A JPG Transcript of Jacques Derrida on Photography and Not Being Photographed

Since I started photographing, I’ve been fascinated by not photographing and the politics, problems, and peculiarities that surround what it means to make (or not make) a picture. Jacques Derrida, who famously refused photos of himself on his book own jackets, spoke of his photographic-fear in this interview on youtube, which may or may not be from this documentary, it’s been a few years since I watched it.

Below, a transcript of the interview, as a sequence of cropped (and subtitled) screenshots.

Bruce Davidson Interview Transcript

As a carryover from the last post about “Time of Change”, I came across this interview with Bruce Davidson on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU in Chicago in November of ’06. There’s a Real Audio file, but sometimes it helps to have these things as transcripts. I type fast, so here it is. All images are Bruce Davidson’s via Magnum Photos.

Q: You’re on the streets of Chicago, wandering into Pentecostal churches, how did that initial roaming around, years ago, play out later in life?

BD: I think that I was a born loner. My mother was a single parent, working in a torpedo factory in the Midwest, and I didn’t like school. I felt very isolated. And so I could do both my reading and my writing at the same time, with a camera.

Q: And that is what became the trajectory for the rest of your life. I want to go to 1961, because even as I look at the book “Time of Change”, I think it was before you ever rode with the Freedom Riders that you got a job to shoot fashion models. And you got caught-up in that – it was quite glamorous. But at the time, your heart wasn’t really in it, was it.

BD: In 1959, I photographed a Brooklyn gang for a year. And when that was published, Alex Lieberman at Vogue asked me if I’d like to do fashion. He’d been told by Cartier-Bresson that I could do fashion because I could do gangs – it doesn’t make a difference. So I began to do fashion to support other things I wanted to do. But my heart wasn’t in it. The models were too tall and too sophisticated for me, and I’m a sloppy dresser.

Q: You mentioned Cartier-Bresson. Did your relationship with Bresson inspire you or () your work at all?

BD: My relationship with Cartier-Bresson goes back to 1956, when I was a soldier stationed near Paris, and I’d photographed an old woman I’d met in Montmarntre, who knew Gauguin, Lautrec and Renoir, so it was kind of a nostalgic, romantic series of photographs I’d made of this old widow in her garret. Cartier-Bresson saw these photographs and we became fast friends. And all through the ages and stages of my photography, I keep going back to Cartier-Bresson. He’s a true mentor in the sense that I wanted not only to be a photographer like him – I wanted to be like him.

Q: Well, you’ve certainly become a photographer extraordinaire in your own right. And I think not only Cartier-Bresson, but a number of experiences in your own life contributed to that. Tell a little bit about how riding with the Freedom Riders in 1961 helped to open your eyes to your craft.

BD: Obviously, I was a mid-western boy, white, protected from any kind of violence or oppression. And in 1959, I’d spent a year with a Brooklyn gang, as I mentioned before, and after that, in 1961, I was thinking of doing something about youth in America. I volunteered to go on a bus, a Freedom Ride, from Montgomery, AL, to Jackson, MI, thinking that youth now wasn’t youth as I knew it, but the youth that was confronting the segregation laws of the South. And they were mixed – whites and blacks – and they weren’t all young. Some were older people, but basically it was a youthful movement.

Q: So you proceed with that movement, and from what I have seen in the introduction to a previous book of yours, you saw some things that got to you emotionally, when you would be standing there and you would see people demonstrating peacefully, and you could see the thing escalating, you could see it beginning to show signs of getting violent, and you would be there shooting pictures. Did that pull you in emotionally? Is that what we see in your photograph(s)?

BD: Yes, I was pulled in emotionally by the courageousness of those young kids, who as soon as they got off that bus, they could have been murdered. And it was murder. Also, riding on that bus, there was also the possibility — there were snipers, everyone has a rifle in the South. For the first time in my life I witnessed this sense of tension.

Q: One of the things that’s been said by Julian Bond is that this book consists of pictures both of civil rights workers in the South and people in Harlem who were not expressly part of the civil rights movement, but it really represents the connection of what the civil rights workers were fighting for, and what the lives of people in places like Harlem represented. Did you see it in the same way?

BD: Absolutely, I felt that there was a tapestry building, and that tapestry had many weaves. And I did this not knowing very much about what I was really doing. Look, I was very young and naive. But I sensed some humanity there, and proceeded photographing and documenting the humanity that I saw, whether it was oppressed or not. Migrant workers. Ordinary scenes that showed both the dignity of the people in the context of segregation.

Q: Young and naive is what you’ll see in one of the photographs in this book that shows a young Louis Farrakhan looking up as Malcolm X made a speech. It startled me, I’ve never seen a picture of Farrakhan so young. You said, “all my photographs are portraits – self-portraits, because you can’t photograph someone without reflecting / echoing, like a bat sending out a signal that comes back to you. You get not only a picture of who you’re photographing, but you get a picture of yourself at the same time.’ What have you learned about yourself by taking photographs?

BD: (sigh) What have you learned by eating a good meal? It’s digested in my being. I’m very open and reflective and patient and observant, that’s how I prefer to work, to be an insider on the outside, or an outsider on the inside. I’ve learned so much from all the various things I’ve photographed that it’s within me, it’s my flesh and blood.

Q: How should we look at your photographs? Is it about dropping the viewer inside the lives of the people you photograph? How active do you want the viewer to be while looking at your work?

BD: One thing I’ve discovered is that it’s easier to get inside a world than it is to leave it. The painful part is leaving it. You find you have attachments, bonding. When I photographed the Circus Dwarves it was difficult for me to leave that little man – in fact, for years, I’d write him, and he’d send me his route card, and I’d call-up the Chief of Police in that little town in the middle of somewhere and say, “my brother is a dwarf in the circus, and they immediately thought I was a dwarf, and they’d drive out and give him a note, and he’d call me”.

Q: I showed those dwarf pictures to people today, and they kept going back to them. In much the same way that you kept going back. Most of your work is not done on assignment it seems that the assignment finds you.

BD: That’s right. In fact, when I was doing fashion photography, I used that income – I was single, I lived in a one-room apartment, a garret with a skylight, a mattress on the floor, a darkroom/kitchen combo – I was kind of a monk. That’s sort of the way I am now, even. I’m not a monk, but I have a monk spirit.

Q: You mentioned the patience. You stay with things for a long time. You stayed with that group in 1959, then you went back years later, after you lost track of members of the group, same with the Circus Dwarf. What is it that makes you want to spend time with your subjects and revisit them again?

BD: I think the way photography is for me is it’s part of my being. once I capture something on film, I don’t want it ever to leave me. It’s a child. I want to watch that child grow-up in some ways. Recently, I’ve returned to Selma, Alabama, and I’ve found some of the family members from 1965, so I’m reintroducing the feelings I had 35 years ago to the awareness today.

Q: What’s next on the horizon for you?

BD: I never know, because I work out of a state of mind. I could tell you, I’m fascinated by the New York waterfront. I’ve been photographing it since 1986, off and on. I’m very involved with the QE2, the North-Atlantic ocean liner. I’ve explored ever inch of that ship. Six weeks of various voyages on her. I’m intrigued by that.

Q: Is there still a little bit of that teenager, wandering around Chicago, the young Bruce Davidson? One gets the impression that you continue to be fascinated by things you see around you and you’re just drawn to them.

BD: Depending on who you ask, I’m either three years old, 13 years old, or 85. But yes, there’s that teenager, because I’ve always felt that sense of isolation, and that sense of wanting to belong, but not knowing what it is I want to belong to.

Q: You seem to inhabit the space of your subjects, and in turn, you bring a humanity to the images in your photographs. When you’re talking about being fascinated with places, how is that different than photographing people?

BD: For me, everything is sacred, whether I’m photographing a human being or a statue or the good earth. It’s sacred, I absorb it. I want to absorb it . I’m very interested in the Southwest, for that reason.

Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers, 1982

Update: Vimeo pulled the video. Here it is from Jim Arnold’s site (download multiple formats). Thanks, Jim! And there’s the transcript, below.

Updated, again: Someone uploaded the original post I had here to youtube, so here you go. Part 1:

And Part 2:

Updated, with Transcript:
I saw footage from this in a John Szarkowski documentary a year or two ago, but here it is for wider consumption. Thanks to Jim for giving the nod to let it reach a wider audience.

Audio is only on one channel. Here’s background. There’s a further update to this post, with links to hi-res versions.

Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers, Creativity, WNET, 1982
When I’m photographing, I see life. That’s what I deal with. I don’t have pictures in my head. I frame in terms of what I want to include, and naturally, when I want to snap the shutter. And I don’t worry about how the picture’s gonna look – I let that take care of itself. We know too much about how pictures look and should look, and how do you get around making those pictures again and again. It’s one modus operandi. To frame in terms of what you want to have in the picture, not about how – making a nice picture. That, anybody can do.

– –

I’m very subjective in what I photograph. When things move, I get interested, I know that much. Women interest me. How they look – certainly how they look, and how they move. Their energy.

– –

It’s sort of like photographing theater. That guy in the car, sitting on a back seat, waving at the crowd – to make a photograph more theatrical then the subject’s own theatricality is a hell of a problem.

– –

A picture is about what’s photographed and how that exists in the photograph – so that’s what we’re talking about. What can happen in a frame? Because photographing something changes it. It’s interesting, I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe well.

– –

The fact that photographs — they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described. But not what is happening.

I think that there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ’em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like. To a camera. The minute you relate this thing to what was photographed — it’s a lie. It’s two-dimensional. It’s the illusion of literal description. The thing has to be complete in the frame, whether you have the narrative information or not. It has to be complete in the frame. It’s a picture problem. It’s part of what makes things interesting.

– –

Two areas of the country have always fascinated me to photograph. One was Texas and one’s Southern California. I don’t understand, it just fascinates me. Show business and the oil: it’s improbable.

I’m surviving, you know.

You see the Georgiette Klinger? When there’s direct sun on it the whole thing becomes like a giant jewel, and depending on which cars are parked in front, open convertibles or whatever, all kinds — it’s almost like a pat answer as to how to illustrate the idea of this place – to make that work beyond just being an illustration of an idea. It’s, for me, an interesting problem.

– –

I learned a long time ago to trust my instincts. You see? When I’m photographing, I wanna — if I’m at the viewfinder and I know that picture, why take it? I’ll do something to change it, which is often the reason why I may tilt the camera or fool around in various ways. You don’t learn anything from repeating what you know, in affect, so I keep trying to make uncertain.

– –

What I found out, over photographing a long time – the more I do, the more I do. When you’re younger, you can only conceive of trying a limited amount of things to work with. The more I work, the more subject matter I can begin to try to deal with. ____. The nature of the photographic process – it is about failure. Most everything I do doesn’t quite make it. The failures can be intelligent ____; nothing ventured nothing gained, I mean. Hopefully you’re risking failing every time you make a frame.

– –

I’ve been in Los Angeles now a little over two years. This stuff is slightly under two thousand rolls, which is what I’ve developed since I’m here. And I have over two thousand to go.

I gotta show coming up in April. And I decided to make contacts from the film I’ve developed so far that I took in Venice and on Rodeo Drive, so that’s what I’m gonna deal with. You know what I mean? There’s no real system, it’s just, it’s gonna be pretty rough when I go to find a negative.

– –

I get into situations where there’s a lot of activity, more things can occur to me to try. Really, that’s what it’s about.

It always fascinates me – it bolloxes my mind, I mean, when people talk about photographs in depth, and what not, you know, when all a photograph does is describe light on surface. That’s all there is. And that’s all we ever know about anybody. You know, what we see. I mean, I think we are our faces and whatever, you know? That’s all there is, is light on surface.

– –

(Printer chat)

Printer: How much of what you see now affects what you do afterwards?

A: What a minute. You mean, affects my shooting? You know what happens? I look at some of these frames and I think, I gotta get my self a little more under control, though.

Printer: Well there’s a lot of things that you know aren’t going to be good, and certainly not great pictures, but they might be interesting to you. And I think as much as the final picture’s going to be interesting, the process of taking that picture at that point in time is equally interesting.

A: Well sure! One thing at a time. But it’s not just the act itself, it’s what I’m photographing. It’s the subject. I think I’m interested in how a lot of things look.

I’m shooting, to seeing the contacts, to seeing an enlargement, which again, is different than seeing a contact – it should be an event that you’re seeing.


(Gallery talk)

I am surprised that my prints sell. They’re not pretty, they’re not those kind of pictures that people easily put on their walls, they’re not that window onto a nice landscape or something. They aren’t.

I don’t have pictures in my head, you know. Look, I am stuck with my own psychology. With my own, uh, with me. So I’m sure that there’s some kind of thread, whatever, but I don’t have pictures in my head.

Q: When you went to Texas did it take you awhile to get your legs, kinda get oriented?

W: Not at all. Once there’s no – I start working right away. I know that.

Q: You shoot every day?

W: Yeah, sure. _____

– –

I don’t lay myself down on the couch to figure out why I’m a photographer and not this or that. Whatever it is, I can’t seem to do enough of it. It’s a pleasure.

Moyers: I’m struck that for Emmit Gowin and Garry Winogrand, photography is a way of life as well as a work of art. Gowin, wanting structure, prefers the rural where life changes slowly and traditions are deep. Winogrand, wanting action, is drawn to the new cities of the Sun Belt, where culture is motion and glitter reigns.

One believes ____, the other doubts we can know anything below the surface about anybody, ourselves included. Reality is the photograph itself, a particle plucked from time and space.