By Jain Kelly
In 1989 you graduated from RISD—the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence–with a BFA in photography. Do you see yourself as being steeped in the history of photography?
Yes, I do.
Are there particular photographers who stand out in your mind as having influenced your work, or perhaps you simply like the best?
My influences are pretty varied. They’re not just photography. I’m probably influenced more by painters than photographers, especially the Surrealists and Francis Bacon; also by rock concert lighting. I have lots of different inspirations.
In one interview you said you were not a fan of straight photography. Could you explain that?
Some of my portraits are pretty straight, but I don’t necessarily believe a photograph has to be straight. What I really meant is I like to alter reality, or “make” a picture more than “take” a picture, which can involve changing something that doesn’t necessarily have some innate truth to it. I don’t think any photograph is the “truth” necessarily; it doesn’t necessarily prove anything happened.
Early on, you became known as “the manipulator,” and in fact that is the name of your website: manipulator.com. Is that a name you gave to yourself or did someone else give it to you?
I gave it to the website, really. It was inspired by a German photo magazine called The Manipulator that I used to read when I was in high school. It was an oversized art and culture magazine in Germany at about the same time The Face Magazine and ID began publishing out of London. When I was in high school I used to look at these magazines and be really inspired and think I really liked all the different kinds of photography that they showed.
That’s quite intriguing. Can you tell us about some of the techniques that you employ in your work?
A lot of it is lighting and then a lot of it is Photoshop afterwards. Sometimes for a job I’m asked to do something that looks like something else, so I’ll do that. And then sometimes when I’m doing personal work I’m trying to do something that’s different and I’m experimenting. A lot of the personal work has been shot on film and a lot of my advertising work has been digital. I do still prefer film but there are definitely some benefits to shooting digitally. For example, you can keep playing with the lighting and keep pushing it and changing it and tweaking it, and I can see what is working. I might at some point start shooting digitally for my personal work, too.
Sometimes you draw on the animals’ eyes, is that correct?
I draw on all my images with Photoshop. Originally I was playing with changing the bears’ eyes because I felt they weren’t as open and human-looking as the monkeys’, so you couldn’t identify with the bears as much. Actually the bears’ vision isn’t very good so their eyes aren’t as important as their sense of smell to their ability to function as animals. In the end I kept the bears’ eyes as their own, but to me that’s not necessarily significant, because, as I have said, I like making pictures instead of taking them. I go back and forth: do I want something to be “authentic” or does it matter to me? I make these pictures as an artist; I’m not a scientist and I’m not a documentarian of various species of bears. However, when you’re working in photography as a medium, people want to know your techniques and other kinds of information. They want to know how you did the lighting for the bear, where was it shot, what was the bear’s name and what kind of bear was it? All these things are important to me, but to me it’s more about the picture itself: the emotion of the picture, the formal composition, the colors, and the feelings that you get from looking at the picture, what it makes you think of, and what it means to you as opposed to the factual information of how it was made. The factual information is kind of frustrating, actually. I’ve done interviews for photography magazines written for tech geeks and that’s what they want to know, maybe because they want to copy the pictures and they think that knowing the techniques will automatically allow them to duplicate the photographs. To me all of that is almost beside the point. That’s why I’m thinking of starting to do some more painting, although I’m not clear that I can ever actually avoid those kinds of questions.
So you are a painter, still?
I’ve gone back to it a little. My whole childhood I was drawing and painting and doing sculpture. When I went to RISD, originally it was to be an illustration major. I was doing photography in high school. In fact, I had been doing photography since I was eight or nine years old, including working in the darkroom, as well as painting and drawing. In freshman year at RISD, my teacher Paul Krot said “You’re definitely a photography major, not an illustration major,” and I switched my major to photography. I’m very happy that I did that, and I still have a great outlet for my drawing and painting in my Photoshop. It’s just fun to do.
When you went to New York City after college, was it specifically to do advertising photography?
Well, I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I first graduated. I knew I wanted to be a photographer and an artist, but I wasn’t really clear how that was going to happen. I was working on my portfolio for commercial photography and I was also actively doing personal work. I didn’t have any contacts at all in the beginning, but a lot of my friends from RISD were in New York in the fine art scene and I started hanging out with them and going to art galleries and openings. Basically I was trying to do both the commercial work and the personal work, and it was hard to do both because they are two different things. I continued taking classes at the School of Visual Arts in things like Photoshop, art history, and studio painting. I applied to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, which provides a setting for artists to pursue both the practice of art and discussion and debate about it. I had done an internship at Pace/MacGill Gallery, and had recommendations from Peter MacGill, and the artists Andres Serrano and Ronald Jones.I came extremely close to getting into the Whitney Program right up to the interview, but I had never really have never been that great–or at least I had fallen out of the practice of– talking about my work in that incredibly serious, critical theory format that I’m sure is still expected for anyone applying to the Whitney Program or to any graduate program.
I still feel that the work I showed to try to get in was interestingly avant-garde. I was scanning body parts–this was 1991 or 92–and I was scanning from men’s porno magazines and doing strange collages with things like that. So it was really early digital art and it would have been interesting if I had gotten in and followed that course. The week I didn’t get into the Whitney Program was the week I got an assignment from Sassy Magazine to do a portrait of somebody, and I said, “I guess maybe my decision has been made for me. If I do this kind of work I can afford the equipment and supplies to do my personal work later on.”
You remained in New York for 12 years, and you’ve been in Los Angeles for about 8 years. Why did you move to Los Angeles?
I’m from Michigan, so I’m not an East Coast person. I wanted a little more space and light. I used to come to Los Angeles about 5 or 6 times a year for work and I just knew I could keep working. Basically I wanted to get out of New York and LA was the best option for my career because of the commercial world. It’s the runner-up city to New York for both commercial photography and fine-art photography. Also, I knew some people here.
At what point did you start to exhibit in galleries?
My first exhibition was in 2004 at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles.
Who are your main galleries, especially in Los Angeles and New York?
Now it’s Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and Clampart in New York.
Was the Monkey series the first series shown in a gallery?
Yes. I didn’t have many contacts to help me get into a gallery, but there was a teacher at RISD who showed at Paul Kopeikin Gallery. His name was Henry Horenstein. We were friendly but he had not been one of my teachers. He used to bring his class down to New York to give them a tour of New York photographers, so every year he brought his students to my studio. I knew he showed at Paul Kopeikin so I asked him to introduce me to Paul, because I just needed somewhere to start. It’s really hard to get started in the art world. Originally Paul was a little bit skeptical. He said, “Why would anyone want a monkey on the wall?” But I printed one really big and he said, “I’ll stick it up on the back wall and see what the response is.” People were incredibly interested and they said, “This is crazy! What is this? Can I buy this?” You know, the monkeys and apes are really expensive to rent and I wasn’t sure how much I should invest in this series if I couldn’t have a show. At a certain point Paul said, “Yeah, maybe you should shoot some more and see what happens,” and eventually he gave me a show.
So you began photographing the Monkey series in 2001 and it debuted in October of 2004. How did the idea for this series come about?
I was shooting a little monkey for a job for Target. It was a little white capuchin in a room with two little children. I don’t think I’d ever really met a monkey personally, close-up. So I decided to do a portrait of the monkey just for myself and I quickly set up a little lighting situation. I was so in love with the results when I saw them that I thought, wow, this is something interesting. I loved the lighting on the fur and the expression on the monkey’s face, and I just loved that this was a portrait of an animal that was so similar to humans. What did that say about humans? What did that say about the animal? To me the lighting was really different from other things that I’d been doing. It felt totally modern and fresh. I liked all these new things that were going on, so I decided to continue it.
How many pictures are in the Monkey series?
At this point there are something like 80 or 90. I originally made about 20 or 30 for the first show. I published and designed the exhibition catalogue with a friend from RISD; the essay was written by a friend from RISD, Paul Myoda. Then a friend introduced me to a book agent who decided to help me shop around with the idea of doing a Monkey portraits book [Monkey Portraits, Little, Brown, 2006]. Once I got that deal, I had to shoot more. I used the advance to go down to Miami to shoot a bunch more. Then I looked everywhere to find as many different species of monkeys and apes that I could find.
Are you continuing with the Monkey series?
I’m not really continuing only because there aren’t that many species of monkeys that are available to me through the animal agencies, any different than the ones I’ve already shot. I would definitely shoot a gorilla but there are no “working gorillas,” because they’re endangered and PETA would never allow it. Or a Bonobo. Neither of those is available. They really have to be trained because they can be dangerous so they’re all animal actors. If I came across an amazing animal I would definitely do a portrait. I’ve done orangutans and chimps and capuchins and mandrills and baboons and I’ve tried to exhaust all the resources. I was emailing people all over the world trying to find different species that were working animals.
Did you find that you bonded with certain monkeys, almost like human beings?
The most bonding, I think, was with the orangutans, because they’re the most intelligent. Chimps and orangutans are the most intelligent because they’re apes. There were a couple of baby orangutans whose hands I held that just seemed like little children. But it would be hard to bond with a lot of the little monkeys because they’re a little skittish and crazy.
The titles in the Monkey series seem fairly straightforward, things like “Kenuzy’s Back,” or “The Cuddler,” Is that a naïve statement?
No, they’re pretty much free association on my part. For example “Kenuzy’s Back” refers to the name of the chimp.
The next series to come to the attention of the public was “End Times,” conceived in 2004 and exhibited in 2006. Can you tell something about how you got the idea for this series?
I had photographed children who ended up crying. When I was at RISD I went to visit one of my cousins and photographed her son crying. I just loved that picture and I used it for a little poster for my DJ night at the school disco, called the Tap Room. Then around 2002 I photographed a friend’s child in Los Angeles. The picture I liked best of him in the series was the one in which he just started crying and I put that in my commercial portfolio. Basically after the monkeys I was trying to figure out what I might like to do next for another personal series. I had a daughter at that point and I was thinking of all the things that my daughter might have to deal with growing up as a little girl, so I was thinking of doing a series of little girls around 6. I started photographing a little girl I had met at a party, but then her younger brother came at a studio shoot and I started photographing him. He just started crying for no reason. I guess he didn’t want to be photographed. It was the end of January, 2005, and George Bush had just been inaugurated for the second term. I thought the picture of the little boy crying should be called “Four More Years.” I just thought it would be sort of funny to do a series of children crying. I mean it to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, or on the nose, with titles like “Four More Years” or “Shock” and “Awe,” “Nucular,” “ Intelligent Design,” and “Postdiluvian.”
At the time the toddlers evoked great controversy as to whether or not getting them to cry was “child abuse.” How did you get them to cry?
Either they cried by themselves because they didn’t want to be photographed or we sometimes gave them a lollipop and then took it away. The mom usually did that. I didn’t ever talk to the children or touch them or actually interface with them in any way. I just sort of sat there and waited for them to do something. Or in many cases, maybe 30% of the time, the kids wouldn’t cry at all, so we just sort of gave up very quickly. And that was pretty much it.
Were most of them professional models?
About half. As much as a 2 and-a-half year old can be a professional model. A lot of them were registered with an agency but hadn’t really worked before. Some of them were my daughter’s classmates at her pre-school.
I wasn’t sure how the series would be received in terms of would someone want to buy that picture for their wall? But you know people have all different reactions. Some people say, you know, I love them, they’re so beautiful, I really want one. Someone said that to me yesterday. Then some people say, or you read, that they’re awful or they’re sexual, all these things that people read into them.
Were you taken aback by the level of controversy?
I was taken aback by the level of controversy and it was upsetting at first, because I am a mother and I’m glad my kids are too young to have heard about it, but at some point they will hear about it when they’re old enough. The controversy and the anger that was directed toward me was upsetting but enlightening. That’s what the blogging culture has become: the bloggers and then the media sort of pumping up the controversy. Whether it’s real or not, that’s just what the media does. They just need stuff to fill their air-time. They syndicate stories that go all over the world and it’s just crazy.
Do you continue with photographing the babies?
I don’t do the crying children. I did a series called “Performance” of my daughter Violet and another child, an actress. It’s on my website. That debuted at the same time as the “Ursine Series,” the bears, at the same gallery, and I think that the bears sort of overshadowed “Performance.” I like both series, but I feel the Performance Series has more going on conceptually than the bears and I was a little sad that
it didn’t get more attention. I’ve been thinking ever since the End Times of doing more children. There are other things I want to say with them, but children are a touchy subject at the moment so I took some time off from the controversy and I went to the bears.
On the subject of the bear pictures, they were conceived about 2006 and they were photographed in 2006 and 2007. Why bears, in particular?
I wanted another animal that people related to and identified with. Monkeys and bears feel like the most popular animals. People call each other monkeys or they think of people as teddy bears. I’ve also had another idea for about 20 years that involves doing something else with bears, and I wanted the bear portraits possibly to be a segue into the other project, which is on the back burner at present. I came up with this other concept while I was at RISD. I’d rather wait to talk about at a later time.
How dangerous is it to work with the monkeys and especially the bears?
It’s definitely more dangerous than photographing a two-year-old human, but you know they’re all really well trained and their trainers are right there. Before I started photographing the grizzly bears I thought, well, can they be sedated? They said no, no, no, they’re not sedated but they’re trained. They’re brought up by this one woman or man, as the case may be, from when they’re incredibly young, and they think that these people are their parents, basically. They act similarly to dogs; they’re trained to sit and to stand and to growl and to do the things that dogs are trained to do for photo shoots. And they’re treated like children by these people. They do things for food. They’re well taken care of and they have a lot of space to run around in. When I was photographing the bears, they set up a hot wire around the bear. The hot wire is not actually hot, but they are trained in the Pavlovian manner as if it were hot, so they won’t cross it or touch it. In fact, one of my photo assistants knocked into it while moving a light, and the bears freaked out, thinking it was somehow going to touch them. Once I met the bears, I thought “this is going to be o.k.,” but I’m sure it could be dangerous. You just have to respect what the trainers tell you to do and not to do.
Your photographic prints are made very large, often around 4 feet. Why did you decide to go so large?
Originally with the monkeys and apes there was just so much detail and there was so much to look at. I’ve always liked big pictures. I‘ve always thought I want a house where my pictures can be billboard-size inside the house. Big is fun, for me. I mean my stuff has an impact…I like to have an impact and then “big” makes even more of an impact.
Like most studio photographers you have a variety of people helping you, like make-up artists and various kinds of set builders and technical experts, occasionally even a DJ. To New Yorkers this is like a miniature movie set. Do you see yourself in any sense in the Hollywood tradition of creating a little movie translated into still photography?
Sure. In the best situations you have a full production. You build a set and you can do some different little scenarios with a little bit of a narrative to try to tell a story. Other times you’re shooting everything at once, like three advertising shots, and it’s not really a little movie. It depends on what you’re doing, but yes, I think a lot of commercial photography things are big productions.
Do you conceive of yourself as a director?
You definitely have to direct people. I sometimes get a kick out of that fact when I think back, “I just told Clint Eastwood what to do. Move over there. Look that way.”
That brings up the subject of your celebrity portraits. Who are some of the people you’ve photographed?
Let’s see: all different kinds of people ranging from Lindsay Lohan to Martha Stewart to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert was really great to photograph, a lot of fun. It depends on each person how much of a connection I can have, how much we can have a conversation.
Have you exhibited your portraits of celebrities in galleries? Do you plan to?
Maybe in 30 or 40 years I’ll look back on them and think they’re more significant, but at this stage I feel that they’re not necessarily art. I think the celebrity portrait is pretty disposable in our culture. I’m happy with the pictures, but I don’t know why someone would want to have Sharon Stone—or any big celebrity—on their wall because I’m not sure what that says.
Do you find that there is an overlap in style between your personal work and your commercial work? Sometimes your work is described as hyper-real or super-real. Does that kind of description resonate with you?
Yes, the approach is similar. But I’m trying to re-invent that now or reassess it, at least. I wouldn’t want just to do the same thing all the time. So the techniques and the approaches go back and forth. I’ll take from personal work and go to jobs or I’ll take from jobs and go to personal work.
Of course, you do a lot of advertising work. Who are some of the companies?
I just did something for Epson printers. I also did a big job recently for Animal Planet with my animal portraits, so that was nice. Wrigley, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, AXA Equitable, Asics shoes, and some of the networks like Showtime and HBO have been clients. There are a lot of them listed on my website.
You were speaking earlier about how much it takes to put together a set or context for your photographs. Do you find that you ever long for the simplicity of the guy on the street with a Leica and a roll of black-and-white film?
I do long for that in certain ways, not necessarily that simple, but maybe something a little more simple–just daylight, outdoors.
What kind of personal work are you doing now?
I don’t know whether I’m going to like it or not, but I’m experimenting with painting on the pictures. I’m going to be printing them on a canvas paper and then painting them because sometimes I feel there’s a limit to what you can do with Photoshop. It is the nature of Photoshop that it is a totally two-dimensional, super-flat medium; sometimes it can look a little bit cheesy, so I want to show the brushwork–show my hand a little more—just to drive it home that these are painted, they are created, they’re not straight. Also, some of my stuff is getting a lot more collage-like. I really don’t know where that’s going to go.
How do you see your future in photography, if you look down the road 5 or 10 years?
I’m not sure how I would know that. Hopefully I will continue to do personal work, but the commercial work pays the bills and allows me to have the money to do the personal work, so I think I’ll probably continue to do both. I’ll keep pushing and be happy to continue to have the opportunity to do it all.
Happy Birthday, Berenice Abbott
Today is the birthday of Berenice Abbott, an American photographer. A key figure in having brought photographic circles in Paris and New York together. She moved to New York in 1918, then to Paris in 1923, where she met Man Ray, who hired her as his photography assistant. Man Ray had introduced Abbott to the work of Eugène Atget. She devoted herself to documenting New York with the same dynamism that Atget had shown for Paris, photographing its streets, buildings, parks, and, of course, its people.
An Outsider On the Inside: Bruce Daivdson
An intense and well–spoken man, Bruce Davidson has proved to be one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th and early 21st centuries. The list of his photographic series that have culminated in books is startling. He has published 16 book titles. A partial list includes East 100th St. (1970 and 2003); Subway (1986 and 2003); Central Park (1995); Brooklyn Gang (photographed in 1959 and published in 1998); Portraits (1999); Time of Change, Civil Rights Photographs 1961–1965 (2002); England/Scotland 1960 (2005); and Circus (2007). In particular, the modern classic East 100th St. has afforded Davidson a special niche in photographic history. With a background in what many would characterize as photojournalism (he is a member of Magnum Photos), he introduced innovation by utilizing a 4 x 5” view camera to create portraits with depth and complexity — and yes, beauty — of the residents of what was termed in the late 1950s “the worst block in Spanish Harlem.” The impact of East 100th St. was heightened by the charged emotional atmosphere of a nation struggling with Civil Rights issues.
Bruce Davidson is known as an artist whose work ethic is unusually consistent. He invests a great deal of thought in his projects before he begins, but that is only half the equation. The other half is sheer, non–stop work over extended periods of time to accomplish his goals. His approach requires an extreme level of organization, right down to the careful filing of prints. He brings that same work ethic and organizational ability to the presentation of his exhibitions in the art world. Although a veteran of the museum world — his first one–person show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York took place over 40 years ago, in 1963 — he has come to the art gallery scene relatively recently, in the 1980s. In a short period of time he has emerged as an important figure in the collectibles market, partly because his body of work is large enough to sustain exhibition after exhibition in rapid succession. It is notable that in addition to investing time in preparing exhibitions and arranging his archive of past work, he still moves forward with the act of photographing the present and planning future projects with joyful intensity.
At the time of this interview, The Jewish Museum in New York City is presenting Isaac Bashevis Singer and the Lower East Side: Photographs by Bruce Davidson. Spanning the years 1957 to 1990, the exhibition features 40 intimate photographs of Singer, the revered Yiddish author, as well as residents of the Lower East Side Jewish community, including visitors to the Garden Cafeteria in that location. Could you tell us a little about your relationship to both Isaac Bashevis Singer and the world of the Lower East Side?
Isaac Bashevis Singer lived in our building here in New York on the fifth floor. I had photographed him years before on a magazine assignment. We just became neighbors. Also, I was interested in trying to find out about his world because that was the world of my grandfather. I wanted to find continuity. My grandfather came to the United States from Poland as a boy of 14. He learned English, became a tailor, and had a very good business. He went from being a tailor into manufacturing with his older son Leonard and Leonard’s wife Ruth, and that company is very large now.
I was born in 1933 and grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. My mother was a single parent. She was working in a torpedo factory during World War II. My brother and I could really fend for ourselves. We were very self–sufficient. We learned to cook. We learned to clean. We learned to meet our mother on time at the bus stop and carry home very heavy packages of groceries. My younger brother became an eminent scientist. I became a photographer. That was all part of being with my grandfather. For a while we lived with my grandfather in the home my mother was raised in. I began to sense there was something strange about my grandfather, there was some secret. There was something he left behind and he never really talked to us about it.
I was the first son in our family at that time to be Bar Mitzvahed. Our synagogue was a small clubhouse synagogue. I mean it was not a synagogue at all; it was a clubhouse with a small congregation. While I was reciting the Hav Torah during my Bar Mitzvah, I could see a box that I knew would be a camera on the rabbi’s desk. During the 1940s, cameras were scarce. Film was scarce. I had been taking pictures since the age of 10, and was very excited about receiving my first good camera and two rolls of film.
I was taking pictures and my grandmother emptied out a closet in the basement where she stored bottles of jelly. I began developing and making small contact prints in it. I even wrote on the outside of the jelly closet — I mean, it was small; I could barely fit in it — but I wrote “Bruce’s Photo Shop.”
You know, there is a similarity between photographing and tailoring. You learn to make the pockets straight, and actually you have the persona of the person you are fixing the jacket for. The persona is definitely there. It’s craft. And photography has craft also. So my grandfather sewed buttons and I sewed photographs.
So I would say that entering the world of Singer and the Lower East Side was really entering the world of my grandfather, but I am in no way an observant Jew.
As a Midwesterner transplanted to New York, you have demonstrated your great love of the city and its inhabitants in many series of photographs. Could you expand on your feelings about New York and how the city inspires you?
The town of Oak Park was a very small community. It was the home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemmingway. I have said that I am not a practicing Jew, but I am in the sense that wherever I photograph in New York — or wherever I photograph anywhere — it becomes to me a spiritual space in that I think there is a solemn responsibility when you have a camera. Although I don’t read the Torah, I do read the Torah of life, and my own personal Torah, so it wasn’t a big deal to leave Illinois to come East, to go to school, and to explore New York. My very first day in New York — my mother had remarried and we were staying at the Plaza Hotel — I began to explore. I went outside the hotel and I was photographing the pigeons and people with my Rolleiflex. My mother or my stepfather came out and said, “You’re using up all your film.”
I think New York is probably the most important and the most alive city in the world. It’s the most diverse. It’s the most difficult. It’s the most challenging. I have found that over the years I have been able to enter worlds within worlds in the city, beginning with the Circus series, then the Brooklyn Gang, and later the Subway and Central Park, and other entities. I entered worlds within worlds and they became sacred places for me. I no longer entered a shul; I entered the sacred space of people’s lives.
You attended the Rochester Institute of Technology (1951–54) in Rochester, New York and Yale University (1955) in New Haven, Connecticut. In other interviews, you have spoken of taking classes at Yale with the artist Josef Albers. Can you tell us about that?
Yes, I took Josef Albers’ color course. I also took his drawing course, although I didn’t draw. I was there as a photo student. But his color course really left an impression, and I began to understand the meaning of color. That isn’t to say I was going to use color to become a color photographer. I understand color. I know how to use color, but I do not prefer it. I prefer black–and–white. My films are in color, but the Subway body of work is the only major body of still photographs that I have in color, except for a number of landscapes made on Martha’s Vineyard over the years.
I started photographing the subway in 1979 or 1980 in black–and–white, but I saw another dimension of meaning in color. The graffiti, even the iridescent, fluorescent lighting in the subway, all had a kind of meaning — there was sort of a poisonous green–blue light down there that had color meaning, so I switched. I remember going out at day with one camera with color film and one camera with black–and–white, and I redid each picture. I would take pictures in black–and–white and then I’d switch to color. There’s a difference, you know, not only because one is black–and–white and one is color. There’s a difference in the “moment to moment” and you have to choose.
You have compared the subway to the Theater of the Absurd. Do you still think of it this way?
Yes, but it is also the most democratic space in the world. Anybody, rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, rides the subway. The graffiti at the time was written all over the place and was what is called the hieroglyphics of anxiety, of anger, of frustration, of “I am invisible but my marking remains.” You know, dogs pee on a pole but graffiti artists draw their name. The dog says, “This is me. I am here.” They’re making their marking and then somebody else comes over and pees on that marking and makes a new marking; so that was the dynamic. But the subway could be excruciatingly beautiful. It could be the sexiest environment I’ve ever been in; we can’t go into details but the subway can really be sexy.
How did all this relate to the mood of the city at that time?
At that time, about 1980, the trains were running poorly. They were very unsafe, there were a lot of muggers, there was graffiti written all over the place. I think the city was in default at that time, also. It was a chaotic, neurotic, pathetic time. And I chose…the subway really chose me. I started to go into it with a camera out, with a flash. A safari hunter. In fact I fashioned myself after the tiger hunter Jim Corbett. His books were written for boys but I liked them. So I became the tiger hunter. When you hunt tigers you have to watch your back. Anyway, I had all sorts of fantasies going because that’s what the subway can be. It could become as sacred as a church pew, it could be beautiful, it could be upsetting, it could be depressing. Anything goes, and I fed on that.
You have stated that your work in the subway was an antidote to depression. How was that so?
Because the subway was more depressed than I was. And in photographing in color — I wanted the color to be vibrant — I drew a parallel between fish in the deep sea where you see no light and yet you have iridescent colors when light is shown on them. I wanted to transform the subway in some way so that from a beast I made it beautiful and when it was beautiful I made it bestial, so that anything could come to me or reflect off me and rebound in the subway. I left my imagination and awareness open to the moment. The color experience was also a human experience.
Did you find it an experience of loneliness?
Yes, I seem to be attracted to things in transition, things that are isolated, maybe alone. I gravitate to that which has a certain tension because it’s in transition. The circus was in transition from tent shows to coliseum shows, from small, intimate family circuses to large extravaganzas.
Let’s talk about your circus photographs. Historically, many artists of the 20th century, such as Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Edward Hopper, have been drawn to clowns and the circus. What do you think is the source of the appeal and how did you yourself get started with the circus?
Magnum in New York had an incredible picture librarian by the name of Sam Holmes. Sam was an amateur trapeze artist. He was the one who told me about the circus in Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, which was the beginning of my circus work in 1958. I was not drawn to the circus per se, but to the clown who was a dwarf. It was the combination of attraction and repulsion that I felt standing next to him outside the circus tent that drew my attention and sustained a friendship with him.
His name was Jimmy Armstrong. He was melancholy. He was sensitive, very sensitive to everything. He wasn’t depressed but he was poetic. It’s almost like he was a performance artist. Even when he was outside the tent, he was performing; he was directing the camera to what he could feel at the time. I never said, ”Jimmy, why don’t you pick up your trumpet and blow it.” I waited for him to do it. He worked hard in the circus. He was carrying two heavy buckets of water. And you know, people in the circus liked him. I have a picture in the Circus book of a roustabout giving him a massage. He didn’t have to do that. But that was the nature of the circus, too — they were a family. They were kind of like Magnum, but with elephants.
Jimmy and I had a very silent friendship. I just observed him. He allowed me to observe. He also allowed me to see things that might have been embarrassing for him, or even dangerous, like walking through a crowd of children. You know children can be quite cruel to dwarves. Where else can you find someone with the same size head as your father, but half your size? At the end of our two–month trip together I bought him a Yashica Rolleiflex–type camera that he could hold in his hand. He often said that I was his best friend, even though I wasn’t really close to him, except in the sense that I was with him all the time. What made it so compelling was that we all have a dwarf in us, and that dwarf can come out in various ways: something small and compressed as being repulsive.
The picture I took of him peeking out of the van [on the cover of Focus Magazine] is an early ”confrontational” photograph. It isn’t that other photographers hadn’t done confrontational photographs, but it was something that wasn’t usually done. In photojournalism at that time you were supposed to be the “unobserved observer.” So no one looked at the camera because the camera wasn’t “there.” Here I made the camera “there.” I think that was a very penetrating thing. The fact that Jimmy Armstrong, the clown, allowed me that close into his soul was important to me.
He was married and had children. He married a normal–sized, but short, woman named Margie. Jimmy is dead now, and Sam and I can’t seem to find Margie. Sam found out that Jimmy, during World War II, could crawl into the fuselage of the bombers to do wiring. So he joined the war effort as a dwarf. He had a lot of lives. He was a musician. He was photographed by many different photographers, including André Kertész. He was even in a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) with Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton.
After I left the circus, he sent me a route card every once in a while. This was his schedule, so I knew where he would be. I would call the chief of police of a town and say, “My cousin is a dwarf in the circus. Could you get a message to him?” The chief would assume that I was a dwarf too, and he would jump into his car and run out with the message, “call me,” or whatever. Over time I lost track.
Going back to the period of your life following Yale, you were in the military from 1955 to 1957. Was there anything about that experience that relates to your photographic work?
Absolutely. In the army, I was in the Arizona desert for about a year. I used to hitchhike to Nogales, which was only 40 or 50 miles away, to photograph the bullfights. Patricia McCormick was a female bullfighter and I became somewhat friendly with her. In hitchhiking to Nogales I came upon a small town called Patagonia. It was really a railroad siding and a bar and a gas station and a post office and that was about it. There I met an old guy who was driving a Model T Ford and we became friendly. He was a miner. Every weekend I stayed at his bunkhouse and photographed. As I look at that body of work now, it seems very whole to me and I find it amazing.
It was the precursor to the Widow of Montmartre, which I made the following year, when I was transferred from Fort Huachuca, Arizona to Paris, France. There I met a French soldier who invited me to have lunch with him and his mother in Montmartre. After lunch I was standing on the balcony with my Leica and I saw an elderly woman hobbling up the street. I took a picture. The soldier said, “Oh, that woman lives above us and in fact she knew Toulouse–Lautrec, Renoir and Gauguin.” She was in her 90s in 1956, you see. She was the widow of the Impressionist painter Leon Fauchet. So the soldier introduced us and that series became the Widow of Montmartre. I lost track of that soldier for many years, but recently found him. He still lives in the same area. He’s one of the painters at the top of the hill in Montmartre.
At that point in my life I decided to show my work to Magnum Photos in Paris and to Henri Cartier–Bresson. Well, actually I had no idea of Cartier–Bresson. He was beyond reach. I left my photos at the Magnum office. They called me and said, “We would like to show your work to Cartier–Bresson.” Then I had an appointment with him, and that was the beginning of my career, and my life in photography.
Henri Cartier–Bresson is known as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. Could you talk about the effect of Cartier–Bresson on you and your work?
Cartier–Bresson took me under his wing. He tried to get me to read more, to reflect more, to be more disciplined. Over that year we had a professional relationship in which I occasionally showed him my work. Of course he had seen the Widow of Montmartre contact sheets. In fact, I just donated those vintage contact sheets from 1956 and about 17 prints to the Fondation Cartier–Bresson in Paris.
Cartier–Bresson is known for developing the concept of the Decisive Moment, one definition of which is the moment of stillness at the peak of action. Do you see yourself as being influenced by the idea of the Decisive Moment?
Well, the concept of the Decisive Moment has never been absolutely clear to me. To me it’s the Decisive Mood, and not the moment. I think that, sure, there is a decisive moment in life in everything we do. There’s a certain timing. But it isn’t just about timing, a man jumping over a puddle. The Decisive Moment is an internal thing. If you become decisive and you enter life in a decisive way, the moments will appear, as long as you are in tune. So what we are really talking about is a way of looking at life, a kind of balance. Sure, there’s geometry, there are moments and all that, but my photographs are more of a mood and they are cumulative, too. They aren’t just one picture.
We’ve spoken of Cartier–Bresson. You’ve also mention in other interviews being influenced by W. Eugene Smith and Robert Frank. In an interview with the Oregonian Newspaper you said, “Cartier–Bresson was Bach, Smith was Beethoven, and Frank was Claude Debussy. They’re all in my DNA.” Could we discuss this?
Well, definitely Smith was an influence because his photographic essays published in Life Magazine were very powerful. I don’t see how anyone could do a better job on Spanish Village than he did. All his works were very theatrical. They’re almost like stage sets. I don’t think he’s given enough credit for what he’s done. To some extent I was influenced by Robert Frank, but I moved away from him completely when I did East 100th St. and, in fact, I moved away from almost everybody who might have inspired me when I did East 100th St..
You did your series on the Brooklyn Gang in 1959. It was published in Esquire Magazine that year, but it did not appear in book form — Brooklyn Gang, published by Twin Palms — until 1998. One critic has described the essay on the Brooklyn Gang as having an air of innocence about it. Do you agree with that?
Those kids, at that time, you see, were actually abandoned by everybody, the church, the community, their families. Most of them were really poor. They weren’t living on the street, but they were living in dysfunctional homes. It’s the same thing. Anyway, they were kids and the reason that body of work has survived is that it’s about emotion. That kind of mood and tension and sexual vitality, that’s what those pictures were really about. They weren’t about war. I mean, you can’t compare those kids to the kids today who have machine guns. So there is an innocence in the photographs because it reflected the kids’ innocence, but that innocence could erupt into violence.
It’s interesting that the leader of the Brooklyn Gang, Bengie, who is now 65 years old, called when I was given a large show of the Brooklyn Gang at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York in 1998–99. My wife and I went down together and had coffee with him in midtown, and he turned out to have had an extraordinary life. He is now a substance abuse counselor. We just returned last Sunday from his birthday party, where we saw some of the old gang members.
What caused him to contact you?
There was a reunion of the old gang members. They were looking at my photographs in Esquire Magazine and they started talking. Bengie said he had been trying to get up the courage for years to call me, and finally he just did.
Perhaps we could discuss East 100th St. for a while. You photographed on that block from 1966 to 1968. The book East 100th St. was published by Harvard University Press in 1970, and was reissued in an expanded edition by St. Ann’s Press in 2003. You received the first–ever photography grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 1966, which you used in support of the East 100th St. project. East 100th St. appeared as a solo exhibition — your second at this venue — at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. How did you come to be introduced to the people on East 100th St.?
Sam Holmes, the picture librarian at Magnum who told me about the circus in Palisades Amusement Park, also told me about the “worst block in Spanish Harlem.” His cousin was a minister living on the block and working with the Metro North Citizens’ Committee. So I looked up the minister and had an appointment with the Citizens’ Committee and then I photographed for two years.
Were you attempting to create collaboration between the photographer and the subject?
Yes, one of the reasons I chose to use what would be regarded as an old–fashioned view camera on a tripod, with a flash, was that I felt it dignified the act of photography. I was eye–to–eye, face–to–face with the subject. The only thing that connected me to a camera was the little cable release, but I was really looking into the eyes of my subject. The environment was also important; what surrounded them was part of the picture, too. It was part of their expression. If the wall had a picture on it or a birdcage or nothing, it said something about them.
In some of the photographs the people presented themselves in a middle class way, very dressed up. Why do you think they chose to do that?
Well, you know, people are middle class in their minds. They may not own an automobile, but they dress very elegantly on Sunday, going to church. I had an experience in which I saw some children half–naked. They just had some little panties on and they were playing on the fire escape. I went to take that picture. The mother saw me and brought the kids in through the window. I counted the floors and went up and knocked on the door. The woman said, “You can photograph my children that way, but you must also photograph them dressed up.” So I photographed them playing on the fire escape and on Sunday I photographed the family dressed up.
Much has been made of the dark tonality of the photographs in East 100th St.. Did that tonality emerge immediately as your intention, or did it evolve over time?
When I entered a person’s home I was entering a sacred space, is the way I looked at it. It was up to the person to decide where the photograph might be made. Was it in the kitchen, in the bedroom, or in the vacant lot downstairs? Most of the time it was in the bedroom because it was a quiet space and it had artifacts or clues to their spirituality, like a cross, a picture of Jesus, a framed photograph of John F. Kennedy. Very often these dwellings were dark. I remember a photograph I took of an elderly woman sitting on a bed with towels and rags stuck into the cracks in the window to keep out the cold air. That was an important part of the photograph, which showed her sitting alone in this dark room with only one little light bulb on the ceiling. I tried to be true to the mood, to the darkness, and through the darkness I made a light because I made an image of that person’s predicament in life. So when I printed the photographs for the book I printed them in a very strong and heavy way. In fact, I was inspired by the bronze Degas sculpture of dancers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The bronze looked like shrapnel to me. It was dark, metallic, rich, and I followed that through as a theme in the printing of my photographs. I was highly impassioned in those days with that tonality. Years later, when I was printing for the second edition of East 100th St. I opened up the tonality because I was able to: the technology had improved. I had the aid of a scanner. I made the printing a little lighter.
East 100th St. wasn’t just a documentation. It was a vision, a vision in which I reached into the tonality with a large format camera. I wanted that depth of field. I wanted to be able to see down to the street while someone was lying on the couch. The way the camera was used, the way the lighting was used, the way I saw things were all part of the aesthetic. The aesthetic dimension to East 100th St. combined with the sociological message.
How recently have you had contact with the people on the block?
A few years ago I received a fellowship from the Open Society to go back to photograph. When I returned I could find very few people I knew. They had moved on. You know, people move on. What happened in the 1960s was that a matrix of new schools, tutorial programs, all kinds of things, rippled all through Spanish Harlem. Metro North Association was the beginning of that self–improvement, reviving the community. The community itself was doing it. I photographed positive aspects of new schools, new housing, tutorial programs, a new park and ball field, a women’s health center, the vest pocket gardens, and the new mood and the street. I’ve donated all that work to the Union Settlement and it is on display there. Yes, Spanish Harlem has changed. It’s almost easier to get a café latte now than a café con leche. Some of the texture is lost, but it’s a lot safer than it was.
Obviously you maintain contact with people you have photographed over the years. Can you tell us more about that?
I do, but I don’t overdo it, because life goes on. In Time of Change, there is a picture of a woman in a shack holding a baby, made during the Selma march. I found that baby and I found the whole family recently and re–photographed them. Their lives had changed tremendously because of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the younger children to get a better education. One of the 11 children holds a master’s degree in library science and became head legal librarian at the State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. Almost all of the younger children I photographed have successful lives.
You photographed the Civil Rights Movement, primarily in the American South, from 1961 to 1965. In 1962 you received a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of this project, and in 1963 the Museum of Modern Art included these historic images, among others, in a solo exhibition. The book, Time of Change, Civil Rights Photographs 1961–1965 was published by St. Ann’s Press in 2002. In that same year, the International Center for Photography presented an exhibition of Time of Change. When you were photographing these events in the early ’60s, did you find it a frightening experience?
Oh, yes, because if you made a mistake and you got into a situation that you couldn’t get out of…that almost happened to me. I photographed a Ku Klux Klan meeting, but I drove my little Volkswagen bug too close to the cross. When they lit it, they said, “New York license plate so–and–so, you’re too close to the fire.” I knew that that was not going to be cool, to have New York license plates at a Klan meeting in Georgia. I stayed a while, took a few pictures, and then left.
Would you call the Civil Rights photographs a turning point in your life?
Well, it certainly made it possible for me to understand what I was getting into in East 100th St.. It was the prelude to East 100th St.. It was like my homework. I had borne witness to what was going on in the South and to some extent become sensitized to what was happening in the North, too. Without that background I don’t think I would have done East 100th St. the way I did.
What about your early fashion days? How did that happen?
The story I heard was that after Brooklyn Gang was published, Alex Lieberman, the creative director of Vogue Magazine, was having lunch with Cartier–Bresson. He asked Bresson if he thought the young Bruce Davidson could do fashion. Bresson’s answer was: “If he can do gangs, why can’t he do fashion? What’s the difference?” So I did a lot of fashion for about three years.
I rarely do fashion now. I came to a point in the Civil Rights Movement where I was doing fashion and also protest marches and I couldn’t equate the two things, so I gave up fashion. I’m good at fashion photography but it doesn’t give me meaning. It’s like cotton candy. It looks beautiful, but it melts in your mouth, and the sugar can rot your teeth.
During the early 1990s, you did an extensive series on Central Park here in New York, which culminated in the book Central Park, published by Aperture Press in 1995. How did that series come about?
I did a body of work for National Geographic Magazine called The Neighborhood, in which I retraced my boyhood steps in the Chicago area. After I completed that the editors asked me what else I would like to do. I said I’ll make a list of ten things. To make it an even ten, I added Central Park. We used to take the kids there and at that time it was like a dust bowl. You never knew when you were sitting with your children if there were hypodermic needles sticking them. Then the editors said, “Oh, Central Park, that’s a good idea.” I said, “I need four seasons and I need to be in black–and–white.” They said, “Oh, no, we are a color magazine. You have to do it in color and we can give you only three seasons.” So I went out and I started photographing Central Park. I exposed 500 rolls of film. Then we had a presentation. The next morning I got a call from the editor–in–chief Bill Graves, who said, “We’re pulling the plug on this project. Think of something else.” So I said to myself, “Good, I’m free at last,” and I went back to Central Park with my Canon Cameras and I spent the next three years photographing in black–and–white.
That series has been called a love poem to New York. Do you think of it that way?
Yes, the series I did was a love poem, but it was not a sweet poem. It had a fierceness to it. It had an edge to it, as I explored the layers of life.
What are you interested in photographing at present?
I’m interested in the balance of nature right now and the meaning of the vegetation that at times goes unnoticed in our lives. I just finished a large body of work called the Nature of Paris. It was shown at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. The exhibition opened in June of 2007 and closed in September. In Paris I think I made an homage to vegetation. In that city the monuments take over. We go to the Eiffel Tower and we don’t realize there’s a 500–year–old tree growing right next to it. When you see the pictures it will be self–evident. I’m interested in raising people’s consciousness, my own included, to the meaning and the need for green space and vegetation.
When I began the project in Paris, I began by photographing some people in nature. For instance, my assistant found an elderly woman in the cemetery in Montmartre, a woman well into her 80s or 90s. There were cats standing on the tombstones, waiting for her to come to them with food. They wouldn’t just rush in. I photographed her and also lovers in the park and all that kind of stuff, and I was getting sick from it. I edited it all out, including the panoramas, even though the panoramas were successful, I thought. I edited all the 35mm pictures out. There was something I was doing with the square format that was coming through to me. In the end the whole show was nothing but the Hasselblad 2 ¼” photographs. I was able to disinvest all that other imagery, which I’d already done, into something that I hadn’t done, something that was new to me, fresh to me. And challenging.
I’m looking for another city that would be the extension of Central Park and Nature of Paris. I would like to continue the concept that was born through the Paris photographs.
At what point did you become interested in selling your photographic prints through galleries?
I was too busy photographing during the 1970s to become affiliated with a gallery. I became interested in the 1980s. It was Howard Greenberg who really brought me out of the fine art world “shadows” and into the sunshine. I had my first exhibition with his gallery in New York in 2002. I felt that Howard could really embrace my work and he did. Howard is, as they say in Yiddish, meshpokha, he’s family. He understands the work, he’s honest, he’s energetic, and he assigned me Nancy Lieberman, who is wonderful, and who manages my work for the gallery. Recently she arranged for my wife and me to go to Greece for a 75–print commemorative exhibition for the Hellenic–American Institute in Athens.
On the West Coast, Rose Shoshana and Laura Peterson of the Rose Gallery have mounted some of the most beautiful exhibitions I’ve ever had. They did a dye transfer color show of Subway that was amazing to see, and before that, Brooklyn Gang. They had a patron who underwrote the creation of a portfolio of Subway containing 47 very large dye transfer prints (20” x 24”) in an edition of 7. I think there are only two portfolios left.
I am now working with three people: Howard Greenberg Gallery, in New York, Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California and the Sandra Berler Gallery in Chevy Chase, Maryland
After 9/11, did you have a desire to photograph events here in New York City?
Well, I went down a night or two to 9/11 to photograph. It was very difficult to get permission to work. I had sent a whole portfolio of photographs — not of 9/11 — to Hillary Clinton, but it never got to her. The FBI just X–rayed things and kept them, so I got those prints back a year later. So I didn’t have permission to get down there, but I knew someone who operated a building nearby and they were housing police overnight. He said the captain would be willing to take me around for a while at night, but that was all I could get.
In my slide presentation I have a photograph of the Twin Towers at night with the Statue of Liberty before 9/11. It’s a photograph that can be taken only with a 1700mm telephoto lens. There are only two in the world. I borrowed it from Canon. My wife did the scouting. She found a pier that jutted out a quarter of a mile into the bay. It’s a Kodachrome picture of the World Trade Center at night, lit by the office lights in the windows. When I took it I thought, oh, yeah, this is a perfect symbol of consumerism, materialism, all of that. But after 9/11 it became a memorial image, like two candles set on the altar of life and death.
Esquire Magazine gave me an assignment to photograph some aspect of America after 9/11. I just didn’t feel comfortable going someplace like the Grand Canyon, so I went to Katz’s Delicatessen. I spent a month at Katz’s making photographs of people eating pastrami, because I wrote, “Pastrami and Peace Go Together.” You feel very peaceful when you are digesting pastrami. I felt that freedom was about being able to photograph the impossible or the vulgar or whatever, or simply people enjoying themselves.
Did you feel the urge to photograph the people around Union Square who were looking for their relatives?
No. I felt there were so many photographers there that it would be well covered. I don’t like to photograph where there are a lot of photographers. It doesn’t feel right to me. I like to go where no one else has gone. Also, you have to understand my feelings. The whole thing knocked the wind out of my sails.
What projects are you involved with at present?
I still do some editorial photography. In fact, I just did a really interesting project with CareOregon, a private healthcare company that asked me to photograph a number of their members. These are people who are very, very sick. They are in their homes, not in the hospital. CareOregon made two beautiful exhibitions of the work, one at their headquarters in Portland and one in the Department of Human Services Building in Salem. Legislators got the chance to see people who really need care, and who are having good care right now through CareOregon. There were testimonials that were heart–wrenching.
Do you have any final statements to make about your work?
I would say I work out of a state of mind. When I’m photographing the dwarf in the circus, I’m confronting myself as a giant compared to this dwarf, but I’m not a giant compared to other people who might be a foot taller than I am. So then I confront another reality; I’m in another state of mind. Even in the Civil Rights Movement I’m erasing my own heritage and the town I grew up in. We didn’t have any social experience with black people at all. So I’m learning about that oppression as I go deeper into the Civil Rights Movement. And East 100th St. is another frame of mind. Then I work on that. I don’t read an article in The New York Times and think, well, that’s a good idea, I’ll work on that. No, my work is very personal. It’s a personal barometer of my life, a voyage of consciousness that is my life’s work. Each one is different. My wife says, “You always start with zero, you erase your clichés,” as I did in Paris. You’re only seeing what I ended with, what I felt the thing is. So there’s a psychological, there’s a visual, there’s a contemporary, there’s an artistic element.
I, personally, have been printing my body of work during January and February for the last two or three years, and I’ve accumulated about 1,200 prints in that time. I’m doing it because it needs to be done. One of my publishers, Gerhard Steidl, who does beautiful, highest–quality work, and who published England/Scotland 1960 in 2005 and Circus in 2007, is talking about publishing a four or five volume set of books of my life’s work. That would be great, if it happens.
I would also like to give my wife Emily credit for her keen intelligence, visual acuity and inspiration through all these years that we have lived and worked and raised our children together.
Jain Kelly was the assistant director of The Witkin Gallery in New York City from 1971-78. She has written numerous articles on various aspects of photography and is a fine-art photography consultant to collectors. Her email is [email protected]
Clemens Kalischer: The Invisible Man
Clemens Kalischer’s first look at New York in 1942 was out of focus. The malnourished German-Jewish refugee could barely make out the skyscrapers. Within five years he would be documenting everyday life in now classic images of the city. He chronicled the arrival of other displaced persons in New York harbor in the late ’40s. Kalischer’s first break came when, thanks to knowing French, he got a job counting words as a copy boy at Agence France Presse in New York. When their regular photographer was away, the editor asked Kalischer to cover the last voyage of the luxury liner Normandie, which had caught fire in New York harbor, and was being towed to New Jersey for dismantling. His reportage was cabled to Paris. Thus began his career as a freelance photographer.
By Brent Greggston
In 1948, Kalischer was invited by Beaumont Newhall of the Museum of Modern Art to be included in the exhibit “In and Out of Focus.” In 1955, Edward Steichen selected one of his photographs for “The Family of Man” exhibit. Since then Kalischer has exhibited all over the world. His work is represented in many international collections among which are: the Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Smithsonian Institute; The Brooklyn Museum; The Albertina Museum, Vienna; the Diaspora Museum, Tel Aviv; The Library of Congress; and the Photography Museum of Charleroi, Belgium, to name just a few. The career of Clemens Kalischer spans 60 years. He maintained a long relationship with the New York Times, working on assignment for over 35 years and doing freelance jobs for Newsweek, Time, Life, Coronet, Fortune and the Herald Tribune. Kalischer was 85 at the time of this interview, lived and worked in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He ran the Image Gallery in Stockbridge for many years. The gallery showed work in all media, as well as the photography of artists such as Paul Caponigro, Eugene Richards and John Brook.
What was it like being raised in Germany between the two World Wars?
I remember my childhood better than I remember yesterday. I was born in Bavaria. When I was very young, we moved to the Harz Mountains. We lived at the edge of town next to huge woods, and I spent a lot of time running around those woods. At about the age of six, I had to go to school. We had a young woman teacher who had everyone line up by size, and I was one of the smaller ones. She had all of us bend forward, all the way down, then went around with a big stick and beat each one of us on our behinds. I came home to my parents crying. They were incensed and went to the school to demand an explanation. The teacher said that it was good for them and that they’ll know right away who’s in charge. I preferred playing in the woods! Around the age of nine, we moved to Berlin. When Hitler came to power in 1933, my father decided to leave for Paris.
Was there something specific that got you interested in photography at this time?
While a friend and I were going to purchase some oil paints at a department store, I came across a copy of the book Paris by André Kertéz. I had never heard of him but when I looked at the photographs I realized that he was seeing all the things the way I was seeing them on my very long walks. Several weeks later I bought the book—that book has remained with me all my life.
I understand you were in a French forced labor camp. Can you tell us something of that experience?
When the war broke out, I was camping with a friend in Brittany. We saw posters that read, “All aliens of German descent report to such-and-such a place.” Even though I no longer considered myself German, I decided I’d better go before they came to get me. I took the last bus and ran to the mobilization center where a French officer took my name and address. I asked for a telephone to call my parents and he said, “You cannot call anywhere, you are a prisoner. Go right in this room. You can’t leave any more.” It was a room full of people in shock, like me. We were shipped from camp to camp, and one night we were awakened by sirens and the order to leave at once. We marched for days on end without food, and were told not to sit down, or we would be shot. At a rare rest we threw away whatever we could. I could not give up the book, but I ripped out a few pages to lighten my load, it was that difficult. I was 19 or 20 years old. Before I was released, I went to eight different camps. The labor was strenuous, but I wasn’t going to give in, so I worked very hard. For three years I hardly ever ate any real food.
How were you able to escape?
We were saved unexpectedly by being on a list prepared by Varian Frey, a young journalist in France, with the help of Eleanor Roosevelt. We traveled on a tugboat from Marseilles to Casablanca to await a Portuguese ocean liner that took us to Baltimore, a trip that lasted six weeks. When we arrived I had my first real meal in three years, but was unable to digest it. When we arrived in New York, we were put up in a room for a little while. The temporary shelter in New York in which we lived would send me out to pick up food donations from stores. One day when I came home, I learned that our room had caught fire. I yelled out, “Where’s my book!” The firemen had thrown the burned rubble into the garbage cans in the street. So, I ran down and went through the cans and found my charred book.
Do you still have your André Kertész book today?
Yes, the burnt remnants of it, which are now in my attic. I haven’t seen it in a long time. I never tried to find out if I could get a newer copy.
Before the war you were training to be a painter. You arrived in America as a refugee with little or no experience in photography and no money. When you arrived in America, did you have any thoughts of becoming a photographer?
I had no thoughts about anything. I was extremely depressed and had lost all illusions. After three years in camps I weighed 90 pounds. The skyscrapers were a blur. The doctor said I needed more vitamins because I hadn’t eaten well for three years, and that my sight would come back—and it did. While working in the window department of Macy’s, I met a young photographer in the company print shop. He showed me photographs he took in the street. I was very impressed. He told me about some exhibits at the Photo League. On a day off, I searched to find it and, after seeing the work, I thought, “If I ever had a camera, that’s the kind of stuff I would photograph.” A sign on the wall announced a beginner’s class. The next day I signed up.
From this inauspicious beginning, how were able to establish a career in photography?
While I was working at Agence France Presse, word got around that I took photographs. One day, Mr. Rabache, the head of the Agency, called me in and asked me if I could do an assignment because their photographer was in the Midwest. I said yes, but I didn’t even own a camera. I borrowed a Rolleiflex from a French sailor I met in town. “You know how to use it?” he asked. I said yes, but I had no idea. I spent the rest of the night trying to get film into it. I got to the harbor at four in the morning. I spent the whole day on a tugboat following the luxury liner, Normandie, shooting without knowing . . . and it came out perfect. It was developed and went by the Atlantic cable to Paris. “Congratulations for a first-rate reportage,” came back from Paris, so I became a freelance photographer. The first magazine to publish my work was Common Ground and is where my “Displaced Persons” series first appeared. The editor encouraged me to come up with ideas like the nationality groups in New York, longshoremen, etc. I got paid very little and lived from roll to roll. One day, I said, “This can’t go on, I can’t survive.” I decided to do something different. I walked over to the New York Times and asked, “Who does one see about pictures.” I was sent upstairs. There I met a stern old lady. She said, “Sit down. What do you have?” She looked very slowly at my work. I was scared, thinking, “Does she really think I’m a photographer?” Finally she said, “Very good, come back in a few weeks with more.” She liked them as much the second time, but she had no use for them. She said, “Go down another floor and show your photographs to Grace Gluck in the book section.” Grace picked out periodically from whatever I photographed, that which symbolized something to do with a book. For many years I worked with Lonnie Schlein, photo editor of the Sunday Times “Arts & Leisure” section, and many more assignments followed.
Some of your most famous images are of refugees. You took them just five years after arriving in New York. When you looked through the camera lens, did you see yourself getting off the boat?
Yes, I totally identified with them. Therefore, they ignored me completely. Well, that has been my strength. When I photograph things, I become part of it, not a spectator or a curious journalist that intrudes. I wait until I feel that they are comfortable and have forgotten about me. I don’t ask permission because you can’t get real pictures by saying, “Can I take your picture now?” I sense when it’s okay. When it’s not okay, I stop or go away for a while.
Is that why you have been called “the invisible man?”
Someone in Belgium once asked me, “How do you do this?” and I didn’t know how to explain so I said, “I become invisible.” Very rarely do people even notice I’m around. Patience is also a big part of it. I wait for the moment when I know I’m no longer a novelty and then I make my best photographs.
You took a picture of Henri Cartier-Bresson on the New York waterfront while working on the “Displaced Persons” series, is that correct?
Yes. I discretely took his picture. A woman saw me take the photo and gave me her card. She worked for Harper’s Bazaar and wanted to see the photos, so I sent them to her. A few days later she called and said that Cartier-Bresson wanted to invite me to dinner. I was nervous because, like me, he was very quiet. At dinner we talked all the time, but never about photography. When I was invited to meet with him again in Paris just before his death, he looked at my new book. When it was time to leave he said, “Until next time.” But I thought there might not be a next time, so I replied, “Everything happens by chance.” And he replied, “Yes, yes, that’s right.” I met him at the beginning of my career and saw him again at his home in Paris at the end of his in June 2004.
I understand that you had a photograph in the famous “Family of Man” exhibit at the MoMA, the one that was curated by Edward Steichen. Coming into photography in the manner you have described, how did you manage this?
I was introduced to Steichen by John Morris. When I showed him my photos, he asked me to bring more. I brought him a box of prints. I didn’t hear from him again for a year or two, and then he called and said, “One of your pictures will be at the MoMA on exhibition.” At the time I wasn’t very involved in the New York photography scene and was surprised to be included.
Why did you move to New England after living in New York City for just nine years?
I never liked big cities. I needed space and nature. My best times in New York were the weekends I spent hiking with my friends in the country. One day I said a simple thing to myself, “I’m not going to stay my whole life in New York.” Most people would say, “Wait until you become successful.” I said, “No, do it now.” I got out a map of the United States and traveled with my eye and pencil. California for some reason didn’t pull me. The Midwest is supposed to be all flat, and I like mountains and trees. The South, probably not. Then I hit upon New England. I drove to Pittsfield and walked around. Towards the end of the day I met an old woman and told her I was looking to find a room or an apartment. It turned out I knew her son, a photographer. She said, “Between the trees, there’s a cottage and you can have it for free.” I was so excited. It was everything I wanted. For the first six months after moving there, all I photographed were trees.
After moving to New England you continued to support yourself with your photography. How were you able to do that living so far from New York City?
I arrived here with an old car and $75, and I didn’t know anybody. I thought, things will work out if I work and learn about the area. Not long after moving here I began working for Vermont Life. They do an essay on a village in the winter and many other topics. I also had small jobs in New York, and I would go once or twice a month to work there. That gradually diminished and in 1965, needing more space to store my photography, I moved into the former town office and opened the Image Gallery. It cost $14,000 to purchase the space, which was a lot of money for me back then.
You have done a lot of photographs for so-called alternative publications like The Sun, Jubilee, Orion, Common Ground, Yes, World Watch and Ploughshares. Why did you choose to work for them?
Well, that answer is simple. They use real photographs. They are more in line with what really interests me than most of the other publications. I’m interested in social, psychological and environmental questions. Photography has allowed me to learn and become involved in the things that matter to me. And what interests me are the things that give us hope, in spite of everything.
Throughout your career you’ve worked independently at your own risk and peril. Any regrets?
No. Sometimes it’s hard. But I’m free. I’ve never lost my taste for independence. Everything that has happened to me has happened by accident. Life has given me opportunities beyond my imagination and dreams.
On June 15, 2018, nearly 11 years after this interview was published in Focus, Kalischer passed away at 97 years old. His obituary can be found in the New York Times here: (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/obituaries/clemens-kalischer-97-refugee-photographer-of-humanity-dies.html)
Brent Gregston is a writer living in Paris.
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