Friday, July 12, 2013

John N. Wall

The Kiernan Gallery is pleased to have photographer/blogger/educator John N. Wall as juror for our upcoming exhibition Eye on the Street.

You run a very successful blog on Southern photography. What is it about photographers from the south or southern subject matter that appeals to you?

First of all, thank you for the complement! I started the blog for very personal reasons, especially as a way for me to learn about photography in the American South. I thought that if I had an audience I was responsible to, that would be a good discipline for me. I would keep at the work of learning and reporting because there were people who were paying attention. That’s worked out pretty well over the last couple of years, and I’m always pleased to learn that folks find the blog useful and engaging.

To get back to your real question, however. I think part of what makes us human is that we make meaning of our thoughts and experiences. As Southerners, we have our history that is both burden and challenge that every generation of Southerners must come to terms with, in some way. As Southern photographers we make meaning with our photographs of our own personal experiences of the distinctive history and culture of the South.

I define Southern photography very broadly. Basically, for me, if photographers are living and working in the South, they are Southern photographers.  And, in fact, photographers in the South are up to a wide range of things in their work. That said, I do think that Southern photographers tend to deal in their work with history and the land, and with family relationships, and with the role of religion, race, and class in the South’s distinctive history. If photographers who are, as we say, Not From Around Here, still deal with these issues in their work, I think them of as Honorary Southern Photographers.

These concerns seem to be more important for fine art photographers in the South than for photographers working elsewhere. Other folks seem engaged in making images to explore concepts or ideas, or in creating scenarios to photograph; we are still saying, “Look, notice this, this is here, this is happening,” still trying to figure out who and where we are and how we got here.

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Street photograph is a quick-reflex way of photographing. Describe your process and mental state when you go out into the world to make photographs.

I think making art in general is about carrying on a conversation between form and content, between composition and subject matter, between what you show and how you arrange things in the frame. I think that’s what Gary Winogrand was talking about when he said he photographed to see what things looked like when they were photographed.  The photographer brings the frame in the camera, and looks for what to put the frame around, and from what point of view.

The challenge in street photography is to conduct that conversation on the fly.  The world around us, in the street or wherever, is infinitely rich and various, and full of the familiar and of surprises. Roland Barthes said a good photograph combines something generally interesting with something arresting, momentary, striking, compelling.

I think there are lots of approaches to effective street photography, but they all involve collaboration, observation, engagement, and responsiveness. Sometimes, it’s about being alert in a busy situation to what’s happening out there, and about being ready for what Cartier-Bresson called the critical moment. Sometimes it’s about choosing a background or setting or situation and waiting for interesting interactions to develop. Sometimes it’s about engaging with people in a setting and photographing their reaction to my presence. Sometimes it’s about having in advance an idea of the subject matter one wants to explore and looking for aspects of that subject to unfold in front of me.

I think, with time and experience, one becomes aware of the framing that is going to happen, aware of the perspective one brings to the situation, aware of the light and the photographic process, and can anticipate what subject and moment will result in a compelling image. But, absolutely necessary, is an openness to surprise, to serendipity, to opportunity, to discovery.  

Guy in Cap

Where do you see street photography fitting into the contemporary art world?

This is complicated. I must admit that street photography is not as much at the center of fine art photography as it once was.

I knew street photography as a practice had entered into a new phase when I saw that photographers like Jeff Wall (no relation, as far as I know) were spending lots of time and large sums of money contriving to make images that looked like street photographs, but were made with such high production values that they could be blown up to enormous size and still be tack-sharp and grain-free.

I’m thinking especially of images like Wall’s Mimic (1982). The technical achievement in this work is considerable. Yet the concept of contrived spontaneity seems simultaneously so dependent on the work of street photography yet deeply counter to the tradition of its practice.

Wall’s – and others’ -- success with this kind of image opened up a big gulf between what real street photographers could achieve and what seemed now to be required for display in galleries and for commanding the big pay days that Jeff Wall has been pulling down throughout most of his career.

The grand tradition of street photography is very much about being there, right at that moment, and making art out of that moment and that place. You’ve got the grand tradition that is tied to the 35 mm camera, and to black and white film, and to names like Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and Helen Levitt.  That involved almost of necessity a lot of grain and a relatively small format for printing one’s images.

The South has always been a major setting for street photography; think of the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Marion Post Wolcott for the WPA during the Great Depression. That certainly continues. But the biggest single change has been the development of color street photography, a sign of the continuing influence of that great Southern photographer William Eggleston.

I think photographers are still absorbing the consequences of the technological revolution in photography, the capacity, now, for photographers to take into the street cameras that can transcend the limitations of the 35 mm format and high speed film.

There are still lots of fine photographers working in the South who do street or street-style photography. Their work is worthy of renown. Their subject is endlessly engaging and compelling. The rapidly-developing urban South still seeks its visionary interpreters and documentarians.

Living in the Gaze

As an artist and educator of documentary photography, how do you think your own aesthetics and your views as a teacher will influence your selections?

I will be looking for images that stand on their own as compelling images. I will be looking for images that, as we said before, show us engaging or compelling worlds, but also have that moment of surprise or wonder or delight.

I think the kind of images one gets when practicing street photography and those appropriate for documentary photography projects obviously have much in common, but there is a different goal for each practice. Both are about bearing witness, about demonstrating that one was there when this happened and can share through the resulting image an experience of that moment.

Street photography can stop with the engaging result of the photographer’s having been there. The work of the street photographer can result in a large body of work, which can be organized around a subject or a particular style or vision, or it can stop with the individual image, complete in itself.

In the case of documentary photography, the overall goal is to tell a story, or to witness to an unfolding situation, so at least some of the images in a body of documentary work are there to address needs like the need for context or setting or perspective or continuity. All the images in a body of documentary work need to be strong, and individual photographs from a body of documentary work may stand on their own. But some of the images are more about supplementing or filling in or completing the larger story than they are about depicting complete worlds on their own.

Basket Maker

Finally, we ask this of all of our artists, what does success in art mean to you?

Yes, well, as in most things, “success” is a complicated concept, one that can be – and probably ought to be – looked at from several perspectives simultaneously.  Success for me is about what it takes to keep at things over time, to maintain a practice, to develop a craft, to sustain an interest and a commitment.

Traditionally, there are at least three ways of recognizing success in the arts. There is the romantic view of success in terms of achieving personal goals, making work that is personally meaningful, satisfying, and fulfilling, or at least trying to, and always having the achievement just beyond one’s grasp, a constant incentive to make more work. 

The second is the classical view, which has more to do with making work that measures up to received standards, that exhibits high achievement in technique, in craft, in knowledge of the tradition of artistic practice one is participating in, and one’s place in that tradition. This is where concepts of what it means to be a professional come into play, along with concepts of audience, critical reception, and external recognition.

The third, now that we have gotten from the personal and intrinsic reward to the social and external reward is the pragmatic view, involving exhibitions, grants, galleries, reviews, and sales.  In short, marketing.  I’ve heard it said that people who aspire to careers in the arts should pursue MBAs instead of MFAs, that success in the arts is more about identifying what is marketable and producing it than it is about developing a personal vision or adhering to high professional standards in one’s practice.

I think success in the arts is about some mix of all of these. I think making art is in part about personal fulfillment; one keeps at this practice because it is how someone makes meaning of personal experience in a way that satisfies and rewards the practitioner in a deeply personal way.  It is also in part about development of a professional identity, which is about living into, and up to, a socially recognized standard of production and conduct of a career. That involves, inevitably, the question of whether one is recognized and affirmed as someone doing something valuable by an audience of informed observers, as recognized by reviews and sales.

I of course think of success in terms of personal satisfaction first, that making art is primarily about achieving one’s own vision of the art one wants to make. But I also think it would be especially difficult to sustain the kind of practice that satisfies in the long run without some degree of external recognition, of affirmation, of support.

The deadline to submit to Eye on the Street is July 25. Visit for more information.

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