Blake Andrews is an American photographer based in Eugene, OR. I am grateful to him for answering few questions.
– What is your initial photography background ? Did you had formal training ? What were your earliest interest in photography ? Any seminal figure that has very counted for you at the early stage of your development ? Did you encounter some decisive discovery or was it a more smooth development from the start onward to your most recent work ?
As a kid I was into art but I never saw the point of photography. I thought, why replicate reality? It wasn’t until late adolescence that I became more curious. I had a college friend who was into photography and I was into her, so that was a catalyst. She toured me around the college darkroom but at that point photo classes were generally booked and hard to get into. It wasn’t until after graduation that I finally took an intro b/w class at the local art school. That was in 1993 in Portland, and that was the extent of my formal training. From there I taught myself by looking at a lot of monographs, talking to other photographers, and most importantly shooting a lot.
I’d say the most seminal figure for me, both early on and even to this day, is Lee Friedlander. He showed me that the world can be seen as a visual playground, and that a photo can be just about visual pleasure with no other burden. Studying his work I learned a lot about layering, composition, visual wabi sabi, and how to put a picture together. He’s the one who made me pay attention to chain-link fences.
I’ve also been influenced by the Portland photo community, George Kelly and Chris Rauschenberg in particular. Portland has a very strong photo scene. I’m not sure I would’ve become a photographer if I hadn’t settled there. To an extent you are who you are, but you’re also where and when you are.
– How much do you shoot a week ? What is (roughly) your success-to-exposure ratio ?
I’ve definitely slowed down a little since moving to the country. During peak summer season now I might shoot 15 rolls per week. In winter, maybe half that. I make a lot of work prints –upwards of perhaps 6 or 8 per roll but usually less– but generally most images don’t get beyond that point. The number that make it as finished final prints is very small, maybe one in 1000 or something. But some of that is because I’m lazy, and because the only time I ever make finished prints is when I have a show which is increasingly rare.
– You are part of the In-Public collective, rather active on the web and I believe rather well known in the street-photography web community. On the other hand looking at your portfolio and reading your blog I feel you are more loosely attached to “street-photography” than most your colleagues from In-Public (note: it is a merely personal feeling). Do you consider yourself as a “street-shooter” or instead more inclined to the more open concept of “straight-photography” ?
I didn’t really self-identify as a “street photographer” until joining In-Public, and even now the label seems like an awkward fit. I don’t really shoot classic street scenes. I don’t live in a large city surrounded by crowds, and I don’t focus on the expressions or behaviors of anonymous strangers the way some classic street shooters do. I’m just as happy to shoot a puddle or a tree branch. I’m attracted to pattern, dark and light, posture, simple visions with a twist. I love absurdities. But I’m not making any grand statement about urban life as I think many street photographers feel they are.
– Do you think like – say – Nick Turpin that there is a tradition of street-photography on its own right, as opposed to a more global tradition of straight-photography, which I believe is not exactly the same and would avoid the endless debate and probably useless and futile questions about what street-photography is and is not ?
Yes, street photography has a definite tradition and history. I would define it as making unplanned photos in an unpredictable environment. That’s not exactly the same as straight photography, which basically includes any photograph attempting to depict the world in a direct and real way.
– Do you think there could be a risk of “ghettoization” (for lack of better word) of street photography, with a hard-core fan base on one side and a global indifference otherwise (I would even say animosity instead of indifference, which is reinforced by the issue about privacy intrusion) ?
I think most people who really care about street photography are practicing street photographers. You can call that ghettoization or some other term, but either way it winds up being a hard-core fan base just because it’s such as obscure discipline and most people don’t get it. So there’s a natural division between those who do and those who don’t. I’m sure the same is true for jazz, poetry, quilting, or any other difficult practice. Is poetry ghettoized? Maybe, in some ways. I know I’m relatively indifferent to it though I have no animosity.
– Still specifically on street-photography I believe that one can see as an effort to renew the genre could be simply the effect of a cultural slant, depending on where you are based and where you come from. In other words ‘street’ is not photographed the same way depending on whether your are English, German, American etc… (which of course makes sense). Currently the focus seems to be on British street-photography (unless it is a biased impression from what is visible on the web) whereas for example the rich French ‘tradition’ seems now completely lost. Any thoughts ?
I’m sure there are currents in street photography which vary by continent, just as with other societal trends. I think the British street photo community is quite organized, vocal, and frankly, strong. So that’s why it is so visible. Look at Street Photography Now. It’s produced in Britain and features a large number of British photographers. Or In-Public or Publication. Same thing. Even HCSP has a large number of Brits. The exact roots of that phenomenon are hard to pin down, and would actually make a fascinating study. Maybe you could trace it to Parr and Graham, or the famed British reserve? Who knows?
I think Japanese street photography also has a very distinctive tradition and feel, but it’s much less visible in certain quarters. American street photography is sort of like America in general. It’s so heterogeneous and multi-faceted that it’s impossible to make many sweeping statements. One thing American photography has going for it is that, at least currently, this country has probably the least restrictive photography laws in the world. It makes for an interesting comparison with France.
– The ‘Portland/Eugene Grid’ projects you are involved in and your ‘Family Album’ serie make me believe you are rather preoccupied in documenting your immediate environment. Does that actually reflect a genuine and conscious concern or is it somewhat accidental and a mere pretext for your work ?
It’s mostly the result of how I’m wired. I carry a camera everywhere and I have a constant need to make photos. The only time that feeling goes away is if I’ve shot a lot and I’m tired. Otherwise I’m “on” and looking. Since most of my daily activities revolve around my hometown and family, that’s where most of my photos are made. When I travel somewhere else, they get made there.
This daily practice dovetails with one of my fundamental beliefs, and probably the mantra of most street photographers, which is that important visual moments can be found in the everyday environment. You don’t need to go anywhere exotic. You don’t even need to be in a city to make “street” photos. You just need to pay attention.
– I understand from some of your saying that having no preconception is an important part of your routine when going out for shooting – which I believe is a commonly shared credo among street-photographers. However do you figure out there are some recurring themes/motifs/ideas in your work – either tangible or not ? if so do you assess that in some way ? Does it have impact on your “awareness” when out for shooting ?
I tend to find myself looking for the same subjects over and over. For example I am always looking to match people up with their environment in some way, and I read every handwritten sign I encounter, and I can’t pass a truck rack or trash pile without examining it closely, just to name a few. To an extent I try to avoid this stuff because I know I’ve shot it before but it’s also just how I’m wired. I can’t avoid seeing it because I’m programmed to look for some things and not others. What I’ve been focusing on lately is making subject matter disappear. It’s fairly easy for me to respond to things I encounter. What’s harder is photographing these things in such a way that they don’t dominate the photo.
– You are a film supporter. Beyond the common “Film vs. Digital” debate is there something that film has over digital that is important for your own work ?
At this point it’s probably habit more than anything else. I’ve been shooting film for years. I like it. I’m used to it. I find everything about it satisfying. Light pours into a little dark box. Then you reverse the process by going into a darkroom and pouring light back out. A lot of people interrupt that process with a computer but why make it more complicated than it needs to be?
The only reason to switch to digital capture would be convenience, since film can definitely be a hassle at times. But convenience doesn’t seem like a very good determining factor to make any decision of importance. Convenience is responsible for Big Macs and disposable water bottles and suburbs.
There’s also the tradition of film. As I write this I’m surrounded by shelves of binders of all the film I’ve shot. It feels like an ongoing life project. So to switch horses midstream could disrupt that process.
– Most of your work is in b+w. Are you interested in color ? Does color involve specific problematics that challenge you ?
I tend to see things formally. Black and white enforces that vision.
Sometimes I shoot in color but it’s a different animal. For me, color photography is about what’s in front of the camera. If you want to represent reality to the best of your ability, you choose color because obviously the world exists in color. But that’s also the problem with color. It doesn’t provide enough separation from reality, unless you’re some genius like Eggleston. This goes back to why I was never interested in photography as a child. I thought, Why replicate reality? Because as a child I thought a photograph was a mere recording of a scene, a way to remember a birthday party or wedding later. And of course it can be those things. But what I didn’t realize then was that it can also be a lot more than that. And for me, the use of b/w helps it become more. It’s an instant abstraction.
– I tried to find a book featuring your photographs but could not. Maybe I am just bad at search engine…. but if there is really no book with Blake Andrews’ photography out there can you tell why (*) ? A subsequent (and maybe more central) question is : What is your level of eagerness for having your work exhibited (in whatever format) as opposed to just shoot for yourself, and how could it affect your work ?
The only book I’ve been in is In-Public’s 10. As for getting a solo book published and distributed, that’s a very difficult task. There are all sorts of impediments and a very limited market at the end of the process. So that’s not really on the horizon at this point.
There is of course self publishing. I’m considering producing an on-demand book this winter. I’d like to put together a book of my Diana photos from the past few years. I think that would make a nice series, and there’s no need to worry about the market since it would be printed on-demand. At this point the Diana project would be a lot easier to organize and edit than my small format street work. My street work is sort of like the Monster that ate Manhattan. It’s so huge and unwieldy I don’t even know where to start. So at this point the Diana work looks more inviting.
But honestly, I don’t know if any of this will happen. The book idea is one I’ve had for years. I think about it every winter but I’ve never gotten very far on it. My main interest is making new photos, usually at the expense of dealing with what I’ve shot already.
– Note (*) I noticed you are (unfortunately) not included in the recently published ‘Street Photography Now’ book unlike many of your peers from In-Public ? Is there a specific reason for this (otherwise than involving potential personal matter) ?
It would’ve been great to be included but the stars didn’t align.
– Any on-going project of your own on the photography front ?
I saw a recent show of Polaroids by Gus Van Sant and Andy Warhol that made me really curious to get into that. It’s really the perfect format in many ways. They’re one-of-a-kind, small tangible objects with their own particular palette. It’s the exact opposite direction from where most of photography is headed, which is computerized, mass-produced, printed huge and perfect. Add the fact that Polaroid is dead and that direction becomes even more appealing.
After my two grid projects wind down in a few years and I have a little more time, I’d like to start a photo gallery. I’ve got the first 3 years of shows already planned. There is so much great photography out there that isn’t being seen.
– Any project(s), book(s), photographer(s) or whatever related to photography that you were recently particularly enthusiast for ?
I don’t know what photo hounds did before the internet. It’s a huge visual playground, and it’s really opened up and connected worlds upon worlds. With the explosion of internet photography the interesting challenge now is to curate in new ways. The recent HCSP thread curating David Hurn was a good innovative example. Cloud-source curation. Fraenkel Gallery’s recent Furthermore book was another example. It’s a traditional book but I think the editing was heavily influenced by internet thinking. La Pura Vida is another good example of using collective thinking power to curate. I don’t want to say that old Szarkowski model of an “expert” sifting and making choices is dead. There’s probably still a place for that. Flak Photo or Lenscratch, e.g. work on that model. But more and more I see that as just one person’s opinion, and the photo world is so fractured now that hundreds of opinions are clamoring for attention. Who knows which to listen to? For me, I trust my own judgment more than anyone else.
Speaking of individuals. off the top of my head I like everything I’ve seen online by Mike Sinclair. Same with Mike Peters and Mikael Kennedy. They’re very good. But It’s hard for me to get a sense of a photo’s power in a little jpg. Most of my favorite discoveries come the old fashioned way, through books or shows. Bookwise recently I’ve enjoyed Barbara Crane’s Private Views, Joachim Schmidt’s Ohio, Otto Snoek’s Rotterdam, Gus Van Sant’s One Step Big Shot, the Starburst compilation, Amy Blakemore, the list goes on. I thought the In-Public book turned out very well… I saw a book of Enrique Metinides in London which looked amazing. There are some people you can just trust that any book they make will be worthwhile: Larry Sultan, Mike Slack, Carl de Keyzer, Stephen Gill, Mark Steinmetz, Thomas Roma. These people are very careful about which photos they let out into the world, and it shows. They build a brand –their name– and after a while you learn to trust it. Any photo that comes along with that brand you tend to consider carefully.
There’ve been some good photo shows in Portland recently that’ve turned me on to new people. Stella Johnson, Wayne Miller, Mark Menjivar, John Bauguess, Justin Kimball, the current Gerry Badger show, etc. I get a charge every time I see good work that I wasn’t familiar with before, regardless of media. I just saw a link this morning to some Holga stuff by Andy Spyra that was great. I’d love to see more innovative toy camera stuff like that since a lot of toy camera stuff is rather blah. I can never get enough good photos… The only time I’ve seen enough is if I’ve spent hours looking and I’m tired. Otherwise I’m “on”.