Saturday, June 17, 2017

Q & A with Janet Delaney

 Janet Delaney, 2012, Photo by Johanna Jetton
Janet Delaney is a photographer and educator based in Berkeley.




BA: What was your path into photography? Did you know other photographers or artists in Compton?

JD: My parents and older siblings moved from Chicago to Compton in 1948, a few years before I was born. As a child I poured over our family albums to figure out who my family had been before I joined them. In this way I began to treasure photographs from an early age. In Compton I knew no one who called themselves an artist. But I knew a number of people who made things by hand.

My senior year in high school I took a photo class and from then I organized my life around having a camera and a darkroom.

Your career seems have had a second wind with Mack's publication of South of Market and subsequent show at the de Young. What was the chain of events which led to that? How did Mack find you, and how did the work resurface so many years after the project was finished?

Chuck Mobley, the director of San Francisco Camerawork at the time, was putting together a retrospective for the 35th anniversary of the gallery. The South of Market project had shown there in 1981 so he included 6 pieces in the show. Erin O’Toole of the SFMOMA saw the work at the exhibition and offered to write an essay when I got it published. I made a book dummy and she showed it to Michael Mack when she met him at Paris Photo. He liked the work and we arranged to publish it. I owe a great deal to SF Camerawork as do we all.


Boy lifting weights, 122 Langton Street, from South of Market, Janet Delaney


It's hard for me to look through your South of Market photos without assigning them a nostalgic quality. How do you view the relationship between nostalgia and photography? Are they always intertwined? Or is it possible to make photos of historic record with no trace of nostalgia?

I remember when I was photographing in the 1980s I was very clear about not wanting these photographs to be “pretty pictures of the past”. I had specific intentions with the photographs; they were to be a document of what had been here and what was lost in the process of transforming the neighborhood from a working class neighborhood to a newly gentrified urban center. 

I can’t control how people experience the work completely but whenever I exhibit or publish the work I always include the narrative about the impact of gentrification. The stories of the neighbors are included in the text of the book and excerpts were on the wall at the de Young. We had a number of events around art and urban politics during the exhibition. But frankly, even without all of this everyone seems to sense that these images document something beyond a simple form of nostalgia.   
Nostalgia is defined as “a feeling of pleasure and sometimes slight sadness at the same time as you think about things that happened in the past”  —Cambridge English Dictionary
Why is nostalgia seen as a negative emotion? Is it because it is considered sentimental as in related to feelings rather than reason? And for some reason emphasizing feelings has negative conations. I think the critique would fall on the idea that the past was somehow better. That is a na├»ve assumption.

There's a shot in South of Market of you in a darkroom. I presume that was a color darkroom (can't find any b/w work by you). Did you make C-prints of your work at the time you shot it? What is your aesthetic impression of C-prints compared to more modern methods?

Janet Delaney in her darkroom at 62 Langton Street, 1981 (self portrait)
I started printing chromogenic prints (C-prints) in 1975. I worked as a color lab technician for a number of years before and during grad school. I set up my own lab with a 16” processor. I drilled holes right into the floor of my apartment to hook up the plumbing. C-prints are lovely but they fade. I now have my own digital studio. There is so much more control over the look of the image with digital. I prefer it, but I still mostly shoot film because I like the experience. I have an Imacon scanner so I can manage the whole process myself. 

I would add that there is a lovely quality to C-prints and a romantic notion to a process once it becomes a bit obsolete. I had to make a decision about the ultimate goal of my work. I determined that it was more important to make work that had a long life than to make work that was valued for its scarcity.

What music was the most productive for you in the darkroom?

Honestly I rarely listened to music in the darkroom. I find total silence works best for me. Unless I am doing something super tedious and then I listen to NPR, Ted Talks, This American Life, New Yorker Radio, Terry Gross, 99% Invisible. You can see by this list that I do a lot of tedious work!

When I am out in the world I head for Motown and Bob Marley. We all have our roots! I am working my way through Hamilton Soundtrack now.


Paris, 2003, Janet Delaney

You say you like the experience of shooting film. Can you please elaborate on that? 

There is an element of concentration that that film requires. I also like the anticipation of waiting for it to be developed. I know the medium really well so I can usually get what I want. But digital is sometimes exactly what is needed and I do use it for certain situations. I just find that I am not as careful when I know I can take a lot of images and fix things after the fact. This is not a good strategy!

As you state, contemporary digital production offers photographers a great deal of control over their images. The advantages of this are self evident. Do you see any creative disadvantages? Are control and perfection always a good thing?

There are many stylistic choices in photography. There always have been. My sensibility is to try to be as concise as possible; the materials (camera lens and paper and ink) function to communicate content, they are not the message itself. I want to tell stories about the external world so clear representation works for me. But I do enjoy work by photographers who are much looser with the medium. It may be more challenging to be “out of control” or less perfect, than it is to follow specific guidelines of color, form and focus.

You recently spoke at the 2017 SF Streetfoto Festival. Do you consider yourself a street photographer? How do you define street photography?

First the definition: 
Street photography... is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places.
Warner Marien, Mary (2012). 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing. p. 169. ISBN 978-1-85669-793-4.
I have spent hundreds of hours photographing on the street. I am compelled to do it. I feel a heightened awareness; all my senses are on alert. I am enamored with unexpected encounters with strangers. I have a particular passion for recording how we live in cities. I am not looking for the “gotcha” moment, but rather I want to record that fluid movement between people and place. 

When I put my “ street” photographs out into the public they are usually seen in the context of a larger project rather than as iconic moments of visual gymnastics. The one exception would be an ongoing project I have been shooting since about 2004 in big cities around the world using my twin lens Rollieflex. It is time to gather these up and take a look at them. I usually just file them away for later when I will magically have more time to think about them. The talk at the Streetphoto Festival was a good time to do it. But my street work is quiet, so it may read better in a book or on the wall than flying by online or in a slide talk.


Event at City Hall, 1985, Janet Delaney

Your description of street photography as "iconic moments of visual gymnastics" seems roughly accurate to me. Do you enjoy looking at that sort of photography? 

There is great excitement in getting just the right moment when everything comes together in perfect synergy. And I know from experience that some photographers are really good at capturing these moments. I am always thinking about the exact moment I click the shutter, but I am not only motivated by this. I am also interested in the quiet, long view that gains meaning in context with other images. What larger purpose do these well seen photographs serve?

Is this the style of the 2004- Rolleiflex series you mentioned? 

The work I have been doing when I travel with my Rollie is the closest to the idea of pure street shooting. By carrying my camera with me I am on visual alert. I feel more present. And when I revisit the photographs afterward I am happy to have brought a piece of time and space home with me.

My assumption looking at your current Soma Now project is that they are not shot with a view camera. Is that correct? If so, what do you think has been lost or gained in transition to the digital process?

With the SoMa Now project I am using a variety of cameras, each camera is suited for a certain kind of photograph. I use a Toya view camera, a Mamiya 7 for 120 film and a Canon 5Dr. This is a complex project so I use the camera that works best for the situation. 


Planting Bougainvilla, Yerba Buena Gardens, 2013, Janet Delaney


Since your style of photography involves exploration and reacting to the world, I'm curious what visual triggers cause you to stop and make a photograph. Why do you walk by some scenes and stop at others? Are you looking for specific things, or is it an emotional response, or how would you explain it?

I am always drawn to the light. Then I need to consider if I am being seduced or if there is actually something I want to photograph in terms of content beyond light. I like to pull together opposing forces in one image, contradictions, anomalies, or make images that respond to previous ones I’ve made. Before I travel or as I work on a project I spend a good amount of time considering the social economic situation of the place so that can inform the photographs. For instance in Athens I was interested in the condition of the older people who have lost so much as their economy cratered around them just when they thought they would retire. And with the SoMa Now project I’ve been doing extensive research on homelessness, and the tech industry.

What's your favorite place in San Francisco now?

My favorite place in San Francisco is wherever I happen to be. I find interest in absolutely all parts of this city. Even the dreaded Mission Bay can be fascinating in its blandness. 

Another answer would be Bernal Heights. This would be my ideal place to live if I could afford to live in San Francisco.  It is like a village within the city. At least that is my memory of it from when I lived there in there 1980s.

What is your favorite place that's gone?

I have to say that it is not a place that is gone but a way of being that is gone. Was it better? No, just different. It was possible to live in San Francisco without making a huge amount of money. In many ways things are better now with one major exception: Housing availability. If a city cannot house people from all income levels it gets bifurcated into being a place for the very rich and the very poor.  


Mercantile Building, Mission and 3rd Streets, 1980, Janet Delaney


Which contemporary photographers excite you most? 

I am thinking here just of photographers who are around my age or younger. In no particular order: Andres Gonzalez, Carolyn Drake, Mimi Plumb, Leon Borensztien, Cory Arnold, Lucas Foglia, Jennifer O’Keeffe, Robert Adam’s early work, J Carrier’s Elementary Calculus, Paul Graham, Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home, Mark Stienmetz. Why stop there? I am amazed at the work that is being done by so many really dedicated photographers. 

I think we share similar taste. Although yours is a diverse list they all employ a method of direct straight photography that seems to be falling more out of style with each passing year, at least on photography's leading edge as its viewed in an art context. I'm curious how you respond to or appreciate the more conceptual side of photography which seems increasingly dominant. Take the last MOMA New Photography Biennial, for example. What's your reaction to work like this?

I saw that show in New York City. Today artists are addressing the issue of abundance, indiscriminate image making, surveillance and the ability to manipulate and distribute the photograph through digital means so the language and concerns are all together different from the issues of the 1970s when I first began to work with a camera. As the tools and the society change so does the content and the form of the art.  

It may also be that when artists come of age in a moment in time that becomes their touchstone for what works for them or resonates for them. The work I saw in this exhibition was not the sort of work that I first fell in love with so I don’t have that same degree of connection to it that I might have for Eugene Atget or Robert Adams. Conversely, Robert Adams can seem remote and dry and altogether oblique. But when I first saw his book Denver, the world shifted beneath my feet. And the classical form of Atget still rings true.

I hope that the photographers working in the genres of the New Photography Biennial, 2015 have that same degree of both intellectual and emotional connection. 

Who do you think is the primary viewing audience for your work? 

That is a difficult question. I often think my viewing audience has not yet been born. I like to work slowly and think long range.