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Discussion: Chuck Patch (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of the interview with Chuck Patch, a street photographer who’s excellent work I came across on Flickr. Part 1’s here. I’d like to thank Chuck for the time and energy he took in crafting his responses.

There are more of these interviews/discussions in the works, and hopefully a roundtable at some point. 2point8 in bold.

Lately I’ve been liking photographs that have mystery. The “wtf?” element. The longer it takes me to figure out what’s happening in a photograph, the more I’m intrigued, especially when everything’s clear, as if the photo’s pretending to be simple, at face value. Your pictures show an attraction to both humor and the unexplainable. Can you talk about the appeal of what’s never been seen before?

I think the wtf gene was in the original photograph pulled from the primordial slime. Despite all the stuff we can do with computer graphics there’s still something in anyone who looks at a picture that wonders if that was really there. And practically from the beginning there were those who manufactured it for the camera and those who just tried to find it for “real”. In still photography that question about reality is always there in some form. Even if it’s only to figure out how the photographer managed to coax something utterly abstract out of a medium designed to be anything but. Like if you’re looking at a Brugiere, you’re thinking, wow, he did that with a piece of paper and scissors. Obviously there are all sorts of ways of getting the feel of something discovered into a picture, but in the kind of photograph I’m most drawn to it often seems to be about revealing something, only it hasn’t quite yet been revealed, at least not completely, yet. My favorite pictures seem like little epiphanies, even if you don’t really know what the scene is about there is some kind of perfection about to happen, that has just happened or is happening. There’s a kind of anticipation that is less about seeing something that’s never been seen but seeing something that is just-right but only right now.

I like what you said here about this image. That describing a particular situation is “prosaic and probably disappointing.” In the new William Eggleston documentary, he talks about how photographs and words “don’t have anything to do with each other.” Thoughts?

I haven’t seen the Eggleston film, so I’m not sure I understand how he meant it. When I made that comment about the picture, I simply meant that there was nothing particularly wondrous about the situation. In this picture and a lot of others I suppose, the effect comes from what was left out while trying to make it look like nothing was left out. So you can’t see the stairs, or the parade or the hundreds of other people running around and even the other people on the same ledge, which you don’t really see either. Photographs and words may have nothing to do with each other but words certainly can have a powerful influence on how you see a photograph. Studiously avoiding the dispensation of information is part of the art of titling photos, even those that are untitled. My life seems so much more marvelous if you don’t know how boring most of these events were or how utterly uninvolved in them I often was.

How did your eye develop? I noticed that you were in your 20s when you took most of these shots. When did you start with photography, and who were you looking at for inspiration?

I started taking and developing pictures when I was 11, I think. My dad taught me how to use a darkroom. Of course I looked upon Popular Photography as the sine qua non to good photography until I was into my 20’s. I covered a lot of this ground in my answer to your first question, but I will say that as important as books and exhibitions were, an awful lot of influence at first came from a close friend and, I guess I would say, mentor who was part of that photo coop I belonged to. He was and probably still is a terrific photographer who steered me into this “straight” approach by persuading me to stop cropping images, to try to make prints that resembled the original scene as closely as possible in tonality and contrast. That led inevitably to the whole social landscape thing – Winogrand, Friedlander, then Evans and Atget, all of whom I found very difficult to understand, which made it all the more important to understand them. Since then I’ve tended to like pictures that are more like lyric poetry than grand opera. I’m spectacularly ignorant of the photography scene of the past 15 years or so, but the figures I look to now are people like Martin Parr or those guys on the In-Public site, at least one of whom, Nils Jorgensen, is posting on Flickr now.

What brought you to the place where you took this?

I had a friend who was in the Progressive Labor Party back in the early ‘80’s. They were a particularly rabid Stalinist group and my friend was forever trying to recruit me. I’ve never been a big believer in faith-based anything and the PLP always struck me as the closest thing I’d seen to a fundamentalist religion without being one. I went with his local party, or cell or whatever to a bunch of different demonstrations. This one was in South Milwaukee, where the local Nazi party was having a rally. This was a big Polish neighborhood and I think there was a significant Jewish population living in that area. I could be totally wrong about that. Anyway, there were loads of police and I probably shot about 6 rolls of film of people screaming and waving signs and banners and even a small skirmish between the PLP and the Nazis. I remember taking this picture because it was funny, but I also felt just like that guy: “here I am. This is really creepy and I sure hope nobody notices me!”

This was my first trip to New York as an adult. I had driven from Madison with a bunch of friends and we were staying in a huge, unheated loft in Manhattan in January. I was just wandering around lower Manhattan doing my Cartier-Bresson manqué thing, clutching my camera in my right hand with the strap wrapped around my wrist. I’m embarrassed to say I had even covered my camera with black electrical tape to make it less conspicuous, as if! I saw these women come out of a store and, here we go again with the disappointing explanation, one of them forgot something and had to run back and get it. I hung around the parked cars trying to look “inconspicuous” – I’m sure the electrical tape helped – and took two or three pictures. I didn’t even notice they were different species at the time. I was always annoyed that I didn’t get the bottom of the left woman’s shoe in.

Always take pictures that people point out to you. This was July 4th in DC, always a huge event and it was about 140,000 degrees with 175 percent humidity. My wife, then girlfriend, tapped me on the shoulder while I was shooting something in the direction of the Lincoln monument to point out this scene. I would never have seen it otherwise. I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened.

They had just opened a huge new hospital in Madison and were having an open house. I went to everything that had “open” on it in those days. The tour took you down miles of corridors and they had these little medical exhibits set up along the way. I have no idea what this guy is demonstrating, but I love the sunglasses and handlebar mustache. He was very obliging about posing.

Tag: Discussion