February 18, 2011
Olympia, Washington-based photographer Steve Davis won 1st place in the Santa Fe Center for Photography's Project Competition Award in 2002 and is the recipient of two Washington Arts Commission / Artist Trust Fellowships. His images have appeared in Harper's and The New York Times Magazine and are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the George Eastman House, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Musee de la Photographie in Belgium, and the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University. He is the Coordinator of Photography and a faculty member at The Evergreen State College. He is represented by the James Harris Gallery in Seattle.
For a full exploration of his images, visit his website here.
An excellent 2009 interview focused on his Captured Youth series can be found here on Pete Brook's Prison Photography.
In this full-length interview, Davis shares thoughts on his new body of work, As American Falls, talks about reasons for moving into digital image making, reveals his fantasy of being a war photographer, and explains why galleries selling artwork may as well be selling socks.
fototazo: Tell us how you got into photography and about your background in photography. You’ve been involved in it since fourteen?
Steve Davis: Well, since I was even younger than that [I was] really interested in it, but I think at about fourteen that’s when I learned about the darkroom, started to learn how a camera works and that kind of thing. So then I pursued that through college as well, and it’s all I can do now.
f: Did you have an early mentor or somebody in your family that was a photographer?
SD: No, not really. In my family I had uncles and a grandfather that I was always impressed could control a camera and do all these pictures, but at an early age, not really, I just sort of thought it was exciting.
f: And you never put down the camera?
SD: Yeah. Pretty much. I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications which was mostly photography, and then I went on to a Masters in Fine Art, again photography, so yeah, at that point that’s pretty much where I was going to go with it.
I thought I’d be a commercial photographer for a while, or a fashion photographer, but I realized quickly that I didn’t have the nerves for it or really the love for it.
f: Did you do much commercial work to figure that out?
SD: No, I never did a lot of commercial work. And most of what I did would be working for someone else. I spent a few years as a professional printer, and I worked for a photographer or for a newspaper or a company, mostly the darkroom end of it, until I got into the job I have now which was quite a while ago.
I always wanted to do fine art, or at least after I got my master’s degree, because that’s pretty much how everything was focused. What I thought was, if you were doing work that was important, it needed to be in that direction, which I don’t think is true now.
I just kept working towards that. I would enter work in juried exhibitions and things like that. When I got the job at Evergreen State College, it was an interesting mix between doing editorial or marketing photography for the college and teaching at the same time. It allowed me to really have a lot of tools and things to play with, to work on my skill level a lot and also to teach and keep myself up on ideas - keep me thinking critically about everything, which you don’t have to do as much if you’re not engaged with other photographers. If you’re not teaching it’s easy to stop thinking so critically about it.
f: How do your roles as photographer and educator overlap? What do you get from teaching and what does it make you give up?
SD: Yes, I think it’s really important. I think going out and making pictures and having to deal with all the logistics makes me better at teaching, but the teaching makes me think more theoretically and study other work and have to defend myself to students, and demand that they do the same to me. I think they balance out really nicely. The downside is I can’t really commit 100% to being an artist or a photographer the way I could I if I was independently wealthy and didn’t have to teach. But overall it’s a pretty good deal.
Processes and Working Methods
f: I’d like to ask you about processes and working methods, from the cameras and films you’re using, to parts of your workflow, to editing a project.
SD: I totally shifted the way I approach things. I was shooting 8x10 on everything, and I thought, you know, I just don’t have the time or the money to be doing this anymore. I’d rather spend it with my new daughter, so then I moved over to a digital set-up, partly just for the speed of it.
[It’s] not to say I won’t [shoot large format] again, I like it. But the landscape stuff, the Western Lands series, I started that with an 8x10 and I’d go out for a few days and I could literally only take twenty exposures on my entire trip. I like the idea of being slow and deliberate and careful, which is what large format makes you do, as you know, but yeah. After a while I said this is ridiculous. So I got a medium format digital, a Mamiya, and that actually worked out just great.
I have to spend a lot more time editing, and I’ll edit and re-edit and change my mind and go back to the first edit, and that sort of thing.
I invested a little bit of money in a good monitor. I keep it well color managed to the printer that I use. It’s the same thing I have at work, so I can work from home and basically what I’m seeing there is gonna match what I do when I bring it in and make a print. I’ve been working digitally and printing with inkjet, even when shooting film, for years. Since about 2000 everything I did past the negative was scanning and Photoshop.
f: You have students that work with you?
SD: Yeah. And I’ve had interns that worked very closely with me, especially on projects like the Captured Youth stuff. I would never go out without a helper, and they’d get credits for it and learn a bunch.
So that was a nice thing that I had. I don’t have one now, I don’t think I need one.
f: Are you working on a digital project right now?
SD: Nope, I’m not working on anything right at the moment. I’m poking around. There’s a couple possibilities down the road that I’m just coming to terms with, but right now, I’ll probably wait until summer because I’m off for the summer. That’s probably when I’ll jump into something next.
f: Any other parts of your workflow to share?
SD: I would go out usually, shoot a bunch. It used to be I would play with it a lot in editing and then I’d make prints, a lot of prints. I make less prints now, because my color management is better and I know what to look for better so I don’t have go through that process quite as much.
I’ll do that a lot and I’ll edit it and I’ll put [it] online on my webpage, almost more for my benefit, so I can just sorta see what that looks like, and I’ll pull some out and put some back in. Lately for the past three years, I’ve worked with my gallery dealer really closely just getting feedback from him. By then there’s a lot of printing and re-printing, and small prints, and test prints.
Ultimately I like prints. I tell my students that too. I never want to see a computer monitor, I never want to see a bad print and have you tell me that it was better on the monitor.
I shoot in RAW, I use Lightroom. Usually in the mornings before I go to work and my mind is freshest, I go through stuff, and I go through it, and I go through it and I play with it and then I go to work and I forget about it. The next day I’ll do more of that kind of work until it’s starting to kind of gel. A lot of it is I’ll have six really good pictures, but they’re sort of the same picture, so which one are you going to pick? What does that suggest for the next image to be? So I do all that just in my head as I’m going along and I can take a couple of years doing that sometimes.
On His Projects
f: Has there been a common trajectory to your projects in terms of timeline and how they evolve?
SD: It’s kind of funny, I feel like I sort of fell into this thing of working with imprisoned people, or people that have serious limitations. I don’t think I ever sought out to do that. That happened by working with juvenile offenders and doing portraits of them and teaching them workshops. From there, other things sort of fell in to place, and the Department of Social and Health Services had me do work, and the first project, the Captured Youth project, was off and on for almost, I guess eight years. And the next project was a couple years, and the next was a couple, and then American Falls, which in some ways is the largest project, I did that in one year. So I guess I’m getting faster. But it seemed almost too fast. I kind of like the idea of having a fair amount of time to tease out an idea, because I don’t really know what it is when I’m starting.
f: Does the timeline on American Falls have to do with a farther away location as well?
SD: Partly, yeah. And I’m not even necessarily sure that I’m even done with it… I’m done with it for now, but it could be one of those things that I want to revisit periodically as well.
f: I was reading the mission statement for American Falls and you talked about looking to lock in an image that you had from growing up in the town as one of “tenderness and beauty.” I was wondering how that resolved in the project, if you came to a place where that happened for you.
SD: I didn’t grow up feeling there was tenderness and beauty there, I really didn’t like it. I think it was more coming back to it. A lot of my family members died there. So my attitude was changing towards it and I got more curious about it. I think in my statement I said I was “vainly attempting to lock in the tenderness and beauty.” I kind of knew I was never going to do it. But having said that, I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be making a negative statement about the town, or have a little bit of sympathy to it, and [in the end] I feel pretty sympathetic to it. And also kind of a nice result of this is hearing from other people, some of them I don’t even know, who live or have lived in American Falls, who seem to connect with it on that level as well. I’m happy about that.
I think once I got involved in it I realized that, if I was going to try to really document it I was going to do a piss poor job of it and so I decided not to worry about that so much as just sort of let my feelings toward the town just sort of…just let it happen, I guess. I didn’t have too much of an agenda after a certain point. I wanted it to be more about the mood and the ambiance. There’s actually some very literal images that would have been very helpful and very descriptive that I intentionally didn’t put in there because I really didn’t want it to be too much about the actual place. I wanted to be a little more able to be interpreted on a broader scope I think.
f: Is that something that you’re able to do easily, leave some of the strongest images on the table and out of the body of work, just to make the…
SD: No, that’s not easy. In fact, the gallery exhibit which is showing right now, I think it’s 24 images, but that’s really just a small amount of it. We spent like two days going over re-, re-editing it and pulling and trying to figure out what can we get away with not having. That was kind of hard. But I think descriptive images aren’t necessarily the strongest and there were pictures I had that didn’t describe anything, that could have been anybody’s backyard, that I really wanted to put in the show. The American Falls dam, for instance, I have no pictures of the American Falls dam. And that’s sort of what it’s all about, but I just didn’t want it.
Yeah, it was just too much about this picturesque little town in Idaho. And I wasn’t really comfortable with that, so I think the idea that you almost have to imagine this place might be like is kind of where I wanted it to lead to.
f: After doing all the previous bodies of work on imprisonments - incarcerated youth, functionally disabled citizens, institutionalized developmentally disabled - do you think that the theme of imprisonment continues in the American Falls images? Especially thinking about your quote about family dying in Idaho...
SD: Yeah, that’s a good question and I thought about that myself. I think to a certain degree there’s a level of imprisonment based on economy and family ties for anybody.
I think some of my work that I wasn’t particularly addressing in that quote has more to do with communities, whether they are forced communities or virtual communities or managed communities; they don’t all fall under the idea of imprisonment, but there is some kind of a lost freedom. On that level, over the years, I’ve been in one way or another dealing with these sorts of communities.
American Falls is a real community that is not a managed or forced, such as a home for the mentally retarded or something like that, but it still has a lot in common [with the communities in other projects]. That seems to be a thread that I’ve been following for quite a while. One of those things you sort of look back and see it happening. At the time I wasn’t really thinking I was [going to make] everything into that, but that seems to be what I do.
f: It sounds like you started with the Captured Youth project, started working with a group that needed some photography, and then it just kind of unfolded from there, project after project, continuing with a theme that started out of a more or less volunteer photographer role.
SD: Yeah, and I like portraits. One thing that I think some people didn’t understand was that part of me was thinking, hey, I could be photographing kids from any high school, they don’t particularly have to be in jail here. That just happens to be the population I’m working with. It was the fact that they were tied together by this population, I think. It was more interesting than prison culture on a certain level, although that definitely plays into it because that is the subject.
After a while, I really got to where I was finding it very burdensome to photograph, to make these portraits mostly because of the logistics of getting permissions to do it. Everybody having their say, and everything by committee and it was really, really getting to me and so the landscape stuff [Western Lands] was just me wanting to get away from everything and me not having to answer to anybody.
But I think there is a connection between that [work] and the portrait work because that’s sort of the antithesis of it. Basically those [landscapes] are where there’s nothing or it’s about trying to be somewhere else or moving somewhere else, that’s how I see them. It’s basically getting out of these confined spaces, which is what all my previous work was about. I sort of like to think of them as balancing against the other stuff, but I didn’t intentionally go in with that in mind. It wasn’t like trying to counterbalance these portraits with these open spaces.
f: Somehow that comes through a lot. I felt that looking through it. I wasn’t sure how intentional and how literal it was. I also wasn't sure how much it had to do with yourself and your experiences as a photographer and how much it was thematically looking for a counterpoint for the other work. I didn’t know where those lines fell.
SD: Well that’s good, I hope that there’s always some kind of connection, in one way or another, and that people can pick up on it. I found landscapes to be incredibly difficult. I thought they’d be sort of easy and I wouldn’t have to think too much. But they were really hard.
f: Were you able to pinpoint over time a particular reason, is it just the legacy and tradition of landscape work makes it…
SD: You hit it, the legacy is so big…and I’d never done a whole lot of landscapes. It was actually sort of new to me and trying to take pictures that mattered to me and that weren’t completely redundant of just a whole host of remarkable stuff out there would drive me crazy.
f: Talk about representing Washington in the 50 States Project, about the project itself, how you were chosen, and what kind of connections you have with the photographers.
SD: Yeah, I wish I had good stories for you there. I got an email from Stuart Pilkington, who is English, actually, who put that project together.
I asked him, “Well, how’d you pick me?” and he [had] found my webpage and he liked the work, so I said, “Sure.” At that point, he had a few big names like Brian Ulrich and some other people, who were signed on to the idea, but there was really no sharing or communication between the photographers. Maybe every now and then an email saying, “I liked your picture,” I wish I could say there was more, but...I think we pretty much all just worked in isolation and submitted our pictures.
f: Do you go through the work that the others submit?
SD: I would always look at what the other people did on any given assignment. He’d make these assignments up and it was like, "OK, you have thirty days to go do this." Some assignments were easier than others.
f: Is there an endgame with it or is this an ongoing project?
SD: 50 States? No, it’s over. In fact it’s been over for over a year now. It’s still online, but then he moved on. I think he did one of Sweden or something. He’s got one of the UK. Structured very similarly.
f: Do you have some photographers, contemporary or historical, that you were looking at a lot while making these bodies of work?
SD: I guess I look at a lot of people, but not necessarily that deeply anymore. I think one person who’s stood out to me recently, I’d never even heard of before is Elger Esser. And I guess [Edward] Burtynsky. I like Larry Sultan, I like Rineke Dijkstra. When I was younger and starting photography I would worship photographers more and I would really study them, I don’t know if that’s true of other people or not. When I learned color, I would look at [Richard] Misrach’s work a lot, I liked his use of open space and large format detail where everything can be very tiny and still be very important.
f: Are there certain photographers who you would consider long-term influences on your work that you’ve looked at or studied for the length of your career?
SD: I’ve been coming back to August Sander, I love August Sander. I like [Richard] Avedon’s portraits. When I was in college I really liked Ralph Gibson. This was a long time ago, he had Lustrum Press, and he did these really great books. So I really liked Ralph Gibson, because his work could be so sort of vague and mysterious which really turned me on a lot. I started to kind of come back and look at that kind of work again.
I met him, I took a workshop from him and he was a real asshole, he really let me down, it’s like, no more hero worship, this guy was a prick. But after a while you figure you can still be a prick and an interesting person, artistically. Most of them probably are.
f: Maybe that allowed you to burn the proverbial house down a little quicker and move on.
SD: Yeah, I think so, yeah, kill your father. Chuck Close, I always liked him. I think the first photographer I knew the name [of] and I was really impressed by when I was a kid was Annie Leibovitz. But not the kind of stuff she does now, her really early, early black and white stuff. It’s mostly just rock star stuff, it’s editorial stuff she did for Rolling Stone, but it was far more candid and loose and not so orchestrated like her Vanity Fair stuff, in fact it’s nothing like her Vanity Fair stuff.
Galleries and Museums
f: I want to ask you about the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University acquiring the four images from American Falls and see if you had any thoughts about the gallery-museum world and strategies for having a successful relationship with it.
SD: Yeah, I don’t. I don’t know much about it, actually, especially museums, they’re kind of a mystery to me. I started working with a commercial gallery about five years ago and that’s the first experience I’ve had with a commercial gallery.
f: How did your connection come up with James Harris?
SD: Well I sorta stopped looking, and that’s how it happened. I think [gallery owners] want to know that they’ve discovered someone, not that someone was standing at their door with a portfolio.
I was in a group show and one of his artists was in the same group show and he saw my work and bought a print for himself. Then he kind of toyed around with the idea of having him represent me and he finally decided he would and he’s been just great. He’s really supportive.
f: Is James Harris a pretty big Seattle gallery?
SD: Yeah, he’s pretty well respected, he’s got a really great reputation. He’s not photography per se, he’s a variety of things. I actually met him a few years earlier because one of my students was his intern, and I just remembered thinking I’ll never bother showing him my work, he would never look at my work in a million years. So you can’t figure those things out. I’m still surprised that my kind of work is stuff he’d want to show, but he does.
I try to do everything I can to try to keep a good relationship with him. I trust him, he trusts me. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. He doesn’t have to wonder if I’m going to change my mind and go bicycling across the country one day or something. I think they like that, I think they want to know that they can basically trust you. But the museum part? Jim Harris is trying to get my work on the museum level a little bit, but it’s a mystery to me.
I remember a few years ago I heard people speaking - curators, dealers - and they basically all got up and said, “We’ll never show anybody, even if we like them, unless they’ve got a pedigree.” I thought, well, that’s true, but I can’t believe they’re actually saying that in public. And they all agreed, they all freely admitted that. It’s a really closed world.
f: I’ve always kind of felt that that’s on some level a little discouraging, and on another level it’s very liberating. If it’s not a meritocracy, you do what you do the best you can, and there’s not a lot of thought you can give to the other side of it.
SD: Yeah. It is, and on a certain level, they might as well be selling socks as well as selling your artwork. On a certain level, the guy’s got to pay his bills. That’s just the truth to it, and you just have to accept that. It’s really important for work to sell or otherwise he won’t want to show it. I might break even. Or I make like nothing, but somebody has to buy something, or the whole thing just stops.
f: Does Seattle have a pretty strong art scene or photography scene in general?
SD: It’s not bad, but I think Portland is better. Portland seems to be really growing, and Seattle too. But I’m in Olympia, and I’m pretty much on my own, I think, in a lot of respects. And I don’t get out to galleries a lot and I don’t do that much socializing.
Sense of Self as a Photographser
f: How about your sense of yourself as a photographer, your own sense of strength and also things that you continue to work on.
SD: My sense of myself as a photographer…well, that’s hard for me to answer. I feel like I’m good at portraiture and I think I’m getting better at landscapes. I seem to deal with work that has a certain sad tone to it and I think I can convey that in the way that I want to and people seem to respond to it in the way I hope they would, so I guess I’m good with that.
What I need to work on, I would like to be able to expand my subject matter, I’d really love to be a war photographer or something, that would be my fantasy, which is not going to happen. That’s something I never wanted to do when I was younger and when I got older I thought, man, that would be so outstandingly exciting.
f: Is it the adrenaline that would draw you to the…
SD: Well, I think the element of risk, partly in the photograph. Part of it is, you have completely, absolutely uncontrolled events, or close to it, and trying to make something where you just don’t have that sort of control, you can’t manufacture, you can’t come back the next day and shoot the same mountain. I think part of it would be just the experience of making the images, which is, yeah, the adrenaline I guess.
I’d like to be able work with people even closer, and get them in their own environments without them just sort of disappearing, as sort of cogs in a landscape, really make them have more of a presence.
I’ve done portraiture and then landscapes and with the American Falls stuff, that’s sort of the first time, at least in recent years, that I’ve really tried to merge those together and I’d like to continue to try to work on that.
f: Do you have any comments about what you’re looking for from photography as a medium or from your photographs themselves?
SD: A student talked to me today and she asked me, “Why do you take pictures?” and that is such a hard question. It should be the easiest question.
I think what I’m looking for in photography is trying to get to the next step, where there’s maybe a little more clarity that I see and that maybe, hopefully, other people see too. Because I don’t do this just to show the pictures to myself. I like other people to see them.
I don’t like to take pictures of things that I think I’ve figured out. I don’t know what the point of that is. So usually I’m taking a picture, or I’m approaching a project in a certain way, because I don’t know what it will lead to, or I don’t know what it would mean. So I look for that in photography in general, photography that perhaps implies, or suggests, but that doesn’t say.
It’s a pretty superficial medium in that it only photographs the surface of things. And so, it’s what it suggests and what the brain kicks in and starts adding to the picture that I think is intriguing about it.
f: And that may be another reason for moving into doing the landscapes and then American Falls as a project that hybridizes your earlier work - the chance to do something different, evolve, not do the same thing, not do something that’s known.
SD: Yeah, that’s definitely there, and also turning my camera on people that know me, that I know, that I have a history with.
[As American Falls] was grounded in my past, and that was something that I kind of wanted to do, because I think I always avoided that. There’s a certain level of the personal that I don’t usually have in my work, and you can argue that this isn’t that personal either, but at least there’s some degree of it.
f: You were talking earlier about making less prints because you’ve gotten to a point with color management you know what to look for beforehand. I wonder if also as a photographer you come to a point of refinement and sharpness where you know you’ve seen that image, you know something’s not worth taking, it’s too direct, it’s too…
SD: Yeah, I see that a lot in student work, where they’re exploring some new idea and to me it’s...I would not touch that one again.
One thing that doesn’t interest me too much in photography is stuff that’s basically based on a punch-line or a gag or “Isn’t this clever, I’m really outsmarting the system by turning it up on its ear with this project.”
To me that stuff gets just boring. It’s easy to appreciate right off the bat, instantly, but it doesn’t necessarily sustain very well.
When I was shooting in American Falls I really wanted a wildfire. I found one and I drove and drove and drove and I had a hell of a time finding it and I was so happy that I got the wildfire. And when all was said and done, it was like...it’s a picture of a wildfire. It is too direct, and it doesn’t really say anything. But there’s pictures of fields with just wildfire smoke sort of lurking in the background, and that’s what I ended up using. Or a rodeo where I didn’t shoot anybody riding, I just shot people sitting there.
I’ll have ideas, and I’ll just know this is the most important picture ever, or that maybe it’s not. But that does not mean that I’ll feel that way in a little while.
So I don’t really trust my feelings on that too much. Sometimes I’ll just think, “I don’t know if that’s any good at all,” and everybody responds to it and it’s really important to the piece. I don’t necessarily know how it’s going to plug in in the end. A lot of pictures that were so hard to get and I was so excited to get ‘em and they were just...they were just too literal, or too National Geographic or something.
The only thing I can really think of that really helps me with that, it’s time, and it’s getting to review, and review, and review. I sort of approach things with the idea, “So what?” Here’s a picture, well so what? If I can sorta answer to myself why I need it, then that helps it pass the litmus test.
Vision of the Future of Photography
f: Do you have a personal vision of the trajectory of photography? And about where we’ll be in ten years or beyond?
SD: Everybody’s doing it, and everybody is getting good at it, even if they have absolutely no idea why. A part of it is just being able to share your work, which to me is a sort of unexpected thing that’s happened with the Internet and everything. Working digitally, we’ve known that’s been coming, but sharing it endlessly and instantly to me is...I’m only now, I think, sort of grappling with that.
And so what worries me a little bit is that in ten years, everybody is going to be doing so many pictures, they’re not even going to think about it to the degree that they think about it now which isn’t very much, and I wonder what that’s going to do to really in-depth, serious photography that’s done by, you can call them professionals, or people that are really devoted to the craft.
[Also] you see photo webpages by really nice photographers and they’ve got tutorials they want to sell you. They’re making money off of the photographers now. The whole industry is now trying to make money off the people who should be paid. It’s totally backwards, so I worry about that.
I’ve got a friend who’s into this “citizen journalism” thing. They pay her money, and she’ll take them to some presumably third world country and they’ll take pictures as some kind of reportage, and they pay her to do it. I don’t think it’s very much, mostly I think they’re paying expenses, but the point is, nobody’s paying them. They are paying for the privilege to go out and make pictures and I think that’s kind of scary.
Obviously it’s going to really become so technically marvelous. I notice that the more technically magnificent digital photography gets, the more people have an interest in Holga cameras, things that are clearly flawed. And I think there’s totally a relationship between the two there. So, we’ll see, there’s still a lot of interest in the darkroom, but I don’t know how well that can survive.
f: I think that we’ll be in a world where a lot of these barriers between, going along with what you were saying I guess to a degree, amateur and professional, those that haven’t been erased already, will start to be broken down. I think that there’s a level of interest that I have in that, because I think that will provide for more diversity and more dissemination of photography.
SD: Right, that’s the flip side, yeah.
f: That’s the positive side, the downside is, I think there’s a lot of concern about a career as a professional photographer. I’ve never been a big fan of making fine art photography be the province only of those that use particular equipment, but I think at points there’s been a sense that I’ve had that to be qualified in the fine art world it has to be done in a particular manner, and I almost wonder at points if it’s a defensive stance, to kind of keep a barrier between the masses and the professional photographer. And I wonder if...
SD: Yeah, I think you’re right. But on the other hand, if everybody is taking the same picture of the same mountain, aren’t you going to want to offer the one that’s done a little better? That was presumably done with a better set of equipment?
f: Absolutely. I have always been within my grad program and both before and after that program a little bit of an oddball photographer, shooting 35mm digital photography and looking to work within fine arts. I’ve started shooting a lot more medium format the last couple of years because I’ve bought the argument.
There are certain situations where the 35mm - because of lenses, the ability to make a lot of images, especially say in a very low lighting situation, and being able to see what’s happening with the images and working in relationship to the feedback - where I still think the advantages outweigh the quality of making a medium-format film image, but more and more I’m starting to shoot film for some of these reasons.
I do hope for higher quality equipment at lower prices for diversity and dissemination of image-making, and then also have concern about what that opens up.
SD: What I’ve noticed, students would have to show me portfolios, “Can I get into your class?” - that kind of thing. When they [brought a] darkroom print, it didn’t matter how bad the print was, it always suggested that they had a certain amount of skill behind that print. [They] understood a little bit about putting film in a camera, managing a camera, putting in the work and the money to make that picture, it was all implicit.
And then I started seeing these digital portfolios with work that was just better, but I’d get them and they’d have no mastery, no sense of what they were doing, no ability to follow an idea, didn’t know what an f-stop was…so the digital image didn’t imply any sort of solid background. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just had to adjust the way I let people in my class, I’d have to ask more questions, things like that.
But I think you’re right about the art world thing. I did 8x10 for a few years and I got to really like it because nobody was doing it, and it made me get really, really slow…and cameras aren’t asking you to do that anymore. You don’t have to think about anything, you can take 500 pictures before you think about what you’re doing, and so the idea of just forcing it to slow down, it’s what I needed, because I think I’m basically not a patient person. And it made the people who sat for me think I was really important and therefore that they were really important, and you don’t get that if you stick a 35mm camera out.
A lot of it was theater. All about the theater and the psychology of it. Then I traveled to Colombia, and I wasn’t going to deal with film at all and all I had was a little five megapixel point and shoot, and that was liberating for me. I found out I could do some pretty nice stuff with absolutely nothing to speak of. I was beginning to feel that if I didn’t have an 8x10 camera, I wasn’t going to take a good picture or one that anyone would really want to see. I think it’s nice, once you get too comfortable with anything, to just walk away from it. Just try something different.
f: I have a couple of students I’m not so sure if they know as much technique as they should, but somehow they manage their images into something. It’s like they’ve lost the terminology and the knowledge that we had from the past and somehow they’re coming up with some pretty interesting images. Somehow with a digital camera, they know the buttons well, they know if it appears one way on the LCD screen to tweak it one way or other. I wonder if it’s not a new, different body of knowledge that they are developing.
SD: I think you’re right. I’m always complaining [students] don’t know what an f-stop is, but maybe it doesn’t matter any more. But then I would also say is what I tend to see is that everybody’s images look the same. They’ve all got the same depth of field, the same excellent color, the same excellent contrast, and they don’t stray from that because the cameras don’t want you to stray from it. The cameras know how to make a good picture, just hit the button. The ability to have a colossal failure and then learn from that, and actually maybe turn that failure into a whole new way of dealing with it is a little harder when you don’t have any actual skill behind you and a camera that makes good safe decisions. But I don’t know. Maybe that’s just my generation.
But I think you’re right, there is something to just basically dealing with the instant, that seems to work out pretty well. Work quickly, spontaneously. That seems to be the way people are geared.
f: Steve, I have one more question for you, which is: advice received or learned over your career that you would pass along to other photographers.
SD: OK, here’s one thing. There’s always 100 really good, excellent reasons why you should not [take a] picture. Right? I mean there really are good reasons, and so I think it’s important that you ignore them. A good image can be a flawed photograph. Don’t over think the problem. I don’t know if that’s a real pearl, but that’s sort of what’s recently in my head these days.
Edited for length, clarity, and question sequence.