More with Peter Lucas…

Posted on March 22, 2012

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The following questions were part of an ongoing conversation with students at Eugene Lang College at The New School about the exhibition The City in Winter.  After meeting with students for a gallery talk, they submitted some additional questions to Peter Lucas:

Question: When did you being shooting in winter?  Is it something about the season that inspires you?

PL: This project began during the winter months of 2010 – 2011.  But I was thinking about this for many years.  My brother-in-law, Dick Schneider, first translated Francois Jacqmin’s poems in the mid-1990s.  He was living in Brussels for a while and became familiar with local Belgium poets.  By the time he began to publish his translations, Jacqmin had passed away but he left behind a few books of his beautiful strange poems originally written in French.

From the first moment I read Dick’s translations, I thought, maybe someday I’ll shoot the visual equivalents of these poems.  They immediately struck me as images even though they were these short Zen-like poems, but with a deft mix of reflexivity, existentialism, and a tangible sense of season.  Every winter for about 15 years I would reread these poems and think one of these days I’ll try shooting something…

Now even though I was mulling this project over for a many years, most of my photo and film work is based in Rio and being on an academic calendar, I usually try to get down to Brazil during the January break.  But in 2010, I decided to stay here between the semesters and knowing that I was going to spend the entire winter in New York, well, it prompted me to finally begin the project.  So I began shooting in November of 2010.  So back to your question, was there something about winter that inspired me?  I think in this case, it was the poems themselves that made me search out images.  I’ve been living in New York now for 25 years, and for 25 winters I can’t say anything inspired a specific photo project beyond Jacqmin’s poems:

Beautiful

without the disgrace of precaution, the snow

dazzled

with all its fragile experience.

Its lightness

was a foreboding which precedes

touch; you did not know

if its fur

brushed madness or the immaterial.

Watching it, the soul knew it was being watched. 

Question: I understand you set some guidelines on how you could capture a photo for The City in Winter collection.  Could you elaborate on the rules you made for the project?

PL: Usually with all of my projects I give myself certain limitations.  In this case, I decided not to photograph anything except my daily routine.  I live in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, and I teach at NYU and The New School in the Village.  So that’s my normal working circuit.  But like everyone, sometimes I have errands that take me out of my usual loop into other areas of the city.

Now my routine is pretty boring.  And there’s nothing overly picturesque about my going to the gym, the grocery store, back and forth to subway stops, walking between the universities where I teach, going to see a movie somewhere, etc.  Now if I happened to have a few spare hours, I wouldn’t let myself go out of my way to photograph anything.  Even if it was a lovely winter day and I was thinking; Central Park must be beautiful in this snowy weather.  I wouldn’t go there because Central Park is not on my usual route.  So the rules were, every photograph had to be taken along my normal everyday path.

So it was challenging to find poetic images in a fairly repetitive routine.  But I think photographing what’s inherently boring about a life in a strange way compliments the poems.  Jacqmin’s poems are about nothing.  Well, nothing and everything at the same time.  So my strategy was to photograph nothing in particular.  But the more I worked, the more attentive I became to these small poetic moments in the margins of the everyday.  So, The City in Winter portfolio is a very personal take on New York.  For example, this photograph below was taken simply leaving the doors of my gym one winter morning.

Question:  What camera did you use to capture the pictures?

PL: With my photo projects I use everything from toy cameras to medium format cameras and everything in between.  Some of my ongoing projects are being shot with film and they end up being very expensive projects over time.  With The City in Winter, I wanted to explore the possibility of shooting something that wouldn’t cost a lot of money.  But more importantly, I wanted to work very spontaneously with little forethought.  Walking down the street if I saw something interesting, I wanted to pull a camera out of my pocket and take a few shots with no hesitation in a matter of seconds.  Therefore, I decided to use a pocket digital camera, in the automatic point and shoot mode.  The actual camera was a Cannon S90.  It fits comfortably in my pocket, the startup time is very fast, and because it has a large sensor for its size, it delivers a great image.

I should add that the photos for the exhibition were printed at Advanced Media Studio at NYU using their large Epson Pro 4880 printers.  I printed the photos on a gorgeous paper, Hahnemuhle Photo Rag Pearl, which has a wonderful way of transforming any digital noise and painting it on the actual print.  The prints were then additionally treated at Erizan with a satin lamination and a vinyl backing.  The overall effect makes the exhibition prints look softer and a bit dreamy which is the finish I wanted.  Seeing the final exhibition prints, people are generally surprised to hear that the photos were taken with a small digital camera.  And although it was an experiment using a point and shoot, I couldn’t be happier with the exhibition.  I just wish I could get the photos online to look half a good as the prints do, but that’s always the case between paper and digital files.

Question: In making your final selections for the show, how did you decide to include the photos that you did?  What distinguished them from the others?  How many photos did you have to choose from?  And was it an instantaneous feeling or was there a lot of deliberation?

PL:  I really don’t know how many photos I shot over the winter.  Unlike this year, we actually had a cold snowy winter last year so there were more opportunities to shoot.  Still, days would go by without taking a photo and other days hundreds of photos were taken.  I would immediately do a rough edit and set that folder aside.  Later, I would edit down further and then when it came time to design the text, I would do the final edit.  It’s all pretty fast and intuitive.

Almost immediately, I began to block certain poems on photos just to start matching them up.  I composed each shot with negative space to accommodate the overwriting of text.  But I’m not a graphic designer and my early attempts to fuse text and image were pretty crude.  So I put the word out to find someone and one of my students introduced me to her brother-in-law, Garry Waller, a wonderful designer who specializes in motion graphics designing title sequences for film.

Aside from designing the poems on the images, Garry didn’t alter the photos.  There’s very little color correction in these pictures.  But here is where the final editing came in, and many decisions were based on how well a poem would fit into the picture.  I wanted Garry to have creative space as he needed and my input on text placement was minimal.  Although I remember his first designs startled me because he was emphasizing certain words and lines over others and I asked him to pull back and keep the text more or less uniform.  But then the picture/poems felt flat and we both thought they were better when the text had more variation, so I told Garry to be as bold as he wanted with the design.  There are 120 poems in Jacqmin’s book La Livre de la Neige, and we’ve only work-shopped about 50 of them so we’re still editing and designing.

Garry has also worked up some studies of the pictures in motion.  They’re like these short 60-second haikus.  The image appears out of nowhere and as it subtly moves a poem emerges and then disappears into nothing and the scene vanishes.  So we’re thinking in the long run that The City in Winter might also be an experimental film project of visual poetry.   At some point we’d like to start making soundscape recordings of the city during winter or maybe we’ll score the vignettes to a quiet brass drone, something wintery.  I’m talking to a composer friend about this possibility.

Question: You mentioned your effort to obscure faces from your photos because they contain too much information, what effect do you think this had on your work?

PL: Well, I’ve always been part of the school of thought that believes that the subject is more or less superfluous and the background is everything in film and photography.  I guess it’s more of a landscape mentality that privileges the scenic aspects of any composition.  With nearly all of my projects, what matters more is the light, the ambience, the color, and the weather.  Winter in New York for me was all the romantic clichés and I wanted to explore them and make them strange, frost on windows, slush on the sidewalks, streetlights as evening falls, bare tree branches, reflections from store windows.  That people were passing all the time, they merged into this wintery background.

Although my photographing on the street is improvisational, we never shoot in a vacuum.  Someone asked me if there were any influences for this work and there’s probably so many I don’t even know them all because they’re subconscious.  But there were a few photographers I was studying while I shot this project.  First, one has to acknowledge Saul Leiter and his extraordinary early color work.  His photos of the streets of New York in the 1950s, many shot in winter, are simply breathtaking.  And I was impressed that his use of color is so quiet too.  Leiter also made good use of glass elements in the city to reflect things and expand the frame.

The winter photographs Josef Sudek took in Prague also moved me.  During the Second World War, and afterwards with the Communist oppression in Czechoslovakia, Sudek could hardly work as a public photographer.  For years he was more or less confined to his studio but he did these incredible photographic studies of his windows under all kinds of weather conditions.  These photos, especially in the rain and the snow, are like dreams.  You can get lost in them.   Of course, I was also looking at the early New York street photography of Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen since they both shot in the winter.  To be sure, all of these photographers did other projects in fashion or portraiture but in the work that I was interested in, people were eclipsed by the vicissitudes of weather and the urban environment.

So there’s this long history of photographing winter streets.  But everyday life also takes us indoors and I wanted to photograph my favorite locals, the places I habitually go to for lunch, coffee, drinks.  And inside there’s people in close proximity.  So my strategy was to underexpose any subjects in exchange for the room tone.  It’s true that a face has so much information that a person can dominate a photograph.  So people are more or less oblique in these pictures and in the case that a face does appear, it’s downplayed to emphasize a sense of place.  For example, in this picture below taken at Café Reggio, I’m more interested in what’s happening outside the windows on McDougal Street.  The two men facing and looking at each other compliment the poem we used but it’s that feeling of light outside the café that evokes winter in the city.

Question: Out of all the photos in the show is there one that stands out as your favorite?  If so why? 

PL:  I have a few that I really like more than the others, and one, interesting enough given the last question, has a person in the middle of the frame and her face is almost the subject.  It’s a very dark picture taken inside one of my favorite taverns, Fanelli’s Café on the corner of Prince and Mercer in Soho.  It was a cold winter night, there’s holiday lights strung up, and there’s this woman who looked like Joan of Arc from Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic.  I couldn’t resist shooting her; she was talking to someone with such an expression of wonderment.  But again, as I mentioned above, I darkened her presence to pick up the mood of the room.  It’s a great poem too, and I like Garry’s choice of text color and his decision to use all caps.   The color of the poem here just enhances the whole scene for me; it picks up other hues and it makes the image somehow even more melancholy.

I also like the photograph we’ve been using as our signature image for the project.  This was one of the first pictures I took last winter and when I went to edit this batch I knew at that moment, we had ourselves a project.  I had to run an errand to Du-All Camera in Chelsea and I’m not sure where exactly this picture was taken, somewhere around the corner of 27th Street and Seventh Avenue.  It was one of the first cold days of winter with a touch of snow in the air.  I turned a corner and paused to photograph the reflection off a diner window.   Suddenly, someone on the inside was wiping off the condensation and knocking on the glass.  I went back around and walked in to apologize.   As soon as I opened the door, I knew it was one of those small lunch places that cater to Pakistani taxi drivers and they were all yelling at me at the same time.  It took me a few seconds to understand what they were all saying: “Shoot from inside!  It’s much better from here!”

And they were right.  The scene through the fogged windows was magical and it was hard to edit a single picture because everything I took from that place was interesting.  In the end I chose this picture because of the two washes of yellow, the taxi and this patch of yellow in the upper left corner, which brings out the strangeness of the image.  When you’re working with glass, all these bizarre things happen that you can’t explain.  You also have this wonderful movement of someone walking on the left and there’s someone standing in front of the taxi to anchor the image.  And I love how Garry frosted the poem in this picture as if it were etched in the glass.

Question: What makes the New York winter experience unique, and how do your photographs capture that? 

PL: I think one of the unintended consequences of 9/11 was that people living in New York fell back in love with the city.  I imagine like a lot of people, I took a good look around and thought; you know this is a special place.  It had been a long time since I photographed anything in the city and I guess I wanted to engage New York again aesthetically.  And although I only photographed my everyday routine, I’m hoping that Jaqmin’s poems open up the images for multiple interpretations.  As I mentioned above, I wanted to photograph nothing, except a sense of winter in an urban setting.  So I hope the images are open enough for other poetic evocations to emerge.

One of the things I found surprising was how we live in this city of glass and we walk down the streets and on either side there are multiple reflections and parallel worlds.  Our eyes are so sophisticated that we take in all these images and process them like its normal.  But if you stop and photograph a store window on a winter day there’s the interior of the storefront, there’s a reflexive image of the photographer, there’s the mirroring of the world across the street, and even more reflections that we can’t explain.  Take these two pictures below; they’re both reflections from a window on the side of Washington Square Park.  It’s the same window.  But obviously, they’re two different pictures because they were taken on different days, in different weather conditions, and my shooting angle was slightly different.

I was probably one of the few New Yorkers totally in sync in winter last year.  It was a long hard winter season and I loved being out on the streets no matter how cold.  The project has totally changed my relationship with winter and the city.  I was so sad when winter finally ended.  Of course, winter is also a state of mind.  It’s like that great ballad Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.  Listen to Betty Carter sing it on her 1979 live album in San Francisco.  It’s about all of those people who have faded into the grayness of winter and they’re not ready for springtime.  They don’t want to change clothes and go out and greet the world.  Winter offered them a kind of refuge and in a strange way, the season protected their existential struggle with everyday life.  These photographs helped me with my daily struggle.  And maybe that’s also why Francois Jacqmin wrote his book of poems about winter.

March, 2012

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