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Interview with Reuben Radding, Part Two
A conversation about process, the search for new questions in photography, and core values.
Q: We started off talking about the search for new questions, and you said that the path to finding them can be discovered by letting the old ones fall away and then seeing what remains. What have you found so far? What's still remaining there as you let go of those outdated, previously answered questions?
A: Well, one thing that I'm very interested in is identifying the inherent powers of the medium. Not the ones like subject matter or palette that are not so foundational, but the fundamental forces. When I started teaching I found that the hardest questions to answer were about what made one photo better than another. I felt fairly sure of my judgment, and could always give some reasons, but someone else might have different reasons. I knew there was a set of values I was embracing, but what the source of them was, I couldn't tell you. In graduate school I was fortunate to work with a painter named Cynthia Ross who introduced me to the writings of art philosopher Susanne K. Langer — specifically, her book Feeling and Form. Her work was all about the need people have to symbolize, and the connection between symbology and consciousness. In Feeling and Form, Langer posits that every art medium deals in a specific central illusion, and she identifies them very succinctly after a thorough dissection of their nature. Interestingly, she doesn’t deal with photography at all. In fact, she only even mentions it in passing when talking about cinema. But, after absorbing her rigorous analysis of music, painting, etc., I got that a lot of the confusion around photography had to do with how it functions.
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Q: Photography functions in many different ways, doesn't it?
A: Of course! That's the point. Because the medium is used for an array of things, you have to look at the things that aren't how it's used but what forces or devices inherently make it what it is. Then you can get deeply into how those forces might be used. So, for example, the way you can have multiple things going on in a frame but you see them in an act of simultaneity is an inherent power of the medium. It's not exclusive to photography, but it's definitely a force that we find in the photograph. Or the way things being placed near the edges makes tension and stuff placed in the center of the frame feels more resolved. Western music has tension and release in its language too, but the building blocks of it are totally different ones, obviously. Once I started seeing these parallels I was reminded of how I'd always thought a piece of music should stand on its own, based on how it actually worked, rather than things like whether you thought the musician was attractive or whether a song was about someone you like. [See Joe Carducci’s Rock & The Pop Narcotic —Ed.] Unlike photography, music has a long history of practitioners who questioned its very nature, and some incredible answers came out of that, things people are still trying to deal with today. Without a doubt, my biggest influence in that department was John Cage. Cage, very early on, was asking what music even was. His line of questioning was something like, is music just sounds? If it isn't, if the sounds you hear out your window aren't music, then what would have to happen for them to be music? And if music is really just sound, what can it be reduced to and still be called music? What is the essence of it? What makes music music?
Think about any piece of music. It doesn't only have sounds. It has silences, too. Listen to Beethoven's Fifth: [sings] dut-dut-dut dahhhhhh! (pause) Dut-dut-dut dahhhhhhhh! (pause). If you took away those silences, it's not at all the same. What else makes music music? Intent? Sounds made by someone? Cage tried making pieces using chance operations as an experiment to see if you took personal expression or taste away, did you still have music? His results weren't for everyone, but they certainly seemed to be music. Well, what can't be taken away?
The example I gave about Beethoven is actually pretty key. Since silence was a part of music, then you could just have a silent piece, right? If you take all the sounds away, what still has to be there for you to call it music?
The answer is time. The horizontal timeline of music. You had to have a point of beginning and an ending for it to be a piece of music. So, Cage wrote 4'33", his famous "silent piece." The performer is given only rests to play, no notes. What the listener "hears" is only the resulting exposed environmental sounds. Those, delineated only by the timeline itself, are the music. Susanne Langer said that music's primary illusion was the experience of lived time. Well, one may or may not find the life inside those four minutes and 33 seconds as enchanting as the same amount of time that a groovy funk single spans, but you can't argue with the fact that it is music. It's a piece. You can perform it or record it. It was written by a person. It's defined by its timeline, and nearly nothing else. And every performance is different.
Q: What's the photographic equivalent, do you think?
A: Photographs function very differently from music in this respect. The building blocks of time are used in a completely different way. You might make a photo in 1/1000th of a second or in 3 seconds, but when someone looks at it, neither of those time spans are presented, but rather a surface, a plane which does not dictate a required duration of engagement from the viewer. One person might choose to look at the image for five seconds, and another might spend five minutes looking at it. You also don't take a photo in 1/60th of a second meaning for it to be viewed in the same length of time. If I sit through a performance of 4'33" and leave halfway through, I cannot say I experienced the piece, because the piece has a specific duration. If you look at a photo for 10 seconds you still saw the photo, and maybe even comprehended it. Someone who looked at it for 12 seconds didn't necessarily experience it more fully. But still, I got to thinking about Cage, and about what the fundamental forces of photos might be, even if I can't reduce it to something as basic as "the horizontal timeline.”
Q: What do you think Langer would have said if she had written about photography? What would her primary illusion be?
A: I'm not sure, but I think Garry Winogrand said it very well for her: "A photograph is the illusion of a literal description of what a camera saw in a piece of time and space." Some people act like Winogrand was enigmatic or obscure in the things he said, but I think the opposite. Every word of that definition is important and necessary. Not a literal description, but the illusion of one. It can't be actually literal, because photography is inherently a transformation. It flattens the world and may alter its appearance in large or small ways. “What a camera saw,” not what a photographer saw, because again, sometimes the two are different, and it's what the camera saw that ends up in the photograph, regardless of the operator's perceptions. Sometimes even with the viewfinder to your eye, you find things in the resulting picture you didn't see in real life. “In a specific time and space,” because time is limited in a photo, regardless of how much time the shutter is open. It's still made of a specific moment, and the stuff the camera's aimed at is what it is, and the photograph is limited to that material. None of this is expendable. It's all important. Yet, if you look at the discourse surrounding photography, it really feels like very few people have accepted this fundamental understanding of what it really is. That leads to all kinds of confusion and distractions and pretentious mumbo jumbo. It leads to arguments that are just a lot of ignorant aspirational thinking. Photography by its very nature lends itself to people imprinting their own belief systems onto it, and those beliefs are usually not supported by the actual pictures.
I think if you start there, from Winogrand's definition, you are left with the closest thing I've found to a Cagean reduction of photography. Sure, you could make a photograph without content, and anyone who's forgotten to take off their lens cap and tripped the shutter knows just how true this is, but the resulting black frame isn't provocative or photographic, and it isn't descriptive.
Q: It describes the inside of your lens cap.
A: Ha. Not really, because there isn't any light in there to make that description visible. It lacks any sort of properties other than edges and surface. Stephen Shore's The Nature of Photographs is, to me, the most important attempt anyone's made to understand the thing itself and to boil it down to the functional aspects that make it what it is. Do you know that book?
Q: Sure, we've actually talked about it before. How has it helped your work?
A: In a couple of ways. I think mainly, it's just made me feel that this quest I'm on to identify the powers of the medium is a valid one, but also it's helped me to see that my values are objectively justified. When I see some of the astonishingly mediocre portraiture out there (and there's a fuck-ton of it), I can easily tell you that the objective problem with it has nothing to do with the identity of who shot it, what the nature of their relationship to the subject was, or what anyone's intent was. The problem is that few if any of the forces inherent to the medium are activated. There's nothing going on except someone drew a rectangle around someone or something they liked. This kind of picture, made by people lacking in awareness of the potential forces the medium offers, also produces the by-product of emphasis on the "aboutness" of pictures. Aboutness isn't a given, and even when you harness it, it could be so much more spicy than that. Aboutness is something of a curse. My favorite pictures of mine are the ones where you couldn't really say they’re about one thing or another. It's not about an issue, a person, or a place. It's offering up an ambiguous tableau that gives you something to wonder about. It might make you really want to know the answer to some questions the photo might be driving you to, or it might present a moment that indicates an unknowable before and after. Or it might seem to be an organization of disparate moving parts that seem coordinated once frozen in the frame I made. The possibilities are endless. But when you take the mediocre, blank-faced portrait of your friend with the background blurred out, and there's no particular moment or gesture included... I've said it to my workshop participants many times: Don't just draw a rectangle around something you like. You have to activate something, some photographic forces, or you aren't going to move me. If I also know the person in the picture, then maybe I'm going to have some other reason to care, just like you do. But, I swear to God, even then I will not value the picture as much as I would have if you'd also harnessed the forces of the medium to give your creation some life.
Recently I visited the music photographer Danny Clinch, a friend of mine with an incredibly deep archive of pictures of nearly any major rock, hip-hop, or blues musician/band you can think of. It's truly astonishing what he has, and his photos are just killing. He sells a lot of prints to fans of the artists he's photographed. Even if his photos weren't so good, he'd still have very marketable work, because fans of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, or Tupac Shakur will always be coming to him. But as I walked around Danny's gallery one day, I saw a picture of his that just stopped me in my tracks. And the band in the photo is one I really have never been a particular fan of — namely, Metallica. In the photo, the band is at San Quentin State Prison, in a cellblock, with a small setup playing for all the prisoners who are lined up along several tiers, rising high above the ground, all with their arms in the air, headbanging and cheering to the fierce grind of the rock ’n’ roll. It has massive energy. It has gravitas to spare. If I could have one large print of any picture of Danny's, it would be that one, and as I said, it's not because I love Metallica. It's because it's such an amazing goddamn picture. Now, a lot of that picture's power is in the content, though the form is good too. Content isn't all of equal value. There's this notion that a great photographer could make a killer photo of anything, and I don't agree. Some things are just incredibly photographic.
Q: And some things aren’t?
A: Totally. There are lots of things I've learned to just not even bother with, because I know from repeated efforts that they might make you excited to take a picture when you're experiencing them, but they make for lame photographs.
Q: Any examples?
A: Ummm…One example that may not be the best but that comes to mind is, I have a reflexive urge whenever I see someone tying their shoe, and it's not that it couldn't ever make a good picture or be an element within a good picture, but it's usually just a guy tying their shoe. I have had a lot of workshop participants bring in shoe-tying pictures and I feel for them, but the images don't usually cut it.
Q: Do your students take the criticism well? Do they defend them?
A: If they do, they may have some belief that it was a more important moment than it was, that it would communicate something more profound than it does, and if they agree that it's not that great, I sometimes have to disabuse them of the notion that there was something they could have done to make it great. Too many crits I've been to deal in a kind of useless line of aspirational critique. Like, if you have a picture of someone standing on a sidewalk looking up at a window of a building: There may or may not be various problems with the photo, but let’s say basically it's just not very interesting. Inevitably someone in a crit will say something like, "Well, if there were a circus clown looking down from the window, it would be great." Or, "If the house were on fire, then it'd be a banger!" I just don't think that's very helpful. Isn't it enough to say "This isn't enough"? There wasn't a clown, and the house wasn't on fire. Let's deal with the actual picture. The picture hasn't got it. Now, if there had been a clown and you were dumb enough to frame him out of the photo, then that's something to correct, but you don't need a crit for that. A lot of the weaker photos I see in crits are ones with very dull content that the photographer is hoping in vain is better than they know it is. That's okay. That's something the group can help with. Even if there's one person ready to defend it for some intellectual reason, all you have to do is put the picture next to another one (especially one by the same photographer) that does have great content, and even the student who was sympathetic has to give it up and admit that the weak photo is weak.
Q: What are some things you see a lot of, content-wise, that seldom work?
A: I think the most common problem I've seen is a lot of photos of people’s backs. Not that they can't ever be strong, but usually they just fall completely flat. But some folks will keep submitting them over and over no matter what I say. Another one is photos of lone individuals looking at their phone. Photos of people looking at their phone are just like pictures of homeless people; it's not that it can't be good, but it's usually only very good when it's just one element in a more complex picture.
Hey, I get it. When I first became conscious of taking pictures on the street as a serious pursuit, I took a lot of dull pictures of backs, homeless people, and dogs tied up outside of cafés. I took pictures of roasted ducks hanging in a Chinese restaurant window. I took a lot of pictures of non-moments on the street and hoped they were Cartier-Bresson. Maybe a lot of us just have to get it out of our system. I don't fault them for taking them. I still do my share of them. Just don't show them to the group and expect it to be gasp-worthy, ’cause we didn't take it, so we aren't going to feel what you feel. We're not going to easily pretend that it's memorable.
Q: Do you find by the end of a workshop, the person who started off coming in with backs and homeless people moves away from those things?
A: What I find is that what they teach in Zen is very true: namely, that we're already the Buddha. As much as I hate the cliché that "everyone's creative" or everyone has an "inner artist" or any other self-congratulatory ideas that let you off the hook from having to work, I have to say that I have been able to see a potentially great artist in everyone who's taken one of my workshops. If they were to go through the process of coming to fruition that a long-term practice brings, and if they can let go of the overthinking and false paths that can lead you astray, then the things that would be the voice, the contributions they could be making were there all along. They don't have to create it; they just have to reveal it, and then keep revealing it. I have found that in music, in writing, and in photography.
Now, you may be of the opinion that artistic voice is not an important priority, and I respect that. There’re a lot of other values one could apply to picture making, and if your appetites run that way, you're entitled to satisfy them. You don't have to share my values. But my values are the only ones I truly care about, and I need to be advancing them to feel like I'm delivering on what I might have to offer. I'll always be grateful for the burden of being forced to examine the ethics of my practice when I was a grad student, because once I got tired of defending against the placeholder arguments in my mind against public photography, once I dispensed with the idea that there was anything objectively right or wrong about it, I had to ask myself the question, "Where do we get our ethics from when there isn't a body count or demonstrable harm?" And I came to understand that my ethics come from our deeply held personal values.
Q: I don’t know if I could say what mine are. You knew what yours were?
A: Not really. I mean, I couldn't immediately articulate them. I had to get really quiet and ignore a lot of mental noise first. I had to — as I said — stop anticipating arguments or framing ethics in terms of just conduct. Hell, I hear all this crap about photography being inherently exploitative or ethically questionable, but I watch people every damn day do incredibly questionable things without a camera, just things they do to other people or animals, and no one pays any attention or questions it. But now if I apply for a teaching gig at a university, I often have to submit a statement about ethics, and it's kind of hilarious to me. Anyway, that's a whole other topic, but what I was about to say is that having to articulate my values, previous to whatever ethical guidelines they might lead me to, has helped me immensely, because having made these things conscious, I can see how they form my methods of working, teaching, and pretty much everything — and always did.
TO BE CONTINUED
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