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Ryszard Horowitz was born in Krakow, Poland on May 5, 1939. Four months later the German occupation of Poland began, and he and his entire family were interned in various concentration camps. Ryszard and his parents miraculously survived, reestablishing their lives in Krakow after World War II. After studying at the High School of Fine Arts, Ryszard went on to major in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. In 1956, a cultural thaw resulted in the Polish government’s awarding of grants and subsidies for the encouragement of new and original art forms. Krakow suddenly emerged as a center of avant-garde painting, theater production and filmmaking. At this time, when he was 17, Ryszard became fascinated with American photography and its applications in communication. In 1959, with the help of an American university, Ryszard arrived in New York to commence his studies in design at Pratt Institute. He had the good fortune of studying with Alexei Brodovitch. After completing his studies, Ryszard worked for several film and design companies to become an art director for Grey Advertising in New York. In November 1967, he opened his own photography studio in New York, making photography his lifelong career and passion. Since then, Ryszard Horowitz’s work has been exhibited, published and collected internationally and has been awarded many major accolades. In 1974, he married Anna Bogusz, an architect. They have two sons, Daniel and Emil.
John Paul Caponigro What is your first memory of photography?
Ryszard Horowitz Quite recently I found the negative of what probably was my first photograph. It was a picture of a medieval mask I found in the cellar of the building where I lived in Krakow. It was a very old structure, many centuries old. We used to keep coal in the cellar with a gothic cross barrel ceiling held by a seal in the shape of a mask, a grotesque creature. The only light source available there was a bare light bulb. So I took this black and white photograph with strong shadows to the side and then I attempted to made a print of it. I was probably in my early teens at the time. I’ve been taking photographs ever since. I started off taking pictures of my most immediate family. Later on I got involved photographing friends who were jazz musicians. Then I went into landscapes. Initially I worked with a very primitive box camera. When I was 16, my father bought me an ExactaVarex, a camera made in East Germany. They happened to invent the first 35mm reflex camera over there. The lens was pretty good. It was made in Jenna at the world famous Carl Zeiss factory which ended up in the Soviet sector after the war. ( My father had a ’37 Leica I still cherish, but I was forced to sell my Exacta right after my arrival in the US to support myself ). Back in Poland, using the bathroom as a darkroom I developed pictures in the sink. There were no trays, nothing but a red light bulb in the ceiling. I had no enlarger and we adapted an old slide projector. I had to print horizontally. I used to use an old box from the cigarettes my father smoked, taped to the wall, and then using two rubber bands I would attach the paper to it. I made small prints – 4 x5 or 5 x 7. That is how it all started.
JPC Today you use Canon, Hasselblad and Sinar cameras, a Macintosh, Photoshop, and make large Epson inkjet prints.
RH Oh, God.
JPC What was it about photographic vision that attracted you first and has that changed over the years?
RH I was initially trained as a painter. Probably one of the reasons I got involved in photography was that my art teachers totally disapproved of it. They saw absolutely no connection between drawing and painting and photography. Later on I found out how wrong they were. A lot of modern art has been tremendously influenced by photography.
JPC It is arguable that the modern art movement was in part fueled by the invention of photography.
RH Many modern artists drew from photographs. I tried to draw from photographs but whenever my teachers would see them I would get “spanked”.
JPC I had a similar experience a few decades later. That attitude still persists today.
RH Later on because of my love of jazz I started hanging out in clubs, places with lots of smoke and interesting light, and I began photographing the scene and portraits. All along I liked the idea of taking pictures. It gave me tremendous pleasure. Also, I loved spending time in the darkroom. It was an experience I always cherished. I continued my painting and drawing along the way. Later on in life I managed to consolidate it all.
JPC How did you find your way to the work you are doing now?
RH I went through all the natural steps of learning about photography without receiving any formal training. At the same time I drew my inspiration from painting. I learned about lighting, composition, and color from painting. My entire work is very much influenced by that. I was interested in the theater, cinema and music. I continued to draw and paint. As a young kid I was exposed to surrealistic literature of Kafka and Becket’s theater of absurd. I began to paint images that were fantasy driven as opposed to realistic or naturalistic. I was taking pictures along the way and I realized that I was not getting enough satisfaction just preserving what was in front of me. I began to manipulate my pictures, initially doing this in simple ways and later I developed and invented some sophisticated methods. So quite early on I decided that I wanted to make pictures as opposed to taking them. When I got involved with computers, I right away looked to what computers have to offer versus silver based photography. What can I do and how far can I stretch it in order to advance my imagery. And as you know very well, multi-image photography was not very popular and taken seriously before advent of computers. Some wouldn‘t even consider my work as photography…
JPC What kinds of objections did you encounter at that time?
RH Most of my critics insisted that photography is in no way to be altered. Again, they misunderstood the principles of photography. Right from the beginning, ever since the invention of photography, people were manipulating images. They were “photographing” ghosts, making multiple and time exposures. Many pictures were staged and later altered in the darkroom.
JPC Even the simple act of stopping time is an alteration. Photography alters the world and so it alters the way we see the world in it.
RH So, I never pay any attention to any of that. I just keep on doing what I liked.
JPC Does digital technology change photography itself. Does it undermine certain kinds of photography?
RH I was one of the first artists working to go digital. I did it because I found a potentially fabulous tool for what I was doing. Again, there were people who were not happy about it. Now there is still a lot of misunderstanding about what this technology is, can and can’t do, and how it should be utilized as a creative tool.
JPC A lot of this confusion seems to stem from attempts to draw lines between one technology and another based largely on chronology. To be more useful, the distinctions might be based on method and intent rather than on machine and material.
RH Right. Whenever something new becomes available people resent it and claim that all the good things that we are accustomed to are being trashed and that this is being done without much respect for the past. This had occured throughout history. It happens with painting, it happens with sculpture, it happens with cinema, it happens with literature, and it happens with music. People initially are very resentful, overwhelmed and then suddenly become ecstatic and embrace all that’s new. You know the results of that kind of thinking. Too much hype. Now would you dare to imagine photography without computers?
JPC The pendulum is always swinging. Jerry Uelsmann and I agree that a synthetic image making impulse, such as the one you find in a great deal of digital imagery but it is certainly not found exclusively in digital imagery, might be mislabeled surreal, simply because surrealism is our culture1s most recent movement to celebrate this impulse. It has a much longer tradition, one that is older perhaps than the history of art. There is a larger sensibility at work in this impulse that resurfaces throughout the ages. There are also some impulses specific to that movement that might not apply to all work that is mislabeled surreal, such as automatism and absurdity.
RH That is why I get annoyed when people right away attempt to label me or others as surrealists. They think everyone is a new Magritte. They don’t understand the much longer tradition.
JPC I say go back to Bosch and Blake. Go further back to Greece, Egypt, and Australia. Go even further back to primal cultures.
RH You are right. It has to with juxtaposition and trading history. It has to do with creating anecdotes. It is definitely image driven. I really don’t know what to call it. It’s making pictures. It’s like painting. A lot of people will read into your work more than is frequently there. But that is what it is all about. As long as people are moved and enjoy what I do I find it very satisfying.
JPC I think of it as making pictures from the inside out rather than the outside in.
JPC How do you get the process started?
RH I start with a sketch. Sometimes a simple sketch that can later be translated into another medium.
JPC Does it work the other way too? Are photographs also starting points?
JPC I find the difference between post-visualization and pre-visualization fascinating. Along with my working method my focus shifts. As my focus shifts so does the content of my imagery. How does this work for you?
RH Are you talking about reflecting upon your own past work or are you talking about reacting to somebody else’s work? Where do you draw a line? I am influenced by everything regardless of what the medium may be. It doesn’t have to be necessarily photographic. It could be a motion picture. It could be sound. They all influence me. But also, there is another area that I find extremely fascinating and that is making mistakes, not consciously trying to make mistakes but simply making them because we constantly experiment and try different things. Some defect may appear in the process that later on I rework in more organized and conscious manner. I apply it to something that is more controlled and predictable.
JPC Mistakes can lead you into very vital territories that you wouldn’t ordinarily have found your way to. Duane Michals said he likes to look at artist1s work not so much for the things that work but for all the little things that don’t. He feels that those areas are the ones that offer the greatest potential for growth. It is an interesting way of thinking. There are two naturally occurring byproducts of “surrealism” – humor and shock. How do you personally relate to and manage these in your work?
RH I like to think that what I do has a certain lightness. At the same time, many people that know about my past try to explain what I do as reworking my past, drawing from a lot of disturbing elements of my life.
JPC Like your WWII experiences as a child?
RH Right. I am not conscious of that while creating. On the other hand I can see how my somewhat whimsical work may be interpreted as being disturbing at times. And a far as so-called “shock value”, shock just for shock sake is rather empty. But sometimes I do create images that give people a pause with an intention to stimulate them. At best I hope to open a new stream of thought or introduce a new mood to look at life from a slightly different perspective.
JPC I find it works particularly well when a viewer’s expectations (and I include myself as a viewer here) are overturned and we are asked to look at things in a less conventional manner. I enjoy looking that way. I think that can be very useful. It can be very exciting.
JPC Are there times when you find technology gets in the way of image making?
RH I do long for simpler solutions and simpler ways of doing things. I try to be very prudent and attempt to not allow myself to be overwhelmed. I may be excited about something new. But, I certainly believe that I am not technology driven. I try to be in control of technology. And I try to learn as much as I can. To me the bottom line is what the outcome is, not necessarily the means. You can achieve similar affects by controlling the different media and taking a different approach. I was recently asked by a European Magazine to supply pictures to illustrate a story on digital uses of photography. I included some images that were done in an analog manner and to my surprise all the ones that they picked out were those pictures.
JPC Now when you say analog, do you mean traditional methods of collage of montage?
RH I would not call it collage because collage implies rough edges. My early work involved a darkroom technique called photo-composition, a sampling and compiling of images in a seamless manner. You may wonder why I mix my earlier samples with some recent digital composites . It only proves that it really doesn’t matter what technique you show, because most people don’t distinguish between the ways things are done as much as they look for what’s been done. Whenever they see multi-source imagery, or just something unusual, they automatically assume it was done on a computer.
JPC These days, that’s true. I often feel that if the first thing people see is the way an image has been done then the process has become overly assertive. Process can become the content of the picture rather than serving its content. Then the medium really is the message. You1ve been known to build elaborate sets and marvelous props. A great deal of what one sees in your work is not created digitally.
RH I like to capture as much as I can photographically. I don’t entirely enjoy synthetic images. They look artificial – with, of course, some exceptions.
JPC I agree. To date the majority of generated imagery I have seen is the visual equivalent of distilled water. Complexity is lacking. But I see great promise for the future. Things are evolving very rapidly.
RH Yes. They are getting better and better. Of course, you can blend both, and sometimes it comes off well. But you can be driven by software and the kinds of things it can make for you. There are some people who are very content to work that way.
JPC Have you seen any of this kind of work that really appears equal to either good painting or good photography?
RH That is what I am striving towards. Because of my obvious interest in painting and in photography I found the computer a perfect tool to bridge them both. I can quite easily create, with the help of computer, images that in the past I would have to paint.
JPC I think motion pictures have a great advantage in the generated arena. Still images are just that, still. We look at them for longer periods of time and so we look at them very closely, where moving picture change so quickly it’s all we can do to take them in much less consider them extensively. As a result a lot of little inconsistencies can be glossed over that much more readily.
RH Technically in theory they are simulating similar effects but if they had to work in the same resolution that we do, which is probably impossible at this stage of the game, they would be seriously challenged. Movies invoke a totally different sensibility.
JPC They do. A similar sense of teamwork seems to be invading still image makers as well moving image makers. You collaborate with other artisans during the course of your work, set builders, model makers, computer operators. Do you find that collaboration frustrating or stimulating?
RH I think it is great to be able to work as a team. But lately I have been doing more and more by myself. The reason is not because of my ego but because it is not financially practical to get involved with so many people. Expectations are higher and higher and budgets are smaller and smaller. There is an expectation that you complete work in house. Before they used to hire a production team as a matter of course. Then agencies tried to set up their own digital studios and compete. Now they’ve downsized. The only positive thing we can talk about is the fact that computers are becoming more and more user friendly and less and less expensive. But in the end it is very important to be able to maintain control over the final result.
JPC Digital technology has changed not only the way we make images but also the way we do business. Do you plan the various stages of your process differently now knowing that you will ultimately use the computer as part of the tool in that process?
RH Yes. And I plan differently now based on what we just mentioned. I draw from my stock material more and more. I travel less and less on assignments. It is lucky I have a very large collection of my own work I can draw from.
JPC That seems to be an industry trend too.
RH Yes. Not that it is good or bad. One thing is important, the quality of all the individual elements that you merge together. Not everyone agrees with this position.
JPC “Garbage in, garbage out.”
RH Right. I try, whenever I can, to stay on top of it and educate my clients and explain to them that many stock agencies slap things together and that is not really a solution if you want to do work at a certain level. At the same time you have people working who simply don’t care or appreciate the difference.
JPC “Garbage in, garbage out” is a fairly consistent equation. Interestingly, it’s not always “beautiful in, beautiful out.” I find you have to watch very carefully for the point at which an image starts to become overworked or overloaded. I wonder if you feel that freshness is as important as I feel it is?
RH It really is. To me the moment of surprise is the moment of greatest enjoyment. It comes when an interesting idea strikes me. I don’t often find the developing of that idea is as enjoyable. Do you know what I mean? It is sort of like you have a thought in your mind and then executing it is a chore. It may be just a lot of hard work. But at the same time it is a necessity because without it you cannot really communicate this wonderful idea. So you have to execute it. But from a purely emotional point of view I find it less rewarding. Sometimes I wish I wouldn’t have to do some things.
JPC I find the execution is fulfilling when amid the process a new insight arises. I do think there is a particular kind of understanding that comes to rest in both the artist and the artifact as a result of engaging the process. Still I understand the desire for a quicker more fluid process. The feeling is somewhat ironic as we1re talking about photography, one of the, if not the, quickest and most fluid processes available. Maybe one day we’ll have technologies that realize images directly from our minds.
RH Somebody is working on that.
JPC I have a feeling that if we ever get there one day that we will be surprised by how unclear the images in our heads are. We may even have to learn to develop those images in a clearer fashion, before they are realized rather than as they are realized, which is the case when engaging an artistic process today.
RH I look at art made by other cultures and by artists who are considered naïve, who differ from us emotionally and frequently produce extraordinary work. It’s difficult to say whether the same criteria can be used with that type of imagery.
JPC I think you’re raising something very important, outsider art can sometimes be more vital than professional art. There are times when I ask myself to try to become an outsider in order to revitalize my work.
RH Everything needs to be taken in its context. We could all be seen as outsiders depending on which viewpoint you choose to take. I try not to take things personally and I try to look at it in larger sense. I am sorry that a lot of very talented people are pushed aside and that their work is not exposed because they are considered to be less than artists. I am not in anyway intimidated by or show disapproval or lack of respect or appreciation for people who do totally different work than I do. See I think the idea is to be as open as possible. See good when it is good. Draw your own conclusions from it. There are a lot of other artists who have different visual philosophy than I do. That stimulates me tremendously. As I get older I understand that there is a certain originality about what I do. It’s really about how people react to and reflect upon it. I find it gratifying that people from all over the world seek me out and tell me how closely they identify themselves with my work. But you know, it’s not like I decided one day that I wanted to be an artist merging advertising with personal work. It just happened this way. To me it all came very naturally. It involved a lot of struggle at times and plenty of effort, but there is very clear continuity between what I started doing years ago and what I do right now. And the reason for it is that I love photography regardless of whether I get paid for it or whether I don’t get paid. I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction and enjoyment from doing it. If I get paid, more power to it. That’s cool. Nothing in my life was planned. Because I realized some time ago that I was not supposed to be alive right now. Over and over again in my life I went through circumstances that were clearly against me. To plan your future in that sense is impossible. So what do you make out of it? Those fortunate few with talent should take advantage of it, have an agenda, a goal. You see, we were both lucky, born with talent, with certain drive. Too many people are lost and waste it all. So is this preplanned by us? Of course not . That is the bottom line – to be lucky enough to love what you do and be able to share it with the rest of the world.