Friday, June 1, 2012

Paul Raphaelson: Urban Disjunction
Paul Raphaelson is something of a 21st century Timothy O’Sullivan, although this Brooklyn-based photographer uses his camera to explore what might be termed the “new urban wilderness” — that vague, undefined terrain where decay and regeneration coexist in uneasy symbiosis. His work encompasses reportage, geography, autobiography and metaphor, and it raises interesting questions about the nature and identity of our cities. It’s about dead ends and new beginnings, but challenges our assumptions about whether those two concepts are antagonistic or compatible. 

Paul Raphaelson

How did you happen to connect with photography?  
I got into photography through climbing. I was jealous of college friends who came back from the mountains with cool pictures — I wanted to look cool too! That idea put a camera in my hands, but was short-lived. I discovered it was hard enough just getting up and down without being artistic or self-aggrandizing along the way. But I had the camera, and became obsessed with it. I started looking at my parents’ books of Magnum photographers, whose work I liked and wanted to emulate. So my first serious attempts were at street photography.
What types of art inspire you?
Many kinds. I learn from music, film, literature. Contemporary poetry has been especially interesting lately. That world has been inspiring me more than the photographic one. I’m also interested in painting but have done a bad job keeping up with it.

Do you feel an affinity with landscape photographers who preceded you?
My most conscious affinity has been with the American early modernists, like Weston, Strand and Stieglitz, and early documentarians like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. My tastes were quite conservative and backwards-looking when I first started out; I was in college and in my 20s, studying old men from nearly a century earlier. It was a while before I started noticing the late modernists, William Eggleston, Robert Adams and his followers … work that more closely resembled what I was doing. I also look farther back, to the 19th century survey photographers. Particularly Timothy O’Sullivan. He figured out how to turn empty space into magic, and did it decades before anyone even noticed. Lately I’ve become more interested in engaging the present world than the history of the medium. Unfortunately, the work that I’ve seen lately hasn’t inspired me much. Neither has my own recent work. But this has actually been liberating; I feel little motivation either to copy anyone or to keep doing what I’ve been doing.

Untitled from the Wilderness series.

Your website describes you as an artist who photographs the urban and cultural landscape. How do you define the term ‘cultural landscape’?
I mean places that have been shaped substantially — though not completely — by the activity of people. But really, since there’s so little landscape left that we haven’t altered substantially (and this was true back in Ansel’s day, even though we like to pretend otherwise), I’m referring at least as much to how we look at the landscape. For example, what aspects we emphasize or de-emphasize when photographing and editing. Am I going out of my way to avoid the power lines, or do I consider them essential to the experience of the place?

Your earliest work, the Chicago series, seems more firmly placed in the urban documentary mode. Were you conscious of making a shift towards a more landscape-oriented approach?
In college I took a landscape photography class from Edward Ranney. It opened me to the subtleties of the genre. I still liked some of my earlier street pictures, but I started to see many of them as easy, maybe even a bit trite. It’s not hard to get a viewer’s attention by putting a person and some action on a stage; this doesn’t necessarily mean that what you’re showing has depth. I found it more challenging to engage people with subject matter to which they have a less obvious or direct connection. That kind of challenge has been important to me. I admire Eggleston for declaring war on the obvious. Not to suggest that street photographs are intrinsically obvious — Eggleston’s never are — but I found more un-obvious opportunities in landscape.

Untitled from the Wilderness series.

Can you describe the inspiration, or starting point, for the Wilderness series?
I was drawn to run-down and overgrown places in part because they were all around me. They also resonated with how I felt about life generally. I was lost, going through a recession and the end of a long relationship. The fit between my inner and outer worlds was hard to ignore. It’s funny; I didn’t realize then that in spite of my hardened modernist rhetoric, my work had a romantic streak — all that emotional metaphor, and that old trope of the majesty of ruins. I’m ok with this now … I realize that a lot of my favorite modern art is really romantic art that’s trying hard not to be. Stiegltz’s Equivalents? Romantic as can be. But they fought against that identity. And that fight somehow encourages more depth and subtlety than what I see in the more indulgent romantic art from the 19th Century. Never mind that Stieglitz would have punched me in the nose for saying this. Wallace Stevens said the same thing about William Carlos Williams’ poetry, and I think he was right.

Did you seek out particular types of images, or did the images come to you?
Some of both. I took most of the pictures within walking distance of where I lived, both in Providence and in Brooklyn. The work reflects what my world looked like, what I passed through every day. Familiarity has always intensified my photographic curiosity. But I had some guiding ideas. These were sparked by elements from my older pictures that I kept returning to. And as the project matured, so did my sense of what I wanted to explore next.

Untitled from the Wilderness series.

Is the Wilderness work more about urban decay, or the resilience of nature, or a more or less equal balance of the two?
That’s a question I liked never having to address. There were always so many examples of both qualities in the places I photographed. Sometimes one or the other would dominate, but the interactions between the live things and crumbling things — physical or visual or metaphorical — were usually the interesting part.

What does the work say about the way we perceive our surroundings, urban and otherwise?
I like drawing attention to things that go unnoticed. Whether or not we’re in the built environment, the way we see the world is shaped by habits, which often get handed to us. Some of our most basic ideas about what’s worth noticing, like “scenery” and “landscape,” are cultural inventions. They represent values that we inherit but rarely challenge. But they do change, so we know they’re not immanent. Europeans once thought mountains were hideous! They were examples of God’s wrath, and didn’t show up in pretty pictures. Just as empty lots aren’t scenery for most of us today. We’re in the habit of tuning them out on the assumption that they're ugly or uninteresting.

Untitled from the Wilderness series.

I want to show that they can be beautiful — if you stop and really look. I try to encourage this through all the formal tricks of picture making, but really the most basic role of a photographer is pointing. By putting a picture on the wall, you’re saying, “look at this.” That’s not much of a superpower, but it can be an effective one if you wield it carefully. Now, obviously, I’m not the first person to find this stuff interesting or to point to it. The deeper questions are about how and why it’s interesting. What, specifically, is being explored by a particular picture or sequence of pictures. I’ll leave those questions to someone who isn’t me.

Does this work have positive or negative resonance for you? (Another way of asking whether your take on the modern cityscape is affirmative or pessimistic.)
Mostly positive. But this is in part because the work played a transformative role for me. I used it to make something positive out of a time and place that felt bleak. My hope is that it can play a similar role for others. If landscape art serves any purpose at all, then its highest one may be to enrich people’s relationship with their own corner of the world.

Does it have spiritual connotations for you?
Once upon a time I might have said yes, but not anymore. I don’t feel the need to invoke magical thinking to explain my sense of mystery or awe or anything else that resists easy understanding.

Untitled from the Wilderness series.

I meant spiritual in a secular, not religious sense.
If spiritual includes anything that’s not of the material world, then I suppose it could include metaphor. That’s a subject I think about a lot in relation to this work. And it’s one area where the discourse might be richer in the visual arts than the literary ones; writers can fixate on the technicalities of figures of speech (is it a metaphor or a metonym?), but I’m interested in the concept broadly. I like that it comes from the Greek metapherein, which simply means transference. Like when Minor White said that a photograph is about what the subject is, and also what else it is: He’s not concerning himself with syntax or mechanics. And he’s describing something richer than the simple binary relationships of symbolism. I actually wish he’d said, “what it is, and what else it is, and what else it is, and what else it is …” Some of those “what elses” rumble too far below the surface to talk about. But they’re powerful. I think that’s central to the beauty of great art — the mysteriousness of its hold on you. 

To what degree, if any, does the Wilderness series have a political undertone?
Well, I don't think it's possible to photograph anything that we'd call a cultural landscape without producing political undertones and overtones. So much about how we interact with our environment is political. But my emphasis wasn't there. I wasn't thinking primarily of political concerns, nor was I thinking rhetorically at all. I've approached this as a personal project first, and a documentary project maybe a distant second. As Lee Friedlander said, photography is a generous medium. For better or worse, it tends to give you much more than you're looking for. And often more than you understand. The political element might be more central to my more recent work. 

Untitled from the Wilderness series.

It’s very true what you say about photography giving you more than you’re looking for (although sometimes it gives you less if you’re not on your game). Photography is kind of a high-wire act, isn’t it? I suppose all art is to a certain degree, but photography seems to really embody this.
Sure. You grab big pieces of the world, with detail finer than you can see, in the literal blink of an eye. It’s hubris to think you’re in control. You’re doing well if you just stay on the horse! I love that aspect of photography — how you go from confronting chaos while taking pictures, to the measured tinkering of the darkroom or computer, to the more heady process of editing and trying to form a cohesive whole.

I’m wondering if that’s another reason you continue to utilize it as medium of creative expression.
Absolutely. It helps get me out of my head and into the world, where I can be spontaneous and intuitive. Then it gets me into my tools, where I can be obsessive, and then back to the world of ideas.

Untitled from the Lost Spaces, Found Gardens series.

Why did you shift to color for Lost Spaces, Found Gardens?
I’d been interested in color for a while, but the cost held me back: 4x5 color film and processing cost ten times what I’d been paying for black and white, which I processed myself. Without a benefactor, I didn’t see how to be playful and experimental and to learn anything without going broke — besides going back to my 35mm camera, which didn’t seem right for the project. So I found a middle path: I borrowed an old Hasselblad and scanned the film. It worked pretty well.

Were there thematic reasons as well as the fact that improvements in digital technology made using color more feasible from a technical perspective?
My reasons were more formal than thematic; I started seeing color relationships and not just tonal ones.

A color image has a completely different resonance from a black-and-white photo of the same subject matter. Color shifts emphasis to different areas of the print, changes the emotional tonality, etc. Was there something specific you hoped to gain from using color for the Lost Spaces series?
Well, I hoped to do something with those color relationships I’d been noticing. And I wanted to do something different from my old work — anything. I’d worked on the Wilderness pictures for so long, I was afraid I’d never be able to do anything else. When it felt like time to pick up a camera again, I needed to prove I could learn new tricks. Color was one. So was the square format, and so was doing some of the work handheld. I don’t mean that I thought of the project as an exercise, but it served that purpose at a time when I needed it.

Untitled from the Lost Spaces, Found Gardens series.

Conversely, would the Wilderness series have worked as well had it been shot in color?
It would have been a completely different project. More than anything else I’ve done, that work depended on the materials and on looking a certain way.
There’s an old divide between photographs that try to be transparent, like windows that you look through, and ones that try to draw attention to themselves, like paintings, as tactile objects. I wanted the Wilderness pictures to be objects — “events on the page,” to borrow a phrase from poets. I wanted to create tension between the rough subject matter and polished prints. The intrinsic abstraction of black and white contributed to this, as did the richness of the particular papers and techniques I chose.

The Lost Spaces images are thematically related to the Wilderness series, although it seems like there’s a more pronounced emphasis on the grass, flowers and weeds.
I was forced to move from my old waterfront neighborhood to one that’s less scenic — ok, there’s that prejudicial idea again. The new neighborhood isn’t actually less scenic, it’s just different, and it took me a while to figure out what I was interested in looking at. I no longer had the big landscapes of factories and suspension bridges, so I had look more closely. What I found was like landscape in microcosm: grasses and weeds invading the sidewalks, garden-like spaces cloistered behind cyclone fences. The themes are similar, but the ways of looking are different.

We’re talking about your work in terms of urban landscapes, but you also have this body of work on the southwest. Only with these pictures you achieve a subtle inversion of the city imagery. Instead of nature intruding on the concrete and steel environment, you focus on how man intrudes on the natural landscape through his fences, his structures (commercial and residential), his roadways, even his refuse. Did you consciously set out to effect this inside-out vision?
It didn’t occur to me that I was inverting anything. I was trying to see if what I’d learned about putting a picture together in the city could work in such a different place. It was also a kind of homecoming, since my earliest work came from the mountains and deserts.

Untitled from the Southwest series.

Have you ever shown this work in conjunction with the city imagery?
I haven’t shown it at all. There are individual images that I like, but I don’t see it yet as a finished body of work. It doesn’t really have a shape. But it’s interesting that you ask that. While taking those pictures, I wondered if they’d comprise a new body of work or if they’d be part of the Wilderness project. I kept it an open question. Now I’m skeptical about that possibility. I kind of like the idea of a big, rambling series that raises questions all over the place and barely holds together. But experience suggests that this kind of thing confuses people. An editor once treated me like a slow child because I’d put pictures of Providence next pictures of Brooklyn. 

I think I find this work even more poignant somehow. It’s not enough that we create inhospitable, sterile urban environments; we have to leave our marks on the wide-open spaces between cities, too. 
This is true, but it’s also well-trodden territory artistically. Guys like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz were making iconic pictures of our messes in the West back when I was in diapers. Adams especially; he developed a whole visual and ideological vocabulary. So here’s a case where I feel I have to do a lot more than point. I want to bring something fresh to the party. And there may be something fresh, but it’s still nascent. I don’t know if I can articulate it yet.

Regarding your switch from street pictures to landscape, do you now avoid photographing people entirely? Do you find their metaphorical representation more evocative than a literal depiction?
I’m going to try not to psychoanalyze myself, even though its been said this is what critics do for a living. The Wilderness work had a lot to do with loneliness. It felt right to banish people from the landscape. And I was immersed in that project for a long time, so barrenness became a kind of habit. Meanwhile my people-picture skills withered. And those are definitely a different set of skills — people move around more than trees and fences. They also express opinions about how they want to be photographed. Anyway, some day I’d like to learn how to photograph people again. I like people. Really.

Untitled from the Southwest series.

Do you enjoy other photographers street pictures? What kind of photography do you like, outside of landscape?
I’m crazy about Kertesz and Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander. And Winogrand, at least before his photography devolved into a nervous tic. And I like good portraiture. I think it’s rare, and it fascinates me in part because I don’t know how to do it. Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits still give me chills.

What are you working on now? Is it a continuation or development of your previous bodies of work?
My latest work is about the interaction of images and text. I like words as much as I like pictures, but I’ve never found art that combines the two in a way that I like. There’s always been a clash, or a redundancy, or a triteness, or a dominance of one medium over the other. Or in some cases the words (and even ideas) are just used decoratively. This has become a puzzle for me … how can I get words and pictures to work together naturally, like words and music? I have a lot of ideas, and for better or worse most of them are less straightforward than pop songs. But it’s been an interesting project. I’m having an easier time getting words and pictures to work against each other than with each other, if that makes any sense. There’s going to be an element of satire, of mock-criticism and disjunct. But I want it to be serious overall.

Untitled from the Southwest series.

(You can spend more time with Raphaelson’s thought-provoking work at


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  2. Monochrome photos are showing the abandoned sides of city, truly amazing.
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