Breaking with Reality: A conversation with photographer Dawoud Bey
Conversation conducted at the Chicago Cultural Center, February 20, 2013.
JW: One reason I wanted to talk to you was that you and your work really inspired me to think about how the camera can be used to initiate a conversation or the power the camera has to initiate a dialogue. I'd love to start with that idea and get what led you to think about the camera in that way.
DB: The way that I have chosen to work as an artist is directly related to the moment in which I came of age. The late 1960s, early 1970s was a profound moment of social turmoil in America. It was the moment right after the height of the Civil Rights Movement, was right in the middle of the Women's Movement, was right at a moment socially when people began to believe that not only did you need to challenge the system and the status quo but it was kind of your obligation and responsibility to do so. It was a very powerful moment and that is the moment I came of age. The thing I most remember about that moment was the idea that was put forth and it was a saying that you're either a part of the solution or part of the problem, and I just never forgot that. Photography could be a part of perpetuating images that were part of the problem or photography could be used in a way that proposed some kind of solution. You know that saying that you're either part of the problem or part of the solution doesn't dictate where you do that, where you choose to enact that thinking but it just kind of encourages you to bring that thinking into whatever situation you find yourself. Realize that even as an artist or a photographer you can be part of the problem or part of the solution and to try to figure out what exactly does that mean. So, there are certain kinds of images out there that actually feed into a perpetuation of a certain kind of stereotype that reinforces the problem or you can make those kinds of images that in a more honest way counteract those stereotypes. Those images and representations can be come part of the solution in a way by using the camera to pose an alternate proposition. So that is the way I thought about it. The first group of pictures that I set out to make in Harlem, NY were directly about that. The whole history of representations of black folks that are largely framed through some kind of pathology. I was acutely aware of that. Certainly the black urban experience has been framed through the lens of gang activity, drug activity, poverty, welfare, disfunction of one kind or another.
JW: For my current thesis film, which I am working on now, that is something that I have been thinking about a lot. I've been reading a lot of Sun Ra's writing and poetry. His desire to create an alternative mythology for himself and for blackness stemmed from a belief that reality was a prison for black people in America. So he felt this other reality was a liberation or liberating. It made me think about how in images and in documentaries dark skinned people are so often tied to reality and facts. Rarely are they found in poetic or abstract contexts.
DB: Yeah, yeah — I think the endless repetition of those negative realities can in fact be a way of re-inscribing them and perpetuating them. Someone's poor so you make a photograph of them showing that they're poor and you show it in a place where people are not poor. People then look at that photograph and feel not so much connected to the human community but how different they are from the person represented. Then, of course, they may feel sympathetic. They might want to know who to write out a check to to help solve this problem. But they don't feel a connectedness to that person because of this representation of extreme difference when in fact both they and the person pictured are both human at the end of the day. That's probably the deepest connection you can have.
JW: Have you encountered reactions when you don't reinforce those ideas or stereotypes that people don't know what to make of it?
DB: Well, it's interesting because sometimes even when in my work I don't do that people will look at the work and think that's what they are seeing. I had one situation during a project of photographing high school-aged Americans. Black , White, Latino, Asian, a real cross section of America in terms of all the socio-cultural, socio-economic markers that you could use to define them. They were kind of all over the place, not any one single group. And yet someone wrote about them and started off talking about "Dawoud Bey's photographs of black urban teenagers...". Well, not only were they not all black, they were certainly not all black and urban. They figure I'm black so that must be what he's doing. But the fact is that's not even what was in front of them. That might have been what they were going to see and that might have been what my work directly challenged. But in this case they went looking for and subsequently saw exactly what they thought they were going to see not what was in front of them. So you have this idea of challenging those views and then you have someone standing in front of them and somehow or another through the filter or their own preconceived notions about the work they think and write about them as if they were that.
JW: It says so much more about the writer than your own work. Alex Harris did an interview with Roy DeCarava many years ago that I got a chance to hear. In it DeCarava likens his approach to a poet and how a poet creates his own reality. He wasn't trying to necessarily represent reality but wanted to present a world as he wanted it to be. That was a really liberating idea for me as an artist working with a media so dependent on reality.
DB: The fact of the matter is: given all our individual subjectivities, whether it's mine, yours or a writer who sees something that isn't even there, there is no one reality that we're looking at and talking about. I make work that comes out of my ideas about the subject, what I want you to believe about the subject. The work is about my idea, a kind of experiential, psychological and emotional common denominator that runs through all of those subjects regardless of age, race and gender. That is the largest statement that I want the work to make that somehow through my work we can feel connected to a stranger even though they may, on the surface of it, be unlike the person standing in front of the photograph. Sometimes it works and sometimes like that writer insisted on seeing what they're going to see anyway, you know? But this notion about reality... we all bring our subjectivities to the work both in terms of making the work and in terms of viewing and experiencing the work. Making art is just about using reality as a jumping off point from which to talk about your own subjective relationship to that thing, person, place or experience. And, to momentarily try to get the viewer to buy into that, to make that their reality rather than whatever reality they're currently walking around inside of.
JW: To break with their own reality.
DB: And then hopefully to extend that so that when they go back out into the world they can hopefully, through the work and through whatever the work awakened in terms of their own perception, experience the world in a different way. The work has the potential to add to their experience in a sustained kind of way, to reshape them. Sometimes in a way that they may not realize they are being reshaped but when they go back out into the world in some large or small way transformed. For me there were a whole bunch of artists who had that effect on me.
JW: Could we talk a bit about those for a minute?
DB: John Coltrane. Coltrane was transformative! Both because of the quality of his music, the rigor of his music, the way in which he pushed the music forward as an art form and then when I opened up the jacket on Love Supreme and he's talking about wanting my work to be a force for good, I'm like, whoa! Not only can you make the work but you can also take the responsibility of wanting the work to do something, to be a force for good. John Coltrane changed my life, man.
JW: As he pushed that idea his music got more and more abstract, in a sense.
DB: Yeah, it got more and more expansive both in a spiritual sense but also in the sense that he didn't want people to just listen to his music. He didn't want the music to just exist as entertainment even intelligent entertainment. He wanted the music to be a force for good. He believed that coming in contact with his music could transform the person listening to it in a way that the music could be a force for change. Even though Coltrane was a musician, that sensibility can be taken into whatever arena you choose to bring it into. Just like that idea, are you a part of the problem or a part of the solution. Coltrane knew that. That is why he said, "I want my music to be a force for good".
JW: I like that you mentioned the word rigor because there is no denying the incredible amount of work he put into it.
DB: Oh yeah, he was always working. In between sets the other guys would be hanging out at the bar socializing and whatnot. He'd be back in the dressing room working new progressions, running scales. He was in the dressing room still practicing! Not talking to ladies hanging out, whatever those guys would be doing hanging out at the bar. Still woodshedding! And he was "there" wherever most people think "there" is but he didn't think he was there yet.
JW: Yes, there was always something else, somewhere else to take the music.
DB: And, that is what I mean by the rigor. So I aspire to both his level of rigor as an artist and also taking the responsibility how the work functions in the world. That's basically been the thing that has pushed me. A good deal of my inspiration as an artist came from a lot of the music I listened to or musicians I came to study with. Their level of practice is way up here, you know? Because I studied music before I studied photography and visual art, I just brought that same level of rigor to my practice as a photographer. Once you've heard Coltrane and then you're studying with Tootie Heath and then Freddie Waits — Freddie Waits was so good he made me want to give it up! That's how good he was. I was like, damn, what's it going to take to get to that level?
JW: When I was studying the bass with Tatsu Aoki he said to me one time, "the fact that you're a visual artist is what is going to make your music unique, make it stand out from everyone else". I'm curious since you came to photography as a musician how it informed your photography practice.
DB: It did in a lot of different ways but mostly because of the level of rigorous practice. I was fortunate that I came to study music in the late-60s and early-70s when basically some of the best and formative people in the field were readily available. One of the places I studied was the Jazz Mobile Workshop.
JW: Is that where Milford Graves led some classes?
DB: I took classes with Milford first at the Storefront Museum in Queens and then individually at his home. But, the Jazz Mobile Workshop is where Tootie Heath was teaching. Freddie Waits was there. When Freddie wasn't there then Roy Brooks would come in. If Roy wasn't there Omar Clay would come in. I remember my first time going there and looking in different doors to see who was teaching. I'm like, wow, there's Richard Davis. Damn, it's Richard Davis!
JW: It's not like those are guys who just needed a teaching job. Those were the first call players on the scene at that time.
DB: No, they all believed in passing it on through teaching. Think about this: Lee Morgan was teaching the trumpet class, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Billy Taylor was doing piano and small ensemble! These are the people and week after week they were all there.
JW: I want to get back to the idea of teaching in a second but I'm curious why working in the street was the way you chose to make your work.
DB: Probably because I'm from New York and there was a big tradition of working that way. They actually called it the 'New York School'. Robert Frank, Roy DeCarava, most of the black photographers in New York were very much inspired by and very close to Roy. It was just a very urban culture and life was going on in the streets. There was a whole history of photographs that have been made about people dealing with that issue of being in the streets of New York, finding some aspect of that to speak about. Everybody from Helen Levitt, Sid Grossman, there's just a huge tradition of that kind of work. It would have been difficult to have done anything else because that was the tradition at the time I came into it in the mid-70s.
JW: As I've moved into making motion pictures I have tried to embrace that idea of being in the street and being public. The idea of being public as an image maker, using the public space for creative interaction, collaboration and engagement. I'm curious what that meant to you back then and perhaps what it means to you now.
DB: It was an interesting evolution because when I started I was making pictures in the street with a small 35mm camera, kind of being invisible in the street within that tradition. But then there became a point where I wanted to much more conceptually and visibly embrace the fact that I was in the street.
JW: So, moving from simple observation to...
DB: ...more direct participation with people in the streets. And that's when I stopped photographing with the 35mm camera and started working with the 4x5 camera on a tripod. Now everybody is going to notice you, going to see you. You're much more conspicuously public and I wanted them to notice me. I wanted them to see me. I wanted to interact with them more so than being an anonymous, unseen observer in the street.
JW: It really is a break with the tradition of street photography at that point. Was your Harlem work with a 35mm?
DB: All of it with a 35mm.
JW: But even then you weren't just snapping people's pictures. You were stopping them and engaging with them.
DB: A lot of those pictures are directly engaging in a way that you would associate not necessarily with a small 35mm camera. That probably had to do with the fact that early on I had no idea about the relationship between the tool and the picture. I was basically screwing screws in the wall with a hammer. I was all wrong but it turned out right. I didn't understand that the pictures that I liked by people like Walker Evans weren't made with a small camera. I just wanted to make pictures like those. I had my 35mm camera and worked very slow and deliberate. The 4x5 camera was a more direct acknowledgement and an understanding of that idea of the relationship between picture making and a certain kind of camera. Also, wanting to use the public space and the idea of making work in a public context, to embrace that and make that a part of my practice. I used Polaroid black and white material so that I could not only make photographs of the people but give them something as well, to establish a different kind of relationship.
JW: I'm curious what your inspirations were for that. Were there artistic precedents for that or did it stem from your political and social interests?
DB: I think it was an accumulation of a lot things. It would probably go back to making pictures that were somewhat like that with a 35mm camera. Also in 1976 seeing an exhibition of Mike Disfarmer's portraits at the Museum of Modern Art. A studio photographer from Herber Springs, Arkansas photographing people who came to his studio. It was farm country in the middle of Arkansas and he was something of an eccentric. He wanted people to know that he was a photographer, he wasn't a farmer. So he changed his name to Disfarmer. They're just photographs of people standing there looking into the camera having their picture made. As I looked at more and more photographs it became apparent to me that the thing that I was interested in was photographs of ordinary people. It resonated for me in a way that was consistent with my politics. That ordinary everyday people in fact do matter and not only do they matter but they can be the subject of your work. And then going to see Irving Penn photographs at the Marlboro Gallery a year later. The group of pictures I think is called Small Trades. Again, it was photographs of people in a studio wearing what they'd wear in their workplace: the butcher, the chimney sweep, somebody who was selling something in the street. He basically took ordinary people outdoors and brought them into the studio just as they were. I began to notice that these were the kinds of pictures that were resonating for me. So I guess over the years of both looking at, making decisions about subject matter and then at some point — I'm trying to remember what precipitated the shift to the 4x5. It was just looking at a lot of work and realizing I wanted to make a different quality of image than what I could make with the 35mm. More richly descriptive, a different kind of image. By then I had gone to the School of Visual Arts for a year and half and began to get a different sense of the history of who had done what. And it was also very much related to Eugene Atget's photographs of Paris that were made by an 8x10 view camera. It was both the fact that he was photographing everyday, ordinary places in Paris trying to get them down on film before they disappeared. Also, the quality of the images themselves because of the large format. I wanted to take that image quality and bring it to my subjects: ordinary black folks in the streets of Brooklyn, Washington, New York. But, with that same richly descriptive quality that you can only get from a large camera. And to make it more reciprocal I thought I could use the Polaroid positive/negative film and do the right thing and give the people something in return. You could do all of those things if you think about it and figure out a way into the process based on both the kind of pictures you want to make and the kind values you want to attach to the making of the work.
JW: It sounds like from very early on you were concerned with what you were leaving with the subject, not just materially but really creating a give and take. There are so many ways of collaborating and I'm trying to figure out for myself and my own work at what point is it a true collaboration and when is it satisfying. Sometimes to be honest it feels as if I am just taking.
DB: Ultimately I think it is about making a certain quality of image of that particular person who most likely would not exist in the world in an amplified kind of way except through my work. Because I know when I make the work it is either going to end up on the wall of a gallery or museum - it's going to be looked at, it's going to be published and people are going to see it. The people in those photographs are going to have a presence in the world through my work so that is one of the things that I always think about. The work that I do is about giving people a more amplified presence in the world. Ordinary people who you would not come into contact with otherwise in that particular kind of way other than through my work. Also making that work within the larger historical context of other portraits that have existed throughout the history of, in this case, photography and wanting them to somehow be part of a larger conversation about that as well.
JW: As I've been doing my film work in Durham I've thought about this so much — I probably heard you say this when we were in class years ago at Columbia. The idea that when a subject looks back into the camera there is a power there. It is a way to empower the subject. That is something I've really embraced and tried to use in my current films.
DB: Think about this: when you go to see my work there's this person on the wall that you don't know. They are on the wall of this place that you've come to see, the wall of a museum where presumably important things are hung.
JW: And important people.
DB: Yes, and important people. [laughing] That's who hangs in these places. Now you're here and there's this black guy from 125th Street looking back at you. That means a lot to me for that person to be hanging on the wall in that context. Or, here's some teenager sitting up in a classroom. You don't know them but they're important too. They're hanging up there too. 82x40. 40x50. It's big. It's important.
JW: Larger than life.
DB: And, they're looking at you, you know? So they come to exist in those places through my work and in the viewers' imagination they come to exist.
JW: Yes, they are alive and exist. It makes me think of something I heard Roy DeCarava say in an interview once. He was talking about Bruce Davidson and his East 100th Street project. DeCarava thought that Davidson was looking at those subjects as if they were dead already. So, this idea of looking back into the camera is a way of making subjects alive. They aren't just passively being looked at or photographed, they're alive.
DB: It's interesting, next Thursday I'm going to be at the MFA Boston where that Davidson work is up right now. East 100th Street is up there right now and they want me to come talk about my Harlem photographs and my portraits and bring the Davidson pictures into that conversation.
JW: How do you feel about that?
DB: It's interesting. I went to see the show about three weeks ago when it first went up. It's a complicated, messy group of pictures. They are not about any one thing. Some of them are deeply problematic. Some of them are deeply problematic for different reasons.
JW: What's up with the nude women on the beds? I could never make sense of those within the larger series.
DB: Yeah! That's a whole other thing. His white male sexual fantasy thing. And then he's got this white male privilege thing with some people. Like that kid in the barren room with a bare light bulb looking like somebody just tossed that kid on the bed. There's no love in that picture at all. There's no love, no humanity. You have that and then you have the white male sexual fantasy where you open the door and there's the nude woman on the bed. What was he thinking even putting those pictures in there? And then you have wonderful pictures like the portrait of the young black couple. Beautiful picture.
JW: The one with their heads touching, right? Such a beautiful gesture.
DB: So you have all of these things completely, it seems to my mind, unedited. Everything that he was is in those pictures.
JW: They're very contradictory. I feel that way about his Subway work too. It enforces a lot of negative stereotypes.
DB: When I came into photography in the mid-70s, especially amongst the black photography community, there was a lot of talk about his East 100th Street. I heard a lot about those pictures before I even saw them. Of course the criticism was basically around Davidson being an outsider going into the black community. But, I think and have come to think over the years it is less about being an outsider and what kind of empathetic or other intentions you bring to that situation. See I was photographing in Harlem in the 70s but I'm not from there either. I was an outsider. I might be black but I was black, middle class from Queens. The Harlem environment was very different in the 70s certainly than anything that I knew. Part of my going there initially and walking around was just to get comfortable being in the community. But outsiderness is not just a matter of race. At the end of the day I didn't live in that community any more than Bruce Davidson did. I believe it's about working with a degree of consciousness and intention around the histories of representations of those communities and being aware that your photographs are contributing something to that conversation. Now, with that in mind, what kind of pictures do you want to make? Do you want to make pictures of sexually available black women just lounging on the bed? It perpetuates the worst kind of stereotype about black women. It re-inscribed the relationship that goes back to slavey: a lone white man in a room with a naked black woman and he clearly holds the balance of power. He's the one behind the camera, he's the one describing the person and situation. And, it is presumably a documentary project. It is his fantasy. Those women don't just lay around on the bed waiting for somebody to open the door unless they are what? Unless they are a prostitute. Even prostitutes don't just lay around on the bed waiting! It just gets into a whole set of stereotypes about black female sexuality in relation to white male sexual fantasy that is extremely problematic.
JW: One of the things that I am reminded of is when I was in your class doing those collaborative double-portraits — one of the things you helped me realize and that took me a long time to master was how I, the photographer, affect my subjects. So, to a large degree my energy, attitude, mood or whatever is reflected in the faces of the strangers/subjects.
DB: Yes, in terms of how you're comporting yourself and you're engaging the camera in that moment.
JW: It made me realize that I control that and how much I control that. How they look in that picture and their reaction to me, I control that. It's not a matter of who they are as a person, it's how I am in that moment.
DB: Richard Avedon said something that a lot of people got upset with and I am probably paraphrasing a little bit but what he said is, "every portrait of a person I make is a portrait of me". And, it's true. It's you using that person to make a picture but talking about some aspect of yourself through that person. That's what it is. There is no photograph that is the truth of about that person. So when Avedon says all pictures are about me ...
JW: Right, what can you really say about a person in 1/60 second.
DB: It's just a moment, it's an idea to which you agree to participate in but it's just an idea. When Avedon put that out there like that — you know Avedon: highly successful commercial photographer, ego maniac of the first order even as he was a really important photographer for me especially those American West portraits. Those are really important pictures. Regardless of all of who he was as a photographer I think he was able to make those pictures do something rather profound. Very different in some ways from the heavy handed way in which Bruce Davidson went about inserting himself in the situation of East 100th Street.
JW: We were talking earlier about your current work in Birmingham and how you had to really insert yourself in the community before you were able to gain trust and gain collaborators/subjects. It almost seems that was a test. Perhaps the community felt misrepresented previously by photography or had prior relationships with photographers that left a bad taste in their mouths, so to speak.
DB: Well I think it has to do with the history of the South and the history of Birmingham and the history that I was interested in looking at. Here you have someone coming in from outside of the community who wants to engage the community through something that happened 50 years ago. Obviously a lot of things have happened in those 50 years and when I first went there to have a conversation with one of the ministers, of the 16th Street Baptist Church, about it his initial response was "we're not about all of that business". And, I didn't feel coming from outside that it was my place to tell him at all what his business should be. If he said it's not his business, ok it's not his business. I thought it was his business.
JW: Right because you see the lingering effects of that history still alive today.
DB: It's still present. Now 50 years later because this is kind of a historic marker, an anniversary, everybody is being forced to figure out their relationship to that moment. Basically I wanted to go there and make work that would be a part of that conversation, that would help to provoke that conversation by looking at that moment of 50 years ago through a group of portraits of people in Birmingham now. By photographing girls who are the age of those four girls who were killed and photographing boys who are the ages of the two boys that were killed brings alive the otherwise somewhat abstract idea about what does an eleven and fourteen year old girl look like? What does a thirteen and sixteen year old boy look like? It's easy to become abstract until you see one and then imagine that child being murdered. I am also photographing adults who are 50 years older to suggest what those young people never had the opportunity to become. Then I'm going to put them together a young person and an older person 50 years between them. One is the age that they would have been and one is the age that they were. It's different work for me and it's taken me in a different direction because it's still the portrait but it's the portrait within a very specific context. I spent several months working on an extended video piece there that I'm really excited about.
JW: I definitely want to talk about the video work. However, can you talk for a second about the genesis of your formal ideas for a project like that. Does it happen before you start working in the place?
DB: Before I get there it's nothing more than an idea and —
JW: An idea about potential subjects?
DB: Yeah, all I have is an idea that I want to photograph certain subjects of a certain age in a certain place that resonates with a certain meaning as well. I basically had to go there and find those places and establish the relationships that would allow me to have access to those places.
JW: In a way that was meaningful to you.
DB: Initially I thought that the 16th Street Baptist Church was going to be one of the places where I would make some of the portraits. It was probably a little too unnecessarily close anyway and the minister didn't want to have anything to do with it so it was fine. But I then met with the minister from Bethel Baptist Church which was the church that was pastored during the Civil Rights Movement by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. They were one of the most active and activist churches, black Baptist churches in Birmingham. I met the minister there Reverend Wilder and he immediately embraced what I was doing. He understood exactly what it was I wanted to do. He embraced it deeply and immediately. Even before I asked him if I could photograph in Bethel he said, "if you want to photograph in my church you're more than welcome to. If you want to photograph in the old church it will ready by the time you come back". I was stunned when he told me that, it was Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth's church. That's where it was all happening. That was the place to be and he just made it available to me.
JW: Something I encountered a lot at the bus station piece I did — Durham was once considered the black Wall Street of the United States. There were over 130 black-owned business in downtown Durham, mostly along one street. Essentially it was torn down under the guise of Urban Renewal in the 1960s and replaced with an interstate highway. When I asked people about it I'd get the response that it's a dead subject and very few people seemed to care much about it anymore. Do you feel that's a complacency? I wasn't sure what to make of it.
DB: I really don't believe that people don't care. It's just too painful to think about again and rekindles all of those memories. It's a lot easier to just say, "oh well that was then and this is now". Obviously the present is deeply informed by the past so there is no getting past it. When I went down there and started to get to know people — I had one woman who told me something very interesting. She said, "you know, since you've come down here, I've been thinking about that moment a lot. When I was a girl the man across the street from us was dynamited two times but my mother and father never talked about it. I knew something was going on but they never talked about it". She said, "you being down here made me think about it again because now I know what was happening but we didn't talk about it". And I think that is part of that thing that you just described of people not wanting to engage it.
JW: Right, it allows you to be able to just keep moving on. A defense mechanism perhaps.
DB: You just created a safe space for yourself, don't talk about it, don't think about it. But, it's there... it's there. I think that you can make work that in a very useful way brings that back for reconsideration and conversation. The woman told me she didn't realize that her neighbor's house was being dynamited by the Klan. Birmingham at that time was called Bombingham. They were bombing black people's homes so regularly they just started calling the place Bombingham. They resented black people owning homes, they resented black people owning cars and periodically somebody would just come up and set some dynamite next to your house and try to blow your house up. Like, who do you think you are owning a home? I'll show you what's what.... BOOM! Maybe her neighbor was active in the movement. I don't know what he was doing but they tried to set him straight twice. But her parents never said anything wanting to create a safe space for their child not wanting the child to be too nervous. Just don't talk about it and maybe you'll create a safe, psychic space for your child. Just keep moving.
JW: I realize I interrupted you as you were talking about your formal ideas and how they take shape.
DB: It's different from project to project. Usually what I try to do is to create an interesting and seamless relationship between the person that I'm photographing and the space that they are in. To somehow have the space wrap around the subject in a way that is both visually interesting but in a way also contains a certain amount of narrative information. The person in relation to this space. Also in a way that is formally coherent in terms of the rectangular space of the picture. Just really looking at every single thing that is in the frame, and if it is in the frame, having it justify it's presence there. Everything that is in the frame has to justify itself.
JW: Could you talk a bit about your Birmingham work and the final form that the pictures will take, how you will be placing the subjects side by side next to one another?
DB: It's going to be interesting to see how this works because I'm just getting ready to start scanning the negatives and making the prints.
JW: So it might even change further?
DB: Yeah, it's something that I haven't done before: to photograph different people in the same space at different times and then to put them together in a way that hopefully will hold together formally and hopefully as diptychs they'll be formally cohesive. I made one group of photographs in the church, people sitting in the church pews and another in a period room of the museum. So they all have some architectural elements in them which when put together will repeat themselves.
JW: It gives some structure to work with.
DB: And provides a coherent formal structure for the picture. So I photographed one person on the right pew and when the next person came they'd be sitting on the left. When I put them together there will be a light behind the person's head here but on the other side the light behind the head is over here.
JW: So you're creating your own reality.
DB: Yeah... yeah! Because the way this is going to appear in these photographs is not something that ever existed. They never sat there together at one time.
JW: But they exist in the world together because you put them there.
DB: They will now come to exist in the world together because of these photographs. Sun Ra got it absolutely right! I'm creating a narrative and a reality through these subjects. That is what I want to talk about.
JW: I'm thinking about all of the dialogues then that become active not only between the two people pictured — there's a dialogue there. There's a dialogue between subject and viewer, between past and present just by this juxtaposition.
DB: And that's exactly what I want the work to do is to provoke a conversation. I have to figure out how to print them too. I want to print them kind of dark, not Roy DeCarava dark but —Roy understood that the print carries its own emotional weight materially. You can print it light or you can print it very dark so people have to look into the experience. He was very influential to me in that sense in terms of the photograph being its own subjective representation of reality materially. Nothing looks in the world the way it looks in a Roy DeCarava photograph or else we'd be tripping and stumbling all over everything. It doesn't look like that.
JW: I've always loved how when you move close to one of his dark photographs the whole universe of the print opens up. You have to engage it close, there's no other way to do it.
DB: These photographs of mine will be large, 32x40 each but I still want to print them down a bit. I want them to have a quiet almost rich but somber kind of experience. I don't want them to be richly and brightly descriptive.
JW: Can you talk about the intersection of music and your visual work, the role that improvisation might play in how you work? I don't know if that has any bearing on your practice.
DB: I never know where I'm going to photograph, I still don't know how these things are going to look at the end of the day. But, because I have a background in improvisational music, I have the confidence to start. You just have to start playing. You know you have a size, just like you have 32x40 or in music 16 bars, 32 bars — as long as you have some structure you can improvise within that structure. There's always some happy accidents that happen. But I think the confidence to just show up in a situation and not freak out and know it's going to be a coherent group of pictures just like a composition.
JW: It's really a belief that for me at least — just jump in and start working.
DB: It's not fun to work any other way!
JW: It's a confidence that the pictures themselves will tell you what you need to do next, where to go next, what to follow up with. It's really a matter of listening to what you're creating. The answer is in the work itself.
DB: Even as I'm working and have these small instant prints I'm looking at them thinking about the next person who comes how I need to make them slightly different. To have them play off of each other in a gestural and psychological way. You don't have to talk to them [subjects] about that, just jump in and do it in such a way that you're doing it with real credibility. It's the difference between true improvising and getting up there and playing some stock tricks. Usually only other musicians will know. Sometimes with those stock tricks the audience is like [applauding] but you know it's bullshit. Photographically if you do that it won't look believable, it won't even resonate. But the level that I'm aspiring to it's the difference between real resonance, real improvisation and something from the trick bag. Every musician has that trick bag but you try not to draw from that trick bag too much. You know you have it because there might be moment when you just don't have anything else to play. To me it all transfers whether its music, photography, writing or even public speaking. You have parameters. Usually when I'm speaking I'll take my watch off and put it on the podium because it's important to know: I have to do this in 30 minutes. Kind of like you need to know in the music where you are. I'm sure you've been to artist lectures where it's clear the person doesn't have any sense of that. An hour and a half later they're still going, the audience is tired and they're still going. It's obvious because they haven't glanced at their watch, they have no idea what time it is. You have to have that self-awareness but not let it inhibit you.
JW: Moving into motion pictures for you — talk about the shared ideas and language between photo and motion pictures for you.
DB: Well, they're different. The one thing that I am interested in bringing to the motion picture work is a heightened and subjective quality of optical description that I've always been interested in since I started working with the 4x5. An acute awareness of the lens in relation to the picture plane. The different ways in which you can optically describe space. Re-inscribe it for the viewer, make it a very different kind of space. My thinking about the moving images is in some ways related to my photographs but not entirely. Probably the first video piece I did Four Stories where I had four young people talking while I panned the camera very closely across the surface of their face was probably more directly related to the quality of physical description of the human subject in my photographs. This one that I did in Birmingham there are no people in it at all. What I wanted to do was to kind of evoke a similar quiet Sunday morning that relates to the Sunday morning when the four girls were killed in the church. So I wanted to show four different places in the community, empty and as quiet as they would have been that Sunday morning. So the barber shop I looked very closely at the combs and clippers and the camera is moving across the surface of the barber shop. There's no one in the barber shop. The same thing with the beauty parlor, the camera — beautiful floating Steadicam moving across the space almost like a spirit is moving through the space. A barber shop, a beauty parlor, an empty classroom with some children's drawings hung up by clothes pins, and then the last space is a lunch counter. The all important lunch counter which was huge to the whole social and political landscape. I love that Steadicam, man. The choreography of space.
JW: Jean-Luc Godard said that camera movement is emotion. It's an emotional thing to see a camera moving through space like that.
DB: One of the reasons I worked so well and comfortably with the film crew is that two of them were musicians. The Steadicam operator is a guitar player.
JW: It does mean something.
DB: Oh, it makes a difference. Just jump in. Let's start, start playing! There wasn't a whole lot of yakety yak, you know? I actually took my little point and shoot, put it in video mode and moved my camera around and said I want something like that. He said you sure you want to start? I said yeah let's do it turn it on. Let's go live, let's improvise. Now I didn't even say that but he knew it. He's a guitar player, just start playing. You figure it out while you are doing it. There is no way to figure it out beforehand. Figuring it out, that's what the practice is. You can't figure it out and then play it, you've got to play it. Ideally when you start doing it you find out something and usually something more interesting than you thought you knew anyway.
JW: Then you can actually talk about what the work is.
DB: See, the idea gets you started. Then you start making the work. Usually when you start making the work something else happens. Then the conversation has to begin with what you've made. That's the work, that's when you start the conversation. The idea is just something that gets you up, out of bed, over here to make the work. Once you make the work that's when the conversation begins.
JW: It's taken me awhile to feel like I could let that first idea go. Do you know what I mean? That you don't have to keep hanging onto that initial idea.
DB: It is just something to get you started. If you don't have that then you can't get started. But, once you get started, now that is the work. If you can't let go of the idea and let the work dictate it's own terms than you're never going to be able to make the work because that is what the work is. The work begins to define itself. Of course in order to know where you're going to go here, there or over there you have got to have an idea but the idea is not the work. You can't talk about the idea once you've made the work. At that point the conversation has to be about the work. And you have to be objective enough and not overly invested in the idea enough to be able to step back from the work and say ok now what have I actually done and to talk about that. That's the process!
JW: I was so tied to the idea of Sun Ra and how he talked about leaving the planet and how he wasn't from here. As I kept working on this piece and riding the bus, I got the idea that I might find a way to suggest that bus ride wasn't just a bus ride. Perhaps it was a bus ride to another planet, you know? But I had to let it go and let the film become what it may.
DB: You have to let it go because now you're on the bus and you wouldn't have been there if you didn't have this idea. Understand that part of that original meaning will still be embedded in the work but you don't have to keep dragging it around.
JW: It's a faith that it will be there.
DB: Have the faith that the idea will be embedded in the work because that idea is what got you there in the first place. Otherwise you wouldn't even be there and that is how the idea is useful. I try to explain that to students. It's absolutely necessary to understand that otherwise you can never really move the work forward. The work comes out of the idea but the idea is not the work.