Interview: Photographer Noah Emrich
Noah Emrich’s new photo book I’ve Got Nothing to Say is a telling illustration of modern American youth: surveyors in a land of surveillance eternally in conflict between our responsibilities to society and our responsibility to not take shit too seriously. I’ve come to know the Brooklyn-based photographer over the past few years and in that time have been continually surprised and inspired by his photographic point of view.
Emrich gained notoriety for his fashion photography, shooting for the likes of Esquire, The New York Times and Gant Rugger all before his recent 20th birthday. Now, with his first publication released, Emrich hopes to turn his lens toward more prescient environmental and political subjects. It’s a turn I might be wary of if I hadn’t witnessed first hand Emrich’s willingness to venture out of the orbit of his comfort zone to make great images. Besides, he’s got time to explore the outer limits of his photographic interests. I spoke with Emrich about balancing work and school, photography in the Internet age and seeing his face on NYC cabs. —Angelo
When did you decide to make a book and why?
The book came about in a pretty casual way. I started putting together this book about 6 months ago. The photos are mainly from the last year or so, with a few exceptions. I wanted to make a book because growing up in this age means we don't necessarily need a physical copy of something to know about it, or to experience it. The majority of the experiences we have now are through a screen. Beyond just the idea of having a physical object, I think there is something especially engaging about the book form — having the control to flip back to front or front to back, to go directly to specific pages and not have to deal with the forced sequence, holding one spread open and going through the book to pick out another it may remind you of. I like the definitiveness, that it contains only what was put inside its covers and will never be more than that, that it can act as its own isolated collection and object independently from its creator or subjects.
In such an image-saturated culture, what can you say about influence? Is it hard to distinguish between original and influenced ideas? I always return to that Basquiat quote “Influence is not influence. It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.”
I like that quote. It's not framed in the terms of “stealing” like the ever-quoted Picasso saying. I think anyone who is a maker relies to some degree on the re-interpretation of the world around them, and the things they see and interact with on an everyday level. As an image-maker in such an image heavy time, I feel acutely aware of that. I think influence is a necessary step in process of making, and a greatly diverse and rewarding step at that.
It is how that influence manifests itself in the work that matters. If an influence affects only aesthetic style, or surface qualities, it's probably not a very rewarding influence, especially because the end result of that equation leaves the artist with nothing less than a cheap variation — a knockoff. The influences that affect how you approach a subject matter or medium in a certain way, or change how you see the world or various aspects of everyday life, those are the worthwhile influences. An influence should act like a lens toward a new perspective not a diagram to be followed.
What are you working on currently?
I'm gearing up for summer right now. I hope to be traveling a lot and taking pictures all along the way. As far as making work, I've just been shooting during my day-to-day life mostly. I've been interested most in our relationship with artifice, our relation to the natural world, and how those two things completely surround us and interact with each other.
How do you balance personal projects and client work?
Most of the time with client work it's pretty clear what the final outcomes will be. I know what I need and how much I need of it. My personal work has always been more fluid wherein I kind of just keep shooting and editing groupings until I'm somewhere I like.
What about juggling school and work? Are you doing a lot more "real work" than most of your classmates?
This semester it ended up being almost all school and a little work. My mindset is that if I'm in school, paying for it, I should commit and not distract myself. But yeah, I definitely have much more work experience than most of my classmates. There are a few kids I know that are similar self-starters, but for the most part it's pretty foreign to most kids. They don't understand what I do.
What goals do you have for the rest of 2013?
I'd really like to expand my work into doing more editorial style work — not fashion editorials, but shooting real stories. I have a huge amount of interest in the forces that shape our culture, societies, and planet. Everything from environmental concerns and issues, through technological advancements that are changing the way we relate to each other and function within the world, to ideas of production and consumption and the dissonance created by that system in its current model.
Who is on your top-5 "want to photograph" list? What about places?
I don't really shoot a lot of people, so I'm having trouble trying to think of even one person. I guess I'm not in that mindset right now. I'd probably really get into shooting other artists; if they were people I really admired that would be the most interesting. As far as places: everywhere really. There are some places on my list solely for their beauty: Iceland, Patagonia, Peru, China etc. But I'd also like to work in the forgotten places, the places we try to sweep under the rug. Places we don't want to think about. It's important to bring the plight of all the other humans we share the planet with into the mind's eye of our comfortable lives.
You’ve developed a significant Tumblr following over the years. Is Tumblr good, bad, or neither for photography, young photographers?
Probably some of both. I think it's an effect that mainly stems from the internet itself. Tumblr is the tool we're using right now but it was Facebook and Myspace before that. Tumblr offers its own individual services and functionalities. I think the overwhelming good aspect is the ability of an individual to be able to build their own audience and use that as leverage to work their way into the professional world. Now you don't need a PR and marketing budget. You can create your own hype. This is all helped through the greater access to things like online portfolios, blogs, and the instant global networking ability offered by the internet.
The bad is more of a wish-wash. For one, there's a ton of photos now, more than ever. I'm sure you know. That brings up all kind of problems: What does it mean to make an image now? What does it mean when you take a photo of something? What is the value of a photo? What function does the photo serve? You could go on and on and obviously way deeper. There's also the issue of sourcing and crediting. Again, this stems from the nature of the internet. Someone will probably post an image you made without your permission or credit, but watermarks are ugly, so please just no. There's a big handful of problems Tumblr/Internet has caused for photography but I really would rather just make new work instead of think about the bad. Another awesome thing I forgot was the ability now to look at so much awesome work; back through the history of photography but also like right now. Tumblr specifically is a great tool when it comes to being able to see new work regularly from people you really admire just by following them.
On the lighter side, how was it seeing your photo on billboards and cabs around NYC [in Gant Rugger’s “Team Americano” campaign] ?
It was totally weird. My one regret is never riding in one of the cabs.
Props too for keeping the price point [of the book] affordable
Yeah, keeping the price as low as possible was one of the main goals.
I’ve Got Nothing to Say is available from Done to Death Projects for $25