Interview: Blake Andrews, Part III

© Blake Andrews, Paris, 2010
This is the third of three interview posts with Blake Andrews. Part I can be found here and Part II here. We have a contest connected with this interview that you can take part in by clicking here.

f: The most personally important of your two major influences:

a. Garry Winogrand
b. Lee Friedlander
c. Both

BA: C. Winogrand and Friedlander are definitely two of my favorites, and my style probably reflects elements of both. Winogrand said that every photo is a battle of form vs. content, and I think that's a good lens through which to compare them. Generally Winogrand was more concerned with content and Friedlander with form. That may be an oversimplification but I think there's some truth to it. I think what binds them together, and what connects them to my photography, is that they are / were both very concerned with the photograph as the primary tool of expression. That's in contrast to the current style. Many photographers now put the photograph in a secondary role. It's at the service of some idea. It's an illustrative tool. But for Winogrand and Friedlander, and for me, the photo comes first. You don't know what the idea is until you see the photo. So the photo becomes the way to explore the world, not just the end product of that exploration.

I also empathize with both men because of their work habits. Both were / are absolutely committed to making photos regardless of outside events. Winogrand in particular. I think he photographed as much out of blind compulsion as anything. He just did it because that's what he did, and he felt better afterward, like eating. Or maybe taking a big dump is a better analogy. A huge 20,000 roll steaming dump that someone is going to have to deal with. Because it's fucking important.

© Blake Andrews, Cinemagic Theatre, Portland, 2009
f: You work with humor a lot more (and a lot better) than most photographers that I can think of, and it’s something I have always thought difficult to pull off in photography. Who else do you think works well with humor?

BA: [Elliott] Erwitt is probably the name that pops into everyone's mind first. He is a master of a certain humorous style. In that same vein, some of Kertesz, Doisneau, and Weegee have a humorous edge. More recently there's Kalvar, Mermelstein, and Parr. Those are sort of the platinum humor collection. In the younger crop I like Gordon Stettinius, Michael Northrup, Asger Carlsen, the iN-PUBLiC crew. Some of Chris Verene's photos are funny, especially with his captions. Many of the relatively new reappropriations are great. Champion Pig, Awkward Family Photos, Useful Photography, and stuff in that vein. There's one Tumblr that replaces hands with smaller versions. I mean WTF? That's funny. Sultan and Mandel's Evidence is probably the funniest photo book I own, but it's more absurdist.

I think most photographers steer clear of humor because it's confused with light material. But humor needn't be light. My favorite humor is absurdist, zen koan style. Philosophically that's as deep as it gets. Camus, Sartre, the existentialists, they all bumped their heads against absurdism. Humor doesn't have to be Three Stooges slapstick. Recently I've been enjoying the older episodes of Tim and Eric's Awesome show. It's the most absurd thing I've seen on TV in a while. It constantly bewildering. If someone could convert that brand of humor into photography, I'd buy their book.

© Blake Andrews, Hugo, 2012

f: Talk us through a day of shooting with you. Explain your specific ways of working, your tendencies, particular rhythms and habits.

BA: I don't think there's any typical day. How I shoot depends on where I am and what I'm shooting. When I'm shooting for the Grid projects I am often in residential or light industrial areas without a lot of pedestrians. In Portland I typically shoot the morning after photo meetings. As soon as there is enough light I drive to a new place in the grid, park, and start walking. I generally try to make a loop but the only real direction is toward the new. I avoid streets I've been on already. If I see an alley I generally go that way. If I see commercial activity I'm often drawn to that. I walk for about three or four hours until my legs are tired, shooting pretty much nonstop. Anything that catches my eye I photograph. Usually I can cover most of a grid (2.25 square miles) in three or four visits strung out over the course of a month.

With the Eugene grids I break it up into smaller chunks. I go out for one or two hours several times during the month. Generally the shooting pattern is the same as with Portland grid. I shoot anything that strikes me. I stay in new areas. I want to see it all block by block.

Downtown Portland is where I do most of my urban street shooting, and there my pattern is a bit different. Every week or so I'll park downtown and spend a few hours walking. Often I see gallery shows on the way, so I wind up parking at Blue Sky. From there my "normal" circuit is up Broadway to Pioneer Courthouse Square, around the bus malls and parks and whatever looks interesting, then back down 10th by Powell's through the Pearl back to Blue Sky. What I shoot depends a bit on my mood. I often look for people doing interesting things or wearing interesting outfits. Sometimes I follow them for a few blocks. I always shoot pigeons and car racks. Sometimes I will stake out a corner for a little while if the light is good or there's a good background scene. I know the city very well so there aren't many surprises. But that said, things always change. You never know what will be around the next corner. My shooting downtown is denser than in the grids. I might go through two or three rolls an hour compared to maybe half that rate in the grids. I only shoot the Leica downtown. Whereas in the grids I bring the wider quiver which lately has been Leica, Diana, Yashica TLR, and sometimes a Holga with color.

I don't generally shoot much downtown Eugene. It's pretty dead and there's not enough anonymity or suspense. Sometimes I shoot near the University where there's a lot of foot traffic.

Between all of that shooting is just my normal day to day photography. I always have my camera running errands. Sometimes I shoot from the car, especially if it's raining. And of course at home I shoot my kids and family all the time. Lately I've been exploring my kitchen with a small point and shoot digital camera. Shooting fork tines and food scraps and whatever's around. It's a good camera for getting in close.

But there's no real typical day. I shoot whatever's in front of me, and that's always changing.

© Blake Andrews, East 10th and Burnside, Portland, 2004
f: How would you say you have changed and grown as a photographer over time?

I'm generally looser as a shooter and tighter as an editor. I'm less formal with a camera than I used to be. I used to spend a lot of time lining up shapes and worrying about precision in photos. Now I'm more open to chance and natural flow. I don't want to dominate the moment so much. I want my photos to look more like snapshots than formal landscapes. I want to tap into that thing that can't be tapped into, but you know it when it's been tapped. And that's where the editing comes in. What's been tapped? I'm pickier now about images. I won't print some now that I might have printed before, especially street stuff. It has to have some twist or spark which is fairly rare.

I have more experience looking at other work now. I keep up with what's out there and I think it's made me more skeptical. I'm more open to other photographic approaches but also more picky, more sure of myself. I used to look through the books at Powell's and marvel at all the great photo books that were out there. I wanted so many. Now when I browse the stacks I wonder, "How did this shit get published?" Most of it strikes me as pretentious crap. So I guess I'm more of an arrogant asshole now. At the same time I'm more receptive to a wider range of approaches. I have an appreciation for portraits, for a example, in a way that I didn't just five years ago. So it's a paradox. Go figure.

© Blake Andrews, 42nd Avenue, 2004
f: You have said a number of times you work off Winogrand's motto: “I photograph to see what something looks like in a picture” and that Friedlander taught you that “a photo can be just about visual pleasure with no other burden.” True to these comments, your visual intelligence shows in your work - the combination of two incongruous elements to make a third meaning, plays with geometry, visual puns, the way you line things up and cut things off are unique and impressively developed skills.

Going beyond that, it seems your bodies of images, your writing and even your site push to understand and structure life - via lists, classifications, labeling, pointing out, collecting, and grid projects - and that it’s ultimately about the failure to be able to do so because it’s impossible to fully organize, accurately classify, and keep up with all the images and lists and projects.

My thoughts on your work are:
a. astute
b. horsefeathers
c. something you already thought
d. there’s something to it, but...

 BA: D. I just like making photographs. It's much less enjoyable for me to deal with the aftermath. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it's just how I am. That said, I am actually quite organized. If you ask me to find a particular photo I can generally locate it quickly. My main organizing technique is by date. Every photo gets a date on the back, along with a few other notes to help me find the negative. But mostly I keep track chronologically. I think this is important not only because dates are vital, but because it says something about my style. All these photos I'm making form a chronological chain. It's a life journal as much as it is anything else. In a way dating simplifies everything. No two photos can happen at once. Every image has a place.

Dates are being erased and that's one of my pet peeves. We're losing our cultural memory. Sometimes I'll load a re-released CD into iTunes and the date comes up as 2005 or something when I know the material was recorded in 1975. To me that's erasing history. It's criminal. I have the same problem with some blogs and Tumblrs. If the posts aren't dated I can't read them. It's just a mishmash. A date provides so much context. Every book I've ever opened I've looked at the date before anything else.

 f: Lastly, what’s next for you, Blake?

BA: One of my dreams since childhood has been to make an NFL roster, so I'm going to give that a crack this fall.

© Blake Andrews, Adrian, Maine, 2001