Craig Stevens has been a photographic educator since 1975, when he received his MFA degree from Ohio University. For 12 years he was associate director of the Maine Photographic Workshops, and he was involved in the creation and development of the Workshops’ Resident Program. In 1994, he was director of workshops for the international “Recontres” program in Arles, France. He has also served on the faculties of the Santa Fe Workshops, Anderson Ranch Arts Center, and Les Ateliers de l’Image.
For the past 10 years, Stevens has been a professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. He has written extensively on the craft and aesthetic of photography.
This conversation was first seen in the April/May, 1998 issue of Camera Arts magazine.
John Paul Caponigro What is it about photographic vision that fascinates you?
Craig Stevens The fact that it can happen. It’s interesting, as I’m sitting here looking at these photographs, which I’m very, very close to, I actually have the feeling as I look at them that I didn’t really make them. In a sense they may make me.
I had that experience once many years ago when my Japan portfolio was finally finished and installed in the museum and I went in and sat in front of it and I looked at it. Ihad a curious feeling about the images, not that I hadn’t done them, but that they really didn’t need me to be there, that they were perfectly fine on their own.
This show (Poetics of Space) is very, very different than most of the other things that I’ve done in that previous pieces of work have always been consolidated – most of the images would be the same size, they’d be the same tone. Whereas with these I worked to make them individual pieces and then I went to sequence the show.
The smaller pieces, are for the most part, not entirely, but for the most part, an homage series to both 19th and 20th century photographers that I’m fond of. Eugene Cuvelier ( the French photographer who taught Carot how to do photograms), Gustave LeGray, Stieglitz, Ernst Haas.
That’s a piece I named Working Landscape. Emmet Gowin, who was my first teacher, did a series of photographs called Working Landscapes in the 70’s that I always loved and so that’s where that comes from.
This one, your father. I call it Running White Tulips. You know, I think my instincts weren’t too bad because when he saw it he responded to it. He used a really interesting term when he was looking at it. He referred to it as a photograph in which there was a tremendous amount of communion between the viewer and the image. It’s not a word that I’ve ever really thought of or used in that regard and it was a wonderful comment.
JPC It’s a very nice way of putting it. It takes it out of the realm of art historical terms and puts it in a very human perspective.
CS We were talking about that, we started talking about the fact that art historians feel this need to over-categorize and sometimes the response of the photographer, the response to the image, seems to be secondary. In these I wanted it to be right up front.
JPC Seems to be secondary in what way?
CS In that all you start to do is try and find a position to defend. It’s that political component. Somehow that crushes something. This work is much more about a single person standing in front of this and this piece engaging them and really holding them there for a moment … and helping them.
JPC Conservative notion.
CS Yeah, really. And helping them consider who they are and what this means. In all these prints, both the smaller pieces, the larger pieces and the panoramics, I was really interested in the physicality of the image. And the idea of making each of these prints as special as I could, as unique an experience as I could. I was not trying to make this one feel like that one but actually trying to craft them to a particular point of completion that would make them stand apart from each other, not just blend into a mass, but really become individual things.
The whole thing operates around the idea of phenomenology. The title of the show in fact comes from the book by the French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, which has been for over twenty years, ever since I was in graduate school, a book that I still go back to, still refer to, still dip into. It’s about the physical experience of something as opposed to the intellectual experience of something.
JPC It’s interesting to hear you talk about the people who have influenced your work, some of it homage, that you’re reading Bachelard, and yet at times you seem to fly in the face of certain kinds of historical approaches to photography.
CS Well, yes, but I teach history of photography as a photographer. I teach the history of photography as an act of love. 19th century photography for me has a level of purity of contact that we may have lost. I think that it’s unfair to refer to work done in the 1850s and 1860s as primitive photography because the techniques of the medium were limiting, in terms of the kinds of photographs that the materials would allow you to make. This of course is the antithesis of where we are today, the medium allows you now to make anything you want. Photographers of that time period were engaged at the point of capture in a manner that I don’t think we even comprehend any more.
Imagine taking a wet collodion plate that you’ve just sensitized, putting it in your camera and having to have a sense of what the humidity was because as the plate dries out it becomes less sensitive. It would be like shooting with a variable ASA film. It depends on how it feels when you get up that day. It would drive most people bananas. So you have these people like LeGray and Sullivan out there making these absolutely remarkable images. That purity of contact that I was talking about, that purity of the moment, is something that I think the 19th century photographers relished in. And that particular aspect for me is very, very important. So I’ve tried to carry that over into my own approach and am almost, at the point of exposure, avidly non-intellectual. I want to connect with the other part of myself. I know the intellectual part because I use it all the time. I use it to write, I use it to teach, I use it to balance my check book. So I’ve got all those answers. What I don’t understand completely are the non-verbal, more visceral areas of my experience and I try to photograph from the notion (in Bachelard’s Poetics of Space) of pure resonance. I set myself up in opposition to the thing that I’m going to photograph and I try and find a place to stand so that when the image is made a visual resonance is engaged between me and the subject. I can then take that image and amplify it in any number of different directions as I take it into the print making process. And then, when the print is seen by someone else, whether I’m there or not, hopefully what I’ve put into that piece will initiate another situation of resonance between the print and the viewer. That’s what’s really important to me.
Szarkowski said that all Atget did was find a very elegant way of playing and that I think is something that I carry with me when I look at something. When I make a photograph I’m really saying to the viewer, consider this. That’s all it is. It’s not, I want you to feel exactly this way. It’s simply, consider this. It’s not a question of specific destination but it’s at least, Jean Pierre Sudre calls it, a point of departure.
It’s funny, I teach these courses that are about materials and the other day one of the students asked a question that implied that the power of the thing was in the materials. The materials really are simply the vehicle for the idea, not a substitute for it. Photography is very seductive that way.
You know, people who work with medium or large format cameras, who learn how to focus, learn how to expose, learn how to stay out of their own way when they develop, they come up with a negative that, as long as they are relatively adept in the manner that they work, provides quite a beautiful print. And sometimes you look at those things and you say, “So what?” What’s behind this other than the way this thing looks? And looks are very easy to achieve in photography.
JPC At the same time a personal look is much harder to achieve. In photography even a distinctive style can be elusive but communicating a unique vision, as in any medium, is even more so. Style has been masquerading as vision for a very long time even in images where the world renders itself.
CS Paul Caponigro said, in The Voice of the Print, that these small things that we do often have profound results in how someone will look at something. It takes a very long time to start to see them and maybe even to utilize them.
JPC And to what end?
CS Absolutely. In fact that’s one of the other things that often comes up in these ostensibly technical workshops which people realize after awhile are not maybe as technical as they had expected. The notion of approaching the materials and the medium from a little bit more of a spiritual point of view, and I use the word “spirit” not with any sort of religious connotation, but just the energy that a particular person has, that’s where their best images are going to come from. They’re going to come from being able to take that which they feel and translate it into that object, or transform it into that object, that we call the photographic print.
JPC As I’m listening to you speak I’m wondering about photography. The world renders itself, like rubbings from gravestones the world leaves peculiar traces of itself behind. This begs many questions. Are we simply being receptive to the material world, vehicles in a sense, like the Romantics with or without the muse; are our interiors imparting a bias on information drawn out of the world collaboratively; or are we simply projecting, is the world our vehicle?
CS Charlie Harbutt once described a photograph as the result of a collision between a person with a camera and reality. The photograph was typically as interesting as the collision was. It’s a good concept.
If it was simply an internal impulse I wouldn’t need the camera. But sometimes I do wonder if the impulse that we have doesn’t somehow make a mark on the thing that we’re seeing. You know, I once made a portrait of my aunt and my uncle, my uncle Moose and my aunt Lorraine. He was a very big guy and she was kind of petite and they were in their kitchen in my home town in Massachusetts. The only lighting in that room was a 12″ overhead fluorescent fixture, which in all lighting classes in graduate school you were told to always avoid. That was the only light I had. It was December, it was after dark, it was the only time that I could make this picture. I made the photograph. And it’s beautiful. I wonder maybe beautiful light is simply that which bounces off of the things that we love.
I’ve seen enough badly lit photographs, however, to probably think twice about casting that one in stone, but I do feel that that impulse does play a role.
Rudolph Arnheim made the statement that photography’s greatest gift is its ability to render three dimensional reality in a two dimensional form and that photography’s greatest weakness is its ability to render three dimensional reality in two dimensional form. It’s a catch 22. It does what it does extremely well, but it does what it does.
JPC Then the question arises how pliable is it? Because if it only does what it does then there’s no room for the person to move within it.
CS Arnheim is coming to that as a philosopher and art historian rather than as a photographer. The notion that for instance that this photograph is a piece of ivy of course is ridiculous. It’s not. If you close your eyes and run your hand over it, it’s just a smooth piece of paper.
You go back to the story that Picasso told where this fellow visited his studio, and it always has to be an American because he’s boorish and being bad mannered, and started criticizing Picasso for the fact that his women didn’t look like women. You know, they had six eyes and four breasts and two noses. And eventually he just stopped the guy cold and said, “Hey, you married?” “Yeah.” “You got a picture of your wife?” The man reaches in and pulls it out. Picasso says, “This is your wife?” “Yeah.” Picasso says, “It’s a shame she’s so small.” It’s a wonderful story about what a photograph really is and I think if we can see it as representational art rather than some kind of anesthetic document of information then we might be on the right track to really starting to understand what it does.
JPC I think that’s very true. Curious, there’s the notion that painting was liberated from realist concerns, suddenly free to portray the spiritual purely, with the birth of photography. Yet in this series of conversations with photographers, some notion of spirituality, even if it is simply seen as poetic expression, has appeared frequently as an essential ingredient to strong work.
CS Of all the art forms the camera arts are the only ones that do not have their roots in religion. Every other medium, dance, poetry, music, theater, they all have their beginnings as means of worship. Whether it’s pre-Columbian figures, ancient chants, drawings of animals on a wall in a cave in France, all of these things had at their root the service of the almighty. In the 1830’s photography is invented by an entrepreneurial Frenchman who simply sees a way, if he can figure out how to get this process to work quickly enough so he can make portraits, to score a great financial coup. This is our history.
The great thing about photography is we know exactly when we were born and the worst thing about photography is we know who our father was. That’s what we come out of. And photography has always had a commerce aspect to it. Whether we realize it or not, that’s always there. So photographers, I think, at a particular point started trying to put that spiritual element back into it. Initially of course it was done in a very heavy handed manner. It was done on the basis of subject matter. Reijlander’s Two Paths of Life where he mimics the parable of the prodigal son. Or Julia Margaret Cameron’s work where you have madonnas and cherubs and Mary Magdalene. To the photographs of F. Holland Day during the secession where he literally reenacts the death of Christ. And it really doesn’t actually start to move toward a more individual, humanistic, or individualistic sense of spirituality until you get to Steiglitz. The notion of the photograph having some kind of metaphorical power, that unlocks the idea of the photograph achieving some kind of poetic resonance.
JPC It seems photography has to point towards something else, beyond the simple description of literal surfaces, in order to achieve that.
CS Photography serves as a trigger and not simply a mnemonic device. What I’m trying to make are emotional triggers. When someone looks at them it’s not that they remember, “Oh I remember a place, like that.” it’s that they look and say, “I remember feeling like that.” And that moves toward a different sense.
I think that there’s a difference between photography that is overtly sentimental. I’m not interested in that at all. I’m more interested in something being visually enigmatic enough to engage someone and to hold them there. A photograph that’s overtly romantic or sentimental only has one possible point of completion for the viewer.
The ones that I find totally captivating are the ones that are enigmatic. I can come into it. I don’t want something that’s so cryptic that I can’t approach it but there’s a hook there, it brings me into it but it doesn’t give itself up completely at once. You come to know it better. I pay attention to how someone’s eye moves through a print. Christopher James calls it visual traffic. I call it visual choreography. That’s extremely important to me because without it the viewer’s just going to pass you by. So the student says, can you talk about composition? I say probably not but I can show you some things that I’m interested in and that I think moves people past the notion that there is a formula that you can impose upon a scene to make it effective.
JPC One of the greatest things the arts offers us is a renewed sense of wonder, that there is life beyond our established boundaries, and it is all miraculous.
CS Absolutely. The photograph that I look at most often for that is your father’s photograph, Galaxy Apple. That’s such a wonderful photograph to show someone when you’re trying to talk about the idea between representation and expression. It’s just one of those wonderful no-brainers that you just show somebody and if they don’t get that one then there may not be any hope.
JPC I agree, it highlights the metaphoric power possible in the photograph (it may be simile rather than metaphor), its ability to suggest another dimension at the same time rendering what’s there with an unparalleled exactness. It’s extraordinary that that can happen.
CS And it happens a lot. You know, it happens a lot.
I remember in that wonderful movie, Il Postino, when the postman desperately, desperately wants to be a poet so he can win the love of his life. Also he’s just charmed with the kind of person that Neruda is. Neruda goes away and doesn’t come back. The young man goes out with his tape recorder and he holds the microphone up and says, these are the stars. That is one of the most wonderful concepts. Listen to the stars. And what it’s implying is that we exist, we live, with all of our senses. And so photography or photographs, while they’re made with the eye, I think if they really move to a strong point they’re made with everything. Bresson used to say that photography was great because you’d be out there and your body would be filled with air and you’d be alive.