DIGNITY: Chris Arnade

I met Chris online, back in 2011. He’s an ex-astrophysicist, ex-Wall Street trader and, when I got in touch with him (or did he get in touch with me?), a photographer.

I’d been photographing drug addicts, so had he. I’d been criticized for photographing drug addicts, so had he. We compared notes, commiserated and pretty much saw eye-to-eye.

Then, in 2013, business took me to NYC, where Chris lived. I contacted him, asked if he wanted to hang out. Sure, he said, wanna go to a crack house in The Bronx?

Let’s go, I replied.

Chris, Hunts Point, The Bronx, 2013

We kept in touch over the years, he visited me in Kapital City a few times. It felt like we were fellow travellers.

Then Chris, as is inevitable, got worn down, broken down by all the time, energy and emotion he had spent with addicts. (Oh, I know that feeling.)

But his curiosity remained intact. So he set off across America to further the education Hunts Point had provided him. He went to the edges (which are, ironically, in the centre), those places given lip service (and knee jerks) from the media and by just plain comfortable folks.

Three years and 150,000 miles later his head was full. He dropped out to make some sense of what he’d seen, what he’d felt, and what he’d learned. The result is his book, DIGNITY, which hit the shelves this week. It’s a book of words and pictures. Lots to sink your teeth into. Food for thought.

drool. calls it required reading if you want to understand a bit more (different) about what’s happening now in the USA. Or, really in any place or society that is in the grips of, is suffering from, late-capitalism (aka neo-liberalism).

But don’t take my word for it. The Economist, in a review, compares it to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Walker Evans and James Agee). High praise indeed.

Chris doesn’t think of himself as a photographer, although photography is definitely part of his working method. We had a conversation about that, and then got sidetracked. And the sidetrack, as is often the case, led us to the crux, or, more accurately, a crux . . .

Chris Arnade: For me the photography comes second to the story and learning. I think that shows in my images. I do care about taking good pictures but they are secondary, and became more so as this project evolved. 

If I have a framework it is to take portraits that the subject wants. Or trying to at least. Or giving dignity to the subject. Meaning I almost always let them choose how they are photographed, and allow them, should they want, to clean up before the shot. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some action pictures. But more often it is intentionally posed. 

It also means I do relatively simple stuff. I try not to make it too arty, because I think that just feels artificial. 

To the larger point. I care more about learning than getting the right shot.

T. F.: We’ve talked before about how poverty is mostly comprised of stasis and crushing boredom. Yet many photographers who render poverty seem to look for, or at least inject, all kinds of drama into their photos of that poverty. Tell me a little about your thinking on this.

C.A.: Thank you for asking this. One of the most difficult things to do as a photographer is to not “artify” or add too much drama to your pictures. To take simple photos that respect, not transform, what you find. For a long time I fought the realization that much of poverty takes place amidst the banal. Partly because of what I had seen before, via the more traditional and famous photos of poverty, which rendered it dramatic and the subjects broken. Sharply contrasting black & white, wooden homes, weathered faces, clichéd poses, whatever, you know what I mean. I thought maybe that was how it was supposed to be photographed.

But the reality I found was more like the interior of McDonald’s, or the decidedly bland architecture of low-income housing projects. It was cheap corporate – an attempt through bright colors to hide the shoddy or uncomfortable environment, or through countless grey tones, to not offend anyone. 

This is the world of so much of low income America. Bland & banal strip malls, repetitive architecture, loud & jarring advertising. The attempt to make that pretty, or dramatic, or whatever just isn’t right . . .

I’m curious if you disagree with this. Or . . . curious to hear your thoughts since you are so much more familiar with Photography and its history than I am.

T.F.: I think your take on this is mostly right but a bit too categorical. 

It is possible to manipulate, artify, images of, well, anything, poverty included, in a way that is true (whatever that means) to the subject. Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.

In the end it comes down to the intent and talent of the person making the images. I believe intent and talent can actually be seen in the results . . . if one cares to look.

And therein lies the problem . . . most people (as you know) don’t care to look, they just want their biases confirmed and, thus, to be entertained.

Take, for instance, Sebastiao Salgado, I really dislike his Wagnerian, melodramatic, biblical really, photographs, and Bruce Gilden, who I kind of like for the brutality of his approach. For me Salgado is just lies filtered through Romanticism, while Gilden’s work seems to be more reality-based.

So it’s complicated. I try to judge each body of work on its own merits.

C.A.:I agree there is no set rule. I also fully agree on Salgado, who I was partly thinking of when I wrote what I wrote. I am not sure about Gilden. I really dislike his work because I think he is mocking his subjects, and I hate how he surprises them at times — I think with bad intent.

I fully agree with this “Just as it is possible to take banal photos of poverty that don’t really approach the subject at all.”  

I guess my approach is more literal than most — which is why I am not really a photographer in my heart — I come into a place, look around, think about it, hang, and then try to figure out what is the essence of that place. What did I learn from this. What do I want others to learn? And how can I communicate that essence, or what I learn, the best via words & photos. 

Perhaps that would mean arsty-ing it up. Perhaps not. I don’t think Salgado or Gilden communicate the essence of a place or their subjects. Although by that measure, Gilden does indeed do a ‘Better” job.

T.F.: There’s more than one way, though, to show the essence of a place. For me Salgado’s images are way too melodramatic and idealized to be a “true” reflection of the recognizable world

And I don’t want to be an apologist for Gilden, because lord knows it’s so easy to see his images as just plain nasty. But for me there can be more to them than that.

But folks look for confirmation of their biases. You can easily find that in both those photographers’ work. Whereas with more neutral work (yours, for instance) that built-in bias is moved way to the back.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s there on the surface and not hidden behind trickery.

C.A.: I agree with all that, and fully agree that communicating that essence can come in many different ways. 

With regards to confirming ones bias, or having a bias. One thing you become very very aware of as a Wall Street trader is dangers of having a bias. Perhaps that is why I approach it why I do! 20 years of Wall Street made me determined to be aware of my bias!

T.F.: Okay, we sort of agree. I hope I haven’t bullied you into agreeing.

C.A.: I don’t think you bullied me. I asked your opinion because you know the photo world like a million times better than me. I intentionally operate without building that knowledge so I don’t end up copying a style.

T.F.: Fair enough. I’ve gotta go do the dishes, make dinner. And I’ll let you get back to your life.

C.A.: Cheers.

A NEW ENDING

Well I’m trying to not care about caring about the public face of photography. So I’m wondering why I might carry on here. It feels spent.

Where do I go from there?

Conclusions are good. Or, maybe, they can be good. After all, you arrive at a conclusion, don’t you? And when you arrive somewhere it’s a new beginning, isn’t it?

So I’m going to stop posting here every Sunday. Instead I’ll post when there’s something I feel needs this platform. Who knows?

I’ll be hyping new posts on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, so follow me there if you want to keep track.

Happy New Year.

LAUNCH and DELIVERY

Well, it’s finally going to see the light of day: After the Fact.

It began as a project about young women, shifted into a speculation on what the future might look like and finally settled into, I don’t know . . . maybe the news.

Now, on September 21st the book will be launched at Studio 66, in Ottawa. The launch will be accompanied by a mini-exhibition (14 prints) of images from the book.

I’m finally getting around to making exhibition prints of the files. I used an old digital camera for After the Fact, with the ISO pushed up to the very top. The images are full of noise, and torturing the ISO really changes the way the tones are rendered in the files. But that’s fine, I wanted these pictures to be kind of degraded. And I’m thrilled with the way the prints look.

I know it’s kind of stupid and weird to work on a project for almost 3 years without making test prints early on. But that’s the way I roll.

In the future I’ll have to make ’em a bit bigger, just to see. But I never imagined I’d make super-huge prints of these pictures. In fact, I had always envisaged After the Fact to be a book, anything else is gravy.

So if you’re around Ottawa next Friday I hope you’ll drop by Studio 66 to pick up the book and look at the prints.

Studio 66
After the Fact
Book launch: September 21st
6:00 to 9:00 p.m.
The exhibition continues until: September 28th
858 Bank Street
Suite 101

DELIVERY

This Friday I took delivery of 200 copies of After The Fact.

Now I’m wrapping them and inserting the 4×5 inch print that comes with every preorder so I, in turn, can deliver them to their new homes . . . from Chile to Norway.

Thanks to everyone who supported this project.

There are less than 50 copies available. Go here to pick one up.

BALLEN AT SPAO

I haven’t always been conflicted about the photographs of Roger Ballen.

Ten or so years ago, when  I ran across his book, Platteland, I thought it was great. The images there were mostly reality-based portraits shot in the South African countryside. You could see a direct line from Disfarmer, through Arbus and Avedon, to what Ballen was showing us, and how he was showing it.

Then time went on and Ballen’s work progressed. The imagery became more and more melodramatic, and overstatement and repetition became a kind of modus operandi. Along with this he developed some kind of overarching philosophy about what his work was about and how it might be interpreted (and doesn’t seem shy about telling you about it).  I began to have my doubts.

You see, my own biases are towards reality-based imagery. I try to like and appreciate constructed imagery, but often my heart’s not in it. I think, too, that I am (rightly or wrongly) kind of turned off when an artists’ pronouncements and legend-building move too far forward in their scheme of things.

Having said all that I also have to say that I’m intrigued by what he does and am still in thrall of that early work. So it was with great interest that I went to have a look at THERE IS NO OUTSIDE, a show of Roger Ballen prints at SPAO.

The show is modest . . . we see 9 Ballen prints. There is also a video monitor showing 2 documentary-type things and a music video.

It is impossible to assess the scope and progress of Ballen’s work with such a small sampling, though there is also a copy of Ballen’s latest book, Ballenesque, on view . . . a compendium his work along with enough writing for you to see where he’s coming from.

It is a pleasure to be able to approach and study the prints. I was struck by the grit, and the sheer old-school photographic-ness of them. Too, there is something to be said for being alone in a gallery with this imagery, being able to walk up to and away from it, to see the actual artifact.

Kudos to SPAO for bringing this exhibition to Kapital City. It is the first in SPAO’s new series of annual exhibitions that feature an international artist. I look forward to seeing where they go from here with this program.

Roger Ballen
SPAO
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drool. will be taking a summer vacation.

Regular programming will resume September 2nd.

Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be some kind os special, one-off episodes appearing between now and then. There might be. I don’t know.

Best way to make sure you don’t miss an episode? Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, where I’ll post about new drool. episodes (and other stuff too).

Enjoy the summer.