I discovered that this camera was the technical means in photography of communicating what the world looks like in a state of heightened awareness. And it’s that awareness of really looking at the everyday world with clear and focused attention that I’m interested in.
Until I was twenty-three I lived mostly in a few square miles in Manhattan. In 1972 I set out with a friend for Amarillo, Texas. I didn’t drive, so my first view of America was framed by the passenger’s window.
I don’t feel like I have to do something that looks like a Stephen Shore picture. I’m doing what I’ve always done, which is take pictures that interest me.
I wanted to make pictures that felt natural, that felt like seeing, that didn’t feel like taking something in the world and making a piece of art out of it.
Photographers have to impose order, bring structure to what they photograph. It is inevitable. A photograph without structure is like a sentence without grammar—it is incomprehensible, even inconceivable.
I enjoy the camera. Beyond that it is difficult to explain the process of photographing except by analogy: The trout streams where I flyfish are cold and clear and rich in the minerals that promote the growth of stream life. As I wade a stream I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I’ve cast is on the water my attention is riveted to it. I’ve found through experience that whenever—or so it seems—my attention wanders or I look away then surely a fish will rise to the fly and I will be too late setting the hook. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes—I strike. Then the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still.
I don’t have to have a single point of emphasis in the picture. It can be complex, because it’s so detailed that the viewer can take time and read it, and look at something here, and look at something there, and they can pay attention to a lot more.
Why can’t a photograph be all four things at once? -be an art object; be a document, what ever that means exactly, but deal with content; be a formalist exploration; and operate on some, metaphor is not the right word but, resonant level...
To see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.
It’s [The large-format 8x10-inch camera is] unlike any other camera. It’s unwieldy. You have to physically lift it up on its tripod and move it to get the shot you want. That alone makes any decision you make very clear and visceral. The camera is no longer an extension of your eye; it’s this tool that is outside of you.
I was photographing every meal I ate, every person I met, every waiter or waitress who served me, every bed I slept in, every toilet I used.
I think most people have experienced walking down the street and for a few minutes, everything looks brighter or more vivid, or space and time feels more tangible; things seem more real. I imagine that it’s quite possible that the quality of mind can imprint itself on a picture...
A photographer may have questions and problems that he or she brings to a picture-making situation. At the same time, the specific situation can generate new ideas, possibilities, and problems.
It’s the bane of my existence that I see photography not as a way of recording personal experience particularly, but as this process of exploring the world and the medium. I have to be reminded, “It’s your son’s birthday party. Bring a camera.” And then, when I’m there, “Take a picture,” because it doesn’t occur to me to use it as this memorializing thing.
I went on to Flickr and it was just thousands of pieces of shit, and I just couldn’t believe it. And it’s just all conventional, it’s all cliches, it’s just one visual convention after another.
With a painting, you’re taking basic building blocks and making something that’s more complex than what you started with. It is a synthetic process. A photograph does the opposite: It takes the world, and puts an order on it, simplifies it.
There’s something arbitrary about taking a picture. So I can stand at the edge of a highway and take one step forward and it can be a natural landscape untouched by man and I can take one step back and include a guardrail and change the meaning of the picture radically... I can take a picture of a person at one moment and make them look contemplative and photograph them two seconds later and make them look frivolous.
To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognize it as a photographic possibility – that is what I am interested in.
I’m interested in conventions. Why are there certain conventions? What happens if you don’t follow a certain convention? Sometimes my reactions are not a radical departure, but a reactionary departure. So if everyone is doing color I think there’s nothing wrong with black and white, you know?
I have always been interested in everyday experience. It relates to an idea I had back then of what it might be like to pay attention to the average moments in your life, rather than just the dramatic moments. Attentiveness is self-awareness – you are aware of yourself paying attention. It was a different experience and I was nourished by it. I still am.