could get me into their compound to make those pictures.
One of my students photographed some women boxers, there’s a gym on the south side someplace, and he never did that, he changed projects, but I told him I would steal it as soon as he graduated. He graduated in May. I’m interested in women. Men don’t particularly interest me at all. Maybe I’ll do a series with pictures I have and pictures I have yet to take. I’m always busy, but most of the time it’s just being busy with no particular end-game.