How did you get started in photography? When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved into a house with a darkroom. My father was a frustrated physician—during the depression, his parents had pushed him into a safe career. He wanted to be an artist. I guess that is why he was so supportive of my interest in taking pictures throughout my life. In hindsight, my artistic fire was also fueled by the social currency that photography brought me on the playground. Those days, I was the only kid with a camera who was developing and printing pictures. This landed me my first girlfriend in fifth grade.
When did you define your artistic mission? During college, I transferred to the University of Michigan for a semester, where I was lucky enough to get into Rudolph Arnheim’s class, the Psychology of Art and Perception. It was a very popular class, 500 kids, mostly grad students. There was no textbook, no homework, just class lectures and one exam at the end. Two weeks before the test, my backpack was stolen with all my notes. Not knowing what to do, I approached Arnheim, and he told me to read one of his books cover to cover and come to his house in two weeks for an oral exam. Are you kidding? I thought. A one-on-one exam with the man himself!!? I was freaked out, so I studied that book like there was no tomorrow. In doing so, I fully realized Arnhem’s simple message, which became my mantra: art is felt before it is thought. If there is no emotive content, only information, then the picture is dead. This became the focus of not only my photography, but also almost everything I do—prioritizing the emotional value over the tangible.
How do you stay inspired? It is really hard to stay inspired over the long haul, especially as the daily volume of imagery we see grows exponentially. The amazing amount of work being generated in all mediums is both inspiring and mind-numbing. I have to be deliberate about what I look at so I don’t lose perspective. When I see an online image that moves me, I do a screen grab and throw it in a folder called “Inspiration.” I look at the folder every week. I also make it a point to continuously experience art and nature in the flesh—and not photograph it, but just pause to appreciate it. I think this is what inspires me.
Why are you researching photogravure? What excites you about this technique? For me the photogravure is as relevant as it is misunderstood. I don’t know why Stieglitz fought so hard to have photography recognized as a fine art in the early 1900s, but I understand how he felt. Photogravure is slow photography—the images have a presence that is impossible to convey digitally. I am attracted to the deep rich black, luminous whites, soft matte surface and the atmospheric nature of the aquatint grain. In a word, they are beautiful. Perhaps as beautiful as any form of art. Yet very much under-appreciated. It is one of photography’s most difficult processes and its most permanent—simply carbon and pulp, just like the Gutenberg Bible. They are classic, simple and emotive, the same characteristics I strive for in my work. But my reasons extend beyond the object itself. I see photogravure as an antidote to today’s high-volume, fast-paced and disposable attitude towards photography. An image’s expiration date is days, sometimes hours, even seconds. This is disturbing to me. As a steward of photogravure, I feel I am making a meaningful contribution by bringing attention to qualities of the photograph that are at risk of becoming extinct in this digital age.
What challenges did you overcome on your recent book tour through remote Indian villages for Fires, Fuel and the Fate of 3 Billion? One challenge was to tell the story with dignity. To find the images that did not convey poverty or struggle, but dignity. We wanted to say, yes, it’s a global problem, but it needs to be considered from multiple perspectives and with each region’s unique factors in mind. Achieving this photographically was a challenge. In India, it is fairy easy to take pretty or disturbing pictures. Taking photographs that illustrated such a complex issue on the other hand was not so easy. I admit, I was initially drawn to the type of imagery that tugged pretty hard on the heart-strings. Thankfully the writer, my travel companion, steered me towards making images that scaled back on the sentiment and focused more on that fine line between dignified and difficult. It was a wonderful collaboration and resulted in, I hope, some positive change.
Is there anybody or anything you would love to photograph? Why? When I had some down time in Bali several years ago, I was invited to experience the cremation ceremony of a family’s matriarch. Families save their whole lives for this single event. Over three days, an entire small village took part. I was mesmerized and astonished by the community and family’s commitment to honoring her. Since then, I have wanted to photograph burial ceremonies around the world. They are all beautiful, and I believe exploring the way different people handle death can teach us something about how to live.
What are some challenges facing the industry? The challenges facing the industry today from a photographer’s perspective are based around client expectations. Many photographers will give away their work and rights for the opportunity to get work published or to land a client, or even just to get some new material produced for their portfolio. It is no wonder that clients expect us to turn on a dime when requesting estimates and treatments. Speed, price and flexibility are trumping craft and quality. And with the limited lifespan of most images produced, there may be less incentive to do quality work. In addition, many of the upcoming class of photographers and creatives have not built a strong foundation in art history, typography, design or, most importantly, the basic elements of photography. We face a big challenge to maintain quality as the economics of the short-lifespan image drive the industry’s output.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Don’t underestimate the importance of defining your style. In art history classes in college, we studied famous renaissance painters. Our exams would entail matching paintings we had never seen before with the artist whose style the painting resembled. For photographers I call it “singular vision,” the visual thread in your work that reflects your personality. It seems obvious, but it is difficult and requires constant deliberate attention and initiative. It also requires some serious soul searching, exposure to art in all genres, experimentation, experience, feedback, time and maybe a little therapy. For a lucky few, it comes easily and naturally, but for the rest of us, it takes hard work. I think I was shooting for twenty years before I fully understood my singular vision. I wish someone would have encouraged me to look for it from the start. I may have gotten there sooner.