From Creating A Sense of Place, Smithsonian
Institution Press, 1990
Why do you choose to photograph a particular place? Why the
Cape? Why St. Louis?
You go someplace to be there. You take a vacation. You want to
go investigate a middle-sized city. Sometimes you're asked, sometimes
you go because there's a change in your life, and you just commit
yourself to that change. And then you take the first step when
you're there, and that produces a response, and then you have another
response. If you like the way the response feels, you keep on opening
There is a dawning awareness that you feel good in this place.
Something here makes you attentive, brings you to an awakened state.
But you can't know that beforehand. You can fantasize about a place: "Oh
I'm going to photograph China." You go there and it's overwhelming,
and you don't know why you came, and you feel terribly separate
from the whole thing, and foreign. So you make a mistake by projecting
ahead. But if you just go to a place because that's the next step
in your life, and you're an open person, at least in your photographic
life, you begin to ask questions of it. So I think the reasons
for going to a place are as normal as those for doing anything
else. The way you respond when you're there is more specific. Bells
go off that are precisely your bells. You are aligned with
the inner coordinates of your being, and you suddenly feel in the
right place,. it may be the slant of the light, it may be even
the smell, something not visible; you may feel yourself rooted
to the spot where suddenly there's a smell of salt water mixed
with roses, and it's got your number. At that moment you know, "I'm
alive. Here, now." And what's there? Whatever you make of it. Sometimes
it's ephemeral and nonviable. Ordinary.
you know the Cape when you started photographing it?
it was totally new to me. I went because I was undergoing some
changes in my life in terms of questions I was asking about photography,
and there were certain things I had to give up, and I had to
be ruthless about it. In order to do that I had to work away
from New York City for a while. I knew that the time and work
that a view camera required did not allow me to work in a big
city in the same way that I had worked with a 35mm camera. So
I had to abandon that notion completely and take myself to a
place where life was simple, where life moved more slowly, where
there was a chance to use this tool and to see differently. I
had no idea what it was going to look like. I even kidded myself
thinking I would go to Provincetown and work on the street, because
it was busy, but smaller, I thought it was manageable. I hardly
made any pictures on the street. Everything else seemed to call
to me. And I believe these things are related in part to the
instrument we choose to work with. An 8 x 10 camera isn't for
horse races. You do what it tells you to do.
How did you happen to photograph St. Louis and Atlanta?
They were commissions. Someone asked me, "Can you open yourself
up to this place? Would you like to come here? Is this a place
you could work?" I felt the call to St. Louis before I had any
reason to work there. That size city, with that look and that light
gave me a visceral reaction. That came first. A chance sharing
of that reaction with someone in the photography community led
to a meeting with the director of the museum, who then was able
to offer me the chance to come there. He saw something in the work
that he responded to. He was from the Cape originally so he read
the Cape in my photographs, and then he saw St. Louis, where he
was, and made some connection.
There really are spatial relationships, and a similar feeling
in the photographs of both places.
Right. I remember my very first feeling in St. Louis. I went
with a friend to do some research, and downtown St. Louis is filled
with spaces. You could stand on one edge of the city, and I swear
that you could look right through the downtown sectionnot
as the street goes, but in between the buildings you could see
block after block of missing pieces. There was spaciousness. I
love cities. I love New York City for its energy and its density,
and here was a city that was pretending to be dense. It didn't
expose any energy to me right away, certainly not in terms of people,
but it had these sight lines through it and those plunging spatial
openings called to me, very much like the Cape does. The Cape often
speaks to me as a space between two buildings. I look out and there's
a whoosh, right out to the horizon line: two little cottages holding
the horizon line at bay. And I'm sure, by the way, that Hans Hofmann
worked off of this energy. He lived and taught in Provincetown,
and what you see between the buildings are these pulses of energyblue
spaces of red spaces, depending on the sky colorand I just
go whistling out those alleys into space. St. Louis did the same
thing to me. So maybe there is something in me that responds profoundly to
any opening there is into a deep space. And if there is some blockage
in front, in my languagesomething to prevent me from going
throughand then there's an opening, I feel my way through.
Maybe that's my temperament. Maybe that's the thing that sets those
What lead to your change from working in black-and-white 35mm
on city streets to using an 8 x 10-inch view camera and color?
I'd been working in both color and black and white for a long
time, but shifted to using only color on the street. At the beginning
of the 1970's I had been seeking a high quality of description
using Kodachrome 35mm, which was an extraordinary material in those
days. However, I couldn't get what I wanted on a printthey
had to be dye transfers and were too expensive. So there were a
number of issues, mechanical and technical that were interceding.
I tried working with a medium-format camera in 1970a 6 x
9 cm camera using color negative filmbecause just about that
time I began making prints in my darkroom. But that camera was
so slow that I began to lose the kind of image that I was making
on the street. I decided, "If I'm going to put this camera on a
tripod, I might as well put a big camera on a tripod, and get back
all the description." Consequently I got an 8 x 10 and began to
photograph. Working with 35mm calls up a specific energy and the
freedom of making a gesture with a camera. You hold a small camera
in your hand, something happens in front of you, and click, you
take a picture. A hand-held camera allows you to react in a split
second. With an 8 x 10 camera your approach to things is much more
meditative. The basic difference was one of mechanics at first.
What you can do with a small camera in your hand you can't do with
an 8 x 10 big box on a five-foot tripod. But for me there was the
need to bring one experience to bear on the other. I saw in the
35mm color a kind of quality of description that 35mm black and
white didn't have. Something about the way Kodachrome II described
things was so cohesive, grainless, smooth, creamy. The color itself
added this extra dimension of description. A red coat in yellow
sunlight and blue shadows didn't come out medium gray, it came
out exciting and stimulating. I thought, "I want to describe that
in my photographs too." And my argument from the early 1970's on
was that color was significant. It just needed to become tangible.
A slide on a screen in a dark room is intangible: it goes on for
thirty seconds or a minute, no one gets up to look at a picture
on the wall, and when it goes away you forget about it. But you
can hold a print in your hand. I wanted to bring the values of
the color slide into color prints. At the right moment all the
right elements were there. So I began to do it myself. By using
the view camera I gave up the instantaneous gestural response to
things that I produced with the 35mm. But what I tried to bring
to the 8 x 10 was the same sensation of immediacy. If I was struck
by something, I tried to have the 8 x 10 camera ready to make a
picture quickly. I felt I was bringing a street attitude to the
8 x 10.
Do you carry the 8 x 10 camera around with you?
I carry it with me as I would carry a 35mm camera. In the very
beginning, if I went for a drive or to the A&P, the camera was
in the back seat of the car; if I went for a walk down the street
to visit a neighbor, or if I went to the beach, the camera was
on my shoulder. No matter where I went, that camera was ever-present:
parties, walks, shopping. It came from the discipline of carrying
a 35mm at all timesin the early years you never saw me without
a camera. I didn't want to be in that position of saying, "Oh I
saw a great shot, if only I had my camera." At that time no photographer
was without a camera. We got that from Henri Cartier-Bresson's
being ready for "the decisive moment," and from Robert Frank's
traveling everywhere in America and making pictures of the Americans
that seemed to occur in the most unexpected moments. Since my discipline
was always to carry a camera, it didn't matter that when the size
changed it became big and awkward; I still wanted to have it at
all times. So I provided myself with the opportunity of making
large-scale, highly detailed photographs of unusual moments.
Were you aware of looking for another way to photograph, or
other subject matter, because of the view camera?
I didn't think of myself as becoming a landscape photographer.
I thought I was going off to photograph whatever came my way. My
understanding of a landscape owes a lot to Edward Weston. West
Coast photographers made landscapes. They made monuments out of
the monuments of nature, whether it was the grandeur of Yosemite
or lichen on a rock. That was the way to photograph landscape,
and I wasn't Eliot Porter looking at the reflections in a pool.
It wasn't on my mind at all; I had no reason to think that was
for me. The Cape didn't look like that. The Cape was fairly spare:
a couple of sand bars, some sand dunes, water and sky, and empty
old houses. I wasn't interested in turned-over boats. That isn't
a theme or motif that interests meit's old and dated and
part of painting. But you have to deal with what's in front of
you, so the harder I looked the more I began to see. In a sense
the camera taught me how to see.
I tried to bring something to it, which was energy and decisiveness
and immediacythings that a small camera taught me. The 8
x 10 taught me reverence, patience, and meditation. It added another
dimension to the scene, and the pictures are a product of two conditions,
awareness and time. I had to modify my early discipline. Every
artist's growing process involves giving up something to get something
else. You're giving up your prejudices and preconceptions, and
if you refuse to give those up then you don't grow. You stay where
How do you determine where you stand in relationship to what
You know when you're there. It's the dance. It's the conversation.
Very human terms are the motivation and the response. When you
go to a party and you talk to somebody, you stand at a social distance.
Or, if there's some opening from that person, and you feel connected
in some other way, you may get slightly closer and speak in a more
intimate way. Or if you dance with someone, you may dance close
or you may dance at a social distance. You feel it out. It's like
walking on ice. You really have to feel your way.
I'd say in the last ten years I've learned to photograph without
looking (that doesn't mean not seeing). I walk through my life,
wherever I am, the camera is on my shoulder, and I am just there.
And at some given moment I sense that I've walked into a zone of
energy that stops me. I suddenly lose my forward momentum. There's
no reason to go forward. It's not something I eyeball. It's not
a bunch of red flowers, or some thing that's kicking off
energy. It's a field of force that I enter, and I
cannot go forward. Sometimes when you walk on the streets of New
York, and you walk under construction scaffolding, you step in,
and at that place where the door leads into the site you smell
the smell of wet concrete, of acetylene torches, and of the dust
of construction. It's a very palpable, powerful smell. You step
under the scaffolding and there's nothing; you hit the door and
there's a smell of everything; and then you take one more step
and there's no smell. You've left the zone. A current of air has
been rushing across the path that you're on.
I don't mean to be mystical, but I feel there is a current of
energy in a field that I enter, and when I hit that space I say, "Whoa,
something is here. What is here?" The first thing that's there
is me. So now I find an opportunity to put the camera down and
see what it is that's defining me. And every time I do that I make
a picture that has some special meaning to me. When I look at them
afterwards, I know I was in the right place and the right
time. And I use that measure to allow it to come into being,
to stop myself from pushing through it. Because the easiest thing
is to be blind, and to keep right on rolling until you get to someplace
that's a familiar, observable reality. But this is not an observable
reality; it's a sensory reality. I trust that now, more than any
other form of approach.
Your approach to photographing landscapes is different from
Edward Weston's and Ansel Adams's.
When I photograph in a landscape I don't have the history and
stance of Adams and Weston and Porter, because I think they have
a more majestic view, a more idealized view. They went out into
nature in the Romantic tradition, which was to go into nature to
make your work, to use what's there. But they also felt they wanted
to control this and to poeticize this. They had a reason to make
photographs. They were intellectual about it. I'm visceral. I just
go, and if I see something I don't ask what it means. They came
at a time when the printed word was the strongest communicator
of thought. And by the time they reached this place in our century,
the visual image was the strongest communicator. Now the moving
visual image is stronger than the still moving image. They came
at a time when those conventions of nature, the description of
it, had a different meaning. If you look at my whole generation,
what's interesting is the way we look at landscape. Robert Adams
looks at landscape by seeing the damage that's been done, the abuse.
It's a celebration of what it looks like in spite of the fact that
man has left track marks.
There is inner space and there is outer space. The macrocosm of
the universe and the microcosm of the inner universe, and we are
just one thin plane somewhere in the middlenot the middle,
but one of the many middles. I think that when we travel someplace,
we're in the middle. We're not at home, we're not completely at
home in the place that we're in, but we're still ourselves. We
bring that along with us. If you feel balanced and confident enough
about your capacity to examine in this place, you'll examine yourself
thereyou'll ask, "How do I feel about being here?"without
making a judgment. I think it's important to slice this really
fine. To work in St. Louis or Atlanta is not to cast judgment"Oh
this isn't as good as New York, or Boston," or "It's ugly." Every
place has those qualities. It just is. And if you're there, and
you honor your experience, you might just see wonders in the least
likely places. And bit by bit you begin to know something about
your feelings in that place. Perhaps the place makes you feel good,
or perhaps it constantly drives you away.
For instance, in Atlanta I could not go downtown and work. Every
time I went down there I was driven away by the inhumanity of itthe
dehumanized scale. The buildings were too big and too close to
each other, the street were all in deep shadow, there were no pedestrians
on the street because everything had been designed with interior
passagewaysmalls, crossovers above the street. It's a hot
place in the summer, so there are a lot of air-conditioned underpasses.
People move like ants through the subterranean tunnels and buildings.
The street held little charm for me. On the street I felt isolated.
It felt dreary to me. Every time I went downtown and tried to work
I fled. At some point I realized I didn't want to go downtown;
it was not part of the map for me. So the map I created of Atlanta
doesn't have downtown on it. It didn't feel good down there. I
didn't work there. It comes back to that same thing: listening
to your feelings. That doesn't mean you shouldn't question them,
of course you should; sometimes you have to overturn some of your
resistance. But I think I honored the question frequently. I try
to do that.
In what ways have you changed your responses to the world
over the years?
I have been thinking about what a photographer's responsibility
ishis social responsibility, the responsibility to the craft,
to the telling of the message, to the print. Although I started
with what I thought was a moral imperative, that America was this
crazy place that needed to be described and I had a social responsibility
to tell it as it is-the Great American Novel in photographssomehow
over time, during my middle years, the aesthetics of photography
played a greater role, and I became less concerned with serving
And as I got a little older, it has become more important to me
again to be morally consciousnot to vacate that responsibility,
but to say, "These are my feelings about it. This is what America
looks like right now. These are things that are socially reprehensible.
These are things that might be overturned." If you don't point
them out, if you only glaze the surface, the beauty of light or
the beauty of the subject, you don't see what might need to be
corrected, or what can be changed, or what's really wrong. An artist's
responsibility is to not avert his gaze. Maybe you can't correct
it by pointing it out, but you can at least certify that you saw
it at that time, and that it was painful to you. I felt in Atlanta
a reawakening of moral responsibility. I felt it was important
for me to go to the malls, it was important for me to look hard
at construction, at building materials, and to see the way neighborhoods
were being put together, to see the anonymity of streets, the emptiness
of what really passes for everyday life. I wanted to find a way
of telling what I saw, or of keeping it alive in the photographs.
In some ways I think I had lost a connection to that responsibility.
I think it's important to take a turn. For a period of ten years,
in the middle, I was so engaged with the inner argument of photography: "Why
photograph? What does a photograph look like? What makes it photographic?" This
issues numb somehow. It's not that I was dulled to photography,
but to the world. Making photographs was all. I think I lost touch
with the outside world. I've come back out in the last four or
five years, with smaller works, and a deeper sense of real contact