The Man with the Moving Camera
An Interview with Chuck Samuels
If you believe in fate, then Chuck Samuels’s future was sealed in childhood. When he was 11 years old, his father, himself an amateur photographer, took a picture of his son and proceeded to give the camera to him as a gift. From that moment on, Chuck committed himself to taking photographs, an activity that turned into an obsession: “For many years afterwards, I carried a camera with me, photographed everything that was in front of me, developed my own film, made prints and became more and more serious as time passed.” As he says in the following interview, “I sometimes feel like I don’t know how not to produce photography.”
The production has been prodigious. Samuels has been photographing consistently for 50 years, and over that period has made bodies of work in which he was simultaneously engaged in exploring the medium of photography and addressing the complexities of enacted self-portraiture. His awareness that “the first shot on my first roll of film was a picture of me” has been determining in the kind of images to which he has been attracted. “After” is a series about appropriation in which he remakes the remakes of artists like Yasumasa Morimura, Cindy Sherman and Gillian Wearing; in “Before Photography” he produces a body of work about what the figure of the photographer looks like; in “On Photography” he constructs a photographic manifesto by appropriating for his own purposes the words of other photographers; and in “Before the Camera” he photographs himself in a series of iconic nude women taken from images made by men.
There is something in this layering that is as delightful as Shakespeare’s comedies; the Bard worked with an all-male company of actors in which men played women who then disguised themselves as men to trick other men into falling in love with the women they were playing. Samuels’s range is equally impressive; he plays at being Nastassja Kinski with her snake from Richard Avedon’s famous 1981 photograph; he muscleposes as Lisa Lyon from Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1983 book Lady Lisa; he recreates the feathery eroticism of Ralph Gibson’s Leda; he lounges about as one of EJ Bellocq’s Storyville prostitutes; and he sounds a perfect visual note as the embodiment of Kiki of Montparnasse in Man Ray’s Le Violon d’Ingres. Samuels admits that he works with images that have stuck in his imagination and memory. His use of them runs from affectionate parody to affectionate homage. He is a consummate mimic and a skilful performer who moves through a rigorous process of finding and making a rich array of images. “My field is photography with a bit of interest in video and cinema,” he says in summing up his practice, “and I’m staying within that framework.” That frame has proven to be versatile and has allowed him to record his “feelings of love, obsession and deep ambivalence towards photography.” His ambivalence, to copy and then alter the words of the Bard, has been a consummation devoutly to be risked. The following interview was conducted by phone to Toronto on June 3, 2021.
Border Crossings: I realize I’m in dangerous territory because you’re an artist who’s done three self-interviews in which you asked yourself all the best questions. But one of the questions you didn’t pose addresses motivation. I wonder if you were being courageous because everything gets put on the critical table, or were you being protective as a way of heading off any criticism?
Chuck Samuels: Jacques Doyon, the editor of Ciel Variable, wanted to have an interview with me based on the work “Before Photography,” and we discussed who might be a good person to interview me. It came to me in a flash that it would be coherent with my work if I were to interview myself. I proposed that to Jacques and he went for it. But to respond to your question, there’s really no courage involved. “Protective” is close because basically I had some things I wanted to say. It was like playing the TV game Jeopardy; I just had to invent the questions.
From the beginning you have described your relationship with photography as an obsession. What is the cause and what are the limits of that obsession?
I was inducted into the cult of photography in 1967 when I was 11 years old. My father took a picture of me and then gave me the camera. So the first shot on my first roll of film was a picture of me. For many years afterwards I carried a camera with me, photographed everything that was in front of me, developed my own film, made prints and became more and more serious as time passed. Even as a young child I recall being very aware of photography. In my mind the objects themselves, the cameras, were fetishistic objects. I’ve been doing it and thinking about it an awful lot. At first there was more doing than thinking, and now there’s probably more thinking than doing.
There’s an element of predestination in the fact that your father takes a picture of you and then gives you the camera. It’s as if you had no choice other than to be a photographer.
I sometimes feel like I don’t know how not to produce photography. When I’m in a long period, and it does happen, that I’m not producing my own work, I feel something important is being neglected. I know a number of photographers whose parent was an amateur photographer. It seems to be something that gets handed down.
Do you start out with an idea for a particular project, or does the project end up being what it is through a process of accumulation?
It varies from project to project, but usually there’s a strong idea at the beginning, which can mutate during the period of research and testing. I had been thinking about “After,” which involves the idea of remaking the remake, for four or five years before actually starting. I’ll know if the project is going to work in the research and testing phase. I might not find enough material to base the project on, or I won’t like the results when I print it, or maybe there are some technical issues that I can’t rise above.
Can the impetus for a project be genre? Do you think, I’ll do documentary or portraiture? How do you choose the larger framework within which any single project will develop?
At some point it just dawns on me. Right now I’m thinking that maybe it’s time for me to deal with imagery that doesn’t involve the need to look young. There’s a practical aspect to it. I’m thinking about medical photography, and about crime and social power. I’m interested in different aspects of photography. A large part of the “Before Photography” project was about the figure of the photographer, what photographers look like and how could I become an actor who portrays a photographer. “After” is about appropriation. The nude was very much about a genre. But it’s not just genre. It’s different aspects of photography. I’ve looked at the photography magazines and I’ve looked at portraits and the texts of critics. Sometimes when I’m looking at a photograph or a photography book, or thinking about a particular type of photography, I suddenly get the feeling that a new project is possible.