A Walking Conversation with John Gossage

with Tim Carpenter

John Gossage kindly met with me in early June for a conversation held both in his Washington, D.C. apartment (which doubles as a world-class photobook library) and on a picture-making walk nearby.

TC: Thanks for agreeing to photograph during part of our talk. I’m excited for that.

JG: It’s actually the real goods as opposed to the speculation. But if you said, “Explain to me what you’re doing right now, when you choose to make a picture,” well, I don’t know the answer to that.

As you know, you educate your instincts and then you work on instinct. In that Scorsese documentary on the Rolling Stones, they ask Keith Richards what are you thinking when you’re onstage. Well, nothing. If you think when you’re playing, you haven’t learned what you’re doing. You don’t think.

TC: There’s an idea attributed to Tod Papageorge that if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not reading enough.

JG: (laughs) Yeah, exactly.

There’s a reason I have Atget screensavers on my computer. They’re a constant reminder that there are better ways to organize the world than I know how to do. Basically I look at the ones I don’t know, and ones that are awkward. It’s literally instructional to me to see how he worked.

TC: I sometimes wonder: what if the idea of the photobook had existed for Atget?

JG: Well, he did the albums, which had a connection. The pictures with a border around them I assume were from album pages, and they’re inscribed from where they are. But I don’t think anyone before [Walker] Evans thought of literature in the photobook.

TC: Right. When we spoke before you placed the beginning of a photobook literature with American Photographs.

JG: Yeah, I can’t find anything else in any other language earlier than that, and he’s so positioned for it. Being essentially a writer by aspiration initially, and then he gets involved with [Lincoln] Kirstein, who’s also a writer and has at least as much to do with the editing of that book and everything as Evans does. They were perfect for each other.

TC: I want to probe more about what you mean by a literature. Gerry Badger has famously quoted your four standards for a great photobook.

JG: Yeah, the random email. I kept telling him, “I’m not going to say anything profound in this email.”

TC: And then it all became set in stone. But I think the crux is the second idea: that the book must be a self-contained world.

JG: Yes. That’s what any novel does. All of the sudden we’re in a person’s bedroom. That’s the world, that’s the effect that it has. And it’s a literary model that we’ve honed in on and are able to use.

Let’s take a look at American Pictures. Whoever writes this [on the dust jacket], and we’re not sure if it’s Evans or it’s Kirstein: “The reproductions in this book are intended to be looked at in a given sequence.” In all capital letters. He’s telling you what’s going on; they’re operating instructions. Which is bizarre, and if you don’t have the dust jacket, you don’t know it exists.

TC: Did the Museum of Modern Art hang the pictures in the same order as the book?

JG: Well, Evans did it, very eccentrically. He locked himself in the gallery at night, and basically he was cropping the pictures and sort of plopping them on the wall. It’s very clutzy. You can envision that Evans was never particularly interested in installing things on the wall. It doesn’t seem to be what he cares about.

TC: Which is a theme I’d like to talk about: as you’ve made clear with The Pond, you never saw that as a wall show at first.

JG: I didn’t want the photographs to be scanned. The simple thing that Evans understood, whether he voiced it or not, is that there is a special case of having a single picture, having it be in front of you, and then very clearly pass into memory. Have it not be accessible, and that memory affects the picture that comes after it. That these speak to each other that way. All of this is Photobook 101 now, but it wasn’t back then. This was the avant-garde.

And now we’ve come to find that 75% of these pictures in this book are the classic American pictures.

TC: So that’s where The Pond has always felt different to me from American Photographs or even The Americans, another source of classic pictures. You made photographs that you didn’t mean to be classic; the pictures operate some other way, and I always thought that where you took the photobook with The Pond was a major break with those precedents.

JG: With The Pond, I just thought that was no literary model for narrative landscape. There was no effective equivalent in writing. Landscape tended to be setting, in general. William Maxwell showed me a few literary examples of what I was trying to achieve, so it wasn’t unprecedented, but certainly not common.

The idea was to reinforce the ordinariness of the pursuit. I would take a step off of the pavement. You leave the pavement, and then you go home. It’s all those little paths that kids have, the back way, the more interesting way to go.

TC: That ordinariness presented a fresh challenge to most viewers. These were not obvious wall pictures. Whereas most of the pictures in American Photographs and The Americans do a lot on their own.

JG: That’s because you weren’t young at the time they were made. I wasn’t either, but I think it’s because we’ve learned how to look at them almost genetically. And both of the books sold phenomenally badly at the time. They had no audience whatsoever; you couldn’t give them away.

The funny thing is, even with the reprint of The Pond and all the people who say it had an impact on them, we only sold about 12 copies I think. I did a signing at ICP that Aperture set up and one person came. It was a phenomenally unpopular book.

TC: It’s like that quote about the Velvet Underground: They didn’t have many fans, but all of those fans went out and started bands of their own.

JG: Yes! Well, it was reviewed in People magazine, which was totally cross-marketing. “Gee, I wonder what photobook I should buy, let’s see what People recommends.”

TC: When you were young in New York, and friendly with many legendary photographers, were there also folks interested in the book form in the way you were?

JG: Well, yes and no. Remember there were almost no shows, no galleries. So if you’re interested in photography, you’re interested in books. That was the default position.

TC: Was anyone thinking in the literary way you’ve described? Were you talking with anybody about that?

JG: I wasn’t even fully thinking of that. I just wanted to have it and look over it. I would be the one who would go through the show quickly so I could get to the bookstore and buy the catalog. I was a slow learner, I needed to see it over and over again to know what the best work was about.

TC: So with The Pond, whom did you show the pictures to as you were working on it?

JG: Lewis [Baltz]. He had done The New Industrial Parks and he was the first person I knew personally who aspired to the kind of thing that I was interested in. It was an idea about what you want and how you want to do it.

TC: And yet your work is so different from that of a conceptualist like Baltz.

JG: My pictures inform me. They provide an inclination to do something, to try something somewhere or some way. And then the pictures inform me of the place I’m going with it. I’m the inverse of a conceptualist. I don’t illustrate preexisting ideas; I don’t know how to do it.

TC: So The Pond comes out and only a few people buy it at first. Were you discouraged? Or did you feel you were on the right track?

JG: I’m fairly un-career-oriented. I really didn’t give a fuck. Lewis said it was a great book, Walter Hopps said it was a great book, Leo Castelli. Other people like that. So, OK, it’s a great book.

The cloudy day brightens a bit and we walk outside, into the large forested park across the street.

TC: You once said: “The things that I photograph, in the way that I photograph them, to be beautiful.” I’m drawn by the agency you claim in that.

JG: Clearly, the kind of things I photograph, it’s like that (points to a curb by a tree and a sidewalk), the more commonly available it is, almost the more interested I am in it. And when I turn it off, when I’m not on duty, they don’t fascinate me. They are what they are. I like that there are times when things are just exactly as they seem. It’s a relief.

In general, I’m interested in the inverse of photojournalism. I’m more interested in the photograph than in the event. That’s one of the interests in this kind of photography.

TC: You also said of a successful photograph: I can live with this view from my experience lived up to this point.

JG: (halts to make a picture) What choice do we have?

(stays silent for another moment) Alright, the light’s happening.

TC: Do you like a day like this, with shifting light?

JG: No, because then I tend to have to hang around places too much. And I’m impossible with tripods.

TC: So speaking of tripods, is The Actor your only large format work?

JG: Yeah, I sort of kept that back for a while. It had to do with Baltz kind of issues. I wanted to do it because I found the architecture particularly odd in the vernacular sense, but also if you did a series where you said they were all banks, that people would find that in the picture no matter where you put it. You set the context up.

And then when I looked at it, I thought it was too close to Lewis and other people that I knew, and it wasn’t as good. It was a side little thing. Alec Soth was actually the one who got me to do it, because he wanted me to do a book with Little Brown Muskrat. (I laugh.) But his format was 24 pictures, and we both really agreed that it should be more pictures.

TC: So, speaking of more pictures, let’s talk about Berlin in the Time of the Wall.

JG: More pictures!

TC: When did you think you’d do 450-odd pictures in a book?

JG: Part of it’s an editing issue. Sometimes more is more. (pauses to make a picture)

Michael Abrams asked the bad question. When I first met him he said that being a collector is frustrating because you’re not really involved in the medium. And he’d really liked Snake Eyes, and he said, “Do you have anything else?”

And I said I have a book that I can’t really propose to any publisher with a straight face. He said tell me. And he’s a guy who figures out how to make things work.

TC: And so for Putting Back the Wall, how’d you figure this was going to be two volumes?

JG: Well, I was talking with Michael and we were making some other books, and he said John we should do another book of yours, too. And I said let’s so something that absolutely nobody wants; let’s do some more Berlin pictures.

“Don’t encourage John. Things are going to get out of hand very quickly.” Young photographers will kill me to hear this, but I’ve never had to make a compromise on any book I’ve ever done. I’ve been exceedingly lucky. I got in on the ground floor.

TC: And talking about things getting out of hand, you made The Things Animals Care About, And or Hey Fuckface, where the “books” aren’t even bound. When did you start thinking about those kinds of things?

JG: I got interested in the space between the wall and your lap. It’s engineered so you can’t hang those pictures. So it’s somewhere in between.

TC: How did the bootleg of Hey Fuckface come about?

JG: Well, they [Horses Think Press] had done Alec’s Broken Manual, and they just asked. And I thought that’s cool, lets see what it looks like. And I enjoyed it immensely. I even added extra pictures, the alternates that were good.

(stops a longer while to make a picture)

TC: You once recounted a conversation with Robert Adams about coming home frustrated sometimes from a day of photographing. Does that still happen, or do you feel like you can produce on any given day?

JG: I know how to make pictures. My pictures, not other people’s. But sometimes what they look like can be pretentious. They strain for meaning, as opposed to inhabiting it. And that feels bad, and that happens all the time. Because I’m out here to make something. And sometimes, you know, it’s just not the day to do that. And you wind up with failures. And then you make a book out of those!

TC: So let’s talk about failures.

JG: Yeah, aren’t we supposed to be talking about A Dozen Failures?

TC: Yes, ultimately. The first thing is to distinguish failures from mistakes.

JG: Mistakes are really easy. If I left the exposure for what I had inside, that’s obvious and has no other ramification.

TC: But failures are slippery.

JG: The failures book has actually been amazingly interesting to me because it set the expectation for pictures somewhere else that I wasn’t used to putting them. And as I look at the pictures more, I’m getting closer and closer to that. It’s changing my definition of success. It’s made for me, basically. It’s changed the edit of the next book. I mean, it’s arguable that all of those pictures are successes. Very very arguable.

TC: When I first saw the pictures and the idea, the thing that delighted me the most was that it hung together as a photobook on its own, but that’s also like a Rosetta stone, a way to unlock your career.

JG: Exactly. I went back to contact sheets all the way from The Pond shooting to see: can I pull that all in? What was it that met the criteria I was setting for myself?

TC: You’ve talked about A Dozen Failures being a really tough edit.

JG: Yeah. One, I wanted to make it a book that people wanted to look at repeatedly. And all my initial instincts are how do you make the most successful pictures you can. And this wasn’t the given. I had to relearn how to do what I was doing, and keep appraising, looking at it over and over again to see did it really do what I wanted it to do. Or was I just sneaking in some orphans–and it couldn’t just be that. That’s not interesting.

TC: Right. So tell me more about straining versus inhabiting.

JG: In the book, the closest I came to straining was picture of shopping center parking lot with the light of God. That was the over-reaching picture. Can you ask more from the literature of the picture than you actually can support? That’s what Romanticism is, by definition.

TC: That makes me think of a similar idea that prose is descriptive of an experience, whereas a poem embodies the experience.

JG: Yes, and the trap of poetry is to overreach, which happens all the time.

TC: Perhaps that’s a nice note to end on. Let’s not overreach.

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