Austin Granger is a photographer from Portland, OR on the West Coast of the United States. His photographs are of very high quality and transport an atmosphere, which strikes the viewers right away. We talked with Austin about why he does not see his images as ‘black and white’, developments in contemporary photography world, how he missed the digital revolution and more.
Please tell us about yourself and your relationship with photography. How has it all started? Is it an extensive hobby, semi-profession or is it your main profession?
I was born in San Francisco in 1970. I’ve worked as a baker, house painter, naval radar operator, and camera salesman. I began to photograph in earnest while studying philosophy in college. I found it was a good way to get out of my head. Over time, I’ve come to see photography as a kind of spiritual practice – a way in which to keep me grounded, shape my life, and enrich my relationship with the world.
As to your second question, although photography is my life’s great passion, I cannot claim to support myself with it. It is something I’m working on though.
Whew, that’s a huge question! And my answer has evolved over the years. Sometimes I think that it is my camera that leads me! But I guess I would say that right now I am trying to express interior conditions through external objects. Put more simply, I look for subjects that make me feel a certain way, or else remind me of something. Whether or not I can get a particular idea or feeling across to my viewer using an object that may not ostensibly depict that idea or feeling is something that I struggle with. I think the answer is… sometimes. But when a connection is made, it’s a rewarding thing. I’d like to think I’m fairly democratic when it comes to subject matter, but I can’t deny that I’m drawn to certain subjects. I like isolated things, or things out of place. I like empty spaces. I can’t pass up a good ruin. I love the surreal. I’m interested in estrangement and confinement and solitude. People often say that my pictures are quiet and lonely and ethereal. Sometimes they say they’re strange, or sad. While those descriptions are admittedly true, I’ll offer that though my pictures may be sad, I’m seldom happier than when I’m making them.
I’d like to think that over the years, my pictures have gotten deeper and at the same time more subtle. By deeper I just mean that though of course I’m interested in the surface of things, in how things look, I’m more interested in whether my subjects are able to carry the weight of a metaphor, or idea, or feeling. I’d like to think that my pictures are now operating on multiple levels. By more subtle I mean to say that over time, I’ve tried to make my techniques more transparent, so that the viewer doesn’t really notice them. I think that when a photographer has a lot of affectations (using exaggerated perspectives say, or very heavy filtration, or whatever), what happens is that the viewer then tends to think more of the photographer and less of the subject. I don’t want the viewer to think of me at all. I want to be so invisible that the only thing you see is the feeling or thought I’m trying to get across. I want a direct transmission of mind! Or maybe it would be more apt to say that I want the viewer to see what is already inside themselves. I want them to see their own mind. That way the pictures will hit them harder. So I try and make my pictures like polished mirrors. I want them to be as simple and straightforward as possible. There is so much sleight-of-hand in photography! For of course there are various tricks/techniques I use to get something across, but I don’t want you to think of that. Really, I want my pictures to look as if they couldn’t possibly exist in any other way.
As far as influences go, I think we’re influenced by all of our experiences, by everything we’ve done, or thought, or felt. It all makes us who we are, and how we photograph. I’m sure there is some blues music in my pictures. And also Edward Hopper and Zen Buddhism and my dear Grandma Ruth. It’s all in there. I’ve been told by a number of people that my pictures remind them of the television show Twin Peaks, which always makes me laugh, since I’ve never seen Twin Peaks! But I do think that everything’s in there; it all goes into the pot. As for photographers, I really didn’t know of any when I started, aside from Ansel Adams. I just fumbled around and made my way the best I could. I’ve found a lot of friends since then. I love Walker Evans, and Edward Weston. Brassai is in my pantheon of Photographer Saints, as well as Bill Brandt and Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank and Aaron Siskind, Frederick Sommer and Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Wynn Bullock… Josef Koudelka is an amazing photographer. There are others. You might not think it from my pictures, but I feel a very strong kinship with Diane Arbus. Photography was deadly serious for her. It was everything. I can relate to that.
It’s funny, I don’t even think of my pictures being black and white! It almost surprises me when someone mentions it. But yes, though I have photographed in color, black and white is where my heart is. I think this has a lot to do with my intentions with photography. It strikes me that when a person photographs in black and white, one thing they’re doing is telegraphing to their viewer that though their pictures obviously have a relationship with the subjects depicted, they are not solely about those subjects. For by using black and white, which is clearly an abstraction, you’re telling the viewer that what you’re trying to convey is not an objective representation of the subject, but something else, something “in-between” the subject, the viewer, and you. I like this in-between realm. Basically, with black and white, I think that your viewers (at least some of them) are more apt to take the leap with you into the realm of thoughts or feelings, and that’s the realm in which I like to operate.
Sometimes people ask me if I don’t see the world in color, and I say yes, of course I do, but I FEEL it in black in white. But that’s not quite right; what I mean is, when I make my way around in the world, my primary experience is neither of color nor of black and white but of a series of thoughts and feelings, and thoughts and feelings are the things that I’m most interested in exploring with my photography. Though it might seem strange, in my way of thinking, black and white pictures come closest to reality! Really, if you think about it, all pictures are abstractions, just as menus are not the meal, but black and white pictures are just more honest about it.
*I feel like after that last sentence I should say that I love color photography! I really do. I just think that my own strengths lie elsewhere.
Tell us about your methods or critical approaches of shooting. Do you shoot dedicated projects or rather freely? Do you go on photography trips or do it on the side? How important is photo gear for you and which equipment do you use?
My usual method is to do a lot of aimless roaming around. I think of looking for pictures as a passive activity. It’s like listening. I put my antennae up and I walk around listening for certain sounds. I realize that might be an odd way to describe it, but that’s how I feel. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for when I’m out photographing, but I know it when I see it. It’s almost like the child’s game of “cold, warm, warmer… hot!” I just know a photo right away. That’s not to say that they’re all keepers, because they definitely aren’t, but I do have a certain faith in my instincts. Once I’ve found a photo, almost immediately I start structuring it in my head, transforming it into a two-dimensional collection of shapes. It’s just a matter of organization at that point. I consider the whole frame. I try and pare things down to the essentials. I think that in the beginning, a lot of photographers, myself included, tend to think of the subject as if they were looking at it through a window, or put another way, they think a picture is OF a thing but neglect to realize that it’s also the case that the photograph IS the thing. What I mean is that photographs are, among other things, just collections of shapes and tones on a two dimensional piece of paper. I think it is helpful, or maybe essential, to be able to flicker back and forth between those two ways of seeing; seeing what something is, but also seeing it’s structure, seeing the structure of a photograph. Is it balanced? Is is harmonious (or un-balanced and un-harmonious, if that’s what you’re after)? Does everything in the picture, all the way out to the edges, serve to further the composition and/or meaning of the picture? Could you quickly, from memory, sketch the picture as a simple collection of shapes and lines? It can be tricky to think of things in this way, but I believe it starts to come naturally after making tens of thousands of pictures.
Regarding projects, I’ve found that if I just keep photographing at my normal pace, in time the projects begin to organize themselves. That is actually one of my great joys, to see the patterns in my photography emerge. Actually, sometimes it’s a strange feeling, because I realize that what I’m looking at is my own mind. But I’d like to think that because we are all human, and fundamentally all made of the same “stuff,” that diving down into my own mind is diving down into your mind as well. That’s my hope at least, that by going inward I’m going outward as well.
As far as photo gear goes, I like to keep things as simple as I can. I have two main cameras, with one lens for each. I use a Fuji GF670 medium format film camera for strolling around and exploring, and an old Deardorff 5″x7″ view camera that I haul out for more static or planned shots. I recently bought a Noblex rotating lens panoramic camera as well. I had a dream of using it to photograph all the street corners in Portland. I haven’t gotten very far with that project, but it’s been a fun camera to play around with. In general, I’d say that although I love cameras as much as the next photographer, what I really want these days is for my gear to disappear. Not literally of course, but I mean disappear in that I don’t want to be thinking about it when I’m out photographing. I want my cameras to be transparent extensions of my brain.
Well, I don’t shoot film because I’m a contrarian, though I am that, sometimes. The simple fact of it is that when I began photographing in the 1990’s, digital wasn’t where it is today. And after I started, I quickly got so involved that I missed the revolution entirely! I just never bothered to look up and everything passed me by. But in any case, I’m not interested in changing now. I’m fond of my tools. I like the old rituals. And they give me the results that I want. Honestly though, I could care less about what sort of cameras people use. There are a lot of paths up the mountain. I’m more interested in people’s hearts and their heads than their camera gear. I’d much rather talk about a person’s favorite book, or record album, or what keeps them up at night. Those things are probably more important to their photography than whether they used this lens or that lens.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but the one of the Point Reyes boat (featured image) is sentimental to me. I’ve photographed that boat so many times that it’s become almost like a living person. I’m making a record of its life. I’m interested in how things change. I’m interested in time. What is photography about if not time?
What do you think about contemporary photography (currents trends, social media, photography as a career choice…)?
I enjoy sharing my photographs with people through the internet, but to be honest, I don’t keep up much with what’s happening in contemporary photography. I live in a little bubble. I make my own air.
I admire people who can earn their living with photography, but I think it is very difficult. At least for me. I feel like I can either spend my time photographing and trying to get better, or spend my time promoting my work, but that I can’t do both, at least not well. Plus I’m an introverted person. I want to touch people, but mostly from a distance. Obviously, this is not a quality conducive to a successful career! But I carry on in my way, holding onto the faith, baseless perhaps, that eventually I’ll be known to posterity as the last great photographer of the twentieth century-ha!
I have a book coming out in a few months. It’s called “Elegy from the Edge of a Continent: Photographing Point Reyes.” People not related to me have called it a “future classic.” It’s possible that they might be deluded, but in any case, while I don’t imagine getting published will change my life too much, I’m hoping to use it as a kind of stepping stone to get another book published. I have a few projects that I’ve been working on. One of my favourite things in photography is gathering pictures together, sequencing them such that they interact with each other in certain ways. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an author, and I’ve never lost my love for books. I like the idea of someone being able to hold a bunch of my pictures in their hands, as if it were a world they can go into when they want.
Other than that, I just want to continue to work, and try and get better. I’ve always wanted to photograph Easter Island, or Morocco, or the small, dying towns scattered across America. I also have this idea of going into the desert by myself for forty days and forty nights. I figure I’d either gain enlightenment or go mad, but either way, I think it’d make for an entertaining photo essay. If there are any wealthy patrons reading this, feel free to contact me… Seriously.
While it’s certainly not the most original advice, and also perfectly obvious, I’ll offer that if you want to become a good photographer, you must photograph. A lot. If I myself have any skills, it’s not because of any preternatural gift, but because I’ve photographed non-stop for almost twenty years. I’ve worked very hard at it. I think that’s the deal with the devil; if you let something take you over, you’ll get good at it. Also, don’t listen to anyone regarding how you should be photographing. Critiques are useless. You already know what’s good. And besides, who knows better than you how your own photographs should look? Follow your heart. Photograph the things that move you, or frighten you, or obsess you. Don’t hide your lamp under a bushel. Be yourself. Express yourself. We’re all unique individuals, and I think our photographs should be unique as well. It’s strange to say, but I think it’s through individuality that we approach the universal. At least, that’s the way I see it.
Thank you very much for this great inside to your work and your thoughts on contemporary photography, Austin!
If you want to see more of Austin Granger’s great work, check out his Flickr profile.