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Discussion: Chuck Patch (Part 1)

People fawn over flickr for good reason, it’s a simple and cheap way to get your photos online. The upshot is you can discover people who’ve done (or are doing) great work. When I came across Chuck Patch’s street photographs from the 70s and 80s, I thought, “who is this guy?” So I asked him a few questions. We’ll spread the answers across two posts. 2point8 in bold. (Part 2 of this interview is here.)

I remember coming across your (Old Silver) photos and wondering what the story was. How did you come to street photography, and why did you pursue it all those years?

These pictures were all made from prints, which means, by definition, that they were taken at least 10 and more likely between 20 and 30 years ago, since I haven’t really printed anything in about 10 years. The earliest date from around the time I was part of a photo coop in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 70’s and I was hanging around with a bunch of other photographers. It was great thing for me for a number of reasons, a couple of the most important being that we were all fanatical and that none of us, at least at first, were associated with an academic photography program. We ended up teaching each other the history of photography and every day it felt like being the first one to discover something. I started carrying a camera everywhere I went at that time and didn’t really stop until just before my son was born about 15 years later. The real mystery is why I don’t have more good pictures and the best answer is that I’m hopelessly fearful. I could fill about two gigs of storage on that site you have where photographers can describe the shots they didn’t take.

I actually never heard the phrase “street photography” until a few years ago. I’m sure the term existed back in the 70s, but I just don’t remember hearing it. My friends and I called it “straight” photography and the main thing about it was that in order to get a good picture you just had to be there. The idea of “making” photographs seemed ludicrous. Pictures happened. Your job was to record them when they did. That’s still my basic approach. When you always carry a camera you start seeing everything in photographic terms, and you start relating everything you do to photographic processes, or rather, the process of seeing things as photographs. It’s addictive. The problem was that I grew up and it became harder to do this. I decided while I was in college that I was never going to do this for a living. I don’t why I felt that way really, but somehow I simultaneously entertained the notion that I didn’t have the technical chops to do anything interesting professionally and that what I’d probably end up having to do would be really boring. The little bits of commercial work I picked up consisted largely of photographing bankers and real estate agents for advertisements. I hated the academic stuff I saw coming out of MFA programs even while I knew I couldn’t equal the technical skill those kids had picked up. And by the time I quit, I didn’t really know anybody I could show my new pictures to. It just seemed very insular and I began to feel that I was simply deluding myself into believing I had something I didn’t. I gradually stopped; by about ‘94 I wasn’t shooting more than a roll or two a year and sometimes no rolls a year.

Your work from that era was (naturally) in film. In your current work, you’ve been using a digital camera. Can you talk a bit about the benefits/hazards of both, without saying that digital’s great because it’s fast, cheap and easy?

A quick correction: the vast majority of what I shoot is film. That said, one of the things that pushed me back into photography was buying a Sony Cybershot about 3 years ago. It’s basically a snapshot camera, but I was surprised at how good the picture quality was. Besides, it was so fast cheap and easy. Sorry. But I could stuff it into a pocket and get decent pictures without hauling around a “real” camera. So for the first time in over a decade I started carrying a camera with me everywhere again. After that, the Leica went into the shop for repairs and a tune-up, and later I bought a student SLR from my son whose own interest in photography was helping fire-up mine again.

To be honest, I would probably shoot almost entirely digital, but I can’t really justify laying down the money for a camera that can equal the feel and handling of my 47 year old Leica. I have no religious affiliation with film; while I like the look of film, I really like the look of digital too. I love its clarity, the accuracy of the color rendition and the wide wide exposure latitude. The lack of dust and scratches on the negatives! I don’t think there’s anything magical about the film aesthetic. I don’t think black and white looks “more realistic”, and the argument that it’s more artistic or “expressive” just annoys me. And God help me, I have never thought the look of the grain was really neat. I like film for what it is and what it’s been, but to continue shooting film, especially black and white, which I’m sure I’m going to continue doing for a while out of pure habit, is like making platinum prints or something. It’s becoming an anachronistic technology and using it will increasingly be recognized as an affectation. There’s a place for that and a certain kind of artist who can make that work, but I’m probably not one of them. Or if I am it’s by accident because I’m too old of a dog to learn a new trick.

One thing I’m going to miss about film is its slowness. The time that elapses between when I push the button and see the picture helps me separate the hopes from the reality of an image. In some ways being able to see an image right away is just confusing for me. I like having a bunch of unprocessed rolls sitting on the shelf. It feels like money in the bank. Running 36, or 72 or however many frames through the scanner can feel like Christmas because you’ve had some time to separate from the initial moment and it’s like experiencing it again in a totally different, totally visual way. It’s one of the luxuries of not depending on this for a livelihood.

Particularly with street photography you can’t avoid the faster, cheaper, easier aspect of digital. I think of street photography as the garage band of the visual arts. Because it has the lowest technical threshold, a lot of people can participate and it moves the aesthetic back to the initial act of recognition, which I like. I know, it’s incredibly easy to Photoshop anything to death, and most of what you see is sterile dreck, but that kind of dreck has always been out there. There are also undoubtedly some new age Uelsmanns, but there are also a lot more people just shooting for the fun of it because the digital technology gives you really good images at much lower cost and where a lot of people end up going is out on the street, because of course, the street photographer is a romantic character. And then they put them up on Flickr (or whatever) where people from all over the world can tell them how wonderful their images are. Incredibly, many of them really are wonderful. So people who could never in a million years get even the smallest gallery to hang a show that about a 100 people might see now get thousands of eyes for 25 bucks a year or less. In the end, what is truly fascinating about digital photography is that it’s less an aesthetic than a social phenomenon that ends up fundamentally democratizing a medium that, as far as I’m concerned, was being strangled to death by the art school/gallery/museum complex. And surprise, there’s what looks like a resurgence of street photography.

Tag: Discussion