Richard Rothman - Photographer, USA
LS: Which artists have most influenced your beginnings? Could you talk about the influence of Walker Evans or any other artists that influenced your work? Where can the roots of your work be found?
RR: I have a degree in painting and I loved the exposure to art history that was part of the curriculum, but it didn’t include photography. When I decided to become a photographer I chose not to get an MFA. I’d seen how the academic experience had bled the peculiar passions I’d had in regard to painting, and I didn’t want to risk that happening all over again with a new medium. And making art has always been about a conversation I feel one has to have with oneself. That doesn’t mean it’s not a dialogue with history and culture. How could it not be? It’s inevitable.
So I became a self-taught photographer without any formal knowledge of the history of the medium. I knew it was important to acquire that awareness, so I bought books and I went to exhibitions, and I began by looking at as much work of the photographers I was drawn to on my own as I could find. It was exactly the right thing for me to do, and it was a gradual process of enthusiastic learning and appreciation which I found quite enjoyable, and which has continued all my life. I think the best education that anyone can have is one that prepares them for a lifetime of learning.
One of the photography shows that strongly influenced me early on was a group of photographs that Avedon made of his father late in life, leading up to his death. I was struck by the core human questions those pictures addressed – mortality, ageing, the relationship between a father and son – and I immediately felt that this was a powerful use of the medium that resonated with me. There was a directness there that was unencumbered by the many ism’s of the moment. I realized that, yes, photography could handle the kinds of concerns that I wanted to deal with as an artist.
I certainly spent a lot of time looking at Evans’s work in the early days. His recognition of how photography could mine the significance of what can be found in the everyday – the lesson he’d gleaned from Atget – was what stuck most. There are artists who come along who can see things that others can’t. Joseph Mitchell, who knew Evans, spoke about how Evans was able to see the beauty in old, ordinary things at a time when no one else could. He spoke about Evans’s unforgettable photograph of knives, spoons, forks and a plate on the wall of the Fields family sharecropper cabin in Alabama that Evan’s had taken in 1936 as an example. He also said that at a certain point he was no longer able to see anymore, but that’s another story.
Atget, of course, has been an enormous inspiration and example for me, and there are many others. Robert Adams, an early mentor, is a very important photographer for me, and one of the few to give me encouragement when I had very little. I’ll always be incredibly grateful to him for that. To do your question justice would require many pages. I’ll say this; I watched an interview that was done with Phillip Roth recently, and he was asked about who his influences are. He said something like, every writer starts with many, but after the first ten years or so, if you’re any good, you’re mostly off on your own.
LS: You have some ideas you’d like to realize. How do you develop your projects? What is your methodological approach and intent?
RR: My approach is so basic it seems hardly worth mentioning, but it’s central to all the work that I do. I begin by asking myself what’s important to me, and what do I want to spend my time looking at. Harold Bloom wrote that Chekov teaches us that great literature “is a form of desire and wonder and not a form of good.” Desire and wonder are the loadstars, but critical awareness informs the journey.
I think it’s important to be able to draw on the things you already have figured out and know how to do when you’re taking on a new project, but you also want to try to work on questions that you don’t have answers for yet. It would be stale otherwise, and not much fun either. It’s a balance between continuity and change, which, of course, is a lot like what we need in our personal lives.
LS: Could you tell us something about the importance of people in your photographs? How do you approach people for your portraits?
RR: In the great scheme of things, I guess it remains to be seen how important people will turn out to be. We need nature, but nature doesn’t need us. Caring for others can be a source of our greatest joys and our greatest disappointments. No wonder it’s so interesting. Art requires tension. Other people supply an endless source. How we behave, what we feel, and what we do seems to be of the utmost interest to all of us.
My approach to the people I choose to photograph is intuitive. I’ve come to call it “unconscious casting.” When I’m shooting portraits I immediately know whether I want to photograph someone or not. I’ve learned that it’s best not to question those impulses. It often has something to do with people who, in some way, reflect one’s own feelings. There’s nothing objective about it, but the wonderful thing is, the camera is so much more generous than that. It can produce a kind of record of your interests, but then, so much more than that too.
LS: Last year you published “Redwood Saw.” Has the experience of being published changed the way you think about picture making?
RR: No, I don’t think so. It took a long time for me to publish “Redwood Saw,” and I’d been thinking about photography in the book form for an even longer time. I’d taught myself photography by doing it and looking at it, mostly in the form of books, though prints were very important too. And at a certain point, the narrative quality that a book can deliver became hugely important to me. And then there’s the beauty and relative longevity of books. A book feels like a kind of summation, and a great accomplishment for me. And the effort represents a big chunk of my life. The earlier work that’s been shown, but not published and lies in boxes, feels fallow and unrealized by comparison.
LS: Referring to the myth of the American West and the frontier, which “Redwood Saw” is based on, I’d like to analyze the meaning of limits for you. Is Crescent City something like a red line between human hopes, dreams and desires?
RR: We’ve been grappling with the meaning of the end of the frontier for quite a while now. All cities represent a kind of pinnacle of human civilization, and at the same time they offer us the opportunity to see how flawed all our social arrangements are, on a moment by moment basis. Our restlessness, born out of our hopes, dreams, and desires, will have to find new forms of expression. The human limits aren’t new, but our geographical and ecological limits are inescapably bearing down on us. And of course, the limits and strain on once plentiful natural resources are being keenly felt. If history’s any judge, there’ll be plenty of tragedy in store – it’s already taking place all around us – but who’s to say what will rise up from the ashes. Hope always outlasts enthusiasm. Beckett once said “fail, fail, fail, fail better.”
LS: Among many of your nature, urban landscape, and architectural photographs, you’re able to personify the environment around you. It stands to reason that you have a close relationship to the things you photograph. How can photography contribute to “reinventing” the viewing experience?
RR: Looking is one thing, and choosing to select and represent with care and, hopefully, insight, is another. It’s the difference between seeing and perceiving. That’s what we go to art for, I think. To learn how to live in a world that’s full of mystery and unknowability, but a world that is also full of human meaning and intention, or sometimes, just cause. We’re all missing so much more than we can possibly take in. I think many of us find it important or helpful to be reminded of that. John Szarkowski once famously said that we might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing – albeit, with grace, wit, and great formal rigor – elevated to a creative plane. That’s how photography and culture contributes to the way we see things.
LS: Now let’s talk about the exhibition time. How important is the printing phase for your work? Do you favor small or large print sizes for your photos? How much time and care do you invest and dedicate on this?
RR: The print, and not only the print, but the print as an object is very important to me. I also love the process. Printing is as much a part of the photographic process as taking the picture is. Your trying to breath a sense of life into the picture, and this is also where much of the potential beauty in photography comes in. I develop all my film and make a first edit from looking at the contacts, which I then print as 8x10s. I like the large prints and the way they can hold a wall of a certain size, but I love the intimacy of small prints too, and if it’s not good there, it’s not going to be printed larger. I spend a great deal of time on the printing. It took me a year to edit and print Redwood Saw. I usually don’t begin printing until I’m coming toward the end of a project. I like to keep everything in my head for a while in order to keep the narrative possibilities as open as I can for as long as I can.
LS: You’ve been teaching for years at the International Center of Photography and at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. About this: to what extent is it possible to teach photography?
RR: You can certainly teach technique to anyone. You can even teach people to look more discerningly at photographs, though that takes more time, and is more challenging. That’s the difficult part, because students are generally very focused on the problems of technique or concept, but I think it’s very important to learn how to “see.” I’ve really enjoyed the teaching I’ve done whenever I’ve had motivated students, though I can’t say I feel the same way about academic politics and the culture and economics of art education. I can say that I’ve made some wonderful friends, and it’s taught me a lot, too.
LS: What are you currently working on in your photography? What’s in store for you in 2013, photographically or otherwise?
RR: I work on several projects simultaneously, but there’s always one that’s on the front burner. I hope to finish the work that I’ve been doing out in Colorado next year. There will be similarities to Redwood Saw – it involves another small, economically depressed town that’s surrounded by a spectacular, and as of yet, relatively undeveloped area – but it’s a very different part of the country, and there will be previously unexplored themes and an entirely different structure to the book, in that it will be organized in chapters, or sections that will underscore some of the concerns that the work addresses. I want to try to bring some new ways of working into the mix, and, as Mitchell once said, “you always have to try to do yourself one better. Who can stand it.”
Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena