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Reports in Magazines (I)
Interviews, articles and
Das Magazin for
Eyemazing Magazine interview with Paul Cava
Stephen Perloff: Paul, your new body of work, "Children of Adam," is inspired by Walt Whitman's poems. The quintessential American poet, Whitman has also inspired photographers like Edward Weston and Duane Michals. What was it about Whitman's work that intrigued you? And is there something about it that lends itself to collaboration with photography?
Paul Cava: The new "Children of Adam" book and recent exhibition at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia was comprised of photo-based work from the past 25 years and none of it was made with Whitman’s poetry in mind. I love Whitman for many reasons, primarily his inclusive ease and naked honesty regarding the body and it’s relationship to the soul or spirit. I always felt a sympathy between my art and these poems but never thought of formalizing a response until I was asked by the German publisher, Alexander Scholz, if I would care to do a project with him. Alex is a unique and courageous young publisher who had expressed interest in my art and thought he might like to publish it. I pitched him the idea of "Children of Adam" and he liked it. I don’t know if there is something about Whitman’s poems that works well with photography per se, but I do know that it is uncanny the way the effect of my work and his words lock together.
SP: In these images you have employed photographs you've taken of your wife, historic photographs — some well known, some not — and found pornographic imagery, as well as religious imagery of Christ's body. All are united by their sensuality and your handling gives them an authenticity that is authoritative. This references a long tradition going back at least to Renaissance painting (although here in the United States this could be controversial among religious conservatives). It also celebrates the human body and human sexuality in a way that perfectly meshes with Whitman's poetry. How and when did you discover this natural connection and what other imagery, literature, or other art forms inform this work?
PC: In regard to the anonymous found images that I sometimes use in my work, I feel that the origin of the source material is irrelevant to the end result and I like to think that I am liberating such images by recontextualizing them. Images of sex are not necessarily pornographic. The core of the beauty in my work is about Eros in a general sense, or love, not sex, and so I am saddened when some people claim they see pornography in my work. I am not a religious person but I believe the story of Christ is the story of love and it’s accompanying suffering and sacrifice. I attended Catholic school when young and the power of this symmetry was not lost on me so Christ makes repeat appearances in my work. Another less religious way to view this relationship of love and loss, creation and destruction, is as Eros and Thanatos, the two timeless halves of being. It’s not a new story in art and literature. These are passionate instincts that artists have grappled with since the cave paintings at Lascaux.
SP: Those who see pornography are too quick to condemn any depiction of sex and deny its relationship to love. I think part of the achievement of your work is in melding those concepts. Your work here is both synthetic and organic, melding your own imagery and/or appropriated imagery in a very convincing way. You were doing this when I first saw your work some 30 years ago. An early signature print — Run, Puff. Run, Puff, run. — combined a page from a children's book, Eddie Adams's iconic image of a South Vietnamese police chief killing a Viet Cong suspect, Harold Edgerton's sequence of a bullet ripping through metal plates, and images of Niagara Falls and an X-ray of a skeleton. How did you start doing this and how has it evolved over the years? What were the influences and inspirations from seeing photographs and other images over your many years as a photography gallerist and dealer?
PC: I think the question of influence is multi-dimensional. Another way to ask the question is to examine the needs of the individual that require the influence. Photography in the 1970s was a rather inbred, restricted art form and as a young artist interested in the medium I was reacting against this. The straight photograph was not satisfactory for me; it lacked the physical and emotional intimacy I craved, so I began to mess around in unorthodox ways like in the Run, Puff, Run piece from 1976. When I think back to that early work I can see the influence of Robert Rauschenberg — he was important for me in terms of loosening the photographic rectangle and for his mixing other media with photography. Just before the time that piece was made, during my graduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology in the early/mid '70s I became immersed in the history of the medium and would spend days at the George Eastman House studying the early non-silver processes by the Photo-Secessionists. One summer in Paris I immersed myself in the photographic work of the French primitives from private collections and at the Bibliothèque Nationale. All this research provided me with a strong foundation to build from and later deconstruct. There were years in the 1980s when I put photography aside and only painted, so my influences are varied and plenty and not simply visual.
SP: How did you meet Alexander Scholz? What other projects has he done? Your book is very elegant, beautifully designed and printed. Is that something for which he's known?
PC: I met Alexander Scholz through the internet — a modern high-tech match made in heaven. He contacted me because of my photography activities. He grew up in East Germany and is an architect by trade and a publisher by vocation. He has published literary, audio, and visual works by a diverse range of artists such as William Burroughs and William Blake and contemporary artists such as the photographer Thomas Karsten. Alex isn’t afraid of difficult subject matter and is planning a book that pairs 19th-century photographs of skin diseases with the contemporary poetry of John Wood, not your typical art book publisher.
SP: Your reference to Robert Rauschenberg is apt. Warhol also melded photography and printmaking, but both of them were classified as "artists" rather than photographers. It was only recently with the reinstallation of the galleries at the Museum of Modern Art that Rauschenberg and Warhol were included in photography. Your technique has often been similar but you've tended to classify it as photography. (Or have others done that for you?) How do you see the placement of your work and how is that affected and how is it changing with new digital technologies?
PC: My work has been compared to Warhol before, in fact my publisher has made the comparison, but I must say I don’t see it. Perhaps, we both trespass on photography's respectability in our appropriation and unorthodox use of images but the effect and intent is quite different in my work. My work tends to embody an intimate, emotional situation whereas in Warhol’s work the image is iconic and impersonal, a promotional sensibility — really quite the opposite of what I am after. Scale is an issue as to how photobased work is perceived. If I were to work large like Rauschenberg the connection would be more easily aligned with painting. As photo-based work keeps infiltrating the museums these category distinctions will hopefully dissolve. Defining artists with the medium they happen to be working in just keeps artists and art restricted. Artists who work in various or crossover mediums are plagued by this problem of categorization in applying for fellowships and grants. It’s an obsolete format and the institutions that keep it alive should abandon it. The new digital technologies create an even more ambiguous environment. I think of art in culinary terms, the medium is just an ingredient in the final dish and my favorite cuisine these days is Photo-fusion.
SP: Having your work published marks a kind of completion. Do you feel a need to move on into new territory or is there much more to mine in this vein? Do you have any sense of what's next for you?
PC: Since doing "Children of Adam" the opportunity has come up to collaborate on a book project with the Australian poet Alison Croggon. It would be a departure in that I have never made work in response to specific writing before. As I said earlier, my work for "Children of Adam" all existed prior to its relationship to Whitman’s poems. This would be quite different; I generally let the work direct me. We’ll see how things evolve. I’ve wanted to work more loosely, perhaps pushing the physical and the scale relationships more. I feel the stylistic nature of my work is beyond my control; it’s what feels natural. I can’t imagine consciously changing anything at this point.
Interview with John Wood
(text and interview conducted by Natasha Christia, published in Eyemazing 03/07)
Imagination, the longing of a life to be, the bursting of stories that were never meant to unfold in the places we inhabit and in the paths we cross… Our lives are a journey in time, as are photographs and our act looking at them. As if they were whispers, photographic threads lead us to unknown territories of human history. Deeply affected by the recent loss of his mother, Roland Barthes described the photographic lens as the safe-keeper of a mutilated nostalgia. Yet, time heals wounds; scars become testimonies of gained beauty and out of traumatic remembrances of “dead” moments, old photographs emerge as documents of flesh and spirit. Viewed as an awakening of life, photography takes on a new force, transforming death and disease into life and revealing the world as the corpse of constant mutations. In a wonderfully composed recollection of clinical photography, poetry and science, “Endurance and Suffering. Narratives of Disease in the 19th century” offers the best example of how photography regains a distinctly plastic and emotive value with the passage of time. Edited in four versions by Edition Galerie Vevais, the book goes beyond any traditional formulae of photopoetry. Distinguished price-winner, poet and photographic critic John Wood has produced a moving series of poems of astonishing sweetness, elegance and candour. His poems draw their inspiration from the first clinical testimonies of venereal diseases conducted during the 1870s-1880s by Dr. George Henry Fox, one of the most important American pioneers in dermatology, with the assistance of: medical photographer O. G. Mason. Elephantiasis, syphilis and leprosy. Suffering and endurance at the sight of imminent death alongside photography in its first steps. It would be easy to close your eyes and deny the horryfying sensation these images provoked at the moment of their creation. Yet, the passage of time works better for photographs than for ghosts. Feel the flesh and blood behind these skins, “lift their veil” and recognize the person behind the anonymous body. In a revisionist attitude towards any established notions of suffering and sorrow, hatred and beauty, life and eternity, the book challenges us to confront an indulging unknown humanity wrapped among broken limbs, grafted breasts and failing flesh. Eyemazing has shared some thoughts on photography as such an embrace of life, on poetry and on humanism with John Wood, the creative force behind this groundbreaking work.
Natasha Christia: Endurance and Suffering. Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century works as a boiler of contradictions. Poems of beauty are dedicated to subjects which are far from beautiful, science becomes mystified and poetry invades photographic images. Is this the way you describe this new “disease narrative" the book wishes to establish?
John Wood: Actually, you have probably put it better than I can: a poetic remake of scientific materials; a boiler of contradictions; beautiful language dedicated to bodies most people would find horrific; and stories about real people that never really happened. I like the fact that you said I mystified science. I wanted to take these clinical photographs and case studies and infuse them with the humanity the lives of these people deserved. None of them could have had easy lives—especially the poor girl with Elephantiasis. What could it have been like living in that body? That’s what I wanted to know—not the science of her life but its mystery. We look at her distorted body and want to turn away in revulsion, but after looking at her and thinking about her for months and months, I think I realized some of that mystery - that she was beautiful, that she was a part of the eternal woman, and that we should not turn away but should embrace her. So I suppose I would say that this is a book of embraces...
NC: Taking up this notion of embraces, poems such as “Elephantiasis” - which seems dedicated to a prehistoric Goddess of fertility - strike us with their revisionist view. Rather than deformed, their protagonists are naturally shaped human beings that deserve not just our compassion but even our passion!
JW: That is exactly what I was trying to suggest. She is Gaia, our living, breathing planet, the Earth Mother, Earth Wife, and Earth Daughter, and if we look more deeply into others, even those who might repel us because of the way they look—or vote, have sex, pray or not pray—I think we might see similar miraculous transformations.
NC: If beauty is under constant transformation, to what ideal of beauty are we led to nowadays?
JW: The beauty we are led to today, I fear, comes primarily from the look of movie stars. That’s what the last chapter of Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty is about, “The Beauty of the Media,” the last section of which is frighteningly entitled “The Beauty of Consumption.” Americans are probably the worst. I think we have the narrowest and most restricted sense of beauty, of what makes a beautiful face or a beautiful body. And it’s not just American women that have become addicted to being surgically altered; it’s becoming popular with men, too. Those who most mistrust and fear individuality are those who most want to look just like everyone else. This book is, by the way, a good example of what I’m talking about. My books of poetry have sold well and so have my critical books on photography, but no American publisher would touch this book. One publishing house well-known for the strong sexual and violent content of their books said it is “too hard-edged for our readership.” It is as if we are allowed to be offensive towards anything except society’s stereotypical notions of beauty.
NC: You have worked as a poet and photography critic for over two decades, so, should I suppose that you see a link between poetry and photography? Does the ambiguity of the image find its best partner in the openness of the poetic text?
JW: That’s a wonderful question. I could talk for hours about being both a poet and a photographic historian. As a poet I would say “yes, of course”; but as a photohistorian I’d say “no, of course not.” An artist sees the possibility of anything being appropriated for his or her purposes and turned into art, but the scholar has to respect the original context of the work, why it was made, what it was about. The artist needs only to indulge and delight in that ambiguity you speak of, while the scholar needs to explain it. In other words, this is my schizophrenic book. I let the pictures themselves dictate the style. The little boy with leprosy seemed to call for a form similar to what Blake used in his Songs of Innocence; the beautiful girl with scabies covering her breasts suggested English Renaissance poetry and its forms; the man with horns coming out of his mouth demanded the free verse of a furious 19th century American preacher. The individuals made the choices for me, and it’s the most stylistically mixed of any of my books of poetry.
NC: How did your encounter with O. G. Mason and George Henry Fox happen, and how was the idea for the project born?
JW: As a photographic historian, I’d long known their work but really couldn’t stand to look at it. However, two of the photographs haunted me—the girl with elephantiasis and the man with syphilis who has his hand on his forehead in a look of desperation. I’d find myself thinking about them or sometimes going back to look at them just as I might go back to look at any other great image. And eventually a poem began to shape itself about her, and then one about him. Then the little boy with leprosy. Eventually over time I knew all these people and I began to imagine their lives. As I say in the Introduction, all of the poems are certainly not about the nobility of suffering. Some are filled with hatred and cruelty because suffering just as often brings out the worst in us as it does the best.
NC: Your work allows for a novel approach to the early history of the photographic medium, pointing out to us there is still much more to discover.
JW: Oh yes, you are so right. New discoveries are occurring all the time. It is a history that has not yet been written. And to some extent that has always been my passion, though my books of the last decade have all been devoted to contemporary photographers— González Palma, Witkin, Saudek, Garduño, Hosoe, Deruytter, ParkeHarrison, and others; but earlier I did four books on the daguerreotype, a book on the autochrome, and a book on a mixture of early processes.
NC: What makes a great photographic image: the way it is or the way we choose to look at it?
JW: That’s a very tough question. It’s easier to say what can’t make a great photo. A photographer can have the most extraordinary craft and technique, but * can fail to make great art. The most perfect of subjects or scenes can be bungled if the photographer doesn’t have the craft to reveal it. Then there is that aspect of je ne sais quoi—maybe it’s Vision, sometimes it’s certainly luck, occasionally it’s an accident—or so several great photographers have told me—and sometimes it’s simply us, the Zeitgeist, the moment, a confluence of destinies.
NC: You have contributed to a novel photography criticism based on the openness of the photographic image and its fusion with other genres. Is this precisely what contemporary photography criticism still lacks today?
JW: It would be nice to flatter myself and say, “Oh yes,” but in truth there’s a lot of extremely fine and diverse writing about photography today, and some of the best of it doesn’t even come from people with a photographic background but from novelists, poets, philosophers, and social critics. Photography is the great visual art of our time. In some form or another it is omnipresent in the lives of almost everyone, and so anyone who has thought about culture, ideas, or art can bring their varied backgrounds to the subject of photographs and photography and say interesting and insightful things.
NC: Coming back to the book: From the poems it is more than evident that you developed a very intimate imaginative relationship with every image…
JW: Thank you; I do hope I’ve developed an intimacy with them. Apart from those images I’ve already mentioned, the one that most haunts me is Onychia, that black hand holding that black bar with a rag around it and resting on top of that box. It is simply an astounding photograph, a great photograph. If one disengages it from the discourse of disease and medicine, it is simply one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of surreal photographs. It is in a class like that of Atget's image of all the people looking up into the sky.
NC: How would you describe Endurance and Suffering in a few words?
JW: My good friend John Stauffer, one of Harvard’s great scholars, says “History is the activist’s muse.” This is precisely what this little book of histories is: a work of protest. It begs us not to forget these lives because they might appear ugly to us, and it protests against limited, constricting notions of beauty…