Friday, May 27, 2011

Benjamin Goss: The Familiar Unfamiliar
A revealing insight into the creative approach of Benjamin Goss is that he takes “thousands of images a day without the help of a camera. Faces, situations and moments weave together in my subconscious, then eventually form themselves as negatives when I am out shooting.” This helps account for the deeply personal slant that informs his portraiture and off-kilter urban documentary work. By internalizing the imagery he sees every day, Goss allows it the time and space it needs to germinate and eventually blossom into something dark and wonderful. Atmosphere is predominant in all of his series—mysterious, dramatic and slightly surreal. Instances of puckish, disorienting humor often crop up to balance the darker overtones. Goss also succeeds in evoking a timeless, poetic quality, abetted by a sure command of darkroom craft and a taste for pushing his visuals just slightly beyond.

Benjamin Goss

I understand you got a late start in photography.
I began taking photographs at the age of 21. I happened upon the medium haphazardly, although I have always been a visual person. After years of experimentation photography developed into a valid form of communication for me.

Where do you come from?
I was born in Houston, Texas, but grew up in New Jersey and worked in Manhattan. After living for two years in Barcelona I moved to Karlstad, Sweden, where I have now been for the past few years.

What formal training have you had?
For the most part I am self-taught, although I have had some influences along the way. In 2004 I completed a three-semester fine art photography program at Broby Grafiska [a cross-media college] here in Sweden. Up until that point photography was something I did on my own, and the only feedback and inspiration I got was from myself. It was here that I came into contact with others speaking my language. I have also had a great deal influence from Mary Ellen Mark. I have participated in many of her workshops, and worked as one of her assistants for a brief period.

Does your work bear the imprint of your formative environments?
I’m quite sure they have had an effect on me. I grew up in a city setting, and at an early age developed a distaste for urban sprawl and overwhelming metropolises. Later I came to appreciate the energy and pulse of people who live in large cities. These contrasts show in my work.



New York City is obviously very inspirational to you. What aspects of the city resonate most strongly?
The question I like to ask New Yorkers is “Why do you live here?” I get many different and engaging answers, but never a “I don’t know.” The people in New York resonate and vibrate on a different frequency that’s addictive.

Have you been influenced by anyone in particular?
Many photographers have had an influence on me, and it changes as I grow and develop as a photographer. I admire Diane Arbus for her uninhibited bravery. She challenged herself by taking risks that most other photographers would have been embarrassed or afraid to attempt. I admire the gift that Richard Avedon had in unmasking and revealing his subjects’ true selves. And Mary Ellen Mark for her technique and undying work ethic, and for her extreme intuition and sensitivity towards her subjects.

Can you explain your statement there is no right or wrong when it comes to photography? Are you talking about content? Style? Technique?
In a sense, all three. Everyone expresses himself or herself differently. Photography is just one medium of expression. There are many styles of photography, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but the most important beholder is you.



How did you arrive at this perspective?
By believing in my work and myself.

Do you make your living through photography?
Yes, I work as a commercial photographer in Sweden.

The Intuition series seems very much about the uneasy relationship between people and the urban environment. They don’t seem to embrace it as much as put up with it.
Photographers can shape things to fit a certain personal perspective, whether we do it intentionally or not. This was most likely my subconscious intention based on my uneasy perspective on urban surroundings.

You have a knack for revealing ominous urban spaces that seem to trap your subjects, as in the image “Closing Time,” in which all we see is a pair of disembodied feet about to completely disappear behind a metal shutter.
No matter how much I love the vibe and energy of the urban atmosphere, it also gives me the chills.

Man in a box


Your framing choices often reinforce this effect, as when you cut your subjects off in pictures like “Man in a Box” and “What?”
I am always looking for a bit of uneasiness or tension in my images. I like this choice of framing because it doesn’t give away the whole story. It leaves room for the imagination to make up the rest. Then the viewer becomes involved.

The visual contrast adds a lot to the work’s impact. In fact, some of these images might not really work without it. Have you always used high contrast as an aesthetic tool?
This style came to me over many years spent in the darkroom. By printing a bit harder and controlling the image with dodging and burning I can increase the drama of the image.

The people you photograph often seem drawn from the margins of society, yet you don’t exploit that to make overt statements. You simply present them as possessing the complexities, strengths and weaknesses common to us all. Where did this perspective come from?
I think it’s always been with me, even before I turned to photography. I have always rooted for the underdog. I can identify something in everyone with myself. We are all humans going through the same thing called life.



You often play with unusual juxtapositions—a young boy holding a pair of antlers in the series Breathe; a young man with fox furs draped over his shoulder from your more recent work. I like that you don’t insist on literal interpretations of these odd and unsettling tableaux.
Yes! I want viewers to be fully engaged by challenging them to translate any feelings that they might recognize in themselves. For the image to succeed, it must inspire a kind of unspoken communication with the viewer.

All of your work evokes a certain Alice in Wonderland strangeness. And your portraits betray a dark intensity both visually and emotionally. Are you by nature optimistic or pessimistic?
I have my moments of pessimism and doubts like everyone else. For the most part I am a cup-half-full person. I believe in humankind, even though we are strange.


Closing time

(Please visit to see more of his unusual and compelling work.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Walter Chandoha: City Streets
Numbers don’t lie. And the numbers for Walter Chandoha add up to an enviably successful freelance career: Four-plus decades in the business. More than 300 magazine covers. Thousands of advertisements for hundreds of companies. More than 200,000 stock images of animals and gardens, his twin specialties. But Chandoha’s comparatively small number of vintage New York City photographs—about 200 all told—hold the greatest fascination from a fine art perspective. Made without commercial imperatives from the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, they catch the city’s street life with and a graphic elegance and power reminiscent of the famous New York Photo League photographers, although Chandoha was never affiliated with that organization.

Walter Chandoha (photo: Paula Chandoha Amaral)

Let's start at the beginning.
I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey, in 1920.

How did you become interested in photography, and what formal training, if any, did you have?
I was initially self-taught while attending high school by reading books and magazines on photography at the local library. I also got help and advice at the Lens Club of Bayonne from more knowledgeable members and from lectures and demonstrations by visiting experts. One of these lecturers was J. Ghislain Lootens, who was a friend of Leon de Vos, a New York City commercial photographer who was looking for an apprentice with some skills in developing and printing. By this time (I was now out of high school), I was a fairly good printer and some of my pictures were winning camera club competitions. Lootens thought I had promise and suggested that I show some of my work to de Vos in his New York studio. He liked what he saw, and I got the job—at 12 dollars a week! I was ecstatic.

Madison Avenue

Did your environment influence your photographic development in any way?
Not my home environment, although my immigrant Ukrainian parents were supportive of my efforts. They even allowed me to convert our cellar coal bin to a darkroom when they converted to gas heat. However, my work environment influenced my photographic development immensely. I perfected my skills at black-and-white printing under de Vos’ sharp eye. So much so that after six months of working with him I was making carbros. These color prints require very critical black-and-white precision printing to ultimately convert the images to color. And I learned how to light a picture both in the studio and on location. To this day my trademark backlit cat and dog studio pictures and my best garden photographs have their origins way back in Leon’s studio.

Did you know right away what kind of photography you wanted to do?
No. I enjoyed and tried everything—still lifes, portraits, animals, people, scenics and, because I worked there, New York City scenes.

Was it important for you to develop a distinctive personal style?
No. I probably did not have a personal style until many years later as a freelancer; backlighting sort of became my trademark. Initially, I was unaware I was using backlight, but because the pictures looked better with it, I used it more and more. Later, when I was freelancing, I realized most of my published cover pictures were strongly backlit, so I then consciously tried to get it in my pictures whenever the subject warranted it.

3rd Ave. el curve

Although you’re perhaps best known in fine art circles for your New York street photos, I understand that garden and animal photography are closer to your heart.
They are. These have been my co-specialties in all the years I have been freelancing. But let’s go back a bit to my apprenticeship with de Vos. I worked with him for about two years. We shot a wide range of subjects: product still lifes, models, location work in offices and factories. We used strobes, flash bulbs and hot lights (incandescent) for illumination, depending on the assignment. It was a superb learning job, but even after a couple of years, still at learners’ wages. So I made a change. I next worked for a commercial portrait chain headquartered in Newark, New Jersey. I also worked in their Camden and Trenton studios. I did mostly head-and-shoulder portraits, plus location work at high schools and colleges—yearbook-type pictures of sports teams, various clubs, plays and other stage events and architectural exteriors of their buildings.

Then came WW2. I was drafted into the Army. Because of my photography experience I was immediately assigned to The Fort Dix Post as a press photographer. Assignments on this weekly newspaper were the usual flash on camera (Speed Graphic) newspaper stuff: personalities, spot news, cheesecake, picture stories. After about a year on the paper I finally got some basic training in Louisiana and then was shipped out to New Guinea, where I was assigned to a Signal Corps combat photo unit. Then Borneo, Leyte and, later, Luzon in the Phillipines. I flew into Japan with the first units of the 11th Airborne prior to the peace signing on the USS Missouri in August 1945. I continued doing press work in Japan until my discharge from the Army in early 1946.

Boys cooling off

I enrolled in the NYU School of Commerce, thanks to the GI bill, and majored in marketing. Did the four-year degree course in three years by taking extra credits and attending summer sessions. I got married between semesters in January 1949 and got my degree in the fall of that year along with the first of six kids. A brand new degree, a brand new kid, and no job! I panicked. So rather than face starvation I took a job again with a college yearbook outfit, was sent to an Ohio college and hated it, even though the money was good.

But again, let’s go back. While in college I augmented my GI Bill subsistence allowance by shooting weddings and entering photo contests and sometimes winning cash prizes. And during one winter I found a homeless cat in the snow, gave her a home and sometimes used her (and later her kittens) as a model. Most of the winning pictures I entered in contests were of cats and kittens. In addition to entering contests with my cat pictures I made feature picture stories involving cats and sometimes sold them to New York newspapers. These efforts were so successful that once in a while I got requests for cat pictures from magazines and ad agencies. More of my stuff was published, and I was getting a minor reputation as a cat photographer. Then I made my big decision—I quit the job I didn’t enjoy, drove home and started freelancing as a specialist in cat photography. We starved for two years, were happy and although I did not realize it at the time, we were building a stock picture file that is still yielding today, some 50 years later.

Horse cop, Coney Island

Ironically, many of my NYC photographs were made when I was a student at NYU. There was no thought of making the pictures to preserve the present for the future. I just enjoyed creating pictures and parts of New York appealed to me, so I made pictures. Had I realized how much New York would change I would have cut more of my NYU classes and made more pictures.

What do you enjoy most about taking photographs?
Even today with digital images I marvel at the magic of photography. To look at a subject, visualize its potential in your mind, then squeeze out an exposure and capture what you’ve seen to be preserved forever—on film or digitally—is instant gratification.

Does it provide you with emotional or intellectual satisfaction?
Sometimes with both.

5 cent subway

The New York pictures were taken decades ago. Do you still feel a connection to this work?
Very much so. Especially now that many of the images are scanned and minute nuances in the original negatives can be emphasized or subdued.

Have you done similar work since?
Yes. A few years ago while at a garden writers’ symposium in Toronto I made pictures of many of the buildings there in black-and-white 35mm. And rather than make individual prints of each frame I made a 16x20 enlarged contact sheet of each roll. Looks great. Another ongoing project is in Puerto Rico documenting the use of brilliant colors painted on both private homes and public buildings.

What years do your New York photos encompass?
Mostly 1946 to the mid-’50s.

Did you look at the work of other New York street photographers at that time?
All the time.

Did you get to know any of them?
No I didn't know any of them. Living about 60 miles from New York City limited my opportunities to meet them.

Thom McAn

What was your take on the members of the New York Photo League?
I always felt they were far above me. They were big names. They were the movers and shakers in photography. I was an upstart, trying to eke out a living doing my thing with animal photography.

How many street images did you make back then?
My NYC pictures? I’d say 100 to 200. I’m still searching through my negatives for forgotten images.

Did you have any particular challenges in getting the kinds of pictures you wanted?
Mostly waiting for the right light or weather, especially for some of the night shots. Fog is a great picture enhancer.

Did you have an underlying conception for these images?
Mostly deciding whether to include a person or people in the shot, then waiting until they were properly positioned.

El through city canyons

I find this work very incisive and engaged with the rhythms of the city, yet at the same time it feels somewhat emotionally detached. People are often photographed from behind, or at a distance, or even out of focus. Is it fair to say that you utilized the city’s inhabitants primarily from a graphic rather than emotional perspective?
Sometimes, but in some of my New York pictures people are dominant elements.

Put another way, were you more inspired by the physical character of the city rather than its inhabitants? I’m thinking of the picture of the El train dwarfed by the concrete canyons, which really emphasizes the city’s outsized sense of scale.

You don’t focus so much on the hustle bustle nature of the city as on its quieter, more muted moments. Is it fair to say your perspective is more in line with someone like Berenice Abbott, say, than a Sid Grossman?
I have long admired Abbot’s work, but never saw much of Grossman’s.

I also note an emphasis on means of transportation: taxis, buses, trains, ships, even a policeman’s horse. Why this fascination with modes of urban transport?
I was unaware of the transportation angle in these pictures, but now that you brought it to my attention, maybe it can be exploited.

Subway entry at Macy's

What do you think these photographs tell us about New York in the late 40s/early 50s?
Mostly that NYC is constantly changing. I realize that now that I don’t visit the city too often. I see something today that is picture-worthy, make a mental note to bring a camera next time I visit. Next time may be two or three months, and when I go there to make the picture, what I saw has been torn down.

If you were to photograph urban New York today, would you approach it any differently?
I still make NYC pix and I still look for the right light at the right time of the day or the right weather conditions. One of my to-do projects in is to re-shoot my 1940s-’50s pictures from the same vantage point of each shot.

What relationship do these vintage photos have to your other work?
They are entirely different. The NYC pix have never been a major project; they were a “busman’s holiday” sort of a thing. Flashback: When I made the choice in late 1949 to freelance I concentrated on cats using a 4X5 SPEED GRAPHIC and a 21/4 Rolleiflex. Many years later these were replaced with Hasselblads and Super D Graflexes. My “studio” was every room of our three-room apartment in Astoria, a subway ride from Manhattan. A pair of strobes was the extent of my lighting equipment. My late wife was my partner, my assistant, my secretary, my creative director. Without her I could not have succeeded. We struggled in Astoria for a little over a year; our second baby’s arrival prompted a move to larger quarters. We bought a three-bedroom house in Huntington, Long Island, where we lived for 10 years.

Penn Station cabs

At the promptings of some editors I expanded my photography to include dogs, then farm and zoo animals, still mostly in black and white, but toward the end of the 1950s magazines were going to all color, as was my shooting. Initially, one of the bedrooms was used as a proper studio, but the arrival of two more kids required that bedroom, so an even more proper studio was added to the Long Island house where we lived until 1960. The impending birth of our fifth child necessitated still another move. Buy now I was fairly well known for my animal photography—primarily cats and dogs—and getting good assignments from magazines and ad agencies. So we decided we’d move to a farm, which we found in New Jersey. A barn on the property was eventually converted to a proper studio.

Cat and dog photography requires an animal handler; my wife Maria was my handler and assistant. Sadly, she died in 1992. Without her, I had to give up my cat and dog photography in the studio. Flashback: With a bunch of kids and the uncertainty of freelancing income, I grew berries and vegetables to feed my family when nothing was coming in, i.e., no accounts receivables and nothing on the horizon. Even when finances improved I continued to grow edibles organically to feed us. With lots of solid experience in growing stuff I got published with both text and pix in various publications, including many stories in the New York Times. So after Maria died I did more and more garden writing and photography. So much so that now most of my photography is of gardens and to a much lesser degree of animals.

Queen Elizabeth I docking

(My profile of Walter Chandoha appeared in issue 57 of B&W. Be sure to visit his website to compare his personal and professional portfolios:

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Seyda Deligonul: Whispers Within
Turkish-born Seyda Deligonul initially started out as a painter, working primarily in an abstract mode for the better part of two decades. But his growing fascination with the passage of time impelled him to eventually set aside his brush and pick up a camera, a machine ideally suited for chronological exploration. A longtime resident of Rochester, New York, Deligonul often focuses his attention on what he describes as nature’s “homeless” —flowers, weeds and shrubbery that are lost, ignored or trampled beneath hikers’ boots. This humble wildlife is for him a kind of prism through which he can give expression to time, memory, motion and beauty.

Seyda Deligonul

You developed a keen visual sensitivity at an early age. Did your parents encourage your artistic development?
Absolutely. When I look back I realize that they were very deliberate in the way they provided an environment for me, with the tools of the craft and the opportunity to enjoy them. I was never “pushed into” pursuing art, but art was in my life, very naturally.

Did you tend to "fix" images in your mind's eye from childhood on?
How did you know? At this age I still play games in business meetings; I look at someone’s face and compose it around an anchor. I try to develop a wholeness, as if I will mentally go back and reconstruct the imagery later. I play similar games even while driving my car. Jokingly, I say I will come as an owl in my next life. Supposedly, owls can turn their heads 360 degrees with a very keen sense of sight. Once I wrote:

i walked away with a face
stolen from a corner of the minute
a contour
raw on my eyes,
in my brain a glimpse
the tilt of a head
pale lipstick
i finished the rest: aletheia.
the unknown

Rolling Hills

You were a painter before becoming a photographer. How long did you paint?
About 20 years.

Why did you transition from painting to photography?
It wasn’t planned. I started about 15 or so years ago. It was an experiment to better understand depth and flatness.

What differences have you noted, if any, in how the mediums communicate?
In photography, we flow in the moment and our perceptions traverse us in the opposite direction. Photography is temporal in nature, in that things present themselves to us and our interpretations of them vary continuously. Even in the studio, where the photographer supposedly has full control, no frame is the same as the previous or subsequent frame. As such, a photographer is given only once chance in that moment. On the other hand, painting is not temporal; its discourse is based on superimposing perceptions. In that sense painting as an art form removes the element of time from the equation. To put it bluntly, photography is a live conversation with a moment, and painting is a series of conversations within our sphere of life.

Was your painting always abstract?
I started in the figurative mode and later turned to abstraction. In one sense, all paintings are abstract. Even a die-hard realist strips the reality from its moment and delivers it with new phrases and language. That is also true for photography.

Letchworth, NY

What attracts you to abstraction? And how do you feel photography as a medium lends itself to it?
Abstract work requires not only expression of content but also producing the building blocks for the architecture, inventing the grammar, and creating the structure. Moreover, none of these can be random; they have to be harmonious and communicable. What a wonderful challenge that is! This challenge is real in any form of abstraction in art, be it painting, photography or something else.

Your work tends to direct attention toward the kaleidoscopic beauty of the organic forms in our environment. What other themes do you try to express?
When I look at a toddler’s block pyramid what I am presented with visually is a triangle from one side and, with the slightest turn, from the top, a square with two diagonal lines, and a perfect square from the bottom-up angle. These renderings, with our wonderful capacity, are interpreted as a whole. That is, we are presented with a square but we construe it as a pyramid. This leap from what is presented to what we interpret involves many things, including time, motion and an entire language. I am fascinated by everything related to time (and I sway into nostalgic renderings in photography, for instance); I am fascinated by motion (and I enjoy the challenge of expressing flow); and I am delighted by conversing beauty with imagery.

Water Mirage

I’m struck by the phrase “whispers within” that you apply to your photographs. You seem to be saying that the natural world has much to teach and inspire us if only we would pay attention. Why do you think we don't?
This is the whole point. Perhaps one reason we feel that the vocabulary and grammar of the natural world is partly intelligible to us is because it’s like a second language, not our mother tongue. Since we are hardly fluent in it, it becomes very convenient for us to silence the nature. It feels hard to use the second language while you have the convenience of your mother tongue.

Is it more important for you to elicit an emotional or intellectual reaction from viewers?
Art is not only about production, but also about consumption. From the two a wonderful conversation emerges. I love to draw out emotional and intellectual reactions from viewers. A monologue is not the best way for art that is innately two-way.

What do you think gives your work its individuality?
I think being simple in phrases, and being sensitive to emotion are typical in my work. I try to adopt a soft and peaceful, almost mystical approach to abstractions. The spontaneity and innocent look are also traits I value. There is some laciness in my photos that some people say makes the imagery very soft, romantic and sensuous.

Spanish Dance

You reference nostalgia, and your work does indeed resonate with that emotion. What is this nostalgia rooted in?
Fascination with time. We are what we are because of an experience in which we flow. Perhaps the time is constant we flow.

What compels you to photograph nature? Do you work with other kinds of subject matter?
When I do nature photography I focus on the “homeless” inhabitants of nature—those things that are lost or ignored, the things that get crushed under the boot of a hiker. My subject matter will hardly make it to a tourist book. Nostalgia, motion and unrecognized beauty comprise my favorite subjects.

Is it more challenging to express complexity (visual/emotional/intellectual) with simple subject matter? Or, as your statement seems to imply, do you feel that complexity is inherent in everything?
“Tristan and Isolde” begins with a wrong chord. Recognizing Wagner’s intention, musicians, I think, call this opener Tristan-chord. After the first chord Wagner proceeds with a beautiful harmony to bring the off-chord intrigue to resolution. In such complexity, I think, the disharmony becomes the genesis for the simple but beautiful consonance. Put bluntly, complexity is the source of simple beauty. In chaos (also in disequilibrium, or broken patterns), there are multiple opportunities to express the beautiful, repeatedly and in the most simplistic ways.

Through the Garden Fence

With regard to visual complexity, there’s something simultaneously intimate and expansive about these images. Do you consciously strive for this effect?
That is the magic I am trying to be part of. The tension between nature’s complexity and the minimalist expression of it fascinates me. That is my playground.

Certain of your images, like “Mendon,” call to mind Cy Twombly drawings, especially his images of curving white lines on a dark background. Do you recognize this affinity?
You are very perceptive. He is very much influenced by Paul Klee and Franz Klein as much as I have been. We have tons of parallels. I have some abstracts from broken window displays with a duct tape holding the pieces; they display a remarkable resemblance to Franz Kline’s black-and-white expressionism. These were shot in run-down neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York with no intention of arriving at parallels with Kline’s work.


Are your images made digitally or traditionally?
They are digital.

It looks like you’re using a telephoto lens to flatten the image plane and push things further toward abstraction. Is this your preferred lens?
That is exactly what I do. I also play with the focus point. First, I create sense of flatness, and then, holding the focus on a particular anchor within the narrow depth of view, I compose. Within the flatness of a composition there are layers. This is the only way I know of to transform the magic of three-dimensional world into flat imagery.

Would it be fair to say that your pictures express a kind of visual tension between what we think we see when we look at a plant or flower or tree and what that plant or flower or tree actually represents?
Expressionism in photography may sound like a misnomer, but it is possible. And I think to a degree, I can identify myself with it. Often, nature presents itself in complexity that in most ways does not look much different than a painter’s extremely fast work on canvas. It reveals feelings and emotions, expressing gesturally, sometimes with large brush strokes, sometimes dappling with dripping paint onto canvas. The end result is characterized by a strong dependence on what appears to be accident and chance. It is up to the photographer to spot and seize the opportunity. As a side note, my work differs, perhaps, from the typical expressionism by its anchor where subject matter firmly establishes itself. There is no effort on my part to escape from the representation of the subject.

Waiting in the Storm

(I profiled Deligonul for B&W magazine's issue #51.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Justin Borsuk: Manifest Destiny
Borsuk is a San Francisco Bay-area photographer and digital artist who creates images with a unique layering technique that plays with notions of time, place and scale. He combines traditional film capture with digital processing, and shoots in both black and white and color. His personal work is visually and thematically dense and challenging, often bordering on pure abstraction, yet is imbued with a surprisingly emotional resonance.

Justin Borsuk

Easy questions first. Where and when were you born?
I was born March 19, 1982 in Sacramento, California. My family moved to the Bay Area when I was two.

When did you first start taking photographs?
I first learned how to make a black-and-white print from my grandfather in his basement in Seattle at a very young age. Photography was one of his passions, and I remember him showing me how to mix chemicals and the correct process for printmaking. I was always interested in other mediums of art before becoming involved with image making myself. I was a good illustrator in school and started woodworking with my father at a very young age in our garage/shop. I learned how to turn exotic wooden bowls on a lathe and took woodshop in junior high. I took art classes in high school: painting, drawing, ceramics, etc. But photography didn’t really interest me as a medium until I got my first digital camera in college. I started taking pictures of my friends and various activities we were all involved in, like sports, skateboarding, social settings, etc.

What attracted you to digital imagery?
In college (Trinity University in San Antonio) I was really involved with computers, Photoshop, video, film and digital editing. I ended up majoring in communications and worked on a few short films and documentaries. I did take one black-and-white photography course during my last semester as a senior. I started shooting with an old Nikon 35mm camera that my parents got as a wedding present and had hardly used. That was my first real introduction to the medium, and I instantly fell in love with it. Photography meant that I didn’t have to rely on anyone but my own creative power and myself. I took a lot of documentary-style photographs of my friends, fraternity brothers, the places I was living…my whole environment.

American Slaves

Were you primarily self-taught?
I read a lot but I’ve mostly learned by doing and just trying everything once to see what the result is. I shot with a handful of different types of cameras before finally settling on an old Hasselblad. I enjoy slowing things down and making an image step by step. Taking the time to capture a single frame really relates to the concepts I explore with my work. I’ve tried printing on almost everything and have been very involved with experimental and historical processes. I sometimes enjoy shooting with a Holga and even built my own pinhole camera out of Legos. I saw Wayne Martin Belger’s work and hand-built cameras at Varnish in San Francisco and was blown away; his work and cameras are unbelievable.

Has growing up in the Bay area, with its history of experimental photography, influenced your aesthetic approach?
Absolutely. Being exposed to such a rich artistic community and all the culture of the Bay Area has definitely influenced who I am and the work I produce today as a result. I spend a lot of time going to museums and galleries. The Bay Area is full of amazing work, from the most obvious places like the De Young and SFMOMA, to the hidden, one-room gallery on almost every other street. I live in Berkeley and pretty much walk or ride my bike everywhere. I am constantly exposed to great, experimental imagery and art everywhere I go. It’s actually really hard to avoid! One of my favorite things to do is just zone out on BART listening to music and staring out the window at all the graffiti and the world happening around me. I constantly think about how to stand out and be a unique artist in this oversaturated world of art that I live in.

Albany Bulb

Much of your work exhibits an impulse towards abstract, highly graphic imagery. How and when did you begin to see this way?
I think that I have always seen or viewed the world in this way; it has just taken me a few years to finally manifest this in a physical form to show others how I see. I have spent many sleepless hours trying to find my vision, and never thought that my single images truly represent the way I see things. I am definitely my own worst critic, like many artists and photographers, and it has taken me a long time to find a style that satisfies me. Even now, I really can only look at a few of the images I’ve made over the years and say to myself, “Wow! Did that really come from me? Did I really make this?” I am proud of the work I am making, but it takes a lot to blow me away or feel like I have really accomplished something.

Who are some of your influences, photographic or otherwise, and why?
John Gutmann. His style of street and documentary photography really relates to the way I shoot and compose my individual photographs. I admire his eye and I feel like if he were a photographer of my generation, we would be drawn or attracted to similar subjects. His attention to detail and the unique is why I am influenced by his compositions. His early photography of San Francisco prior to WWII is an amazing body of work that speaks to me as a photographer. Gutmann’s perspective influences my work and the way I view the world around me. If I were to do only black-and-white urban landscapes, my work would show a lot of similarities to Gutmann’s.

Jerry Uelsmann. This single photographic artist convinced me to start experimenting with a surrealistic photographic style. Jerry is the master of combination images. I have immense respect for his skill, especially since he creates his work with traditional darkroom processes instead of digitally. I really began to explore my passion of combination or constructed landscapes after viewing Uelsmann’s amazing body of work. This unique genre of photography has had a dramatic influence upon my creative evolution.

Bike confrontation UCB

Idris Khan. He is the main influence for this body of work and this is the first person I have seen develop the multilayer technique I am interested in. Idris often appropriates images and creates a series of photographs representing “every” image of that particular subject. This style can become more painterly than photographic when too many images are combined. I have taken this idea and created something very different by developing this style. Khan says that words and music unfold successively, while photography is about an instant. He also says that photography can ask the impossible and questions what something will look like as a composite or single manifestation of itself.

Picasso. My final images tend to look more like illustrations or paintings rather than just photography, and my favorite painters, including Picasso, influence me. His cubist style of painting, deliberate line work, and bold colors drive me to explore these aspects in my photographs. Picasso has an extensive body of work based on landscapes, especially in the Mediterranean. This work means a lot to me and I try to reference painting with my layered work.

Artemio Rodriguez. An amazing Mexican printmaker/illustrator/artist who creates graphic and extremely intricate imagery. Although it isn’t photography, I take a lot of inspiration from the small details and social commentary in his work.

What was the initial inspiration for your “Manifest Destiny” series?
Sometimes the single image just doesn’t really satisfy me and what I expect from photography. When I started graduate school I was known as the guy who always changed his project and subject matter from week to week. I guess you could call it Art ADD, but I always felt like something was missing with my individual images. I came into my program thinking that I wanted to try everything, every process, every camera, every film type, every presentation method. But I realized that I couldn’t keep up this pace and had to focus on one unique style until I exhausted all of its potential. I became a fan of Idris Khan’s work after seeing some of his images at the Fraenkel Gallery and the SFMOMA. His layering technique appealed to me even though he uses a lot of re-photography of other artists’ work. I thought that I could successfully develop my own style from what I saw using completely original photographs of things and places I was already shooting at the time. I have to say though that I believe my work is totally different than Khan’s, but I have to give him the initial credit for at least planting the idea in my brain.

LDS Temple

Is the layering done in camera or in the darkroom?
I shoot all of the images individually with my Hasselblad and 120 film and compose everything entirely in camera. I begin to see the final image develop in my mind and try to shoot while thinking about how the individual photographs will work together to create the final piece. It has taken me a long time to perfect this process because I never really know what I have until the last step of the layering process. This is what keeps it exciting from start to finish, and I really enjoy every step. I use about 5-10 photographs for each final product. I scan the film on a Flextight drum scanner and then use a layering technique I have developed using Photoshop to create the final images.

What criteria do you apply in choosing what and where to photograph?
It should have some historic value, but I also look for something that simply catches my interest and has repeating shapes or elements that would work well with the layering technique. How do you decide which constructions will be in black and white and which in color? Do they signify different thematic intentions? For this series, I usually make different versions of each image and then decide on the best one. This includes making black-and-white and color versions of each photo. I like both, but the work is totally different in both forms and some images are stronger in color, and vice-versa.

Does focusing on historical places allow for a richer philosophical and visual metamorphosis?
Yes, but I feel that the actual place does not necessarily need to be recognizable to the viewer. It can have the same affect or impact on the viewer if that person can connect what they are seeing, to something that they have experienced in their own lives.

Boy Walking Downtown Soufriere

Combining historical settings and such contemporary elements as cars, telephone lines, signage, modern dress, etc., establishes a tension between past and present, tradition and change. What else are you after here?
I think you describe this perfectly. There is definitely tension between past and present, tradition and change, and everything that has happened in these particular places over time. Some of my favorite photographs have subject matter related to just normal, everyday life, like street scenes or urban documentary. I love seeing old cars, old dress, signage, products, etc., from a time that I could never have experienced…the past. I enjoy period photography from the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. What intrigues me is that these normal scenes describe so much culturally, technologically, and politically of the times they represent. I don’t expect people to be excited about or interested in such elements as cars, signage and modern dress in my imagery now, but I’m thinking long-term. Maybe in 50 years people will look at my images and think that they are the perfect representation of the overwhelming and chaotic times that we live in. Those same cars, signage and dress may accurately portray the fast-paced, technology driven, war- and oil-fueled world that exists in the 2000’s. I guess time will tell.

The people in these images invariably project a sense of isolation, even (or especially) in crowd settings. Does this reflect an attitude about contemporary urban life?
Sure. In some ways they are trapped in time. I find that a lot of people are just oblivious or inattentive to what is happening right around them. I see the images as a series of smaller moments in time. Everyone is moving at such a fast pace, so catching individual moments and then combining them into a single instant is a sort of cultural commentary on the desire for constant progression and doing things as fast as possible.

Port of Oakland

The layering seems to be a way of deconstructing traditional notions of place as well as identification with place.
Yes, but I also want to challenge the viewer to see a place as a single manifestation of itself. I want the viewer to see this place and identify with me as I witness it, how I capture various views and angles, and how all of those mix together to create the personality of the place. It is a very different way to see things, but it is also a series of memories compiled into one instant.

The layering sometimes verges on complete abstraction, giving the viewer few clues with which to navigate the thematic content. Is this a calculated effect?
The layering of the images definitely obscures detail in the smaller versions such as the ones on my website. The photographs are meant to be viewed on a larger scale and I really try not to print anything smaller than 12x12. The series eventually will all be printed 24x24 in order to really exaggerate all of the intricate detail. Shooting with medium-format film allows me to blow up the final product with great detail and minimal grain so the viewer can really explore the images. The smaller scale tends to condense and detail is unfortunately lost. I think the imagery can work at various scales, but it has a different feel to it at every size.

These images have a kind of emotional neutrality; they’re neither warm nor cool. Do you deliberately try to strip them of emotional content, or does the layering automatically do that?
I think the layering automatically does that and it is hard to identify with any individuals in the images, but it is more about connecting with the idea of the place.

Protest Crown Praying UCB

Or is there an emotional level in these images I’m not seeing?
Yes I hope to achieve some impact on an emotional level. I at least want the viewer to feel like they need to be closer to the work, to really explore the images for small detail and have some tension trying to dissect what they are seeing. I want there to be an overwhelming feeling sometimes because this is what I experience when I take the photographs.

Your website states that the images both reveal and obscure essence. Can you talk about this in a little more detail?
I am referring to both the essence of place and the essence of time. In some of my images the place or time may be obscured to the point that it cannot be identified. I want the images to help reference a specific time and place for each viewer…to elicit certain memories, even if the actual place is easily recognizable.

What other specific themes or ideas are you trying to express in this series?
I have always been fascinated with American history, specifically with regard to the conquering of the West. There is a certain allure that surrounds the concept of sacrifice and the idea of venturing into the unknown. My concept of history leads me into a realm of photography where I feel it is necessary to document a place in a way where I can represent the time that I spend there, and its influence on me. It is unfeasible for me to take only one photograph or choose one image that I truly believe captures the essence of that place. It just doesn’t happen that way for me. I want to be able to show others my time and exploration, and conclusions. I want people to see everything that I see in an instant. Exploration and curiosity are essential to building a relationship between the viewer and my images. Each of these places has gone through some sort of evolution based on cultural transformation and events happening throughout history. The images carry a wealth of information all at once and represent a complex history of activity.

North Beach

(I profiled Borsuk for B&W magazine several years back. In addition to his personal work, he operates a post-production studio that offers digital editing and retouching services for photographers and designers. Be sure to visit his website: