Interview with Carl Chiarenza
“It’s interesting that [in the early 1970s] the photojournalists, the documentary photographers and the aesthetic photographers – whatever you want to call them – were all talking to each other and were very supportive of each other. Once the art world took over that whole thing changed.”
David Brittain: You began editing Contemporary Photographer in the late ’60s. What was the climate for photography around the time?
Carl Chiarenza: Well, let me take you back to the mid–’50s when I was a student. There were 14 people in the same class at RIT – Rochester Institute of Technology in upper New York State – including Jerry Uelsmann, Bruce Davidson, Ken Josephson, Pete Turner, Peter Bunnell. And both Minor White and Ralph Hattersley were teaching there – and they’re both crazy!
One of the many things where they were at opposite ends of the spectrum over was the picture sequence. Minor was focusing on individual pictures or sequences and concentrating on the single image or the sequence of images as relating to each other without text. He usually did some portfolios with text as well, but the text was always on a separate sheet and was at the beginning or the end of the sequence…
Whereas one of the things Hattersley is into is Life magazine, analysing the public magazines. It was the peak of Life magazine in the mid-’50s; Gene Smith was a major figure at that time – so we were very conscious of his arguments with the magazine over how to lay out a picture story, about how the pictures relate to each other and how does the way you put them together with text and captions help convey the emotions of the drama of that particular issue, whatever it might be…
So, we were getting stuff from both ends, being exposed to two different approaches to a similar idea using photographs.
As for Contemporary Photographer (Tim Hill was first editor and Don Patterson was second editor): photojournalists were losing a vehicle for their work – Life [which finished as a weekly in 1972], Look [which closed in 1971], Holiday and other such magazines – so they were looking for places to do stories. That’s one of the things Aperture wasn’t doing (it never really did it). [Ed: Aperture was founded by Minor White, Ansel Adams, Beaumont Newhall and others. White edited the magazine, from its first issue in 1952 until 1975.] Everybody who was involved with Contemporary Photographer was very conscious of Aperture and conscious of trying to bring something to the public (the 1,200 people who saw these things!) that showed photography in a broader spectrum, but just as seriously treated.
There’s an issue of Contemporary Photographer with Duane Michals and myself where you have independent pages, white borders and single pictures. They are sequences in a sense closer to what Minor was doing. Then you have the symposium [in summer 1963, with John Szarkowski, Gene Smith, Walter Rosenblum, Gordon Parks in a “symposium on photographic style” at the New York School for Social Research] that dealt with the problems of photojournalism in photography.
We knew that Aperture was a serious publication – whether or not you agreed with it. It was serious and intense and it had a message. At Contemporary Photographer we were essentially trying to do the same thing (and that was true probably of Creative Camera as well) to get the word out about what serious photographers were doing at that moment. But once you got going you did more than what you set out to do, in one sense, and less than you set out to do in another sense! I guess Contemporary Photographer was trying to be broader in terms of kinds of photography … But it was so restricted by limitations: we didn’t have the resources Minor had – whether for printing, or the resources of the community he had which was much more established in terms of that kind of publication.
DB: How was the gallery scene for photography?
CC: There was a gallery in Boston that started showing photographs in the ’50s. That became a meeting place for all the photography people on the Boston area – Wednesday nights we’d all get together in the gallery. Then there were a couple of small galleries – there was Limelight in New York, then the Underground gallery and another started by a classmate of mine called Gallery 216: these all started I think in the ’60s. The Carl Siembab gallery on Newbury Street, Boston was a small gallery that started out as a painting sculpture, drawing and print–making gallery… People used to come to Boston regularly from Rochester and New York and there was a circuit that happened for several years, but then it began to drift to New York.
In ’71 another photographer, Warren Hill, and I started a school and workshop called ImageWorks – it was two years after Nathan Lyons started the photographic Workshop here in Rochester. Then we ran out of money with that; there was a hiatus and five or six years later in ’76 we started the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, which is still there.
That kind of stuff was happening all the time – and it was all the same community; the people who started the SPE – the Society for Photographic Education – in ’62 were the same few people who were teaching photography. Nathan and Henry Holmes Smith and Aaron Siskind were the primary people involved in getting the thing off the ground, and Minor and others to some extent. About 12 people the first year, maybe 20 the second year. So it’s this tiny little group of people.
It’s interesting that at that point the photojournalists, the documentary photographers and the aesthetic photographers – whatever you want to call them – were all talking to each other and were very supportive of each other. Once the art world took over that whole thing changed.
DB: In the early ’50s Aperture began a search for a critical discussion around photography. Tell me what your memories of that were around this time.
CC: Minor from the very beginning … was very clear that he was trying to develop a language with which to talk about photography. One of the things that made that explicit, besides Aperture, was he was working on a manuscript called How to Read Photographs which he gave me and others to read and to respond to. That was based on Heinrich Wolfflin’s book, Principles of Art History. He tried to adapt Wolfflin’s language to photography.
Then Walter Chappell came to town and he and Walter started working on this together on that piece that was published in Aperture (Vol 5, No 3 1957) – that was essentially about how to “read” and talk about photographs.
DB: What did you think of that famous article?
CC: I remember it well enough to know it was a very intriguing and interesting piece for us. It had – as all Minor’s stuff had – that overtone that you’ve always got to sort of get beyond. But basically, it was an introduction to how to think about and talk about pictures, how to look at them; how to share what you saw or thought about with someone else by writing; developing a language. You also have, at the same time, Henry Holmes Smith out in Indiana who’s doing the same thing in much more down to earth language. And in fact the meeting of Smith and Minor, through Aperture, brings these two different kinds of languages together to begin to teach the community how to deal with photographs.
DB: Minor White seemed to be saying that the reading of a picture is a sounding exercise for the person who made the picture to see if a feeling has been communicated – but the reader is a sounding board for the success of the image. I don’t think that’s anything to do with critical thinking.
CC: You’re right to make a distinction between developing a critical language to be used by people who are going to be writing about the medium and the distinction between the photographer him or herself understanding what it is the photograph is. That’s interesting because at that time there are no critics, there are no historians – there’s Beaumont Newhall and Minor trying to fiddle around with Image magazine (published by George Eastman House) and Nathan then takes over. The fact is – and it’s true my entire life – I ended up doing criticism, history and picture-making. There was nobody else to do it but myself along with Minor, Walter and others in Aperture. All the writing that did happen, with very few exceptions, was done by photographers. Why I get confused in my own head is that I learned to write about pictures as a picture-maker, not as a historian: I did that later. I ended up being a historian – and that’s another story, but I certainly didn’t set out to do that. I supported making pictures by doing all those other things…
DB: Where was Contemporary Photographer produced?
CC: When Don Patterson took it over (“Pat” we called him) he was in Virginia, then he moved to Boston and that’s how we got connected. Lee Lockwood, who preceded me as editor, was a photojournalist who was working out of Black Star based in Boston and New York. In those days there was constant travel between New York, Rochester and Boston. So one could say it wasn’t really produced anywhere; it was produced in the air, in the mail or the telephone. If there was a place it was Boston for the longest stretch. But the place was where whoever edited was.
DB: The printer funded it?
CC: As you were asking the question I was trying to figure out who paid for the postage! It must have been the printer, who was this crazy guy in Culpeper, Virginia who I visited a couple of times. I only saw him twice in my life. The magazine got printed down there – I think it was arranged by Pat: since he was from Virginia he made the connection with Culpeper Press. The guy, JD Wohlleben, had some kind of interest in doing it. The printer was the person who got whatever subscriptions/sales money came in (it went directly to him). None of us ever saw a dollar or a cheque! The designer worked for free, everybody who wrote worked for free. I’m sure even the printer lost money on the project.
DB: Where did you get your mailing list?
CC: I don’t remember. It just grew over the years.
DB: Aperture listed its subscribers.
CC: They were people who donated money. We never had patrons. The mailing list eventually must have come out of the sources we had which started out with the small community we all knew – probably Black Star had a list and maybe Magnum had a list, when the SPE came into existence there was that list, which started with 24 people then grew. The final size of that list, I remember hearing, I think, 1,200. That certainly would have been maximum. That was a lot for those days.
DB: Your first issue as editor (Volume V No 4, 1968) is different from the previous one. In size, in content, and I think the feel for the text is different…
CC: Lee was a photojournalist and New York-based. And I am more connected with the other side. In some ways it would have been better if we had continued together. Between us we had a larger contact with the world of photography. But that’s the way it goes.
DB: Why the change in format? It’s now square.
CC: I don’t remember. I worked to redesign the whole thing with a friend. Margaret Powell, who is listed as art director, was Wohlleben’s associate and he insisted that she be the art director (I think she worked at the Culpeper Press). But this was designed by a friend of mine, William F McLane.
DB: This cover says Contemporary Photographer and it has this “modern” design – like a meeting of design and typography. The motif could be a photograph but it might not be.
CC: No, it’s not a photograph. It’s more like an [artist Josef] Albers square. Bill did the whole thing. I doubt that Margaret Powell designed the cover after I took over. I am “guilty” of having chosen the contents. Marie Cosindas and Warren Hill [who were featured with portfolios] were both Boston photographers. At that moment it looked as if they were both going to develop into something. It was Warren and I, as I was saying earlier, that founded ImageWorks, which was a sort of version of the Visual Studies Workshop, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
That went for about three years but could not sustain the funding. But while it lasted it was a terrific place; it had workshop classes. It had master students, the way the VSW had, and it had many workshop courses running throughout the year and ran a regular series of exhibitions and lectures with people like Duane and many others before they were known. But it was costing one benefactor (Don Perrin, owner of Crimson Camera in Cambridge) a lot of money. Warren just disappeared and went off to Maine, I think…
This issue was important because it was the first time alternative views were brought together – I’m talking about the pictures and the articles. They are all manifestos for breaking the rules. The rules had sort of been set up in 20th century photography from Strand and Stieglitz down, on to Minor and the Zone System and previsualisation and all these things that Uelsmann and Robert Heinecken were attacking, saying essentially that there are other alternatives. And why aren’t we looking at those? That was also true of Ralph Hattersley. So all three people are asking for something different. That was a point of view that I got from studying at the same moment with Ralph and Minor who, as I was saying earlier, were presenting opposite positions: both extremely creative guys, but between them showing that there was a spread within the medium of potential and possibility.
DB: Would you go along with the critic AD Coleman’s thesis that there was a conspiracy to enshrine “straight” photography at a high level at the expense of all other sorts?
CC: Not a conspiracy, exactly. I came out of that tradition. The thing about our generation that is important, I think, is that no matter what we, individually, were going to do (and I think Jerry Uelsmann would concur with me on this) we never lost touch with the past; we never lost respect for the past.
Even if we were going to challenge it – as Jerry did or as Heinecken did in a new direction – people never attacked the past in a way as to say, that’s stupid or dumb. These people were seeing their work as a progression or development using what came from the past and building from it in different directions – which is what art is about. It’s about moving in new directions but never losing sight of where it’s coming from. At least that’s my view of it.
What’s happened in the last twentysomething years is that everybody has just thrown the past away and are beginning “anew” without any sense of what they’re using from the past. These people knew what they were using. Historians and makers were very conscious of the whole history of photography. That’s the important difference, I think, between this kind of development from the past – in a new direction – and the current thing which is just not to look at the past and say it’s all bad (white European males and all the rest of that kind of political jargon) and in the process throwing out all the visual stuff. You look at the past to understand and to develop from it, to build on it and expand it, not to shut it off.
So the features in this issue promoted developing new directions and promoted a respect for and understanding of the past. That’s what we were trying to do with this publication. To show the range of the medium rather than the narrowness. Yet never saying there was something wrong with what happened before. But that there was more to be done.
DB: You also feel the issue themed “The Concerned Photographer” (Volume VI No 2) was important. Why especially?
CC: This was 1968 or ’69. I worked with Cornell Capa on this. It was essentially his idea. He was trying to promote the Fund for Concerned Photography, which would provide money for concerned photographers at a point when photo journals, picture magazines like Life and Look, were dying. He was trying to find ways to continue supporting that kind of photography. The International Center Of Photography in New York came out of this. He did a major exhibition and a catalogue. This issue came out first then the show happened, then the catalogue for the show, which has the same title.
DB: Was this the last issue?
CC: Yeah. The printer just said: we can’t do this any more, then we had to stop. A bit later I heard that Mark Power, a photographer in Washington, was going to become the new editor of Contemporary Photographer. He had, I think, actually put together an issue with Wohlleben that had never come out. I don’t know what happened. I edited three and one with Lee. Not very much.
DB: How would it have continued? Would you have kept broadening out the definition of photography?
CC: Yes…. We had another issue planned with a portfolio by Ken Josephson. (That may have been the issue that I asked Margery Mann to write for and she declined.) There was a whole issue planned and we never got the funding for it. Then I got frustrated and pulled out. I liked Ken – whose work, like Uelsmann’s – was referenced to the past (to Harry Callahan in particular) but also moved in a completely new direction, that was beginning to open up the idea of a picture within a picture – the whole idea of appropriation. Ken was doing that already. So that’s an indication of what we wanted to do.
It sounds a little weird saying it but I think the idea was to show how quality could exist in photography in different directions. In the ’70s, I wrote a piece (actually an essay, which was first given as a lecture in a series by various people called “The new histories of photography” at the Art Institute of Chicago) called “Towards an Integrated History of Picturemaking”. And that really is where I was – and still am. I think all pictures are related and there are quality productions in all these areas and what we should study is how they related and how they expand each other. The medium is much too expansive, too full, to limit it.
DB: You have said you were concerned about the critical writing in CP because everyone had to learn on the job. Did you see any change about the late ’60s in the expertise?
CC: There just wasn’t very much being said. It was a struggle to find somebody to do something. We were pushing people like crazy to write. But most picture-makers don’t write; don’t know how to write, don’t want to write. And nobody else was interested. Once that transition happened the whole thing exploded. For better or for worse, or for both.
DB: When did that happen?
CC: Certainly by the 1970s. Afterimage did some really terrific stuff in the ’70s.That was where my first work in on Siskind appeared and that’s where that article I mentioned appeared. There was very important stuff happening right there. It’s been a rough road for Afterimage during the past decade or so – but before that: in the ’70s it was a very important publication.
DB: There is a sense with Contemporary Photographer – missing at the time with Aperture – of trying to connect with what was going on in the world, the contemporary issues.
CC: It was an amateur attempt to try to do something none of us had any training in. Lee, as a working photojournalist, had a closer connection to publications than I did. I was slightly involved in a publication my wife edited called Liberal Context in which, actually, we published some portfolios of photographers. It was by the Unitarian Universalist Association, which was a hotbed of activity in the ’60s for leftist, liberal views. I did the portfolios. One cover has a Paul Caponigro picture of a dandelion. The texts were not about art or photography; they were political.
There was also the Boston Review of Photography that published four or five issues. We used to call it “Brp”! There was Choice in Chicago and Aaron Siskind was co-editor. It was a poetry magazine. There were occasional things that did photography, but there was nothing else – besides Brp and Infinity and the popular camera magazines. There was also Jacob Deshin’s little publication, the Photo Review. He had earlier reviewed shows for the New York Times. He started doing that as a camera columnist for the Reporter. So he was making the transition from having been a camera columnist to paying attention to what was going on at the Limelight gallery in New York and other places. Then he started writing and publishing his own publication that was called the Photo Reporter. Then there was Camera magazine from Switzerland. In the mid-’70s there was also Printletter, Afterimage and probably others. Amazingly, they are all very different – even at that stage.
It was a period when it was all very parochial; everybody, in what was a very small world at the time, was trying to do something with what they had, with very limited resources, not only in terms of money, but in everything else. There was no money and everyone worked for free. You were delighted if someone sent you something in the mail that you could publish.
DB: While you were editing CP you were teaching art history, writing a PhD, practising as a photographer… Why edit, when it was a lot of work with no income?
CC: It’s hard to remember exactly. But my basic recollection is that we were all doing what we could to try to get the word out that this was happening – that pictures were being made and were important, historically. And so it was an effort to bring some attention to it. I came out of education with Minor White and Beaumont Newhall, who were photographers who wrote. Beaumont Newhall was a photographer who wrote and got stuck in art history – the same way I did, sort of. We all felt it was part of what you had to do. It’s standard in history that practitioners are the first people to write about their history. For Stieglitz it was true. Until that point photography was a backwater and there were only a few people interested. So, we took whatever venue we could find to spread the word.