SW When did you first discover photography?
SR We share some common background in that I often consider myself a self-taught photographer. My background and major at Denison University (1961-65) was sociology/psychology. The first twenty-two years of my life were spent growing up in north-central Ohio. I don’t remember attending an art museum until after college, though in my 20s I loved making abstract watercolors.
I worked in publishing in Boston/Cambridge, where I also took evening art classes at the Boston Museum School. It was at this time, around 1969, that I bought my first real SLR Pentax camera and took a local workshop course on how to develop film. I immediately fell in love with what I could do with a camera: more immediate seeing, more of the real world. So I dropped out of the art classes at the Museum School and started taking photographs. Around this time, I attended a couple of workshops at Apeiron in the early 1970s. One was with Emmet Gowin, whose work I admire to this day, especially his photographs of Edith’s family in Danville, Virginia.
After ten years or so of taking photographs and having a full-time job, I made a major decision to end my professional work in publishing and attend a new graduate program in photography between Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (all the photo concentration was at Hampshire). This was in 1980, when I had the privilege to work with Jerome Liebling, Abraham Ravett, and Elaine Mayes. I graduated in 1982 (at almost 40) and was completely obsessed with finding the people I wanted to photograph. It was also at this time that I started working in color.
The challenge at this point was knowing how, what to do with my photography, as I had no real background in the art world prior to my going back to graduate school in 1980. In my adjunct teaching jobs I had no real mentor or role model for my teaching. It was hard.
This is a long answer to your question about when I discovered photography. It literally began when I picked up a professional camera in the late 1960s/early 1970s, though my sister tells me I took pictures with a plastic Brownie camera in my early childhood.
SW I too dropped out of my art classes in college to “just take photographs”. It seems to me that you had found the “thing” that you were supposed to be doing. Did you feel that way at the time?
SR I don’t think that I would express my “finding” photography as the thing I was supposed to be doing. There was a lot I wanted to know about the world, and even more that I did not know about myself. Photography was a way of expression which touched certain subjective, deep sensibilities within myself and definitely was a way for me to engage with a world about which I knew very little. I liked putting the two together in a rather formal way. In A Way of Seeing1Helen Levitt, A Way of Seeing. (New York: The Viking Press, 1965)., the book about Helen Levitt’s photography, James Agee uses the word “aesthetic reality.” It spoke to me at that time. Oddly, today I rarely use that word “aesthetic,” it carries over too much into the art history world.
At the time when I first started using a camera, photography was not a clear answer to what I wanted to do with my life. It was a period of tremendous searching and discovery. I had no idea then that I would end up with the interest in photography that I have today. Before turning 40, I knew I had three possibilities: either go on to graduate school in social work in order to work with children, continue taking pictures and try to get accepted into a photography graduate program, or stay with my professional publishing jobs. I was so lucky to be a guinea pig in this first combined MFA program between UMass and Hampshire College. My exposure to young students was very rejuvenating.
SW I managed to walk across the street from my house to the Virginia Museum Library where they had a copy of Pleasures And Terrors Of Domestic Comfort2Peter Galassi, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1991)., the book counterpart to Peter Galassi’s 1991 exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art, of which you were a part. They let me xerox the introduction at 20 cents a page. It is a really wonderful book, and gives me a better sense of what was going on at that particular moment in photography, and how it got to the place it is now. How did the show come about and how did things change for you after being included?
SR Oh yes, Peter Galassi’s Pleasures And Terrors Of Domestic Comfort – what a great title! Of course, that show helped a lot; it was a turning point for myself as well as for photography in general. Many photographers today photograph their own living room and kids, though this domestic life is often now a staged production. I also liked how Galassi interfaced the literary world with contemporary photography in that book.
The MoMA had a wonderful reviewing policy then (sadly, they don’t anymore), when anyone off the street could come in and leave their portfolio of photographs for review on a designated day. In the 1980s, that’s exactly what I took advantage of. It worked. Peter Galassi, Susan Kismaric, and John Szarkowski were very encouraging when they first saw my photographs from rural Ohio. This certainly gave me support when taking off for unknown places to photograph in the 1990s. I feel I’ve been very fortunate, and that’s probably a nice, Midwestern thing to say.
You don’t have to use all of this; my responses are long and rambling. I love using words, and I sense that you do, too. I’d rather be writing stories at times, rather than using a camera. I love the short stories of Alice Munro, especially, as well as Flannery O’Connor’s.
SW I think I am going to spend the winter reading everything that Alice Munro wrote. Thank you for introducing her work to me.
“These days our back porch was piled with baskets of peaches and grapes and pears, bought in town, and onions an tomatoes and cucumbers grown at home, all waiting to be made into jelly and jam and preserves, pickles and chili sauce. In the kitchen there was a fire in the stove all day, jars clinked in boiling water, sometimes a cheesecloth bag was strung on a pole between two chairs, straining blue-back grape pulp for jelly. I was given jobs to do and I would sit at the table peeling peaches that had been soaked in the hot water, or cutting up onions, my eyes smarting and streaming. As soon as I was done I ran out of the house, trying to get out of earshot before my mother thought of what she wanted me to do next. I hated the hot dark kitchen in summer, the green blinds and the flypapers, the same old oilcloth table and wavy mirror and bumpy linoleum. My mother was too tired and preoccupied to talk to me, she had no heart to tell about the Normal School Graduation Dance; sweat trickled over her face and she was always counting under her breath, pointing at jars, dumping cups of sugar. It seemed to me that work in the house was endless, dreary and peculiarly depressing; work done out of doors, and in my father’s service, was ritualistically important.” – from Boys and Girls3Alice Murno. “Boys and Girls” in Dance of the Happy Shades. (Toronto: McGraw Hill Ryerson, 1968), 116-117. (1968) by Alice Munro.
Your photographs like Munro’s stories are filled with so many observations. There is so much going on in one moment, and yet your images are quiet and beautiful. Each person standing in your frame holds my attention and wonder and is given their equal time.
Do you have a favorite story about one of your photographs?
SR I prefer not to tell “favorite stories” about my photographs, as that tends to fictionalize the lives of real people whom I don’t really know. I sense only what is before me, with a few words exchanged in a very short time, when compared to the lifetime of a complete stranger. The photograph, to me, stands most fully when it brims with descriptions, formal considerations included. Of course, there were kids and people whom I felt drawn to in many ways, not just photographically. That is personal. The viewer, on the other hand, can imagine whatever when he or she sees it framed on a wall with only a title of where it was taken, the year, and sometimes a name, which was added only when I specifically felt a particular person touched me and fully deserved their name, since it adds a more human dimension.
I’m glad you like Alice Munro’s stories. I enjoy reading books of all kinds. The elements in both the photographs I’ve made and literature share the obvious concerns of form, voice, and description.
SW I just got back from the SPE conference in Syracuse4 Ed. Susan Worsham is probably referring to SPE (Society for Photographic Education) Joint Regional Conference, hosted by the non-profit photography organization Light Work in Syracuse (NY) on November 11th, 2011.. I feel like Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort is following me around.
I attended a lecture by the photographer Alec Soth in conjunction with his exhibit at the Everson Museum5Alec Soth, From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. October 1st, 2011 – January 12th, 2012. Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse (NY).. It was funny, as Alec was on the left side of the stage talking about how influential the book was for him, and a translator was signing on the right side of the stage for the hearing impaired. I could not help thinking about my coffee stained, Virginia museum xeroxes of the pages from that same book on the passenger side of my car, in the Everson parking lot.
Galassi writes in that same book: “To photograph on the top of the mountain one must climb it; to photograph the fighting one must get to the front; to photograph in the home one must be invited inside.”6Galassi, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, 7.
I get a strong sense from your pictures that you have been “invited inside,” and that invitation is then extended to us, the viewer.
How did you go about finding these people that you wanted to photograph? Your subject?
SR It is luck, perhaps a sense of faith, that my desperate need to find strangers in unknown places I like and can relate to on their territory will reveal some insights and revelations for myself. Literally one turn in the road might bring me to good fortune with my camera. Rarely did I have a plan, a route worked out beforehand. My directions were always a “seat-of-the-pants” type methodology, mixed with intuition “sixth sense.” I’ve always traveled alone, with a simple rangefinder camera and a pocketbook filled with film. With the good fortune of grants, I would rent a car to travel around places like the Ozarks in Arkansas, the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont, southeast Ohio. In other places, especially around my home environs, I’ve ridden my bike with the camera in the bicycle basket; that’s a wonderful way to see things. For years, especially in my childhood, I always enjoyed exploring places on my bicycle. Sadly, now with age and living up on a steep hill in the country, I don’t ride my bike much anymore.
I rarely approached people I wanted to photograph right away with my camera. Something would grab my eye about a place, and I would stop the car and walk up to people and start a chatty conversation about something; usually, something which caught my eye in their yard like the kids, odd ornaments/toys, a garden, for example. Since my photo forays would last for about 3-4 weeks, I would be hungry to talk with people. They sensed this, in some cases, and were eager at times to talk to a complete stranger, who obviously was not from their parts. Informal chatting could last close to half an hour, more or less, depending. Gradually, I would then mention my interest in photography and would ask permission to get my camera to photograph. I never feigned that this was just a hobby; I often explained where my photographs might be exhibited. Years ago, this was a time where taking pictures was serious business, in that there were no fast, snappy digital cameras then. To some rural folks, having a picture taken was “special.” I also explained that my pictures would not be published in a local newspaper.
Often I wrote down addresses of people I photographed and would try to send a proof for them. I’ve collected many notes and thank-yous from people over the years. This type of exchange does not happen anymore.
I don’t know if there was a sense of trust. I just know I was the one given the fortune to be in certain places with my camera. In retrospect, some times were risky, even though I “felt at home.” All formative experiences in our lives influence our choices of what, whom to photograph (you’ll find somewhere more information about the Arkansas trip I made with my father and sister when I was about 8-9 years old. We spent weeks living with kin on a small, poor rural farm in northwest Arkansas, the Ozarks. This trip definitely influenced my interest in photographing rural folks).
SW I know one of your subjects was your niece Beth and her family. Was it more difficult photographing someone you had a familial relationship with?
SR Yes. Photographing in Great Falls, Montana was difficult to some extent, in that I was hanging out with family, my niece Beth and her husband, and two children. I think the issue of exploitation was more present here than at any other time before. Three different times I made trips to photograph in Great Falls, and thus the series In Montana With Beth. The objective was not to portray or make a “portrait” of Beth. However, her circumstances held material for what I thought could be “at home” photographs, especially of a mother and her domestic interactions with kids. Although my living circumstances were quite different from Beth’s, she had a good understanding of my photography (she herself took up photography at one time in her life). She was very supportive then and still is to this day.
There were friends of hers which often ended up as subjects in photographs, but I also would ride around on a bike to find people to photograph in Great Falls. One of my favorite people was Barbara, whom I met at her tag sale. She lived with hundreds of caged birds in her house. I think she enjoyed my company and my returning to see her. In general, I rarely go back to the same place after photographing. I work best when there is the feeling that I am less involved with the people. Once I get to know people better, the photographs don’t seem to happen. The most exciting times were when I first discovered a place and people to photograph. When there was too much familiarity or friendliness, I became hesitant, not wanting to interfere or interrupt familial goings-on. I was never interested in making something a spectacle; it was the mundane, the everyday exchanges which I was drawn to.
SW Somewhere I saw your work referred to as “street photography from the front yard,” which seems like a perfect description to me. While many photographers shot inside the house, the front and backyards seemed to prove very fertile ground for you. It reminds me of a mother watching her kids play in the yard, using her peripheral vision to make sure nothing goes unnoticed.
SR I never heard my work described as “street photography from the front yard”! That’s pretty neat and possibly true.
What matters tremendously to me is photographing people on their own turf, literally their place on this earth. In rural areas, even in suburbia, people are attached to their places, stuff in the yard, gardens, gadgets, kids, anything unique to them. I’ve now realized that some of the most successful images have some important attachment, connection to the earth, the ground.
My “heart” really lies in photographs of landscape, perhaps for the above reason. Always, before venturing out on a photo journey, I would start unconsciously photographing landscapes, usually in the spring. I love formally putting pieces of the earth/nature together to make a photograph. Although my photographs of people are more complex, I cannot say that I really loved every minute of photographing kids, families, people. That was hard, challenging work; it was interaction; I needed eyes at the back of my head at times. But landscapes? Ah, I am on my own, and I love the natural world.
SW I notice that the focus in your later work has shifted to unpeopled landscapes, where the children and families have maybe gone into the house for dinner, or have just grown up. You seem to have pulled yourself back a little bit. there is more of a distance between you and the scene in front of your camera. There is one picture in particular of a woman on the outskirts of a landscape, she is almost made small by it. I was wondering if this is a self-portrait in a sense?
SR The photograph of the back of an older woman with a mountain range in front of her is not a self-portrait. But it is an excellent example of what I’ve just said above. It is a melding of both the landscape and the small dot of human intervention. With landscapes, I like the more distant view if people are included. Subjectively speaking, this was not a “pulling back” – it was made eleven years ago when I was still working with more intimacy, closeness to people’s lives. The picture is from my hometown, from a place called The Oxbow, a part of the Connecticut River which runs through Northampton, Mass. I was hanging out at The Oxbow, where there are many people living off their boats. Some people in the distance were living in vacation trailers. This particular woman, who was part of a Greek family, had wandered out to gaze at the Holyoke Mountain Range. The landscape here is beautiful, an attraction for many artists in this area. My favorite part of this photograph is the horseshoe which is hung on a low stake at the edge of the field. Now I call that “lucky.”
Today, yes, I’ve pulled back from making photographs like I did in the past 25 years. I no longer make these long photo journeys, partly because I am almost 70 and because a lot of these rural areas have changed. I don’t have the energy, and I think I would be nuts (or, a nutbag, as you would say!) to try to approach people when there seems to be a lack of trust these days from people who rightfully have a great sense of protection of their kids and home. Issues of kidnapping children, the terrorist scare, fear in general, have made many people suspicious of strangers. In my earlier years of photographing, I don’t think I ever gained a true sense of familiarity with the people I photographed. It was not my intent to “know” these people, even though I wanted to show respectful interest. The first and utmost priority in my interactions with folks was the photograph itself; that mattered.
What I’ve answered will hopefully just give you an idea, not a full explanation, of myself and my earlier photographs, which will always disclose my strongest, more successful efforts with a medium from which I shall never retire.