Interview with Photographer Andrew Moore (Uncut)
Andrew Moore’s large-format photographs are dense documentaries that depict the collision of past, present, and future. When seen from the bird’s eye, larger themes emerge: his past subjects include Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam, each of which explore the consequences of communism and socialism. More recently, his book on Detroit as America’s scarred monument to capitalism has received both a broad audience and a polemical reception. I saw in his work a shared obsession with the “metaphorical richness” of architecture, and reached out to talk. Proceeding from a mutual love of New Orleans, my adopted hometown, we were quickly off to the races. His photographs of nature returning in the Lower Ninth Ward have since graced the cover of the New York Times Magazine, coincidentally illustrating a story by my neighbor, Nathaniel Rich. We discussed Moore’s upcoming project in the Nebraskan Sand Hills, “ruin porn,” and irresistibly, as the Occupy Wall Street Protests were occurring just outside his New York apartment, politics and generational difference.
Alec Quig: You grew up and went to school out east, but it looks like you came down here the first chance you got.
Andrew Moore: The thing about New Orleans, and even the South to some degree, was that there was a uniqueness to the culture. I was photographing small businesses, craft industries that were remnants of the 19th century industrialism that had persisted and were still in business in the CBD [central business district]. Only in a city like New Orleans could things like that exist. People were making brooms by hand. There were ladies sowing the lace linings for coffins. Strange Masonic buildings. Ice factories.
There was a raw furrier at that time in the quarter. It was called Steinberg and Sons. They were buying raccoons from the bayou, scraping off the fat, shipping the fur off to Chicago and New York. My neighbor worked for him, and I have a good picture–not a great one—in this dimly-lit room. There’s a log with two nails in it, to which they’d affix the eye-holes of a raccoon pelt and stretch it over the log. Then they’d get a big scraper blade, and we watched them literally scraping the fat off of the raccoons. I guess they’re pretty fatty down there. And the room stank, oh..my goodness. It was just filled with fat scrapings. But I loved that! I was kind of learning to use the 8×10 and refining my craft. It prefigured all of my later work. It’s all about getting into and discovering these places that have an incredible connection to the past, making a bridge between the subject, myself, and the viewer, bringing people into the work. New Orleans had held on to that, but I think it’s mostly gone. Most of these places have vanished in the past thirty years.
AQ: Certainly in the CBD. There, along with much of mid-city, I still pick up the lingering scent of Katrina. But what are you working on now?
AM: I like the central part of America these days, because much of it is the least developed. Like the Sandhills in Nebraska. It’s still one of the least commercially developed and exploited lands. This is a theme that comes up all the time, but places that are still connected to their pasts—whether through buildings, culture, the stories people have to tell.
AQ: And you’re finding it in this little corner of Nebraska?
AM: The Sandhills are where the homesteader culture, people who came out to be farmers, collided with ranching culture. And there were a lot of wars, shootouts, and big tussles; in fact, the FBI was partly created in 1906 because of these ranch wars out there. But even before that, right after the Homestead Act was passed at the end of the Civil War, you have people crossing the plains, looking for land. These people ended up in a place that really wasn’t suited for agriculture, but they tried to make a go of it anyway. They had five years of what’s called “proving up:” planting trees, building a house, improving the land, and living on it for five years. Then you could get title to it. But the land was totally unsuitable for farming. The topsoil’s only four inches thick. It was really always land for buffalo, grazing, and cattle. So most of the homesteaders failed in that area, but there are remnants of the people who tried–mostly trees, sometimes houses. It’s not a well-known area particularly, but I love this landscape, and the remaining vestiges of these people who came out there and tried. Particularly the trees, which are sometimes 130 years old. Gnarly. Almost like the windblown cypresses on the west coast. They fought for every inch of their lives. Very soulful.
AQ: A long way from Detroit.
AM: I know this sounds kind of crazy, but I’m really trying to make pictures now about the American soul. I know that sounds weird. I did Detroit, and it was a downer. I made it as beautiful as I could; I tried to make it compelling. There’s such historical richness there, but it feels rather apocalyptic, except in the sense of nature coming back.
AQ: It is of some comfort to know: even if humanity somehow engineers its own extinction, chances are nature will come back. Evolution will slowly and steadily continue.
AM: Building on that theme of nature, I’m trying to look at the other side of the coin, to see where nature itself speaks to the idea of persistence, the Pioneer spirit, this idea of the rugged individual in the land, toughing it out. I’m looking for those kinds of clues. It’s a work in progress, but I’ve decided: no more urban decay. Ultimately I hope that this Sand Hills project will be a chapter in a larger book about America. There are landscapes, some interiors, the trees, some portraits, but it’s sort of: what happened to the pioneers? What happened to that spirit? What happened to people working together in a tough environment? I’m hoping to find a diversity of emotional notes there, because what I don’t like is work that hits the same note every time. Even if the pictures change.
AQ: I read your response to the Dusseldorf school on Conscientious–is that what you’re referring to?
AM: That’s the weakness of the German school. They’re great on methodology and craft, but they’re afraid of emotions. There’s a dryness to their work. And I’m really focused on being an American artist these days, drawing from the tradition of American art, and really want to do something that speaks to America. This project out west is about birth, death, and resurrection. I’m looking for positive symbols about America, without being idealistic or nostalgic. Why has this country been such a powerful magnet for people from all over the world? What can we do to bring that back?
AQ: All of my favorite photography monographs seem to have “America” in the title! Walker Evans, Joel Sternfeld, Robert Frank, Alec Soth, who writes about this very phenomenon in his own America. But you’ve also said that America is becoming a tough place to find photographic subjects. How did you come upon this project? Driving through? Reading?
AM: It’s this chain of events. Somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody. I ran into some ranchers in South Dakota, just below the badlands. Five years ago I was doing work out there, contacting ranchers, getting frustrated, because I didn’t want to do another story on cowboys–out there, it always seemed to be about the ranchers. I’ve been digesting this project for five years, and finally figured out the way to do it. The characters are large, but the landscape is very subtle. When I tell people I’m doing it, they’re always like, “Why Nebraska?” I think it’s something like 49th in the country for tourism.
AQ: But Lincoln, Nebraska was one of the craziest places I’ve ever been! My hosts there were popping psychedelics like candy. They took me hopping the freight trains that come and go in the middle of town as casually as you’d board the subway in Manhattan. But the state at large certainly strikes me as a difficult place to photograph.
AM: There’s two things about photographing America. First, people are very suspicious and very wary. It wasn’t like that forty years ago. And second, so many images have been made of America. But that doesn’t bother me too much, I think I’m okay at coming up with different takes. People out in Nebraska are very hospitable, very open. Just the other day I was reading about this pipeline they’re building from Alaska, bringing shale oil or something, and they want to run it right through the Sandhills. There’s a huge aquifer, the Ogallala, just beneath it, and people are worried about threatening this vulnerable area. So it’s a very crucial area to our country as well, in terms of the economy. It’s where a lot of the beef comes from. It has, I believe, the largest underground reservoir in the country, and the largest open pasture. It’s like the Russian steppes–it’s just open, rolling hills. For me, it’s the quintessential American landscape. It might take me a couple years. If you don’t live there, it’s hard to catch these ephemeral moments.
AQ: And aside from WPA [Works Progress Administration] or FSA [Farm Security Administration] photographs, there’s a dearth of images from the “bona-fide” Midwestern states. Have you been to Butte, Montana?
AM: No. But that’s interesting, because someone recently mentioned Duluth, saying that was an interesting city as well. I spent some time in Omaha this summer, and that’s a city I like, but it’s seen immense changes from the days when they had all the stockyards. A lot of American cities have lost the things that made them great to begin with. I would definitely check out Butte.
AQ: If I’m not mistaken, it was the richest city between Minneapolis and San Francisco in the gold rush era. Wim Wenders made a film there. When I came through serendipitously for the first time I couldn’t believe it. They have, or had, one of the most polluted lakes in the entire country, from what I think was mine runoff. It’s this unearthly blue color. People see my photo of it and say, “Wow, what a beautiful lake! Was that at Yellowstone?” But I think it still the kind of water where if you dipped your foot in, you’d come out with six toes. I don’t know when the city started to tank, but there’s lots of abandonment and weathered mining shacks, surrounded by the general splendor of Montana. The craziest, most diverse architecture I’ve seen in America outside of New Orleans. If your project in Nebraska is the first chapter of a larger book on America, what will the other chapters be?
AM: It looks like I may get a commission to do a project about the South, through the High Museum in Atlanta.
AQ: And what route do you imagine taking?
AM: The first place I would come back to would be New Orleans. It’s most familiar to me, and there’s obviously been so many changes, and I already have a base of work there. With something as ill-defined as “the south,” I would probably start with the periphery: New Orleans, some of the coastline, the Sea Islands off of Georgia. From there I would do more remote areas–there’s a part of Georgia near North Carolina, some of the mountainous areas up there. I wouldn’t necessarily do small or big towns, I’d be looking more for the landscape and the periphery, then work my way to the center.
AQ: The landscape here is challenging. But in the middle of unvarying expanses like the Mississippi Delta, you have places like those seen in Birney Imes’ Whispering Pines.
AM: And he was from Mississippi, and I think he was very familiar with those places, most of which I think are now gone. The thing in the South particularly is personal contacts. Sneaking in, breaking in, finding access points, uncovering things that people haven’t seen before. It’s always a very person-to-person sort of research. That would make or break this kind of project. Making strong connections to people, and being shown places that are special to them. Ideally I’d like to do the Sandhills, then the south, then the west coast, and put all of these things together into a book.
AQ: Where would you go on the West Coast?
AM: It’s hard. I’m not really sure where I’d start, but if you’re going to do something about America, it has to be included. It might be outliers: people living off the grid in Oregon or northern California, but that’s a vague idea. I just read Memories of Lost Skin, about sex offenders in Miami. Sex offenders can’t live within 2500 feet of any place where children are: no schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, etc. The only place this group could live in Miami was under a highway bridge. Unfortunately that’s gone now, but the idea of people living—by purpose, design, or accident—in the outskirts, is interesting to me. If I did the west coast, I’d look for people living a kind of separate life in some way.
AQ: Not only marginal spaces, but marginal people. I understand their appeal broadly and viscerally–I did some work at Dignity Village in Portland, OR this summer–but is there a more personal compulsion for you?
AM: It’s a place to start. It’s a place to look for clues. Where people are living slightly out of the mainstream, I think there are often more possibilities for metaphor. Why photograph an old house as opposed to a new house? A new house doesn’t have history to it. This is all speculative, but people living outside of what’s considered normal or acceptable…there may be more expressive potential in terms of what’s going on, say, with our country. A lot of the traditional pathways aren’t working for people.
AQ: The lie that reveals more about the truth than the truth itself.
AM: You see pictures of Orange County, California, these Chia-pet like developments, ticky-tacky, “Weeds”-like houses. That’s an interesting picture for me, but it’s lacking some poetry. That may be one picture, but anybody can see that, and can make a fairly decent photograph of it. I’m looking for things that are meaningful in some deeper way. It’s not easy to find, or even talk about.
AQ: It’s hard to hit “different notes,” as you say, in suburbia, until something uncommon drifts into the frame. It happens in the unlikeliest of places.
AM: I think Joel Sternfeld’s photographs in Oregon are really pretty good.
AQ: Oh, sure, American Prospects is in my top five!
AM: It’s also in mine. I’m not so big on Stephen Shore or Joel Meyerowitz, but I think Joel is a real master. There are some pictures in that book that continue to provide inspiration for me. The beached whales, the pumpkin and the fire, the maids outside of Atlanta. They capture that moment in time and speak to a broader, deeper human drama.
AQ: In a way that’s difficult to talk about.
AM: But shows it.
AQ: You’ve also worked extensively in faraway places. What turned your gaze homeward?
AM: I decided that, rather than traveling to foreign countries, which is always interesting and exotic, I’d like to stay here and talk about things that I really know. I think that’s why the Detroit project was so successful. It was meaningful to me. It connected all the parts of my world in a unified way. So I’m searching for other places where I can do that. I don’t want to re-do Detroit. It’s unique and there’s no reason to try to do that in another place, like Gary, Indiana, Cleveland, or Buffalo. I went to Buffalo. They have some interesting stuff there–the grain elevators and everything–but I’m looking for new challenges.
AQ: Does your Detroit book as a sort of coda have anything to do with the polemics that came in its wake? I mean, on a scale of one to ten, how tired are you of talking about “ruin porn?” I think you’ve already addressed that whole thing pretty succinctly and comprehensively.
AM: You know, when I was shooting in Detroit, starting in 2008, nobody ever talked about it. It was never an issue. Then towards the end, Vice Magazine did an article about lazy photojournalists parachuting into Detroit for a day. Of course, people should spend a little bit of time there, and if they’re all photographing one building, it’s very superficial. Anyone who shot pictures of abandoned buildings was eventually painted with this broad brush of making “ruin porn.” Then local politics and boosterism comes into it. People are saying, “Why didn’t you take pictures of the nice stuff?” I’m like, why not look at the magazine in your hotel room? I’m sure there are pictures of gardens and nice places to go to. But that’s not what I thought was of critical importance or unique to the city.
AQ: Metaphorical richness, as you’ve said.
AM: And the same thing happened in Cuba a little bit. Some Cubans asked me: why not photograph the nice parts of Havana? We had different ideas of what was “nice.” But I think ruin porn is a mask for bigger issues. People are very anxious about this country, its direction and future. I think Detroit is a metaphor for both the good and the bad in this moment. Detroit is America’s city. Detroit is not just about local issues. It’s not just about providing good PR for Detroit. It’s talking about America as a place, and where we’re headed. The reaction to the pictures in general has been very positive, but there’s a small fraction, mostly of people coming out of Detroit, who are very defensive, very protective. If they took the energy in the other way and used it…like in jiu-jitsu, where you use the other’s momentum. People are interested in Detroit. That’s the thing to capitalize on. Not, “We don’t want people from the outside coming here and talking about our problems. We can do it ourselves.” It’s clearly not going to happen. You need that interest. Civilization begins with people in the Mediterranean trading with each other, both in goods and ideas. I think the concept of “ruin porn” is shutting the doors, and just the opposite of progress in my mind. But I’m glad to humor them. In five years, nobody’s really gonna know what ruin porn meant. It’s kind of a bullshit term. You can attach “porn” to anything.
AQ: And “porn” implies something…utilitarian. Something with an explicit function. Without interior meaning.
AM: I try to be philosophical about this. What else is really at work here? Are they asking that photographers be socially responsible? That they should work for the betterment of society? These are classic arguments. They’ve been around since the beginning of the nineteenth century, right after the French Revolution. The ideas about socialism begin to ferment, and the role of artists in society begins to be questioned. This became opposed to art for art’s sake, where you work in an unhindered fashion. I’ve said it before: I don’t think these things are reconcilable. On the other hand, I think the dialogue between these two extremes, and the tension between them, is where a lot of great work comes from. Detroit is the absolute embodiment of that. Artists want to be free and have an open city to create things, but at the same time, it’s so emblematic of issues that trouble people, and it touches on both. That’s why it’s such a phenomenal subject. I respect their sensitivities. I try not to be dismissive of the argument in favor of turning it around and questioning what it’s really about.
AQ: Well, I sent you the video of Glemmie “The Coon Man” Beasly, and became fascinated by that and Charlie LeDuff, the journalist, who also did the incredible story about the frozen upside-down body in the elevator shaft that I’d read when it came out.
AM: My friend discovered that body.
AQ: Wow. Shawn Doerr?
AM: No, Shawn Hawking, who’s a sculptor. They were playing hockey in the basement of the building and discovered the body.
AQ: The Guernica piece on ruin porn makes reference to “rotten photojournalism” in Detroit, which yours doesn’t purport to be. Even if you were doing photojournalism, I think one could do a lot worse. LeDuff is a native son of Detroit and moved back there. I was astounded, after watching that video, to discover that his whole M.O. is “exploring race and class in America.” He shared in a Pulitzer at the New York Times for a veritably great piece he did on race relations within a North Carolina slaughterhouse. But within Detroit he’s making this guy kiss a skinned raccoon on local TV. By the end, he’s engaging the camera and audience in a way that’s very much on the verge of treating this guy’s life as some kind of joke. I couldn’t believe it! I showed it to a lot of people to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, and they were even more aghast than I was. I was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, a city very similar to Detroit, and your work hit very close to home.
AM: The other thing about Detroit is the overwhelming fact of its history. People are always telling me how their relatives worked in Detroit. It’s connected to America at large in a familial way. Closing the wagons in Detroit and saying that they don’t want outsiders coming in is so wrong, so narrowly focused. Detroit is an opportunity in America to think big, to come up with radical solutions. They should encourage young people to live there tax-free. They should give buildings to artists for development. So much could be done. There are so many buildings downtown that would be perfect for things like this, but they’re warehoused by their owners, who are just paying a little property tax. I was just there a few weeks ago. There are a couple of buildings being restored, but it lacks an agora, or a central meeting place. Every city should have that–a place where people can focus. A real public space that’s open. It’s one of the major faults of downtown. Plus, the city’s too big. They need to somehow partition off the parts of the city that are viable and let those other parts have another plan. It’s too vast now to really be manageable as it’s shrinking.
AQ: I was curious about your personal interpretation of Detroit as a metaphor for America. I just read an interview between Bill Moyers and David Simon, and Moyers asks Simon if he thinks America’s “going to make it.” Simon says, “We’re not going to make it as a first-rate empire. And I’m not sure that that’s a bad thing in the end. Empires end, and that doesn’t mean cultures end completely. Americans are still sort of in an age of delusion, I think. A lot of our foreign policy represents that.”
AM: I don’t know if I’m quite this pessimistic. I do think empires do go through phases. We started as a commercial empire, and segued into being this military empire. I think China is now in its commercial empire phase, and might one day be military. What comes after? I do agree that we’re in an age of delusion and denial. The pie might not be getting smaller, but the pieces are. How do we share it? It’s really ultimately about money. There’s less money than there was, but this is still the only place where people in the world can come to reinvent themselves. My wife is a Hungarian immigrant. She grew up in a communist country. And she’s a big fan of America. She talks a lot about immigrants, and part of this project I’m doing out west is about immigrants. People who travel eight-thousand miles to end up in a sod house in the middle of nowhere on the Great Plains. They came to work! I think if America’s going to have a future, we need to embrace our immigrants. There was a story in the paper today about how Hispanic immigrants are filling up these empty towns in the midwest.
AQ: You can drive straight up the spine of Michigan on two lane highways, and in what used to be overwhelmingly Anglo, main street-esque small towns, you have communities of Mexican immigrants, surrounded by endless fields.
AM: This idea of shutting the doors and putting up electric fences is shooting ourselves in the foot. We should be even more open. The soul of America is in people coming here to reinvent themselves. If I could make any statement through my new work, I’d hope to achieve that.
AQ: Even before I had encountered your work, I talked to another photographer about wanting to go to Detroit, and he said something about it having been “over-photographed.” But if you had Robert Frank, Henri-Cartier Bresson, and William Eggleston going into Detroit today, it would clearly be a worthy project for each.
AM: I still think there are many, many other books to be made about Detroit. I think it’s going to be a continuing thing. The Starn Twins are gonna do their bamboo project in Detroit, and Matthew Barney was there. The floodgates have opened.
AQ: Bernice Abbott said that you see architecture as “the symbolic key to a city’s meaning.” But you might expand from city to country, country to civilization.
AM: Cities represent our collective memory. Every time a building is torn down, it’s like losing that part of your memory. You build new parts, of course, but when a city loses a big portion of its buildings and history, it’s like their identity has been cleaned, brainwashed.
AQ: That’s the situation in my hometown. “Urban renewal” cleared out most of the best architecture, roughly during Vietnam.
AM: And that’s the situation in much of America, and what can make it hard to photograph. Our collective past, and a lot of what made places unique, has been erased. I think that’s why you see a lot of photographers moving away from the experiential and towards manufactured or internalized work. You see that a lot within the arts in general in America. People moving towards creating their own internal vocabulary rather than going out and exploring and being more experiential. Take Thomas Demand. He recreates sets and photographs them, and there’s this tension between the real and the unreal. But it’s a turning away from the world, it’s turning inward. I feel like I’m in a minority of artists in that I’m not an inward turning person. I always try to focus on the outside.
AQ: I came to photography somewhat through the backdoor, via people like David Hockney, and then Jeff Wall, before I got to the classic “photographer’s photographers.” But there’s still a lot of room for “lyrical” photography, as it’s been called. Even if it’s dismissed as formally conservative, and even if every other schmuck can hit the road with their new DSLR, I think there’s room for everyone.
AM: I don’t think some of this more artificial photography is that formally inventive anyway. I’m less interested in Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson. I know their work and understand the theory behind it, but especially in the case of Crewdson, it’s second-hand. It’s derivative of people like Hitchcock and Spielberg. Wall’s work, though, has a lot of intellectual firepower behind it. Though I get where he’s coming from, I don’t always find the pictures compelling. I prefer someone like Struth, at least for his turning outward, constantly trying to sift through the scenes.
AQ: Who else’s work interests you?
AM: I’m always seeing Burtynsky, Pollidori, [Sze Tsung] Leong, some French photographers who are trying to make complex pictures about the complexity of the world, while still trying to have some poetic vision that focuses all of that material. It’s hard to name names. I see student work, bits and pieces that I like. But I don’t find Wall or Crewdson inspiring. That’s not a road that I’m interested in. I’m not a fabricator of my own mythology. I’m looking for mythology in the world, and trying to seam it together. I do love Matthew Barney, who really does have his own universe, and his own vocabulary of inhabitants in that world. I’m fine with all that. I think it’s an amazing thing to plunge into. But smarty-pants art references are less interesting to me.
AQ: What about painters?
AM: There’s the whole corpus of 19th century American paintings is very interesting to me. Starting with the Peel family, Caleb Bingham’s scenes along the Mississippi, George Catlin’s paintings of the Native Americans, the luminous painters like [Martin Johnson] Heade, [Albert] Bierstadt, [Frederic Edwin] Church, the trompe l’oeil painters like William Harnett and John Peto. I like that whole period, as well as 20th century realism: Hopper, Wyeth, Winslow Homer.
AQ: Close-to-home guys.
AM: That’s my foundation. American realism is particularly what I’m interested in. Photography has embraced that mantle as it’s gone forth. There’s not a whole lot of contemporary realist painting that I adore. I like Wayne Thiebaud, those landscapes of San Francisco, and Rackstraw Downes–long, skinny panoramas of peripheral industrial urban landscapes.
AQ: Have you ever messed with panoramic cameras?
AM: Very little. But you know who’s very good? Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer. He has some of the best ever. It’s a great story: he had this old Kodak camera, and he could only put one sheet of film in it at a time. He only had one arm. He would take it out to the suburbs of Prague in the 50’s, and wait all day for the light and scene to get exactly right, and shoot that one sheet of film, and go back to his little garden shack in Prague and develop that sheet. Very deliberate, slow, awesome images. He also made some beautiful vertical panoramas in Prague.
AQ: I’m almost always shooting vertical because I can’t stand the aspect ratio of my camera horizontally. I hope I live to see the day when you’re able to modify things like this in-camera.
AM: One of the hard things to deal with in shooting 4×5 or 8×10 is that it’s a blocky, industrial format. 5×7 is a little longer, and almost has nicer proportions. I’m often fighting the blockiness of my format, and will crop the top and bottom to get a little more length and dynamic framing in terms of diagonals. I think that discipline and focus…limitation can be important. I need discipline.
AQ: Well, here’s something I always ask photographers, because it’s a so integral and seems to fall somewhere between an art and a science: how do you approach sequencing? Are there still images you wish you could shuffle around when looking through your books today?
AM: It’s very difficult. I recommend that photographers not do their own sequencing, because they’re too tied into embedded content and not able to distance themselves from either explicit or implicit meanings that the audience might not catch onto right away. I feel that my Havana and Russia books, which I sequenced myself with a little guidance, would have really benefitted from having an outside eye. In the case of the Detroit book, a very wonderful editor named Alice Rose George organized picture flow. I basically handed it off to her, and we tweaked it together after that. I couldn’t be happier with the sequencing of that book. So, my advice? Don’t do it yourself! [Laughs]
AQ: Was she nixing photos as well?
AM: I showed her a box of one hundred pictures or so, and maybe a dozen that I had my doubts about. From those she culled maybe eighty pictures and began to organize them. I printed out little baseball card-sized images so she could make a little booklet. You need to physically see them somehow. She liked some that I didn’t, and at the very end I added one or two that I thought were great and got stuck back in. Having a couple of minds together really made it work very well.
AQ: How do you know her?
AM: She was the editor of Fortune magazine back in the 80’s, but has worked for Geo, Magnum, and was the assistant to Howard Stein, who was head of the Dreyfus corporation. She’s very well known in New York, and has been a consultant on many books. She was terrific. She helps a lot of young photographers as well. What she brought to the project…I couldn’t really duplicate her efforts.
AQ: In addition to what you’ve been looking at, I must ask what you’ve been reading.
AM: Right now I’m reading Ian Frazier’s book on the Great Plains. I just read about the history of the Nebraska stock brokers’ association, detailed histories of families who went west and tried to prove themselves up, their struggles, the patchwork landscape of the west, and the different layers of it. Then I’m looking at Lucretius’ book, On the Nature of the Things. And Epicurian philosophy, how we shouldn’t be afraid of death. So, a mixture of history and philosophy.
AQ: Which sounds like it’s tied to this Nebraska project.
AM: When I go out there, I want to be pretty informed, because these people have lived there for generations. I want to have a shared vocabulary, to be able to offer them something. But in terms of research, I don’t like to look at too much before I go someplace for the first time. I find that it biases my eye. It’s happened a few times. I don’t do a lot of internet research or look at prior photographs. What’s more important is to develop a contact and find the right guy who can kind of lead me into that world. I just need one person. Someone who gets what I’m doing and is willing to be my guide. I find them in all kinds of ways. For me it’s not the books and research, which comes later. What you need is the guide to take you through hell. Isn’t that Dante? Didn’t he have a guide? That’s what I’m looking for. That one person to take you through the lower world. They’re the seed from which everything else springs. They inevitably know others.
AQ: Has that always worked out in your favor?
AM: The guy I worked with in Vietnam was very good, but I needed to expand my social circle there. It’s a hard place to penetrate. People are super busy. It was very hard to get some people to even stand in one spot for a picture sometimes.
AQ: The pictures do have an air of busyness.
AM: The main problem with Vietnam is that I got there a little too late. There was such a hectic, frenzied rush to create business that by the time I was shooting there in 2005-2006, some of the cooler parts of Hanoi had already changed. It’s a big country. There are 110 million people there. I had some trouble finding my way into that and creating intimacy. I think it would have been better to have gone there, say, in the mid-90’s, when the legacy of the war was still a little more raw, and there was more of the French legacy. Most of that’s gone at this point.
AQ: They’re tearing down those amazing buildings?!
AM: Oh, yeah. In Vietnam, things that are old and respected, have to be like, 500, 800 years old. 150 years is nothing for them. They have a very different relationship to the past.
AQ: Your Vietnam stuff is some of my favorite work of yours.
AM: Really? It’s still a communist country that has fully embraced capitalism. You can see a communist flag hanging right next to the Mitsubishi corporate flag. They have no problem with that. It’s top-down capitalism. I like the small cities. I like the north, and hated the south. Saigon is ugly. Hanoi, where there was less development, is a very cool city. I would definitely recommend that as a place to visit if you go to Asia. But maybe, someday, all three will be part of one project. Maybe another one for my old age [laughs].
AQ: How long were you there? The very first question I wanted to ask you was: how do you know when to stop? This goes for Russia, Cuba, Thailand, Abu Dhabi. If I put myself in your shoes, that would be one of the most difficult questions. These places go on and on.
AM: The question makes me think of painters who push and push, and take it too far. With Russia, I was trying to do the periphery. There was no way I could do the whole country. I tried to stick to the boundaries. The one part I feel that I didn’t do was the river in the south, I think it’s called the Don river–there’s unique culture along there. I just felt like I had done what I set out to do, in terms of capturing the defining edges of the country.
AQ: And in Cuba?
AM: With Cuba, I got to the point where I really exhausted…every time I went back, I tried to do a different thing. I was focusing on different time periods. On the last trips I was focusing on architecture from the 50’s. I got enough of that to create a spectrum of time in the work, from the colonial era to present.
AQ: What was the catalyst for your project on Havana? It was your first book.
AM: Cuba came about because I had seen some photographs of old theaters in Cuba, and been doing photographs of Times Square theaters. When I was there I realized immediately: wow, it’s not just about the theaters. It’s like the whole city is kind of an open room! There’s so much life on the street, and at the same time there are so many mysteries hidden behind doors. The truly amazing thing was that you could pretty much go to any house, knock on the door, and people would just welcome you inside! It was incredible. Not everybody was working, generally somebody was home, and they were very open to showing someone around their house. Could you imagine, in America, going to a random house asking to have a look at someone’s living room!? I would go with a friend from Havana, and he would quite formally introduce me as, you know, this illustrious artist from New York, and people would let me have a look around. It’s where my interests in architecture, history, narrative, the exotic, the familiar, color, politics…all these things came together in a very synergistic way.
AQ: So there were elements of both premeditation and discovery?
AM: Absolutely. I think the artistic process is…it’s a little hard to explain to…
AQ: …someone who isn’t somehow engaged in it themselves?
AM: You have to be completely focused. You’re on the edge of the razor. You’re totally focused, but also very spontaneous, able to make a turn on a dime. It’s hard to communicate that. I talk to young photographers, who through education become so self-conscious, so deliberate, so intentional, and it takes some of the joy from photography. You need intentionality and discipline, but you also need intuition and instinct.
AQ: And photography is so reliant upon the external world: light changing, people crossing your path.
AM: I’m going to republish that book. I want to go back and refocus more on the country at large, on what’s happening now with these new businesses, and the fact that Cuba is an island. When I was there in 1998-2000, it was right at the end of the “special period,” after the Soviet Union collapsed and all the subsidies went away. Cubans were almost starving to death while living in these mansions and big houses, with multiple families in each. Very little income, little to eat, little to buy. And that’s changed. There’s much more money now in Cuba.
AQ: And now someone else can step in and try to do something else definitive.
AM: There are moments of ripeness, and you try to capture them. Then they come to an end, and that period’s over. I feel that with Cuba, Times Square, and Russia, my timing was good. They’ve all changed tremendously. Russia is a richer country. With Vietnam, I missed the moment a little bit, where you have the past and present colliding. By the time I got to Vietnam, that struggle was over. But sometimes, it’s just a deadline. I have gone back to Detroit and shot after the book came out, but that was urban farming, people’s parks, people building their houses, and signs of renewal. If I reprint the book, maybe it’ll come back to that. I put some of it on my website, but for me, the moment’s over. You need enthusiasm and momentum, and at a certain point it dissipates. I think that’s really the crucial factor: your own commitment and energy in relation to the subject matter. Maybe some people could photograph Russia their entire lives, but for me, it would be really depressing [laughs]. It’s a heavy country.
AQ: How do you mean?
AM: If you look back, the original Russe invited the Vikings to come in and help give them structure. It starts about 1000 AD. They start around Kiev, near what’s now the Ukraine. If you look at these thousand years, you have the Mongol invasion, the Tartars, terrible tzars, Napoleon’s invasions, the revolts in the 19th century, the Bolshevik coup, and Stalin, which is one of the worst political episodes…there’s just a constant darkness to their country. I consider them to have the darkest history of any country on the planet. There’s no country that really compares to that thousand years of real bloodshed. Moments of beauty, of course, but a very dark history.
AQ: In your book, Boris Fishman describes Russia as “a place that derives its charm precisely from the feelings of artifice it provides.”
AM: Boris grew up there, and that’s more his take. But it relates to the Potemkin village. When Kathrine the Great wanted to make a tour of the Russian countryside to see what the villages looked like, her prime minister, Potemkin, sent out crews in advance to build large-scale, glorious-looking facades of villages along the highway, so when she passed in her carriages, they’d say, “Oh! Look at these fantastic villages! How lovely!” These come down in the language to mean an illusion, a falsely created semblance of the present. The delusional or illusional aspect that derives from that is still very much present. Whitewashing, fixing things up in a patchwork way to make it all look good, when beneath it’s shambles and doesn’t really function. I think that’s definitely part of the Russian character. They still do that today. They’ll take a public outhouse and paint it with bright colors, but you go inside and it’s still a hole in the ground.
AQ: He also says that “most Russians are ambivalent toward Americans: they long for the quality of life common in the states, but they consider the emotionless self interest that fosters such prosperity disgraceful and depraved.” What does he mean?
AM: I think that’s a bit of a stretch. I think they’re just as bad as us. It’s a country where people are very much out for themselves, particularly now, with the fall of communism. There was a kind of sharing and helpfulness during communism, but with the influx of capitalism, those virtues are kind of lost. I think we’re in some ways quite similar in temperament. I didn’t feel like they were really foreign to me, or that they feel demeaned by the west. Russia is a very rich country now, but they don’t share their resources very well. Moscow is unbelievably wealthy. They may feel that the west looks down on them, but I don’t feel like they’re resentful.
AQ: You also write about growing up during the Cold War. It struck me how different my view of Russia is than yours. I’m in my twenties. I hadn’t come to consciousness when the Wall fell. There’s a generation gap here. You’ve said to Joerg Coelberg: “My sense is that our perception of the world, as influenced by the rapid evolution of information technology, directs us away from history and the past. It’s as though we view reality through a speeding car: the future, which is rushing toward us, appears immediate and vivid, while the past, which can only be viewed through the mirror, falls away into blurriness and quickly vanishes.” Being raised on the internet, this doesn’t jibe with me. I feel like my generation, or at least the culturally engaged segment of my generation, has a proximity to the past that’s unprecedented. Hyperlinks, Wikipedia, the immediate gratification that the internet provides, at least in the realm of facts. Can you remember the existence of a more widespread retro trend in American society? I’ve read articles about how these things go in cycles, but because of the internet, especially in its aughts incarnation, people my age seem overly aware that we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, hyper-conscious of what’s already been done.
AM: I’ve been trying to get into your head, and spent a lot of time since the last time we spoke thinking about what you mean by this. I mentioned it to some friends, and it’s true! Maybe the past is more omnipresent in a way, and yet, on the other hand, the media is so engaged in the present, and all the minutiae of the moment. I became sympathetic to your point, and will be continuing to think about it. Because I love history, it made me happy to hear you say this. For you it may feel like a weight, but for me, it’s great that young people can be very historically aware, even if they have to go through the retro thing to get to their own original point of view. It’s all part of the process. I think you’re very fortunate in a way to be coming of age at this time. This is an amazing period in time. But for someone like you to have missed the high point or glory days of America…I feel sorry in a way.
AQ: This brings us back to Russia—these images probably aren’t quite as loaded for someone my age.
AM: I was so interested in traveling behind the Iron Curtain because these places were taboo and forbidden. Same with Cuba; you weren’t supposed to go there. Most of the time I went was illegally, through Jamaica. Montego Bay was the good highway to Havana when I was going. I wanted to see an alternative view. I wanted to experience a different view of America, and a different take on history. When I came back to Detroit, it was like, wow, this whole cyclical nature of things is now playing out in our country.
AQ: Well, that’s another running thread in your work: penetrating taboos, sneaking behind closed doors, getting into people’s living rooms or abandoned spaces. What are the roots of that?
AM: Well, it’s difficult to talk about this without sound psychoanalytical.
AQ: That’s the idea!
AM: It has to do with two things. The first is the place you think of where you feel comfortable and safe, like your home. I never really liked the home I grew up in. I was always desirous of other people’s homes. I was much happier at other people’s houses than my own. I always felt that my house was sterile. It wasn’t friendly, warm, or inviting, and I hardly ever had people over. I think that has stayed with me psychologically. I want to be in other people’s homes, in their worlds. That’s where I feel more comfortable, strangely enough.
AQ: Growing up in suburbs, I had something like that—my house was very much a gathering place, but when I encountered Victorian houses for the first time, I never felt the same in my own, newer house.
AM: My father was the distant cousin of a spinster in Hartford. When she passed away, he was the executor of her estate. We all went there with him and had to go through all of her stuff. He told me that when this woman’s dog died, she simply took the carpet and threw it over the dog. When they got to this house, they rolled back the carpet and found a skeleton. To discover that there were these crazy houses with all this amazing stuff and weird stories…that was deeply attractive to me from the beginning. I love both the story and the exploration.
AQ: This is reminiscent of the cat skeleton you photographed in Detroit.
AM: Yes. That was in a library, and that photograph is almost Egyptian for me, in the sense that the Egyptians would bury the pharaohs with their cats, and here you have this decrepit, abandoned library, and the sole remaining thing there was a cat that had starved to death, and was entombed in this library. It harkens back to the Egyptian ruins. And I don’t know if we should publish this, but when I was a kid I was arrested for breaking into people’s homes. We were taking random things–silver dollars, whiskey. I was the leader of this little gang. Getting arrested and all of that was kind of a bummer, but the adrenaline of going into someone’s house at night, when they might come home at any moment, was a huge rush. Detroit had some aspects of that. Being where you should’t be. Sometimes it was pretty dangerous. I definitely risked my life to take pictures in a couple of those places. Many of those buildings, their ceilings or floors, were nearly collapsing. It’s just part of my makeup. I like to enter into places that I’m not supposed to be. There’s something satisfying for me in that. I feel some kind of accomplishment. Some people like to climb mountains; I like to get into places that others don’t get into. It’s one of the fundamental things that drives me.
AQ: Since we’ve gone back to childhood, let’s go back to your original interest in architecture–you said it was your second love. How did it win out?
AM: Well, my father was an architect, and had a little home office. I loved playing there: not only were there all these colored pencils, protractors, templates, drafting paper, and tracing paper, but little balsam wood models of houses with different additions. I loved that. It was almost sculptural. And as a family we’d often go on the weekend to visit one of his projects. We’d get to these places and it’d maybe just be a slab, a couple of walls, and he would say, you know, “here’s the gymnasium, the bathrooms,” and so on. I got used to imagining space as a mental blueprint, and in a profound way, that got me used to thinking of spaces not by how they’re defined by structure, but how space is brought to life through architecture.
AQ: An interesting perspective with regards to Detroit.
AM: Whenever I go to a location and am looking to make a picture, the first thing I’m considering is, how alive is this space? How lively is it? How can I shape that in the photograph? There was a point where I thought I was going to study architecture. This was at Princeton in the late 70’s, when postmodernism was really flourishing. Michael Graves was the main teacher there. I just wasn’t really interested in theoretical architecture, paper architecture. I really wanted to make things. That was the tipping point. There was a saying there: “Why should we teach you how to draw? The English department doesn’t teach you how to type.” They equated these two things on the same level, and I couldn’t have disagreed with that more.
AQ: So what happened?
AM: I was fortunate to become a student of Emmet Gowin there. He really emphasized that craft and ideas were completely joined, that one couldn’t speak a language without learning craft, grammar, and syntax. The idea of engaging your body and mind together in making something…and being able to work with architecture through photography. All of my architectural knowledge and feeling has been incorporated into my photographs.
AQ: On that note, places and things are much more often the subjects of your photographs than people, so I wanted you to personalize some of your figures. What, for example, can be said of the man living in the Detroit dry dock?
AM: The Detroit Dry Dock built propellers for the boats that plied the Great Lakes. It’s a remarkable late-19th century structure with a steel frame on the inside of the building—maybe one of the first in this country like that. It’s also where a young Henry Ford worked as an apprentice, and where he was first introduced to the combustion engine. That’s a remarkable history right there. It had been wide open, meaning easily accessible by the street, for many years—ten, maybe twenty. This homeless guy had probably been living there for several. People always ask me if I saw homeless people in the buildings in Detroit, and I always tell them there are so many abandoned buildings, every homeless person could have one of their own. I was there on a very cold February day, and he’s tucked back in the corner with this big plastic sheet hanging down, maybe as a windscreen. It was very dark and gray. We set up the camera and he said, “Oh, you’re not gonna take my picture, are you?” And I said no, we’re just doing the building. He was in the frame, but he couldn’t tell. We did a couple of long exposures–a couple of minutes–and I think we gave him some money at the end, just to help him out. I did not learn his name; he wasn’t very talkative. He was drying socks and maybe cooking something, staying warm. In some cases I try to learn people’s names and get information, but he was standoffish. We didn’t want to bother him. It was like going into someone’s house. He wasn’t violent, but he certainly wasn’t encouraging us to hang out. He was the “owner” of that building. Not literally, but he had been the resident for many years.
AQ: Do you think he hung up that big sheet?
AM: It’s interesting, because you couldn’t easily get to the second floor. The metal stairs had been cut away. Somehow, he must have figured out how to climb up there and hang up that sheet. And he’s the only person that could have been motivated to do it. There’s no other explanation. It was shielding his little shack there.
AQ: How old?
AM: Probably in his 40’s.
AQ: It sounds like it was much darker in there than the picture would attest.
AM: Very much. Because of that long exposure and the wind blowing that plastic screen, it somehow looks like a cave-dweller living under a waterfall. That’s what I love about it–this sort of atavistic aspect to it, while at the same time, it’s present-day Detroit.
AQ: What about the abandoned missile base?
AM: That was an island in the harbor of Vladivostok, five or six miles offshore. It had been a missile base and silo. In the picture you can barely see a barracks building with a star, and supposedly the staff was all female. Locals were told that this was some kind of mental hospital or home for pregnant mothers as a cover story to keep people away, but supposedly it was an all female crew manning this missile base. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they took out the missiles. This guy with the mustache was the lighthouse keeper, his wife has the orange hair, and they and their children lived on the island. They only had a rowboat. Local crab fishermen, fishing illegally around the island, would drop off crabs for them to eat. Maybe somebody came and brought them milk and other supplies. But basically they were living, on their own, on this weird little rock island, in a lighthouse and abandoned dormitory. I was definitely not supposed to be there. I didn’t speak to the guy because I didn’t want him to know I was American. My Russian friend who was with me did all the talking, and I pretended to be the assistant.
AQ: So they could barely leave, living six miles offshore with just a rowboat?!
AM: Yeah. They really depended on the kindness of fisherman to get to shore and bring them food. Maybe a supply boat came once a week. But otherwise they were living on their own out there.
AQ: You’ve already spoken elsewhere about the watchman’s room in Siberia, but I also wanted to know about that.
AM: It was near Ulan-Ude, which is in southern Siberia. The big factory had been used to make glass of some sort, and had been shut down a couple years before. There was a young couple taking care of the building, but they hadn’t been paid in something like a year and a half. They had nowhere to go. They were just living there in hopes that eventually the owners would come around and pay them. On the walls there are things written like, “Don’t forget to feed the cat.” Practical things. It was a really sad situation. They were virtually trapped. It was their job, but they hadn’t gotten paid. If they left, they definitely would’t ever get paid. That was their life.
AQ: Finally: the falcon keeper in Abu Dhabi?
AM: You’re the first to ever ask about that picture. I don’t know much about him. The sheiks–the big movers and shakers in Abu Dhabi–they like to go out to the desert to practice falconry and race their camels. They all have camps and tents in the middle of the desert. When they go home for the work week, these other guys basically stick around and take care of the animals while the sheiks are away. There was an older man in charge of the camels, and the guy in this photograph was in charge of the falcons. This was the little shack that they lived in, out in the middle of nowhere. He must have been from Yemen–he wasn’t from the UAE. He was a poor guy, but very cheery, and living out there in the middle of the desert taking care of the Sheiks’ falcons.
AQ: How did that project come about?
AM: The Abu Dhabi photos were a commission from NYU. Abu Dhabi is so wealthy–they’ve bought all the cars, jewelry, and handbags, there’s a surfeit of those things there—so now they’re starting to buy institutions from the west. They’re going to have a branch of the Hermitage, Louvre, Guggenheim, the Harvard Medical School, and NYU is building a branch there as well. NYU agreed to grant diplomas in Abu Dhabi on the same level as their New York campus. Yale refused this, but NYU is trying to make a global university, where they have campuses in China, Paris, et cetera, so students could transfer all over the world and be within the same institution.
AQ: Sounds great?
AM: I think it’s pretty cool. They wanted me to show what the texture of the city looks like, what kind of people live there. There was supposed to be a book published, but through various complications, the project stalled. I was there a month. It’s not a big city. If I was going to finish the book, I’d go back for one more trip. When I was there, it was an open, cosmopolitan city–very little police presence, virtually no crime, very placid, lots of money. Even the lowest workers, say, from Bangladesh, had some level of income. Despite their housing not being very good, there were opportunities for everybody. I think the UAE has become a bit more nervous with everything going on with the Arab Spring.
AQ: And finally that sentiment has made its way here. You can walk to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations from your apartment. Have you gone down there?
AM: Obviously I’m incredibly sympathetic to the Occupy protests, but as the parent of two small children, I don’t exactly relish the idea of being put in jail overnight. I think that this is a sign that the progressives in this country have had no outlet. We all voted for Obama thinking he was going to be a progressive and he turned out to be a compromising centrist. I think it’s a natural outpouring of emotion, of anxiety, of anger. Maybe it does have some kind of symmetry to the tea party, but of those I’ve met, they’ve mostly been of the angry, rump white state. I saw a police captain from Philadelphia arrested in New York the other day. He was saying that the police are the tools of the 1%. I feel like this 99% thing is an incredibly effective slogan, and I’ll be interested to see if it’s co-opted by more mainstream politicians. I think it was time for this. It’s the beginning of the death knell of Reaganism, thirty years of American conservatism. I think that’s great. Whether we’ve shifted so far to the right that we just need a small or big correction, time will tell. I’ve said for years that it’s the young people in this country that need to come to the fore and let themselves be heard.
AQ: This goes back to the predicament of being burdened by the past. We have the example of the sixties. But you’ve lived through more, and have seen the pendulum swing back and forth. I’m twenty-five. I’ve only ever been truly conscious of Bush and Obama. Despite this, you, somewhat paradoxically, are able to more quickly and comfortably give OWS two thumbs up, and I’m ambivalent about it. Isn’t the young person supposed to be gung-ho, and the older person, you know: wisened, skeptical, ambivalent?
AM: When’s the last time in this country’s history where there was youth movement standing up for the little person? I’m supportive because I think the pendulum needs to start to swing back the other way, because we’ve veered so far to the right. I can understand your skepticism, but in the larger picture, you have no idea how far right this country has veered since the 1980s. I think Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 changed things forever about America. It really introduced religion into politics in a way that never existed before. Barry Goldwater, this incredible conservative who ran against Johnson–he never talked about religion. And he was an ultra-conservative! The alignment of political, economic, and even religious forces in American life today is very disheartening to me. I think for your generation to find alternatives ways–whether the DIY movement, traveling easily outside of the country, protests–I hope that your generation can recreate the energy of the 60s. People were much more idealistic. On the other hand, by some accounts, the 60s were the product of a wealthy society. They had the time to go out, party, and be idealistic. That’s the rub. In a time of economic hardship, when your belly’s not full, how can you be in the street and protesting?
AQ: I do think Obama was the best person that could have been elected, and it’s like: if this guy can’t bring about some major changes, then we’re really fucked. When you’re in your twenties nowadays, you often lose your faith in the political system entirely, and focus instead on carving a little niche. This is where we get accused of “generational selfishness.” It’s often attributed to indulgent parenting. There are a pletora of articles coming out about “my generation.” Their sweeping generalizations usually drive me crazy, but I can’t help but read them. And I can see that most of my friends, while mostly culturally engaged and left-leaning, don’t talk too much or too deeply about politics. Most of the people who do end up being blowhards, representative of the polarization we have going on between the left and right.
AM: There’s only a certain amount of disenfranchisement that people can take before they start to take back what’s theirs. I think this is a natural part of the cycle of politics. I hope this is the beginning of something. Maybe it’ll be smothered. Look at Iran. They were ahead of the curve of the Arab Spring, and they got squashed. We’ll see what happens.
AQ: I’m working on a thesis about the tropicália movement in Brazil. These avant-garde hippies grew up in a golden age there that’s exemplified by bossa nova, then came of age in the sixties under this awful military dictatorship. Though leftists, they disavowed the sloganeering and backward-looking orthodox left as well as the right. They didn’t take sides, and poked fun at both ends of the political spectrum. Artistically, that’s more interesting to me than anything.
AM: I don’t think anyone can disagree that art has disengaged from politics. Now, it’s about money. When people look back on the last thirty years, the big movement in art has been very decorative. Jeff Koons, for example, is a super decorative artist. He makes incredible, super-expensive tchotchkes, and he’s just the tip of that iceberg. He even looks like Reagan! We’re in a huge stalemate, obviously. What will break it? Usually it’s some kind of violence, whether in words or in the street. Something has to give at this point. I’m not advocating any particular scheme, but welcome young people becoming re-engaged in politics. If it’s because of disillusionment, that may be the best thing. It’s not based on idealism. I don’t think any of what’s going on now is idealistic at all.
AQ: Oh, no. Obama’s first term to me represents a kind of end of idealism.
AM: If he’s not going to provide strong moral leadership, then somebody else is going to fill that vacuum. I saw The Book of Mormon the other night, and it was amazing, by the way. We may have a mormon for president!
AQ: It wouldn’t surprise me. But to go back to art and money: how long have you been making a living as a photographer?
AM: I always tell my students to practice their craft daily, but I was making some kind of living since 1983, photographing work for artists. That’s how I made my living for six, seven years. Photographing for galleries, making reproductions. It was easy work, it paid OK, and I got to hang with interesting folks. I had some periods in the late 80’s where I sold quite a few pictures. It’s only been since the late 90s that I’ve truly been able to make a good living selling my work. I was an overnight success after twenty years of work. It’s good to hang in there, but not everybody’s up to that challenge.
AQ: Looking at sites like Booooooom, Fecal Face, etc. has been one of my quintessential aesthetic experiences. You see the infinitude of great work being produced right now without the excessive lag and curating that comes with traditional magazines or galleries, and it goes on forever. For me, it levels the playing field. It turns the structure of things in visual art upside-down—in a way, these sites serve the 99% who are just making cool stuff, compared to the 1% who are, say, savvy or connected or tenacious enough to get into the MoMA. It brings “high” visual art in our culture, maybe for the first time, towards a wider audience, towards something more folk-oriented. And that makes me more compelled to hang in there. The motive is not “success,” especially financially, or even any grand sort of validation, but simply making stuff that gets out there and seen by people through its own intrinsic merit, even if only on the internet.
AM: This whole idea of: if you’re not famous before you’re 25…I heard that a lot when I was younger, and it really broke a lot of young artists. They felt that if they didn’t make it before 25 or 30 that they would never make it at all. It’s a very poisonous attitude. It’s such a burden for the people who that does happen to that they have difficulty growing from there. If you look at someone like Cézanne, his first pictures were really pretty terrible. The same with Van Gogh. And the Japanese woodblock artists, like Hiroshi and Hokusai, were making great work into their eighties. It’s not like being a mathematician, where most do their best work before they’re forty. I think one of the great things about being a visual artist is being able to mature and grow. It’s not like being an athlete. You’re using your mind, body, and soul all together. You can ripen and mature. I never felt like I had any options. I just had to go forward and pursue my work, like a horse with blinders, building a brick wall one brick at a time. It’s been a long, slow, steady build. I hope that means I have a good foundation.
AQ: Was there a moment when you knew you were going to, you know, “make it?”
AM: I felt that I didn’t have any options as a photographer. Being an artist came later for me. I didn’t dream about being an artist when I was twelve years old. I did want to travel, and was always interested in storytelling and narrative. It’s been a very slow, gradual process. All of my projects are self-funded, in terms of being funded through gallery sales. I applied for grants, and got a few small ones, bust mostly I was just able to piece together a few thousand dollars here and there to do the work. The biggest breakthrough came in my early 40’s, when I went to Havana. That was the tipping point in terms of establishing my credentials as a photographer and artist, doing work at a high level. This is twenty years after I graduated from college. In the first ten years I struggled, did lots of projects, traveled, and finally had my first show in New York when I was thirty, with those montages. It took ten years to improve my craft, and another ten to finesse things and begin to figure it out. A full twenty years after graduating was when I really got up to speed.
AQ: I think the channel gets narrower every day. Being a career photographer doesn’t strike me, at twenty-five, as a sane ambition [laughs].
AM: I have a lot of young people asking me how to get started and get a career going as a photographer. A lot of the pathways are narrower than they once were, but on the other hand, all of the your generation’s technological advances, that’ll be the way to go. If there are advances, it’ll be made through those. Digital photography has so profoundly democratized the art of taking pictures. Anybody with a decent camera can make a decent picture, at least from a technical standpoint. New hybrid forms are going to be the realm where young people have possibilities. But I can’t even imagine them.