How did you first get interested in photography and what was the first photograph you took you were proud of?
I grew up drawing, painting, molding clay, and nailing pieces of wood into sculptural forms at my workbench in the basement. I also wrote stories and played the violin. My parents fortunately recognized my enthusiasm for all things creative and enrolled me in art classes at the local art center. I took a photo class when I was sixteen years old and shot my first roll of film of my best friend in the cemetery where we hid out in high school. One of the results from this initial attempt to shoot a portrait was especially inspiring, and I remember the photograph vividly. There is a feeling you get when you take pictures – and perhaps especially pictures of people. You feel it and then you are hooked. Photographers know what I’m talking about, and that is the beginning of this life we lead.
How did you choose your subjects for The Ballad of Sad Young Men? What catches your eye in a subject, and how do you collaborate with them?
A close friend of mine who was teaching a theatre course in Minnesota proposed an assignment to his students to create musical performances based on songs that resonate with “our stories, our hopes, our dreams, and our losses.” We discussed the song, “The Ballad of Sad Young Men,” and how that related to our own experiences as gay adolescents. I used the assignment as an impetus to visually explore this notion of the vulnerability of adolescence and began shooting portraits of young men on Main Street in Binghamton, New York during the fall of 2008. I simply drove up and down Main Street looking for subjects whose sensitivity moved me. When I saw potential subjects whom I wanted to photograph, I got out of the car, introduced myself as a photographer from New York City who was shooting a series of portraits in Binghamton, and asked them if they would be willing to be photographed. In most cases, these young men responded to being noticed. They were flattered and curious. I was interested in capturing the emotions, and especially the uncertainty, that I perceived in these adolescents, and also in preserving a sense of realism about the place where I found them. I got to know some of each individual’s stories depending on time and circumstances. Jacob, in particular, a handsome and wild but gentle 20-year-old whom I photographed twice and spoke with on several occasions, became someone I cared about like a friend or kindred spirit. I always kept an eye out for him and felt a pang of something palpable and tender when I saw him walking up and down Main Street.
You teach at the ICP and at William Paterson University. Amongst your students, do you see a particular trend in their work?
Most recently, in the fall of 2010, I taught a Color Technical Seminar and an Intro to Digital Photography course at the ICP and a Contemporary Color Theory course at William Paterson University that incorporated exercises in various media. My students in these courses were still in the early stages of developing their visions as photographers and artists, exploring a wide range of styles.
You won the AOL “25 for 25” grant in 2010. Do you have the feeling you have already benefited from it? What happened to you thanks to this grant?
Receiving the AOL Award provided support and encouragement at a critical time to help me continue to focus on writing, curating, and making new photographs. The grant is essentially enabling me to do more of what I was already doing.
You curate Culturehall. Can you describe what makes you choose one photographer over another? (ie, would you choose a series of images over ten separate images, are there themes you’re particularly interested in etc).
David Andrew Frey and I both curate Culturehall. I tend to focus on artists working in photography, and he tends to concentrate on artists working in other media, but we generally collaborate on final decisions of whom to invite to the site. When we conceptualize the Feature Issues that are published on our homepage, we select four artists whose work collectively addresses a theme, much like the premise of a group exhibition. When we consider artists to invite to Culturehall, we look for intelligent work that reflects a distinct, serious, and evolved artistic practice. We focus foremost at the work itself, but also at exhibition records, written material, and presentation on a professional website. We generally give more consideration to work that is developed as a series rather than a collection of separate images or pieces. We’ve also started quarterly open application calls to give artists the opportunity to submit work for consideration to Culturehall. From these applicants, we invite four artists to the site and feature their work on the homepage for two weeks. David and I jury these applications together and co-write the curatorial essays. Our next application for the spring New Artists Feature opens mid-April.
What photographer you recently discovered caught your eye?
I hesitate to mention just one of the many photographers who’ve caught my eye since I look at work online or in the real world almost daily. Some of the artists whose work particularly moved me in the past year can be found in Feature Issues that I wrote for Culturehall. Amongst them are Kelli Connell, Molly Landreth, Juan Carlos Lopez, Eunice Adorno, Clayton Cotterell, Debbie Grossman, Stefan Heyne, Louise M.Noguchi, Juliana Beasley, Wayne Liu and many others.
You write regularly on your blog, Palmaire. How do you think this helps your work, and in what way? And what other photography related blogs would you recommend?
Writing a blog helps me create structure within my work. It gives me a space to organize images, to express what I feel passionate about, and to connect to people who feel passionate about similar things. It is a journal, an archive, an open studio. Many wonderful friendships and even opportunities for exhibitions have stemmed from sharing images and ideas on my blog. Blogs have the potential to give the arts community even more of an idea of who you are and what you are doing. To name just a few particularly good photo blogs: Doug Rickard’s American SuburbX, Gabriella Gomez-Mont’s Toxico: Cultura Contemporanea, Juliana Beasley’s Lovely Land of Neurosis, Amy Stein’s Photography, Zoe Strauss’ Blog, Susana Raab’s Look Underfoot, Joe Medina’s Novela, Mark Burnette’s Conditions Uncertain, Brian Ulrich’s Not If But When, Barry Stone’s Yes Yes Yes, Shen Wei’s Photography, Will Steacy’s Blog, Ofer Wolberger’s Horses Think, Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s ARTMOSTFIERCE, and Michael Werner’s Two Way Lens. I’m certainly also a big fan of your interview series on Rocket Science.
What was the most surprising situation you were confronted with while shooting the Chicago Police Ride Along series in the year 2000?
One image in this series documents a black body bag being transported by officers out of an apartment in Chicago. When I entered the apartment with the officers earlier in the evening, we found an older man’s body collapsed on the toilet in his bathroom. I recently re-organized my negatives and contact sheets and found some startling images that I shot of his corpse. I chose not to exhibit these explicit images of death and to use the body bag instead to describe this scene.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you used to write to artists and photographers whose work you admired and that this resulted in lasting friendships. Do you think that having some sort of mentor figure, as a young and upcoming artist is important for the development of one’s work?
I mentioned in a previous interview that I wrote to Charles Baxter, a writer based in Minnesota, and he has provided generous insight and support through email correspondence over the course of the past six years. I still write to artists whose work I admire, not necessarily to seek a mentor figure but to establish some communication. In 2009, I had the opportunity to meet Victoria Sambunaris, a photographer whose total immersion in making her work inspires me. She lives in the New York area but she travels for months at a time to shoot landscape photographs in the West, and most recently, on the United States - Mexico border. I recently attended her lecture at the ICP and the opening of her exhibition, The Border, at Yancey Richardson Gallery. In general, it is important to me to maintain dialogues with other photographers, like my friends Juliana Beasley and Francesca Romeo, about making work and about the many challenges of existing as artists. I also frequently share thoughts and images with a poet based in Australia, Allison Browning. I imagine it is helpful for artists at all stages of their careers to reach out both to mentors and peers for guidance, insight, and inspiration.
What are your projects for 2011?
I’m currently shooting a series of street portraits of locals in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson is a small city near the Great Falls of the Passaic River, once prosperous from its mills and silk manufacturing industry. The city and surrounding area is the setting of two John Updike novels and a novel by Junot Diaz, and has also inspired the poetry of native Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams as well as the photographs of George Tice. The diversity of its immigrant population is remarkable, and its economy is clearly on the decline. Paterson’s Main Street is full of dollar stores, meat markets, jewelers, barbershops, beauty salons, bridal boutiques, bakeries, gentlemen’s clubs, bars, churches, temples, and clinics for addicts in recovery. Its downtown is bustling with energy, vigor, and consumption; it’s also a place where struggle and desperation are explicit. I’ve been walking these streets looking for potential subjects and asking a wide range of people if they would be willing to be photographed, much as I did with the young men in Binghamton. These portraits focus on the self-expression of working-class Americans of various ages and ethnicities – some who have jobs and others who are jobless. Again, I’m interested in engaging with the expressions and the emotions that are conveyed in the faces of these subjects.