Interview: Blake Andrews, Part II

© Blake Andrews, Leo, Zane, Keegan, 2008

This is the second of three interview posts with Blake Andrews. The first part can be found here. The third part will be published next Thursday, May 24th.

f: Alec Soth started off a recent article he wrote on Martin Parr in the Minneapolis StarTribune by calling him the Jay-Z of documentary photography.

BA: I think what Soth was referring to is a sort of hyper-contemporary vibe. Both Parr and Jay-Z seem to have a hand in many cultural outlets nowadays. They almost define contemporary. But also both have a loose experimental quality. Always moving into new territory. And the fascination with bling. Truth is I'm not a huge fan of Jay-Z. I'll take MF Doom over Jay-Z.

f: In respect to your plea for more interactive posts - discussed last week in the first part of this interview - complete the following photographer-musician analogy. Martin Parr is to Jay-Z as Blake Andrews is to  _________.

BA: Woody Guthrie. I'm guessing this relates to my survey from several months back comparing Dylan and Frank. Guthrie for a few reasons. First of all, he was absolutely prolific. Many photographers make a point of never going somewhere without a camera. I suspect Guthrie was like that with his guitar. He carried it everywhere. If he couldn't fit the guitar he at least had a pen and notebook. I doubt there were many days when he wasn't writing songs or lyrics. Second, he was fiercely independent and had a deep suspicion of institutions which I share. I am deeply cynical about corporations, government, and general group-think. Third, he was a bit of a renaissance man. He wasn't just a songwriter. He was an artist, a dad, a writer. And just a good spirit in general. So I admire the guy. I wish he'd written a blog.

I've had a tickertape message on the bottom of my camera for years. It says "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" A direct homage to Guthrie.

© Blake Andrews, Laurelhurst Park, 2002
f: And as a way to push towards interactive posts, I would like to invite you to make a creative competition for other photographers with me, the results of which we can publish both here and on B.

BA: One competition that I've been curious to try is based on predicted outcomes. You set out 20 well-known photos by famous photographers from a wide variety of types and eras. Then people rank them from most favorite to least favorite, 1 to 20. Then collate, average, and form a general ranking based on all voters. That's the simple part. The second layer is to have people guess at the overall rankings before they're revealed. Perhaps this would happen during the initial voting, or shortly after. Then collate predictions. The person who predicts favorites most accurately is the winner. This would only work with a large enough pool of voters. At least 100 or so.

[This contest is now live! You can participate by clicking here.]

f: You have actively explored the medium itself, working with panoramas, color and black and white, a range of formats and cameras. You have published your images as playing cards and are working on a faux-postcard project. What drives you to expand the range of approaches to photography in this way? Is there something you feel you can do with these explorations that 35mm black and white cannot do?

BA: My camera experiments have typically been winter flings. When the days get shorter and the rains set it, it's not as easy to roam outside with a camera. But I still need to make photos. So I've explored a variety of ways to shoot inside using flash or slow shutter speed or a combination of the two. I've toyed with Noblex, Diana, Holga, digital point 'n shoot, Fuji Instax, etc. The only common denominator is that they're all hand held. They're quick 'n dirty cameras, no tripod, no fuss. Typically I go on a serious bender with a camera and shoot the crap out of it for a few months before the buzz gradually wears off.

That's fine for winter. But during nice weather I kick into high gear and that's basically 35 mm black and white. That's been the core of my work for the past 20 years. It feels right because it rewards experimentation and multiple frames. There's very little penalty for pressing the shutter, as opposed to say 4 x 5. I know that for most people 35 mm is a dead form. It's seen as anachronistic and passe but I can't help it. It's just how I see. If I want my photos to get any attention it probably has to be in another format. So I've tinkered with many methods, but 35 black and white still gives me the most satisfaction. I shoot a few rolls every day from about May through October.

I think whatever you use you need to commit fully to it. You can't be fiddling around wondering what camera to use. It has to be one or the other, and ideally just one lens too. You have to see and think like a camera, and that's hard to do if you're shuffling between several. At least that's my experience.

© Blake Andrews, Main St., Springfield, 2007

f: A related question: you have said in a previous interview that as a child, you thought photography was a mere recording of a scene and because of this you weren’t interested in it. It’s interesting, then, that despite expanding the range of approaches to photography as mentioned above in the previous question, that one of the few lines you do not cross is that line between “straight” and “constructed” photography. What keeps you on this side of that line? Have you ever tried constructing a scene for an image?

BA: I have constructed images for the blog. The postcards, for example, are constructed. I substituted blue skies for grey. For applications like that or for commercial applications I think constructing images is fine. But for examining the world, which I think photography does very well, constructed images aren't very interesting to me. They don't show the world so much as they show what's in someone's mind. Nothing wrong with that. I'm just more interested in the world. And that applies to other forms too. I only read nonfiction. I generally prefer documentaries to fictional films. I guess I have my quirks.

© Blake Andrews, Edgewood, Eugene, 2008

f: In a Wired article on photobloggers, you also mentioned what you’d like to see less of in the photography world: “Less 6 x 7 aspect ratio color photos of the human-nature interface delicately composed, with everything in focus; less portraiture with desaturated colors; less perfectionism; less constructed images and more found images; less commercial advertising on blogs; and less equipment talk.” Building from this previous list, please list the 10 most painful trends in contemporary photography in 2012, in reverse order from 10 to 1 with 1 being the most painful.

BA: I will probably get in trouble here. First of all, everyone is totally free to do what they want. As with any Top Ten list, please take these with a grain of salt.

10. The widespread inability among practitioners to differentiate an average print from a great one.

9. Thought before seeing. It should be the other way. Shoot first, ask questions later.

8. Conscious perfectionism and unconscious imperfections.

7. Film growing more expensive as it gradually phases out.

6. The planned obsolescence of most cameras in use now, and the correlating obsolescence of work being made with them.

5. Neo-pictorialism. I am all for shooting Holga / Diana / Instagram, as long as the material isn't sappy. But when blurriness combines with an overly sentimental vibe, it feels like something that was done, and better, 100 years ago.

4. Photos without credits attached. Every photo printed or online should include some reference to the creator's name. I'd guess that less than half actually do.

3. The idea that everyone's a photographer. Everyone has a thermometer in their medicine cabinet. That doesn't mean we're all doctors.

2. The conflation of a photographer's life story with their images in assessing aesthetic merit.

1. Homogenization. In photography as well as in the broader culture, homogenization is the most powerful, evil force we face. All 7 billion of us are unique. Be yourself.

© Blake Andrews, San Diego, CA, 2007

f: And what gives you optimism for the photography world today?

BA: 10. The ocean of photographic archives currently being put online by various public entities. A very powerful resource in all sorts of ways, some not even thought of yet.

9. Street photography's apparent revival. Possibly a reaction to photography's hyper-conceptual direction.

8. Cupertino. Post. Applesauce.

7. General improvements in color printing over the past decade. Forty years ago good color prints were generally inaccessible. Now they can be made by anyone.

6. Looking forward to the return of Jesus Christ my lord and savior. I'm expecting him to help me fine tune my portfolio.

5. The decreased environmental impact of picturemaking. The marginal cost to the environment of taking a digital snapshot is virtually zero compared to the age of paper and chemicals. Of course the planet is already fucked anyway so I'm not sure it matters much in the end.

4. The decline of matting in galleries. It's about time we phased out this Victorian relic. Maybe glazing will be next.

3. The idea that everyone's a photographer. Never has photography been more accessible to all. Moholy-Nagy said "the illiterate of the future will be the person ignorant of the camera as well as the pen." I think we have finally, only quite recently, arrived at that future.

2. The photobook renaissance. These are the glory days of photobook publishing.

1. Every time I press the shutter I'm an optimist. The idea that the next image will be special is what keeps me going.

© Blake Andrews, SE 45th and Adler, 2004

Part III can be found here