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Interview w/ Reuben Radding, Part One
Excerpt from unpublished interview from 11/22/22
INTERVIEW w/ REUBEN RADDING: 11/22/22 NYC - PART ONE
Q: You've been pretty vocal in your dismissal of what you call "the outdated questions" people are still fixated on in the photography world, questions about formats, genre, colors, etc...but what are the next questions? What lies beyond them?
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A: I'm not sure I have an answer yet! I think at best I do have some sense of where the answers come from. They come from continuing to do the work and discovering what remains as those tired things fall away. Like...now that I don't spend any time at all thinking about whether a photo I take is part of "street photography" or not I have a lot more room for thoughts about the human concerns or functional revelations that I might be dealing with in my pictures. It's been so long since I felt any urge to question my black & white palette that I start to feel clearer about who I am as a person. I’m not distracted by other options because the alternative is to be concerned with what other people would do or what the subject matter seems to demand. It's shed light on a deeper level of the practice, or of being in the world, not solely a method to produce works that will perhaps "belong" based on some understanding of genre…or even quality! I'm trying to make something of a voice and practice that is organic to who I am as a person. I've been fiercely determined these last 16 years to find a voice rather than choose one, to develop a practice that is not determined by thinking there's one way we should each operate, one subject matter that is best, or one outcome worthy of the word "success." I wanted my visual signature to be a natural outgrowth of my character and my innate tendencies. This requires letting go, and then noticing more and more ways that my ego tries to step back into the process, which requires yet more letting go. Operating this way has resulted in a shit ton of daily discoveries that I don't think I could see if I were still wrestling with whether it's better to shoot film or digital, or worrying about whether the work can be neatly categorized.
Q: So you think most photographers are trying to operate the same way for the same goals?
A: No, I think most of us look at what’s been done and see it as a menu you can choose your identity with, and I think what they really have to offer is largely already in them, and needs to be discovered through the work. It’s a process, not a decision. Being genuine doesn’t come from selecting.
Q: So maybe the next questions are of a whole other category than these age-old ones you feel done with? Those seem to be largely about a supposed objective viewpoint, like "is color better than black & white?" but what you seem to be moving towards are questions that aren't assuming that there's an objective nature to problems or solutions. Am I at all on the right track?
A: In a way, yeah, I think so. The next questions in my case are not things I would ever think of if I was thinking of photography as having the same set of problems and solutions for everyone. I see a lot of people thinking that way, even very smart and talented photographers. They seem to think there's a recipe out there somewhere, and that to the extent they've found success it's because they've figured out some amount of that set of rules or principles, even if they still feel like there's more to figure out. I don't relate to that at all. To be sure, there is a student phase to everything, but also a point where you realize there's nothing to graduate to except a greater freedom and appreciation for the simple basic experience of making the work and seeing what it reflects back to you. It starts to shape your inner life as much or more than you shape it. So how come we don't talk about that instead of film stocks, megapixels, or whether pictures are documentary or fine art? This is what I'm fighting for. I think our medium is way too deep and interesting for that to be the be-all end-all. When you look at the work of the greats you see what feels like a deep perception about life, and human beings, and you feel like you’re getting to know the photographer themselves. It's not about "this kind of person makes a good subject," or "the best way to do it is..." You know? It's not about the things we're told by people who make rules or lists of tips that "everyone" needs to know.
On the other hand, the personal is universal, and I actually do think there's a universal value to the seemingly personal dilemmas and quandaries I find myself in and have been talking about. I got a lot of DMs and comments from people after my Walkie Talkie video with Paulie B from people, even non-photographers, who felt great identification with my thoughts about obsession, mortality, and psychological freedom. That really surprised me, cause I thought they would think I was a freak.
Q: For what?!
A: For not talking about gear or camera settings or thinking I was some kind of fake for not looking through the viewfinder a lot. I didn't think they'd be interested in my obsessions. Like most people, I spend a lot of time comparing my insides with other people's outsides, and when I look at others I don't imagine any of them are walking around thinking obsessively about the nature of death, frightened at the prospect of not existing. I look around at other photographers or really any of my friends, strangers, whoever, and I think they must be more comfortable than me and don't dwell on stuff like that. They'd have to be!
Q: Well, clearly some of them relate.
A: Yeah! I wish I could be free of it, but like I said, that's part of the reason for photography in my life. It's a tool for being present and appreciating my life instead of missing it because I'm too busy worrying about how much more of it I get to have. It's like if every time someone gave you a beautiful plate of food the first and loudest thought in your head was "I wonder how many more delicious meals I'll ever get to have?" Can you really enjoy the food when you're in that mental space? But if you get lost in experiencing the taste of the food those thoughts might leave for a while. When I've gone deep in the work those thoughts melt away and I'm just swinging, enjoying the flow of everything, even things I don't necessarily "like."
Q: What kinds of things do you mean? Like what?
A: Oh it could be almost anything that normally irritates me, say someone not holding a door for me as they go through ahead of me, or some nutty person yelling and screaming out of their car window at some other driver...I mean, these are things I observe or experience 100 times a day and I don't judge them as "good." But, if I've been photographing a while and getting in the groove I see these same things and I just find them all terribly entertaining and even strangely life-affirming. I catch myself laughing at them as just hilarious manifestations of our silly impermanent lives and the foolish illusions we all tend to live in. When you accept everything you end all conflict. I think this is what Garry Winogrand was talking about when he said he would like not to exist. It's about those moments of seeing the whole organism of life and its indifference to you as a comfort rather than a source of frustration or injury. I don't know, maybe there are people who are so comfortable in their own mortal skin that these moments aren't the salvation they are for me, but I really love when I am able to see my insignificance so plainly. Then I don’t feel like I have to control anything.
Q: You've spoken to me before about your past participation in Zen practice. Is that where you first got these ideas about presence, impermanence, and all that?
A: I think it all started by my wanting so desperately to write, and not knowing how to do it I did what a lot of people do, which is to buy books about writing. [laughs] They're a really great way to put off actually putting pen to paper! One of them was "Writing Down The Bones," by Natalie Goldberg, which literally changed my life. Goldberg tells numerous stories in her books about her Japanese Zen teacher and how he encouraged her to make writing her "practice," like Zen, like a spiritual practice. In an interview I saw Goldberg was asked to define practice. She said, "a practice is something you do under all circumstances for its own sake."
Q: OK, so a work ethic?
A: Oh, no no, I'm not a fan of that term.
Q: Really? Why not?
A: To me a "work ethic" is something you embrace in order to be a good person, to be virtuous. I don't think my productivity makes me virtuous. A practice isn't about being bad or good or even the production of finished works. You just do it. It’s a way to cut through the noise of your mind and the distractions of our resistance, all that bullshit, and wake the fuck up. Of course it's good to have results, art or ideas to share with the world, but the practice part isn't really shared by anyone and isn’t dependent on results. That's something you do by yourself for yourself and no one but you will experience its benefits in the exact same way. The natural result of creative practices is artworks for sure, but they aren't guaranteed a life beyond you. A few people might pay attention and feel like your work matters, but there's no guarantees at all that the satisfaction will last. Even my own work from 5 years ago feels disappointing to me once that time has passed. Practice lasts. It gives you a place to belong on this Earth and become awake to the evidence of your true self that observes your ego self. Like a Zen meditator, you get to find out who you are without your usual attachment to struggle and separateness, if you're lucky! Goldberg says, it "closes the gap between who you are and who you think you are."
Q: But don't people take up meditation or religion to better themselves? Why can't art practice be a route for that too?
A: Well sure, I do believe that art-making gives you a great opportunity to grow and to connect, but it's not a given. I've seen people spend a life in the arts and completely lack introspection. You have to want evolution pretty badly if you're going to chase it. And even then, there's a lot of competition for that desire. A lot of distractions, and I don’t just mean adult responsibilities. The ego is always lurking around waiting for an in. It triggers feelings that are very real, even if the meaning behind them is based on illusions. How we respond to those feelings is everything. It's the shit that screws up human relations. We’re trying to get love and this stuff gets in the way. Even someone giving me a compliment can become an opportunity for suffering.
Q: Like someone telling you they love what you do? How is that painful?
A: No, no, I mean...like what if someone walks up to you and compliments something about you which calls into conversational awareness something you aren't so into about yourself? Like, say you have a very large nose and you don't like it. You think it's conspicuous and you prefer not to have attention called to it, but suddenly somebody praises it, and as much as you know they mean only enthusiasm when they point it out, like "what a great nose!" [laughs] I think a lot of us really resist being defined by our surface characteristics even though we do it to others all the time. So and so is the "tall guy," and so and so is the "feisty old lady," or whatever. These identities aren't who we know ourselves as. Even our ego selves are bigger than that. But one of the advantages of having my practice be a higher priority to me than accomplishment or status or anything else is that when the discomforts of praise or criticism appear I'm getting pretty good at shrugging it off and laughing at my own sensitivity because I see how ridiculous and unsolvable it is. Some things hit closer to home than others though. I'm not so enlightened that I can't be intoxicated by compliments or angered by disrespect. I just understand now though that my feelings in those moments aren't actually very important. It's just part of the lie that says "we're separate."
TO BE CONTINUED…
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