Tell us about your new book, From Galilee to the Negev, and what you wanted to accomplish with it.
It grew out of a project. 12 photographers were commissioned to go to Israel and the West Bank and we were given pretty much free reign to do whatever we wanted. Because it was a large group of photographers, I didn’t feel like I had to do something definitive. In fact, I’m not sure anyone can do something definitive in a country as complex as Israel and the West Bank, so that freed me up to explore what I was interested in. I wanted to explore a lot of the rest of life in Israel, of what daily life is like; it doesn’t avoid the conflict because that’s part of daily life, but life is much more than that.
Your book almost has the feel of multiple series put together; there are landscape shots, portraits, and lots of detail shots. Is this how you wanted the book to feel?
Exactly. There are conflicts in Israel that exist outside of the Arab/Israeli conflict. There’s a lot of contention in the country. There’s contention between Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox, there’s contention between ultra Orthodox Jews and reform Jews. There are all kinds of tensions. I wanted to not express the conflict but the idea that there are multiple voices that often talk past each other. In a way, I used multiple voices in the book which I think is what you’re picking up on.
What made you want to travel to this region of the world and make this collection of photographs over several years?
Well, I didn’t seek it out. The project was offered to me. Starting in the '90s, I began to photographically explore cultures other than North American culture. It was something that interested me, to bring what I’ve learned about getting a sense of a place and see if I can do that in a foreign place. So, I jumped at the chance when it was offered.
The book combines both digital and film photography. Do you feel that people will continue to use film even when digital photography has become so advanced?
I teach at Bard College and we still use film for the first two years. Students don’t use digital until they’ve spent two years working in a dark room; they spend at least a semester doing color processing and printing, and a semester with a 4x5 view camera. I love digital. All the prints I make are digital, all the photography I do now... I haven’t shot film since the Israel and West Bank book. I have absolutely nothing against digital. I think it’s allowing photographers to make a kind of picture that simply couldn’t have been made ten years ago. However, I think there is a tremendous amount that can only be learned through film.
You shot many photos of the Factory in black and white in the '60s. What made you want to shoot in color, as we see in American Surfaces and Uncommon Places?
There were a couple of events, one was in 1971. I started on two projects that both involved vernacular uses of photography. One was a series of postcards of Amarillo, TX, where I photographed the ten highlights of Amarillo and had the largest postcard printer in America make real postcards of them. Of course they were in color, because all postcards were in color then.
And the second?
The other series was a series of snapshots. Again, I wanted to bring a cultural reference of the style of the photograph to the meaning of it, so the image gained some meaning by being seen as a snapshot or as a postcard. This was a series called the Mick-A-Matics. They were taken with a camera, the Mick-A-Matic, which is a big plastic-headed Mickey Mouse with a lens in its nose. I had the pictures printed by Kodak, and they were also in color, and the Mick-A-Matic work led to American Surfaces. I wanted to continue something like the Mick-A-Matic, but with a camera that had finer optics than the plastic lens in Mickey’s nose. The one advantage of it, though, was every time I took a photo of a person, there was a genuine smile on their face. The other thing I really learned from doing the Mick-A-Matics was that part of the information that a picture can convey about a particular age in which it was taken is the palette of that age, which is out of the range of black and white.
What was your experience with color photography like prior to that point?
There was just one of these dumb events that could lead someone to think deep thoughts. I met a young composer at a party and he expressed an interest in seeing my photographs although he didn’t know much about photography. We went back to my apartment and I opened up a box, and his first reaction was “Oh, they’re black and white!” He had only seen snapshots, not art photographs, and he didn’t understand why they weren’t in color. He expected in that box would be color photographs. That led me to think about the snapshot and the postcard and why did this guy expect…I mean, I knew the art photography tradition. I knew color was light years from it; we didn’t see color in it. When I handed him the box, he thought it was going to be color. That, I found fascinating. I wanted to explore why he thought that. That’s when I started doing the postcards and the snapshots.
When you began taking photographs, who or what inspired you to do so?
I started because a relative of mine gave me a darkroom set for my sixth birthday. At first I wasn’t interested in taking pictures, I was only interested in taking my family’s snapshots and developing them and printing them. I did that for a couple of years. It wasn’t until I was eight and got a 35mm camera that I started photographing seriously. Before that, my real interest was darkroom work.
When you were 14, MOMA acquired your work, specifically Edward Steichen. Do you remember how you felt when that happened?
Would you say that was a pivotal moment in your career?
No. It wasn’t a pivotal event because I didn’t know enough for it be a pivotal event. On the other hand, if I knew more, I would’ve thought it was inappropriate to call up Steichen and ask to show him my work. So, my childish and naiveté led me to do that, but on the other hand it led me not to see it as a pivotal moment.
If you had one piece of advice for someone trying to get into photography and make it a career, what would it be?
Read my book published by Phaidon called The Nature of Photographs.