This conversation was first seen in the November/December, 1999 issue of View Camera magazine. Find out more about View Camera magazine at www.viewcamera.com
John Paul Caponigro In a nutshell, what’s great about pyro?
Gordon Hutchings Morley Baer said it best in the introduction to my book. Pyro gives every photographer the opportunity to speak with conviction. Basically, from a technical standpoint it allows you to not be afraid of highlights anymore. You can print them right up to the ragged edge and you’re going to get detail. It’s going to give you those deep rich shadows. Otherwise, you hold back the highlights to be safe, so you don’t blow them out. I don’t have to worry about that anymore. It’s almost impossible to overexpose a pyro negative. I proved to myself over and over again that you almost can’t burn out because it compensates not only in the film, but it compensates when you print it. That’s the magic of the stained pyro highlight. I will photograph right into light while other photographers are putting their cameras away. They literally can’t do it with some film and developer combinations. It’ll just burn out. But the pyro will go on and on and on. If I can see it, I can shoot it. And that gives me a great feeling of confidence. It allows you to see in new ways. It’s a great tool to handle any kind of light. It’s only a tool though.
JPC Which comes first, vision or technique? Or do they develop in parallel?
GH That’s a good question. I have no idea. Probably technique comes first. Probably people learn a little more about technique than they know what to do with it. I certainly did. I think that happens. One person that I learned from was an old highway patrol police photographer. By God this was technique! And he didn’t have any idea what he was photographing. But that was all right, I learned good lab technique from him. I try to learn something from everybody, even if I have to leave them behind after awhile. You have to know something about the technique. If you don’t, your pictures won’t achieve the level that you want them to. There are so many people who don’t want to go through the lessons of the technique and their pictures show it. They don’t match up to the vision that they think they have. Although, there are a lot of sharp pictures around that don’t show anything. Ansel said, "There’s nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept." I think that may be true. At some point your technical skill fails you. You know, you learn a new technique and you go out and shoot. And then your vision starts to improve, you start seeing more, and then the technique isn’t adequate anymore. I think that is a natural learning process. Photography is a natural combination of both the eye and the hand. They both have to work together. So you’ve got to progress in both. I never stop learning. I like the whole process of photography.
JPC Do you find it difficult to work in a tradition that is so established, one that favors certain kinds of subject matter and certain kinds of looking?
GH At some point you simply have to start. My heroes were Weston and Adams. I guess I was pretty derivative of that kind of work, for a long time, and maybe my pictures still are. But, I totally ignore that. I feel completely free. I carefully avoid the art speak. I just don’t want anything to do with it. I know how easy it is to sway a person’s mind. I see myself and this search that I have, this inner journey. It’s so easy to get pulled aside. That’s why I never wanted to make a living at photography. I’ve done it several times, in bits and pieces, and almost always you end up changing what you’re trying to do to please other criteria.
What I’ve done is maintained an almost feral attitude toward any kind of commercialism or the art world. I’ve dabbled in all of them and I never have liked what I’ve seen. I’ve always chaffed at the bit at any kind of control or authority. So I have just avoided it. I just can’t stand having anything impact what I’m trying to do. Creativity is such a delicate little voice, and there are so many obstacles in the way.
If you think of the pure time that you spend in doing your creative work, it’s actually very small. Most of the time it’s all the rest of living. If you can spend a day or two a month, you’re actually doing pretty well compared to what so many people do. Even if you’re a full time artist, you’re spending very little time doing what you want to do. So I decided early on, after I dabbled in commercial photography and fine art, that I would rather have a day job. I’ve worked part time for about 30 years for Caltrans, which is a state department of transportation in California. I work half time for them. I worked full time for awhile and I waited for an opportunity. Sometimes, when they’re lean, they like to get rid of people. And they owed me some favors. I said that I’d like to go half time. They said they never let a professional go half time before but since they needed to get rid of people, they allowed me to do that. So I worked a week on, a week off. I worked five days and then I had nine off. Being in civil service, I had all the medical benefits. I retired a few years ago. I retired pretty young. That was my way of keeping myself economically free so I could do what I wanted.
Opposing that view is somebody like Morley Baer who felt that you have to be in photography professionally if you’re going to be a photographer. That man, with an iron will, would force the world to his bidding. He was wonderful, no matter what the assignment was, he always carved out time for his own photography. He’s one of the few that I could see who, with resoluteness, would do that. But I chose this other path, which, for me, worked fine. I liked it and I never regretted it. I don’t consider myself a professional. Once again, I consider myself an amateur. I like that status. I’m proud to be an amateur.
JPC Sounds like beginner’s mind.
GH You’re speaking to a Buddhist.
I would not presume to think I’ve come that far. I would never presume that. The other day someone was saying, "Well isn’t your work somewhat derivative? It’s not relevant anymore." I got to thinking. "My God, I would love to be as irrelevant and free as a cloud or a mountain."
You can see when people start out they’re very young, they’re experimenting with everything, and they’re doing this, and they’re doing that, and they’re learning, and they’re doing great. But they have no work at this point and it takes them a while. As you learn what makes sense to you and as you learn what pleases something inside of you, then that begin to narrow down those options. You’re not interested in this. There’s nothing wrong with it, you’re just not interested in it. I eventually zeroed in on the silver print. I like the window effect. That’s what I look for.
JPC The print as a window?
GH Yes, the print as a window. I want me, and I want the technique, to be out of the way of the viewer. Now I can’t remove me entirely. That’s impossible. But I want the viewer to be able to float in there as free as can be. That’s why I use the large format and the pyro. I push the technique as hard as I can.
JPC Technical transparency?
GH Exactly. I want it to be transparent.
In the eastern traditions, craft and art are almost indistinguishable. One becomes the other. There’s the perfect brush stroke in calligraphy. That’s craft and purity all wrapped in the one thing, one moment. Wouldn’t that be nice if we could do that? That’s why I pursue the transparent window. That’s what I’m looking for. Whether or not it works for other people or not is not really a prerequisite for me. It’s greatly edifying to me that other people like to look at my work. But, it’s a very personal search. Because I’m at a certain age, and I grew up in a certain way, in a certain country, in a certain time, I tend to have certain values, that are not dissimilar from other people in society. So they might like my pictures. Whereas someone who grew up in a different society might make more insightful photographs than mine, but not be recognized. Recognition is not necessarily a proof that my pictures are good. I don’t know what the proof is that pictures are really good or not. I have no idea. So I’ll leave it to others to judge. I don’t want to do that. I don’t see any right answers.
JPC As well as technical transparency, do you work on achieving personal transparency as well?
GH Isn’t that the challenge? And that’s what keeps me going. If there was no place for me to go with that, I’d quit tomorrow. I don’t care about technique. I don’t care about pyro. That’s just technical stuff. I always feel I’m excited to go out and maybe I’ll find another one of those pictures, the kind that makes people cry. But, I’m really thinking of myself. I’m looking for that transcendent moment. That’s what does it for me. That’s my aphrodisiac. That’s my heroin. That’s my LSD. The opium of the mind for me is seeing patterns and shapes that have a wordless meaning. I think the best meaning is wordless. I think the best experiences are wordless. There’s a voice in you that you have to protect. You’ve got to protect that opening. The best example of this is when you look out of the corner of your eye, see something, and slam the breaks on. Those are great moments. When those happen, all of the skill, all of thoughts, and all of the philosophy vanish – at that point, you’re just a camera operator. God’s laid all of this out for you perfectly. Just think of it like Moonrise Over Hernandez. Ansel had to get on top of the car and just do it with no time to think about anything.
JPC Those who have been practicing a discipline have the benefit of experience. They’re prepared. Perhaps this is the freedom that comes with discipline, it brings a freedom to be more mindful of the moment.
GH To recognize the moment and be able to capture it. Absolutely. I think that’s really the key. That’s where all of that technical training comes in. It’s like playing the piano, you have to practice it. I used to practice setting the tripod up, getting the camera out, getting the lens on, setting it up. Weston said that he could do that in less than two minutes. I thought, "By God, I want to do that too." I worked on that until I could. The idea is you’ve got to be nimble. You get to the point where you don’t have to think about it, it becomes automatic. If it isn’t automatic you’re going to miss things. You may well miss the greatest ones. When I’m out on my own, when I’m gone for a month at a time, I become a very different person. I become feral. I become very emotional. I open that up and let it flow so I can be receptive to everything. It’s photography from before dawn to after dark. I don’t get tired because the energy comes from some other place, it just flows through me. I love it. I’m more excited now about photography than I have been at any time in my life. And that’s amazing to me. I’m so surprised to see that happening.
JPC After all that work, you’ve made a lot of decisions, both about personal lifestyle and technique, you’re still surprised?
GH I’m still surprised. You know, I don’t look back, I only look right now. I always feel like there is much more for me to learn. I don’t know what that is, but it’s there someplace. And photography helps teach that to me.
JPC I’m hearing and interesting thing happening here. On the one hand we’re talking about the acquisition of a formidable technique; control through discipline. And on the other hand, we’re talking about maintaining a spontaneous sense of being, preserving the ability to be surprised, losing control; freedom through discipline. Controlled abandon?
GH It’s the ultimate in simplicity from that standpoint. No wonder it took me so long. What a slow learner. It’s only been five years since I arrived, and I’ve been at this a long time. I woke up one morning, I was photographing someplace, and it occurred to me that I am a photographer!
JPC That’s a very interesting moment. What did that feel like for you?
GH It felt ... lightheaded. It started with a sense of recognition, and then there was a quiet feeling. "That’s it. Whatever it is, good or bad, I’m a photographer." I am no longer separate from that definition in my mind. And I probably never will be, no matter what I do.
JPC Are you describing a sense of knowing what a photographer is or of simply coming to peace with yourself.
GH I think it’s more of the latter. I’ve gone through so many periods of technical change, where I thought I really got the technique, but something still wasn’t quite adequate. I still may not be totally happy, but I feel I’ve come to terms with my medium. And, for whatever it’s worth, here I am. I have to stand with this.
JPC As I looked at your photographs today, strong as the compositions were, it seemed to me that many of them were there just to hang light upon. So many of them seemed to be about the experience of light. There are certain qualities of light that keep appearing. You’re pushing both ends of the scale, very high light detail, very low shadow detail. But, I sense that this is not simply a matter of pursuing technical ‘perfection’, I sense that there is an emotional connection to those tones. I’m wondering what those kinds of light suggest for you? What do they evoke? How are you relating to them on a personal level?
GH I think those two things are related, that is the light and the emotional content. I’m reaching here, because I’ve not thought about it in quite that way before. Light is everything. I’ll drive all day in foggy weather and there’s nothing happening, and I’m very subdued, and all of a sudden the light will open up, and I dash all over the place, and I’m happy. I’m really responding to that light. It’s not that I’m unhappy driving around in the fog, it’s just that there’s no juice going into the circuits. The light provides that for me. The light is everything. If you don’t understand and have a feeling for the light nothing will happen in your photographs. I feel very emotional when the light turns on for me. There’s liquid light that occurs just after a storm passes. The sun comes out and everything is shimmering gold. I just about come right out of body when that happens. My emotions follow the light. If the light’s not there, I won’t photograph the thing. I don’t care about the thing at all. If it doesn’t express itself, if it doesn’t respond back with light, then there is no reason to photograph it. It doesn’t attain anything special. It doesn’t achieve some altered sense of itself until light comes. We’re never photographing the rock, we’re only photographing the photons that come off of it. We’re photographing not only the thing, the reflection, we’re photographing the air that’s in between. It really is an undefined, three dimensional space, out there, that we’re photographing, rather than just the thing, the object. Weston was able to reveal some inner sense of the things he’d photograph. He’d stare at something for a long time until he would sense that. That’s a good exercise. That occasionally happens to me but most of the time I’m just following light. I never thought of it that way. You’re absolutely right.
JPC Do you ever see your own work through other’s eyes?
GH I see it as not mine. When I hang it up on the wall, it is no longer mine. It’s like, I don’t know who did this.
JPC Is this humility? Is it respect for the work? Do you feel you’ve moved beyond it? Where does that sense come from?
GH I’m moving on to the next piece. What I do is right now. I’m done with that for now, so when I put them up on the wall, they look like they belong to the world not like they belong to me anymore. This is not alienation. It’s a lack of possessiveness. That’s one of the reasons I have such a hard time pricing my work. Someone asked Imogene Cunningham, "What picture do you value the most?" Instantly she said, "My next one." I love that. That’s a great statement. That’s exactly how I feel, I just want to go out and shoot. I have this passion to shoot.
I got in big trouble. I started using roll film a few years ago. I felt that my view camera work was getting formulaic. So I put the view camera aside and I started using hand held, 645 and 35mm. It produced an explosion of vision in all directions. I was able to do things visually that you can’t do with a view camera. I loved it. But I also got about 300 rolls behind on developing. I had this big bag of exposed film and it began to gnaw on my mind that I had to do something about it. I didn’t know where I was then. I have to develop my images to see where I am. Finally, I did develop them. Now I’m back to the view camera with a fresh eye. I’m using a lot wider variety of lenses than I did before. The interesting thing about using a view camera is that because it is physically demanding, we subconsciously begin to play it safe with a view camera. I think the images over time, if you don’t watch it, become safe. The photographer has got to watch about the inevitable entropic slide toward a static, repetitive formula. You’ve got to constantly be on guard about that.
JPC Every success is a potential rut?
GH It really is. I think every technical thing that we learn adds to that tendency. And yet, there is the old saying, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." which is also true. You’ve got to be open to new things and at the same time you don’t want to just play around. I feel a photographer should change formats once in a while just to be changed, just to be looking differently.
JPC They do each encourage a different kind of looking and I think it is important to understand those differences.
GH Exactly. Look differently. To some extent, I think it’s a disease of experience.
JPC So, what’s the cure?
GH The cure is just take a deep breath and try something new. Turn on. Don’t just go out when you think everything is perfect. Force yourself to go out at least one day a week in conditions like this – heavy rain. Go out and drive, because somewhere something will happen. You may get the picture you’ve been looking for forty years. Another thing that really has a big impact on that is expectation.
JPC Try to find the perfection in everything and every moment?
GH Exactly. Go out without expectations. Expectations are the biggest killer of making creative photographs. You’ve got it in your mind that you’re going to this ghost town, and you’ve got all these visions in your mind of what you think a ghost town should be. Then you drive there and you’ve missed all the photographs between here and there because you’re only thinking about the town. Then you get there, it isn’t what you expected, and now you have nothing. If you’d pulled off the road you might have found something. I actually force myself to pull off the road randomly. I have no intention of doing anything. Sometimes there will be something there for me. I do random things like that just to jar my mind. It’s like a Zen slap. It wakes me up. I’m more afraid of myself than I am any other photographer or teacher. It’s me that’s the problem. So I work on that all the time.
JPC This doesn’t really fly in the face of the zone system, the notion of previsualizing.
GH Not at all, because I think the previsualization occurs almost instantaneously with recognition. They should happen together. Following that comes all the technical issues. If you think about it, way ahead of time, that’s expectation.
I like to look at older pictures of masters because it shows them to be human. They did a lot of bad pictures, just like I do a lot of bad pictures. We need to do a lot of bad pictures. We learn from those mistakes. The only way we can learn is to practice.
JPC Emmet Gowin was reminiscing about Harry Callahan recently. Harry old him, "The only difference between you and me is I’ve made more bad pictures than you have. Of course, I’ve made more good ones too." That was his way of saying, just do the work.
GH That’s brilliant. He turned it right around.
Sometimes I look at a trip, all this work, and I think, "I didn’t do it this time." I scoop them all up and try again. That’s all you can do. But isn’t it great when one or them works? It’s marvelous. Ansel is right, he said, "If you shoot a lot and work hard, if you get a dozen a year that’s good."
JPC And Imogene Cunningham’s response to Ansel was, "One in a lifetime."
GH Crisp is the word I use for her. Maybe that one picture that I shot will be something I’ll never duplicate. I hope I will. Maybe I’ll get more like that. Still it’s something I have to do.
JPC All the work along the way is really worth going through.
GH It is. It’s a journey. One step’s in front of the other and a lot of those footprints look alike, don’t they?
JPC They do. Interesting, they say a pilgrimage is a journey from the known to the unknown, and then a return.