Meaning in Photography
Woodstock & Beyond: A Conversation with Master Photographer Henry Moore on his work and his 2019 exhibit at The Provincetown Commons
Jim Austin Jimages (JAJ): Henry, I wanted to congratulate you on the show. How'd it go?
Henry Moore ( HM): I thought it went great. Showing photography up there at the Commons, the response was overwhelming.
JAJ: Which of your photographs sold from your exhibit?
HM: My portrait of Mother Teresa and the cop in the phone booth.
JAJ: Well, I'm delighted. It was great to work with The Commons team, Jill Stouffer and Dave La France, and to be exhibting in that bright, clean space.
HM: Yeah, fantastic space, and your work looks great there too.
JAJ: I thought so too. Henry, I want to ask about the context of specific photographs of yours. As you know, today is August 17th, exactly the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. So I'd like to hear about your experience there, and about Woodstock photographs that you exhibited at The Provincetown Commons.
HM: Yeah. Well, the Woodstock photographs. I was 18 years old, just out of high school and I was getting excited about using a camera and getting into photography. No one, of course, knew what was going on. I had a friend, and we thought, hey, let's go up there. Just on a whim, we decided to get there a couple of days early. It unfolded in front of us. We knew we were a part of something pretty amazing. They did it . . .there had never been that many people in one event like that. There are still photographs from Woodstock I haven't shown in public. I think it was my first really serious attempt at type of editorial work and how I ot my start in editorial photography.
JAJ: So that was a good starting point, the experience of being there, and then having things develop the way they were supposed to, photographically.
HM:Yeah. It put a major imprint on my brain . . . what I wanted. Before (the Woodstock editorial work) I took pretty pictures of flowers and things, learning my way around in the camera. But then that (Woodstock) got me turned on to the whole thing of shooting people, which led me to doing work in street photography. I also started looking at other photographers, you know, their work. I really started researching other people. That was the turning point that made me finally realize that that's going to make a turn in my career.
JAJ: Since this was 1969, let me just follow that line of people. Who were you looking at in 1969, other photographers?
HM: Well, undoubtedly the first major influence was W. Gene Smith. I can't tell you how much his work has affected me. I think he is one of the greatest at the time. I first got turned on to his work from LIFE magazine, the country doctor portfolio, Albert Schweitzer. Minamato Japan, the woman and her daughter in the bathup is one of the greatest photographs ever taken.
I mean, just that changed my life. That changed the way I thought about photography. And . . .I decided to go to college, at the San Francisco Art Academy. 1970, I guess it was. I had a great instructor there to Peter Stackpole (LIFE MAGAZINE) who got me thinking about that type of work. From there, the next major influence was Robert Frank and his book, the Americans. I started putting things together about how I would like to work in more of a straight documentary, social documentary way. I was also influenced, tremendously, by the work of the great photographers in the sixties and seventies like Bruce Davidson. Fantastic photographer. His work of the teenage gang in the projects...he also did a beautiful series on Central Park. I sort of fashion myself a bit around, Bruce Davidson and a mix of that beautiful, elegant, spare, beautiful crop.
Gary Winogrand was a major influence. Andre Kertesz, beautiful stuff. Also people like Arnold Newman for environmental portraiture. I love doing portraits. I tend to go into environmental portraiture. ALso, for years I studied the Zone System, exposure and development . What Ansel Adams taught me was what black looked like. My exposure to his (Adams) work back in the 70s really formulated how to see in black and white.
I think the discipline of the Zone System was important. It led to how I look at things such as composition and toning . . what black and white really means. Those were the early influences on the early part of my career. I was a black and white printer (in the darkroom) and that's how I typically started in the business, professionally. For six years I worked in a black and white custom lab in San Francisco, California.
JAJ: And during this time, Henry, were you also out on the streets in the city, in San Francisco, documenting.
HM: Yes. Before I got the paying gigs, I would give myself self assignments. I'd read the newspaper every day, and know this thing is gonna happen, and say to myself I should be there for that event. I'd been investigating parts of the city I didn't know. After a decade of working in a (photo processing) lab and going out and shooting whatever I could on the streets, there were a body, a whole lot of self- assignments. I looked at what was going on in town, reading the newspapers and listening to the radio.
JAJ: What changed since you were doing that approach on the street? You know, you were very independently researching, and looking for the event . . . what changed in how you approached people with the camera during that time as you were learning to do portraiture with film on the street? I mean, did you change your, your demeanor? Did you change your photographer subject relationship during that time ?
HM: Yes, I spent time practicing how to be an effective street shooter. What I I learned when I taught myself was to be as inconspicuous as possible. I generally fit in with the crowd. I was pretty much a long hair kind. No one taught me this, I learned to be in conspicuous on my own. I think the secret to successful street shooting is anticipation. And one of the things that came out of my studying the Zone System of Ansel Adams was pre-visualization, which is so important and what I would like to teach people today. He (Adams) knew exactly what that print was going to look like on the wall before he fired the shutter.
His form of pre- visualization was more about exposure and development then the printing side. With street photography, you go into it with some of that, but its mainly anticipation, when you're talking about the decisive moment. Before you fire the shutter, a lot of thinking goes into it. When I saw things happening in the streets, I had to think about where it (events of the scene) were going to go. I see someone doing something, but where was he going to be in five seconds and 10 seconds? So you have to anticipate that moment. That's what I tried to work on for a number of years. Anticipating.
JAJ: Right, right. So, in a sense, cognitively and perceptually anticipating. Unlike, you know, Yosemite or in the West where the subject is still, you're on the street and everything's moving. So you're anticipating cognitively and moving. You're in a dance prior to getting that moment.
HM: Exactly. Unlike Gary Winogrand. When you look at the amount of work that that guy was doing , he had thousands of shots of undeveloped film. He would shoot just randomly. I don't know,his work is incredible, but, um, I think that just the sheer volume of that... there's just a different kind of way of looking. I think you almost see he was more of a filmmaker.
JAJ: Henry, that's a very telling comment about Winograns, you know, almost as a filmmaker. You're the first person who's shared that about his approach. Now, getting back to you on the street, I want to turn to some specific photos. I'd like to hear the context for the policeman in the phone booth. I've seen firefighters and police as some themes in your work in The Provincetown Commons and on your website. I'd love to hear about "Rookie San Francisco, 1982."
HM: I knew a lot of cops and firemen. When I worked at the San Francisco print lab, the owner of the business had cops drop by. So, I met a lot of these folks and after awhile, I was able to show up to things and I pretty much knew who was running the show, either the sergeant in charge or a fireman. They were familiar with me. I was allowed to get into places and do things then that you can't do today. Like, tthey were going into a burning building. So, the Rookie (photograph) is one of my favorite shots. . . .what I love about that photograph is she's a recently graduated officer, she's standing next to a highly experienced sergeant. Then, there's a moment where they're looking at each other and she's totally looking at him with admiration and he's sort of looking at her and like 'OK, well let's see what happened.'
JAJ: Well, let me, let me follow up on "The Rookie" for a minute. Not to put themes into your work, but let me ask you, in addition to subject-photographer relationship, is one of your continuing themes the relationship in the scene? Is that an important theme, the looks, the gestures between people?
HM: If I can pull it off, of course. It's very hard to do, you know, and that's where some of the theory of anticipation and pre-visualization comes.
JAJ: So that's the holy grail. The other photograph I wanted to know about was your immigration officer in Central Valley, given the current state of immigration.
HM: OK. That photograph happened on assignment for a documentary (in 1984). I rode with a border patrol raid, and we drove by a field in Central Valley, in California. And when we pulled up, there were maybe ten workers out in the field. As soon as they saw the vehicles, they disappeared under the plants to avoided search as much as possible. They would check their papers and they didn't have the papers in order. If they were deported they were put into the patty wagon and they were deported. So I don't see where much has changed. Yeah, that photograph is of this border patrol agent searching the fields, looking for people.
JAJ: Can you tell me about the dancing Deadhead photograph?
HM: Yeah, that's funny. Sure. I'm not at all, never really was a fan of the Grateful Dead. This (photograph) was on a self assignment too. They (Grateful Dead rock group) were playing in Golden Gate Park. I had to go because I always heard stories and I'd never been to a Dead concert ever, so that time was my first experience. I was fascinated by the swirling, whirling dervishes of the deadhead women, like hippie chicks, and they wore that look and dress. I just thought that photograph was the epitome of the cult of the Dead.
JAJ: Well, it's a wonderful photograph and it's one of my personal favorites. Henry, I want to hear more about " In the arms of an Angel,Alameda, 1986.
HM: I was sent there to shoot a story on The Blue Angels when each year the Blue Angels would come to San Francisco every year for fleet week. So, that one was an NBC assignment. I don't know if I mentioned to you those years that I worked for NBC. I haven't always been a fan of aviation, but it's always fascinating and that was an opportunity to get right on the runway and get right in there with them. I liked the formal composition, the square format the symmetry. Symmetry is a big thing with me. I also like the formal composition, very formal and very symmetrical. That's what I liked about it. It's a different way of looking at The Blue Angels. I mean, usually it's all about the gorgeous planes and the pilots.
I don't know if we really talked about this, but for over a decade, I was working for NBC in San Francisco as a still shooter, documentaries. They used me because they liked what I did. They would send me out with a documentary film crew, whatever the story was. So they may actually be shooting for a day or maybe two days or maybe three days. It was a chance to really do a photojournalistic, documentary approach. But in the end, you had to know that they were only gonna use one photo. It is not like when Eugene Smith shot a story and they (LIFE) used 20 or 30 or 40 of his shots. So (using one shot) was a different way of thinking because the photos were used in the Sunday paper to advertise the second coming documentary and there was only room for one (photograph). You might shoot three, four hundred shots but distill the concept down to one (image) and you had to tell a story with only one photograph. Do you want to hear an interesting story on how I got started? [inaudible]
JAJ: I wish everybody had that... that kind of a coherent and distilling curating training in photoh school, you know, that'll be great training.
HM: I want to add that I'm freelancing and finally got a call, one afternoon. I don't know if you remember Jessica Savage, but she was the first, first female anchor. She's doing a stand up in front of the Russian consulate and she only has 30 minutes. The client told me I had to come now. Well, I lived in south of Sonata just across the southern border of San Francisco, and I so I had to somehow get myself all the way to Pacific Heights, which was all the way through the city in less than a half hour. I got all my stuff in a bag. I knew all the back roads. I pulled up just as she (Jessica Savage) was getting up to do her stand up. I shot two rolls.
The producer just came up to me after she was done and said to me "OK, give me the film." I said "What? No, that's not how I work." He said " No, I need, I need these shots. They have to broadcast tomorrow in New York. This was before digital. So, I hand over the film and never saw it. Jessica was subsequently killed in a car crash. From that moment on, I got nonstop work from NBC. The NBC contact wrote about me in a book about how to break into the television business and she used me as an example of 'yes, I'll get it done no matter what' kind of thing. NBC used me from then on and had tremendous confidence in me and my ability to pull it off. So then led to at least 10 years of work right then and that one, that one assignment .
JAJ: So one of the keys was your own confidence and your ability to say "Yes, I can do this. I can make this happen."
HM: Yeah. Well I was scared shitless.
JAJ: One of my other questions, Henry, was how you go about pushing beyond the boundaries and photographic ideas that you've already done. One key you are saying is be scared, but make it happen and push beyond the boundaries even when we're shaking and scared.
HM: Right, exactly. I had to react to whatever kind of work came my way. I was not only a practiced with 35 millimeter cameras, but also with medium format, portraiture, large format, whatever. I was doing advertising jobs as well, whatever I could do. I was doing studio, product, advertising, many different types of things. I think one (kind of photographic skill) helped the other.
JAJ: Yes, yes. They synchronized with each other. I think you answered the question, but I wonder if the over-specialization now in art schools . .do you think people sort of lose openness to life expanding experiences if they are so specialized?
HM: I do, for sure. I don't think they have a choice. With the whole world of social media, how do you market yourself? You know, it's a little different today. I think now it is incumbent upon you to become an expert in one area. But thirty years ago, I was in photography as a generalist, so to speak, because there were a whole lot more different kinds of assignments that I got. That was important. My training was large format, my understanding of darkroom development and previsualizing what (the final image) would look like. We trained in the street and then all it all worked out in the end. I still shoot film now and I do architectural photography. I loved architecture and I love working with large format.
JAJ: Henry, there is this beautiful photograph on your website, in the architecture section and the header image it looks like an architectural form with different tones. I'd love to know what is the context of that photograph?
HM: Yeah, that's a real favorite of mine. That's all about form. . .that's all it is. There was a guy who was doing amazing things in Los Angeles (John Longdon) with a concrete and, doing entire homes and interiors with concrete. I made a photograph in one of these homes. So that's where that came. It's just about architectural form and shape in a Hollywood home up in the hills, surrounded by glass and overlooking Hollywood, it was one of his original homes. Fascinating.
JAJ: What an energizing photographic experience to just to be in the home, you know in that place, and get to create your work.
HM: Yeah, there's the house, one of the homes I'm talking about has a concrete roof that has hundreds of wine bottles in the ceiling and the room interior looks like a dappled forest with the light coming through, its just amazing. Near the swimming pool in the master bedroom, the bed was made out of concrete as well.
JAJ: We talked about symmetry. Tell me more about your thinking about balance and symmetry in your landscape work?
HM: You know, I, I don't consider myself to be a landscape photographer The project that I have put up on my website, The North Coast, this beautiful coastline. And, there is this old barn, perfectly symmetrical. It goes back to the organic, formal presentation I like a lot, compositionally. The composition also gets to how we crop. You and I had a discussion of being in the darkroom in the late seventies, and learning how to print when we were taught to shave the negative carrier, leaving a black border around the picture, to prove you had not cropped the photograph.
I took a number of design courses early on in my career and I tend to like just plain, straightforward product shots or people. Shooting in the street, I used to stay with the 35 millimeter focal length. But the 85 lets me be farther away, like with the photograph of Mother Teresa, and I can still crop that 85 millimeter photograph. I makes sense. the 85 brings me in a little bit closer. That's where the cropping comes from with the composition and the symmetry.
If you look at my photograph Mohawk couples? It was a peace march in San Francisco with a Black man with a small white child. It was a longer focal length. I can get that crop in camera. I also utilize selective focus with the longer focal length. I think some of my stuff is an affordable approach that works a little better than a Winogrand. I like to come in a little bit closer, drop out with the background with selective focus.
JAJ: I wanted to ask what qualities of mind have helped you in your lifelong learning as a photographer?
HM: Qualities of mind...well... I read a tremendous amount. I study history. I'm fascinated by the 20th century. I'm always looking for history when I'm in the street, whether it's a demonstration or whatever it is, I'm always cognizant of what's coming. Another thing would be my appreciation of art. I always recommend that young photographers look at paintings, study art, and see the different movements and learn from that. It is probably in my genes . . . my grandfather was a photographer and painter and musician, he was a hero to me. I was a musician and played music and danced for years.
I think there's, there's a parallel between being a fine artist and musician and photographing. You'll find that a lot of photographers play music and then vice versa. So I would say that my appreciation of art, whether it's painting or sculpture, or music. With music, I love everything from classical to modern architecture.
JAJ: Tell me a few more details, given all of those tributaries of art and music and your family history, a few more details about (your book) In Retrospect. How did your book come about?
HM: I had been working running large studios. I could not shoot on the street at much, because at the time i had a family and four kids. I worked as a studio manager in San Francisco, back in 1989. That got me into different things, like learning about lighting from other photographers. I thought I knew everything about lighting and the artificial lighting until I started running the studio. I was learned from amazing professionals. So that experience opened my eyes to how it really was t think in visual ways in the studio.
It was a managerial thing, I was busy, so I wasn't able to shoot as much. To make a long story short, up to five years ago, I was working managing studios. The biggest one was in Detroit. I ran a studio of a hundred thousand square feet and I managed all the photographers and decisions, all the styling. The production department did Kmart studio products, illustration. I worked in Atlanta doing Home Depot advertising. I got away from the street shooting as much because I wasn't making a living at it. I was making a living in the studio.
Then I looked at thousands and thousands and thousands of negatives that I had. I came up with the idea that I could do a book of a hundred pictures. The book project was an effort to pull off. You've got the editing to do, and also going through 40 years worth of work. So, that's the impetus for the book. It took about five years to edit and then to scan everything because it's all shot on film. Everything had to be scanned, adjusted in Photoshop. No manipulation, it is all straight and just file preparation. So yeah, it was a five year project. I said "OK, I can go back and find what I did and come up with about a hundred favorites." That's where the book came from.
JAJ: Anyone can acquire In Retrospect through Blurb directly. I'd like to ask you about work on the website: "All That Remains" and "The Survivors."
HM: Yeah. All that remains is a Santa Rosa fire in 2017 (October 2017). This is still an ongoing project, I'm still working on it. I'm close to this because my daughter was almost burned out from her home. There was a fire that consumed thousands of acres of northern California and wiped out an entire section of a city in Santa Rosa. It spared no one. It went over the hills and destroyed the homes of the millionaires. Then the fire jumped the freeway and destroyed the homes of a blue collar working class neighborhood. I wasn't there for the actual fire, but I was there about a month after the event.
It was astounding. I've seen a lot of things, but I've never seen anything like the total destruction. I felt that I was at ground zero with Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Everything was destroyed. So, "All that Remains" is one of a series of the shots . I shot film. I shot digital. I even shot point and shoot cameras. I was basically trying to document what was left. "Survivors" shows when an entire home is completely wiped out, and nothing left except a couple of garden ornaments, the gnomes (in the front yard of a burned home). They were the only survivors. There's going to be more work of that location, I am still working at it.
Jim, you mentioned another thing about what keeps you going. Here in Orleans (on Cape Cod, Massachusetts) Bob Korn is a local printer (Bob Korn Imaging, Orleans, Massachusetts). We host a salon, and once a month we all get together. A group of photographers get together and we're not the postcard photographers that you see so much on the Cape. Our group is people that are doing some really interesting work. It's an informal group of about 10, 15 and changes every month. We just come in and say 'here's what we're working on.' We put about three prints up on the wall, we critique them.
It's a group of people for the young people in their twenties all the way up to the people in their seventies. All of us are actively shooting, still working on ideas of projects. We gently critique each other's work. It's fantastic. You know, a lot of the young ones learn from the old ones. And I'll tell you what, I'm one of the old ones and I learned from the younger photographers. I look at some of the work that they're doing and it's totally inspiring to see what young people can.
That's part of what keeps you involved and keeps you thinking about where you're going.
JAJ: What a broad range of minds and ideas. Does the salon have an informal name?
HM: Nope. . .(laughing) Third Thursday.
JAJ: So casual, Third Thursday, so relaxed and good to have a coffee or a beer, glass of wine or whatever. . . very relaxed.
HM: It's great. It's a place where people can come and get inspired. Bob's a great printer. He runs Bob Korn Imaging and makes his money doing printing for other photographers. He is tremendous at it. It's a great place for people to show their work. We can say "Hey, this can be printed better or this is a great idea. You need to work more on this. Wow, that's fantastic. I want to do something like that." That's what it's all about.
JAJ: I have two more quick ones Henry. My film group is going to ask me. . . "Henry told you he shooting film for his current project, why didn't you ask him about film?" So what kind of film is in the four by five, the two and a quarter and the 35 these days?
HM: Yes, it depends on the format. I shoot a lot of Ilford FP 4. I've experimented with Fuji. So, its either Fuji or Kodak Film and Tri-X of course. I collect the cameras from the sixties and seventies and eighties. I have a Mamiya SRT I'm shooting now, one of the first cameras I ever used. I rehabbed it and still shoot with it.
JAJ: Beautiful machine...
HM: Nikons and Pentax and whatever, you know, whatever I can get working. Four by five and large format. It's getting more difficult to lug all that, the Zone Six and the Arca Swiss field camera.
JAJ: Before we wrap up, what's ahead for Henry Moore, future projects or anything about you that you want to celebrate?
HM: I'm considering a new book project. It's about photographing Proctor, a small town in Vermont, where my family came from. My grandfather was a photographer in this town. I have all these amazing photographs from the turn of the century, and the 20s and 30s. It's a town that discovered marble in Vermont. They needed people to get it out of the ground. So that's how the Italian side of my family was basically imported over here to America. They were all stone cutters from stone cutters from Carrara, Italy.
This town was only there because of this company (Vermont Marble Company). The company owned the land. The company owned the store, the company owns your house. Its a fascinating little piece of America that actually thrived. The marble went into the monuments in Washington DC and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington (National Cemetery in Virginia. That was history in this place. Now it's all gone.
So I've been going back and toying with the idea of doing a book on the subject. I relate to the history. In the town, now, there's no work. The town has a lot of poverty. Once a year I try to get back and see how much more I can do with this long term project.
JAJ: Will you be starting the historical photographs of the town later this year, 2019 or will that be starting next year?
HM: That's the intention. I have another project that's just out of the blue. I'm going to travel to Ireland for the first time and that's it. That's a, a trip that, you know, that we want to do with just stuff. So my wife could paint and I can photograph, so I don't know how that's going to turn out, but I would like to see what I can do in the streets of Shannon and Dublin.
JAJ: Well, Henry, thank you very much for this chance to get to know you, and to see your ongoing projects and work.