Second thoughts on questions I was asked 20 years ago
by Mark Goodman
On June 13,1971, I was the first student to arrive at Apeiron Workshops in Photography located in Dutchess County, New York, on Silver Mountain, 87 miles north of Manhattan, five miles south of the village of Millerton. At the first workshop of four I signed up for that summer, all the students were given a simple assignment: go into Millerton, walk around, see what's to be seen and take some photographs. The year before, at age 24, after finally graduating from college where I majored not in art or photography but anthropology, I had studied with Minor White under whose tutelage I made metaphoric photographs and a few portraits. Soon I realized it was people I wanted to photograph. From the start in Millerton, that's what I did, photographing people nearly every day until 1980 when I moved to Austin to teach at The University of Texas. After that, I returned to Millerton almost every year for a month at a time to continue taking pictures for a second decade.
On October 23,1979,1 presented slides of my Millerton photographs taken during the previous eight years to a small class of undergraduate students in photography at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. From a transcript of a tape of that class, I've reconstructed some of the students' questions and my responses. Now, with the publication of A Kind of History. Millerton, New York 1971—1991 (which presents my photographs along with some of the vernacular photographs I printed from negatives I discovered in the town's attics), I've gone back to the old Wesleyan queries and amended my answers.
1979; my prologue
I'm going to show you 160 slides that are in completely random order. I usually keep changing the slides around so that I don't see them the same way twice since they're not in any final form. I took all these pictures for my own personal love of photography, sometimes more so than for documentary reasons.
I love photographing. All the walking, seeing, choosing, framing and the anticipation of pressing the shutter. I love looking at photographs, discovering in them something of what's out there in the world — at least, how it appears on paper later. But photographs are not only object lessons; they can be playful objects as well, filled with humor and grace and unexpected delights. Lyrical moments, fleeting and infrequent in life, are held in place in photographs. Then, too, in photographs you can study a person's face, a detail of clothing or a puzzling tattoo, while if you saw that individual in real life, you'd quickly turn away, not wanting to be caught staring. With a camera you can't help but stare; in fact, you must.
1979; first question
Q. Do you live in the town?
I live just outside of the town.
From 1971 through 1978,1 mainly lived at Apeiron Workshops. The land and buildings were a dairy farm before being transformed into a post-hippie arts facility, which caused the place to be dubbed by the people in Millerton "The Photo Farm." The people who gravitated to Apeiron grew up in suburban America, went to college and after the protests of the late 19605 were seeking a way back to the land, a place where they might search their souls and experiment with alternative lifestyles. In short, a place where they would be left alone to do whatever they wanted, whenever they pleased and could put off getting a regular job for as long as possible. Some of us were also committed to learning and doing photography. Whenever I wore out my welcome at Apeiron (and, later, following the collapse of the enterprise in 1981), I stayed in Pine Plains, the next town west, where there was a down-at-the-heels, though genteel Victorian rooming house run by an elderly German couple.
Q. What length of time were you actually in Millerton?
I'm still in Millerton. I never really stopped taking pictures in Millerton. I've taken pictures elsewhere, off and on, but I would say three quarters of my time during the past eight years has been in Millerton.
After moving to Texas in 1980, the ratio of time photographing in Millerton versus elsewhere was reversed, down to one quarter, though it was still my main photographic passion.
Q. How much do you photograph?
Usually, I am able to go out every day for months at a time.
I photographed like mad. I spent a lot of time walking and driving around the town making the place my own just by looking at it. I always had my camera with me. I went out every day actively seeking opportunities to photograph. I went into town early in the morning. I stayed throughout the day. I mainly photographed children and teenagers on the street, in backyards, at home, at the swimming pool, at dances and, after a few years of being in town, at school. And when photographing all day was no longer enough to satisfy my hunger for picture taking, I went around at night shooting with a flash. I discovered overlooked things, ordinary things and extraordinary things in the most ordinary places. Of course, there were also times when I couldn't find anyone or anything to photograph; or, I couldn't bring myself to attempt to take pictures, even when I did see possibilities, because of my own inertia and shyness as well as other people's incomprehension at my activity and never-ending presence. And yet, on some days, / shot more than a dozen rolls of film, pressing on, impassioned about photographing, remaining steadfastly focused and avoiding distractions.
Q. What size camera do you use?
I use everything from 35 mm to 2!4 and 4x5. Natural light, electronic flash and bare bulbs. Whatever. Usually, I go through phases. Rather than bringing the equipment to meet all eventualities, I use one at a time.
Q. Have you ever done any studio work?
No, Millerton's Main Street is my studio.
Q. How many exposures of a person do you take?
For the portraits, there might only be one, but I'd say it averages three or four. Usually the people I'm photographing get tired very quickly.
Q. Do you just take a picture and leave? Do you talk to them?
I started by asking people if I could take their picture. I carried a camera on a tripod so that I was very obvious about what I was doing. I was not surprising anybody but, more or less, confronting them. If they said no, I would not take their picture until they said yes, which might be years later, which may still not have happened.
/ think what was important was not how much I said, but how closely I listened and how carefully I looked. When I stepped onto the streets of Millerton that first summer, it reminded me of being on the streets of the small towns around Boston where I grew up in the 19505 and early 19605. If Millerton didn't strike me as especially strange, many people who lived there certainly viewed me as such. I had a beard and long hair, uncut the first two years I was in town, kept out my eyes by a headband that I wore when I was photographing, looking like a hippie, which did raise some eyebrows. Yet no one ever called the police to have me checked out, which did happen a time or two when I photographed briefly in towns in Kansas and Missouri. No one was ever so alarmed by me that they tried to have me run out of town. Instead, surprisingly, I was allowed to pursue my love of photography freely, practicing it daily, over and over again, year after year.
Q. It seems like in all this time, you must have built up some enemies. Do you get along with everyone? Your activities must irritate some people. 1979
Yes, they do. But, so far, I haven't been either assaulted or murdered.
Q. You generally take a pretty passive approach to problems.
Q. Problems with people who don't like you being there. Has it gotten to where you feel that the length of time has created a difference in the photographs?
Part of the luxury of much time is that I can take lots of pictures until I get what I want. So, I'm totally leisurely about all of this. If I don't get a picture, maybe another day or perhaps another year.
I settled in for the long haul. I photographed many of the same people over and over again, as often as they would let me, at times creating serial portraits of people across one or two decades. Unexpectedly, by immersing myself as a photographer in this one place, over time I started to see others — at least those I was photographing — in a more generous way. I saw what people go through day by day and what that adds up to in the long run. I never stopped thinking about what makes an interesting picture while I was photographing or later when looking at the pictures I'd taken, but I never forgot who I was seeing in those photographs, never dismissed what I'd witnessed.
Q. It seems there's a lot of children in all these pictures. Is there some particular reason for that?
Part of that is they're more available; they're always about, and they're not as self-consciously uptight as adults. But I think the reason that there are so many children is that I love what children do — visually.
Q. That's interesting, because you say you like what they do, but a larger percentage of the pictures that I've seen so far are of faces.
Right. What they "do" can be emotional. These pictures are as much about psychology as they are about sociology.
At first, I only took portraits, photographing faces, but after the first year I pursued taking pictures of activities where I concentrated on the movements and gestures children make, which are often exuberantly expressive and much more telling than any of the verbal responses they gave to the questions I asked them.
Q. If they're about psychology, what do you expect the person who's never seen these pictures to get from them?
I don't know. I don't have an audience other than myself in mind when I work. They're all taken for me.
Q. One of the things I've noticed - I don't know if you've picked up on some of the same type of feelings I get, maybe if s just that I come from a different type of environment than a small town - but there's a very sorrowful kind of quality when I look at some of the photographs of these people. It might just be my own perceptions of what right and wrong is for people, but I see them as people who just don't live very wonderful, exciting or happy lives, especially a lot of the ones you took of people with tattoos.
A lot of people have a lot of serious difficulties — including children.
Q. But you are aware of the way you portray your subjects?
Obviously, there's something that attracts me to this sort of quality.
/ didn't claim to know the answers to any of the problems that needed solving. I never saw myself knowing— or pretending to know — how anybody else should live his or her life. As years went by, I saw children growing up. Many of the kids who hung out on the street every day, too often without much else that was positive to do, presented themselves before my camera in ways that declared, "What you see is what you get, here and now." If I sometimes pointed out in my photographs of these kids a deep seated sense of sadness, I also pinpointed a surprising dignity, a vivid physicality, and a sense of humor that overcame dreariness. Mostly, these kids were pleased with the attention I gave them by taking their pictures. There were also more sheltered children who were not "running the streets," less readily seen, more reserved in presenting themselves before the camera. These kids were postponing their lives (as I had done), believing parents and teachers who told them that their life, after much preparation, awaited them in the future, not in Millerton, but somewhere else; not now, but later.
Q. I think what I'm driving at is more than being a portrait of the town, I get more a portrait of you. The personal feelings you have are being reflected in the photographs.
I think I'm very present in the photographs; I don't deny that.
Q. I guess. It is just when we first looked at the slides you sent and we read your letter describing the project, describing the kinds of things that you'd done, it gave the sense that you were portraying a community from the inside out. And this is very much from the outside in.
Well, that keeps shifting. Sometimes I feel that I'm photographing more from the inside, and then I get so deeply inside that I suddenly realize I'm not inside at all — I really am outside. I keep changing. I'm not trying to be "shifty," so to speak, as much as refusing now to have my mind made up, to committing myself to one presentation because the project is still going on.
Sometimes I did think I was photographing from the inside. In 1974,1 described my accumulating pictures as "a portrait rather than a documentary because I'm concerned with individual people — specific friends of mine — people who recognize me and whom I recognize. It's like saying, "hello." That same year, piling into a van with a bunch of high school boys to go to some event, one of the boys said to me, "You're one of us." I don't know why he said it at that time, but it felt right then, even though I suspected it wasn't entirely true.
Q. Do you think you will leave Millerton after a while?
Perhaps. Even though all the pictures I want are not there. It is difficult for me to say, "This IS the town!" There are too many loose ends, and, I am admitting to the fact that there are. It is hard to say whether I'll ever be able to complete the thing or whether I'll abandon it.
Q. What would be completing it?
I suppose publishing a book and my stopping photographing there. It would be a very arbitrary ending, in a way, because it's not the kind of thing that's ever completed. You die and that's it.
Q. How did the photographs change
Not at all. The photographs changed
/ was a fool for a picture. I couldn't stop photographing. I never had any deadlines. I could take photographic risks since I was the first, and, if I chose, the last viewer of anything I shot. Most of the pictures were inelegant or banal and I ripped them up; I put many thousands of frames of film into the trash, and then immediately went back out and took a lot more pictures. I didn't think about pleasing other people, not those who were in the pictures, nor those who might see them later.
I discovered I was at my best when I didn't try to look at the big picture, but the smaller ones I could discover within my viewfinder. Right or wrong didn't always seem so easily defined. Anyway, I was tired of jumping to conclusions about people I didn't know by labeling them. I didn't come into town with a yardstick, to see how everyone measured up, but with a camera that I hoped was going to improve my vision. I wanted to take photographs of anyone who let me. If I had to label people, it would be "those who let me take their picture and those who didn't."
Some of the Millerton kids I never saw again after I moved to Texas. They, too, had left town and our return visits didn'tcoincide. Some went to college and became professionals. Others learned a trade, joined the military or were jacks-of-all-trades. A few went in and out of jail, while others stayed put, still living at home or down the street from where they grew up, gravitating to the same spots to hang out, as suspended in life as they are in my photographs. Most of them got married and became parents, if not always in that order. For myself, I chose to go to work and to get married and to photograph new places in ways I'd not tried before, the pictures continuing to change as I do. Finally, in 19911 stopped going back to Millerton as a photographer altogether, and, eight years later, the pictures became a book.
The last pair of photographs in the book shows the same young man. First, in 1975, nearing the end of his teenage years, he sits on his bed throwing his new puppy into the air. In the photograph, the dog is caught in mid-flight, levitating above a velvet painting on the back wall of the astronauts who successfully landed on the moon (the dog landed safely on the next bed). The second picture was taken 16 years later. The teenage boy is now a grown man, while his dog, now ancient, with cataracts clouding his eyes, is unable to jump onto the bed, let alone fly through the air. He is lifted to the top of the bed by his human companion, who gently leans around and embraces him for one final portrait.
MARK GOODMAN PRESENTED AN EXHIBITION, A KIND OF HISTORY, AT HOUSTON CENTER FOR PHOTOGRAPHY FROM APRIL 6 TO MAY 21, 2001. CURATED BY CLINT WILLOUR AND CO-SPONSORED WITH THE GALVESTON ART CENTER.