Words About Pictures

‘Aperture Conversations: 1985 to the Present’ Edited by Melissa Harris and Michael Famighetti

In this suspicious and cynical time it is obligatory, in the interests of transparency, to admit to something referred to as “full disclosure.” Since I am a creature of my time, here is my admission: I am a print interview freak. I read them in all kinds of books and journals and magazines, low and high brow in style, short and long in length, good and bad in quality. More importantly, I am myself an inveterate interviewer, a role I have occupied at various times of my life for print, radio and television. For the last 38 years I have conducted and published interviews in books, museum catalogues and magazines, and the magazine in which I have done most of my interviewing is the one you are reading right now, Border Crossings. From its inception, it has championed the interview as a particularly engaging form of discourse, and I have been privileged to be the magazine’s sole interviewer (often with my colleague and editor, Meeka Walsh) for all the years it has existed. For Border Crossings I have conducted and published, in whole or in part, over 700 interviews.

That obsession is what led me to Aperture Conversations, a collection of 71 interviews with 80 artists, conducted by 63 critics and artists, all of which were published in Aperture magazine from 1985 to 2018. The magazine is now in its 67th year of publication. In paying attention to the equation that says a picture is worth a thousand words, Aperture has published hundreds of thousands of words about the photographers it has interviewed.

Collecting these interviews is a recognition that something conversant is in the air. What has become apparent over the last two years is an acute interest in the artist’s interview. Here is a partial list of recently published collections: Tell Me Something Good, interviews from The Brooklyn Rail, Robert Storr’s Interviews on Art, and separate books of Storr’s interviews with Richard Serra and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s with Gerhard Richter. There is even a collection of interviews with art critics conducted by Jarrett Earnest called What it Means to Write About Art. What remains to be done is to compile a book of interviews with interviewers. That project sits on the top of my to-do list.

Aperture Conversations diverges from these collections in that each interview is conducted by a different questioner. The subjects are, for the most part, photographers, with the addition of a few curators, critics and publishers. Each of the interviews is preceded by a short contextualizing introduction, written either by the editors or by the interviewers themselves, and they are excellent. Vince Aletti’s introduction to his encounter with Lucas Samaras is satisfying on its own. He recognizes that the interview “is always something of a performance” and that in performing the interview with him, “Samaras dispensed with the usual psychological striptease.” Aletti is announcing that the interview that follows is full of playful and unexpected tangents, and he is true to his observation. Samaras is direct, wary, discriminating and almost callous. When asked why he separated himself from the people who were his regular friends, he says, “I think the petty stuff got to be too much for me. And seeing some of their lives disintegrating … I got sick and tired of all that entropy.” In responding to a question about the effect his Auto Polaroids had on his life and art, Samaras says they freed him in unexpected ways: “I wanted to be an actor, but since I didn’t become one, I could enjoy just performing for my camera. It satisfied that urge.” Aletti, who is a writer, curator and one of the most perceptive photography critics writing today, conducts an admirable interview, focused and flexible, and with very little of himself evident on the page. It takes a while for the interview to get going, and in the early section you can see Samaras beginning to grow into the conversation. What you also see are the subtle mechanics and procedures needed to move from one place to another in a successful interview.

A number of the interviews are with widely recognized contemporary photographers, including Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle, Renée Cox, Gregory Crewdson, William Eggleston, Barbara Kruger, Catherine Opie, Adrian Piper, Thomas Ruff and Jeff Wall. What all the interviews have in common is a direct relationship to making, exhibiting, publishing or writing about photography, but what makes them unique is the nature of their practices and their personalities.

William Klein is a personality in point. The New York-born French photographer and filmmaker revolutionized fashion photography and, along with Robert Frank, changed how we viewed street photography. He brought an ironic eye to fashion, and the same spirit runs throughout his interview with Aaron Schuman, which was first published in 2015 when Klein was 87. Klein is irascible throughout, and for the early part of the interview is distracted by a solar-powered cat sitting in his window, a gift from a Japanese friend. “I see that fucking cat wagging its tail like a maniac,” he says, and to his credit Schuman manages to press on with his questions. Later in the conversation the feline theme comes back when Klein mentions the Krazy Kat cartoon strip he enjoyed as a child and Schuman is able to formulate a generative question out of his subject’s wanderings.

Klein’s unpredictability raises one of the pleasures and cautions associated with the interview. It is a convention in law that a lawyer never wants to ask a question in court to which he or she doesn’t know the answer. The opposite convention is true in interviews with artists: you only want to ask questions to which you don’t know the answer. In that regard, a good interview is lawless. David Robbins’s interview with Richard Prince is a fine example of the advantages of operating outside the frame of the expected. Prince is the originator of re-photography, the meta-practice of photographing already existent images, and his responses to Robbins’s intelligent questions are invariably a surprise. Prince’s most often used opening starts with “I am interested …,” and what follows is delightfully unrestrained: “I’m interested in my photographs asking too much”; “I’m interested when something offensive becomes respected”; “I’m interested in the closest thing to the real thing”; “I’m interested in sitting at my desk with my hands folded neatly in my lap.”

Hearing artists talk about what they do is especially compelling and is not a new phenomenon. No matter how often I read Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550, and come across his startling insights into the practice and observations of artists like Giotto, Bellini, Masaccio, Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo, I can only wonder at his memory, the speed of his quill pen, or his inventive imagination. Vasari was himself an admired artist and architect, so it is not unreasonable to assume that he had observations and opinions of his own that could have been conflated with his recollection of what painters said when he visited their studios. Just imagine how much more we would know about Renaissance painting if Vasari had had access to a tape recorder. As it stands, his ability to remember what he was told is astonishing and his reputation as the founder of modern historiography is undisputed. Make no mistake: Vasari was interviewing his contemporaries, and the information he gathers takes the form of what today we would call a profile or an article. What Vasari wrote about his encounters would be what Calvin Tomkins writes for the New Yorker.

The range in the book is a special pleasure, what Melissa Harris in her introduction to the collection attributes to “the revelatory, peripatetic quality” of the interview itself. There are occasions when artists are talking to artists, and the tone of those conversations is different. The combination of Mickalene Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems is less an interview than a series of alternating long statements in which positions are stated with passion and conviction. The novelist and culture critic Lynne Tillman’s interview with Stephen Shore about the influences that helped shape Uncommon Places is a model of generous inquisition. Joseph Koudelka recognizes that pictures are perfect vehicles for storytelling and that each picture tells a different story to every person who sees it. For Minor White, the editor of Aperture for the first 25 years of its existence, “photography was a way to explore various levels of consciousness.” The consciousness was, indeed, various. The conversation between Collier Schorr and Matthew Higgs is an enlightening investigation about sexuality in photography, and pairing Yoshiyuki Kohei and Araki Nobuyoshi was an inspired choice. Araki is the master of bondage photography and Kohei’s infrared nocturnal images of people having sex in a Tokyo park made him the master of fetishized voyeurism. The original interview appeared in a Japanese porn magazine in 1979 and 28 years later was published in Aperture, for the first time in English.

Every interview in this collection brings to the surface some insight into the practice of photography. Nick Knight, a pre-eminent fashion photographer, says, “I can’t imagine a society that doesn’t adorn and decorate itself and doesn’t use its outer appearance in some way as a social communication.” (When William Klein says, “I thought it was kind of bullshit photographing a dress,” he is looking at fashion from a perspective quite different from Knight’s.) For that matter, the book traces a trajectory of changing perspectives; Knight pulls his focus away not only from fashion but from the medium itself. He admits that the moving image has taken over from the still photograph as “the medium of the moment,” and the book is full of photographers who have made that shift. There are others who straddle both disciplines; Isaac Julien, the British filmmaker who says his work is “rooted in photography,” collaborates with photographer Sunil Gupta to effect what he calls “an aesthetics of reparation.”

The interview with Sally Mann is an example of the flexibility of the form and a clear indication of how generative that flexibility can be. The subject of the conversation she had with Melissa Harris was the creative process, and their discussion includes sections from their interviews as well as letters that Mann wrote in response to the ideas that had emerged in those recorded conversations. Mann had become famous (some would say notorious) for the pictures she took of her three children, Emmett, Jessie and Virginia, that were published in At Twelve: Portraits of Young Women (1988) and Immediate Family (1992), both of which were Aperture books. By 1994 she was leaving the family photographs behind to work with landscape as a subject. What the hybridized talk-and-epistolary conversation reveals is the relationship between her early and current work. Mann moves from being “consumed with anxiety” every time she picked up the camera with the idea of photographing her children, to accepting them as part of a connected personal narrative that includes pictures of her husband, self-portraits and the landscapes: “The boundaries of all these projects seem more permeable now—they all feel like family pictures in a way.” She also comes to understand her own sense of the need for, and the nature of, beauty. “I still want to make a beautiful image,” she says about the landscape photographs, and in making them she discovers certain truths within “life’s sweet tedium.” Her recognition is profound: “I have found tangible evidence that nothing attains maximum beauty until touched with decay, that the vulgar and the miraculous can be one.” What makes this interview/correspondence so fascinating is that not only is it a revelation for us as readers, but it was equally revelatory to the artist.

Revelation is abundant. In his interview with John Tilson, Tod Papageorge professes his love of photography, and William Klein says, unreservedly, “I find everything interesting to photograph.” Taken together, these two confessions sum up an idea that emerges clearly from this indispensable book. Photography is an everything in, lens wide open, love story. The words prove the picture. ❚

Volume 38, Number 4: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #152, published December 2019.

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