Saturday, June 6, 2009

Edward Sturr: Urban Modernist
Just as the fabled “New York School” of street photographers visually defined Gotham throughout the 1940s and ’50s, so did the “Chicago School” document life on the streets of the Windy City in the 1960s. But whereas the former sprang mainly from the social-humanist mold of the Photo League, the latter were products of Chicago’s Institute of Design, which had its roots firmly planted in the detached modernism of the Bauhaus. One such photographer was Chicago native Edward Sturr, whose 1960s images of the city are charged with an expressionist power comprised of angular compositions, bold contrasts and beguiling thematic irony. After moving to Kansas in 1974, Sturr taught photography for more than two decades at Kansas State University. While his personal work transitioned from gritty urban images to elegant, hand-colored landscapes, he retains a close emotional attachment to the black-and-white imagery that initially defined him.

Edward Sturr

Do you remember your first camera?
My first camera was a simple box "Donald Duck" camera that was given to me at 
about age eight. I remember taking a picture of my older brother throwing a pocketknife 
at the ground and the resulting photograph showing the knife in midair. I thought that was terrific. Years later my father bought me a 35mm Ansco
 rangefinder camera. I read the instructions and then used it to take informal, available-light photographs for my school yearbook. Shortly after that I built a darkroom and made 
black-and-white prints, learning the process pretty much on my own. About that time I bought my first 35mmm SLR camera and started doing street photography.

How long did it take you to develop a personal style?
It took about a year of intense “field work.” My feeling about style 
is that it’s not just a result of technical knowledge and skill, though that
 is necessary, but rather a reflection of the person behind the camera
, with all of the individual’s idiosyncratic tastes, past experiences, and 
sensitivities, not to mention mental and physical capabilities. Given
 extended production, personal style will flow as naturally as the 
character of one’s handwriting. When I taught photography it would
 take only a few months before I was able to identify who made which
 photographs even in the largest classes. This is not to say, however,
 that style by itself automatically confers quality or aesthetic significance.

What was the biggest challenge in finding your voice?
The challenge for me was not how to create a style, since that is basically
 an intuitive, non-verbal, right-hemisphere response, but rather to be 
in the right locations that would be conducive for my personal photographic explorations. It was largely a matter of just walking and observing until some activity on the street would trigger an 
internal switch to start looking through the viewfinder and begin 
shooting. It was an intuitive response that just seemed right, and 
for whatever reason, framing and composing was quick and effortless, 
unlike any other art media I had studied. Facing people on the street with my camera never caused a bit of concern nor hesitation to shoot, though I’m sure that much of what I did could never be done today without first having a model release.

Montreal, 1967

How would you characterize your 1960s street photography?
I was trying to express a personal response to a particular environment and its subjects in a way that was visually
 satisfying and possessed emotive dimensions. Form and content, each important and inseparable, were experienced as a new thing in itself, i.e., a particular black-and-white photographic print. The experience of a photograph as a print has always been very important to me.
 Regarding content, my work was in many a natural byproduct
 and reflection of the 1960s, a troubled decade, to be sure. We had the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, Vietnam War protests, rioting at the Democratic convention in Chicago, deep-seated racial conflict, to name just a few of the political and 
social upheavals. It was a tense time, and the ambiance was frequently angst, especially in the big city.

How did the physical and emotional character of the city of Chicago influence your work?
The character of Chicago in the 1960s, and particularly the old town 
and the near North Side, where I lived and photographed, surely influenced many aspects of my work, some of which I still cannot describe. Housing was inexpensive, often gritty, with a mix of cultures and populations, and laced with artists. I lived in more than a few apartments. One was an old, converted cobbler shop; another
 was an art studio (and later a co-op art gallery) above a storefront. Rent was affordable, even if I had to check my shoes for roaches in the morning. Yet this was the city, and perfect for my photography, 
however uncomfortable, rough and tough, and even dangerous it could be
 at times. Once, while walking in a marginal area with my camera under my jacket so it wouldn’t be tempting to thugs, I was followed by a 
slow-moving car. It suddenly stopped and two men jumped out on each side of me. One drew a handgun and aimed it at me; the other flashed a police badge and asked what was under my coat. Raising my arms, I told them it was only my camera, whereupon I was told to “get out of the neighborhood.” Today, this area is hardly recognizable, with fine restaurants, bistros, expensive shops and apartments that even now I could hardly afford. Moreover, where have all the artists gone?

Grant Park, Chicago, 1968

The subjects in many of your photographs seem to be connected and yet disconnected from one another. Is this something you’ve thought about much, or does it proceed intuitively?
That disconnect is found in a number of my photographs. I’ve always felt that while people appear 
unaware of each other and disconnected, which creates a sense of alienation, they are all on the same stage. I can see the relationships
 even if they can’t, so there is a tension that’s created. The viewer can see in my photos the disconnect or the threads that tie people together...or
 both. It’s interesting that one can live in a city apartment for years
 with people living ten feet above, below, and to the sides 
of you, yet you never ever talk to them. Now that’s a disconnect.

Your pictures often feature one or more elements that dominate the frame visually, but which tend to be thematically ambiguous.
The ambiguity allows, perhaps even forces, the viewer to fill in the blanks and by so
 doing participate in the visual process. Such images are open-ended in that 
regard, but hopefully are satisfying enough on their own terms to justify their existence.

Do you perceive the world and/or people as fundamentally mysterious and unexplainable?
Yes, I do. Actually, many of the most important aspects of our
 world are not fully understood, but that’s
 what makes it all so interesting.

Chicago, 1965

The visual complexity and abstraction of these pictures is balanced by what I would call an unsentimental compassion.
I was deliberate about the inclusion of those
 elements, but rejected total abstraction while also avoiding any content that was maudlin or sentimental. My response was to the visual environment, but also to the human element. The integration of the two in a finished photographic print was my utmost priority and satisfaction.

Your work has a fluid yet discordant visual rhythm reminiscent of avant-garde jazz artists like Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Are you influenced by music, and do you try to impart a musically inspired rhythm to your images?
Jazz was my musical choice as a listener even while in high school, 
though I’m not sure that there was any conscious attempt to include
 musical structure in my photographic work. I did, however, intentionally create
 a visual structure that can be considered discordant, e.g.,
 figures cut off at the waist, people in the corner of a frame, objects
 and things off balance, etc.

You studied with giants like Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at Chicago’s Institute of Design. What did you learn from them?
Callahan made me aware that everything in a photograph
 counts, and that the first thing we experience when seeing a photograph 
is the visual gestalt. From Siskind I learned that the photograph is first a print, an end unto itself and not primarily a “window to the world.” A number of other photographers were influential in my development, with
 bits and pieces making their impact from both formal and informal 
experience. From Eugene
 Smith, the importance of the craft of printing; from Cartier-Bresson, the
 need for sensitivity and the readiness to react to the flow of life that comes together within the camera viewfinder for only a fraction of a second; from Robert Frank, that form and technique can seriously impact content.

Chicago street, 1968

Have you primarily supported yourself through teaching?
Yes, teaching has been my primary source of income. Very few of my 1960s photographs sold back then. The subject matter was not considered “attractive” enough to hang in one’s home, as photography had not yet attained its full status as an art form. Income from sales of my work is now considerably 
improved, though still not sufficient to be my sole source. My example is not unlike many photographers who are oriented more towards personal expression in photography.
 No complaints, it’s just a statement of fact and the result of life choices one makes.

Has teaching photography informed your own work?
Teaching helped me sharpen the discipline and craft of darkroom
 printing. After all, as one does, so one teaches, and vice versa.

Is there a philosophy or outlook that you have tried to communicate to your students?
Yes, some basic principles regarding the creative process—that progress as a productive artist results from personal commitment and hard work; that the artist should expect and tolerate frustration and even failure; that one must develop one’s craft but
 understand that it is only the means to expression and not the end;
 and that doing original work in any medium is rarely comfortable, upsetting to some, and requires one to take chances. It’s a risky business.

Are you happy to be identified with the “Chicago school” of 1960s street photographers?
Yes, although I wasn’t even aware that I was part of it until many years later. Aaron Siskind
 was a visiting artist were I was teaching (years after he retired), and said to me, “Hey, Ed, do they (the faculty) know that you were part of the Chicago group of street photographers back then?”

Chicago L, 1960s

Are you still doing black-and-white street photography?
Not presently, as I live in a town that is not conducive 
to street photography. Having said that, I did some street
 work when I first moved here and in other locations, and I have recently made some limited-edition prints of my 1960s negatives.
 Unfortunately, my favorite paper that I used back then—Agfa double-weight fiber with a glossy surface—is no longer manufactured.
 Such beautiful paper. I feel sad for its demise and treasure the little I have remaining.

Do you feel you’ve expressed all that you wanted to in that genre?
Well, I’m not sure whether the well has run dry or not in that genre. Maybe not if given the right environment. Though if I did return to street photography, I’m sure there would be some major differences in the content 
of my work.

Do you think photography has as much impact as it once did in terms of getting people to think about the human condition?
The answer to that is best left to someone other than myself, like a critic or historian who has a worldview of photography that I just don't have.

(Visit to see more of Edward Sturr's documentary work and/or purchase a copy of his book, “The Photographs of Edward Sturr: 1961-1970.” To see his color landscape imagery, which is radically different in conception and execution, visit

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Andreas Gefeller: Subjective Realities
Düsseldorf-based photographer Andreas Gefeller deftly manipulates viewers’ perceptions of visual “truth” in discrete yet complementary series that reflect a multiplicity of themes and concerns—nuclear disasters, mankind’s environmental hegemony, and global transformations of public and personal space, to name but a few. In so doing, he reveals intellectual and spiritual truths about ourselves and or relationship with the environments we adopt and adapt. His latest series, titled “Supervisions,” pushes this aesthetic to a surprisingly disorienting degree.

Andreas Gefeller

What drew you to photography?
When I was a kid, I was very interested in astronomy. I had a telescope and took many photos of the stars, which I developed myself. In the beginning, I thought I did this for scientific reasons. But I soon realized that I was more fascinated by the possibilities of collecting light to make invisible things visible. And I started to take photos of other things—all that stuff that people photograph when they get a camera: houses, flowers, people. But I retained the idea that photography helps to understand how human perception works in the mind. Later, during my studies at the University of Essen, I again started to make time-exposure photographs, which resulted in my series “Soma.”

How has your environment affected your approach and choice of subject matter?
I think everything affects everything. The way that landscapes are destroyed by industrial buildings and by houses for people who like to live in a “natural” environment—not to mention the highways that displace natural landscapes so that people can drive back and forth to work—makes me angry. Although in Düsseldorf, where I live, it’s still quite tolerable compared to other places in the world, like Asia, the United States and other developing countries.

Can you briefly discuss the inspiration for “Supervisions”?
To be honest, the inspiration came by accident: A friend and I were having a picnic on the banks of the Rhine River. It was a nice day, and we were a little bored. When my friend felt asleep, I started playing with my film camera and made dozens of photos of the ground. When I combined cut-out images from the contact sheets into a single collage, I realized that with this method I could “fly”—not literally, of course, but photographically. Things on the ground seemed to become smaller, while the distance to the earth seemed to become greater. That was the start of “Supervisions.”

Berlin, 2006

In refining that process, you began to image one square meter at a time with the camera a few feet above the ground, and then digitally stitched all the individual images into one large collective image?
Yes, that’s exactly how I make them. The height from which I shoot can vary, depending on the situation. Outdoors, it’s up to three meters off the ground. Indoors, it’s lower.

I’ve read that you make up to thousands of exposures for each work. How long does this take? And is there anything else involved in the process, either at the capture stage or when you combine the images in the computer?
My latest work shows the ground plan of the Academy of Arts in Düsseldorf, for which I took nearly 10,000 photos (maybe more, I didn’t count them) during a period of some months. But I swear, that will be the last time that I make such a huge work. I was very happy when I had finished it! That image was an exception, however. Normally, the photographing process takes a few hours to one or two days. To stitch the photos together takes longer. But this is difficult to say precisely, as I would go crazy if I didn’t take breaks and then return to the process a few days later.

The effect seems to be that they are taken from much higher up, which plays with the viewer’s sense of spatial depth and transforms our sense of place and space. The subject matter itself is flat and thus lacks visual depth, yet your technique creates what I might call a false sense of depth.
I agree. In fact, even though I made the photographs, I sometimes can’t believe that they were in fact taken from such a low height. In this, I’m influenced by my love of astronomy. Looking at the surfaces of other planets makes me wonder what it would be like if I was there. But it’s mainly technical aspect of astronomy that helps me create my “Supervisions” images. Pictures of the moon, the earth and other planets are often made by dozens of single satellite photos. The satellite circles the planet many times from a lower height, but the result looks as if the distance from the planet was much greater. This is the same effect as in “Supervisions.”

Beach, Domburg, 2006

What’s the thematic intention behind this spatial deception?
This deception itself is the main subject of the work: On one hand, the photos are true in every detail; on the other, the perspective is just a construction. Is my work just an illusion? No, of course not. Everything you see in my pictures was there, nothing was deleted and nothing was added. Is my work just documentation? No, the perspective is completely unreal! This produces a kind of visual “irritation” for viewers that is designed to get them thinking about what lies beyond the surface appearance of our environments, whether they are natural or man-made. It’s not only the visual perspective that is false, but also the time perspective, which produces another kind of “irritation.” At first sight, viewers might think that these constructed images were taken in one short moment (like 1/125th second), but they eventually realize that this is incorrect. The actual image-capture stage takes hours, sometimes longer. Ultimately, the “Supervisions” series lies somewhere between documentary and fictional photography—maybe it’s fictional documentation or documentary fiction. By doing this, my series plays with human perception and the possibilities of digital photography, and with the question of where reality ends and fiction starts.

That last point links “Supervisions” to your previous series.
Correct. “Halbwertszeiten,” an early series from 1996, touches on the subject of what is visible and what is invisible. The photos were taken near Chernobyl, where thousand of people had to leave their homes because of the nuclear catastrophe. Radioactivity is still everywhere, but you cannot see or photograph it. Yet just by knowing where the photos were taken, you can sense radioactivity in the pictures. And the images in “Soma,” although made with film and without digital intervention, seem to have been generated on a computer. In fact, the “Soma” images reveal our world with more reality than our eyes are able to capture. At night, we see everything in shades of gray. But the camera is able to capture the colors that we cannot see. In this case, our eyes show a false picture of the world, not the camera.

Tree Nursery, Neuss, 2005

What do the “Supervisions” images say about the environments we create for ourselves?
If you look at the works carefully, you will note that many of them were taken at places where man has put everything in rows. This is one of the most provocative characteristics of modern man: arranging things in regimented, strict order to try and achieve control. But control over what? We sometimes seem to treat nature as if it’s our biggest enemy. In the image “Tree Nursery,” the way the trees are situated is completely unnatural, yet the trees try to assert their own character. It’s one of numerous examples of how man tries to manipulate his environment while deluding himself that he’s improving it.

How are these environments modifying our everyday lives?
The border between nature and urban spaces is vanishing. Nature is becoming more and more artificial as modern architecture, garden design, fun parks, etc., attempt to simulate nature. I wonder how upcoming generations will deal with nature. Will they be able to make a fire or catch a fish? Will they know what a fish looks like? Disturbing questions. Another of my concerns is how our lives are controlled and organized by our built environments. For example, “Ceiling” shows everything that sustains a typical office hidden away above the ceiling: water pipes, electricity and gas lines, IT cables, etc. These resemble the blood vessels in our bodies, an indication that buildings are becoming more like humans. Many buildings have even started “thinking”—and perhaps contributing to humans turning into robots. This image makes visible how man is more and more dependent on technical support rather than his own capabilities.

Ceiling 3, Düsseldorf, 2007

Although people are literally absent from your images, their mediating presence is suggested not only through the way in which urban geography is laid out, but by what they leave behind—the artwork in “Graffiti,” the footprints in “Sandtracks.” Yet there is something disturbing about showing the absence of people in places meant for the masses.
I too find this disturbing, although I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because I exclude people in a rather ominous way? My photos never give the impression that people have just gone away for a few moments and will soon return. It’s more like the images were made at a point far in the future after man has left the earth. It’s kind of like documenting a modern archeology: Viewers can read the tracks on the ground and wonder what happened, and who was there. In the case of “Sandtracks,” they can also read the brand names of shoes, which provide even more information: gender, age, social origin and income. This image is a metaphor of the Internet and the modern world, in which everything is connected and information is easily accessible. We all leave our personal footprints by shopping online and paying with credit cards, using our cell phones, etc.

How do you choose which locations to photograph?
Sometimes I have an idea in mind and look for the place by making phone calls and searching the Internet. Sometimes, especially when I’m making a trip in a foreign country, I just take walks, get inspiration and find the locations by lucky accident.

Do you have a sense beforehand of how the finished image will look?
Because it's such an effort to realise a work, I normally do many tests before I start. Therefore, moments of disappointment are luckily quite rare.

Are you ever surprised by the final results?
Sometimes, yes. And that’s what makes it fun. By stitching the photos together, I start flying. The longer I work on a photo the more I depart from the ground. Certain optical characteristics are often unforeseeable, as in “Swimming Pool.” You can make dozens of tests beforehand, but you can never know how the finished photo will look because the surface of the water is always changing. Incidentally, that was one of the most exciting and exhausting works I did.

Sandtracks, Miami, 2008

The seams in some of these images are more pronounced than in others. Does it matter to you one way or another?
It does. I think it’s part of the artistic work. Technically, it would be easy to eliminate all the seams. But I sometimes need these so-called “mistakes” to give the viewer hints how to read and understand the works. Works that have seams help viewers to understand the works without seams.

When the seams are visible, it calls attention to the artifice of the process, which further complicates the perception of what is real and what is purported to be real. Do you enjoy playing with that dividing line?
Yes, sure. I think one of the most exciting aspects of these images is that they have two sides, or two layers: At first sight, from a greater distance, the picture looks like a “normal” photo and viewers think they understand it. But the closer they get, the more irritating the work becomes. It sometimes happens that someone stands in front of a work and says, “Ah, great. Trees in the snow taken from above. How did you get there? did you use a balloon?” But when he gets closer, he realizes he was wrong. (The trees in “Tree Nursery” are actually taken from below, and the white background is the cloudy sky). But the awareness of being wrong does not help. In many cases, it takes a long time until the viewer really understands what he or she is looking at. In other words, more information (the viewer gets closer and sees more details) sometimes results in more irritation (and less insight)!

(To see more of Andreas Gefeller's beautiful and thought-provoking imagery, please visit his website: