I don’t know what impresses me more: John Rosenthal’s thoughtful insights about photography, or his own stunningly original work.
Rosenthal’s photographs have been exhibited throughout the Southeast and have appeared frequently in The Sun. (See the cover and inside back cover of this issue.) He also writes on photography and other subjects, and does a weekly radio commentary for WUNC-FM, the public radio station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he lives.
This interview originally appeared in Coraddi, A magazine of the arts published at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. We’re thankful for permission to reprint it.
The accompanying photograph of Rosenthal was taken by his son, John Keats.
Read: You are a writer and a photographer. Do you feel that there are correlations between the two mediums? For instance, do your photographs ever inspire you as a writer?
Rosenthal: No, but the problems that are presented to me by the act of taking a photograph are problems that most writers have to deal with. For instance, the problem of privacy. That is, what right do you have as a photographer to take a picture of any human subject? And if you claim the right, then to what purpose? That’s an important issue, since it’s hard not to see that a photograph is an act of aggression, no matter who is taking it. You’re stopping people from the flow of their lives, you’re cropping them from the space in which they live and have their being, you’re juxtaposing them with something that they didn’t know they were next to. You’re objectifying them according to your terms, not theirs — for who would choose to be objectified? It’s very complicated, but the fact is most photographs reduce us. You can see, for instance, how easily people in photographs are turned into symbols. If you’re going to take a picture of someone, then you’re taking a picture of him or her for a reason. And that reason usually has to do with the desire to make people represent something other than themselves. It’s very easy to photograph a man and then say later, “This man represents the homeless.”
Read: How do you deal with that? Do you feel comfortable in the role of aggressor?
Rosenthal: I don’t feel comfortable photographing people anymore, unless I feel that I’m enlarging available meaning.
Read: So what are you left with, documentary photographs?
Rosenthal: No, because documentary photographs also invade privacy, only they do it in the name of “the document” or of “preservation.” I used to go to New York to photograph a lot. And I would ask myself, “Why am I photographing New York? Am I documenting New York? To what purpose?” Did it ever strike you that the act of making a document these days is the same thing as saying goodbye to something? Documentary photographs are generally about that which is vanishing. We photograph cultures that are becoming marginal — picturesque images of American Indians. We photograph cities that are disappearing in a new way: we are photographing cities with an eye toward their new, almost lunar ugliness; for quite simply, to photograph a city with an eye toward its beauty is to make postcards. Technology is wreaking unbelievable visual catastrophe everywhere. If you go to the city to take documentary photographs, then that is the kind of issue that you have to address. Documentary photographers must always ask themselves, “What is it that constitutes my subject? How can I present the subject in a truthful way?” When you photograph a city, whose city is being photographed? The lawyer’s city, which is full of safe streets? Or the city of the homeless person? The fact is, most photographers end up with photographs of people who look very different from themselves. This is what Susan Sontag called “class tourism.” The camera loves to tour in other classes, classes that are different from that of the photographer.
Read: So what is really happening is that photographers are merely photographing their own preconceptions of the city. They choose subjects that illustrate their own vision.
Rosenthal: Most photographs are about the inside of the photographer’s mind. We can’t escape from our own imperatives of taste. The trouble arises when we believe photographs are objective pieces of information. Once I had a show of New York photographs in Washington, and a woman came up to me and said, “Boy, you really captured New York.” I realized suddenly that what I had captured was a New York that had congratulated her sense of reality, of the city. With these photographs, I had created a mellifluous, tender, poignant New York — a New York that we all want to believe in. But what kind of serious person would go to a city like New York and be content to make it look like a nineteenth-century village? That’s not a real accomplishment. This is why I can’t take my New York photographs seriously, although I do love them.
Read: “The city” is a huge concept. Is this why you take portraits of your son? Because you’re trying to capture something that’s closer to home, that’s more comprehensible to you?
Rosenthal: Well, first of all I felt I had more right to make mistakes about him. After all, I’ve earned the privilege to make mistakes about him. I gave him birth, I pay for his room and board. Somehow we’re allowed to make mistakes about people we love, while we’re not with strangers. I felt that my son was a legitimate subject. For one thing, I have closely observed him. I know who he is, since he’s partially me. How could he help but be? But interestingly enough, I chose to photograph those elements in him that aren’t exactly knowable. This is hard. Maybe I mean that I wanted the photographs of my son to suggest the ways he couldn’t be known. I tried to photograph him sometimes as if I were photographing myself — and who doesn’t appreciate one’s own complexity? I felt a lot safer doing that. I didn’t choose to photograph him in a series of tableaus that represented childhood, such as a child playing in delight or licking an ice cream cone. Isn’t it funny how when most photographers photograph children, they usually try to portray them as happy? People love pictures of happy children, for they reinforce an ideal of children in general. It’s a fairly fraudulent view of childhood.
So what is childhood, and what is your own child? Photographically, I decided that my child was, among other things, a kind of vegetable and mineral substance: a beautiful, flowering, growing, and changing flesh — a person. I wanted to photograph respectfully that substance — without imposing any glib psychological understanding. The photographs of him are more like clues than artifacts.
Read: Does the significance of these clues reveal itself to you when you view the final image, or are you aware of it before you even take the picture?
Rosenthal: No. I learn from the final photograph. When you are raising a child you are in a relation with him which is dynamic and moving — ever changing. A photograph enables you to stop what is happening and look closely. Life is dynamic and a photograph stops the dynamic. You can’t really predict what a dynamic will look like when it’s stopped.
Read: When you photograph your son, do you ever think about a preconceived notion of him in your mind and set out to illustrate that?
Rosenthal: I do now, since he’s sixteen years old and more obviously part of a society than of the mineral world. The terms on which he’s dealing are familiar to me, whereas a six-year-old doesn’t have those same terms, and is therefore more mysterious. Now I photograph my son in relation to the society he’s a part of — a person with expectations and masks. “What is a person?” is a good question to ask of someone who has become a person — but not a great question to ask a six-year-old. So I’m now taking different photographs of my son. When he was younger and I photographed him, I would try to invent a new category. I would stand in front of him and separate him from an environment which he would flow in and out of, and I would look through the camera until something happened that I liked, and then I would take the picture. Then maybe later on I would try to figure out what I liked. What I was after was a portrayal of my great respect for the luminosity of his young being. But as time goes by, what is luminous about a child grows a little bit dimmer. Being an adult is an intellectual experience, even when you don’t want to admit it. That’s when you get into the postmodernist game of being and meaning and masks. Now I photograph him in masks almost exclusively, since what grownup doesn’t wear masks? To some extent we are the masks we wear. In a sense this is a way of saying we can’t be known. I like saying that. I believe it’s true.
Read: How does he feel about the photographs? Do they ever make him feel uncomfortable?
Rosenthal: Well, because of that consideration, I rarely photograph him anymore. I haven’t photographed him in a year out of respect for his feelings, his adolescent self-consciousness.
Read: This discussion reminds me of Sally Mann’s photographs of her children. I think she tries to capture the cruel and brutal side of childhood. Her work is very powerful, though questionable. She has a photograph of her son, whose face is bleeding. I have to wonder about her seeing her son injured and immediately grabbing her camera rather than attending to him. Is she doing the right thing by portraying her children this way?
Rosenthal: Some photographers don’t care to think about the problems behind their work. They believe that there is a God-given right to take photographs in the name of art. But art has to live in the world where other things exist, such as compassion and the rights of others. If you are interested in those problems, then taking a photograph means something very serious. But when you get interested in the politics of photography itself, it slows you down. Think about war photography. War photographs end up selling magazines — ultimately somebody is making lots of money. Do photographers think about that when they capture their earnest war images?
What does a photograph mean? Does it reveal truths about the world or does it help to continue a system? It is a serious problem. Meanings are so interconnected these days. I don’t want to take a photograph that is so good it will make a person pause long enough to read the advertisement next to it. There are difficult problems attached to magazine photography. It is all difficult. The older I get, the harder it is to take photographs.
Read: Nonetheless, you have obviously retained a deep joy in your art.
Rosenthal: That’s true. Taking photographs is one of the joys of my life. I love walking through the world photographing it. I don’t have to have an office. My job is to walk around with a camera. And I must admit, I really feel elevated and at my best when I know that a great photograph is about to happen.
Photography remains a wonderful mystery: no matter how prepared you are for a photograph, you are never quite prepared for what’s in it. It’s the translation of a three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image, and you can never be sure about how it will translate. Some exciting events don’t translate — or they may have been done so many times that they don’t warrant another translation. Although you may think you know your own motives, sometimes you find that you’ve taken a picture out of emulation for some hero of yours. That’s fine, but that usually means that your photograph will not be as effective as it could be. Naturally, photographers inspire each other. After all, a major reason that people might take photographs in the first place is because they love the work of other photographers. But we have to use that love up a little so that we can discover our own voice. Frequently, when a photograph doesn’t work, it’s because it’s a celebration of a hero through whose work we haven’t evolved.
Read: But the emulation is useful to build on?
Rosenthal: I think it is the only thing to build on. William Blake said that admiration is the first principle of knowledge. I don’t know that we do anything good except out of admiration. It’s very easy to be mediocre nowadays, uninspired. You can make a lot of money not being excellent. So why strive for it? Only because you admire someone who did.
Read: When did you start taking photographs?
Rosenthal: I was over thirty. A friend and teacher introduced me to the camera.
It’s hard not to see that a photograph is an act of aggression. . . . You’re stopping people from the flow of their lives, you’re cropping them from the space in which they live and have their being, you’re juxtaposing them to something that they didn’t know they were next to.
Read: Did you decide at some point that what you really wanted to be doing was devoting a lot of time to photography?
Rosenthal: Yes, because it was probably the only activity that didn’t bore me. I wanted to be a writer, but that didn’t come naturally. I had too many heroes. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about photography and I felt my own creativity pour through. I was not restricted by formal structures, because I wasn’t aware that they existed.
Being ignorant of photographs, I was saved from knowing what was trendy. This was helpful in the beginning. But it also meant that in my enthusiasm I would photograph what others had long ago discovered about the modern world. I was very creative, but like most beginners I wasn’t very interesting, except to myself.
Read: As a photographer myself, I sometimes feel that I was a much truer and better photographer when I was just becoming interested in it. I have entertained so many ideas and concepts about what it should be that I feel more muddled now.
Rosenthal: There is no way, unfortunately, that we can be good photographers without having some formal knowledge. When we’re young we want to photograph our authenticity, but authenticity itself is just a bore unless you can find a form proper to it.
For instance, how many student writers end their stories with a suicide? They want to express the despair and confusion that is specific to their age and experience, and yet not knowing much about writing they frequently resort to this solution of suicide. As you get older, you discover there are many ways to end a story. The advantage of knowing something is that you can take an enormous feeling of self and make it interesting. That’s the point, after all. If you just want to express yourself, go ahead, but you might not be interesting.
You do have to be somewhat attuned to the trends in art, though, because there is some kind of consensus out there about what is happening in our society. And in order to have conversation or dialogue with other people, you have to acknowledge these trends. You can’t pretend that history stops with you. For instance, Norman Rockwell didn’t pay attention to things going on in the art world — such as abstraction. He wanted history to stop. But those kids he painted perched on their father’s barber stool might have become alcoholics later on, trying to deal with the confusion of being alive in America. Americans have broken traumatically with their past, and that needs to be acknowledged. Art at its best isn’t nostalgia, it’s a way to experience the buoyancy of that ambiguous new freedom. Art is truthful, and any artist who would suggest that America in 1980 is like America in 1910 doesn’t really know what was going on in 1910.
Read: In addition to being a photographer and a writer, you also are a commentator on public radio. What sorts of issues do you deal with in your commentaries?
Rosenthal: My radio commentary deals with photography a great deal. Right now, for instance, I’m writing a commentary about why I sympathize with people who don’t want their photographs taken. It struck me the other day that those people don’t want to be disconnected from the context they’ve created. Most of us require a thousand things to make our point. We require our energy, our laughter, our charm, our eyes, our hands, the way we nod our head, our capacity to hear someone. The list is endless. But a photograph merely captures our physical characteristics. Well, for people with certain physical characteristics that might be great, but not for the rest of us. We feel cheated. We’ve done a lot to create our own context in the world. A photograph deprives us of that context, and most of us don’t want to be deprived. It’s in the nature of modern experience to deprive people of their context. Photography often is just another example of that tendency.
Read: So where does that leave the photographer?
Rosenthal: Figuring a way to possibly re-photograph the damage that’s been done. Consider this. On the cover of People magazine recently was a picture of Robin Givens and Mike Tyson. The photographer had set up the shot. Givens was sitting with her cheeks in her hands, a self-conscious pose, and around her temples Tyson’s hands were gripped. One could assume the article was going to be about the tragedy of this marriage, the breakup, and so on. The photographer was obviously trying to do a couple of things. She was trying to suggest that in the hands of this man, Givens’s skull could be crushed like an eggshell, which was symbolic information about their marriage and about his tendency to be violent. The pose was also a comment about her vanity in the face of all this danger and her position in this world of show business and marital theatricality. They were photographed in the midst of their problems. The photograph was nothing but a symbolic portrayal of what the public understands as the beauty and the beast. But how can we accept that information as being enough? This is cheap, specious information; and this is the kind of information that photographs convey. Anyone who has heard Tyson speak knows he’s a very complicated person. But this photograph conveyed only low-grade information. It served to keep the public stupid. It kept the public on the surface of his dilemma. If he wasn’t such an innocent fellow, he wouldn’t have been used like that.
You see, photographs attach us to the way things look, to appearances, but that is a very modest claim to understanding. Words are needed to explain how things function or work. Photographers need to learn how to accept the modesty of what can or even should be done with an image. They need to be modest, otherwise they’re going to make too many specious claims on experience.
For instance, what do you know when you see a photograph of war? What is conveyed? The horror of war? The romance? Why pretend that your images aren’t designed to sell newspapers, or to wake up the stale bourgeoisie? But that is your function, to excite people who otherwise might buy a different paper!
Read: You’ve spoken of photographs as a means to sell papers. What about as a means to sell opinions?
Rosenthal: Photographs are always propaganda of some sort. I think they function powerfully as straight-out propaganda, like when they excite a nation to go to war. A photograph of an enemy is really quite effective. Photographs also confer dignity when there is none, which is also propaganda. For example, George Bush would probably never have been elected president if someone had not discovered a way to photograph him to make him look presidential. When you try to make someone look a certain way which they really aren’t, then that’s propaganda. You’re creating a false piece of information to get something done in the world. Any photograph that made Bush look like a normal citizen was irrelevant, because the electorate, which has been so degraded by television, didn’t want just a normal man to vote for. They wanted somebody with stature and far-sightedness. But Bush and Dukakis, who are just barely interesting people, could be given these qualities in only one way: in a photograph.