When I first starting hanging out at HCSP, I quickly became familiar with Chuck’s work. He was showing much of his brilliant black and white work from the ’70s but also producing exceptional new street work. Over the years I’ve gotten to know him and his work a bit better which only deepens my appreciation for what he’s accomplished as a photographer. He’s the consummate photographer who simply goes out to make photographs because he loves to do it. I’m very excited that Chuck has given us the opportunity to showcase his work in the first issue. Much to Chuck’s surprise, I decided to showcase his color work from the last few years because as he likes to say, ‘he’s not dead yet.’
You’ve been photographing for decades, years before the internet. How has the internet changed your perception of photography?
I had also stopped photographing for years before the Internet, so that kind of had an effect as well. If I had to put a finger on how the Internet, as an amorphous beast, changed my perception, it would be in two ways.
The first is that it made me aware that I had peers – that there were a lot of people who liked the same kinds of images that I liked. You and I have loosely called it street photography, but that’s a convenience. I think of it more as simple and unaffected, which is about all I seem capable of because I just can’t cope with all the technique needed for large format and have too milquetoast a personality to do edgy stuff.
The second is that it made me wonder if it didn’t debase the art just a little bit, maybe in a good way. I think maybe one of the nicest things about photography is that it travels so easily among distribution media. You know, a strong image is going to look good even in a kind of crappy presentation, which is what a computer monitor is, basically. Magazines performed that function in the mid-20th c. and photography developed a kind of look to deal with that. Then they went away and photography as anything but journalism became all about bravura performance – the huge prints, the fabulous detail and color, etc.
Now we’re back to crappy presentation as the primary medium. It DOES devalue subtlety, and that’s a shame. Pictures, especially in a venue like Flickr, need some kind of massive hook to get noticed, like a pop tune. Walker Evan’s stuff would just die. But at the same time, I think it lets a lot more air into the practice. I see a lot of things that I don’t think I would ever get to see without it – and more comprehensively than I could ever get from a print publication.
As a photographer, I feel like I get to have a much closer relationship with other photographers and that I can more easily understand what they’re up to. And I also see that guys still like to photograph their wan looking girlfriends with contemplative expressions communing with nature and that other guys still really think those are cool.
Does having a closer relationship with other photographers motivate you to keep shooting? In other words, do believe that having a known audience on Flickr drives you to go out and make photographs?
The simple answer to your your question is that I crave approbation. I know I should aspire to this romantic thing about believing in myself and shooting away for the sheer joy of it – and I do! But I’ve done the shooting in a vacuum thing, and done it for decades, and it ultimately makes me feel like quitting. Vivian Maier I am NOT!
I have this great desire to please my Flickr contacts – my photographic relationships, so to speak. It certainly isn’t as if I’m photographing for them – I can’t, no matter how hard I try, seem to do anything other than what I do and that, by the way, is why I do not earn my keep as a photographer – but it’s important to me that I get positive feedback from people I deeply respect. It sounds pretty pathetic when I put it that way, but it’s indisputable that a handful of photographers on Flickr I have mutual contact with produce work that is enormously superior to mine, and simply having one of these people tell me what I’m doing is good does inspire me to get out there.
Also, what is particularly attractive about that is that I feel as if I’m meeting them on an equal footing and not doing a Yoda – Luke / Master – apprentice thing. The corollary to that is that I want these folks to like the new work and not just the things I shot 25, 35 years ago. I mean, I’m really pleased and grateful that people like the stuff I was shooting when I was in my 20′s, but if that were it, I think I’d feel as if I were already dead. So it means I have to shoot, or at least post (yes, the old stuff goes on the scanner when it’s cold out there).
When you go back into the HCSP pool, near the beginning, it’s filled with your photos. You were really one of the first sort of discoveries for HCSP. Do you recall it at the very beginning?
Those were the days. It’s weird the way HCSP – the pool that dares not utter its own real name lest it feel embarrassed – has become such a huge juggernaut. Obviously that’s been by design and – swallowing pride here – even though I can almost never get a freaking picture into it, ever, EVER, it’s been a change that’s been mostly for the better.
When I joined Flickr in late 2004, I was looking for someone, anyone, who liked small camera, off-the-cuff, straight shooting with a good dose of humor and a sense of complexity, without being doctrinaire. And they were it. Even though I know, because someone pointed it out to me – wait! That was you, wasn’t it? – that one of my shots is the first in the pool, it wasn’t by any means the “real” first. It’s just the oldest one still standing.
I don’t know how long the pool had been around by then, but it was fairly well established and administered solely by Carolyn Hall, who’s still listed as an admin (ANNA:poet) and who really deserves the credit for having serious aspirations for the pool. It was the only group then that I could find where people like Winogrand and Meyerowitz were routinely referenced, but not in a sycophantic way.
Most of the stuff in the pool was pretty lame, but there was a great deal of energy and excitement and the sense that people were learning from each other, the way it had been for me in the early 70′s. What was really exciting for me was that most of these people were younger than me. That they were REALLY YOUNG, like Winogrand was good and dead by the time they were getting their first Weekly Readers.
A particularly noticeable phenomenon of the first couple of years was the way a novice would appear, and right before your eyes, over a period of several months or a couple of years, develop a talent that might only have been hinted at into something very sophisticated. I’m thinking in particular of people like Hin Chua or Raoul Gatepin, or to a certain extent, Michael David Murphy – who had kind of an agenda going to begin with – who started with a very naive style.
It’s kind of awesome to watch that happen, and it’s one of the things that really sold me on Flickr – that it’s not very good as a place to see good photography, but it’s a great place to see how photographers think and learn. And not just for the beginner-to-mature practitioner examples, but also to see what people like Nils Jorgensen, or Stephen McLaren are doing and reacting to.
The good thing is that there’s still huge amounts of energy in HCSP, more than I have for sure. And I’m also happy that it finally seems to be maturing beyond the extremely nasty, snarky, bullying phase that it went through a couple of years ago, where ad hominem attacks seemed like the standard mode for response to almost any question.
Over the years some of the comments you’ve left on Flickr and a few other places have been some of the most insightful I’ve read in terms of how technology is changing art and photography. You’ve worked in the arts in some degree your whole life, correct?
More around than in. In the sense that I’ve never been in an academic arts environment. My personality is a kind of toxic mix of low self-esteem and disdain for trendiness that put me off the pursuit of a career as an artist. But I’ve always been interested in the way social conditioning affects perception and how technology affords us tools to make the world look the way we’ve learned it should look.
My own photography has been the way I’ve explored that in a visceral way, and then I’ve extended that understanding to some extent academically and professionally. I helped start a photo cooperative in the early 70′s and I’ve worked in museums, either as staff or contractor since graduate school, so about 30 years now. I did picture research in Washington for a few years in the early 80′s and ran a photo library for a giant oil rig fabricator in New Orleans for a couple of years after that.
Since then I’ve been in the information management side of museums, so for a good 23 years my concerns have been about very practical things. But that concern with the interplay of recording technologies and cultural knowledge is front and center in my field – museums have a huge stake in coming to grips with digital technology and communication. It was at a museum technology conference that I first learned about Flickr.
In terms of what you shoot these days, you still shoot candidly in public. Do you have any sort of routine? When do you go out to photograph? Where?
That’s actually a real problem for me now. I work from home, and home is in an ovely, wooded section of North Baltimore. I never leave. In New Orleans, when I started taking pictures in earnest again, I had to force myself into a disciplined routine of going out during “lunch” for at least 20 minutes a day to shoot pictures, but I rarely had more than 40 minutes tops. I became totally fetishistic about shooting enough pictures.
I’ve never been remotely prolific, which is a big problem. I wanted to shoot at least one roll of film a week, then 2, then 3, so that I would at least have something to choose from. I’d walk out the door, force myself to walk very slowly, and shoot maybe half a roll of film within about 5 minutes.
Most of the pictures on the Flickr stream that are tagged “lunchtime” were taken within 2 blocks of where I worked. In the past year, I just go to events like everyone else. I don’t stalk, I don’t stake out a place, I don’t attack. I just wander around pretty aimlessly. I’m not even a smiler. I rarely stop to shoot and zone focus a lot, though as I’ve gotten more comfortable, I often take the time to get more precise. All that needs to reworked now, alas.
You have some perspective on the whole photography game. You’ve had time to think about it. The more I tend to think about photography, the more I feel it’s really based on a personal philosophy of living. There are multiple paths one can take, all valid. Do you feel you’ve developed a personal philosophy with your photography?
I find this hard to answer, particularly given the preamble about having perspective on the whole photography game. For the most part, I’ve never really played the photography game, have never depended on it for my living, never tried whole-heartedly to achieve success by any measure of wealth, publication, or exhibition.
For the most part, it’s just not something I think about, so for what it’s worth, here goes. The main thing about photography is that, as technologies go, it’s easy and gets easier all the time. In the transaction between intelligence and material expression, it goes a long way toward cutting out the middleman. Anybody can take a good or even a great picture. Finding a good image among the many you’ve taken is like having a big juicy plum fall in your lap.
At the same time that it feels effortless, it comes with the assurance that it’s something that came from inside you: no one saw this one thing this one way and in that sense, it’s like a picture of your mind at work. Hopefully your mind is at work on something interesting. The connection between my preoccupations and my photography is usually pretty subconscious – hence the delight at finding a good picture.
When I was younger – before my great hiatus – most of those preoccupations were about some kind of abstract thing I was either studying or reading about: cultural geography, sociology, literature or something similarly intangible. In the last few years, it’s more directly related to photography itself and plain old personal things – which risks making me and my pictures, considerably more boring.
Ultimately, and this is incredibly banal, I take photographs because it makes me happy. In the best of circumstances, walking and shooting puts me in a kind of low-grade euphoria, though certainly not always. But getting a good photograph always makes me happy. I wouldn’t die without doing it, but it makes me feel better when I do.
Photographs ©Chuck Patch